Saturday, 4 January 2014

Sam's 2013 in Horror

It's that time of year again, when we start reflecting on what we've seen in the past 12 months. I was going to write a Top Ten, discussing the best the genre had offered up this year, then I thought about it and, frankly, I didn't have enough to work with.  That's not to say that I didn't see great things in horror this year, the problem runs deeper than that, it's that I didn't see great horror films getting released this year.

I should say at this juncture that I still have to catch up with You're Next and Big Bad Wolves, which I'm expecting good things from, but I saw plenty besides and, damn, if you just went by what came to cinemas you'd think we'd had a really bad year.

The Year in Remakes
I guess in terms of numbers it hasn't been an awful year (and I suppose Chainsaw 3D is debatable, but it certainly plays like a - staggeringly poor - remake, as do most of the other Chainsaw sequels), but holy shit, feel the distinct lack of quality.  From the gimmicky (Maniac) to the tediously faithful (Carrie), on through the misjudged reimagining (Evil Dead, a film already retroactively spoofed, because Cabin in the Woods exists) to the pure ineptitude of the worst film of 2013 (TC3D), it's been another year that has had me wanting to scream at Hollywood for its lack of imagination, its lack of faith in unknown properties and its lack of effort in delivery.

The people I really want to scream at, however, are the audiences.  I want to walk up to them afterwards and say I HAVE to see these films, but you're part of the problem, stop coming and maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will be forced to make an effort next year.  This trend, these colour photocopies of films, almost always degraded from their original forms, genuinely depresses me and makes it tough to be a horror fan, especially when people I know ask me 'why would you want to go and see that'?  Too often, especially if you live outside London, the answer is 'I don't, there just aren't any other choices right now'.

The Best Wide Release Horror Film Of The Year (kind of sucks)
In 2013, using a reasonably wide definition of the genre, just 14 horror films were given a wide (150-300 screen) or saturation (more than 300 screen) release in the UK.  In four months of the year - including October - not a single horror film was given a wide or saturation release.  I missed just three; You're NextInsidious: Chapter 2, for reasons that may soon become clear and World War Z, because I really hate 3D and the trailer looked awful.  The best of these high profile releases was The Conjuring, which, were I grading it on the scale we use here, would probably scrape six blood drops out of ten.  This isn't a rare phenomenon, but it is a profoundly depressing one for the genre, and I think it's also what contributes to films as overwhelmingly average as The Conjuring  (which is well crafted and acted, but beat for beat the same haunted house movie we've been watching for years now) getting such a good reception.

I wonder whether critics and audiences have been beaten down, exposed to so much awful horror cinema, especially mainstream horror cinema, that they have come to be so refreshed by anything that isn't dreadful that it looks brilliant against the prevailing backdrop of the genre.  

What really surprised me with The Conjuring was the contrast between the reported audience reaction and the reaction depicted in the film's take on the now trendy night vision trailer, observing an audience watching the film.  I heard reports of people screaming and being freaked out by the movie (and this was true of a group of girls in my screening), but the night vision trailer seemed to find such footage hard to come by.  I swear you can spot one audience member falling asleep, which is a bit of an advertising own goal.

There must, I suppose, be an appetite for these films (I've taken to calling them 'noises off movies'), but mine was sated long, long ago and the fact that I can't think of a better wide release horror film this year than a stylish but ultimately totally by the book take on this well worked over genre deeply saddens me.

The River of Shit
This is the description I've been using for the 'efforts' of mainstream Hollywood for a while now.  The river doesn't just flow through the horror genre, but it certainly floats a lot of crap past multiplex projectors every year.  I missed only a handful; the aforementioned Insidious Chapter 2 and World War Z and The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, the title of which simply screamed "LAZY BULLSHIT".  I barely remember most of the mainstream releases this year (for instance I had completely forgotten that the rubbish Guillermo DelToro produced effort Mama came out in 2013), and those I do recall I don't think of in what you'd call complimentary terms.

Joining Ghosts of Georgia in the 'nonsensically titled sequels' category we have The Last Exorcism: Part 2 (which makes the first film at best the penultimate exorcism, and that's just the tip of a veritable iceberg of stupid).  The Last Exorcism was genuinely refreshing, it was the first film in ages to use found footage well and boasted a charismatic and charming performance from Ashley Bell.  The sequel dumps the former and mutes the latter, and that's to say nothing of the fact that the first film had - idiotic though it was - a pretty clear ending.

The Purge, which sits somewhat on the margins of the genre, but was definitely marketed as and played very much like horror, was another letdown; a film with a strong idea (what would happen if all crime was legal for a single night?) but execution that squandered that idea, reducing it to just one more home invasion film, with shades of the hoodie horror that has recently been in vogue.

Perhaps the worst of a weak mainstream crop this year was Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, admittedly having the grown up Hansel and Gretel hunting and killing witches is another cool idea, but bizarre casting (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton's age difference is glaringly obvious), a by the numbers screenplay, stunted sense of fun and extremely bored looking cast all conspire to make this the one thing it should never have been; dull.

The Good Stuff (nobody fucking saw)
It's not that there weren't good horror films released in 2013, it's just that almost nobody saw them.  In many cases this was hardly something that could be blamed on the audiences, as most of the better horror films of the year got only limited or 'Key Cities' distribution, meaning that only a handful of screens were showing the best of the genre this year and that most people would have had to go far out of their way to catch them.  It's tough to blame anyone for waiting for DVD when the only screen showing a film is so far away that the travel can take longer and cost more than seeing the film, especially when you add that to the frequent frustrations of the cinema.

Here are my picks for Top 3 horror films that actually saw a release in the UK in 2013.
3: Byzantium

2: Sleep Tight

1: Antiviral

Of those the only one I can wholeheartedly recommend is Antiviral, which is a striking debut from chip off the old body-horror block Brandon Cronenberg with a troubling premise about the extent of celebrity worship and a great performance from Caleb Landry-Jones (whose awful showing in Byzantium is one reason I can't recommend that as highly).  Sleep Tight is a tense little twist on the home invasion film, it has some extremely creepy scenes and an intense performance from Luis Tosar, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I'd seen this movie several times before and while I enjoyed it and will surely see it again Sleep Tight didn't really stand out for me the way it did for many horror fans.  Byzantium, similarly, was for me a film that had several outstanding elements (chiefly the performances of and dynamic between Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton), but wrapped them in a shell that, while stylish, just felt a bit overfamilliar to me.

All that said, all of those are strong films, all of them have much that is worth recommending and none of them were widely seen.  Byzantium had the best chance, it came out on a little over 300 screens but, while it opened in a light week, it was up against the higher profile and larger screen count of The Purge and likely lost much of its potential audience to that film.  The other two played on only a handful of screens, with Antiviral getting only a short platform release, largely to promote the DVD release that followed immediately.  This (and the similar pattern for the release of Katie Aselton's solid mumblecore horror Black Rock) suggests that distributors are admitting defeat at the cinema.  I understand why; it's tough to take on the big companies and their huge releases, but it's a disservice to horror fans because it makes it harder to see the few really strong film that ARE picked up for release. 

The Great Stuff (doesn't have fucking distribution)
This is how backward UK distribution of horror films has, largely, become.  The river of shit flows through multiplexes at a rate of roughly 1 film a month.  Better films get limited releases, before swift DVD and BluRay releases in hopes that they will find a foothold in the home market.  The best films stay at festivals.  SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE!

I went to one horror festival this year and saw many more films as we attempted, early in 2013, to get an Afraid of the Dark festival up and running (an idea that has not gone away).  I saw a lot of things I didn't like, but every one of the best horror films I saw in 2013 came through one of these channels.

Frightfest threw up some interesting things, with even films that didn't entirely work often having strong elements.  Sadik 2 was a good example of this.  It's not a sequel, rather a film about the making of a sequel to a notorious torture film.  It's essentially a really good short dressed up as middling feature, but there are some cool ideas and fun gore scenes in it.

Among the more mainstream leaning films at Frightfest the best I saw was the new film from Cube and Splice director Vincenzo Natali.  Haunter starts off just looking like one more generic haunted house movie (like a little film you might have heard of called The Conjuring), but after setting the pieces the film evolves, revealing a clever premise and, at its centre, a strong female character played by an excellent Abigail Breslin.  This is the film that I'm mystified not to have seen picked up yet; it feels commercial, but is smarter and better than most of the commercial horror out there.

2013 also threw up some fun genre leaning documentaries, such as An American Haunting; a affectionate look at people who build semi-professional haunted houses in their back yards for Halloween and On Tender Hooks, which looks at the subculture surrounding and the experience of human suspension, and is not for the needle phobic.  This is where the genre is really broadening out, and I wish it was more exposed.

I can't really separate the two best horror films of the year, both were films I watched as submissions for the Afraid of the Dark festival.  Jug Face, an extremely promising debut for director Chad Crawford Kinkle, is a backwoods horror about a community that worships a pit.  The pit demands sacrifices, and they are chosen when one of the men of the village makes a jug, the face on that jug will be the face of the next sacrifice.  This is a fun concept and when things go predictably wrong they get entertainingly bloody, but the strength of Jug Face lies beyond its bloodletting.  The screenplay is well written, and draws its horror from more than just the rituals surrounding the pit, but the film is anchored by a sensitive performance from Lauren Ashley Carter, building on the promise she showed in Lucky McKee's The Woman.  I don't want to give much away, but Jug Face is well worth a watch.

The second of the best horror films of 2013 was The Battery, a largely two handed drama about two former baseball players wandering and trying to survive in a post zombie apocalypse New England.  This film, though it does feature some well staged and tense zombie attacks, is largely driven by its characters, by the different ways they have reacted to this new reality and by the way they essentially power each other on (they are The Battery of the title).  The film relies on its dialogue, characterisation and performances to power it between infrequent outbursts of action (a welcome relief when most horror seems to go for the opposite ratio), and even when zombie attacks do break out, as in the outstanding final setpiece, which takes place entirely inside a stationary car, the characters are always the centre of the film.  It's a refreshing take on the zombie movie.

I don't know how we go about solving the distribution woes that, for my money, are running the horror genre down.  I only hope that here at Afraid of the Dark we can point out that as bleak as the wide release picture may look, if you dig there are still outstanding new horror films out there to be seen.

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