If you had a particularly potent sneeze, or just blink an awful lot, then congratulations are in order: you probably missed 2017. A terrifying, putrid shit-fest created especially for those who didn’t think 2016 was sufficiently depressing. Twelve months best summarised by the recurring lament of “Now what the fuck has happened?” If you grew up in the 1980’s eternally traumatised via exposure to the BBC’s THREADS but took some comfort in the fact that it didn’t seem likely to ever become a reality, 2017 delightfully shat on the comfort blanket and presented the most unstable and demented leader in the world threatening Nuclear War on a regular basis. Simultaneously, his slightly less frightening equivalent in North Korea did the same thing.
It was also another year that provided the unwelcome, slap-in-the-face reminder that, the older we get, the more heroes we lose. Long term horror fans had plenty to mourn last year, from Hammer starlets (Suzanna Leigh, Yvonne Monlaur, Suzan Farmer) to literary giants (William Peter Blatty) to versatile filmmakers (Jonathan Demme, Ulli Lommel, Umberto Lenzi). One-of-a-kind character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Michael Parks and Martin Landau all made their mark in horror over the decades, though their talents were frequently utilised in both Hollywood studio pictures and beloved indie gems alike. Some of these folks were of a significant age reflective of extensive careers, but others were gone far too soon: Bill Paxton, a charismatic presence as an actor in at least three of the most iconic films of the 1980’s, died at the age of 61, which meant he never got to follow-up his single, masterful horror film as a director: 2002’s FRAILTY, still one of the finest American genre pictures of the century.
Indeed, it’s hard to embrace any year that also robbed us of two of the greatest horror directors of their – or any other – generation. Both warm, witty personalities at festivals and conventions, George Romero and Tobe Hooper emerged as innovative young filmmakers in Vietnam-era America, revolutionising horror with morbidly funny, technically brilliant, nihilistic modern nightmare movies in which there was no escape from a new kind of monster and you were just as likely to die from self-appointed “law enforcement” as you were from a shambling zombie. The tributes in the mainstream press trod a predictable path, ignoring the diversity inherent in both of their careers : dismissed throughout his life as a one-trick pony who never matched THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Hooper was, in fact, one of the most consistently fascinating American filmmakers of his time – few referenced his marvellous EC Comics-inspired black comedy EATEN ALIVE or the subversive brilliance of his sour 80’s satire THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 or the lavish lunacy of his trippy Hammer Films homage LIFEFORCE. Romero, meanwhile, was deservedly revered for his peerless original “Dead” trilogy, though often at the expense of such distinctive works as MARTIN, KNIGHTRIDERS and MONKEY SHINES. Both directors suffered lower productivity during the horror genre’s extended drought in the 1990’s, but their influence on genre filmmakers of all creeds and ages never faded. The genre was forever changed by the timeless work of these two modest, intelligent gentlemen. We salute you both.
It’s likely that Mr Romero and Mr Hooper would have been proud of a genre that encompassed such an impressive and diverse range of films in 2017. It is still a tad too early to judge the true impact of the Trump era on the genre’s output, but angry, topical movies like GET OUT are undeniably cousins of the kind of socially aware, paranoid, darkly comic movies the two genre legends were turning out in their prime.
For once, whittling down the year’s horror releases into a “ten best” list was a true challenge. The final Top Ten listed below meant the exclusion of a large number of contenders that would have been guaranteed a prime place in other years. So, let’s hear it for Gore Verbinski’s marvellously deranged A CURE FOR WELLNESS, probably the only Hollywood movie of last year that paid equal homage to Hammer horror and Jess Franco, and certainly the source of the year’s ickiest mainstream sexual assault. A fine year for British horror meant that it was almost painful to exclude David Bruckner’s chillingly atmospheric THE RITUAL (one of several 2017 horrors to pay fond homage to Lovecraft and Arthur Machen) and Philip Escott and Craig Newman’s devastating CRUEL SUMMER, the latter of which admirably avoided exploiting a horrifying true case while capturing a sense of despair in its sustained woodland terrorisation to rival THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Australian horror continued to contribute overlooked gems. HOUNDS OF LOVE visited ordeal-horror territory with supreme intelligence, outstanding performances and a brilliant use of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”; and the inexplicit but effectively grim KILLING GROUND somehow found fresh angles on the post-DELIVERANCE urbanoia theme.
Mike Flanagan continued to impress with a smart, harrowing adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most underrated novels, GERALD’S GAME – which also happened to feature the most gruelling gore moment of the year. The late oil heir Andrew Getty posthumously earned deserved raves for his eccentric, sometimes brilliant rubber-reality chiller THE EVIL WITHIN, while two riotously entertaining, blackly comic splatter movies (THE BELKO EXPERIMENT and MAYHEM) represented an anarchic wish fulfilment fantasy for anyone stuck in a numbing 9-5 office existence. Canada’s gleefully gruesome, spirited GAME OF DEATH riffed on BATTLE ROYALE, as filtered through JUMANJI, while another fun splatter flick, Mike Mendez’s DON’T KILL IT offered a body-hopping demon and a loveably laidback Dolph Lundgren star turn. THE TRIANGLE went some way to making amends for an endless succession of useless found footage horror movies, while two of the Astron 6 collective released perhaps the finest 80’s horror pastiche of the year, THE VOID, which relished freakshow gore patterned on THE THING and many nods to Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND.
It was also painful to exclude Alex de la Iglesia’s darkly hilarious, intense apocalyptic piece THE BAR, which played out like a sweat-inducing extension of the great diner scene in THE BIRDS in which the regular customers ponder over explanations for the unfolding end-of-times event they seem to be facing. Other countries offered their own apocalyptic visions: from France, HOSTILES offered a sincere, bleakly romantic slant on a survivalist scenario of a young woman menaced by mutated humans in some unspecified world-ending disaster; and Trey Edward Shults’ uncommonly low key, relentlessly sombre IT COMES AT NIGHT offered a credibly dreary microcosm of a post-plague world.
Of course, the genre was still happy to indulge in its own past, with an evocative remake of Stephen King’s IT that exceeded everyone’s expectations at the box office and, despite an over-abundance of jump scares, did a fine job of translating the best portions of a flawed novel to the big screen. One of the genre’s most idiosyncratic franchises bid adieu with the unashamedly nostalgic PHANTASM : RAVAGER, the talented directors of INSIDE failed to justify the existence of yet another TEXAS CHAINSAW prequel with LEATHERFACE and ANNABELLE : CREATION made a lot of money, which means we’ll get at least another 15 movies in THE CONJURING universe before we’re all reduced to ash. The best franchise movies of 2017 went back to basics and just had fun : Ridley Scott’s gory ALIEN COVENANT abandoned the pretensions of PROMETHEUS and opted for slasher-movie style impalings of shagging couples in the shower; Adam Green cut loose with the creatively gruesome, occasionally hilarious HATCHET revival VICTOR CROWLEY; Lionsgate revived the SAW franchise in a hugely enjoyable fashion with the inventive JIGSAW; and Don Mancini continued to keep a much older franchise fresh and engaging with CULT OF CHUCKY.
Alas, there can only be ten, so here, in reverse order, and with complete subjectivity (other top tens are available, all are open to debate), are the final ten favoured choices of the year by this particular horror fan…
10: THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (UK / USA, Dir: Andre Ovredal)
TROLL HUNTER director Ovredal aimed for a “classical” horror piece and came up with this intense, stripped-down, largely two-handed, one-location bone-chiller. Cannily exploiting audience discomfort at sustained forensic detail, it avoids cheap scares and clichés, and realises that something as simple as an open morgue drawer can be incredibly unsettling if the right mood has been achieved. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch also gave two of horror’s best performances in 2017.
9: GET OUT (USA, Dir: Jordan Peele)
Lauded as the first politically aware mainstream horror film of the Trump presidency (though obviously conceived and produced before Herr Trump won the election), Peele’s supremely clever, very funny directorial debut has a premise summed up by the hero’s hilarious best friend: “Don’t go to a white girl’s parents’ house”. Venturing into STEPFORD WIVES territory, it chillingly captures a whole community of black people contrived according to middle class white folks’ stereotypical ideal of (and jealousy of) their black peers. Peele has fun with genre archetypes and clichés, and the detail is wonderful : love the portrayal of well-to-do ageing white people indulging in their familiar program of Bingo, sparklers and wine.
8: BETTER WATCH OUT (USA / Australia, Dir: Chris Peckover)
A genuinely disquieting portrayal of escalating adolescent violence, this suspenseful, blackly comic slice of festive fear offers a psychopathic inversion of HOME ALONE, and has the courage of its convictions right up to its twisted punchline. The acidic tone set by an early exchange between parents Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen (“Are you sure you’ve never sucked another man’s cock?!”), this canny subversion of a typical babysitter-in-peril plot offers a queasy game of “Truth or Dare” before becoming more and more uncomfortable thereafter.
7: SPLIT (USA, Dir: M Night Shyamalan)
Writer-director Shyamalan enjoyed a deserved career resurgence with this bold, riveting spin on familiar horror-thriller scenarios (the abduction thriller and mind-fuck schizo shocker)- galvanised by James McAvoy’s show-stopping tour de force as a zoo worker with 24 personalities, the most hostile of which have become dominant. Beautifully crafted, shot and scored, with great attention to detail (check out the 24 duplicate credit rolls in the background of the end credits), and an unnerving emphasis on the threat of violence. There’s also a great role for veteran CARRIE actress Betty Buckley as McAvoy’s loyal psychiatrist – and a marvellously dark climax (“The broken are the more evolved”) that transforms the whole movie into a companion piece to Shyamalan’s best movie, UNBREAKABLE.
6: FREEHOLD (UK, Dir: Dominic Bridges)
“We are all scavengers…” A terrific 21st century, post-Brexit London horror movie, with a haunting performance by Javier Botet as a skeletal immigrant secretly living in the flat of a laddish estate agent who’s not averse to fucking clients over for commission. A mordantly witty reflection of racist Britain, taking typical immigrant-baiting paranoia literally to gross-out effect – but also a neat subversion of a familiar thriller scenario: the considerable tension stems from us wanting Botet’s presence to not be exposed, rather than fearing the nominal “hero” is under threat. Mim Shaikh, as the wide-boy protagonist, is superb and his straight-to-camera spoken word piece during the credits is a unique, powerful grace note on which to end the best British horror film of 2017.
5: MOTHER! (USA, Dir: Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky’s Polanski-inspired account of the psychological unravelling of repressed, paranoid trophy wife Jennifer Lawrence transitions into a black comedy houseguests-from-Hell satire of consumption and consumerism. Or is it a heavily symbolic eco-horror film? Or a genre parody, complete with jump scares and direct visual quotes from TENEBRAE? This divisive, astonishingly bold descent into the abyss has a staggering performance by Lawrence (around whom the entire film pivots) and delivers some of the most extreme, subversive moments in any 21st century Hollywood horror film. It opened a week after IT and was destined to fail commercially, but there’s no question about which one was destined for a fruitful afterlife.
4: RAW (France, Dir : Julia Ducournau)
Writer-director Ducournau’s feature debut, with a remarkable turn from Garance Marillier as the vegetarian teen whose coming of age at veterinary college awakens a cannibalistic family trait. The contentious subject matter is employed to tackle themes of sexual awakening, conformity, body image and animal rights, while the tone seamlessly waivers between extreme discomfort and gallows humour (“You taste like curry”). No po-faced arthouse horror, it’s a poignant, humane character study with a vivid physical and mental transformation conveyed by Marillier. It is fit to share shelf space with thematic horror predecessors like Pete Walker’s FRIGHTMARE and Romero’s MARTIN.
3: IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (USA, Dir: Colin Minahan)
An uncommonly witty and emotionally affecting zombie movie, with one of 2017’s many great horror roles for women: Brittany Allen is superb as the Vegas stripper forming an unlikely bond with a zombie nicknamed Smalls (Juan Riedinger), based on their mutual desperation and hunger. Punctuated by an amusing ongoing low-speed “chase”, this has inventive incidental gags and perfectly judges several extreme tonal shifts as Smalls is alternatively mocked, insulted, pitied…and yet remains a tangible threat. Reidinger offers the most subtly nuanced portrayal of a zombie since Howard Sherman’s Bub, while Allen’s three-dimensional heroine exudes both strength and vulnerability: the significance of the tin can she carries around is as poignant a dramatic beat as in any non-genre film last year.
2: HORROR MOVIE : A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE (Australia, Dir: Gar Doust)
An emotionally devastating, yet hilarious, insight into the world of low-budget filmmaking, this feature documentary follows the experiences of director Craig Anderson through the entire process of making the Australian slasher film RED CHRISTMAS. We get a painfully personal insight into Anderson’s life, he has lost his home and relationship, and is waiting for a circumcision operation that has meant no sex for five years: he yearns to make movies, but also just wants to ejaculate without crying. The excruciatingly raw portrait of Anderson’s struggle to shoot a horror movie for $82,000 over 16 days with an American star (Dee Wallace) who may or may not show up is full of ups and downs: we witness him at his lowest ebb but empathise the whole way. Most of all, we are reminded of just how monumental an achievement it is for anyone to get their movie made and released, and just how much blood, sweat and tears goes into the process. The scenes between Anderson and Gerard Odwyer, an actor with Down’s Syndrome (who resents the label), are among the funniest and most touching things on screen in 2017, and this is possibly the greatest film about the making of a horror film ever made.
1: PLAYGROUND (Poland, Dir: Bartosz M Kowalski)
Three Year 6 kids in contemporary Poland, about to start their summer break, are followed in an uncomfortably voyeuristic fashion for most of documentarian Kowalski’s fiction feature debut. Unease sets in almost immediately as we experience the banality of their everyday lives while gradually glimpsing the routine cruelty that also defines their existence. Shot entirely with handheld cameras and natural lighting, this is a truly terrifying study of ineffectual authority, bullying and the notion that children are as capable as anyone of committing acts of extreme violence. It culminates with an almost unwatchable nine-minute long-shot recreating the most notorious crime in modern British history – but nothing about the film is exploitative. It is brilliantly acted and fearless in its portrayal of a truth most would rather not confront. No attempt is made to explain or comprehend the events that we see unfolding, and we’re left with the unhappy knowledge that there’s nothing we can do to prevent this from happening again. Few horror films in recent years have been so disturbingly authentic: if we judge the “best” horror film of the year based on how much it haunts and scars, there was no other contender last year.
SCRAPING THE BARREL
This feature has been all about celebrating the best of what was a very good year indeed for the horror genre. Therefore, we shall not dwell too much on the inevitable shite that clogged the DVD shelves, On-Demand menus and cinema screens of 2017. That said, here’s a few that were particularly tough to endure:
THE BYE BYE MAN: An attempt to create a new screen monster – played by a sadly wasted Doug Jones), this drowned in clichés (Google search for the backstory / “Let’s have a séance!”) and humiliated both Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Ann Moss, as a cop who has to say the line “This is not some creepy kid pulling a Columbine!”
CRAZY LAKE: One of many awful low budget slasher movies in 2017, this one borrows heavily from 20-year-old pastiche SCREAM and has such an emphasis on slo-mo party sequences of its skimpily clad, perfect-bodied teens that it feels like a propaganda reel for some latter-day alt-right Master Race.
CUTE LITTLE BUGGERS: Almost two hours long, this Oxfordshire-set laugh-chasm was the latest low point for Hammer legend Caroline Munro, though at least her tiny cameo is divorced from the rest of the odious action, which drowns in home computer CGI alien-controlled rabbits, fake tits, piss-pistols and D.O.A. “jokes” about chained-up topless women being violated. “Obnoxious” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
A genuinely offensive SAW rip-off with a particularly shite vocal performance from Dave Mustaine, casual misogyny and a particularly ill-judged prologue featuring an ISIS-like beheading cult.
THE MUMMY: Universal Pictures created a “Dark Universe” resurrecting the famous monsters of their golden age – but no one really gave a toss thanks to this committee-made, joyless star-vehicle for Tom Cruise, whose arrogant “hero” and oddly creepy nude morgue scene are just two of the problems. Reviving only memories of Hollywood’s terrible adaptation of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, this expensive stiff is further doomed by forced attempts at humour and Russell Crowe’s Cockney panto version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.
JACK HUNTER’S PARANOIA TAPES: A series of lame You Tube / Facebook amateur “horror” videos awkwardly spliced together as a “film”, this multi-media variation on retro grot like TRACES OF DEATH pretty much summed up everything that was wrong about found footage horror in 2017. The equivalent of a feature length series of selfies taken by people whom you wish would just kill themselves, this would be awful even without its shameful exploitation of the Columbine tragedy.
PAZUCUS: ISALND OF VOMIT AND DESPAIR: The most shrill and unendurable movie of the year that also gave us CUTE LITTLE BUGGERSS. A headache-inducing shambles that lives down to its title and sprays the screen with puke and piss, incorporates a character named the Goddess of Faeces and strains so desperately to be an “outrageous” insta-cult movie in the Troma bracket.
PERSONAL SHOPPER: …in which a miserable, emaciated Kristen Stewart rides her moped through Paris, tries on new clothes, masturbates and spends a lot of time looking at her Smart Phone. There’s a ghost too, but you could save some time and have more fun by simply buying yourself some new clothes and masturbating over images of mopeds on your own Smart Phone.
RINGS: The RING franchise was dead long ago, but there’s always someone in Hollywood willing to kick a rotting corpse if it means there’s a few bucks to be made. A painfully plodding further dilution of a once potent figure of terror, it’s among the blandest major studio horror films of the last few years, reaching a low point with the strangely pitiful sight of Samara awkwardly emerging from a tipped-over flat screen TV and an android phone. That’s progress, folks.
Article by Steven West