Dread Central's Best & Worst of 2009
Let’s face it – 2009 was a tough year to be a horror fan. Personally speaking, it was a colossal disappointment to see two of the greatest slasher icons resurrected with less than stellar results. Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers have been down rocky roads before, but their most recent misdeeds are among the worst in either canon. Pot farms and underground tunnels are hardly synonymous with the name Friday the 13th, and you should never, ever think white horses and hobos when talking about Halloween. When Tom Petty sang the good old days might not return, he must’ve been looking at 2009.
But it wasn’t all bad. Sam Raimi made his long-awaited return to the horror genre though, for some reason, horror fans by and large decided to pass on the affair due to its PG-13 rating. The result was a surprisingly low box office take for such an anticipated event. Weak box office also affected Lionsgate and its sixth Saw movie – a shame since it was actually the best in the series since James Wan’s original.
And we can’t mention 2009 without discussing the real snake in the grass - Paranormal Activity. Love it or hate it, the runaway success reminded everyone the world over that horror is far from dead. Maybe we’ll even get a few more scary haunted house flicks before Hollywood can finish milking the soon-to-be trend of ghost/demon flicks. I know a lot of people have been baffled by PA’s success, but I’ve been afraid of my creaky, noisy house ever since watching. Mission accomplished from where I stand, Oren.
And there were other gems, too – most of which will be included in my list of five favorite genre-related films. Before launching into the list, however, I’d like to take this opportunity to make some honorable mentions of films I feel deserve a little pat on the back – even if they don’t quite make the list:
Nah, it’s not amazing, but as a huge fan of George Milhaka’s 1981 slasher, I had a good time with the updated version. Todd Farmer’s script takes the same premise and turns it on its ear, offering plenty of surprises for audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the original story. Director Patrick Lussier keeps things light and fun – channeling the spirit of the 1980s in several moments. He’s also not afraid to give his characters a few sequences to develop outside of the 3D splatter – a welcome decision. Jaime King proves to be a very good final girl, and Kerr Smith is by turn smarmy and sympathetic as the modern day Axel Palmer. Only Jensen Ackles falls flat as the tormented Tom Hanniger.
As an added bonus, MBV 3D gave horror fans a chance to see Tom “The Man” Atkins back on the big screen once again. Not perfect, but a great example of how to respect the source material while doing your own thing. I still prefer the town of Valentine Bluffs as the location of Hanniger Mines, but Harmony is a fun place to visit, too. Just not as often.
The Last House on the Left
Was there any reason to remake Wes Craven’s Last House? Absolutely not. The 1972 classic is an angry product of its time, an example of the disillusionment growing here during the last years of the Vietnam War. Is it a coincidence then that Craven returned to his most controversial film during another needless and unpopular war? The new version, directed by Dennis Iliadis, doesn’t obliterate the peace and love generation the way in which the original did – which robs this remake of much subtext and purpose. However, it strengthens the narrative in lots of ways, producing stronger central characters and (wisely) jettisoning the lame comic relief that throws the original off-kilter.
The biggest problem here, though, lies in the villains. They never reach the uncomfortable depths so effortlessly obtained by David Hess and Fred Lincoln in the original. They’re totally serviceable, but forgettable. This is balanced out by significantly better roles and performances from the parents – played here by Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter. Their decision to take bloody vengeance upon their daughter’s attackers unfolds more believably and the actors convey great discomfort with their actions – grounding the film is uncomfortable reality. It’s a shame films of this ilk are always overlooked at awards time, as Tony Goldwyn’s performance makes this well worth a look.
The Five Best Horror Films of 2009
5. Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
It’s true that this was made and released overseas in 2008, but we didn’t have the chance to see it in theaters until Magnet released it this past July. As a documentary, it accomplishes its two most important goals: managing to be absolutely hilarious and entertaining while being informative.
Divided into three parts - sexploitation, horror, and action - this is a thorough examination of Australia’s history in exploitation, complete with interviews with dozens upon dozens of filmmakers and actors (even the late, great Richard Franklin is on hand), making this the perfect place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the subgenre. For those already well versed in Ozploitation, you can never, ever know too much about it.
Clips are well-utilized, and the participants are almost always entertainingly honest about the films in question. The section on horror is certainly the most interesting of the segments, but the whole thing is a delight: You’ll see George Lazenby burned in a stunt gone wrong, some of the most batshit insane stuntwork ever performed, and of course, some love for Howling III: The Marsupials, which makes it a winner in my book.
Horror fans have been begging Sam Raimi to return to the horror genre for years, and for a while it didn’t look like it was going to happen. It did, however, and while nobody would disagree that May was a bad time to release this one, its disappointing box office take left me absolutely baffled.
If the horror community isn’t going to turn out in droves for the triumphant return of Raimi, what will put them in theaters? Sure this is PG-13, but it doesn’t feel like it. It's one of the greatest funhouse rides ever committed to film, and while watching Drag Me to Hell, you can only wonder where in the hell the film is going to go next. Cats are sacrificed, eyeballs protrude from dessert cakes, and goats have never been more sinister.
This is the Sam Raimi well all know and love. Drag Me to Hell is probably his most entertaining work since Evil Dead II and the kind of kinetic horror film we never thought we’d see again. Least of all from the director of Spider-Man. Thanks for proving us wrong, Sam.
3. The House of the Devil
This is a brilliant artistic achievement for writer/director Ti West for two reasons: First, he’s delivered a legitimately creepy Satanic horror film – the kind which hasn’t been glimpsed for a very long time. Second, and more impressive, is that he accomplished what so many directors have tried (and failed) to do when using the word "throwback" to describe their films.
This is a bona fide relic from the 70s/early 80s. From the clothing styles, the settings (where did they find that pizza parlor?), and the meticulous art direction in every frame – it’s an authentically bygone horror film. It takes its cues from a dozen different films from that era without using any of them as a template. And that’s what really impressed me. The House of the Devil succeeds because West understands what makes older films work.
There’s the possibility that this would’ve been even higher on my list had I been able to see it more than once. It’s not going to be for everyone, but what film is? This fucker nails everything it sets out to do, and even now I look at it with total admiration.
A great film from Dark Castle? Who would’ve thought it possible? In some ways Orphan is a bit of a throwback film itself. Invoking the style and spirit of so many slow-burn 70s films, it spends a great deal of time establishing itself before the bad shit starts happening to people we care about.
Vera Farmiga (in her second evil kid movie) is fantastic here, as is Aryana Engineer as her hearing-impaired daughter, Max. The fact that the film devotes some genuinely sweet moments to these two is a credit to director Jaume Collet-Serra, who understands that it takes good characters to lay the foundation for any great film.
Of course, the real star here is Isabelle Fuhrman. Esther is a twisted, evil little bitch, and Fuhrman captures every nuance of the character brilliantly. The film’s twist ending, which could’ve easily been a huge mistake, gives the film another disturbing dimension – thanks in large part to Fuhrman’s acting talent. If you haven’t seen this yet, rectify that soon. Orphan is just awesome.
1. Trick ‘r Treat
This is more or less a tie with Orphan for my favorite horror film of the year.
I’ve written so much about T’rT over the past few months that I can hardly find another word. I’ll just reiterate what I wrote in my Blu-ray review a few months back: "Somehow, Trick ‘r Treat manages to live up to the staggering hype surrounding its release – which gets my peers off the hook (they’ll be so relieved). It’s as fun and enjoyable as you might’ve heard, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m plenty pissed at Warner Brothers for deciding that the best place to experience it is in the confines of our own home. Not only does it restore my wavering faith in a genre that’s become too “dark and gritty” for its own good (thanks, Rob Zombie), but it’s also a reminder that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a great film."
And now, THE WORST
Dishonorable Mention: Friday the 13th
Goddammit, Platinum Dunes, how did you fuck this one up? Unlike Ti West, you clearly don’t understand what makes older films work – despite your claims.
F13 isn’t awful but it’s bad. The filmmakers subscribed to the idea that you’re supposed to root for the bad guy, which doesn’t exactly make him scary. Characters are unlikable, annoying, and dumber than they ever were during the Paramount era. Beyond that, the decision to shoot the film in Texas robs it of the simple ambiance of the earlier Fridays. Instead of making a bona fide Jason movie, they tried to replicate the success of their earlier Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake by utilizing the same director and DP, which revealed a disappointing lack of vision from the creative team.
Derek Mears gives his all as a ferocious Jason, but I’d like to see a little less of John Rambo Jason next time around. Seeing him operate floodlights was a bit of a bummer, and don’t even get me started on those fucking caves. At least they got the New Jersey license plates right. Oh, and Julianna Guill does indeed have perfect nipple placement. That’s the best I can say for this mess.
This sequel deserves credit for taking everything that worked so well about the first film and throwing it out the window. Suspense? Nope. Sympathetic characters? Hell no. This one can’t even be bothered to keep its characters in one location – having them trot off to any number of nearby locations as they try to elude the fledgling snuff filmmakers. It’s also boring and directed without a trace of the flair that made the first movie so good. I know that nobody was expecting anything from this needless prequel, but did it have to be this stupid?
4. Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead
I’m going to spend as much time commenting on this as Fox put into producing it. An idiotic script, awful make-up effects, and an endless stream of (bad) CGI kills sink this disaster and kill the franchise right where it stands. Refusing to bring Joe Lynch back for another go ‘round was a big mistake, but if Fox couldn’t be bothered to make a good Wrong Turn 3, it probably wasn’t going to make a difference.
3. Children of the Corn
This is every bit as bad as you’ve been led to believe – and then some. It should’ve been relatively easy to improve upon Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 adaptation of the Stephen King short, but these guys blew it. Big time. Let’s start with a protagonist whom the viewer doesn’t want to spend two seconds with, let alone an entire film. Then there’s the amazing Vietnam flashbacks brought on by shuffling through corn rows – at least these bits provoke unintentional laughter. There’s nothing else to hold your interest, let alone warrant a viewing. Until someone gets King’s story right, stick with the original film. It’s not perfect, but it's a masterpiece when compared to this.
2. The Box
Richard Kelly continues his steady descent into cinematic banality with this pathetic and cynical attempt to recapture Donnie Darko’s lightening in a bottle. Blowing up Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button into a 90-minute feature was never a good idea, but that didn’t stop Kelly from trying. To expand on the ideas set forth by Matheson, Kelly takes us to outer space, citing aliens as the culprits behind the mysterious box.
And this script is just one of the problems. It’s incompetently directed and features two of the most uncharismatic leads (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) in recent memory.
1. Halloween II
Once again: I’m a fan of Rob Zombie’s music and his 'original' films. But I just can’t find a goddamn thing to like about either Halloween movie. This sequel is perhaps a smidge better than the first one, but it’s such an ugly, repugnant, and boring disaster that I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy.
While there are some very good actors on display here (Brad Dourif and Danielle Harris, especially), the abysmal script fails them on every occasion. Ditto the premise of the film: Traumatized survivors of a maniac’s killing spree trying to move on with their lives is a good idea. Maybe Zombie could’ve made it work had he allowed someone else to write it. Here, Michael Myers is a gritty serial killer that somehow survived a gunshot to the head. He spends half the movie suffering from white horse hallucinations while trekking through fields en route back to Haddonfield, murdering any degenerate that gets in his way. It’s very boring stuff with the character being robbed of any mystique he might have once had.
Zombie tried, but he also failed. Miserably.