Friday, November 6, 2009

2009's Horror Renaissance

People like to say that horror is dead, but I've always found that pessimistic. I think there have been plenty of good horror movies over the last decade or so; HorrorHound, my new favorite magazine, even has a cover story this month listing their 20 Best Horror Movies of the Past 10 Years, with standouts like The Descent, 28 Days Later, and Grindhouse among them. This year, in my opinion, has been particularly good, with several very entertaining and original entries. Prompted by the much-ballyhooed Paranormal Activity, I decided to compile reviews for my favorite fright flicks of the year. And heck, it isn't even over yet-- Daybreakers, a sci-fi vampire hybrid with Ethan Hawke and the amazing Sam Neill, opens soon, too!
Drag Me to Hell--It all started, for me at least, with this Sam Raimi mini-masterpiece. After years spent on the big budget Spiderman franchise, the Evil Dead auteur got back to his down and dirty horror roots with a wickedly entertaining scarefest. Alison Lohman stars as a hapless loan officer whose bid to impress her boss backfires-- reeeeally backfires-- when she denies a repulsive gypsy hag an extension on her mortgage. Poor Lohman winds up cursed and tormented by demons who want to-- well, the title says it all. What follows is a cavalcade of scares, laughs, and gross out gags that quite simply never lets up. The fun that Raimi and his cohorts were having is palpable, as they pull out all the stops to deliver a gonzo thrill ride.+
Orphan--After Raimi's demons, I figured nothing could be as rollicking a good time. Surprisingly, this creepy kid shocker comes pretty darn close. Although it's the umpteenth variation on the Bad Seed formula, Orphan distinguishes itself with a peculiar blend of realism and off the wall camp. As sinister Esther engages in increasingly vicious activities, the movie pushes far, *far* beyond the bounds of its predecessors. Strong performances by the entire cast help elevate this from pure trash into something gaudy and over-the-top yet effective and deeply disturbing.
Grace--Released to theaters in a very limited capacity, Grace is a small independent film with a truly creepy concept. A pregnant woman (Jordan Ladd) decides to bring her stillborn baby to term, than inexplicably wills it back to life. But baby Grace has special needs, which can only be met if her mother is willing to do unthinkable things. What could have been tasteless becomes haunting and even moving, with a dense script and an array of subplots that ground this fantastic premise in a very real and tortured world. Special mention goes to the music, by composer Austin Wintory (also responsible for the moody score of my best friend's debut feature Print.)
Trick 'R Treat
--This long delayed Halloween-themed horror flick was well, well worth the wait. The fantastically fun movie pays homage to Tales From the Crypt and Creepshow with its interconnected stories involving a serial killer, ghost children, a werewolf, and the demonic spirit of Halloween itself, all converging on a small midwestern town on October 31st. I really can't praise this movie enough. Great cast (including character vet Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, and Brian Cox). Mesmerizing production design. Loads of scares. And good old fashioned powerful storytelling, with sublime surprises around every corner. Pure horror bliss.
Paranormal Activity--And cementing 2009 as one of the best years for horror in recent memory? This out of nowhere screamer, famously shot for $11,000-- in the director's house!-- and now on track to earn $100 million. With all the hype, a backlash seems imminent, but all Hollywood talk aside... it's a good movie. And it's fucking scary. Suspense and mood are key as Paranormal presents, in docudrama fashion, the saga of a young couple terrorized by an unearthly presence in their home-- one that's followed Katie, the girl, since she was a young child. The simple premise and minimal resources available are more than enough, in the filmmaker's capable hands, to scare the bejeezus out of us. The sound design and eerie nighttime camera shots disturb on a profound level. And the idea that Katie can't escape her demon by simply leaving the house-- that it will follow her wherever she goes-- ensure that the film has an overwhelming sense of dread and mounting terror. By the finale I was literally on the edge of my seat-- but oh so glad that I can still find outstanding scares at the movies.

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