Special Feature: The 2011 Midyear Horror Report!

Even at its onset, 2011 seemed like a real delicate time for horror. Is handheld horror still going to be the rage by the time Paranormal Activity 3 hits theatres? Has romance-heavy horror run its course? Will the French continue to impress us? Late last decade, “torture porn” – a phrase coined by New York Magazine’s David Edelstein – finally seemed to start dying out (it’s amazing Captivity didn’t single-handedly kill it off and it seems to have officially ended – for all intents and purposes – with Saw 3D) and now that remakes and reboots have taken over, along with the above mentioned trends, what’s going to be the next big thing? After the strong (and very profitable) theatrical run Insidious had earlier this year, it might be ghosts flicks, but even that’s starting to seem stale at this point. Like the last few years, foreign output and oddball indie surprises seem to be the only thing keeping the genre afloat, so thank God for Magnolia.

But it hasn’t been all bad. In fact, I could make a Top 10 list right now. So, let’s look back at the year so far, and examine some of the films and events that are shaping the future of the genre.

The year started with a whimper; actually, make that several. Season of the Witch, which was delayed again and again (despite being rumored to have an excellent script at one point), started 2011 off on a boring note, playing out like the most pointless video game escort mission of all time. The screenwriter seemed to have forgotten what the inner turmoil of the characters was halfway through the film, and Cage’s performance was one of his most uninspired in years (and that’s saying something). Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street went VOD the same day, splitting audiences down the middle. The Rite, based on the non-fiction book of the same name, would prove to be just as forgettable and boring as Witch, but without the unintentional laughs.

Sundance premiered a few notable films, the most notorious being Red State, whose media circus – orchestrated by director Kevin Smith – seemed to be the focal point of most reviews. After all the fuss about putting the film on an auction block after its premiere, Smith proceeded to buy his own film and charge fans $60 to see it during a road show instead of waiting until later in the year for a wide release. The Woman had some walk-outs and a particularly strong outcry by an audience member during its premiere over its vile attitude towards women, which is pretty funny considering Lucky McKee is one of the most feminist filmmakers out there. I Saw The Devil and TrollHunter, two incredible genre efforts that are technically 2010 flicks, played the festival to rave reviews and Silent House, an English-language remake of a 2010 Uruguayan thriller, marked the return of Open Water collaborators Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. The film was notable for being filmed in one continuous shot and giving Elizabeth Olsen her big screen debut (which seemed to be praised by most). And, of course, who can forget Hobo with a Shotgun, the feature-length adaptation of Jason Eisner’s Grindhouse faux-trailer, which B-D writer Ryan Daley and myself didn’t care for too much but was liked by many for its sadistic Troma approach.

Before the month was through, After Dark released the first entries in their annual Horrorfest. Prowl and Husk would prove to be of the same questionable (read: bad) quality the series is known for, but, as usual, one entry would turn out to stand head and shoulders above the rest (Seconds Apart).

Screen Gems vomited out their annual PG-13 drivel with The Roommate, which continued the poor theatrical output we’d had stateside thus far. It was front-loaded like all Screen Gem teen-geared thriller flicks are and all but disappeared from theatres after its second weekend. Lucky for us, Magnet released Black Death on VOD the same day. While I wasn’t blown away by the film overall, I appreciate the Witchfinder General and Wicker Man vibe it has going for it and I completely understand how the combination of faith, religion and revenge was a big draw for genre fans.

A week later, the revenge/fantasy/action/horror hybrid Drive Angry hit the big screen, promising pure insanity and tongue-in-cheek humor. Maybe it was the disrespect audiences feel for Cage or its exploitation approach (which, if taking Grindhouse and Machete into consideration, is something mainstream viewers are never going to be into), but audiences didn’t really connect with Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer’s follow-up to My Bloody Valentine – for the record, I had fun with both. Finally, Shelter, the long-delayed overseas import, was taken off the release block in the 11th hour, possibly because Dimension finally sat down and watched it. I watched an import after learning that directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein were offered Underworld: New Dawn and, for everyone wondering, I’m looking forward to the latest installment even less now (if that’s possible).

The 2011 Academy Awards at the end of the month was among the more bizarre telecasts in recent memory (was James Franco high the entire time?) and gave Natalie Portman the recognition she deserved for her role as Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

March actually had not one but two significant events, the first of which was the back-to-back releases of Red Riding Hood and Beastly. The two romantic horror tales were critical failures that didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. They were made on both ends of the spectrum (one was a big-budget studio film and the other was made by CBS Films), all but proving that the big reason people watch the Twlight films is because of their allegiance to the book series – Lord knows the same people aren’t turning out for this dreck. Although the trend won’t ever really go away, expect the output of these sorts of films to significantly decrease, even more so after both Breaking Dawn entries are released. That is, unless The Hunger Games sets the world on fire.

The second came out of SXSW, where Screen Gems picked up British import Attack The Block for stateside distribution. I was lucky enough to be at the first screening where it blew everyone away (and I mean everyone, I don’t know one person who walked out there not grinning ear to ear), and it has continued to get great word of mouth from fan-appreciation screenings. Even after my first viewing, I knew the pick-up was a bold move for Sony to make and the second screening I went to in Orlando proved that (people seemed to be kind of put off by it unless they watched a lot of BBC). Still, it’s a great film and the second best that I’ve seen this year. Other attention-grabbing films at the festival included Xavier Gans’ bleak take on human nature, The Divide, Ti West’s horror-comedy The Innkeepers, the folk-horror Kill List and Detention, which is one of the most bizarre, off-the-wall genre films I’ve ever seen.

Although it was released on April Fools’ Day, Insidious‘ box office receipts were no laughing matter. The self-proclaimed “most profitable film of the year” (cost-to-gross) took an old school approach to its haunted premise by forsaking gore for atmosphere, lending itself toward some genuinely chilling moments – and also some WTF stuff, like Lin Shaye donning a WWII gas mask for the séance scene. Insidious might not have been anything new or revolutionary, but it was a damn good time.

What’s even more amazing is that the original IP trumped the thunderous arrival of Scream 4. Set to be the beginning of a new trilogy, the film started to develop a stench after rumors of script problems and issues with Kevin Williamson began to rear their ugly head. Regardless of what actually went down, the incredibly lazy Scream 4 proved to be nothing more than your average front-loaded slasher flick that gave both fans of the original trilogy and newcomers nothing to sink their teeth into. If Scream 4 was supposed to be “an event”, it was a poorly attended one. At the end of its theatrical run, the sequel had yet to surpass its production budget with U.S. receipts. The only reason a follow-up would get green lit is because of foreign box office and even then, it still wasn’t a huge success.

Last but not least, Dylan Dog got released late in the month to entire theatres full of empty seats – in all seriousness, it wasn’t THAT bad – and Stake Land was the slow, kinda artsy flick we all expected from Glass Eye Pix.

The month started off pretty spectacular for B-D. Our first `Bloody-Disgusting Selects’ film, Rammbock, started its theatrical run in AMC locations around the country. Despite its very short running time, the German weaves a pretty fun tale about a group of survivors keeping their heads held high as they live through the apocalypse. Other announced films in the line-up include YellowBrickRoad, Cold Fish, Phase 7 and Atrocious.

The following weekend brought us Priest, Scott Charles Stewart’s 3D spectacle that proved as hollow an experience as Legion. Neither film was especially loved by audiences, but I found longing for the insanity of machine gun wielding angels in the manga adaptation. While probably not a very good script to begin with, I feel like there’s probably a great story about what happened in the editing room. Clocking in at barely 80 minutes with extremely limited screen time for Karl Urban, the film’s villain, makes me wonder if there’s a much longer director’s cut floating around out there…

The 2011 Cannes Film Festival played host to a ton of new horror flicks, including Evidence and The Skin I Live In. The big story of the fest had nothing to do with films though, but rather a filmmaker. Lars Von Trier, who premiered the intense Antichrist at the festival back in 2009, compared himself to Hitler during the press conference for his end of the world pic, Melancholia. While I probably should be swayed one way or the other by his comments, I’m pretty indifferent with them; I just want to see the damn movie.

Summer is usually the place that horror goes to die, so there’s only one event that really mattered this month, and that’s Super 8. Shrouded in secrecy pre-release, JJ Abrams sci-fi monster flick tapped into an era of Amblin that other Amblin films from the last ten or twenty years simply haven’t done. Featuring a great ragtag group of friends and prompting comparison to Close Encounters, E.T., The Goonies and War of the Worlds, the Steven Spielberg produced film became the second genre hit of the year – both films in question are also original, non-sequel/remake/reboots.

Quarantine 2: Terminal was quietly released a week later in a handful of theatres, and has gotten a pretty decent rep so far.

Finally, HBO’s True Blood penciled itself back onto our Sunday night schedules. If the first episode was any indication of what’s to come, then Alan Ball better have a few tricks up his sleeve. The time jump was actually pretty cool (and needed… the series has taken place over the course of, what, a week or two?), but Tara is back – in what will surely end up being yet another unneeded love story – and the line between faeries and goblins has been blurred beyond comprehension.

And, since I said I could make a Top 10 list off the top of my head, I’ll finish off this midyear review with just that.

10. Phase 7 (July 13; Bloody Disgusting Selects)

Phase 7

Phase 7‘s exploration of societal degradation in post-apocalyptic times isn’t anything new, but the combination of absurdist humor and claustrophobic tension under those circumstances certainly is. Federico Luppi gives a standout performance as Zanutto, the unhinged neighbor, and the violent payoff is definitely worth the wait. Although it’s not necessary to be well-versed in conspiracy theories to enjoy the film, it does make the story – based around the Red Scares of the 20th century and internationalism – way more interesting.

9. Seconds Apart (January 28; After Dark Films)

Seconds Apart

There’s usually one After Dark flick that stands out each year, and Seconds Apart was definitely the one in this year’s batch – and it could be my favorite one since Nacho Cerda’s The Abandoned. Part Dead Ringers and part The Other with a dash of De Palma thrown in for good measure, Seconds Apart successfully explores the power of perception while maintaining an eerie ambiance created by some unsettling imagery and a string-rich score by Lior Rosner.

8. Insidious (April 1; FilmDistrict)

Insidious

I really don’t like the Saw franchise and am indifferent with Dead Silence and Death Sentence, so I was shocked that I enjoyed Insidious as much as I did. Even if the sound design comes off a bit too strong (almost all of the jump scares are from music cues, it gets kind of ridiculous), it has an impressive atmosphere and the film leaves an impression because it’s just so damn creepy in spots.

7. Detention (None; Sony)

Detention

It comments on horror and pop culture in a way Scream 4 wished it did: with a time traveling bear.

6. TrollHunter (August 27; Magnet Releasing)

TrollHunter

Even though Attack The Block is higher up on my list, TrollHunter is my pick for funniest horror film of the year (so far anyway). When Hans is forced to do mountains of paperwork at a diner with the students, it reminded me of the sort of commentary on bureaucracy that Brazil is filled with and I started laughing uncontrollably. Sure, the troll fights are pretty cool, but the film wouldn’t be as memorable without the workplace humor.

5. Kill List (None; IFC Midnight)

Kill List

I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am for The Wicker Tree later this year, but Kill List definitely left my folksy, religious horror appetite satisfied in the meantime. Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to Down Terrace boasts incredibly intense performances by stars Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, and features a doozy of an ending that will unhinge even the most hardened of genre fans.

4. Super 8 (June 10; Paramount)

Super 8

Super 8 will bring waves of nostalgia crashing down over those who cherish Spielberg’s directorial and producing output of the 80′s. Even though it doesn’t quite follow through on the warm, fuzzy feelings it seems intent on delivering from the get-go, JJ Abrams’ coming-of-age tale is more about the journey than the destination, which is worthwhile. The snapshot of Americana 1979 feels as real as possible with the help of Michael Giacchino’s score and a fantastic cast.

3. The Divide (None; Anchor Bay)

The Divide

The Divide is a terrifying and bleak vision of the future whose performances and images will stick with you for days after you watch it. Xavier Gens’ direction and Laurent Barès cinematography create a moody, claustrophobic atmosphere that never feels stale despite its closed-quarters setting. The tone is vile and the characters devolve into sickening states of being, but the reality-based approach to Gens’ end of days is enough to make it the best apocalyptic tale this year.

2. Attack The Block (July 29; Sony Screen Gems)

Attack the Block

The transition of Attack The Block‘s anti-heroes into traditional heroes is well done, the humor is spot on and the creature design is creative and nifty, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of the backlash the film is going to get once it gets an official release later this month.

1. I Saw The Devil (March 4; Magnet Releasing)

I Saw the Devil

Kim Jee-Woon is one of the best directors of the last decade, creating noteworthy films like A Tale Of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad, The Weird, so it should come as no surprise that I Saw The Devil is an incredible serial killer opus that is without a single boring moment. Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik give compelling performances as two men consumed with revenge anger and the story is as thrilling as they come, but if there’s one thing that stuck out to me, it’s the mind-blowing (and sure to be iconic) in-car fight sequence.