For me, this has been a rather disappointing year for theatrically-released horror. While there were a number of solid films on offer, nothing particularly grabbed me or stood head and shoulders above the rest. It’s too bad, because with the expanded Best Picture category at the Oscars this year – from five to ten nominees – something truly special may just have pulled off the near-impossible (for the horror genre, anyway) and had a chance at the night’s biggest prize. Nevertheless, there were still some truly good (and in a couple of cases, near-great) horror films released last year that deserve a little awards-season love. Following, then, are my picks for the “Horror Oscars” (aka “Hoscars”) – who would be nominated in the four major categories, and who would win – that exist in the alternate reality I like to call my own brain. Just don’t cry because Trick `r Treat isn’t on the list – like the Oscars, the films must have been released in U.S. theaters in calendar year 2009 to qualify. Boo-ya!
Chris Pine (Carriers)
Pine was surprisingly likable in this year’s Star Trek reboot, his Everyman-as-action-star quality suggesting a young Harrison Ford. However, it was his layered performance in the overlooked Carriers (which he filmed several months prior to Star Trek) that showcased the actor’s ability to plumb darker psychological depths. His portrayal of an assured, do-whatever-it-takes survivalist slowly succumbing to his most base, self-centered impulses was the glue that held the (admittedly uneven) post-apocalyptic horror/thriller together.
Stephen McHattie (Pontypool)
McHattie, the grizzled Canadian character actor you just know you’ve seen before (an assumption borne out by one look at his extensive credits), was pitch-perfect in his performance as a shock-jock radio host in Pontypool, the minor-key virus-run-amok film that was ultimately too clever for its own good. Nevertheless, McHattie succeeds in anchoring the film, in a role he plays with a combination of cocky self-assurance and wild-eyed lunacy that’s a pleasure to watch.
Viggo Mortenson (The Road)
You can gripe that The Road wasn’t a horror movie (in my opinion, it qualifies), but no one can dispute the greatness of Viggo Mortenson’s lead performance in the film, based on Cormac McCarthy’s even more bleak Pulitzer prize-winning novel. As a dying man struggling to keep his young son alive in a desolate, funereal world recently obliterated by an unnamed global catastrophe, his performance is powerful and heart-wrenching. He simply doesn’t hit a false note in the entire movie.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road)
Full disclosure: Child actors kinda creep me out. I understand their existence represents a necessary evil in the film industry (just who else is supposed to play these parts, anyway?), but having been exposed to monstrous, star-fucking “stage mothers” both on television and in real life, I can tell you that behind the scenes it’s not very pretty. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny when one of these kids give a good performance, and Smit-McPhee’s is really, really good. It must be tough acting opposite a heavyweight like Viggo Mortenson, but Smit-McPhee managed to match him, scene for scene, and the resulting dynamic felt heartbreakingly real on screen. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with his lead role in the upcoming American adaptation of Let the Right One In.
Kang-ho Song (Thirst)
Korean actor Kang-ho Song gives a complex performance as a devout man inadvertently infused with the blood of a vampire, who must grapple with his carnal urges when he not only begins to desire human blood but develops a sexual attraction to the beautiful young wife (Ok-bin Kim) of a childhood friend. The chemistry between he and his co-star is almost electric, and Kang-ho does a terrific job of illuminating the tortured soul of the character he portrays.
Cameron Diaz (The Box)
I’ll admit, the bubbly blonde actress has been a near-insufferable presence in some of her other films, but her low-key portrayal of a suburban mother in Richard Kelly’s pretty good follow-up to the disastrous Southland Tales really hit home for me. Despite her sometimes less than authentic-sounding Southern accent, there’s a vulnerability in her performance that she’s really only hinted at before, and her previous tendency to be “showy” isn’t in evidence here. Rather, she manages to subtly bring out the contradictions of the character she plays while still maintaining audience sympathy.
Piper Perabo (Carriers)
I’ve always really liked Piper Perabo for some reason, regardless of the fact she got her start in Michael Bay suck-fest Coyote Ugly. Easy to dismiss as just another pretty face, in Carriers the actress shows off her chops in a naturalistic performance as a fundamentally sweet young woman caught in a crisis of conscience. Her abandonment scene is utterly disturbing, and within it lays the key to her successful performance – she doesn’t overplay the emotion when most actresses would have. That restraint makes the sight of her diminishing figure in the car’s rearview mirror all the more heartbreaking.
Vera Farmiga (Orphan)
Vera Farmiga is always good, and in Orphan she elevates what could have been a stock character into something better than it probably needed to be. What I like about her is that unlike other “serious” actresses she doesn’t discriminate against genre projects, and always brings her “A”-game no matter what role she’s playing. In Farmiga’s case her “A” game is about as good as it gets, and in this nifty entry into the “evil child” subgenre” she manages to deliver a deeply personal performance despite being saddled with a thinly-written character.
Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan)
I don’t know where the hell she came from; all I know is that Isabelle Fuhrman’s stunningly mature, perfectly calibrated performance is possibly the best of its kind since Patty McCormack played the murderous Rhoda Penmark in 1956’s The Bad Seed (and definitely the best of its kind since Kirsten Dunst’s child-sized bloodsucker in Interview with the Vampire). Her eyes reflect not precociousness but rather a sly intelligence that makes the twist at the end more believable than it would have been in the hands of a less gifted actress.
Ok-bin Kim (Thirst)
As the alternately cunning and merciless Tae-ju in Chan-wook Park’s Thirst, South Korean actress Ok-bin Kim gives a seductive performance that’s electrifying to watch. Her sex scenes with co-star Kang-ho Song sizzle with intensity, but what really impresses is how she transforms her character from a desperate, subservient woman to a full-blown femme fatale by picture’s end. It can’t be an easy job for such a young actress, but Kim makes her character’s transformation completely believable.
Richard Kelly (The Box)
It’s too bad no one saw Kelly’s latest, considering it was a vast improvement over his last project, the ambitious train wreck Southland Tales. The Box wasn’t a perfect film by any means, but it at least represented a step in the right direction, not only feeling more cohesive but bringing back some of the emotional weight of Donnie Darko. In addition to showing a sure hand with his actors (Cameron Diaz gives one of the best performances of her career) and creating a palpable mood of slowly-encircling doom, it doesn’t feel like a cheap attempt to “go mainstream” but rather stays true to the director’s unique style.Sam Raimi (Drag Me to Hell)
Turns out Raimi’s wild sense of fun actually wasn’t beaten out of him by shark-like studio executives during the Spider-Man years. Drag Me to Hell was clearly a labor of love, made by a director genre fans were starting to believe would never return to them. In my mind, Raimi really had two choices after the poorly-received (if you can call a movie that grossed nearly $900 million worldwide poorly received) Spider-Man 3 — either seek critical respectability by going the “prestige” route (a la Peter Jackson with The Lovely Bones) or return to his roots (a la Drag Me to Hell). I’m glad he chose the latter.
Ti West (The House of the Devil)
West’s distinctive style had been on display in his earlier movies (The Roost, Trigger Man), but it didn’t really reach full bloom until The House of the Devil. His love of the low-budget `80s aesthetic came through in every frame, and as a result it truly felt like a movie shot in the age of Atari and acid-washed jeans. At the same time, it didn’t come off as a cheap attempt to cash in on Reagan-era nostalgia; on the contrary, West presented moviegoers with an organic, intensely personal vision.
John Hillcoat (The Road)
Hillcoat’s bleak and brutal Australian Western The Proposition (scripted by musician Nick Cave) was a near-masterpiece, which made his hire as director of this Cormac McCarthy adaptation seem a logical choice. In addition to bringing out a couple of insanely good performances in his two leads (not to mention an assortment of actors in minor roles), with the aid of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe he created a completely believable vision of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. He gets kudos, too, for managing to cut to the heart of the story without over-sentimentalizing McCarthy’s spare prose.
Chan-wook Park (Thirst)
By now it would be foolish to expect a sub-par film from Park, one of the most visionary directors working today. In Thirst, his first feature-length foray into horror (he previously directed the “Cut” segment in Three…Extremes), he gives us a characteristically original take on the prolific vampire subgenre. Like all his films, what makes Thirst so winning is Park’s attention to the complexities of human existence, keeping the story grounded in the psychology of his characters. Not to mention, his poetic visual style (there is some truly gorgeous stuff here – nevermind the inexplicable shot near the end of CGI whales swimming in an ocean of blood) is as vibrant as it’s ever been.
Drag Me to Hell
Maybe it wasn’t the masterpiece we were hoping for, but Drag Me to Hell was nevertheless one of the most fun times to be had at the movies this year. After nearly a decade slogging through the three Spiderman films (yawn), Raimi went back to his roots and crafted this delicious horror/comedy, a genuinely entertaining yuk(yuck?)-fest filled with inspired gross-out gags and delirious, go-for-broke set pieces. One of the best compliments I can give the film is that by the end, I completely forgot it was PG-13.
The House of the Devil
The classically-paced slow build of Ti West’s homage to `70s and `80s Satanic-themed horror films may have been a slog for young folks more attuned to the quick edits and “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” theatrics of the Michael Bay school of filmmaking, but for old-school horror fans it was a real treat. Sure the abbreviated ending was a bit of a letdown after all the nifty buildup, but the buildup is where the success of the movie lies. And yes, that includes Donahue’s mid-film Risky Business-style dance to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another”. I remember being underwhelmed by Devil when I first saw it a few months ago, but it’s a testament to the movie’s success that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since.
Waah waah waah, go the backlash-fueled haters. Well guess what? I don’t care if you disliked the movie – a lot of people actually enjoyed it, and not just because we’re a bunch of bandwagon-jumpers. Yes, the slow-burn marketing campaign was clever, but the film itself was the real deal. I can honestly say that very few movies this year actually scared me, but Paranormal Activity succeeded in doing just that – despite my initial reservations about the film, I was squirming like a worm on a hook by the end of the first half hour. Not to say I’m proud of being so skillfully manipulated by a dude (Oren Peli) I doubt has any real directing chops and will likely go the way of the Blair Witch guys, but at least I’m man enough to admit it. Yes friends, part of being a man (in the adult world) is to admit that you’re not the Bravest, Most Bad-Ass Human Pillar of Granite Who Ever Lived. It’s called being self-deprecating, and it’s an attractive quality. Deal with it.
Yes, it’s a horror film. And also a poetic, thoughtful drama. And also one of the most hubris-depleting films you’re ever likely to see. Thank you, Cormac McCarthy. Thank you, John Hillcoat. The fact that we’re living on a volatile hunk of rock in the middle of an enormous, uncharted universe, and that I’m but a mere speck in the scheme of its existence, is now crystal-clear to me. I also really liked your film – it was beautiful, and terrifying, and it made me fear for the world. More people should have seen it.
Thirst is a horror film, a character study, a meditation on the nature of faith and morality – it’s all of these things, and it’s more. Just when you thought there was nothing left to say with the vampire film, Park found a way. The dude’s a genius, and Thirst is a work of art. It’s not a perfect movie, of course (seriously, what was up with those CGI whales?). It’s a little too long, and a little masturbatory. But Park is a director who thrives on over-indulgence, and that’s one of the things that makes him so special as a filmmaker.
Best Ensemble Performance by Stunningly Realistic Approximations of Actual Human Beings: The cast of Twilight: New Moon
Best Film Starring Virginia Madsen’s Botox Injections: The Haunting in Connecticut
The Kevin Williamson Award for Special Achievement in Superficially Clever Teen Dialogue: Diablo Cody, Jennifer’s Body
Most Heinous Use of CGI: The “Morwen” in Outlander
Special Achievement in Over-utilized Flashback Sequences: Kevin Greutert, Saw VI
Best Performance by a Physical Attribute: Michael Sheen’s chest hair in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
The Paula Abdul Award for Special Achievement in “Ugly Cry”: Scout Taylor-Compton, Halloween II
Best Anti-Drug Movie: Donkey Punch
Best Theatrically-Released CW T.V. Pilot: The Uninvited
Special Achievement in the Wholesale Raping and Pillaging of a Genre Classic: Michael Bay, Friday the 13th