It’s been a helluva year for horror movies. I count more than 32 horror movies I saw in the theater this year — not bad for a genre that gets no attention. But before we count down the best of the best, let’s take a look at some hot trends this year:
- Movies based on beloved books: Box office was mixed, but it was a great year if you loved faithful book-to-film transformations including Let the Right One In, Red, The Ruins, Blindness, and of course, Twilight.
- Zombies: From a box office perspective, zombies didn’t burn up the box office, but that didn’t stop plenty of films from using them, such as The Signal, Diary of the Dead, and Otto (or Up With Dead People). And while the folks in Quarantine aren’t technically zombies, let’s face it — it’s a zombie flick.
- Remakes: On the other hand, with a ton of remakes this year, all did fairly well at the box office except one (sorry, Funny Games). But still — moviegoers who hated subtitles were treated to remakes of The Eye, One Missed Call, Mirrors, Funny Games, and Quarantine. And this trend ain’t going anywhere — 3 remakes will arrive in the first six weeks of 2009.
- Hand-Held Documentary Style: Many people hate to see ’em, but 2 of the 3 this year were box office hits, so don’t expect them to go away. Cloverfield was a smash, and Quarantine hit pretty big too. Only Diary of the Dead didn’t take off.
And thanks to the way Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train got released, we now have a new verb added to horror movie vocabularly.
meat-trained [meet·tr?nd], verb: the action of dumping a horror movie into a handful of obscure second-run theaters to fulfill a contractual obligation. i.e., Did you see Rogue? It was sweet. Too bad it got meat-trained.
But enough of that. Now onto the top 10 horror movies of the year, starting with #10.
#10. The Strangers
Writer/director Bryan Bertino instantly made himself a talent to watch with this creepy, genuinely scary debut. While the ad campaign and an unnecessary opening-movie crawl removed some of the suspense, it still had audiences screaming, particularly in the first half. A refreshing lack of score did a great job of making you feel you were there, in the house, waiting for the strangers to make their next move. Rumor has it Bertino is already on board for a Strangers sequel, but we’re more eager to see his next original creation, Alone.
The top 9 films after the jump.
Welcome back Stuart Gordon! The man who brought us Re-Animator and Edmond shocked everyone (and maybe himself) by delivering perhaps his best-reviewed film ever with this horror-comedy. Stuck features Stephen Rea as a homeless man stuck in a car windshield after an accident, and Mena Suvari as the woman who leaves him there to die rather than deal with the consequences. It was a shrewd move to steer away (so to speak) from the true-life story it’s based on, making Stuck totally unpredictable and a crazy mix of laughs and shrieks. Unlike anything else that came out in 2008. Even the movie poster was a riot.
#8: Funny Games
Certainly the year’s nastiest movie. A nearly shot-by-shot of Michael Haneke’s 1997 serial killer flick, redone by the writer/director himself. This version does feature the amazing Naomi Watts as the star, and she goes a long way in keeping you watching even as the movie gets tougher and tougher to watch. A couple of scenes — one in particular — find Haneke using a sledgehammer to make his social commentary when a more subtle touch would have worked better, but even so, this is an unflinching, deeply disturbing movie about how violence has shaped society. You probably will never watch it again, but you should see it once.
#7: The Signal
This apocalyptic technological zombie flick is certainly unique — a single narrative is split into three segments, each written and directed by a different individual. The middle segment is a bit jarring (it’s played for laughs more than horror) but as a whole, the film is consistently entertaining, and ultimately, surprisingly moving. A genuinely believable relationship between the two main characters gives the narrative the extra weight to raise it from “good” to “outstanding.” Despite being a low-budgeter, acting is incredibly strong across the board. With three directors driving, it sounds like the film is a gimmick. It’s not.
Not since Ginger Snaps has a teenage girl’s journey through puberty been such a satisfying source of horror and humor. If you can envision Saved! with severed penises (peni?), you’re starting to get the idea of what’s going on here. Jess Weixler gives a star-making turn as a young woman saddled with vagina dentata, and the results are simultaneously funny and horrifying. A wickedly smart script takes what could have been a one-joke movie and actually carves out a strong narrative laced with biting social commentary. The most unusual date movie of the year.
A throwback to the kind of horror movies you loved in the ’80s, Splinter is an unstoppable creepfest in the vein of The Evil Dead with sprinkles of The Thing and The Blob. At 82 minutes, things move fast and furious, and within 3 minutes of the film starting you know this is going to be a great ride. We won’t ruin the fun, but let’s just say you’ve got a very small cast (six), dealing with something that is nasty, freaky, and terrifying. Is the film reinventing the wheel? Nope — you’ve seen this all done before. But you’ve rarely seen it done with this much understanding of what makes an effective horror film. It’s a B film elevated to a B+ through sheer talent that takes a tiny budget and produces something that easily rivals what the major studios put out.
Red, based on the brilliant novel by Jack Ketchum, is the tale of an ordinary man (terrifically played by Brian Cox) who simply wants justice when three teenagers commit a stomach-churning (though thankfully tastefully handled on film) act of violence against his dog. This isn’t The Punisher or even Walking Tall. While it has the set-up of a vigilante movie, it’s very much an unsettling, suspenseful drama about a man who simply wants the law — and the people involved — to acknowledge the crime that has occurred. And it’s about how an obsession over making things right can ultimately spiral out of control and make everything even more wrong. “Red” was directed by Lucky McKee (of May fame) who then was replaced by Trygve Allister Diesen. And it’s to the film’s credit that it comes off as one smooth cohesive entity.
I know, I know…many people wouldn’t call this one “horror” per se. It’s a Hitchcockian thriller directed and cowritten by Brad Anderson, who brought us Session IX and The Machinist. But while this film isn’t what most people think of when they hear “horror,” it still ranks, for me, among the year’s most nail-bitingly suspenseful flicks. It does the seemingly impossible — it doesn’t resort to tricks or twists, and yet remains entirely unpredictable. Putting a fresh spin on the “thriller on a train” genre, Transsiberian will blow you away with beautiful cinematography, terrific dialogue, and award-worthy acting by Emily Mortimer, Eduardo Noriega, Ben Kingsley, and more. It’s not what you expect from Brad Anderson given his previous work. But it won’t prevent you from loving it every bit as much — if not more.
#2: The Ruins
A chilling red-band trailer may have been too intense for audiences, scaring them away before the film even came out. But if you missed it in the theaters, get it on DVD. Written by Scott Smith, the author of the novel, The Ruins is not an easy watch. While not overly terrifying (although it does have one scene to make you leap out of your seat), it is an intense, suspenseful, sad and deeply unsettling look at four friends who gradually come unravelled in an impossibly horrific situation. Some changes were made from the book — some for the better, some less so. And the book ultimately packs a slightly harder punch. But this is one creepy, unforgettable movie based on a creepy, unforgettable novel. Read the book. Then watch the movie. Then have nightmares.
#1: Let the Right One In
The best horror film of 2008? A Swedish vampire film based on the Swedish bestseller of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist. While not the scariest vampire film ever made, it is one of the most involving, and certainly, one of the most memorable. A tale of a shy 12-year-old boy bullied at school who befriends his vampiric next-door-neighbor (also 12 years old — although she’s been that age a long time), this is a vampire film that relies almost entirely on fleshing out (so to speak) fully three-dimensional characters and using relationships and emotions to drive the narrative, rather than laughs or action pieces. But make no mistake — while it’s about 12-year olds, this is not a film for kids by any stretch of the imagination. The film is, at turns, shocking, funny, painful, sweet, and thought-provoking. Above all, it will keep you thinking long after the lights come up. A masterpiece.