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.
“Apostle” (Directed by Gareth Evans) A Netflix original film that proves their productions needn’t be a pile of “Bright”, and a period horror which seems to have been unfairly overlooked this year. Evans is best known for his superlative martial-arts epics “The Raid” and its sequel, but he also has roots in genre with a segment in “V/H/S 2” being a previous offering. This tale headlines the notable talents of Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen, and reproduces a welcome update of folksy genre, which is comparable to the dubious delights of “The Wicker Man”.
The troubled Thomas Richardson (Stevens) travels to the remote Welsh island of Erisden, where a mysterious cult is holding his sister hostage. Set in 1905, the story has an atypical atmosphere and a sterling lead in Stevens. It evokes a pleasing mixture of creepy ghoulishness (something desperately lapping at spilt blood beneath a wooden floor), outright gore (the horrible fate dealt to the skull of a transgressor), and the timeless theme of man trying to harness nature itself. Despite the familiar scenario it all feels remarkably original, and the true villain of the piece isn’t revealed until quite late in the proceedings. Highly recommended for streaming.
"The Black Gloves" (Directed by Lawrie Brewster)
In the bleak Scottish highlands, a troubled psychologist counsels his new patient, under the watchful eye of her sinister ballet teacher. He soon finds himself entangled in a ballet of paranoia, dark agendas and a maze of deadly twists and turns, as the legend of the Owlman becomes a terrifying reality.
Film making duo Lawrie Brewster and Sarah Daly have been producing some quality genre-bending content via their Hex Media Label – with The Owlman and An Unkindness of Ravens under their belts. However the third instalment in the Owl Man series, the gothic horror The Black Gloves, is their best yet. It's a subtly menacing and atmospheric chiller that feels like a bit of a throwback to a more classic era of cinema. Wonderfully acted with a surreal dream like quality, it's one that genre aficionados will adore.
"Overlord" (Directed by Julius Avery)
The immersive and intense opening sequence of 'Overlord' is a statement of intent from Director Julius Avery and it quickly establishes the tone and style of things to come. Claustrophobic, brutal, frenetic, dark and unforgiving. And although the rest of the film never quite reaches the heights of this opening five minutes, it has a bloody good go at it. Genre movies set during wars are not a particularly new concept either. And there is always the risk of it all coming off as bad taste or just plain ridiculous but 'Overlord' successfully navigates the territory of hardened war-time thriller and zany zombie horror. It's a tough combination to pull off but 'Overlord' deserves enormous credit for doing just that.
Overlord isn't a star-studded affair but the leads all offer up solid performances. Jovan Adepo (Fences) is great as the reluctant Boyce and Wyatt Russell proves that his range includes dark and brooding. Russell (Son of Kurt) is perhaps best known for his roles in comedies but here he shows that he can play the lead in an action flick. It's a carefully crafted, intense thrill-ride of a movie that successfully combines the best elements of zombie horror and war-time thriller.
“The Haunting of Hill House” (Directed by Mike Flanagan) Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name has already inspired the classic 1963 film “The Haunting” (and its lesser remake in 1999). But this fantastic re-imagining is something else entirely, and arguably the genre highlight of the year. This 10 part Netflix series reshapes the original supernatural investigation motif, into a tightly knitted character study of a dysfunctional family and the malignant building that defines them. Flanagan has already been rightly lauded for his work on projects like “Hush” and “Oculus”, not to mention “Gerald’s Game”, but he takes things to another level here.
Flashing between the present and 1992, it tells the story of the Crain family and their connections to the titular (very) haunted house. At the very least the episodes are compelling character studies and startlingly creepy spook sequences. At their very best some episodes are technical tour-de-forces (episode 6’s long continuous takes) and crap-your-pants scary (THAT jump-scare from episode 8). It also rewards repeat viewings with hidden ghosts and Easter eggs in nearly every frame, like some kind of twisted “Where’s Wally?” Add all that to some magnificent performances from the likes of Kate Siegel, Carla Gugino, and Timothy Hutton, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a great genre series.
“The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (Developed by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) Based on the recent more mature comic book rendering of “Sabrina – The Teenage Witch”, this new series was greeted with some trepidation and raised eyebrows from horror fans. But they needn’t have worried. This new Netflix series broomsticks itself well above the fondly remembered Melissa Joan Hart sitcom, and creates a pleasingly twisted variation on the Archie Universe. Created and written by a smorgasbord of talent (including Lee Toland Krieger, Rachel Talalay, and Axelle Carolyn), it mixes out-and-out horror tropes such as cannibalism and satanic worship, with universal coming-of-age themes and hugely likeable character actors.
Half-witch and half-human Sabrina Spellman (an excellent Kiernan Shipka) lives with her witch Aunts, but must decide whether to take a dark or light path towards adulthood, possibly sacrificing her relationships with mortals. The show adopts that nebulous time period that exists in “Riverdale”, but makes it all its own and doesn’t fail to embrace the nastier aspects of the narrative, as well as the more bittersweet ones. The show also owes a great deal to the marvellous casting choices. From Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto as the witchy aunts, to the ever watchable Michelle Gomez in another devilishly wicked role. The Christmas special was a little underwhelming, but the next part of Season One looks to be very promising indeed, going by the ch-ch-ch-erry bomb trailer
Most Disappointing Films
“Truth or Dare” (Directed by Jeff Wadlow) After nailing numerous hits with their genre franchises and original films, this felt like a misstep for Blumhouse studios. Like similar projects, it takes a young good-looking cast and mixes them with an intriguing concept. Starring Lucy Hale (“Pretty Little Liars”) and directed by Jeff Wadlow (“Cry Wolf” & “Kick Ass 2”), it seemed to be another low-budget PG-13 that could deliver the goods for a younger audience of genre fans. Except it didn’t…
After playing Truth or Dare in an apparently cursed location, Olivia Barron (Hale) and her friends are plagued by a trickster demon into continually playing the game with fatal consequences. The overriding problems here are twofold. To start with, the movie just isn’t scary in the least. The deaths are as lame as people falling off roofs or pool tables, and the signature visual gimmick of people grinning like the Joker on acid soon wears thin. Perhaps more unforgivably the narrative seems to be making up rules as it goes along, unlike the tight logistics of something like “Final Destination”. The rug is endlessly pulled from under the characters feet for purely dramatic purposes, and it feels like cheating. Despite a gleefully mean-spirited ending, in all honesty it’s a disappointment…
“Slaughterhouse Rulez” (Directed by Crispian Mills) With the promise of seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost acting together again, and the thought of seeing a home-grown horror mix class satire with gore, this could have been something special. The first film from Stolen Picture (a production company formed by Pegg and Frost), it was released on Halloween in the UK, but has yet to secure a date in the US. Directed by Mills (“A Fantastic Fear of Everything”), the plot sounded like a mixture of school drama “IF” and the underground monster shenanigans of “Tremors”. But sadly, all those elements don’t really live up to expectations…
Don Wallace (Finn Cole from “Peaky Blinders”) starts at the famous British boarding school “Slaughterhouse”, unaware that his arrival coincides with the release of mythical monsters, enabled by ill-advised fracking nearby. Unfortunately it’s very much a game of two-halves. The first part is dated comedy which mocks the private school and class system to an obvious extent. The second part is more successful with some well-designed monsters. But despite some fine scenery-chewing by Michael Sheen (as the Headmaster) and a fun cameo by a Hollywood A-Lister, it just doesn’t hang together. Frost and Pegg share little screen time together and it all feels a little under-developed and obvious. It departed UK screens pretty quickly and is unlikely to be remembered by many.
“The Cloverfield Paradox” (Directed by Julius Onah) Aargh! This should have been great, and we were kept on tenterhooks for years for it. After the brilliance of “Cloverfield” and “10 Cloverfield Lane” all eyes were on this project. Then it suddenly dropped onto Netflix within 24 hours after being advertised during the prime Superbowl ad break. It was a masterpiece of promotion for a film that was said to explain the weird shenanigans from those two previous movies. Including some fine character actors in the cast, such as Chris O’Dowd and Elizabeth Debicki, it came as a severe let-down when the first critical notices started to flow online.
In an unspecified future timeline, an energy crisis has forced a scientific community to experiment with forces that could endanger not just their universe, but other versions of it. Basically, the narrative explains away the logistics of the previous “Cloverfield” films, by utilising that old sci-fi chestnut of the Multiverse, and one incident causing fractures across alternate realties. The trouble is that it does it in such a bland and unexciting way that it feels a lazy and disappointing addition to the franchise. What should be terrifying often comes across as silly or amusing, and the “alternative universe” set-up isn’t exploited for its full potential. Even the late addition of a “Clovie” monster feels misguided. If fact it’s been such a mis-fire, the whole franchise has been at least temporarily derailed. At least “Overlord” turned out to be unconnected and a lot more entertaining…
“The Nun” (Directed by Julius Onah) Excitement had been building for this particular movie for quite a while, mainly prompted by a series of strong trailers that teased a rather gothic looking period horror. And with promising director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) at the helm, shooting from a script by the dude that wrote IT and Annabelle: Creation (Gary Dauberman), there was added reason to feel positive about the latest quiet, quiet, quiet, BANG! horror movie to hit theatres. Which made it even more disappointing to report that for the most part, it's a big dull dud.
The Nun's cardinal sin is that just isn't very scary. Poor dialogue and flimsy plot can be overlooked if a genre film gives you thrills and chills. But Corin Hardy's efforts to elicit tension and scares fall flat. It's all the more disappointing considering his previous feature 'The Hallow' was full of atmosphere and dread. However, in the hope of creating a thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride of horror, he relies on needless jump-scares (that don't really work) and repetitive sequences. What's that? A nun shape lurking in the background? Yep. I'll turn to look that way and when I turn back, is that same nun going to have moved right behind me in some perverse 'what's the time Mr Wolf' fashion? Yep.
The Nun is the weakest entry in the Conjureverse to date. Let's hope the impending sequel will salvage things.