James Pemberton’s Top Films of 2016 !!
It’s that time of year again where we take in what we’ve seen over the past 12 months and condense it into a best of list. Whilst 2016 to some has been a bit of a depressing year in terms of news story’s, with more terrorist incidents plaguing mainland Europe, countless deaths of celebrated personality’s (R.I.P David Bowie), the UK deciding to take the drop off the cliff and vote to leave the European union (though some will no doubt like that and wont see it as depressing, I for one is still in a state of confusion) and the ensuing rise in hate crime and clear divisions within the UK, and then finally the USA deciding to elect a misogynistic, racist, former reality TV host as the next President elect in the form of Donald Trump, you’d think the world is about to slip into complete chaos, I don’t think it will but you never know and anyway if it does I’m sure it will supply some good inspiration for future horror films. Yes that’s what where here to discuss, horror films and which ones stood out for me in this year. It’s certainly been a strong year and with a return to Edinburgh’s wonderful Dead By Dawn for myself this year and attendance at a strong and superb Grimmfest this past October, the festival circuit has also produced some surprises that will hopefully be out on general release soon. Here then is my list, its not done in alphabetical order but rather in order of time in the year I saw them, and its not the standard ten more like eleven or twelve or thirteen, maybe, I don’t know its been hard to whittle this down, see what you think…….
BONE TOMAHAWK (Dir- S Craig Zahler, USA, 2015)
Thankfully getting a release, albeit brief, at the cinemas, Zahler’s film is a fantastic, brilliantly written and often brutal combination of western and horror film. Working almost like an inversion of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS it follows Kurt Russell, leading a posse of townsfolk after a group of cannibalistic troglodyte tribes people kidnap some of the residents. Working on a superb script and attracting a great cast who give it there all and take the proceedings seriously, with some superb roles from Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox the film is a great slow burn to begin with establishing the characters on their mission and then exploding into some strong, gripping and very bloody action with the cross over into the cannibal tribes territory and the groups initial underestimation of the savagery that they come up against. Destined to become a cult classic, BONE TOMAHAWK will probably shock those going into it thinking its a western as be prepared this might be the first time you can say a film has elements of classics of the wild west genre crossed with an Italian cannibal movie.
THE WITCH (Dir- Robert Eggers, USA, 2015)
Eggers period piece horror flick will no doubt make it onto the list of many horror fans and even normal best of list’s of this year, if it didn’t already do so on its festival run last year. A completely evocative, uneasy, eerie and disturbing “New England Folk-tale,” Eggers film places a puritanical family and there decision to leave a community rather than face banishment and establish there own land holding and living space in an area next to a large secluded forest far away from any community. There decision brings about strange happenings, tragedy and eventual relapse into possible madness, suggestions of punishment from god for sinning and the overall break up of the family unit, possibly caused by the unknown forces and possible witches that supposedly lurk in the woods. With a script that is written and performed as spoken dialogue from the period and with a superb and evocative production design that lend the film its authenticity THE WITCH looks and sounds fantastic as well as creating the respected unease through its unsettling soundtrack that complements the action, suggesting to the viewer that what we could be watching is a collective delusion rather than an actual supernatural force. We could see the break up of the family as a warning, a folk-tale uttered to those around that time, never to leave the community or face the possibility of gods wrath and being at the mercy of whatever lurks outside. Like IT FOLLOWS last year THE WITCH is a fantastic example of highly original film-making that breathes new life and makes you respect the genre even more. It will no doubt be interesting to see how Egger’s takes on the material in his next film, a re-make of NOSFERATU.
GREEN ROOM (Dir- Jeremy Saulnier, USA, 2015)
One of the first feature I viewed at this years Dead By Dawn, my first return back to the wonderful Edinburgh based horror film festival after 8 years and a great start to boot. Saulnier’s previous film before this, BLUE RUIN, made my best of list in 2014 and the hype and expectation for this third feature by him was certainly high. It does not fail and manages to knock up the tension and intensity in its story of a group of punk musicians, The Aint Rights, who witness a murder after playing a gig at a neo-Nazi run backwoods bar. Having to hold up in the so called green room, the punks have to fight it out against the Nazi’s in gruesome, often darkly comic blitz of action. Whilst in his previous film Saulnier managed to inject a pretty un-original story of a man out for revenge, completely out of his depth and craft something unique and highly entertaining, he again adapts the same method for a group of punks out of there element against a group of ruthless individuals, organised in military fashion by there commander in chief and owner of the bar, Darcy (a brilliant against turn from Patrick Stewart). As well as containing a brilliant soundtrack (the bands rendition of Dead Kennedy’s Nazi Punks Fuck Off is a superbly hilarious and tense scene), the film speeds along at a fast pace and never lets up in the tense stand off between either side. Its a shame to see that not long after this films release one of its stars, Anton Yelchin, tragically died in a freak auto-mobile accident at his home in Los Angeles. Yelchin is well known for his performance as Chekov in the STAR TREK film re-boots, yet he has previously shown in this film, Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and even the flawed ODD THOMAS, often interesting and intense characters and showed that he was an actor who would have had a promising future ahead, but unfortunately had that cut short.
ANTIBIRTH (Dir- Danny Perez, USA, 2016)
Again premiered at Dead By Dawn, Perez’s mad, trippy, off the wall stoner horror was quite unlike anything I’ve seen this year. The film focuses on Lou (Natasha Lyonne) who lives and works in a town full of drug addled marines and spends most of her time partying, getting stoned and taking any other drug available. After one particular warehouse party she wakes up and finds herself afflicted with a strange illness that brings on signs of pregnancy as well as weird visions and spends most of the film trying retrace her steps of what happened whilst getting fucked up on many recreational toxins in the process. Elements of conspiracy thriller, science fiction, body horror and of course stoner comedy abound in a completely original, often hilarious film that somehow leaving you with the feeling of loving it and going along with the films insanity, makes you want to see it again to make sure you did see what you just saw. Perez has crafted a superb film that came out of nowhere and has its own level of uniqueness to recommend to anyone, well those willing to take the ride. Aided by a superb performance from Lyonne, who is the most reckless character on screen trying to find out what is happening to her but all the time getting wrecked. It’s credit to Lyonne manages to make Lou become an engaging character rather than someone to pity, or have one of those ‘life changing’ moments in the film where the character changes their bad habits. No Lou essentially doesn’t care and would rather get smashed which makes her somehow likeable and a perfect character to accompany the films mad and original tone.
THE NEON DEMON (Dir- Nicolas Winding Refn, USA/DENMARK/FRANCE, 2016)
A film that’s likely to divide audience into definite hate it or love it camps, THE NEON DEMON for me fits into the latter group. A hypnotic, dark descent into neon lit world of Los Angeles fashion industry with almost fairy tale like influenced tone in its story of a young wannabe fashion model trying to make it as a model and falling into a clique of other more experienced models who want to literally feed on her beauty. Refn again singles himself out as a maverick and original director. Invoking brilliant stylised frames and characters almost made to look like a fashion shoot. The director still knows how to deliver the requisite shock scenes and violence that add an exploitation esque showman tone to his picture making it uniquely original in its combination of art house and genre. There are two brilliant central performances from Elle Fanning and Jena Malone as the young model Jesse and the make up artist who brings her into the fashion clique who have their sights set on devouring the new blood and a fantastic against type performance from Keanu Reeves as a sleazy scumbag of a motel owner. Refn makes films for himself and that’s clear from the outset and THE NEON DEMON will confuse but at the same time it makes for unconventional and original viewing, blessed with a strong singular visual style and like his previous works another superb soundtrack.
DON’T BREATHE (Dir- Fede Alvarez, USA, 2016)
Admittedly I wasn’t that struck on Alvarez’s previous film, the much hyped remake of THE EVIL DEAD and ended up feeling disappointed by it finding it to end up in that typical style of modern day horror remakes that offers sepia toned washed out visuals and loses the fun and charm of the original source material. Yet his brand new film took me by surprise and learning nothing about it before seeing it on its initial cinema release ended up being hooked by its tense, simple story of three thieves trying to break into the house of a blind war veteran and steal the loot that he has kept locked up inside. Accept nothing goes to plan and the thieves end up facing a more clever and ruthless foe in the blind war veteran who also doesn’t want these thieves finding out what he has in his basement. Combining some smart and tense thrills with its use of camera style and trickery, including a brilliant sequence shot entirely in what looks like night vision where the actors seem like they are generally walking around in complete darkness. Alvarez manages to crank up the action and combines this with a dark and somewhat nasty twist that lends the film another perspective that will change audiences sympathy to the characters involved. He is well helped by the young trio of actors who handle there roles as the clueless thieves well, one of whom, played by Jane Levy, is one of the main characters to be the most empathetic to the audience as she is looking to use the money from this score to get out of the crap home life she has. Except its Stephen Lang as the Blind Man who manages to pull off a fantastic physical performance, at first seemingly innocent and vunreable to the youngsters yet convincingly turning the table on them and exploiting there underestimation to his full advantage. A simple story that at first seems unoriginal in set up but thanks to Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues, manages to lend it an intense and unique edge that holds the viewer in its vice like grip for its brief running time.
TRAIN TO BUSAN (Dir- Sang-ho Yeon, SOUTH KOREA, 2016)
Arriving with a lot of hype since its premiere at Cannes earlier this year and then its screening as the closing film of this years Frightfest, TRAIN TO BUSAN was added to the Grimmfest line up un-surprisingly and certainly had expectations highly raised. It didn’t disappoint and delivers on all fronts in action, characters, emotion, tension and spectacle. Simple set up story of a estranged father, more obsessed with his work, taking his daughter to see her mother who he has recently split from. But whilst the train to Busan is leaving Seoul station a zombie virus starts to break out and unfortunately one of the infected has managed to sneak on board, leading to our two central characters banding together with others to try and make there way to the front of the train and avoid becoming one of the undead. Yeon manages to orchestrate some superb action scenes throughout, a central character who at first seems a bit arrogant yet becomes the main hero of the piece, who has to struggle with the situation all the while protecting his child which again lends the film another added element of danger and like the train itself starts slow on the tracks but then speeds up and grips the audience throughout to its emotional conclusion. Asian cinema manages to somehow always impress and deliver dramatic nuanced characters that the audience care for making there scenes of willing sacrificial bravery all the more powerful and its a trait that it is good at. Added to that the film is a fantastic blockbuster and might just be the best blockbuster made this year, over what ever superhero stuff came out from Marvel or DC this year (I don’t know I haven’t seen anything) and demands to be seen on the big screen. Like DONT BREATHE previously on my list, it’s a simple premise handled brilliantly see it know as they are already planning the inevitable English language remake!
TRASH FIRE (Dir- Richard Bates Jr, USA, 2016)
Bates Jr’s last film, SUBURBAN GOTHIC, almost made my 2014 list, but thankfully he has come back with another twisted, often funny take on a completely dysfunctional family that certainly owes more to the dark nature of his first film EXCISION, with its balance of black comedy and tragedy. The film follows misanthropic Owen (Adrian Grenier) and his attempts to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend Isabel (Angela Timbur) who is pregnant and his reunion with his relatives, including his horrible and very religious grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and his sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) who was disfigured in a fire Owen inadvertently caused in his past and which left his parents dead. Its a completely uneasy and often disturbing, acidic reunion and the film burns a crescendo up to an unexpected ending that certainly shocks in its unpredictability. Bates is fantastic in creating his character’s both realistic and clearly flawed and manages to crank out some laughs in the films early scenes which are both twisted and brutally honest and its in this initial first half where the film starts off like a relationship comedy, up until Owen goes back to his homestead and the second part of the picture starts to take an unexpected twisted turn which highlights certain character’s damages, hypocrisy’s and possible relapses back into madness. With three films to his name Bates is slowly turning out to be one of the best talents in the genre, managing to crank out often startling, sharp and original material.
TONIGHT SHE COMES (Dir- Matt Stuertz, USA, 2016)
This came out of nowhere. A directorial debut for Stuertz and a world premiere at Grimmfest, TONIGHT SHE COMES can be described as just an insane ride of dumb, promiscuous teenagers meeting at a cabin in the woods, a naked almost possessed looking women covered in blood and a group of devil worshipping hill-billy’s who turn out to be the more saner (if that’s possible in this film) and level headed of character’s involved. Both startling in its execution, sleazy in its lay out and with plenty of blood on offer the film is a fantastic homage to extreme horror, late 70’s/early 80’s slasher films, even the more ridiculous entry’s of the slasher genre (the ones such as the later HALLOWEEN films that go far away from Carpenter’s original), carried with a frenetic pace that makes you wonder what turn the film is going to take next and then surprising you when it takes you on another completely insane angle. It also has a scene which I think must have used tons of blood to almost numbing effect. A crazed, confident and fantastic debut and one that I hope gets a decent release as its certainly to be enjoyed on the big screen on a loud sound system, cause just as the film states at the start its meant “to be played loud.”
PREVENGE (Dir- Alice Lowe, UK, 2016)
Written, directed and starring Lowe whilst she was pregnant, PREVENGE might be the first prenatal serial killer movie, made by a pregnant women. The end product is however a superb, darkly comic, often bloody serial killer horror about the trauma of loss and a maternal fear of pregnancy, with its central character being driven to kill supposedly by the voice of her unborn child. Lowe manages to make a central character be at once both unsympathetic but also engaging in the process and her portrayal of Ruth is not one of a vulnerable pregnant women who will be in danger at any moment, but instead is someone who is strong, very aggressive and violent and possibly mentally disturbed, yet feels justified in her quest for vengeance on an un-caring and hypocritical society that she sees. Like the film she starred in with another actor who went onto make his own film Steve Oram (who went onto make AAAAAH!), SIGHTSEERS, PREVENGE contains that quaint near obvious recognition of the landscape of Britain and its inner city’s and towns populated with its often sleazy, tragic and patronising character’s, that will be familiar to many viewers and combines it with a darkly comic and savage serial killer flick. Adding again as mentioned in my original review, another superb British addition to the genre with its highly original and often subversive take on a the psychotic killer flick. This has recently been announced
to be released on February 10th , in 2017 just in time for Valentines day so it will make a perfect date movie!
I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (Dir- Billy O’Brien, IRELAND/UK, 2016)
One of the last films I saw this year at a preview screening and yet somehow it still has remained to me a great film to end the year on. A fantastic tale of a social awkward teenager with slight sociopathic problems, tracking down a spate of serial killings in his home town and inevitably awaking his own potentially dangerous urges, the film is boasted by superb cinematography done in 16mm that catches the grit and snow of the town setting and its darkened hidden night-time. It also boasts two superb performances from Max Records and the ever brilliant Christopher Lloyd and if you haven’t read Dan Wells original novel that this is based on then the twist that occurs in the film is at once predictable but then throws another twist into the works that completely changes the course of the picture. A fantastic piece that deserves more recognition and hopefully will gain a cult following in due course as its not hard to see the comparisons that many have been making with this film and DONNIE DARKO as it does contain that unusual charm of unlikely, almost socially awkward high school loner living in a small town and witnessing events that are highly unusual.
FILMS THAT ALMOST MADE MY LIST…..
A list of films that like the heading says, almost made the list, all very good and should be seen…….
CURTAIN (Dir- Jaron Henrie-McCrea, USA, 2015)
Originally screened at Frightfest 2015 and released on their label this year, CURTAIN is one of the films that has a ridiculous premise on paper (a women discovers a portal in her bathroom wall that keeps taking the shower curtains and ends up in a lot of trouble with weird cults and demons) but manages to pull it off completely remaining a quirky superb and nicely paced 76 minutes. A superb, often rough around the edges low budget horror that has a likeable and offbeat edge to it that makes it a must see.
WE GO ON (Dir- Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton, USA, 2016)
Screened at Dead By Dawn the new film from the directors of YELLOWBRICKROAD is a superb and twisting supernatural thriller that throws a distinctive and brand new take on a genre that sometimes relies too heavily on jump shocks. Yes the shocks are in this film but they are delivered along with a superb brilliantly paced story that throws up a few surprises along the way and confirms this duo of directors as a strong genre talent to look forward to.
THE CORPSE OF ANNA FRITZ (Dir- Hector Hernandez Vicens, SPAIN, 2015)
Again screened at Dead By Dawn, a surprisingly brutal, raw and disturbing study of macho attitudes, celebrity culture, desire, control and necrophilia that will unnerve and possibly anger some viewers, but this is the directors intention and it doesn’t slip into exploitation. Superbly acted by all involved and running in at a neat 76 minutes that doesn’t let up in its pacing and in its disturbing nature.
DIRECTORS CUT (Dir- Adam Rifkin, USA, 2016)
Joyously daft and darkly comic directors cut version of a sub-standard serial killer flick, yet the person who has done the directors cut and is providing the voice over seems more and more obsessed with the original films lead actress. With some brilliant laugh out loud moments, an idea that sounds possibly interesting to begin with and somehow could work or fail badly, is pulled of with superb blackly comic glee.
THE GREASY STRANGLER (Dir- Jim Hoskins, USA, 2016)
Fucked up is probably the best to describe Hoskins darkly comic horror thriller/serial killer thriller/family drama and its all the better for it. A mental stream of random scenes, gore, grease and fire hose penises combined with a love or recognition/tribute to midnight cinema, this is a film that left me baffled, confused but loving its insanity. Not for everyone might also be another way to describe this.
RAW (Dir- Julia Ducournau, FRANCE/BELGIUM, 2016)
A queasy, intelligent study of cannibalism and coming of age for a young veterinarian student who undergoes a brutal hazing ritual and starts to develop a taste for meat, RAW is a film that lies in a meta horror tradition of films that approach a particularly dark subject and combine it with normal traits that add a another level to the film that is partly a body horror flick. Not as vom-inducing as the reports of people passing out at its Toronto Film Fest premiere would have you believe, it still manages to contain some brutal and realistic effects work and carries an intelligent, effective and original approach to the genre.
And finally a few honourable mentions to Ben Wheatley’s very good and confident adaption of JG Ballard’s HIGH RISE, Joseph Wartnerchaney’s superb study of a mentally damaged loner in DECAY, Karyn Kusama’s portrayal of a separated couples uncomfortable reunion that takes a turn for the worse in THE INVITATION and a chance to catch the JJ Abram’s backed 4K restoration of Don Coscarelli’s masterpiece PHANTASM which looked great on the big screen and a fitting tribute to one of its most famous character’s The Tall Man, and the man who played him, Angus Scrimm, who sadly passed away at the start of this year. R.I.P Tall Man!
One more final thing THE WORST FILM OF THE YEAR!!!
Yes it has been a strong year for genre cinema but alas there will always be stuff that comes out that you think, how and why did that get made. Originally I was going to nominate BLAIR WITCH but felt that was more disappointing than anything else, as from a technical stand point its well done despite it being a pretty unoriginal found footage film, plus I’m sure its director and writer, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, who have already shown they can create decent genre flicks, will go onto something better and a lot more memorable. However my nomination for worst film of the year will have to go to CLASSROOM 6 which is ironically is a found footage flick and the laziest kind, with a predictable plot that carries every cliched found footage trait in the book. It’s enough to make you see why some horror fans don’t like this sub genre and to make you wonder why this managed to get a release!
So that’s the 2016 list done and a strong year at that in the genre, plus on a side note I got to see John Carpenter play live which will go down as the best gig of this year!!! What does 2017 have in store for us? More of the same I hope, so see you in another 12 months, cause I’m done with this list now and will finally bugger off. Have a Great Krampus day and a New Calender date change day as well!