It’s finally here: the end of the miserable pain train we all collectively know as 2016. From terrible events the world over to the worst celebrity deaths since the summer of 2009, I think we can all chalk this year up as “a rough one.” However horrifying the real world may be, we can at least seek solace in horrifying fictional worlds. I didn’t see as many movies as I would have liked to this year (does anyone?) but of the ones I saw, there were several that I could say I really genuinely loved.
Not all of these films are from 2016 alone; three-fifths of my top picks and all of my honorable mentions are older movies that I was either made aware of this year, or achieved a newfound appreciation for. Allow this list to be a carefully curated sampler: if a time traveler came to me on this day in December 2016 and asked for some recommendations, these entries are what would be at the front of my mind.
5. Alligator (1980)
Dir. Lewis Teague
Written: John Sayles
Starring: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael V. Gazzo.
After the smash success of Jaws in 1975, all types of murderous marine animals poured into theaters. In addition to a whole school of sharks, there was Orca (1977), Barracuda (1978), and Piranha (1978). That last one, Piranha, was written by John Sayles, and after satirizing the already overflowing subgenre, he played it straight(er) in Alligator two years later. The product is a very smart film about a very big gator, and Sayles’ script embraces its ridiculousness and derivative nature without skimping a speck on the substance.
Arguably, the core similarities to Jaws begin and end with the presence of a killer carnivore. The most immediate difference between the two is that the titular alligator makes its home in the sewers of Chicago instead of coastal New England. I greatly enjoyed how Alligator preyed on the opposite extreme of the agoraphobia so iconic in Jaws; instead of beaches and open water, the monstrous gator lurks through city streets and claustrophobic sewers. The only weird thing is, yes, I said Chicago just a bit ago. Why wouldn’t they go for New York? Stories of New York sewer gators are as old as the city itself.
Despite the harmless egregiousness of its setting, I honestly can’t sing the praises of Sayle’s script enough. What makes the film so enjoyable is the way that determination and inventiveness of Chicago’s police force. The boys in blue try everything they can think of to catch that alligator, and star Robert Forster plays a troubled, traumatized officer that’s struggling against the mounting pressure. A lot more nuanced than other “world-weary cop” characters, Forster’s David Madison is a treat to watch on-screen. The relationships he has with other characters are varied, and those relationships get tested under stress, which changes them. It sounds like a low bar, but it was great to see a film like this that handled so many familiar archetypes so well. It even has, and I’m dead serious, one of the best romantic subplots I can think of.
So don’t be fooled by its DVD cover so atrociously 2007 that it looks like a SyFy Channel reject (fingers crossed for a Blu-ray with its original, terrifying poster art). Alligator is a blast-and-a-half and a demonstration of John Sayles’ early writing talent. Also, they use a real live alligator in some scenes! They built miniature sets around it and everything! So dig it out of the sewer and pop it in your player: Alligator is worth your time.
4. The WNUF Halloween Special (2013)
Dir. Chris LaMartina.
Written: Chris LaMartina, Jimmy George, Pat Storck, Michael Joseph Moran.
Starring: Paul Fahrenkopf, Nicolette le Faye, Brian St. August, Helenmary Ball, Robert Long II.
This is one of those movies that I am just so, so glad that I have seen, because the most fun it provides is from telling other people about it. Created in 2013 by Chris LaMartina, The WNUF Halloween Special is a purportedly “found” bootleg of an old public access news broadcast from Halloween 1987. In it, intrepid news reporter Frank Stewart (Paul Fahrenkopf) recruits two paranormal investigators and a priest to perform a live television séance in an allegedly haunted house. As the night drags on, things go haywire as the “allegedly” haunted house proves to be more dangerous than they thought – and the whole thing is intercut with cheesy interludes from the studio anchors and commercials from the broadcast area.
The WNUF Halloween Special is a fun, gimmicky, and thoroughly impressive pastiche of late-80s public access television. LaMartina’s eye for authenticity is remarkable, and he went so far as to degrade the final footage by running it through a VCR a few times. There’s scan lines and static all throughout, the picture’s fuzzier than Larry Talbot, and the fake commercials are so hokey yet lovingly crafted that it sucks you right in to 1987. As a movie, it’s an entertaining spoof about a haunted house, but as an artifact, the sheer amount of love that went into this flick astounds me. I wrote a whole essay on it last month, and I recommend reading it if you want to know more about why I consider this film to be a master class in found footage filmmaking.
3. Ash vs. Evil Dead 2×04: “DUI” (2016)
Dir. Michael Bassett.
Written: Ivan Raimi.
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ray Santiago, Dana DeLorenzo, Lucy Lawless.
Ever since The Evil Dead in 1981, there have been three distinct constants in Ash Williams’ life: Kandarian demons, everyone he ever loves being killed by those aforementioned demons, and his 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88. The second season of Ash vs. Evil Dead brought all those things together in its fourth episode, when El Hefe’s trusty wheels got possessed and turned against him. The script comes from Ivan Raimi, a prolific contributor to the Evil Dead series, and whose love for expanding the world of Ash Williams shines here. The director, Michael Bassett, polarized viewers last season with the brilliant “Bait” (1×02) and the lackluster “Books From Beyond” (1×03). If anything else, “DUI” proves that “Books From Beyond” was the fluke: the man’s got talent, and he wrings a great performance out of everyone on the show.
At its open, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is still reeling from yet another dead loved one (remember those constants?) and his sidekick Pablo (Ray Santiago), employing more bravery than foresight, ends up an unwilling passenger of the demonic Delta. After a chase sequence that echoes Mad Max, the climax posits Ash as a chainsaw-wielding matador against his four-wheeled raging bull in a derelict demolition derby, which looks like someone built Thunderdome in Dracula’s castle. It’s one of the most impressive and appropriately haunting sets in the franchise’s history, and a sweeping demonstration of the show’s talented production design.
Despite the emotional weight of the episode and its reliance on action, the humor is classic Evil Dead; the lines between slapstick and gore aren’t so much blurred as they are bulldozed apart. It may lag behind the inventive gross-outs of “The Morgue” (2×02), but there’s still some beautifully busted brains and horrifically gratuitous impalement, plus some (Sam) Raimi-esque camerawork that adds a charming dynamism to even the most static scenes. Then, the thrilling climax serves desert with a range of vehicular horseplay that sends Ash flying in all directions. Peppered throughout every blast of excitement are one-liners so dry only Bruce Campbell could pull them off – and boy does he ever.
Except for an admittedly mishandled finale, Ash vs. Evil Dead’s second season was consistently solid, verging on consistently superb, throughout. “DUI” in particular struck me as not just as season two’s best, but as the show’s best. It has its weaknesses – the episode leans egregiously on CGI effects and the B-plot is frustratingly crammed against all the Delta drama – but every other expectation is aced, including music supervision which has been a series staple (“Cum On Feel the Noize” has never had so much gravitas). Special mentions for best of this year go to “Delusion” (2×07) and “Ashy Slashy” (2×08), a stellar two-parter that pushed Ash past his breaking point with horrible tortures and a puppet.
2. Green Room (2015)
Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Written: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart.
Although it premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2015, most people didn’t see Green Room until it released to mainstream audiences in May of this year. It’s a breakneck thriller about a touring punk band, The Ain’t Rights, that witness a murder at a skinhead-owned venue in the middle of the Pacific Northwest. The club owner, Darcy (Patrick Stewart), locks the band in their green room until the crime can be covered up, but once The Ain’t Rights realize their lives are at stake, it turns into a fight for freedom against Darcy’s red-laced troops. It’s efficient, taught, and ruthless. If Green Room doesn’t make you wince in your seat while you watch it, you’re just not paying enough attention.
Jeremy Saulnier’s direction is a master class in how content can complement form. The film embraces a cramped brand of cinematography that stresses the club’s tight confines, and harsh, frenetic cuts that emphasize the action without obscuring it. These are juxtaposed with the quiet, lingering shots that occur when both sides are gathering their resolves and planning their next steps, and the bright, wide open shots that occur outside the club, which appear almost unnatural after spending so much time in such a dim and dingy place. I wrote about these juxtapositions earlier this year in a piece analyzing the scope of its premise, and how it enhances its political argument. I mean, it’s a film about neo-Nazis – fittingly, politics are wielded as aggressively in Green Room as they were by the Dead Kennedys.
Patrick Stewart plays one of the most chilling villains in recent memory, a seasoned skinhead as brutal as he is blasé, but Anton Yelchin stars as Pat, the bassist of The Ain’t Rights. Here, I want to spare a few words about Yelchin’s heartbreaking death earlier this year. It’s always so terrible to lose someone so talented, so young, and having enjoyed blockbuster success as Chekov in the Star Trek reboot trilogy (2009, 2013, 2016) and starring roles in the Fright Night remake (2011) and more, Yelchin seemed all set to be the next big genre icon, if not a mainstream star. Tragically, it didn’t come to pass. As the heart of Green Room, Yelchin shows thoughtfulness, determination, pain, and fluidity in one movie than some other actors do in a whole career.
A close contender for my top pick of the year, Green Room is not to be missed. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Do it for Anton.
Before we continue to my number one pick, allow me to briefly dote upon some recommendable films that just barely missed the cut this year:
C.H.U.D. (1984): I saw this cult classic for the first time this year, and fell in love not just with its iconic monsters, but with the scathing social commentary on urban decay. Its indictment of corruption with regards to infrastructure is all the more relevant amidst chronic pipeline spills and Flint, Michigan.
Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985): The black sheep of the series is often derided for meddling with Freddy’s powers (i.e., what he can and can’t do in dreams versus the real world), but I think it deserves more credit. With maybe more ambition than foresight, Freddy’s Revenge aimed to expand upon the mythos of its predecessor, and did so by writing a pretty solid possession tale. This installment is a favorite of mine, and while introducing new friends to the series this year, my love for it only grew. Even if the exploding bird is kind of weird.
Wait Until Dark (1967): When I finally got to see Don’t Breathe in theaters, I was beyond disappointed. How could they take such a suspenseful premise but make it so…uninteresting? Wait Until Dark has everything Don’t Breathe doesn’t – well-written characters worth caring about, lots of slow burns, game-changing twists, meaningful character development, satisfying payoffs, intelligent dialogue, and phenomenal acting – so I highly recommend it to anyone who left their theater wanting more.
Alright, now onto my favorite film of the year…
1. Shin Godzilla (2016)
Dir. Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi.
Written: Hideaki Anno.
Starring: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Ohsugi.
In 2016, the king came back. Shin Godzilla marks the first time in twelve years that Big G stomped under Toho’s banner, and in this total reboot of film’s longest-running franchise, the eponymous monster doesn’t tower over Tokyo, but dwarfs it in its biggest and baddest incarnation to date. Godzilla’s body is burnt like bloody charcoal. Uneven rows of fangs spike disorderedly from its gaping maw, and its long, terrible tail undulates from its silhouette like a terrible smear against the sky. Godzilla’s atomic powers even receive an upgrade that I won’t spoil here (because the moment is incredible), but all semblances of late Shōwa silliness is aggressively eschewed.
However, despite having a gargantuan monster in its title, Shin Godzilla is a personal and intimate film. It focuses primarily on Japan’s bureaucrats as they scramble to respond to Godzilla’s presence while evacuating its warpath. Titles stack on titles (especially in subbed English screenings) as locations are cut to and various suits walk on and offscreen; this technique feels like a gag at first but its sheer persistence nails the frustratingly complex yet rigid nature of political relationships and hierarchies. These hierarchies, and watching them crumble alongside Tokyo itself, is what makes the second half of the film and its focus on a ragtag group of scientists so intense. The scientists, which amassed in the aftermath of Godzilla’s discovery, must find a way to stop it before defensive foreign powers intervene to just bomb it (and the rest of Tokyo) to oblivion. This conflict forces a race against time for the scientists to not only conceive, but enact a large-scale plan to neutralize Godzilla before the world cuts Japan’s losses.
This unflinchingly straight-faced portrayal of Godzilla’s wrath and the highly political nature of the plot manage to echo the themes of the 1954 original while expanding upon them for a new, contemporary age of atomic anxiety. The natural and nuclear disasters Japan endured in 2011 are embodied by this new, more ferocious Godzilla. The film portrays Japanese bureaucracy as grossly inefficient, but demonizes the itchy trigger fingers of callous Western governments all the same, and ultimately argues that humanitarian solutions can and must be reached, political quibbling be damned. Shin Godzilla is a smart film, a tense film, a well-made film…a goddamn Godzilla film.
Unfortunately, I don’t get to watch and write about horror full time, and catching new releases doesn’t always fall into my schedule or my budget. From what I’ve observed, 2016 was one of horror’s best years in recent memory; the genre continues to only gain momentum over since it got its act together in 2013 or so. Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch came out of nowhere to turn some heads, and Lights Out brought one of the web’s best horror shorts to the big screen. Also in theaters this year was The Shallows and 10 Cloverfield Lane, and floating around various festivals and VOD services was The Wailing, The Eyes of My Mother, Phantasm: Ravager, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, The Mind’s Eye and The Greasy Strangler (those last two I had a lot of particular interest in). However, everything I know about these films comes from secondhand sources, because I never got the chance to see them. I never even got to see The Witch, because I’m just a terrible person who doesn’t do things. But hey: there’s always next year!
For the comments: what about you? Which great horror films did you see this year? Do you think it was a great year for horror, or no? And which horror films do you hope more people revisit or appreciate in 2017?