By Daniel Reif
10 months in, 2016 is all but etched as an inferior year for the current decade of film content. Ask the superhero department at Warner Bros. Ask Sundance. Ask Tim Burton (ok, you’ve already asked him before, fair enough). Ask the summer box office. Ask anyone who hits the theatre on a regular basis. Cinema, and its many go-to gobbled industries- encompassing the typical slips of indie dramedy quirk, commercially-adapted novelized pulp, and blockbuster bash, but in oddly held hands with the usual successes of big-time biopics and major festival favorites- have abundantly unimpressed upon distribution this year.
Ask not of horror. Save alongside an unforgettable sling of riveting non-fiction for the documentary fan (an upcoming post for sure), 2016 is exceptional in piercing chills.
Halloween season is long over and we were handed a welcome send-out with Mike Flanagan’s prequel creeper, Ouija: Origin of Evil. The movie isn’t quite heavy hitting enough to sit on this small list today, but it does ring in a richly terrifying year.
In my first post for Poop Culture, here are my top 5 horror selects of 2016.
5. DON’T BREATHE
The first shot of a movie can never be understated. The storyteller has a responsibility to own our attention upon the first roll of footage. First impressions are delicate in real life and only more immediate in the dark, quiet space of a theater. The first shot is special, because as the story which follows, it exclaims what your world is and why we should engage in it. Special, because unlike the story which follows, there is no context to explain the world. And so we ask ourselves: how can a movie say everything and nothing, and do it in gripping fashion? Ask the thrillingly contained, cooly inventive, Don’t Breathe!
First second into Fede Alvarez’s flick, we are held in an extreme bird’s eye view. A vast valley covers the frame. You can feel wings at a beautiful height with a sense of place only a film can deliver. We are at a pinnacle of a feeling of freedom…but lower we go. Less land covers. A suburban neighborhood peaks as an arrival point. Trees begin to pop and a vacant street surrounded by homes becomes clear. Closer and closer, we finally reach a path of red. Closer, two people. Closer, an aged, unnamed man in baggy wear (to be Stephen Lang) dragging a young woman in broad daylight. The path is blood. The houses are not occupied. We are not free.
Three young petty thieves are questionably moral and unquestionably broke. “Rocky,” “Alex”, and “Money” (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto), are products of outer Detroit poor-class grim. Trailer parks hold their residence and bountiful break-ins allow their survival. As quick as they want to complete their hits, Rocky and Alex wish to escape their lives altogether. Rocky’s dream becomes in reach when puffy-coated ring-leader, Money, receives an inside tip on the 100k stash of a feared, Desert Storm vet shut-in (Lang). Regardless of myth, it’s wrong enough to invade a human’s home to rob or otherwise, but Alex, the cautionary character, immediately holds reservations for this mission’s kicker: the mysterious old fellow is blind.
Horror classically kicks off with a big mistake. Rocky, Alex, and Money choose a bad house. A house well-armed. A house well-locked (especially from the inside). A house occupied by not just a blind recluse, but by a danger never foreseen, with a darkened vision honed all so terrifying, and a past to make you yelp.
Director and co-writer, Fede Alvarez (and producer Sam Raimi), wins our money with Don’t Breathe. The movie simply does it: that first great shot followed by the breathtaking detour. The calculating, claustrophobic thriller is available now on digital and hard copy.
Directed by Fede Alvarez – Screen Gems/Stage 6 – US – 88 mins.
4. THE WAILING
Social commentary doesn’t often ring in someone’s conscious when thinking of horror films. The strict limitations seem exclusive from layered ideology. The goal- to haunt from craft- seems unavailable to cultural reflection; mainly because many of the genre’s releases assume, and then self-perpetuates, the least demanding viewers. This then perpetuates a single-mindedness for the goal of profit, prohibiting the pop-culture of Halloween fright flicks from ambitions of thought.
Luckily, this prohibition is not definitive, and masterpieces such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Rosemary’s Baby, Nosferatu (Herzog), and Funny Games (1997 and the underrated ’07 remake) do. These works are few of many, including Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, who know their genre better than any. Cerebrally crafted horror punches our psyches into pulp. We become vulnerable to the narrow mind of “what’s next”. An irresponsible scare flick rides the cheap wave of audience engagement to “better” “what’s next”. But the clever filmmaker uses that vulnerability to reflect upon the divisions of culture and the ideas of our times. What we have learned from filmmakers like Herzog or Haneke, is when eyebrows are at lowest, we actually better consume provoking thoughts and themes.
Park Chan Woo’s Oldboy and Kim-ki Duk’s Pieta are premiere examples of the powerful psychodramas which have become elemental to the 21st Century explosion of South Korea exports. Na Hong-jin’s third feature joins the built and thematically radical thrillers of an artistically grime and exuberantly naturalist film industry.
Delightfully, American 80’s rural cheese is reminiscent in The Wailing- a traditionally quiet small town is suddenly haunted by an unknown spiritual force (sup Stranger Things). Tragic, disgusting, unimaginative local deaths, including one too close to home, puts the overweight and underperforming policeman, “Jong-goo” (Kwak Do-won) into action. His investigations bring him head forth to a new resident of the Goksung village, an elderly Japanese man with a grave presence who lives remote in the woods.
It will take over 2 and a half hours, but I strongly suggest you acquaint yourself with this familiar horror story, because it turns into a wild psychological nightmare of avant-garde cinema (bye Stranger Things).
Available on digital and hard-copy.
Directed by Na Hong-jin – 20th Century Fox Korea – South Korea (Korean) – 156 mins
When the last credit on your filmography is cowriter to the biggest box-office and critical success of your legendary father’s career, you’re bound to have expectations the size of a gorilla on your back on return to the director’s chair. Jonas Cuaron’s Desierto has a straining minimalism, but manages to be a chilling, timely, “Gravity in the desert” horror chase-thriller.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is at his finest as “Sam”- a sociopathic “J-D”-chugging, dog-hugging, American-soil-loving, border redneck and avid hunter. One day, he snipes a rabbit for hunt before a new target finds his scope. Like the deadly desert sun rays, sick glares of patriotism bounce off his eyes when he spots a group of illegal immigrants trekking the border valley. From his small cliff point, blood sinks in the viewer as, one-by-one, blood spills from a sprinting, horrified union of individuals.
Four more trekkers, including Gael Garcia Bernal, count their blessings and dread their souls as they watch from another cliff near, they immediately realize the goal of survival no long pertains to the desert alone.
Cuaron’s narrative takes shape as we begin the breathtaking real-time chase for life. Such as in the impending fatal dangers following Sandra Bullock ripped from her home base in the nightmare isolation of Gravity’s outer space, Desierto’s titular land cages you in for a heart-racing experience. Some story is left desired in this minimal piece. Nevertheless, the movie is a further companion to Alfonso Cuaron’s space race as a viewing only more realized by epic, beautiful backdrops (credit cinematographer, Damian Garcia).
Not to mention, horror may have a new notable serial killer in a man dressed hauntingly thin for a present tide of real-life fear mongers risen in a hotbed time for the land within our borders.
Directed by Jonas Cuaron – STX Entertainment – Mexico (English/Spanish) – 94 mins.
2. THE CONJURING 2
Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring are simply kings of 21st century horror. Emblematic of a filmmaker tightly honed in his ability to match the classic shakes of The Exorcist era with a mind to influence the genre storytellers of his time. James Wan continues his incredible career in the second round of his personal fandom for the Warren Files.
Engfield, London is the setting for an innocent girl’s demonic possession, powerful beyond the Indiana-Jones grit of Ed and Lorrain Warren.
If the previous entry sparked a heart-attack, you better check your pulse in a film only more unflinching, unnerving, dreadful.
Directed by James Wan – Warner Bros. – US – 134 mins.
1. THE WITCH (“A New England Folktale”)
By the end of 2016, I would have wrote of The Witch four times (outside my cheerful inaugural post here for Poop Culture).
Robert Egger’s pre-Salem, family paranoia masterpiece is a frontrunner for my year-end “Top Ten”, and true of the critic banner: “one of the best debuts in recent memory”.
Available on digital and hard-copy.
Directed by Robert Eggers – A24 – US/Canada – 93 mins
2016 now enters the curtain-calling prestige season. The busy house of narrative and non-fiction award champs have begun, and ghosts and goblins are gone from my grab. Sure, certain studios still have financial sights on horror entries like Incarnate (Aaron Eckhart), but certain studios have already fell short (Shut In). I do hope greater scares reach my screen… but I’m set. With a year of treats including The Invitation, The Shallows, the previously mentioned Oujia prequel, plus the 5 powerhouses above… what else do you or I need?