Column: Cthulhu Eats the World: The Six Best Horror Flicks of 2013

By Brian M. Sammons

Welcome back, friends, to the second part of my look back at the year of horror cinema in 2013. Last time, I did five movies that, while not all of them were bad, all did fall into my category of “Why bother?” Now it’s time to do the flipside of that coin and look at much-better flicks. Since I think the Internet can be too negative most of the time, I’ll cover six much-better films this time.

Note: Some of these might have technically been released before 2013, but they were only made widely available where I live (North America) last year, so for the sake of this list, that counts.

How Quiet Horror Should Be Done: We Are What We Are. Directed by Jim Mickle.

Jim Mickle started his directing career with the rather silly and lackluster Mulberry St from 2006. That’s the one where people in New York City turn into wererat things for no good reason one night. While not a horrible horror flick, it fell into many of the same pitfalls that a lot of mid-2000s horror movies stumbled into, including poor lighting with an overreliance on the color green (Thank god filmmakers have stopped trying to rip off the look of The Matrix now), far too many close-ups on action scenes to try to hide the fact that the action is done poorly, and blatant abuse of the shakycam aesthetic.

Mr. Mickle’s second stab at fright filmmaking was the far-superior Stakeland from 2010. A post-Apocalyptic vampire movie that blended The Road with 30 Days of Night to great effect, this little gem is a great bloodsucker movie that has the vampires being evil and badass once again, instead of brooding, sexy and misunderstood. I really enjoyed this one.

Now comes this, Jim’s third movie, and the one where he shines the brightest as a truly talented filmmaker. It is a remake of a Mexican film of the same title from 2010 and director Jorge Michel Grau. I have not seen that first film, so I don’t know how good of a remake this is when compared to that one. As a standalone movie, it is excellent. Now the secret at the heart of this moody, measured movie can be guessed at early on by most big-time horrorheads. In fact, I picked up on it about three minutes after it started, but that did nothing to dampen my appreciation or enjoyment for this film. That is a huge testament to the quality of this movie. That praise can be split pretty evenly between the small cast of very capable actors and the sure-and-skillful direction from Jim Mickle.

And if you have picked up on the fact that I have yet to tell you anything about the plot of this movie, well, there’s a reason for that. I want you to see this movie as much a blank slate as you can be. Don’t look anything up about this film; just trust me here and watch it. It is very good and you will enjoy it. You can thank me for the heads-up on it later. It’s not bombastic; it’s not overly gory (although there is a bit of the red stuff in it); and it takes its time to tell its tale. But if you’re looking for a somber and well-made horror film, the kind of movie that is sadly being made less and less these days, then you’ll want to watch We Are What We Are .

The Best Remake That I Thought Was Going to Suck: Evil Dead. Directed by Fede Alvarez.

I love the 1981 The Evil Dead. It is a certified classic of horror cinema that spawned two very enjoyable sequels. So, I went into this remake with a “Go ahead; prove yourself to me” attitude and this film did exactly that. It was gory and violet and bloody and visceral and, above all else, a fast, fun fright flick if there ever was one. It basically took the plot of the original cult classic, and alternated between staying faithful to it and doing its own thing, with wonderful results.

Now there was some moaning and groaning out there by some: people who were looking back at the original film through rose-colored glasses so much that they practically blinded them. “Oh, the characters are so paper-thin in the remake!” some cried. Uh, hello, have you seen the original movie? While I love that film to bits, not a single character there was more than a cardboard cutout and yes, that includes fan favorite Ash. Sorry to be the one to say that, but there it is.

In this remake, the characters have far more backstory. No, not all of them. The blond girlfriend here is basically just someone to have bad things happen to and nothing more, but the rest were more fleshed-out than the 80s film that inspired it. “Oh, the gore was over the top!” Really, have you seen The Evil Dead? Or what about its sequel, where hundreds of gallons of blood were used? “They used some CGI gore in the movie.” Well, yes, they did but the vast majority of the splatter was done with good old practical effects; when CGI was used it, was done pretty well. Do I have to remind you that the original movie ended with some of the dodgiest Claymation I’ve ever seen? That did not make that first movie bad and some CGI here doesn’t make this one bad, either.

While not everything about this remake was solid – I wasn’t a fan of the Exorcist-like potty-mouth talk of the possessed, here – it was well-thought-out-and-executed. It even had a reason why the kids would go out to this grungy-looking cabin in the middle of nowhere and why they wouldn’t all hightail it out of there as soon as weird stuff started to happen. And above all, it was bloody as hell in such a gloriously gory way that few films have the guts (heh) to be these days. Evil Dead is not a deep movie. It’s not there to make you think. It doesn’t do anything new, but neither does it get all pretentious and try to convince you that there’s more to it than there is. No, all this movie wants to do is to jump out of the darkness at you, shout “BOO!” in your face as loud as it can, and then poor a bucket of blood over your head. It’s a thrill ride. It’s a fun time. And you know what? I’m more than fine with that.

The Remake That Surprised Me The Most: Maniac. Directed by Franck Khalfoun.

I am not a huge fan of the original Maniac from 1980. I think it’s an okay film but nothing earthshattering. The best bits to it are probably the great gore effects by FX legend Tom Savini and the wonderfully creepy performance of Joe Spinell as the titular manic, Frank Zito. Joe just oozes slime as the greasy, mouth-breathing, hulking psychopath. So, how in the hell was cute little Elijah Wood going to step into those big, nasty shoes? I mean, come on, he was Frodo Baggins, for crying out loud. As for the not-so-special-effects that were sure to be in this remake, you just knew that in today’s day and age, all the bloody bits were going to be done horrible by fake-looking CGI that would only serve to take you right out of the movie every time they appeared on the screen.

Then I saw the movie. Not only was I pleasantly surprised, I was a bit blow away by it.

Elijah Wood nailed the performance of maniacal Frank Zito. While not as physically intimidating or overtly creepy-looking as Spinell, he was far more believable as someone who could pass for normal, and his switch from just strange and awkward to vicious and murderous was truly frightening. Mr. Wood even made his maniac sympathetic at times, a trick Joe Spinell could never pull off. Not to mention the fact that it is a lot easier to buy Elijah Wood’s Frank being able to hook up with a pretty lady than the aforementioned greasy, mouth-breathing Spinell.

As for the special effects, while there were a few times CGI was used, and usually it didn’t work, most of the gore gags here seemed to be done old school with latex and makeup. As an old school horror fan, I really appreciated that.

Then there was the daring choice to shoot the whole thing largely through the point-of-view of the killer. Now, the film does break from that format from time to time, and it doesn’t always work as flawlessly as I’m sure they had hoped it would, but it does afford the audience some truly great moments. My favorite parts were when Frank would have a psychotic break and you, the viewer, could see and hear the warped “reality” the maniac was experiencing as it was happening to him. And while I wasn’t thrilled that the action was taken out of dark and seedy New York, and transplanted to the far more bright and shiny L.A., the new soundtrack more than made up for that shortcoming. A slick mix of moody synthesizers, on paper, it sounds exactly like the wrong kind of music for a movie like this, but in practice, it was brilliant. As much as New York was a character in the first movie, the soundtrack is for this movie.

This Maniac is a great example of how a remake should be done. It is largely faithful to the original, but it does plenty of new things to warrant its existence. As much as I enjoyed the bloody good time of Evil Dead, this is the best remake I’ve seen in a long time.

The Best Remake That Wasn’t: Curse of Chucky. Directed by Don Mancini.

“Oh great, another remake,” I said when I heard of, and later saw, the trailer to this movie. Now, as the previous three films discussed here should show you, I am not automatically against remakes, but I do think Hollywood relies on them too much. But then, as my “Why Bother?” list showed last time, some “new” horror flicks like You’re Next (Yes those are ironic quotation marks, as there is not a damn thing new about that movie) could be far worse than any remake. Still, I went into this movie thinking it would be yet another modern re-imagining, trying so hard to be hip and cool, and missing the point of what made the original any good in the first place by a country mile. See Rob Zombie’s Halloween, either of them, for a prime example of that.

And, you guessed it, I was surprised by this film. Not only by how good it was, but because … (tiny SPOILER coming) … it wasn’t a remake. It was actually a sequel. Yes, in one hell of a well-kept secret that I just ruined for you here (sorry), this movie actually takes into account all the Chucky weirdness that came before it and picks up from there. And I loved that! Not every classic fright franchise needs to be rebooted. For example, we didn’t need a new version of Friday the 13th. Just give me a huge murder machine in the woods, wearing a hockey mask, slicing up teens for screwing around, and I would be happy, thank you.

Well that’s exactly what Curse of Chucky did. It didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It just told a scaled-down (All the action here takes place in one location during one night) story of the killer doll that we all know and love, and it did it well. I guess credit for that must go to director Don Mancini, as he has been the guiding force behind all the Child’s Play/Chucky movies. But then, he’s also the reason for the craptastic Bride and Seed of Chucky movies, so if I’m feeling charitable, I’ll just say that this one goes a long way in helping me forget those other two.

There isn’t a whole lot more to say about this one other than it’s a good Chucky flick, well-made, with more than a few effective scares and, of course, Chucky’s always-memorable one-liners. If that sounds like a good time to you, give this one a watch. If you’ve never been a fan of the Chucky movies, you might still give this one a shot, as after the original, it is the best of the bunch by far.

The Sequel That’s Better Than The Original: VHS 2. Directed by Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sánchez, Timo Tjahjanto, and Adam Wingard.

I did not like the first VHS movie. There were some parts of that anthology that were okay, but the fact that the vast majority of characters in it were reprehensible douchebags I could not give a single damn about meant that I could not give a damn about the movie. So, when this rushed-out sequel came out, I was all prepared for it to suck. And, like many movies on this list, it surprised the hell out of me.

No, it’s not perfect. The wraparound story is still pretty lame, even if it does try to explain why some of these short stories – recorded in the modern day on modern, digital cameras – would be found on old VHS tapes. As for the actual stories in this anthology of short films, three out of four of them are easily better than what came before, with the one weaker film still not being all that bad. Here, you will find a guy with a camera-eye that can now see dead people; the standard zombie story but with a neat twist as to the POV; and an alien abduction story that, while typical, is at least done pretty well. However, the strongest part of this collection by far is the wonderfully made “Safe Haven” directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans. If Mr. Evans’ name sounds familiar to you, then you probably saw his sublimely over-the-top action pick: The Raid: Redemption. This short is well worth the price of admission all by itself and is better than all of the first VHS stories put together. Yes, it is that good.

And best of all, this sequel is thankfully douchebag-free.

If you’re a fan of anthology horror movies, and you’re sick and tired of movies being populated by jerks you could care less if a chainsaw is run through them, then give VHS 2 a try.

The Best Import: Grabbers. Directed by Jon Wright.

From Ireland comes this horror comedy with more than a wink and a nod to the very fun monster mash, Tremors, from 1990. By that, I mean just the original Tremors, not any of the godawful sequels, nor the horrible TV series that followed them. The fact that the baddies here also seem to be inspired a bit by something H.P. Lovecraft might have written is just a very nice bonus.

Grabbers is about tentacled monsters from space invading a small island, looking to suck the blood out of all of the very colorful residents. Unfortunately for the bloodthirsty aliens, the island they landed on is part of Ireland and you know what all Irish like to do, right? Come on, you know you do. That’s right: They all love to drink and wouldn’t you know it? Alcohol is poisonous to the extra-terrestrial invaders. Now, before you all start booing about this movie embracing a horrible stereotype, remember that this is an Irish film, so if they’re not allowed to make fun of that very old joke, then no one is.

Speaking of jokes, this movie had the very real danger of being a one-joke flick and, in turn, getting old very fast. Thankfully, it is far more than that. In fact, the whole “We’ve got to get drunk to fight these aliens” thing doesn’t even come into the film until its final reel. It is strong enough to stand on its own without that. It is also both fun and funny (No, those things are not always synonymous), well-acted, and directed with a lot of skill. As for the titular monsters, this is where I give CGI a break. When it comes to imagining the impossible and the alien, I am fine with computers doing the work. The only alternative to showing creatures of this size, and the Grabbers are quite large, is stop-motion animation that, while fun (I love me some Ray Harryhausen classics), can never be accused of looking all that realistic, either. Also, the CGI here is a big step above the usual quality one finds in modestly budgeted movies like this.

Grabbers is a fun monster movie with some cool critters and more than its fair share of laughs. If that sounds like your kind of thing, and it really should be, then be sure to check it out.

So, there you go: six flicks that were a cut above the rest that came out in 2013. Yes, far too many of them were remakes, but sadly, that’s the way of things these days. Yes, there are some critical darlings from 2013. One that jumps to mind is Park Chan-wook’s Stoker. That may be very good, but I haven’t had a chance to see it yet and that’s why it’s not listed here. This is my list. Do you agree with it? Have I missed the mark on something here? If so, leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the year in horror that was 2013.