So, here we are with my top five horror film selections of the last 15 years. There may be some surprises on here, maybe not, it just depends on how well you know me. However, the below list are the films I found to be beautiful, thoughtful, dreadful and terrifying, each in their own ways. I hope you enjoy these selections and please send me feedback on what you do and don't agree with on these lists!
5. Berberian Sound Studio (2012), dir. by Peter Strickland
While The Strangers built tension by the director’s use of space, Berberian Sound Studio builds tension by the use of sound. A British sound engineer, Gilderoy, goes to an Italian sound studio in order to create the sound effects for a film he thinks is about horses, but is, in fact, an Italian giallo film even though the director refuses to admit that it is a horror film. The lines between reality and celluloid begin to rip apart as Gilderoy increasingly becomes isolated from family back home and work colleagues at the studio and eventually he begins to think that he, himself, is in a film about his life and his inner darkness begins to seep through the cracks of his rather calm, quiet British demeanor.
What makes this film so special and worthy of being in the top 5 of the century’s best is how the audience is forced to piece together the contents of the film by what we hear as Gilderoy creates the sound effects and voice-overs. The main violence done in the film is to fruits and vegetables until Gilderoy’s demeanor begins to crumble. Toby Jones—his second entry on the list along with The Mist—is brilliantly dark in how he morphs from mild-mannered to monster during the runtime. He is one of those actors where his face tends to be more memorable than his name and, yet, I think he will be looked upon as a stalwart of British film and horror cinema. Films that can create atmosphere and tension through other sensuous means than sight will automatically grab my attention and this film is one such refreshing take on horror.
4. Pontypool (2008), dir. by Bruce McDonald
Let me just say, from the outset, that the sub genre of horror that I am most burnt out on, right now, is the zombie picture. With the gross saturation of films and shows that have featured zombies, the marketplace is inundated by mostly formulaic replays of the same basic narrative, whether epidemic or old school resurrection. This sentiment on my part, however, is betrayed by my inclusion of two zombie pictures in my top 5 of the new century. A zombie film, for me, has to be so incredibly original and experimental or humorous to get me to take notice and get excited about it. Thus where Bruce McDonald’s 2008 zombie flick, Pontypool, comes into play. You see, much like the novel it is based on, people become infected by the zombie epidemic through a breakdown of human language. A linguistic zombie disease; you now have my attention.
No, the film does not seek to explore how this disease could be transferred by language. This is, in fact, one of its strengths. The audience is just as disoriented by the events of the film as those people in the film who find they repeat the same words over and over again in an increasingly frantic and enraging way. The film’s screenplay was adapted by the author of the book, Tony Burgess, and instead of making a straightforward adaptation, he vies for turning his attention to a microcosm within the universe he created in his book: a local radio station with a shock DJ. We don’t leave the radio station and we are drawn into the panic and chaos of the outside world by calls into the show and the zombies that are clawing at the entrances of the station itself. This film is brilliant from the acting to the dialogue and even in its rather dark humor. If it wasn’t for #3 on my list, this would take the prize for best zombie film of the new century, but…
3. Shaun of the Dead (2004), dir. by Edgar Wright
…there is Shaun of the Dead which, for over ten years, has maintained its popularity within the zombie subgenre as the funniest and most playful incarnation of zombie lore. It maintains the social commentary that has become part and parcel of zombie films since the rise of Romero, but has enough heart to laugh at itself in the process, never taking itself too seriously—unlike how Romero films often come off. The combination of Edgar Wright as writer/director and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the acting force behind the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy of films is one of the rare moments in cinema where each film, esp. Shaun of the Dead, feels lovingly composed and joyfully filmed. It feels like the cast and crew worked together harmoniously.
I always like to be a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to excessively, overhyped popular culture. I am the stick in the mud that attempts to remind people that nothing is as good as the hype may describe. But even my reverse-hipster mentality runs into a brick wall from time to time and Shaun of the Dead is one such wall. It really is as good as the hype makes it out to be. It is laugh out loud hilarious, but maintains some truly touching human moments because the characters are all so well drawn. They feel like people we all know that have found themselves in a crazy situation. Pontypool is the winner of the head, but Shaun of the Dead wins the battle over the heart.
2. It Follows (2015), dir. by David Robert Mitchell
It’s not often, for me, when it’s easy to tell that a horror film from this year is not only an instant classic of the genre, but one of the best horror films of the new century. It was surreal to walk out of my first viewing of this film and know deep down that I had just seen one of the best horror films of my life, easily of this year. There is something about this film that not only checks all of the boxes on my list of what makes a solid horror film, but checks all of the boxes of what can make horror potentially excel in artistry, transcendence and meaning beyond the slasher tropes–or whatever sub genre tropes each film uses—it utilizes (and subverts) so effectively. David Robert Mitchell didn’t just make a great horror film, but he made a great film. Period.
It Follows packs a punch with so many references that could be searched out, researched and brought to the film to illuminate new aspects. There are old sci-fi films playing on the TVs, T.S. Eliot read in class as the second “follower” shows up, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot read from a clam shell e-reader in a couple of spots in the film. This is just scratching the surface of the potential paths of interpretation and meaning that this film brings to the table. Add to it a brilliant synth-heavy, throwback-influenced score and a terrific central concept that tackles sex, growing up and death and we have a film that, I hope, heralds a new moment in horror cinema.
1. Låt Den Rätte Komma In aka Let the Right One In (2008), dir. by Tomas Alfredson
I had a brief tradition that I started back in 2010—and, unfortunately, ended this past year—where I would watch a horror film a night during October. My first year of doing it, however, I did two months straight. 61 days of horror. I love horror, but 61 straight days of it while writing a review on each is pretty rough. It helped some that a good portion were ones I had seen already, the classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Don’t Look Now, etc. and newer favorites like The Exorcism of Emily Rose. However, my intent was to expand my horizons as much as I felt I could at that time in my life so I included some Dario Argento, Roman Polanski and several foreign horror films of which Janghwa, Hongryeon was one. Trick ‘r’ Treat, if I’m not mistaken, made an appearance as well. However, the film I recall the most from that first year was Låt Den Rätte Komma In, or as we, Americans, know it, Let the Right One In.
This Swedish vampire horror flick blew me away on my first viewing. Something about the dark, brooding cold of the cinematography, the brashness of making pre-teens the protagonists and antagonists—with all of their internal emotional chaos and sexual confusion in tow—and its unwillingness to look away from the violent and uncomfortable elements of the story. The way Tomas Alfredson frames the film feels almost Shakespearean, like a classic tragedy of friendship and love and sacrifice. And, like a true tragedy, the final moments of the film are mesmerizing, beautiful, violent and nearly operatic in how they are filmed and how it resolves the narrative arc of the film.
The acting by Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson is fragile and haunting. They give performances that, I think, rival all of the great child performances in film history. The Swedish landscapes and winter atmospherics give the film a formal artistic beauty not often found in horror. Certain scenes feel almost like picturesque paintings of a natural, yet otherworldly, Sweden urban setting. All of these things put together make for a truly touching and utterly memorable film about vampires, coming of age and sacrificial love. If you haven’t seen this movie—or, worse, you have only seen the American version, Let Me In—then find a copy as soon as you can and let it just wash over you. You won’t be sorry and you be able to get it out of your head.
I wish you all a Happy New Year! I will see you in 2016.