In retrospect 2013 was spectacular for horror, proving that the genre continues to progress in both the independent and studio worlds. We were treated to some instant classics that delivered conventional horror, while others explored new territory and challenged the concept of what it means to be a “horror” movie. I keep hearing people say, “film is dead,” and I cannot disagree more. Genre cinema has always thrived off of passionate filmmakers, and every film on my list bleed with passion and love from its creators.
Narrowing down a best-of-the-year list is a trite exercise, as is ordering them in some sort of countdown, but the ten films listed below left a mark on me in 2013. Each film stuck with me for one reason or another throughout the year, and I imagine they will stay with me for a long time to come.
I’m a sucker for anything related to Shakespeare. I have no idea how he did it, but Jonathan Levine (with the help of Isaac Marion’s novel) managed to mix zombies with Romeo and Juliet in a thoughtful and emotional horror comedy. While not everyone will bite the hook of the film, a love story between a human and a zombie, it’s oddly touching if you can suspend your disbelief. The film has Jonathan Levine written all over it, mixing serious social commentary with moments of delightful romance that you just don’t get these days unless you’re willing to spend your time on cookie-cutter romantic comedies or their more pretentious alternatives.
The only reason Gravity doesn’t find itself at number one on my list is because it’s not strictly a horror film. That said, Alfonso Cuarónand his incredible DoP Emmanuel Lubezki pack this movie with so much on-the-edge-of-your-seat dread that if offers more real fear than the majority of horror movies. It captures the absolute terror of that black abyss that is outer space by forcing us on a survival journey alongside Ryan Stone (Sanda Bullock). I sincerely believe that Gravity is the cinematic event of my lifetime.
Fede Alvarez makes his directorial debut with a remake of one of the most beloved horror franchises of all time with some of the most feverous fans out there. Suffice it to say, he had some big shoes to fill. Alvarez delivers a remake that that pays homage to the original, while boldly taking the series in a new direction. Horror fans often disparage remakes for either sticking too close to the source material, or for straying too far and I believe Alvarez found a perfect balance between the two.
Simon Killer is not a conventional horror movie, however, it maintains an incomprehensible sense of dread throughout that keeps you guessing at every turn. The film forces you to identify with a psychopath until you question everything you’ve seen, including your empathy for him. It’s no secret that the most effective way to scare an audience is to enable the use of imagination rather than showing everything exactly as it occurs, and Simon Killer executes this method to a tee. It’s an audaciously uncomfortable film, the likes of which Lars Von Trier would be proud.
With its modern Gothic aesthetic and bildungsroman-style narrative, Byzantium is one of the most memorable vampire films in recent years. Considering Moira Buffini penned the script, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the story favors drama and romance over horror. However, unlike some recent vampire stories that focus too much on love, Buffini harkens back to the essence of vampire lore, never letting us forget that these are tragic creatures. What is perhaps most impressive about Byzantium is how the style matches the content. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography captures the heartrending yet alluring spirit of the blood-sucking lifestyle.
You’re Next proves that the best way to make a good genre movie is simply to make a good movie. Home invasion films are tired, yet Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard breathe new life into the subgenre. You’re Next comes packed with all the tropes you expect, but also includes real characters with authentic motives. The final girl is a mainstay of horror and it’s a hard archetype to fool around with. However, Erin (Sharni Vinson) is one of the most memorable final girls since the 80s with her clear backstory that offers an explanation for her uncanny ability to kick ass. It’s also darkly funny, which I don’t think most viewers appreciate enough. With such a low budget, You’re Next is a testament to the skill of those involved, and I can’t wait for the next Wingard/Barrett film.
Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker is stunning, disturbing, and intensely sensual. The film’s structure and story owes much to Alfred Hitchcock, but where Chan-wook strays is his highly unusual mood. Stoker has an intimate atmosphere that oozes with sexual anxiety that is almost too much to bear.
The cinematography is masterful. I never stop a film and rewind on first viewing, but there were several shots throughout Stoker that I just had to rewind in order to experience their beauty a second time. Stoker is a visual masterpiece and an impressive first feature screenplay from Wentworth Miller.
Maniac functions not just as a visceral experience, but also as a brilliant commentary on the voyeuristic nature of slasher movies. Director Franck Khalfoun along with Alexander Aja take the 1980 original, which was banned by the BBFC, and turn it into something fresh that reflects on the video nasties from that era. It’s strange to others that horror fans like to watch people die on-screen, and Maniac puts it in perspective. It literally places you into the shoes of a killer who is both revolting and mysteriously sympathetic. Maniac is a remake that transcends the original film, which alone is a feat few are able to accomplish. And, my god, the score is brilliant.
A complete exploitation of our senses, A Field In England is unsettling and salient as Ben Wheatley refuses to confine to traditional cinema. While his previous films split audiences, this one will divide even the most hardcore cinephiles. Wheatley lets the film be what it wants to be without feeling the need to force it into a specific genre, and because of its oft abstractness, the film maintains a pervasive chilling mood. Taking into consideration his work over the past few years, Ben Wheatley is one of the most talented and original filmmakers working today.
Ghost stories are hard to tell. There is such a lengthy history of the subgenre that it’s tough to find fodder for new supernatural material without having a film ripe with bankrupt imagery. Enter James Wan’s horror valediction, The Conjuring. He employs the true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren whose investigations have acted as the basis for many horror flicks over the years. Wan pays homage to paranormal horror of the 70s and 80s by focusing on the story of a family plagued by a haunting in their new abode, and it is the fact that he creates such an empathic cast of characters that makes the film so horrifying. The scares are utterly relentless throughout, never letting go of the audience. If this is to be Wan’s true farewell to the genre, he’s said goodbye with a masterpiece.