By Ben Bussey
Ha! Still here! Suck it, Mayans/New Age fuckwits!
And I’m glad of it, as it means we’re free to reflect on the year behind us, and – no joke – what an outstanding year 2012 has been for genre cinema. Normally I get a bit anxious doing these end-of-year things, and struggle to come up with enough films that really, truly made an impression; certainly, I’m nowhere near as enthusiastic now as I was for some of the films I listed in 2010 and 2011. But this year – wow. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I really do think 2012 has been one for the ages. Regular readers will have noticed we’ve had a quite a few 25th anniversary retrospectives at BaH this past year, as 1987 was a hell of a year for horror and genre films in general which have stood the test of time: RoboCop, Hellraiser and The Lost Boys, to name but a few. I can’t help feeling that in years to come, cult film fanatics will look back on 2012 in much the same way. I really do think it’s been that good. (That’s even taking into account that, as ever, I’ve still yet to see some of the year’s more noted films: Sinister, Harold’s Going Stiff and Antiviral, for instance.)
In putting this rambling piece together, I’ve obviously aimed to fit in my own favourites, but also to reflect the diversity of the year’s content. Although horror remains the name of the game for the most part, not every pick here strictly belongs to the genre, though they all remain at the dark end of the scale; and just to demonstrate that good movies can come in all shapes and sizes, there are even – whisper it – a found footage movie and a remake amongst them. To balance things out, I’ve also included a couple of near misses (films I almost loved, but ultimately didn’t) and also a few of what I consider the year’s absolute worst, because even in a bumper crop there are always a few bad apples. Anyway, that’s enough preamble; we’ll be here long enough as it is…
2012 was not short on high profile ghost movies – The Woman in Black, The Pact, Sinister – but in the midst of these, Absentia wound up getting brushed under the carpet. A real shame, because to my mind it’s the year’s most effective supernatural chiller. It also stands as firm proof that shooting on a microbudget need not be a problem for filmmakers, so long as they have the most vital elements in place: a great script, and great actors. Hopefully writer/director Mike Flanagan won’t be waiting too long for his day in the sun as his hotly-tipped follow-up Oculus is currently in production and set to hit screens in 2013; but don’t neglect to see Absentia first. Oh, and I can’t stress enough that this is one horror movie which absolutely should not be judged by its horrendous DVD cover.
9. Berberian Sound Studio
This was never going to be a film to all tastes. Lynchian in its weirdness and Kubrickian in its cold sense of detachment, with very little in the way of conventional narrative and an almost clinical emphasis on the mechanics of film sound effects, Berberian Sound Studio is certainly not your average, everyday horror film. As such, it doesn’t really surprise me that a lot of horror sites absolutely slated it, but to dismiss Peter Strickland’s film simply on the basis of feeling alienated is, I think, to miss the point, and a great deal else. No, it doesn’t make for the easiest viewing, but it forces the audience to contemplate its relationship with film in a truly unique, fascinating and unorthodox way. Give it a chance, be prepared to put a bit of work in, and you may find yourself rewarded.
If there’s one film I regret not covering at BaH this year, it’s this one. While it was primarily sold as a revisionist superhero movie, this tale of how three high school boys are affected by suddenly developing superpowers is a hard-edged affair that really pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 (indeed, the BBFC bumped it up to a 15). While the certificate may demand it holds back just a little as far as the violence and language go, the film is nonetheless unflinching in its portrayal of bullying and domestic abuse, and how these can impact a vulnerable soul. The performances are excellent across the board, particularly the tortured central turn from Dane DeHaan, and that finale – holy shit. As someone remarked to me on Twitter (apologies, I forget who), it’s just as well the planned live-action Akira is dead in the water, as Chronicle pretty well renders it redundant – and I daresay it gives the Carrie remake a little more to live up to. And, yes, this film demonstrates that, in the right hands, found footage can still work.
Not many readers are likely to have seen this one just yet, and I must say I’m pleased I was able to see it at this year’s FrightFest as – although I must stress I have nothing to support this – I get the sneaky suspicion it may be the first high-profile victim of the BBFC’s renewed tough stance on ‘sexual and sadistic violence.’ While I don’t expect it to be banned outright, I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if some cuts are made. The subject matter alone – crazed loner who gets sexual gratification from scalping women – is going to immediately push all the right/wrong buttons; factor in that it’s shot almost entirely in POV and we could be in serious trouble. But it would be a damn shame if the film does not end up being seen by a wider audience just as the filmmakers intended. Quite apart from being a harsh, uncompromising and thought-provoking film, it does what all the best remakes should do: it brings something truly distinct in its approach to the source material.
Yes, it’s a PG-rated animation. It’s also beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the very best horror films of the year. My being a parent might factor into this just a little, but – even though I love my gore, tits, and rude words – I don’t see there’s any reason why a horror movie can’t work in a family friendly format. The old Universals still get the job done, don’t they? And as I’ve long since declared, The Monster Squad is my favourite film of all time, so it’s no small matter when I say ParaNorman is quite possibly the finest kiddie-horror film that has been made since. It’s every bit as affectionate a tribute to the golden age of the video nasty as any neo-grindhouse film you might mention; if you’re not won over by the opening VHS zombie movie sequence alone, then you might as well forget it. Quite apart from being full to the brim with winks to the fandom, it’s well plotted, brilliantly paced, and incredibly good fun. Those with young ‘uns can revel in sharing it with them; those without will still have plenty to enjoy.
5. The Cabin in the Woods
It’s rare indeed for a big-budget studio horror movie to make bold proclamations about subverting expectation and genre convention, and to actually succeed in doing so. The real masterstroke of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s film is that it not only manages to do this without lapsing into Scream-esque self-referential smugness, but also that it provides something that’s totally accessible and entertaining for a mass audience, whilst giving hardcore horror fans a particular thrill. Welcome reassurance that not all studio horror has to end up market-researched and screen-tested into sterile, inoffensive ball-lessness. Refreshing indeed, and great fun.
4. [REC]³: Génesis
Did somebody mention fun…? It’s the buzzword for me this year. I can’t overstate how glad I am to see the past decade’s prevailing mood of misery floating away from the genre, in favour of lighter-hearted, energetic horror of the sort that so many of us grew up on. There’s no better example of that in 2012 than [REC]³. Some may bemoan its shift in tone and style from the previous [REC] films, but frankly they need to lighten up. (Yes, that means you too, Patterson!) This film offers up some of the best laugh-a-minute, thrill-a-minute gory action we’ve seen in years, and – in Leticia Dolera’s Clara – the most iconic horror heroine in I don’t know how long. Wonderful.
3. Some Guy Who Kills People
Fun remains high on the agenda here, but with a hefty dose of emotional content into the mix. Talk about defying expectations: from the title and premise, this is a film you’d be forgiven for expecting to be bleak, miserable, mean-spirited and formulaic. It’s anything but. Some Guy Who Kills People proves you can be sensitive without being sentimental; that you can be optimistic without sugar-coating everything; that you can confront the dark side without drowning in it; and you don’t need a shitload of money to get it all done. Worthy lessons for all filmmakers, not just those who make horror; indeed, worthy lessons for all human beings, if I may be so bold. Feel-good horror need not be a contradiction in terms.
2. John Dies at the End
No other film this year caught me unawares quite the way this one did. Again, it’s a film that so easily might not have worked based on the premise: it sounds like a Scott Pilgrim variation on Ghostbusters. In fact, that’s not too bad an analogy. But thanks to Don Coscarelli’s assured direction and sharp, witty script (from David Wong’s novel), and excellent performances all around, John Dies at the End is one of most thoroughly enjoyable films in a year not short on enjoyable films. Gloriously bizarre and funny as fuck, with an agreeably lax attitude toward genre convention. We could do with more films following such a mindset.
1. The Raid
I’ve pondered long and hard over naming this my number one. While we at Brutal As Hell pretty much embrace all forms of ‘extreme’ cinema, we’re still first and foremost a horror site, so it feels a little incongruous for me to name a non-horror film my top pick of the year. But what can I say: The Raid is a bona fide cinematic landmark that truly took my breath away. By boiling down the action movie to its bare essentials, and not shying away from the inevitable brutality of a kill-or-be-killed scenario, Gareth Evans’ film is as unnerving as it is exhilarating, and every bit as savage as the most full-on horror movie. But it’s not just about the viscera; by contrast with a lot of high-octane beat-‘em-up flicks, it doesn’t skimp out on an intellectual or emotional level either, not content to confine itself to the standard black and white, good guy-bad guy formula. It’s this injection of heart, soul and intelligence, refreshingly free of the sentimentality that sours many a John Woo movie, which really makes The Raid stand above the pack. It sets a new standard not only for action cinema, but extreme cinema overall.
Honourable mentions: Sleep Tight, The Pact, Juan of the Dead, Dredd, Father’s Day, The Devil’s Business, Sightseers, Killer Joe, We Are the Night, Screaming in High Heels, Eurocrime, Blood Car
(Oh, and they’re really not relevant here, but The Avengers and The Muppets kicked arse. Just saying.)
Now, to the close-but-no-cigar movies. As ever there have been plenty of films this year that have left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed, including some which others had raved about – notably Excision and V/H/S – but for me, two films in particular stand as having come very close to greatness, but bearing flaws too deep to overlook. I didn’t review either of them at the time, so I’ve gone a bit more in-depth on these, in order to really explore why I was conflicted on both; subsequently, I do get into moderate spoilers.
Kevin Smith came so close to redeeming himself. So close.
Has any director fallen from grace with critics and fans as spectacularly and publicly as Smith these last few years? I won’t deny I’ve taken it all to heart, as the man played such a key role in developing my interest in film and fandom in general as a teenager, and to see him turn up his nose in such an ugly fashion at the very people who put him where he is today… grr. No, I will not let this turn into another venomous anti-Smith rant; there are enough of those online already. But I can’t deny that divorcing his public persona from his film work has become increasingly difficult.
This being the case, I went into Red State not wanting to hate it, but fully prepared to do so. I was very pleasantly surprised, then, to see how effective the film is for the most part. There was never much doubt that the likes of Michael Parks and John Goodman would give anything less than exemplary performances, but a bigger question mark hung over whether Smith could make the transition from his signature broad comedy to the kind of edgy, topical drama he intended here. Again, for the most part he was indeed successful, however – biggest shocker of all – the direction was also up to scratch, the action sequences shot in a highly effective Saving Private Ryan style with real grit and punch. No way would you think this was the handiwork of the same core team behind the notoriously primitive-looking Askewniverse saga, but Smith as director and editor, and in particular David Klein as cinematographer, have clearly learned a thing or two over the years. It’s almost enough to make me sorry Smith has declared this his penultimate film. Almost.
However, for every stroke of brilliance in Red State, there’s something shoddy and amateurish waiting around the corner to scupper it. As most reviews have noted, the shift from religious cult horror to gun-crazy siege thriller is sudden, jarring and lacking in credibility. Likewise the script doesn’t always gel: Michael Parks’ masterfully delivered, hate-filled sermon may enthral, but then you have such horrendous lines as a school teacher describing Parks’ hate preacher as “nucking futs” to her class, and a Government suit in the final scene deadpanning “Patriot Act, bitch.” And why, when Smith has long since openly declared the film to be an attack on the Westboro Baptist Church, does his script make direct reference to the WBC and distance them from the fictional church of this film? A little disingenuous, don’t you think? But the biggest offence of all: that literal deus ex machina ending. Okay, so he didn’t want to go the predictable Wild Bunch bloodbath route; fine. But that was the best he could come up with? Really?
What makes this sting the most is that these are all minor issues that could easily have been fixed via a judicious re-write. But this writer-director, as he has long since made clear, considers himself above such matters; and sadly, such control freaks don’t stop to consider that their vision might not be impeccable after all. Oh well; Kevin Smith hasn’t learned his lesson yet, and he clearly isn’t about to. But if he does indeed only have one film left (which frankly I doubt, given his history of making bold proclamations and later reneging on them), it’s not something worth dwelling on.
So – from the work of a cult writer-director superstar on the way out, to that of a cult writer-director superstar duo on the way in…
Here comes the trickiest part. Brutal as Hell has kind of a special relationship with American Mary, given that our own Nia gave the film its very first review, making her the first voice in an ever-expanding chorus loudly singing its praises. As Keri remarked after Abertoir 2012, there was no way we could go in without high expectations; she came out very disappointed. As for myself…
When I first saw Dead Hooker in a Trunk I was reminded of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. Both are films whose principal strength, yet also greatest impediment, was over-ambition; both announced their debutante directors as distinct and powerful voices, rich in ideas but perhaps in need of a bit more discipline; but in any case, both films were clearly the work of filmmakers who showed considerable promise, even if they had yet to live up to their full potential.
I feel exactly the same way about Jen and Sylvia Soska after seeing American Mary.
There’s so much about this film that really, really works. It has a fine premise, and a fascinating subject matter which has not been widely explored in film. It crafts an interesting story world, rich with seedy glamour, and populates it with intriguing characters, helped considerably by a truly first-rate cast bringing those characters to life, the excellent Katharine Isabelle and Tristan Risk in particular. But so many of those strengths are sold short by a meandering narrative in which long, relatively uneventful stretches are punctuated by sudden violence; and that which might have been innovative is de-emphasised in favour of overfamiliar plot devices, and underdeveloped story strands that go nowhere.
My biggest complaint might seem a little strange given the nature of this site, but… I really feel American Mary should not have tried to be a horror movie. The premise lends itself to a character-based black comedy, and the film is at its best when it follows those lines, charting the bemused Mary’s initiation into the body modification world. However, Tristan Risk’s endearing Betty Boop-alike Beatress aside, body modifiers themselves are surprisingly not all that prominent in the action. Instead, the emphasis is shifted to a revenge story which frankly feels utterly out of place, and a major concession to cliché. Just because this is the work of female writer-directors does not change the fact that using rape to give the protagonist a reason to seek bloody retribution is a stale, not to mention distasteful device. It smacks of a misplaced desire to shock, and ultimately having Mary use her new skills for vengeance only serves to undermine the film’s claim to normalise body modification. The ending exacerbates this; clearly they felt they had to go out on a grim note, but to my mind it just doesn’t feel like a natural conclusion. And as for Jen and Sylvia Soska’s extended cameo: the best we can say about that is, by comparison, Tarantino’s scenes in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction don’t seem quite so narcissistic anymore. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hitchcock would have been fine, but to literally stop and make themselves the stars of the movie for about five minutes as the Soskas do here was, I feel, a serious error of judgement.
To continue the Rob Zombie analogy, the Soska Sisters have made their Devil’s Rejects now; a second film that may not have won over everyone, but has without doubt set the international horror community ablaze with debate. Those it has won over are well and truly seduced, but even those who it has left cold cannot deny its strengths, and – again – the potential for greater work to come. Now, let’s just hope the third Soska Sisters film isn’t a Halloween…
WORST OF THE WORST
I don’t want to dwell too much on the stuff that sucked in 2012; better to accentuate the positive, and so forth. Even so, allow me to name and shame my bottom 5 of the year, before well and truly laying into the absolute shittiest horror film of 2012:
5. The Reverend. Misconceived on just about every level, guilty of the mortal sin of not being anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is. (My review here.)
4. Paura 3D. Nicely shot, but that’s it; overall, it’s lazy, lame-brained, misogynistic tripe, emblematic of everything that’s bad about torture porn. (More in my FrightFest report.)
3. Piranha 3DD. The original was fun shit; this is just shit shit. Potentially the worst mainstream horror film ever to get a wide theatrical release. (Full review here.)
2.The Inside. Oh, deja va – was I just saying something about lazy, lame-brained, misogynistic tripe, emblematic of everything that’s bad about torture porn…? Add everything that’s wrong with found footage, and we’re getting warm. (Again, more in my FrightFest report at the link above.)
Wow – it must have been a monumental turd to be worse than any of those, eh? Well, it certainly is:
1. Strippers vs. Werewolves
How bad is this film? Well… did you see a review of it here at BaH? No, you did not. And do you know why? None of us could work up the willpower to write it up. Strippers vs. Werewolves is the embodiment of all that is wrong with indie horror in Britain today. If they’d put a fraction of the effort they put into the PR into the film itself, we might not have so much to complain about. From the obviously titillating title and premise and the cast littered with fan favourites and tabloid magnets, it’s a thoroughly contrived attempt to garner instant cult status. But the film itself utterly fails on every level: it’s painfully unfunny, terribly shot, badly paced, badly written, badly acted – and biggest crime of all, it doesn’t even deliver on its basic sales points. The werewolves are among the most pathetic make-up creations this side of Troll 2, and the strippers DON’T FUCKING STRIP. To quote John Lydon – ever feel like you’ve been cheated? Falling short of high ambition is excusable; outright apathy is unforgivable, not to mention indicative of contempt for the very people whose money you’re after. Give the audience what they paid for, or go fuck yourself.
So that’s 2012 done with. An eventful year all around, and not short on incident for film fans; and while there’s been as much crap as ever, I’d say the highs have outweighed the lows by a comfortable margin. And hey, we’ve got through the end of the Mayan calendar okay, so I should hope we’ll be cool with whatever 2013 has in store.