As always when I come to reflect on the year in horror, and for whatever reason, my first thought is -’ [insert year here] was a bit of a slow year’, and this year was no exception – that’s exactly what I thought about 2011. On any closer inspection at all, 2011 was a very good year for horror – it’s just that 2011 has seemed very long indeed, and a great deal has happened. The festival circuit (at least here in the UK, where I’m based) is healthier than ever, perhaps even a little too thriving, and sadly it’s almost inevitable that a few of the newbies are going to go to the wall just due to the fact that so many fests fall within a short period of time, namely the Halloween season – but it is brilliant to have so many to choose from in any case, and all of the folk involved with the newer small festivals are doing what they do for all the right reasons. I’ve reviewed more indie films than ever before for the unholy trinity of Brutal as Hell, Sex Gore Mutants and – my blog host site – Horror Extreme, and there’s been a proliferation of print media of varying quality as well, both new mags and those which have returned from the dead, like The Dark Side. We even now have an academic horror magazine in the UK – Diabolique – which I hope gets the recognition it deserves. Despite a bunch of idiots torching all their stock during the London riots, horror and sleaze enthusiasts like Arrow Video continue to issue lost classics and glorious revamps, and long may it continue.
Still, it’s not all good news for horror fans; the BBFC, perhaps as a way of re-establishing their authori-tay at the time of their centenary, have come in like hawks on a number of films such as The Human Centipede 2 and The Bunny Game, and grossly missed the point on each of these – that the first is choc-full of sly humour and the second is a blistering story of personal vindication, not a foray into sexual violence for its own sake. We have also had films which, at least to my mind, cynically seek to establish themselves in a crowded indie movie market by baiting the censors on their flashpoint issues, such as sexualised violence, just in order to garner the attention their product might not otherwise get. We’ve also had a glut of prequels, sequels and remakes which have been passable at best, and film studios seem to be getting more and more cautious about green lighting anything which seeks to be truly original because they’re worried about their profit margins. This is not healthy, not for horror and not for cinema at large.
So much for the overview. Let’s talk about the films, because there has been some truly excellent cinema this year – some of it spine-chilling, some of it sickening, some of it darkly humorous, and some all three in one go! Here, then, is my Obligatory Top 10 Films of 2011:
10) The Perfect Host
Warwick Wilson (played with relish by the excellent David Hyde Pierce) is the consummate good host; everything has to be just so. The wine has to be of a good vintage, the lighting and music perfection itself, the meal memorable. With all of this to plan, it’s hardly surprising that the arrival of fleeing burglar John Taylor at his des-res – when Taylor tricks his way in by pretending to be a friend of a woman whose name he sees on a postcard addressed to Wilson – has to potential to really derail his evening. Gradually, it dawns on Warwick that his unexpected guest is not who he thinks he is, but John is not as much in control as he thinks he is, either.
The whole film is a masterpiece of wit and pacing, with Hyde Pierce really getting his teeth into a meatier role than we’re used to seeing him play in the sitcom Frasier. He manages to be prim, proper and completely unhinged, while the savvy career criminal goes from sneering confidence to wide-eyed confusion. It was never easy to guess where the plot was going, either, and the balance between humour and edge-of-seat tension was impeccably done.
9) Cold Fish
Shion Sono’s warped urban tale of just how easily a humdrum life can be utterly derailed absolutely belongs in my top 10 this year: in Cold Fish, a family teetering on the edge of disfunctionality is given the push by a chance encounter with what at first seems to be a blessing. Do you want a quiet life? Then be very careful who you accept favours from, as devastatingly shown in the story of the placid, unassuming Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikoshi), a tropical fish salesman who lives with an unhappy younger wife, Taeko, and a petulant brat of a teenage daughter, Mitsuko. When Mitsuko is caught shoplifting one evening, the universe throws Shamoto a bone in the form of the gregarious, influential Mr. Murata, a rival tropical fish merchant, who smooth-talks the security guard into dropping the charges and even offers Mitsuko a live-in job at his store. Once Murata has a foothold in the lives of these unhappy people, however, his cheerful facade is dropped, and he sets about unpicking the fabric of the family’s lives in a series of grotesque ways. The mistreatment of a quiet man to the point of devastating his character is classic Shion Sono. You can check out my full review at Brutal as Hell :
8 ) Red, White & Blue
Let me tell you, it is fucking rare that a movie gets right under my skin and stays there, a sort of weight around my sense of wellbeing, but Red, White & Blue did just that. It pre-empts its jaded audience, an audience by now well used to seeing all sorts of depravity, and gives us one of the most ultimately jaded protagonists ever seen – Erica (Amanda Fuller), who cares about very little in life. She lives out of one room and amuses herself by fucking guys she doesn’t care about – including musician Franky (Marc Senter), and his friends too. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, they don’t matter. The friendly overtures of her neighbour, returned war veteran Nate (Noah Taylor) are mostly ignored too, but these people’s lives are on a tragic collision course and the way in which it plays out really did shock me. This is a gruelling slice of Americana from the talented British director Simon Rumley, and with a due sense of caution I recommend you see it. My full review can be found here:
7) The Village of Shadows
The Village of Shadows (Le Village des Ombres) was one of those films which came as a complete surprise; I hadn’t heard anything about it and I had no prior knowledge even of what type of horror it was before attending a screening at the Abertoir film festival in Wales. I was delighted to see that it was a move away from endurance style horrors – fine in moderation, but rapidly saturating the horror market – and a deliberate nod to supernatural horrors such as The Haunting, only with far more finesse than lazy, cheap ghost movies like the Paranormal Activity films. The Village of Shadows is very promising as a first feature, and crafts an interesting story with period elements, good performances and well-executed creepy moments.
In the movie, a group of friends are heading out for a short break at the village of Ruiflec, in rural France – but Ruiflec has a sinister past, which is steadily revealed during the course of the film. The young people who find themselves stranded there all have their own back stories, too, and these affect how and what the village seems to ask of them. It’s a well-wrought ghost story which was one of the surprise hits of the festival. Fingers crossed that The Village of Shadows reaches a wider audience, because it definitively deserves to be seen.
My full review of the movie is available to read over at Brutal as Hell:
When I heard talk of a German giallo homage, and saw the gloriously-lurid stills from director Andreas Marschall’s feature Masks, I was initially reserved about it. I’d made the mistake of getting very excited to see the previous year’s Amer, a film with undeniable aesthetic prowess but even less cogency than the films it was trying to emulate, and there’s only so much marvelling at the visuals you can do. A film is not a painting, and so you need to have more going on than that. Well, thankfully, Masks is that film. The influence of Argento (in particular Suspiria) may be evident, but this is not a basic retread through old ground. Masks has its own character and weaves its own warped, grisly tale out of familiar elements.
When aspiring actress Stella (Susen Ermich) gets offered the chance to join a mysterious method acting school on the outskirts of Berlin, she jumps at the chance; Stella is ambitious and motivated, and she is assured that she will be given the chance to shine. But the Matteusz Gdula Institute has a troubled past; suicide and disappearances dogged the school back in the 70s, and rumours are rife about just what the special methods involved mean for those who still want to try them out…
Not just pretty to look at, Masks carves something original and engaging out of familiar turf and builds up to a staggeringly good crescendo. Check out my complete review of the film over at Brutal as Hell:
5) Some Guy Who Kills People
2011 has been a bumper movie for horror-comedies and amongst the very best of these, and of all the films released this year, is Some Guy Who Kills People, a testament to what strong writing and a real sense of pathos can do for a film -not to mention the strengths of the right cast.
Ken Boyd has had a lot of shit in his life, including a stay at the local mental hospital but – now that he has been released – he is content to do nothing to rock the boat. He has an awful job and a worse boss, lives with his mother (the indomitable Karen Black) and only seems to enjoy his art. It almost seems like a burden to him when, out of the blue, his eleven year old daughter Amy turns up in his life, at around the same time that a woman takes an interest in him – but perhaps things are on the up for Ken. Just maybe…
…And then people start turning up dead. has Ken’s troubled past finally found an outlet, and what does this mean for the new people in his life?
Warm, funny and touching, Some Guy Who Kills People balances the comic with the sympathetic just about perfectly. Please check out my full review, oh – and, if you’re the dickhead who ripped a version of this film to a torrent site, I hope you die in a freak laptop accident because you utterly, utterly suck.
4) The Enemy (Neprijatelj)
After all the, in my humble opinion of course, Emperor’s New Clothes-style discussions of the powerful symbolism of A Serbian Film which we had in 2010, I cannot tell you how delighted I was to encounter a new Serbian film which outstrips its more notorious predecessor on every level. There is no real comparison between the two beyond that, though: The Enemy begins as the last Balkan War ends, with a group of Serb engineers in charge of removing landmines along their border. It’s isolated, painstaking work, exacerbated by the presence at their camp of a mysterious man, whom they found walled into a nearby factory. is all as it seems with this man? A group of Bosniaks they encounter seem genuinely afraid of him, and question why the hell they let him out. True enough, he seems to exploit the cracks in the relationships between his soldier-hosts, and seems to know a great deal about them…
Subtle, brooding and effective, The Enemy plays with theological ideas but never loses sight of the very human relationships at the core of the story. A host of believable, albeit ambiguous characters and the starkness of the location makes this one of the most memorable films I have seen in a long time. A complete review (complete with me quarreling with a commenter) can be found here:
3) Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren)
Altogether now – “TROOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLL!”
Another film on my list which isn’t strictly a horror film, but one of the most fun films I have seen in a long time, Troll Hunter marks the welcome arrival on-screen of Nordic mythology the way it was supposed to be. Here, the trolls aren’t benign entities who sit on top of pencils, they are huge, stupid and fearsome entities who would crush your skull without batting an eyelid. The Norwegian government know this, and this is why there is a top secret governmental body dedicated to stopping the brutes from getting too close to human settlements, and at the helm of this organisation is the world-weary huntsman, Hans, who allows a student film crew to follow him in his work after they spot him at several places where ‘bears’ have been responsible for mayhem. So, yes, there is a lot of handheld camera work here, but it isn’t obtrusively done, and it does allow for some brilliant, funny scenes throughout. There’s also some real love for Norway – for the mythology, but also the beautiful country itself, and Troll Hunter doubles up as a Norwegian tourism advert – well, providing you stay out of the way of the trolls. I really loved this film, and I am looking forward to revisiting it soon! Here’s my full review:
2) Harold’s Going Stiff
The ‘zombified state’ has been used and abused by countless filmmakers over the past few decades, often by first-time filmmakers who simply want to do a horror on the cheap and in these cases, it always shows and it usually sucks. However, there is hope for the zombie genre yet, because I never expected to see it used in such an original, heartwarming way as it is in Harold’s Going Stiff, where it is ageing and loneliness which are explored through the theme, and touchingly so. See, Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe) is an elderly man with more than just aches and pains to worry about. A new disease seems to have originated with him, and doctors are calling it Onset Rigours Disease – a painful condition which limits mobility, but in the other men it affects (for it affects only men) it triggers mindless, violent behaviour. So far Harold hasn’t been affected this way, but no one knows if it will. In the meantime, a nurse called Penny is sent to his aid, and the two form an unlikely, but wonderfully-realised friendship, as the condition affects more and more people around them. This is no full-blown zombie apocalpyse. This is Barnsley, South Yorkshire, and most of the rest of the world carries on as normal, but for Harold, his life cannot be the same again.
One of the stand-out films of 2011′s Dead by Dawn Festival, this film deserves to do brilliantly. My complete review is available at Brutal as Hell:
…and so we come to the best horror of the last year.
1) Stake Land
Here is a film which can never be done justice on paper; Stake Land sounds so familiar. In fact, and I know I’m not the first person to notice this but, for all intents and purposes, like the comedy Zombieland with one subtle difference, that the baddies here don’t eat brains, but drink blood instead. How different can two post-apocalyptic horrors be, with such similarities in plot? – very, very different, that’s what. This is an incredibly dark tale, where families have been ripped apart, names don’t matter anymore, and people use religion to justify their baser urges and power-hunger in ways which would surprise even us, with our perspective of the twenty-first century where this shit is just still refusing to go away. A teenage boy, Martin (Conor Paolo), who has just seen his parents and baby sibling killed by a bloodsucker (in a startling opening sequence) has no choice but to throw in his lot with a menacing and nameless drifter, Mister (Nick Damici) in order to save his own life. The two are heading North; in situations like this, people always need to believe that just over those hills, there is hope. Gradually, a bond forms between Martin and Mister, and they find themselves trying to help others they find along the way. And it’s not just the dead they have to worry about; an organisation called the Brotherhood are still men, but they’re corrupt and dangerous, for all their talk of God and redemption.
A film with no heroes and no neat answers, Stake Land shows that you can be original without reinventing the wheel – it’s all in how you combine and recombine your horror elements with the right atmosphere, tone and stand-out performances, all of which Stake Land does. This is hands down the best horror film I saw in 2011, and one which definitely merits a rewatch…
I had it in mind to finish this post with a ‘sin bin’ of some of the worst movies of the year but, do you know what? I’m done with them. They’ve had enough of my time already. I want to end this on a high note, and say instead that I am looking forward to what 2012 has to offer – and so that is exactly what I am going to do.
So long then, 2011, and let’s see what this year has to offer.