BEST GENRE FILMS OF 2017
(Directed by Jordan Peele)
Hands-down one of the best critically reviewed films of the year, and one of the most highly regarded. Not to mention one of the most profitable movies, that kicked off another superlative year of genre for Blumhouse productions. It was rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for a while, and the only person who seemingly had a bad word to say about it was Samuel L. Jackson (who whinged about another Brit actor in the lead role of a US film). The directorial debut of comedian Peele, so it was a surprise to find “Get Out” was such a confident and well-crafted horror film.
Although sometimes oddly described as a comedy/horror (it has some gallows humour and some funny moments but not overtly so), it’s the disconcerting tale of an unassuming African American (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriend's parents for a weekend in their secluded estate in the woods. It all goes horribly menacing pretty quickly though for some really disturbing and unsettling scenes. The plot channels films like “The Stepford Wives” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, along with more contemporary themes. There are great performances from Kaluuya, Allison Williams, and Catherine Keener, along with some blood and violence. What really sticks though are some of overall ideas and visual horror. After watching the film, you won’t be able to hear the term “The Sunken Place” without suppressing a shudder. And never has a teaspoon been so scary. We look forward to seeing more horror tales from Peele, who is currently in the process of rebooting “The Twilight Zone”.
(Directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
After years in the cinematic wilderness and critical/financial failures like “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender”, one-time genre director Shyamalan clawed his way back into people’s good graces with “The Visit”. Happily though he really knocked it out of the park and became “exceptional” once again with this (*slight spoiler*) unexpected sequel to “Unbreakable”. With a chilling (if wholly unrealistic) central concept, it enabled James McAvoy to give a barnstorming performance and incorporated one of the coolest young actresses of the moment to confront him.
When three girls are kidnapped by Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, they have to try to escape before his most homicidal persona emerges. From that simple framework, Shyamalan films some superb set-pieces with his leading man shifting from a kid’s personality to that of a severe woman. Anya Taylor-Joy becomes a strong adversary to his madness and it all gets surprisingly dark at times, with moments of real dread. The medical and abuse themes are sometimes questionable, but overall this is a simply mesmerising return to form for Shyamalan and arguably his best work since the aforementioned “Unbreakable”. In many ways, this is a twisted comic-book movie based around the emergence of super-villain. The fact that Crumb exists in the same universe as David Dunn (Bruce Willis), and that they will meet in the upcoming “Glass”, is just the icing on the cake.
Happy Death Day
(Directed by Christopher Landon)
Who would have thought that a relatively bloodless PG-13 horror film, with a seemingly rip-offed concept, would turn out to be one of the most effortlessly enjoyable films of 2017! And yet that’s what happened here. The whole plot can be boiled down to: “Groundhog Day” meets “Scream”. But it’s the execution (pun nearly intended) and the central performance that makes this so much damned fun. Winningly directed by Landon (“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”), it never tries to be anything more than a fun genre ride and quietly became another hugely profitable hit for Blumhouse.
As a snarky college student is killed by a masked psycho, she unexpectedly relives the same day over and over again, giving her multiple opportunities to discover the identity of her murderer. If it’s not an original storyline, it’s certainly an entertaining one for genre fans and plays out much better than you would expect. This is mostly due to the perfect casting of actress Jessica Rothe, who gives a tremendously endearing turn as the time-looping Tree Gelbman. A flawed character to begin with (she’s having an affair with her married teacher for a start), just like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”, she evolves into a likeable character who’s easy to cheer on as she gets killed in various imaginative ways. Brilliantly watchable and returns your faith in good PG-13 horror movies.
(Directed by Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, & David Whelan)
Massively underrated and overlooked, this superb horror mockumentary nails the dread-laden aftermath of a well-worn genre concept. Also co-written by the directors, “Savageland” is possibly one of the best examples of this type of film since the much-admired “Lake Mungo”. In fact if it was shown back-to-back with something like “Making a Murderer”, you’d be hard-pressed to recognise it as a work of fiction, despite the phantasmagorical concept. With no “named” actors and going straight to streaming and home media, it still deserves more recognition than it’s had so far.
Via interviews and location reports, it tells the story of a small town near the Arizona-Mexico border whose population is wiped out overnight. An illegal immigrant is made the unlikely scapegoat, but the truth seems to be much worse. The whole story is chillingly laid out in meticulous fashion, with all the cast giving truly believable performances and edges to the story. And then there is the use of the extremely unsettling still photographs that further explain the details. Damn, they’re creepy! And used in an atypical fashion that is greatly effective. The plot also incorporates some themes of racism and bigotry, with even the title accounting for a sneering slur. It’s a really good example of a how to construct a great horror mockumentary and is definitely worth hunting down.
War for the Planet of the Apes
(Directed by Matt Reeves)
After the “Dawn” and the “Rise”, there was no way that this wasn’t going to be good. And so it was. Perhaps it doesn’t have quite the scope and spectacle of the two previous films in this rebooted trilogy, but it’s still a hugely emotional and affecting closure to the epic tale of ape-leader Caesar. Ace performer Andy Serkis (as Caesar) continues to drive home just how mo-cap and CG effects can be used to produce genuinely believable and relatable characters, and provide an extra layer to storytelling. All credit to Reeves who confidently pushes the sci-fi drama towards its inevitable conclusion.
Years after the events of “Rise”, the ape empire is dealt a cruel and horrific blow by a group of remaining humans (led by the Kurtz-like Woody Harrelson). This leads Caesar to make some species-affecting decisions on a personal vendetta. Serkis gives a phenomenal performance as the ape, and all of the CG monkeys are as astoundingly realistic as per usual. The film cleverly adds some references to the original movies (the mute Nova) and finds ingenious ways to lay the foundations for the expected future of the planet. A really good bow for this wonderful reinvigoration of the franchise (NB: Can you imagine if they did a sequel to the Tim Burton one? Yeesh!), and it’ll be a shame if this is the last we see of the “Apes” films.
(Directed by David F. Sandberg)
It’s always a pleasant surprise when the sequel to an underwhelming film turns out to be pretty damned good. The secret is to get a good horror director with a previous hit film, and give them some creative control over the material. It worked with “Ouija: Origin of Evil”, and it works here. The original “Annabelle” was an okay-ish attempt to create a standalone story around the possessed doll in “The Conjuring”, but this follow-up goes much further back into the doll’s history and provides a superior prequel.
After the death of their young daughter, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a group of orphaned girls into their remote home, which leads them to become the target of the apparently demonic doll. There’s nothing really terribly original here, and there are plenty of familiar genre tropes… but it’s done so stylishly and confidently by Sandberg that it doesn’t matter. The “Lights Out” director makes good use of atmosphere and colour to provide an eye-catching and ominous horror. He’s greatly aided by the terrific young actresses Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson, who give very mature and controlled performances. The film also succeeds in being a genuine prequel to the growing Conjure-verse, and even teases some details for the upcoming “The Nun”. Surprisingly satisfying stuff.
(Directed by Alice Lowe)
A few good Indie Brit horrors appeared during the year, but the best was this unconventional “slasher” from English comedic actress Lowe, who previously serial-murdered as one of Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers”. Written, directed, and starring in the film, the mind boggles with the fact that she was 7-8 months pregnant whilst filming it… although it did negate the need for prosthetics for her character. It’s an eclectic mix of laugh-out loud funny moments and surreal visuals, along with queasy violence and gore. It pretty much refuses to be simply categorised, but is supremely enjoyable as a piece of subversive genre entertainment that works on several levels.
Taking a twist on the “demonic baby” sub-genre, recently widowed Ruth (Lowe) is heavily pregnant and is seemingly driven by her unborn baby to kill those responsible for her partner’s death. The tone drifts from comedy, to horror, to trippy character studies, but Lowe is excellent throughout. The cast includes “Game of Throne” actresses and talented UK comedians, but will surprise genre fans whatever they’re expecting. Hopefully we’ll see similarly adventurous British horrors in the coming year.
(Directed by Andrés Muschietti)
Had to be mentioned really, and deservedly so. The (allegedly) biggest grossing horror since “The Exorcist”, this new version of the quintessential Stephen King novel rode the current zeitgeist for 80’s nostalgia, thanks to “Stranger Things”. It also satisfied a very real need for recognisably scary monsters, away from all the deceit and subterfuge of real-life, whilst still touching naturally on themes of abuse and sexism. It also has a great scary clown. It just hit a nerve with the general audience who craved more good horror after the success of “Get Out”. Cannily directed by Muschietti the sequel is being predictably rushed forwards.
When a child-killing shape-shifting monster returns to a US town in the 80’s, a gang of bullied kids combine to fight the creature as it takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Superbly personified by Bill Skarsgård, Pennywise is the breakout horror character, which stands proudly alongside Tim Curry’s 90’s version. The young cast are also quite brilliant in their roles. It’s worth mentioning the fact that the film only adapts one half of King’s novel, with most of the metaphysical and more outrageous mythology removed. It makes for a more conventional and straightforward story that connects with everyone. The follow-up is likely to branch out and expand all those elements… and we can’t wait.