Dread Central's Best and Worst of 2013
Anthony Arrigo's Picks
This was a good year for horror fans. It’d been a while since we last had a period so full of films worth our time, but ’13 proved to be a lucky number if you’re a cinephile. As usual, there were surprises, disappointments, lackluster entries, and forgettable tripe. I kept my list strictly horror, though I did want to mention that the best film of 2013 I’ve seen so far (still have a few theatrical releases to go) has been Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives; the best film I saw for the first time was Ted Kotcheff’s uncomfortably affable gem from 1971, Wake in Fright; and, by far, the worst film I suffered through was (surprisingly) Neill Blomkamp’s cinematic slice of Socialist shit, Elysium.
The WNUF Halloween Special - This is exactly how you do found footage. The conceit of the film is simple – a news show anchor decides to investigate a local haunted house where a son murdered his parents twenty years earlier, all to be shown live on TV. The verisimilitude of the resulting film is shocking, and most would be hard pressed to tell if this is genuine footage or not. Even the commercials produced for the special look exactly like cheap, public access ads, right down to even the minutest details. And did I mention the whole thing was shot full-frame and passed through a VCR three times to give it the appropriate aging? The real treat here isn’t seeing whatever macabre madness results from opening up the long-abandoned house; it’s reveling in the ‘80s aesthetic that has been so lovingly recreated here. And believe me, they made this thing to play just as any news broadcast would, complete with an (almost) excessive number of commercials, constant teases to the big reveal, and quick news bytes that are just as slyly satirical as anything Paul Verhoeven has been behind. And they manage to do it all without a hint of irony! This just secured a spot in my yearly Halloween film rotation.
The Conjuring – James Wan’s ‘70s throwback was easily one of 2013’s horror highlights. The film wisely earned most of its scares through genuine, slow-build tension that culminated in a frenetic climax full of unsettling moments. All of the actors felt perfect in their roles, with everyone doing such great work that it’s hard to single out any one performance. I will say that I hadn’t been a big fan of Vera Farmiga before this year, though after this film and her work on "Bates Motel" I’m quickly coming around. If there’s any complaint, it’s that I could have done without the handful of jump scares scattered throughout, but it’s also hard to remember the last horror film that didn’t employ them in some way. Wan and his crew delivered a faithful recreation of the type of films Hollywood used to make back in the golden days. As if the main storyline wasn’t intriguing enough, the script smartly made use of the opening segment by running it as a parallel mystery throughout the film. Can I just say how refreshing it is to see a horror film that doesn’t rely on a cold opening that is never referenced again just to deliver a quick kill? It’s a damn shame Wan is getting out of the horror business after having such a hot year in 2013, though the right script could hopefully lure him back one day.
Evil Dead – Who the hell saw this coming, right? Director Fede Alvarez had an uphill battle from the moment the project was announced, and many fans – me included – had pitchforks ready to go. It was relatively shocking when the film turned out to work well as a kindred spirit to the original, distancing itself just enough to stand on its own while also retaining some trademarks of the series. And all that gloriously gory practical FX work! There’s so much to enjoy here that it almost overshadows the bad - things like Diablo Cody’s obvious and horrid flourishes added to the script, occasional uses of CGI that stuck out like a cold sore, being beaten over the head with exposition, and that god awful Magic Car Battery Defibrillator scene before the climax that had me groaning in my seat. Still, despite any shortcomings the film is a reminder of how effective R-rated horror still is, as well as proving that even sacrosanct films of the genre can be remade (or reimagined… whatever) with some level of integrity.
Curse of Chucky – Props to series creator Don Mancini for breathing new life into this 25-year-old franchise with a sequel that ditches a lot of the screwball humor of the previous two entries in favor of a more sinister tone. And, really, major props to Universal for not taking the obvious route of remaking the first film and instead actually giving fans a series to the classic timeline. There’s a ton of fan service scattered throughout, the slightly retconned history manages to work, and Fiona Dourif is as unsettlingly gorgeous as her father is unsettlingly creepy. Make sure to watch all the way through the end credits for an extra tidbit that really ties the whole series together. Bring on the next one!
The first two thirds of The Lords of Salem – Rob Zombie is easily one of the most divisive filmmakers working in horror today, with every one of his projects met with equal parts disdain and delight. But we (read: horror nerds) still go see them. Hell, if I can get through Halloween II (2009) – and I barely got through it – then anything else he’s behind should be a breeze. If nothing else, he’s always had an acute eye towards catching visuals that helps him tremendously on screen. His latest employs a great, rarely used concept – witchcraft! Nobody uses witches anymore. The story, which Zombie himself wrote, has a wonderfully creepy hook by having our lead, Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), working as a radio station DJ who receives a mysterious package containing a record. She plays it, women get hypnotized by some spell, people are KILLED! There are flashbacks to the old witchy days of Salem, where Meg Foster absolutely steals every frame of the film she’s in as Margaret Morgan, the old cackling servant of Satan. “Surely, with a setup this good Zombie won’t squander it”, is what you’re thinking. But then you come to…
The last third of The Lords of Salem – And everything goes horribly wrong. Was it the lack of budget? A lack of planning? Who knows? Well, I assume Rob does… I digress. A promising premise was completely eschewed to make room for gesticulating members of Immortal, melting pop art, crucified babies, and frantic shots of religious imagery. Basically, it devolves into a music video. I will say the final act isn’t so bad that I dislike the movie because of it, but it’s frustrating when a story bypasses logic and goes off on a tangent to its own detriment.
Sharknado – Foolishly, I bought into the hype and watched this Syfy Pictures original movie. Nothing starring Tara Reid and Ian Ziering is ever worth getting excited for, and an entire TORNADO MADE OF SHARKS is barely enough to endure this Z-level picture. Most of my amusement came from living in Southern California and knowing its street-level geography, so I was able to laugh at things like people getting eaten by sharks on the 405 because I often drive the 405 and wish sharks would eat most of the people driving on it. That novelty aside, it’s a ridiculous turd of a film. Now, you want to know what the best Syfy sharksploitation film that didn’t get enough love was called? Ghost Shark. Now that has a premise so fucking ridiculous you have to love it.
World War Z – I hated Brad Pitt’s bloated zombie epic almost as much as everyone else seems to like it. For one thing, the story of the UN sending off a former employee to commiserate around the globe, getting the red carpet treatment in every war-torn, crumbling society he travels to is laughable at best. Even worse, Pitt manages to learn almost nothing on these jaunts when meeting with persons in charge, but just as he’s leaving, usually amidst extreme chaos, he sees things in slow motion that provide a little piece of the puzzle we know he’s bound to solve. And then there’s that explosive plane crash he literally walks away from. And the asinine ending where Pitt makes a major leap in logic by assuming he knows how to repel flesh eaters by injecting himself with a random virus. In addition to all that mess, the zombies are really nothing more than a force of nature; a faceless horde bowling through cities like a large, bloodied CGI snowball. Horror fans have always been clamoring to see the zombie invasion on a full-scale, and now that we have it seems even more apparent that these films work best on a smaller, more personal level.
Zombie Hunter – I’m thinking the rationale behind making this film was something along these lines:
1. Sell film using large image of Danny Trejo holding an axe, have uncharismatic C-level actor be actual lead, kill Trejo early on.
The Purge – Talk about your all-time wasted opportunities... This low-budget production employed one of the more unique premises seen in recent years, then promptly squandered it by making a terrible home invasion flick full of clichés and annoying characters. I mean, you can show the whole of America letting their inner demons run wild for 12 hours; yet, the entire focus is on one family protecting a stranger in their home? That could have been just about any home invasion film; the interesting premise is instantly nullified when everything is so confined. Here’s hoping the upcoming sequel decides to get out of the house and let the concept breathe a little.