Stu Smith’s FILMS OF 2014

Stu Smith’s FILMS OF 2014

2014 has been a bit of a mixed year for horror. Slow to start and producing some absolute howlers along the way, the genre has taken a bit of a battering both critically and at the box office this year. However, as the year went on some genuine gems started to emerge from all corners of the globe proving once more that the genre is alive and kicking.

As is so often the case, life can get in the way of it all sometimes and as such there are still plenty of films such as the highly regarded ‘The Babadook’ that I have yet to see, but for now this is my list of films that I feel were more than worth the time in 2014.

tusk (1)TUSK
Dir: Kevin Smith
A late entry to the list, Tusk proved to be a thought provoking and memorable film from Kevin Smith. Whilst it isn’t entirely successful in its attempts to gel the serious horror aspects to more recognisable comedy beats it is a very unique film that pushes its unusual concept to its limit. The story of an internet blogger (Justin Long) who becomes the unwitting victim of a crazed old man (Michael Parks) determined to turn him into a Walrus it’s a divisive oddity and, Like Smith’s previous foray into horror, Red State (2011) it has been greeted with some scepticism and trepidation with not everyone convinced. There are also those who will say that Smith may be biting the hand that feeds with his extremely acidic critiquing of the internet age and the blogging community in particular. However, despite the sub plots not quite meshing, a sterling performance from Parks and a bold one from Long add credibility to the films bizarre central idea and the film is never less than compelling. Johnny Depp even manages to show up in an extended cameo as a crazy Canadian cop. It may not be Kevin Smith’s masterpiece, but it suggests that he is on the verge of creating something truly crazy and special.

wk2WOLF CREEK 2
Dir: Greg McLean
This belated follow up to 2005’s unnerving and rather brilliant Wolf Creek proved to be just as good as its predecessor, even if it trod a tonally different path. Placing John Jarett’s sneering Mick Taylor at the centre of proceedings from the very start, Wolf Creek 2 jettisons the originals slow burning sense of dread in favour of some dirty, adrenalin infused thrills. Where- as Wolf Creek was a sun burned outback Texas Chainsaw, number 2 takes its cue from The Hitcher and plays a bit like a serial killer’s vision of Mad Max. The first half is more action film than horror featuring big car chases and daring escape attempts as Mick stalks his prey on the open road. Once the film arrives at Taylor’s lair however, things become darker and far more sinister as the true extent of his depravity begins to unfold. Fun and utterly fucked up this deserved far more than a quiet small screen release. Warning: Kangaroo lovers may want to avoid this one as it doesn’t end well for Skippy!

boderTHE BORDERLANDS
Dir: Elliot Goldner
Found footage doesn’t have the greatest of reputations. Thanks largely to the fact that ever since The Blair Witch Project proved you could turn an easy profit with minimal outlay every hack trying to push their foot in the door has used it as a cheap gimmick. However, when it’s done right it can be a truly unnerving and affecting experience, and The Borderlands nails it. The story of a Vatican investigation into a potential miracle at a small British church it is a slow burning tale of religious uncertainty mixed with devilish overtones. The Borderlands is a creepy experience that favours character depth and genuine dread over cheap scares. Its unnerving atmosphere and violent undercurrents build to a genuinely surprising conclusion that will divide opinion, but this is top drawer stuff and shows that you can make this format a success if you understand what drama and horror is all about.

rose1WANDERING ROSE
Dir: Corrie Greenop
This low budget, Scotland set chiller was a real surprise. A carefully, and lovingly made little film it follows the crumbling relationship of a young couple as they visit the Highlands to patch up their relationship. Surreal, unnerving and beautiful it captures the strangely evocative and supernatural atmosphere that Scotland seems to possess, and makes its wide open spaces feel strangely claustrophobic as the characters begin to put together the distressing truth. Brilliant performances and a well -constructed economic script make this far more than the sum of its parts. It is sometimes a little reliant on its scenery to pad out the running time, and it won’t appeal to those looking for quick, visceral thrills but this is a promising debut from Greenop and suggests that he may be a talent to watch.

hboundHOUSEBOUND
Dir: Gerard Johnstone
Housebound is the first of two films from New Zealand on this list and proves that Peter Jackson isn’t the only one with a good eye for mixing up horror and comedy. A witty mix of family comedy and horror hi-jinks it turns the haunted house movie on its head and has a lot of fun with its story managing to be unpredictable, suspenseful and laugh out loud funny at times. It follows Kylie, a teen delinquent who is placed under house arrest with her mother and stepfather. Unamused at being forced back to the family home she soon comes to question her sanity as things begin to go bump in the night. The films wonderfully sarcastic sense of humour along with some brilliant twists and turns make this a fantastic fun- house of a movie. It plays with convention and delights in pulling the rug from under the audience just as you think you have it all worked out.

purgeTHE PURGE: ANARCHY
Dir: James Demonaco
The first Purge movie met with mixed opinion but made a lot of money meaning that this sequel was inevitable. I for one thought the original was okay. No masterpiece certainly, and it rather criminally failed to capitalise on its unique concept, but it worked reasonably well as a home invasion thriller and had some genuinely creepy villains. The Purge: Anarchy moves the action outside and follows a group of people stranded outdoors during the annual purge. Delving deeper into the social implications and the adding a neat sub plot about an anti-purge movement this is more action packed, more interesting and much more fun than the first Purge. Taking its inspiration from Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1980) this is a solid B-movie action flick with just enough to say to raise it above the average. It still isn’t quite the ultimate Purge film people seem to be waiting for, but is an exciting and brutal popcorn thriller that I am more than happy to recommend.

GODZGODZILLA
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Gareth Edwards Godzilla met with a lot of disappointment on its release, and there is no escaping that Godzilla is a supporting player in his own movie. But whilst its plotting was sometimes weak, and its ‘human’ stories lacking the film possessed a poetic visual edge and some fantastic set pieces that set it miles apart from most blockbusters. He may not have the screen time we were all hoping for, but whenever this Godzilla is on screen its presence is electric. Like Edwards firs movie, the brilliant Monsters (2010), this one deals with humanities xenophobic nature and its dangerous reliance on things it cannot control. The film doesn’t always successfully balance this with the pressures of playing to a multiplex audience, and is hindered by rather flat human characterisation. But Godzilla and the gigantic MUTO’s make for strangely graceful creatures and whenever they are on screen the film rises up and stands monstrously proud, and Edwards has still created a unique summer movie with a visual verve missing from so many.

ed1 (1)THE EDITOR
Dir: Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy
This homage to classic Giallo thrillers of the 1970’s and 1980’s took me by surprise. The opening film at Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams festival it turned out to be a deranged, riotous yet lovingly crafted film that captured the essence of its influences whilst gleefully sending them all up. The story of Rey (Adam Brooks) a film Editor put in the frame for murder it plays havoc with its own conventions and pokes fun at its own absurdities with a demented relish. Using deliberate technical tricks like bad dubbing, it is likely to confuse those uninitiated in the ways of the giallo’ but for those who know and love the films of Bava, Argento, and Fulci this is full of smart references and homages. It may work for everyone but The Editor is wholly unafraid to go to some very crazy places and is a match for almost any horror comedy released in the last few years.

guestTHE GUEST
Dir: Adam Wingard
Following up You’re Next was never going to be easy, but Wingard and his writer Simon Barrett meet the challenge head on here. The Guest is a tension packed horror/action hybrid that is more than a match for their previous film and stands as one of the very best of the year. When Dan Steven’s Afghanistan veteran turns up at the Peterson home claiming to be a friend of their deceased son, he is welcomed in and seems to be an antidote to the family’s grief. But people soon begin to turn up dead and the sinister guest begins to reveal himself as something far more than meets the eye. Tense, funny and at times ruthlessly violent The Guest is a throwback to paranoid post war thrillers and has a strange 80’s style edge, but mixes it up with a modern sensibility and a visceral eye. Like You’re Next did before it, it takes conventions and turns them around making the film fun and unpredictable. It also proves that Adam Wingard is as deft at delivering high octane action as he is at delivering scares and chills.

wwdits (1)WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Dir: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
When I first read the synopsis for this I nearly skipped it. Another vampire film, and a faux documentary to boot, I just wasn’t interested. Never have I been so wrong, and so glad that I took a chance on a film as I am with this absolutely wonderful piece of incisive horror comedy. From the very first few minutes this is a likeable, smart and side-splittingly funny film about what it is like to be a vampire in the modern world. The second film from New Zealand on the list it proves again that the Kiwis seem to have an incredible wit and humour that isn’t confined to the work of Peter Jackson. Following a group of flat sharing Vampires as they deal with the difficulties and dilemmas of being hundreds of years old in an ever changing world, it captures the fish out of water weirdness of the situation whilst making it all seem strangely normal. Filled with lots of smart observations about Vampire mythology and its place in popular culture, What We Do In The Shadows is an absolute treat for genre fans and I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring it my favourite film of 2014. Its limited theatrical release in the UK means that many people have yet to enjoy this brilliant little flick, but I guarantee that once it lands on disc and VOD it will gather momentum and quickly develop the cult following it deserves.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS
The year produced a handful of other films worth a look, and a couple of reissues that stood out for various reasons. The Mirror proved to be another successful found footage film managing to be both frightening and compelling; it missed out on the final list by the smallest of margins. Spanish Exorcism chiller was not quite The Exorcist (what is?) but had enough going for it to warrant a mention. Well- paced and well -acted it was a classy little film with a neat sting in its tale, revelling in its demonic themes and undercurrents. Claire (originally titled Kuru) is a very effective micro budget Brit-chiller that drew favourable comparisons with the work of David Lynch. Both creepily unnerving and emotionally affecting it was also a strong contender for the main list. Away from horror the blockbuster season threw up the unexpectedly good Guardians of The Galaxy and the intelligent yet exciting sequel Dawn of The Planet of The Apes. Along with Godzilla these both proved that blockbusters don’t have to be stupid to be entertaining and effective.

Clive Barker also had a good year as his Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut finally made it onto Blu-ray, and his underrated and under seen Lord of Illusions also took its high definition bow. The director’s cut of Nightbreed has been almost 25 years in the making and didn’t come without a little controversy. European fans were irked that the release was region A locked, but frankly people should be grateful that this has seen the light of day at all. America’s Scream factory have done a sterling job and the film looks great. As for the cut itself it differs from the Cabal Cut that did the festival run and is Barker’s definitive vision for the film. Adding depth to the central relationships, and returning to the original notion that Midian’s monsters are the heroes it is the film fans have been waiting so long to see. After a poor UK Blu-ray release from 101 films earlier in the year Barker’s final directorial effort was given a proper release once again from Scream Factory. Another brilliant release it offers a chance to rediscover a film that deserves more credit than it has received. Capturing the dark whimsical feeling of Barker’s books and stories and featuring his recurring character Harry D’Amour it is an underrated and intelligent work from one of dark fiction’s most unique voices.

QUIETTHE NOT SO GOOD
2014 produced a few howlers that failed for various reasons to make the grade. Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil was an absolute bore that failed to capitalise on a brilliant central idea. Dull and plodding, it goes nowhere slowly. Johnny Depp popped up in Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence, a visually slick but painfully uninteresting film that basically replayed the plot of Brett Leonard’s Lawnmower Man with added pretension. The ABC’s of Death 2 should hopefully be the nail in the coffin for these odd and uneven short film showcases. With very little of interest in its 2 hour run time this is one for die-hard fans of the first film only. I Frankenstein was until very recently the worst of the year. A big budget and confused waste of time, it doesn’t even muster the camp entertainment value of the equally maligned Van Helsing. It takes itself unforgivably seriously and manages to feel incredibly long despite a relatively lean 90 minute run time. But as much as I disliked I Frankenstein it was pipped at the post by Hammer films utterly depressing The Quiet Ones. With The Woman In Black (2012) the new Hammer seemed to have finally rediscovered its stride and was on track for a return to former glories. However, with The Quiet Ones a dramatic step backwards is taken. Mixing found footage with standard third person story telling the film is uneven, unexciting, and at times downright frustrating. It is not often that films annoy me as much as this one did, but it genuinely felt like time I would never get back. So here’s hoping that The Woman In Black 2 gets the studio back on the right track as we enter 2015.

Meet Me There: The Lex Lybrand Interview by Matty Budrewicz

mmt1Meet Me There:
Director Lex Lybrand Gives the Lowdown On His Compelling New Indie

The internet is a strange and wonderful place. It’s one giant electronic mass of information, opinion and- best of all- nudie ladies. Whilst I tend to have a love/hate relationship with the bloody thing, every once in a while I find myself becoming obsessed by something on the ol’ world wide web. And when I say ‘obsessed’, I mean TOTALLY CONSUMED BY. Case in point? The trailer for Meet Me There, a new independent American horror flick from Austin-based up-n’-coming filmmaker Lex Lybrand.

Beautifully sombre and uniquely uncomfortable, the eerily seductive two minute teaser (check it out at the bottom of this article) immediately piqued my interest when it surfaced online last week. Following a frenzied couple of days endlessly watching and re-watching it, studying and analysing the hypnotic and fragmented images, I decided to go straight to the source of my latest genre kick and get the skinny on this awesome-looking shocker straight from the director himself. Let’s be clear here, people: I’m tipping Meet Me There to be one of the great Stateside indies of the year.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm- it’s great! I hope we don’t let you down!” Lybrand LOL’s after I fire an email over to him. “I’m very happy with what we’ve made. One of the best compliments I’ve received so far is in the way of ‘this is basically an art film set in a horror universe’.”

So what on earth is Meet Me There about? “It’s about a couple, Ada and Calvin, dealing with sexual dysfunction in their long-term relationship,” Lybrand explains. “When Ada has trouble being intimate and physical with Calvin, their therapist suggests that she may be repressing past trauma. When Ada reveals that she has actually blacked out most of her childhood memories, the couple decide to take a road trip to her home town in rural Oklahoma to see if they can get to the root of her issues. And, like any good tale of Backwoods, USA, Meet Me There is filled with odd characters, strange imagery, ominous voices and druids having a ritual sacrifice orgy party in the forest!”

mmt2Understandably, comparisons to Robin Hardy’s seminal classic The Wicker Man have already begun to surface from those lucky enough to have seen the films rough cut. “I’ve never seen it, but its been brought up more than once,” says Lybrand. “That’s good right?”

Interestingly, Lybrand seems to be one of the few American indie auteurs working within the horror genre without an intertextual knowledge of it. “I do enjoy a good horror film but I’m not a connoisseur or anything like that,” he says. “Like, with comics – I love comics but I don’t actively read or collect them so I don’t feel like I’ve really earned the badge of ‘fan’. I have seen all of the mainstream horror staples but as soon as somebody gets obscure with a reference, I’m lost! That said, I’m often pleasantly surprised when a super-horror-fan friend will pop in a VHS of something that I “have to see right now!”. I’m forever thankful to my Aunt Sandy for exposing me to Dr. Giggles and the Leprechaun in a home video double feature. I think she also first exposed me to Mallrats and Clerks so maybe that’s why there’s so much swearing in my horror flick!”

So being a near blank canvas when it comes to terror-film lore, convention and referential arsey-ness must be incredibly freeing for a director looking to make his mark, right? “As far as how that affects me as a filmmaker working in that genre, I think that it was very freeing, yes. I’m the type of person that wants to distance himself as far as possible from similar things to what I’m making at the time. I love baseball movies but when I was making my first feature Summer League, I made a point not to expose myself to that at the time,” Lybrand says. “I think letting my fandom sneak in through my subconscious is a lot better than overtly throwing references at the audience, which is way too common these days. I think, anyway. Likewise, if something is literally not in my subconscious because I’ve never even seen it, it’s really cool when somebody watches a cut of the film and says “wow, this is a lot like ____”. Especially if it’s meant as a compliment!”

Lybrand goes on to explain the genesis of Meet Me There and how he came to be attached to it- through a mutual love of wrestling, no less! “The town of Sheol, Oklahoma- where the film is set- doesn’t exist, but it is based on the real small town that co-writer Destiny Talley grew up in. Destiny has shared her childhood nightmares with her boyfriend, Brandon Stroud, for years and eventually we all just decided that it would- and should- make a really interesting movie. So, with very minimal need for convincing, Brandon transformed a lifetime of stories into a linear screenplay.”

mmt4“I’ve been good friends with Brandon and Destiny since moving to Austin in 2010,” he continues. “Brandon and I are both big fans of the often underrated medium of storytelling known as pro wrestling. I first became aware of him through his WWE review column on Uproxx.com, and soon after that I was producing his podcast, sharing vegan dinners with him and Destiny on double-dates, and now we’re both working for up-and-coming local independent wrestling company, Inspire Pro Wrestling.”

Indeed it was this love for grappling that led Lybrand to casting one of the sports most legendary superstars in a lead role: Dustin Runnels, aka the towering and bizarre bruiser Goldust. “The hardest part about finding an audience for my first film was convincing people that they wanted to see a film full of unknowns. We had some really great break-out performances but without an established name at the top of our cast list, it was a really tough sell for festivals and distributors. So we knew that we wanted to do as much as we could to improve our situation with this film,” the director explains.

“I have always thought that wrestling gets a bad wrap in terms of recognising dramatic storytelling, when it happens. Sure, it’s dumb and goofy but it’s also deep, involving and well-executed. Not always though and not even a majority of the time, but when it works right there’s nothing better. Dustin is just one of those guys that does both sides of the dynamic really well. His Goldust character is a combination of depth and goofiness that really just shouldn’t work- but it does because Dustin’s got tremendous range.” So it must’ve been fascinating seeing how Runnels switches from one type of performance in his wrestling, which is effectively a muscular pantomime, to a more straight ahead dramatic role then? “I don’t necessarily see his role in Meet Me There as switching gears,” Lybrand answers. “I guess I’ve always seen his dramatic chops, even when it’s coming from behind a couple of layers of facepaint.”

The helmer is also full of praise for the rest of his cast, specifically his two leads Lisa Friedrich and Micheal Foulk who play Ada and Calvin, respectively. “Lisa and Micheal have been good friends for at least a few years now. I’m not sure how long they’ve known each other but it’s longer than I’ve known them individually. They’re both stand-up comics that have toured and worked together through some improv/comedy theaters in Texas and New Orleans and I know them through some mutual friends at Austin/NOLA’s The New Movement Theater. Lisa was actually approached by our writer Brandon before I even signed onto the film. She was an easy sell to me and I think people are going to like what she brings to the film- she really shines. Micheal is somebody that I had never seen in a dramatic role but I trusted that his real-life chemistry with Lisa would show through on the screen. Eerily, they look very similar to the real-life couple that inspired them, Destiny and Brandon.”

Whilst a horror film with such a strong sexual bent would usually send many a lesser actor running a mile, Lybrand insists that was not the case with Friedrich and Foulk. “Well, as for the more intimate and challenging themes and scenes in the film, they were very brave. There’s some very real stuff going on in Meet Me There, relationship wise.”

mmt3Satisfied with everything I’d learnt and chomping at the bit now more than ever, I fired Lybrand over one final question: Just when, exactly, will Meet Me There be getting released? And, more importantly, when can us Brits expect to see it? “We should be having our first festival screening sometime in March or April here in the US,” he says. “We spent next to nothing on this thing. The term ‘microbudget’ costs too much for us to even describe how much we spent on it! I’m very happy with what we produced and I think that if we had an extra one hundred thousand dollars the film would easily look and feel the same, but we just don’t have the budget to send it to every festival we’d like to be considered for. So, right now, we’re most interested in fielding invitations to screen. We’ve already booked one early April but I can’t officially announce when or where until we hear back from a couple more key festivals. I think fans of Dustin might be able to figure it out, though!” Lybrand teases.

“Summer League just got picked up by a distributor and, with that being my first, I’m going to use that as my pilot program to see how I like it. Details on that release schedule won’t be available until March but if it’s any indication for what will be on the way for Meet Me There, then it’s safe to say that the film will be very easy to find in the UK. Hopefully later this year. I’ve never been to the UK, sadly- but I’d be more than willing to bring my film along on my first trip over!”

You hear that, Blighty festival bigwigs? Get this guy and Meet Me There booked pronto!
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[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGr4ujtXc_o]
For the latest Meet Me There updates, visit the films official website at www.meetmetheremovie.com
or Greenless Studios at www.greenless.com
Special thanks to Becki and, of course, Lex Lybrand.
For more ramblings, follow Matty Budrewicz on twitter: @mattybudrewicz