Honorable Mention (Part 2 of 2)
I know this list is getting in a little late, but such is life when you start a website in December,
weeks away from that time of year when you write these lists. We'll be rolling out the "Best of.."
in installments, or as we can get them written. I thought perhaps it might be irrelevant at this
point, but then I reasoned that no, it's not. Most of these films still remain unseen by the majority of viewers and many of them have yet to even receive an official release stateside.
At first I wasn't going to have just thirteen films (Why thirteen? Because I can.) on this years "Best of..." list (strange considering that so many others have bemoaned the fact that this has been such a "lackluster" year for the genre). There was going to be anywhere from twenty onwards. I was going to choose the notables and throw them out there free from numerical order or preference. Yes, I know, CHAOS! So, I re-thunk it and decided that at the very least I could provide our readership a more concise "Best of the Best" top thirteen and compile the rest as honorable mentions (there is still no numerical preference though. I'm not lazy, just eternally indecisive).
But before we get to those top thirteen movies, herein lies the remaining films that really wowed me.
Paranormal Activity 2
If you've seen Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity, you should really already know what you are getting yourself into with this. Which is to say, expect more of the same (and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but more on that in a moment). If, after viewing the original, you endured many a sleepless night, went to bed with the lights on or boarded up the entrance to your attic crawl space, well then buckle up, because "your sleepless nights are about to return" (my husband maintains this is the most accurate truth in advertising ever conceived). Or if, after viewing the original, you walked away feeling hoodwinked into parting with your hard earned cash for something that looked as though it cost less than what you paid to see it, setting off on a "that's the biggest pile of over-hyped, not scary in the least, waste of time I've ever sat through" rant (or something approximating that), well then buckle up, because your blood is yet again going to boil. It should be said at the outset, that we here at The October Country were big fans of the first Paranormal Activity. We admired it's no budget ingenuity and subtle, delicately handled approach to the art of making one's hair stand on end (not to speak of how it affected my husband Daniel, who literally made me endure sleeping in a well lit bedroom for over a week, surely a sincere endorsement if ever there was one). So, the biggest question (and concern) on our part when news that a Hollywood sequel was on the fast track, was just how badly are they going to fuck with, and mess up the formula that worked so well in the original. Certainly, it's a near unavoidable mistake (judging from the evidence that lines video store shelves) that studio after studio can't seem to help themselves from making. What with their adage of "make it bigger, bigger, bigger" seemingly being the only thinking that steers these ships. Not that making something bigger on the second go round, because you now are afforded the money to do so, is always a mistake (take Aliens or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for instance). However, what makes a movie like Paranormal Activity work so efficiently, is a very specific approach to the proceedings that doesn't exactly lend itself to the heavyweight, big budget leanings of a multi-million dollar Hollywood studio (lest we forget how these people think, initially Paramount Pictures, after buying the original film for $350,000, was going to re-make the property, filling it with big name stars and generally giving it a special effects overblown-overhaul). Nor is messing with a franchise's formula (established or otherwise) always a bad thing (for certain interested parties anyway). The very maxim that gets butts into theater seats for sequels (that we are going to see exactly what we liked so much before) thus making the equipage a cash cow for the studio (they win) is also the very practice that contributes to the law of diminishing returns (having now seen the same thing played out over and over with decidedly less imagination, we the audience don't, win that is). It's a balancing act. Even by the third or fourth entry, a franchise like Friday the 13th (for example) could use a shot in the arm. Yet, when that deviation from the formula occurred, thirteen whopping years and eight sequels later, in the form of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, fans cried foul (though not this one, I quite liked it). Likewise, the genius, and truly original (in terms of what came before it in it's own namesake) New Nightmare was a box office failure. Or we could just go to the top of the proverbial heap in regards to sequels that depart so greatly from their source material that they defy all expectations (and not in a good way); Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. That Paranormal Activity 2 could and should have been another misbegotten train wreck (with no survivors) of a film in the vein of Book of Shadows was all but certain. Their trajectories are so similar (a micro-budgeted horror movie shot in the hand held, cinéma vérité style of shockumentary film making, whose chills rely more on what you don't see rather than what you do, coming out of nowhere and going on to become on of the most successful, profitable independent hits of all time). It was impossible not to imagine Paranormal Activity 2 stinking up the place proceeding it's arrival into theaters, but unlike the handling of the Blair Witch sequel (from which, the once promising franchise has never recovered), somehow, someway, Paranormal Activity 2 avoids every pratfall that it should have stumbled into from the outset. Though it's budget is significantly bigger than it's predecessor, you won't necessarily notice this on screen. Perhaps it all went to catering because the studio didn't go the "bigger" route here; nuance and atmosphere are kept as the key element in fear making, as important as they ever were (crash #1 averted). It sticks to the formula of part one, avoiding becoming both a tiresome rehash (functioning more as a prequel in it's first half and then in it's later moments running parallel to the events that plagued Katie and Micah) while adding some new wrinkles to what already has become a franchise mythology (crash #2 averted). So, while in essence, nothing new or groundbreaking takes place here, the film makers choosing to stick to what was so wildly successful before, fashion yet another insanely creepy, horror gem. In recent memory, only Jaume Balagueró's & Paco Plaza's [REC] 2 has done this good a job of capturing lightning in a bottle twice. Before I go, beware Paranormal 2's kitchen-bound set piece; without a doubt the best, most effective "jump scare" of 2010. Now if someone could convince my husband to dim the lights before bedtime. Again.
And now, for a monster movie of a completely different sort. Strictly talking terms of what someone can accomplish with very, very little (the budget reportedly came in at under $500,000), there is no question that Gareth Edward's science-fiction / horror love story Monsters is the most impressive film released within the genre last year. No question about it, hands down without a doubt. Don't argue, just continue. After a NASA deep space probe crashes back to earth, bearing with it alien lifeforms that grow (boy do they grow) and spread throughout the US - Mexico border region, the northern half of Mexico is quarantined. As the US and Mexico militaries battle to contain the creatures, a wall stretching along the American border is constructed, "protecting" the United States from further invasion. Into this mess enters Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a cynical American photojournalist who is hired by his wealthy employer to escort the latter's daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) safely from San Jose, Central America back home to the US. Andrew has no interest in being the woman's "babysitter" while Samantha herself seems reluctant to return, seeing as how her arrival back in the States will further along an engagement to a fiance her heart is at odds with marrying.
Through a series of mishaps, Andrew and Samantha are left stranded in Mexico with no recourse but to hire a heavily armed brigade of soldiers for hire to lead them by land, road and water to the end of their destination. A journey that leads them all straight through the most infected and alien populated region of the country. However, if they do not leave the country within a few days, sea and air travel will be blocked and they will have to wait six months before safe travel is possible.The clock is ticking. As we have noted elsewhere on The October Country; "Those expecting a balls out monster movie will be sadly disappointed, but those in the mood for a quieter, more reflective film about how love can spark in the most unlikely, direst of situations are in for a real treat". Truer words may never have been committed to form on this site. In a refreshing (and nearly groundbreaking) turn of events, the titular monsters take a backseat here while the burgeoning romance between Andrew and Samantha takes center stage. You've seen enough genre films dear reader to know that it is always the other way around. Romances and meet-cute scenarios are shoehorned again and again into 99.9% of every horror film ad nauseum. The leading man and the leading lady are assuredly always going to hook up and stumble off into the morning sunrise together. Bruised, beaten, and caked with blood, our young heroes leave behind them the dead bodies of friends and neighbors and undoubtedly a night of terror only to walk ahead into an imagined future together, sealed with a flirtatious, pithy one liner. As far as this tiresome, screenwriting cliche is concerned, color me over it. I know the presence of gore and guts arouse some amongst us, but come on, amidst the never ending carnage that most horror films dish out, how do these people manage to find romance time and time again while fighting for their lives? Well, Monsters is now here to answer that burning question and the fact that McNairy and Able were real life lovers at the time of filming, only adds to the authenticity of their romantic interaction. Though the film is never particularly scary (there is tension and suspense yes; an alien attack on the convoy, tossing trucks and jeeps into the sky like matchbox cars, is especially nerve shredding), what it lacks in the fright factors that could have scared the bejeezus out of it's audience, it makes up for by moving them in an utterly different manner. In the end, what this writer found ultimately so notable about Monsters, is that it convincingly adds another voice to the argument that horror films (and the genre in general), are capable of elevating themselves above and beyond the ghetto (disrespected and beloved in equal measure) that so many people (critics, holier-than-though film makers, and fans) seem determined to keep it in. We all love our brainless slashers films full of numskull characters doing the absolute stupidest thing possible, not to speak of one-note cinematic bloodbaths and SFX gore extravaganzas. We love our safe, comforting formulas and seen-it-all-before plot devices. But every now and then, it's really lovely when a movie like Monsters comes along and reminds us that the genre as a whole can be so much more than the sum of it's parts.
Oh David Cronenberg, how the genre has missed your unique input. Oh wait I mean, Vincenzo Natali, how you continue to impress me sir, whether you are (successfully) riffing on the Canadian whiz-bang or not. All but abandoned in the theaters by fans (c'mon people, what is up with you these days, are you only attending showings of atrocious re-makes so you can bitch about them online, leaving everything else to fend for itself), Splice is surely one of the best overlooked horror efforts to receive a wide release in 2010 and this after languishing on a studio shelf for years. Directed by Natali (he of Cube fame, a masterpiece) Splice stars the talented Adrian Brody and the incomparable Sarah Polley as Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, married genetic engineers hoping to achieve fame by successfully splicing together the DNA of different animals to create new hybrid animals for medical use. They want to use human DNA in a hybrid that could revolutionize science and medicine but are forbidden to do so by the pharmaceutical company that funds their research, N.E.R.D. (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development, cute). Rebellious to their core and fearful of spending a lifetime weighed down in mundane research, they secretly continue to conduct their experiments, blending animal DNA with that of humans. Before long, a truly horrendous breakthrough occurs and Clive and Elsa are welcoming into the world what essentially amounts to their newborn "child", Dren (nerd spelled backwards) who exceeds their expectations in every way. Take a helping of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and add dashes of Cronenberg-esque meditations on gender, sexuality and body politics (in addition to the wintertime, snow-blanketed landscapes that recall the best of Cronenberg's cold & sterile Canadian productions), and what your have is Splice. It's remarkable how unassuming the film is from the outset seeing as how it was initially marketed as a Species clone. You enter this unnerving world of science-eventuality, at first expecting the usual laundry list of "man shan't play god" sentiments and your standard sci-fi tropes of wonderment followed by "dear lord what have we done" realizations, and get blindsided at about the halfway mark by some seriously unexpected forays into taboo sexuality and nicely realized dark characterizations. The nasty twists and excellently choreographed surprises continue unabated right up until Splice's disturbing climax, the final 3 minutes of which (and depending on your predilection for such denouements) is the only time this exceptional film stumbles. If you were one of the many that stayed away in theaters, it's definitely time to rectify that glaring mistake and discover this under-appreciated jewel on home video.
Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy
Knocking yet another one straight out of the park, Thommy Hutson, Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch, the team that worked on His Name Was Jason (the definitive Friday the 13th retrospective) returns to give horrrodom's other famous namesake the royal treatment in what is surely the final word on everything Freddy Krueger. The exhaustive documentary (clocking in at over 4 hours, with a a second disc of special features and extended interviews lasting just as long) leaves no stone unturned, gathering the principal casts and crews (nearly everybody, save for Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette, who are non too suspiciously absent, what with their big famous celebrity fancy pants they wear these days) from every Nightmare film for lengthy discussions and remembrances on one of cinema's most famous and loved (and feared) madmen. This Fredheads, is your wet dream. Certainly the only film this year that when it arrived by mail at my door, sent your host into fits of jumping up and down and hollering about the house to my husband "It's here! It's here!". No mater how much you think you knew about the Elm Street series, there is certainly going to be a wealth of revelations fresh to every fan. Heather Langenkamp (who also served as Never Sleep Again's executive producer) is the documentary's narrator, guiding us through the making of all 8 endeavors, the short lived late night television spin-off Freddy's Nightmares, and other notable earmarks in the franchise's history. I'm gonna take this moment to tip my hat to Mrs. Langenkamp, who is surely one of the genre's most gracious, appreciative Scream Queens we've ever had. She may be largely known as "that girl from A Nightmare on Elm Street" but she's never once discussed her legacy with anything but the utmost respect (really, a departure from most performers who feign embarrassment over their past work in the genre).Kudos, you classy lass, we still love ya as much as we ever did. Now, if only other actors and actresses who got their start in the genre showed as much humility and appreciation... Anyway, onto the documentary's most irresistible discussion; The people responsible for and involved in the making of Nightmare's first sequel, Freddy's Revenge, finally coming clean (after years and years of pussyfooting around the matter), on the fact that intentional or not (it's intentional, surely if it originates from the film's writer, it was meant to be there from the start) Freddy's Revenge is the gayest horror film ever made (only equaled by Frank LaLoggia's Fear No Evil as far as I am concerned). The red faced participants are worth the price of admission alone, caught as they are in 2011, where even children on online message boards pick up on the film's subtext. I'm happy to know my childhood daydreams of being kept after class by sleazy Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell), DILF extraordinaire, wasn't entirely created in my own overworked *ahem* imagination...
In conclusion; a must own for every Nightmare enthusiast, no question about it.
The Possession of David O'Reilly (aka Tormented)
Misleadingly marketed as a Paranormal Activity goes to London (not helped by the fact that footage in the trailer appear to be frenzied shots of hand held cameras ala The Blair Witch Project but in actuality are hand held camera shots from the characters' point of views, think Michael Myers-vision as a classic frame of reference) The Possession of David O'Reilly is slightly similar, but ultimately it's own beast.True, the cast is nearly as small as that better known title's, and the entire film takes place within the confines of a small apartment besieged by malevolent supernatural forces. Also true is the fact that Possession relies heavily on carefully crafted nuance to achieve it chills (the old adage "what you don't see" is applicable here or rather, considering Possession does have a small amount of effective, special makeup effects, what you barely see), but that's it, I swear. What it doesn't have in common with the Paranormal Activity franchise is the degree of success with which either one of those films handled their scares. Alas, Possession is immensely effective in it's earlier, quieter moments of sweaty-palm anticipation and dread (so much so that I am including it on this list for the first two acts alone) but it loses it's way in it's later scenes of screaming and fury. Not to mention, (and granted I may have missed something and if I did please let me know dear readers), there is never a satisfactory explanation given as to why the haunted threesome of the film never attempt to leave their terrorized home. But I get ahead of myself so lets rewind shall we? When Alex (adorable boy-cub Nicholas Shaw) and Kate (Zoe Richards) welcome their troubled friend David (Giles Alderson, in an excellently nervous performance) into their home and onto their couch for a few nights following what he alleges to be troubles with his girlfriend (Francesca Fowler), they discover much too late what else David has brought with him. Soon, demonic apparitions are seen lurking on the property's garden (a moment that made my blood run cold), strange knocks at the front door plague their midnight hours, menacing phone calls are left on the answering machine and so on. Then, the horrifying forces that have followed David to his unsuspecting friends' home, really attempt to gain entry. There is a lot to admire about Andrew Cull's and Steve Isles' spooky, understated feature but ultimately by the end and despite what it does well, it veers into some unfortunately logic-stretching territory that in order for me to stay engrossed, I found myself having to say "just go with it". The Possession of David O'Reilly is undoubtedly still worth every horror fiend's attention (they can't all be 5 star masterpieces), but perhaps only after you've exhausted some of your other, far superior choices.
In Their Sleep (aka Dans ton sommeil)
One year after her teenage son's death, Sarah's (Anne Parillaud, ravishing as ever) life is in pieces. Then late one night, her car accidentally hits Arthur (Arthur Dupont, proof positive that my loins will be the death of me one day), a young man the same age as her boy, who suddenly emerges out of the forest and onto the road. Wounded and frightened, he is running from a mysterious assailant (Jean-Hugues Anglade, who's had a wide and varied career of appearing naked in feature films, this one being no exception, god bless the French), hunting him down after Arthur caught him red handed in the act of burglary...
Sarah sympathizes with him, taking him in, only to be tracked down by the burglar whose murderous rage towards Arthur forces her to take action. Unbeknownst to Sarah, things aren't quite the way they seem... but by the time she finally realizes, it is too late to turn back. Funnily enough, I came upon In Their Sleep by way of my hormones. Sitting around one day I got to thinking of titillating sex scenes from horror films (a rather time consuming preoccupation in my day to day life) and my memory drifted back to the vampire / handcuff lovemaking in John Landis' Innocent Blood. Further reflecting that that "vampire chick (Parillaud) was really smokin' hot", I immediately wondered what she had been up to as I hadn't seen her in anything else since. No sooner had I hopped online to find out, that In Their Sleep (produced by Delante Films and BR Films, the lovely folks that gave the world Frontiers and Inside) revealed itself to me, a rather well reviewed French horror film awaiting distribution in the States. I had nothing else going on that afternoon so I was on that shit in a matter of minutes. Starting from the assumption that you and I dear reader are on the same page regarding the belief that very few horror films can surprise nowadays, I went into this movie knowing next to nothing about it (positive word of mouth excluded, from the genre press anyway) and found myself, though thoroughly enthralled, always one step ahead of it's story, as I imagine you will be too. But don't let that stop you from hunting this one down. Regardless if you crack the mystery ahead of time, In Their Sleep in no less a wild, stylish ride for it. Chock full of suspenseful cat n' mouse pursuits, eroticism as only (I swear) the French have the boules to combine with this sort of material and a real humdinger of an ending, In Their Sleep is a noteworthy, if familiar, excursion into distinctly European horror cinema. Inside and Martyrs it ain't, but effective and memorable for what it is nonetheless.
We'll return shortly with a list of The October Country's worst films, biggest disappointments and favorite guilty pleasures of 2010. Until then, thanks for visiting us!
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst