2018: YEAR IN REVIEW
“The Shape of Water” (Directed by Guillermo del Toro) This only really counts as a 2018 film in the UK, as it was actually released on Valentine’s Day over here but months earlier everywhere else. However it was an appropriate date for this wonderful genre-mashing movie. It’s a pure delight from beginning to end, with incredible performances from Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, and Michael Shannon. It perhaps represents the culmination of del Toro’s work so far, seamlessly fusing horror, monsters, romance, and social commentary… and even a surreal excursion into musicals. The deaf Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) falls for the Amphibious Man (Jones) and must save him from the clutches of the evil military and predictable Government short-sightedness.
It’s basically an unashamed update of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, but mixed with mature themes and empathy. During the perfectly judged and sometimes nail-biting sequences, del Toro provides an ode of love to all the outsiders in society. If you’re marked by physical, sexual, racial differences, then you’re still not as “monstrous” as the “normal” folk in this periodic fable. Deservedly bagging an Oscar for the director (and a nomination for Hawkins), you really owe it to yourself to see it, if you haven’t already done so.
“Annihilation” (Directed by Alex Garland) Sadly bypassing a big screen release in the UK (where it would have looked awesome), this sci-fi horror went immediately to Netflix in many areas, but was a definite cut above most straight-to-streaming productions. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, it contains many of the mind-bending and existential touches that you would expect from the maker of “Ex Machina”. It also has some phenomenal performances from the talented female-centric cast including Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Ostensibly it follows the journey of Lena (Portman) as she travels into a slowly expanding electromagnetic field (“The Shimmer”) with an entourage of scientists. Of course the story is so much more than that, and explores themes of “self” and humanity. But it also works as a straightforward horror/thriller, with one of the best “creature” scenes that you’ll see this year. The sequence where Portman and Co. are menaced by a “bear”, which is mutated and emits human screams, is a real chilling stunner. The maturity with which Garland adapts the source material is also worthy of high praise, with numerous clues and Easter eggs pointing to a challenging denouement. It’s the unexpectedly classiest piece of sci-fi horror from this year.
“A Quiet Place” (Directed by John Krasinski) This finely tuned apocalyptic horror was the surprise sleeper hit of the year, becoming the highest earning genre movie in the US and taking over $340m worldwide. You wouldn’t expect the star of “The Office” and his wife to be so savvy with scare tactics and effective horror, but that’s what happened here. The plot takes the genius theme of a family unit adapting to a world of silence, and milks that sucker for all that its worth. Whilst the premise takes inspiration from a number of classics like “Alien” and “Predator”, Krasinski shows incredible flair for directing the narrative with a remarkable freshness and vigour.
Taking place sometime in the near future, humanity and most animals have been decimated by blind monsters that are indestructible and hunt by sound. Lee and Evelyn Abbott (Krasinski and real-life spouse Emily Blunt) must live in silence, lest they attract the beasts. This makes for a string of meticulously crafted sequences, which had audiences chewing their fingernails down to the knuckles, and finally stopped needless talking from half-wits during screenings! From the heart-breaking opening, to the nerve-shredding birthing scene, and the perfect ending… it just works on so many levels. And it even proves that PG-13 horror can still be scary if done right. It will be interesting to see where the planned sequel goes in 2020.
“The Dark” (Directed by Justin P. Lange) This was a wonderfully sensitive and hugely underrated chiller, which was successfully showcased at several major film festivals. It uses several horror tropes (mostly that of the ravenous undead) to explore the themes of abuse and brutality which are foisted upon the young. The feature-length debut from Lange, it’s based on the short film that he made in 2013. It features an absolute standout performance from Nadia Alexander (“The Sinner”), who shines as the conflicted main character. Despite the generic title (there’s a 2005 Sean Bean movie with the same name for a start) and slightly misleading marketing, this is a sensitive genre story that deserves a wider audience.
Mina (Alexander) is an undead teenage girl doomed to haunt some remote woods, until she encounters the blinded kidnap victim Alex (Toby Nichols) and her “life” is gradually changed, whilst plenty of blood is unavoidably spilt. This could have been a morose and depressing sojourn into horror, but it’s actually an intelligent and thoroughly engaging study into the dark-side. Mina doesn’t hold back from violence or blood-spilling, but she is far from the biggest “monster” in the narrative, with the plot exploring the cyclical nature of abuse. There’s also a refreshingly ambiguous origin for Mina’s zombified status, and a wonderfully sentimental and hopeful ending. Try to catch it if you can.
“Halloween” (Directed by David Gordon Green) Who would have thought that the maker of the 2008 stoner comedy “Pineapple Express” would one day go on to helm a pitch-perfect sequel to John Carpenters’ seminal slasher classic? And yet that’s exactly what happened here, and this belated follow-up satisfied fans of the enduring franchise, as well as those new to “The Shape” of slaughter. The 2nd biggest grossing genre film in the US (after “A Quiet Place”), the film worked so well because Green (and co-writer Danny McBride) honoured the characters and tone of the original, but reinvigorated the material and Bogeyman for a new audience. Whilst the plentiful sequels have their fans (“H20” especially), this direct continuation has much to admire, not least of which is the formidable presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, who reprises her iconic role of “Final Girl” Laurie Strode.
Forty years after the “Haddonfield Massacre”, Laurie lives with constant PTSD and exists as a paranoid survivalist. This might have estranged her from her family, but its excellent preparation for dealing with Michael Myers, when he busts out of the asylum he was incarcerated in. Curtis is excellent of course, but so are Judy Greer and Andi Matichak as her daughter and granddaughter. There are wonderful riffs on the original (Curtis stalking her granddaughter), Carpenter reprises his music, and the narrative reinvents Myers as a violent force of nature, rather than a vindictive sibling or supernatural entity. The climax is a little underwhelming, but apart from that genre fans couldn’t ask for more in a superlative update for the white-faced maniac.