We’re down to the top twenty and you know what I just realized? I forgot Attack the Block. All this recent news about Joe Cornish wanting to make a sequel with John Boyega and I totally spaced (no pun intended) on that film. I used Letterboxd to put together my list and apparently they don’t consider that film horror. I do. Then again that’s been the struggle.
What is a horror movie? I’m almost done with this list and I still don’t know. Maybe I’ll know next week when I finish this whole experiment? Also, I forgot Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers. Fuck!
Believe it or not this film is based on a stage play. Usually, when I hear that it makes sense. Plays that become films are often shot in a limited amount of locations, minimal cast, lots of dialogue. What’s interesting about Ghost Stories is how much it adds.
The plot follows Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), a professor, and TV presenter, well known for debunking psychics. Goodman meets famed paranormal investigator, Charles Cameron (Martin Freeman in old-man makeup) and is given the chance to investigate three people (another of which is also played by Freeman) who claim to have come face to face with the dead. Each story is told to Goodman, like an anthology, and with each story, we learn more about people’s relationships with life and death and how these people reflect Goodman’s own demons. Sounds like a lot for a play.
Ghost Stories is such a visually rich film it’s hard to imagine those elements being stripped from the stage. The characters and dialogue are strong enough to carry the film but it’s the additional flourishes that push this film over-the-edge. Writer/Director team Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman have proven themselves as bonafide filmmakers with this contemplative ghost story. I can’t wait to see what other ideas they possess.
You ever have that moment where you’re at the movies and you see a trailer and think “Man, I wish I was watching that movie.” That was my experience with Don’t Breathe. The premise is so enticing it’s amazing no one thought of it sooner. Don’t Breathe is about a trio of thieves in Detroit who break into a blind Gulf War veteran’s (Stephen Lang) house to steal a bunch of money. What they don’t plan on is being trapped in the house and then hunted by the blind man. Also, creepy shit is going on in the basement that involves a turkey baster.
This movie is a slick 88-minutes with zero breathing room. It’s a single location horror film that utilizes its environment with endless creativity. One of my favorite techniques is when the blind man shuts off the power and the camera films the characters in B&W night vision. What’s cool about this is they actually filmed the actors wandering in the dark, pupils dilated, with actual night vision. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Fede Álvarez (Evil Dead (2013), The Girl in the Spider’s Web) thus far, but I will say the guy is inventive with how he uses the camera. It takes a lot to make a small space feel this big. It takes more effort to make that space menacing. Álvarez does it and in return, we got one of the best home invasion movies of recent memory.
If there’s any film I should have revisited for this list, it’s Black Swan. I haven’t watched the film in a while and yet it feels right to have it on this list. Darren Aronofsky’s evocative imagery has burned itself in my brain. That much I know. I got an idea. Let’s have 21-year-old John from a 2011 blog post tell you why Black Swan was his second favorite film of 2010:
“Few films left me this year with the kind of goosebumps I received from viewing Black Swan or should I say “swanbumps?” Darren Aronofsky has emerged as one of the most interesting directors working today and Black Swan will only further his auteur status. This is an eerily beautiful film propelled by an eerily beautiful performance from Natalie Portman (possibly her best role to date.)
The film almost reminds me of a nightmare Italian director Dario Argento would dream up, like Suspiria, which coincidentally is set at a ballet academy. The difference is that in all it’s twisted imagery and scenes, Black Swan is surprisingly coherent and that makes it dance circles around Suspiria.”
Good job, kid.
There are two films in particular on this “Top 50” I feel the need to champion. One of them I’ll be talking about next week. The other is The Battery. This film blows me away. Not only because it’s so atmospheric with desolate locations and grounded performances. Because it was made for $6,000. That is insane.
Writer/Director/Lead Actor Jeremy Gardner approached six friends who each donated $1000 and shot this film in rural Connecticut over a course of 15 days with no script. There’s no reason this should have worked. Not only did it work it’s one the best zombie movies of the decade. The reason being is that it focuses on how a zombie plague would affect the day-to-day lives of its survivors. The movie doesn’t even need that many zombies to get its point across. Though it does have an unforgettable sequence with our two protagonists trapped in a car. Talk about a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.
The film follows two former baseball players (a catcher and a pitcher aka a “Battery”), Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) as they try to survive in the New England wilderness. That’s it. You don’t need much else here. These two guys bickering and laughing and getting drunk is more than enough. It works because it feels real. It’s everything The Walking Dead isn’t but should be.
I can’t express how much this film has inspired me as a filmmaker. It goes to show that all you really need is determination and you can make a great horror movie. Though a few dozen zombies don’t hurt.
The Witch is so scary that composer Mark Korven scored the film with an instrument he commissioned called “The Apprehension Engine.” There’s not a moment of relief in Robert Egger’s fully-formed debut. Based on New England folktales Eggers heard growing up in New Hampshire, The Witch is old school terror in old school America. It would have been easy for a lesser filmmaker to fill this story with melodrama and cheap jump scares, but Eggers is a patient filmmaker. He gives you time to stew in his stress cauldron. He’s all about the details and the devil’s in the details.
Set in 1630s New England, The Witch is about a Puritan family banished from their colony after religious differences. I love that this opening is vague (as is much of the film). The Witch demands you to take a closer look. It’s subtle, yet layered, and only gets better on repeat viewings. As for William (Ralph Ineson) and his family, life doesn’t get much easier. Settling by a dreary forest horrible things happen to each member of the family. His baby is stolen. His son is cursed. He believes his daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy—the protagonist of the film) might be a witch, and he has “differences” with his goat Black Phillip.
The witch herself is seen only in glimpses, nude and wrinkled, doing the devil’s work in the woods. Though even when she’s not on screen you feel her presence. Eggers’ script feels true to the era with impressive costumes and production design. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography makes use of only natural light and candles to give the film a dingy and earthy look. Everything feels real. It’s defiantly anti-commercial and yet I find it very watchable. It’s good storytelling and nothing is creepier than the Puritans.
Ari Aster is fucked up. Every time I walk out of one of his movies I feel unclean. Yet he puts these astounding images on the screen. It’s like watching Bergman if he made snuff films. It’s hard to categorize. It’s even harder to come to terms with how much I like/love/hate what Aster does. Though the fact that I have such a strong reaction to everything he does must mean something. I watch his films and I can’t shake ‘em. They are with me forever. Midsommar haunts me to this day.
The premise doesn’t sound like much. A group of friends including a couple (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) travel to their friend’s (Vilhelm Blomgren’s) small village in Sweden for a midsummer celebration that only occurs every 90 years. Everything seems fine at first until the group is exposed to the group’s various customs. You know, like having old people throw themselves off a cliff.
What I find so fascinating about the commune in Midsommar is to them these are normal customs. There is no intent of malice in their actions. They perform the rituals they do to uphold their way of life, for the good of the commune. Are they really the bad guys? Or are the bad guys the rowdy college students that barge their way in? The only person who is not a bad guy is Florence Pugh who is so good in this movie. The level at which she has to emote. It’s a tragedy that she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for this film. Though the even greater tragedy is this movie didn’t receive a nomination for costume design. Come on! That flower dress? This movie deserved more award recognition. I guess it was too fucked up.
There’s a scene in Bone Tomahawk where a man is stripped naked, hung upside down, and sawed in half. This is the most discussed scene in the film. It’s certainly the most sensational. But there’s another scene, a brief scene near the end of the film that always gets me. An injured Arthur (Patrick Wilson) is making his way through a cave after killing some cannibal troglodytes. He sees the exit light, but as he ’s ready to leave, he sees a pair of pregnant women. The women have had their limbs removed and been blinded. Arthur takes one look, knowing there’s nothing he can do to save them, and leaves. To this day that scene chills me to the bone. It’s as hopeless and dark as a horror movie can get, and for that, you can blame S. Craig Zahler.
S. Craig Zahler is a lot like Quentin Tarantino, though more real. He’s definitely darker. The violence in Zahler’s movie is rarely fun. Unlike the violence in Tarantino’s movies. What’s the appeal then? It’s scary. This is probably the scariest western ever made. Which is impressive considering westerns (even the good ones) have an inherent cheesiness. A bunch of actors dressing up and playing pretend in cowboy hats? Please. Throw in scalping and disemboweling? You might forget that Kurt Russell isn’t actually a cowboy.
A bunch of young adults go to a cabin that turns out to be a horror simulation controlled by a bunch of white-collar employees. Why? So that they can be sacrificed to prevent ancient gods from destroying the world. Yeah, that’s my kind of movie.
Last time I checked Joss Whedon was still canceled. Which makes revisiting his projects awkward. That being said I can’t deny his talent for crafting witty dialogue and relatable characters, and in Cabin in the Woods, solid horror too. It’s not that Cabin in the Woods is a scary movie per se but you get the feeling Whedon is a fan of the genre. His riffs on familiar tropes and how he utilizes them to tell a batshit borderline science fiction film is one of the more inventive ideas to come out of the genre since Scream. I feel comfortable in calling Cabin in the Woods the Scream of the 2010s. Both films know how to poke fun at the genre while still keeping you engaged in the actual horror of the film. Also, I don’t know how many “meta-horror/comedies” I’ve seen where everyone is a snarky asshole. I like the characters in Cabin in the Woods.
Fun Fact: This is the third film on this Top 50 that has Richard Jenkins (Let Me In, Bone Tomahawk, Cabin in the Woods). Which means the two greatest horror actors of the 2010s (according to this list) are Richard Jenkins and Ethan Embry (The Devil’s Candy, Late Phases, Cheap Thrills). Love it.
The poster for Spring has one of my favorite critic blurbs. The blurb says “Phenomenal. A hybrid of Richard Linklater and H.P. Lovecraft.” I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a blurb that so accurately nails the tone of the movie. Spring is more or less Before Sunset except with a supernatural twist. What I love about the twist is it’s not anything overly familiar. The mysterious woman our protagonist falls for isn’t a vampire or a zombie, it’s a far more eldritch reveal.
Written, directed, and photographed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead (Who previously landed on this list with The Endless) Spring is a film driven by the chemistry of its leads, Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker. The film follows Evan (Pucci), who after losing his mother and his job, travels to Italy to clear his head. There he meets a charismatic genetics student, Louise (Hilker) and the two quickly fall for each other. Unknown to Evan, is that Louise is hiding a dark secret about her identity. A secret that may destroy their relationship and so much more.
A solid quarter (maybe more) of this movie has no horror elements. Yet it works. It’s because these are likable characters in real situations. It’s not a bunch of recycled rom-com tropes. You care about these people. Which makes it even harder when forces greater than them tear them apart. Yet (and I don’t know if this is a spoiler) this movie isn’t a bummer. It hits all the right notes. When are Moorehead and Benson going to get that big budget blockbuster deal? Then again if this the kind of movie they’re making on the indie level, maybe they should stay there.
Guess who’s back. Back again. Eggers back. Tell a friend.
I wrote about this film last December in my “Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2019” so I don’t have much to add. Again, I love how anti-commercial Robert Eggers movies have been. This is a 35 mm B&W period-piece in a 4×3 aspect ratio. It’s also got mermaids and farting. It’s a perfect movie.
With that being said I’ll leave you with this video of The Lighthouse if it was an episode of Spongebob.
See you next week when I’ll be closing out with the Big Ten. Happy Haunting!