Don Coscarelli / John Dies at the End
Among the horror luminaries of the late seventies, who is currently making the best films of their career? If you answered Dario Argento, that’s funny, smartass. If you answered, “None of them,” then you obviously haven’t been keeping up with Don Coscarelli. While Coscarelli is more known for delivering truly strange cinematic experiences than gonad-shrinking horror films, I think we can all agree he plays to his strengths and that it serves him well. More comedy than horror, John Dies at the End is probably the single-most rewatchable film of the year. Coscarelli keeps the pace fast and the one-liners in steady supply. Tonally, the film has more in common with the comedy classics of the eighties (I’m thinking Ghostbusters, Better Off Dead, Weird Science, etc.) than the current Apatovian generation of comedy. It’s not afraid to dip into the absurd, veering into the unexpected at every turn. I also love how Coscarelli has concentrated on creating unique visuals, making this movie his most iconic since the original Phantasm. Hopefully “This Movie is Full of Spiders” is in the works.
Neil Jordan / Byzantium
I didn’t see this one in time to nominate either of the two leads in the best actress category, however, please consider both Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan retroactively nominated (swelling the nominees to a heaping 12). Every frame of Byzantium is visually stunning, the performances are impeccable, and the storytelling the work of a veteran filmmaker still in his prime. Like most modern vampire films, Byzantium isn't out to scare anyone. It's a character study that examines human mortality through the lens of mythical immortal beings. As for its vampire lore, it bucks convention in several ways, most noticeably the absence of fangs. These vamps have a retractable thumb claw they use to pierce jugulars. While it seems like a small detail, the effect it has is to make the killings look like murders rather than sexual encounters. And these vampires, while impervious to sunlight, aren't super-powered creatures. They are as vulnerable as the humans they hunt and must rely on wits and surprise to earn their meals. Not only is Byzantium one of the best horror films of the year, it's one of the best vampire films period.
|Vampire Gemma turns some dude into a drinking fountain.|
Franck Khalfoun / Maniac
Maniac is easily the most horrifying film of 2013. From the shocking opening murder and scalping to the quickly-deteriorating would-be romance that goes terribly awry, this movie feels real, and reality feels gross. What this remake gets right is that Frank Zito can’t go straight from the most out-of-control homicidal freak in the western hemisphere to a super-suave ladies man from one scene to the next, which was the downfall of the original (also, imagining a beautiful, successful photographer would have any interest in a dude looking like Joe Spinell is too much disbelief to suspend). This version of Frank makes much more sense because he’s attractive in Elijah Wood’s non-threatening, boyish way, he’s mostly capable of blending into society, and he shares a very specific niche passion with his love interest, lending the attraction some credibility. Khalfoun’s decision to shoot the movie almost entirely from Frank’s point of view was a risk that ultimately paid off in spades. There’s a side of Frank that clearly doesn’t want to be doing what he does, but he’s powerless to stop. Shooting POV-style with the audience as the killer puts us in exactly this position. We don’t want him to kill all those women, but we’re forced to bear witness. Oh hell, who am I kidding, we’re horror fans, obviously we want him to kill those women, and we even manage to enjoy it, excruciating a viewing experience as it is.
James Wan / The Conjuring
|Sorry James, my parents told me how babies are made when I was eight.|
The Conjuring is the only film on this list that I actually reviewed, so I don’t feel the need to write about it at length (Here’s the review, if you’re interested). I’d just like to note that, for me, half the fun of the movie was seeing how themes and elements from James Wan’s previous films came together so effectively. Prior to The Conjuring, I knew James Wan as a director who made good-but-not-great horror films. I always find plenty to like in his movies, but I’ve never felt like he was getting everything right. However, The Conjuring is the work of a man who has finally mastered his craft. And while we’re losing the man to big-budget action films, I get the sense that he’s not leaving horror with contempt for the genre, but rather a fond, "My work here is complete."
Adam Wingard / You’re Next!
Did you know that up until You’re Next!, every wide-release horror film to come out in 2013 was the number one release for its respective weekend (with the exception of World War Z, which was #2, but it made more money than most of the #1’s). It seemed like Adam Wingard’s year to hit the big time, and the box office forecasts agreed, predicting it too would open at number one. It was one of my most anticipated movies for two years running; I was desperate to see it and I figured everyone else would be too. And then it debuted at number a miserable #6. This was all the more surprising because it was so freaking good! I figured word of mouth would get out and make it a sleeper hit, but ticket sales dried up quickly and it soon disappeared from theaters. Despite this disappointment, the movie is still a hit, considering it grossed, like, 18 times its budget. But still, I thought it would be this generation’s Scream.