2017 was a banner year for horror, not so much because of the quality of the films released (obviously highly subjective) but because this is the first year the genre truly took the box office by storm. Sure, there have been major horror hits in the past but the performance of pictures like Get Out, Split, and Annabelle: Creation showed how horror can pass that coveted $100-million benchmark on a limited budget. And then there’s IT, an unexpected juggernaut of nostalgia that out-grossed major tentpoles like Transformers and Justice League by a wide margin. As a horror diehard, seeing these results is exceedingly pleasing…
… but then, none of the most popular titles made my list. Get Out left me so severely underwhelmed it felt like I saw a different film than everybody else. Everyone I know raved about The Babysitter but all I saw is a film that thinks it’s more clever than it is; all sizzle, no steak. IT is pretty good but, as a fan of the book, I thought Tommy Lee Wallace’s miniseries did a better job of realizing the Loser’s Club and developing their relationships. Leatherface is an irredeemable piece of shit – and that says a lot for this series. The Mummy (thankfully) killed Universal’s Dark Universe before it even got off the ground. I have yet to see Cult of Chucky, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Raw, and a handful of titles that have been garnering acclaim. These will more than likely be jammed into my year-end free time, which comes after this list is due.
Twin Peaks: The Return
After an interminable – albeit perfectly timed – 25-year wait, David Lynch returned to the town America once embraced, but this was not the reunion many expected. Deliberately paced, occasionally frustrating but always compelling and curious, this 18-hour film felt less like the beloved series of old and more like a distillation of Lynch’s artistic oeuvre. Gone is the veneer of idyllic life in the bucolic paradise Special Agent Dale Cooper fell in love with, fully usurped by a seedy underbelly populated with shady characters and matured veterans. The Return is less Twin Peaks and more Fire Walk With Me, taking this bizarre odyssey into dark corners and delivering some of the most visceral moments in Lynch’s filmography. Angelo Badalamenti’s dark sonorities are still present, though they take a backseat to Lynch’s unique, droning sound design and the many acts featured at The Roadhouse.
Instead of pandering to audience expectations – and the endless notes of major network executives – Lynch had free reign to make the film he wanted. The result is an obtuse, lengthy trip during which many questions are raised and few answers are given; well, at least explicitly. Kyle MacLachlan, who was reluctant to return for Fire Walk With Me, is a triple threat here inhabiting not only our beloved Agent Cooper but also his Black Lodge doppelganger, Mr. C, and Mr. Jackpots himself, Dougie Jones. Lynch amassed a considerable cast, too, with numerous new faces appearing alongside returning favorites… many of which are bittersweet given their deaths shortly after filming. This may not have been easily digestible for the masses but most Lynch fans seem to agree, this is a masterwork of genius. And for anyone who doesn’t think this falls into horror, I only have this to say: “Got a light?”
A Ghost Story
David Lowery’s meditation on life, death, moving on and remaining static is one of those profound cinematic experiences that will either wholly resonate with viewers long after the credits roll… or they’ll be bored to tears. Hearing something like “Rooney Mara eats a pie for five uninterrupted minutes” sounds dreadful in theory, but in the context of the film it becomes a moving scene wracked with emotion. Casey Affleck spends 97% of the film under a white sheet, appearing as a stereotypical ghost that inhabits the one place where he last found peace. Dialogue is superfluous, with the onus placed on empathy and the obtuse concept of what it means to experience the vastness of time and space. The only time the film ever feels slightly ham-fisted is during a party, when one of the guests espouses his beliefs on humanity and our legacy. Lowery shot using a 1.33:1 aspect ratio because he wanted to replicate the claustrophobic experience of Affleck’s character being contained within a single structure for the duration of the film. This is the type of film that absolutely requires viewers to not only have an attention span but also the willingness to wonder and sink deep into thought about the meaning of life and death.
Brawl in Cell Block 99
There has never been a moment on film or TV when I have found Vince Vaughn to be remotely intimidating… until now. Leave it to S. Craig Zahler – he of Bone Tomahawk (2015) fame – to smash those preconceived notions into a bloody, pulpy mess. The story here is streamlined and simple, like the glorious revenge films of yesteryear. Vaughn plays Bradley, a former criminal who returns to the fray in order to provide for his wife and soon-to-be baby, but a decision made out of obligation during a police sting leaves him facing a solid decade behind bars. There, he is visited by a man who informs him that due to his actions his wife has been kidnapped and his unborn child will be ruthlessly dismembered in the womb unless he agrees to kill a man being housed in a maximum security prison. So begins a whirlwind of violence as Bradley steamrolls his way through every person necessary to get sent to that prison so he can kill that man. He is singular in focus and unremittingly brutal in execution. I liken the film to Taken (2008) in that Bradley is an unstoppable machine, protected less by plot armor and more by his skills. Neeson used a gun; Vaughn uses his fists – and feet, as viewers will see when he stomps a man’s head into a bloody mess before dragging it across the pavement, revealing the gleaming white skull beneath. Sound horrific? Wait till you see what he does to everyone else.
Kong: Skull Island
Finally, an American King Kong movie where the big ape doesn’t fall off a tall building or die of a heart attack. Jordan Voght-Roberts brought a sense of Ray Harryhausen to his creature feature, stocking Skull Island with plenty of mega fauna and quadrupling the size of Kong to a massive 100 ft. Anyone who knows me knows I am a diehard fan of both King Kong and Godzilla, and this new MonsterVerse is off to a smashing start between this film and Godzilla (2014). I will readily concede the characters are a bit thin, though properly motivated, and there are more than a couple of gaping plot holes but, above all else, this is a damn fun film full of color and rife with monster melee action. The final battle between Kong and the “big one” is a raucous brawl that is – hopefully – emblematic of what we can expect once he squares off against Godzilla in 2020. And before anyone gripes about their size difference, remember this film mentions Kong is still growing and, you know, it is a movie.
The Shape of Water
This is such a beautiful movie. Del Toro often gets knocked for favoring style over substance – criticisms made with sound reason – but here, even with a story containing cliches and contrivances he has managed to craft a stunning piece of romantic cinema. Every actor in this small ensemble delivers a powerful performance, with Sally Hawkins as the clear standout. This is such a love letter to monster lovers and outsiders; I actually stopped myself from criticizing the film at one point, deciding to simply wallow in the experience and revel in del Toro’s romanticism. The make-up is exquisite, Alexandre Desplat’s score is a career-best, and Doug Jones is no doubt making many women in the audience question the definition of bestiality. Del Toro throws in a few horrific moments to sate his fan base; it is disturbing what an actor like Michael Shannon can do with two fingers. The musical number (yes, there is) may be my favorite movie moment of the year.
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