in Top Ten

Every week I discover new trends with this ongoing list. This week’s top ten marks at least three sci-fi horror films and two coming-of-age vampire films. Otherwise, it’s a diverse bunch with low budget flicks, high budget flicks, international films, you name it. Now, you read it.

30. Happy Death Day (2017)

This was the first movie I ever watched with MoviePass. Remember MoviePass? $10 a month for almost unlimited movies? I was so convinced it was not going to work that one rainy October afternoon, but it did, and it was awesome. Oh, and the movies good too. Not since Cabin in the Woods have I seen such a clever meta-horror/comedy at the Hollywood level. Most horror movies that make it to the multiplexes are stone-cold serious. The funny ones get sent to streaming. Then there’s this film. It did well too. Well enough for an okay sequel, but this film is a real thrill-ride.

Penned by longtime Marvel Comics’ writer/screenwriter Scott Lobdell, Happy Death Day is about a snotty sorority girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe) who wakes up on her birthday, goes through her daily routine, and is killed by a deranged maniac in a baby mask. Then it happens again. And again. And… Again. It’s basically Groundhog Day if it was a slasher film. The film is well aware of this comparison.

I love it when filmmakers take well-established stories or concepts and repurpose them for horror. Like how Get Out is a horror version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? What makes Happy Death Day work is not only watching all the ways Tree can die but what clues she picks up along the way. The film raises the stakes when Tree goes to a doctor and notices that dying every day is leaving sustained internal damage. Meaning she can only go through so many days until she’s gone for good.

The film is funny and scary but I don’t think any of it would work so well if not for Jessica Rothe. Her ability to play bratty and sympathetic, while always being funny gives the genre one of its best scream queens in years. The second one was unnecessary but still fun. I just hope we don’t get stuck in an endless loop of sequels.

29. Cheap Thrills (2013)

This is a talented cast. I know this because all of these actors have been featured at least once on this list already. David Koechner was in Krampus and Pat Healy and Sara Paxton were both in The Innkeepers. This is Ethan Embry’s THIRD film on the list after Late Phases and The Devil’s Candy so apparently he’s my favorite actor of all time. These four together hanging out would be entertaining enough. Throw in a deadly game of truth or dare (minus the truth) and baby, you got a flick going.

Pat Healy plays Craig, a recently fired mechanic, who’s desperate to provide for his wife and newborn baby. He meets an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry) at a dive bar (also strapped for cash), and the two cross paths with a wealthy couple Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). The couple learns of their woes and in return offers them money if they complete “certain tasks” to entertain Violet for her birthday. What kind of tasks?

It starts off simply, “Who can finish this shot first?” But it quickly escalates. “Who can get the bouncer to hit them first?” The group makes their way back to the couple’s home and the challenges get more sadistic. Degrading acts of humiliation, even self-mutilation take place in this DARK comedy from E.L. Katz. I could even see this as a play. A very upsetting play but a play I’d watch. As long as they have a splash zone.

28. The Wailing (2016)

Watching The Wailing feels like watching an entire miniseries in one sitting. Not just because of its 156-minute runtime but because of its large cast of characters and many twists and turns. One minute you think it’s a zombie movie. Another minute you think it’s about demons. You don’t know where you’re going.

Set in a small rural village in South Korea, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is a police officer and family man caught in the middle of a real head-scratcher of a case. A rash of mysterious disease and killings are ravaging the community with seemingly no clear thread. The situation gets worse when Jong-goo’s own daughter becomes infected and time is seemingly running out for her.

The mystery is dense but always intriguing due to our sympathy for Jong-goo and his family. Something South Korean films do that I wish American films did more often is tell stories about average everyday people. How often do we have to sit through a tall and muscular leading man hiding behind a pair of glasses pretending they’re not a heartthrob. Jong-goo is doughy, a little slow, but with a big heart. He’s a real person. Everyone in this film feels so lived in. It’s an impressive effort from this ensemble cast and ambitious work from writer/director Na Hong-jin. Block out three hours and check it out.

27. The Endless (2017)

I’m surprised that directing team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead haven’t been recruited to helm a big-budget blockbuster yet. This duo, who are also their own editors, screenwriter (Benson), and cinematographer (Moorehead), has a talent for making intimate stories feel as big as any multimillion-dollar epic on the big screen.

Justin Smith (Benson) and Aaron Smith (Moorehead) are brothers who receive a VHS from “Camp Arcadia” a group that they were affiliated with in the past. Where Justin believes they were a UFO death cult, Aaron still considers them a harmless commune. Fearful that the group is planning a mass suicide aka the “Ascension” but also tired of their lives since leaving the group, the brothers return. Big mistake!

What they discover is a group of people who seem happy but speak of something known as the “Entity”. Aaron is enamored but Justin is suspicious and uncovers dark secrets about this entity and what it does to those who defy it. Can they escape? Yeah, right. Like I’m gonna tell you. Don’t you see how vague I’m being?

26. Annihilation (2018)

I was hesitant to put this film on the list. Is it horror? Or is it really unsettling sci-fi? I had a similar struggle with the film Under the Skin which I regret to inform will not be on this list. The distinction of what is and isn’t horror isn’t a rational decision for me. It’s a gut feeling. That movie is disturbing as all hell but I’m not sure if it ever goes for “scares”. Whereas Annihilation has one of the best scares of the decade. Hell yeah, you know I’m referring to the screaming bear.

Annihilation is one of the more creative body horror films I’ve seen. This is a film about a whole ecosystem changing and mutating in ways that are both beautiful and disturbing. But writer/director Alex Garland has never been one to go for the blood and guts. He’s always been more interested in the philosophy. This is existential horror at its best. It might even be deeper (and better) than the book it was based on.

25. Creep 2 (2017)

Creep 2 has everything I want in a sequel I didn’t know I needed. This time we get an even creepier Mark Duplass. A stronger protagonist (who won’t put up with his shit) in Sara (Desiree Akhavan). We even get an extended hot tub scene of Aaron (Mark Duplass) talking about jam bands. Now that’s scary!

I like that this film isn’t hiding the “murderer” secret. Aaron tells Sara he’s a murderer who wants her to film him for the next 24 hours (when he’ll commit suicide). So the question is “What is she going to do about it?” The film keeps you guessing and is equal parts humorous and uncomfortable. Also, did you know they’re making a Creep 3? I look forward to putting that on my “Favorite Horror Movies of the 2020s list.”

24. Cam (2018)

This out-of-the-blue Netflix release made my “Top Ten Films of 2018”. I don’t have much to add. Though I’ll say I’m still impressed by how scary this movie is even before it gets to the supernatural elements of the film. The fact that there are women trying to survive by performing for the creepiest of creeps online is scary. Madeline Brewer is impressively vulnerable in the lead role and former cam girl Issa Mazziel’s script is riveting.

23. In Fabric (2018)

What if you were tormented by a killer dress? That premise is so stupid that it’s brilliant and made even better by the stylized choices of writer/director Peter Strickland. Like his previous film Berberian Sound Studio (a contender for my Top 50 list), In Fabric is a retro throwback in its setting, production design, music, pacing and tone. Where BSS was an ode to Giallo films, In Fabric is that but also an homage to ‘70s British horror movies like Don’t Look Now.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste stars as Sheila a divorced and depressed bank teller living with her ungrateful adult son. Prepping for an upcoming date, Sheila buys a beautiful red dress from an enigmatic store clerk named Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed—who steals every scene she’s in) and instantly feels transformed. But there’s something off about the red dress. It leaves a rash on Sheila’s chest, it destroys her washing machine, it almost seems like it’s… alive. It’s not in her head either as the second half of the film follows another individual who comes into contact with the dress. Reg (Leo Bill) is a washing machine repairman who is egged on by his mates to put on the dress after coming into contact with it. His wife Babs (Hayley Squires) tries it on too. Things don’t end well for them.

Watching this film feels like being transported to a distant place in a distant time. With all its artistic flourishes this film would be just as at home in the Criterion Collection then the pages of Fangoria.

22. The Transfiguration (2016)

What I love about vampires is they look just like people. They can be hiding in broad daylight and we wouldn’t even know it… Well, not daylight but you get the idea. The Transfiguration is a film about Milo (Eric Ruffin) a teen so obsessed with vampires, he believes he is one. He befriends a girl named Sophie (Chloe Levine) but struggles to control his sinister impulses. Their relationship is set against the slums of New York where gang violence and police corruption are prevalent and ready to disrupt what little happiness they’ve found.

The Transfiguration reminds me of a modern take on George Romero’s 1978 cult classic Martin. Both films are about young men who believe they are vampires and in both films, we’re never really sure if they are or not. What makes The Transfiguration interesting is its setting in the ghetto. It’s the kind of area we rarely see horror movies set in but is instantly compelling. Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine are impressive in the lead roles and I look forward to what writer/director Michael O’Shea does next. I’m not sure where he came from or how this film materialized. Maybe he’s a vampire?

21. Let Me In (2010)

All of Matt Reeves’ movies should suck. I can’t vouch for his debut ( a ‘90s rom-com with David Schwimmer) but so many times he’s seemed doomed to fail and so many times he’s proven us wrong. Cloverfield could have easily been a gimmick film, only remembered for its mysterious ad campaign, but it was good. His two Apes sequels felt unnecessary, and somehow they became the best Apes movies since the original. Then there’s Let Me In. An American remake of an instant Swedish classic a mere two years later? Not only does this movie not suck it rivals the original. John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of the novel, said himself:

“I might just be the luckiest writer alive. To have not only one, but two excellent versions of my debut novel done for the screen feels unreal. Let the Right One In is a great Swedish movie. Let Me In is a great American movie. There are notable similarities and the spirit of Tomas Alfredson is present. But Let Me In puts the emotional pressure in different places and stands firmly on its own legs. Like the Swedish movie it made me cry, but not at the same points. Let Me In is a dark and violent love story, a beautiful piece of cinema, and a respectful rendering of my novel for which I am grateful. Again.” Damn right.

I’m hoping you’re already aware of this film so I’ll be brief on the plot. “A bullied young boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) befriends a young female vampire named Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) who lives in secrecy with her guardian (Richard Jenkins). That’s all you’re getting. If you want to know what’s different about this version there is a character unique to this film. Elias Koteas plays a weary detective investigating the deaths of Abby’s victims. I love me some of that gruff detective mojo. Also, the film is set in a snowy (and scenic) part of New Mexico. Otherwise, the film plays out similarly. It’s well-acted, beautifully shot, and emotional. I watched the film again recently and still loved it. Man, I’m excited for Matt Reeves Batman now. It doesn’t sound like a good idea, but I have a feeling he’ll prove us wrong once more.