By Brian M. Sammons
Welcome back, my fellow fright film fans. It’s the start of a new year, so that means looking back at the year that just died and poking at its corpse for various highlights, lowlights, and best-of lists. 2015 was a pretty good year for horror flicks. It wasn’t stellar or anything, like some of years of the 1980s, but it wasn’t as desolate as much of the 90s, either. And as always, some of these films may have had limited release on the festival circuit or in other countries prior to last year, but they were only widely made available in North America in 2015 – with one exception, but we’ll get to that in time. So, without further ado, let’s get to it with number ten.
10. Maggie. Director: Henry Hobson. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson.
This one makes the list for its surprise factor. First, it’s unlike any other zombie movie I’ve seen. It’s a personal, intimate story about everyone’s favorite end-of-the-world scenario: the zombie apocalypse. In this day, when you can’t throw a gnawed femur without hitting zombies in movies, TV, books, comic books, and video games, it was nice to see someone do something different with the idea. This is a very-well-made movie that manages to tell a lot of its story through visuals and natural-sounding dialog instead of large chunks of exposition, which a lot of films, horror or not, don’t bother to do. And finally, the biggest surprise was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who didn’t play a musclebound death machine here, but a grieving father coming to terms with the slow and unavoidable death of his daughter. Who knew Schwarzenegger could act? But here he is, easily doing the best acting of his career. No, he’s not going to win an Oscar for his performance, but it was one hell of a surprise.
9. The Visit. Director: M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan.
This movie was another big surprise for me. After film failures like The Lady in the Water, The Happening, After Earth, and more, I had pretty much written off writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. He was the kiss of death for movies and I was practically dragged to the theater to see this, his latest effort. So, imagine my surprise when this film turned out to be really good. Working with a stripped-down cast and budget seems to agree with Mr. Shyamalan and I hope this is something he continues to do. This movie, told in the now-usually-reviled found footage format, is equal parts creepy and funny, but it is not necessarily a horror comedy. It’s just a damn good movie about two young kids going to stay with their grandparents (whom they’ve never met before) for a weekend and how something as innocent as that could go horribly wrong. If you have written off M. Night “Mr. Twist” Shyamalan the way I had, give this one a watch and I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
8. Unfriended. Director: Leo Gabriadze. Cast: Heather Sossaman, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson.
And the surprises keep on coming. When I saw the trailer to this movie, I was 100% sure it was going to be horrible. It looked like all the other soulless, teen-centered crap (i.e., Ouija, The Gallows, The Lazarus Effect, etc.) that had recently assaulted theaters with their presence. Then I saw it and found it to be far smarter than I ever thought it could be and, in this age of cyberbullying, surprisingly relevant. I also liked the simple and unique way the film was presented. Not really found footage, the film’s POV comes from one girl’s laptop as she and her friends get on Skype for group chat, only to have their cyber party crashed by the ghost of a dead girl they all knew and maybe wronged. This very modern take on the old ghost story is sold by the young actors, who do a fine job playing kids with no idea about the ramifications of their actions, and the fact that the interface seems so familiar to anyone who uses a computer and goes on the internet.
7. Last Shift. Director: Anthony DiBlasi. Cast: Juliana Harkavy, Joshua Mikel, J. LaRose.
Now this one was a surprise insofar as I had never heard of it until getting it in for review. So, I went into this film as blank a slate as possible and I came away being really impressed. Basically a one-woman show in one location, this film demonstrates what creative people can do despite having limited funds and resources available to them. Small budget is no excuse for bad movies, just as big budget doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Yes, that should be common sense, but it needs to get stated, and shown, from time to time to make sure people don’t forget it. The story here is about a young female police officer and her first assignment: watching over an abandoned police station all by herself for its last night. Soon, things start to get weird and our young cop must not only solve a mystery, but try to survive the night. Last Shift works thanks to a great performance by Juliana Harkavy, backed up with bloody practical effects, and heaps of atmosphere and dread. If that type of horror appeals to you, and it should, then be sure to give this little-known gem a chance.
6. Deathgasm. Director: Jason Lei Howden. Cast: Milo Cawthorne, James Blake, Kimberley Crossman.
2015 was the year of the horror comedy. There were so many (and we will get to at least one more of them on this list) that regardless of their quality, it was starting to get to the point of oversaturation with these ha-ha-horror flicks. While there were a lot of fun ones, this one stood proudly over the vast majority with its long hair blowing in the wind, one hand holding a kick-ass guitar, and the other raised in the heavy metal salute of the infamous devil’s horns. It had been a long time since heavy metal music and horror had been wed in a film, despite the two things going so well together. So, a big “Hell, Yeah” to Deathgasm, the New Zealand import about a band of high school long-hairs literally raising some hell in their small town with the power of music. It’s funny, gory, and oh-so-metal. Sorry, that should be METAL!!!! If you are a fan of heavy metal music and horror, this is a must-watch. If you are not one of the headbanging faithful, you should still give it a chance, as it is a mosh pit of fun.
5. Clown. Director: Jon Watts. Cast: Andy Powers, Peter Stormare, Laura Allen.
Back to the big surprises of 2015. This was a movie I so thought would be one thing and ended up being something completely different – and far better. It also might be the hardest one to see on this list because it has yet to have a wide release in North America and that is a damn travesty consider what does get released over here. So, it might take some effort to track this one down, but it is so worth it. And when I say this movie was another surprise, I mean it. Going into it, I thought for sure that I had it nailed down as yet another horror comedy. Come on, it’s about a father who puts on a clown outfit he finds in an abandoned house so he can perform at his son’s birthday party. He’s a big hit with the kids, but then, wouldn’t you know it, he can’t get the clown suit off and then hilarity ensues, right? Wrong. Clown is a surprisingly dark, bloody, and straight-up horror movie. Yes, it has some humorous parts, but so do most horror movies. Don’t let the premise fool you. This is horror with a capital H. If you want to watch a movie that looks like it’s going to clown around just before it slowly guts you, Clown is that film. Also, clowns, they’re just creepy.
4. What we do in the Shadows. Directors: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi. Cast: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer.
Now, this movie was not so much a surprise. From the start, it was clear that this film was more interested in laughs than scares. What was unexpected was just how funny it was. Another horror comedy import from New Zealand (Good on the Kiwis for having such a banner year), this one is about a trio of vampires living in the modern world and how they try to relate to it. Naturally, there are a lot of fish-out-of-water hijinks, but there is more to this one than that. Zombies, werewolves, and other creatures of the night make appearances here, as do vampire wannabes, vampire hunters, and plenty of day-to-day – sorry, night-to-night – problems of being a modern vampire. What sells this movie is its humor and it is one of the best comedies of 2015, horror-related or not. If you want to watch something fangtastically funny, then watch What we do in the Shadows.
3. Krampus. Director: Michael Dougherty. Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner.
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, who previously gave us the other holiday horror hit Trick ‘r Treat, this movie does for Christmas what he first did for Halloween and that is delivering one of the best fright flicks to be set on that date. This movie is not an anthology like his previous one, even if it does seem a little like two films in one. The first half is a traditional – albeit really well-done – Christmas comedy complete with horrible in-laws coming over for an extended holiday stay. But then this movie takes a hard right into horror once the evil, Germanic spirit of Christmas comes to town. Even then, there are still humor and whimsy to be found here, but there is also dread, atmosphere, terror, and some of the most memorable fright scenes to come out in a long while. The various creature designs are awe-inspiring and the direction is very solid. The acting is even more so, as the same characters I couldn’t stand at the start of the movie quickly grew on me, so when bad things happened to them, I actually felt something for them. Add all that up, mix in one of my favorite dark mythologies, and top it off with an ending I was so not expecting, and you have a horror movie that I will be watching every Christmas from here on out.
2. Bone Tomahawk. Director: S. Craig Zahler. Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox.
I love horror westerns, so much so that I recently edited an anthology of horror western stories called Edge of Sundown (plug, plug, plug). Sadly, they are a rare bread and good ones are rarer still. Thankfully, this movie is one of the good ones. No, check that – it’s a great one. Coming pretty much out of the blue, and just before Kurt Russell’s other western this year, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, this movie amazed me at just how good it was. From the first-rate direction to the beautiful cinematography, from the exceptionally well-written story and dialog to every single actor delivering some of their best performances ever, there is not one thing bad about this movie. Not one thing I would change in it and that is very rare for me. Even some of my favorite films have one or two little things I would “fix” in them but not here. And while this movie starts off as a 100% western, about a posse of tough cowboy types tracking down savages who abducted some people from their tiny town, it ends a gloriously gory horror show. This is a must-watch for any fan of cinema, as long as you’ve got a strong stomach for some truly bloody and brutal bits in it. Just go watch this movie already. You can thank me later.
1. It Follows.
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi
No surprises here. What started 2015 off in grand fashion for fright films is still the best horror movie made that year. I’m not going to go too much into it, because what more can be said about this film that hasn’t, already? It is a masterpiece of atmosphere, tension and dread. It has believable young characters who aren’t total douchebags (a rarity in most fright flicks these days), beautiful cinematography, an amazing throw-back soundtrack, and first-rate direction that is reminiscent of early (and best) John Carpenter, but isn’t just a straight rip-off. And on top of everything, it has an original story that is mysterious, frightening as hell, and doesn’t feel the need to beat you over the head or hold your hand as the film goes on. There’s a reason this movie got so much critical praise, because yes, it IS that damn good. This is one example where you can believe the hype and it is the rare movie that does get better with every viewing. For all of those reasons, It Follows is hands-down the best horror movie of 2015.