2014: A (Subjective) Year in Horror

Posted by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on December 26, 2014 in Guest Blog tagged with

This year has been an impressive one for independent horror film, and the recent release of Xavier Aldana Reyes’ already essential Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film provides the perfect excuse to indulge in a wholly subjective 2014 horror best-of list.

If there has been one formal quality that unites the year’s best horror films, it is the return of colour: bright, aggressive, joyful colour. Coincidence or conscious movement, 2014 saw a number of filmmakers seemingly drunk on the legacy of Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, Suspiria. This connection to Italian horror is made explicit in the neo-gialli that are captivating horror audiences in fresh, original ways. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s luscious and perverse The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears lies at one end of this spectrum, while at the other you can find Astron 6’s recent loving homage to the subgenre, The Editor.

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In Ireland, Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal typified the confident execution of this shift towards a far less monochromatic colour palette, a disturbing and haunting movie whose punch culminates at the intersection of dark fantasy and the all-too-grim reality of domestic violence. Michael Goi is a name familiar to many horror fans for directing the controversial found footage horror film Megan is Missing in 2011, but he is better known as a cinematographer. Having won awards for his work on television shows such as American Horror Story, Goi joined AHS director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on this year’s remake of the 1976 cult slasher film The Town That Dreaded Sundown. While performances from familiar faces like Veronica Cartwright, Ed Lauter and Edward Hermann are strong, it is Goi’s colour-drenched cinematography that makes this latest version of Sundown unmissable.

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Adam Wingard’s The Guest indicates a director who shows no signs of losing the momentum that fuelled You’re Next (2013) or its predecessor, the underrated A Horrible Way to Die (2010). Like his earlier work, The Guest suggests Wingard intuitively understands the delicate interplay of shadow and light, both formally and thematically. His mastery lies in a genuine love of genre filmmaking: there’s no smug mission to ‘fix’ horror, just a sincere, intelligent and passionate love of it. For those with an interest in Goth of a more subcultural nature, The Guest is essential for its soundtrack alone: Clan of Xymox, Love and Rockets, Front 242 and Sisters of Mercy all make notable appearances.

The year also provided a number of films that confirmed the vampire’s place as an enduring horror icon. Although technically released in 2013, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive had a staggered release schedule that saw it appear in some regions well into 2014. Heralded by many as a return to form for Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive is as much a film about what it is like to live for and through a passion for music as it is about the romantic journey of its central vampires, played beautifully by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. Not all vampire films have been so somber, however, with Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do In the Shadows and Onur Tukel’s equally hilarious Summer of Blood both proving that the unholy union of vampires and comedy is fertile ground. Along with Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound, What We Do In the Shadows once again demonstrates New Zealand’s flair for horror/comedy hybrids. Summer of Blood is worth flagging if you even for one moment thought a Woody Allen-styled vampire movie was a bad idea: this gorgeous film proves you wrong. And of course, Ana Lily Amirpour’s vampire western/romance A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – set in a fictional, fantastical Iran – also vividly demonstrates just how elastic the boundaries of this enduring subgenre can be.

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My vote for horror director of the year unhesitatingly goes to Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo. Nominated for an Academy Award for his 2003 short film 7:35 de la Mañana, Vigalondo won the hearts of genre film audiences around the world with his time-travel slasher Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes, 2007). 2011’s Extraterrestial continued an interest in science fiction, but 2014 is the year where Vigalondo’s horror talents eclipsed virtually everyone else in the field. His first English-language feature Open Windows pits exceptional performances from Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey alongside what at first could be easily mistaken as a formal gimmick: the film plays out as if on a computer screen (hence the title). But Vigalondo’s interrogation of the unbridled weirdness of online communication and gendered violence manifests through an obvious awareness of art history and its traditions. This results in a film executed with intelligence, passion, and originality, elements that are now part of Vigalondo’s signature.

Gendered violence is also granted a surprising moment of thematic ascendancy in Vigalondo’s donation to V/H/S: Viral*, the third instalment of the popular found footage horror anthology franchise. Disturbing and darkly comic in equal measure, “Parallel Monsters” is a standout in an otherwise mediocre series governed by pervasive and unchecked frat-boyism. It is perhaps the nature of anthology films that they are defined by their hits as much as their misses, and this is also certainly true of this year’s The ABCs of Death 2. Although much of the movie falls flat, its stand out segments – such as Mighty Boosh-er Julian Barratt’s “B is for Badger”, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s “X is for Xylophone” and Chris Nash’s “Z is for Zygote” – make it worthwhile. ABCs 2 also pays a conscious eye to horror’s global reach, and includes work from Nigerian director Lancelot Imasuen, Israeli filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, and Japanese special effects make-up artist and director Sôichi Umezawa.

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ABCs 2 also proves Lithuanian filmmakers Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper’s collaboration on the majestic scifi film Vanishing Waves (2012) was no fluke, artists with a genuine flair for experimenting with the limitless possibilities of film genre. Buožytė is one of many women directors who have put V/H/S’s dude-bro horror dominance to bed: this year alone, Karen Lam’s Evangaline, Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, and Jen and Sylvia Soska’s See No Evil 2 were amongst many to reveal the diversity of horror films being made by women, with Australian filmmaker Heidi Lee Douglas’ colonial reimagining of Bluebeard in Little Lamb comfortably winning my support as horror short of the year.

 

7 babadookLittle Lamb is not alone in offering the opportunity to celebrate impressive Australian-made genre efforts. Although broadly misunderstood at home, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek 2 is a powerful reminder of the political potency of horror as it ripped apart the vicious, institutionalized racism that dominates official Australian government policy against asylum seekers.   But it is the success of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook that solidified Australia as a key site of genre production. This dark, disturbing tale of domestic chaos recalls Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as much as German Expressionism, and if it’s a horror film with a more traditionally Gothic flavour that you are after, The Babadook is essential viewing.

Ultimately, my final verdict on Horror Film of the Year is split two ways in a ghastly, glorious tug of war between Jason Bognacki’s Another and Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s Starry Eyes. With its striking aesthetics and bizarre tale of contemporary witchcraft and evil-matriarchs-run-amok, Another is a love letter to Argento’s Suspiria that never becomes derivative, a celebration rather than a rehash. Critic Anton Bitel described Starry Eyes perfectly as a mumblegore Mulholland Drive, but it too brings its own macabre visions alive in a way that is wholly its own. In honour of Reyes’ Body Gothic, Starry Eyes also features one of the year’s best gore scenes: you will never look at a dumbbell the same again…

 

 

* Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s segment “Bonestorm” in V/H/S: Viral is also another refreshing shift away from this tendency, and my unqualified adoration of their 2012 film Resolution makes me confident that their recent feature film Spring would have been in my Top 5 this year if I had been able to see it. This also goes for a number of other titles that are missing here – It Follows, for instance. Distributors, please take note!

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