Special Mention: Post Tenebras Lux
Written and directed by Carlos Reygadas
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas (Japón, Silent Light) seems inches away from producing his masterpiece. His latest, Post Tenebras Lux (the title is a Latin phrase meaning “after darkness, light”), opens with two of the most unforgettable, ominous images in recent memory. The first is a haunting sequence at dusk as Reygadas’s 2-year old daughter walks through a muddy landscape filled with farm animals and large dogs. As she wanders the field, darkness gradually falls and a thunderstorm moves in. The second scene follows an animated glowing-red demon gliding silently through the rooms of a dark house in the middle of the night. In addition to these two illustrious scenes, we are also treated to a heartbreaking A.A. meeting, a visit to a strange sex club and a man who commits suicide in the most unforgettable way. All of these scenes are shot in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, with a filter that randomly blurs the edges of the frame. Post Tenebras Lux will leave hard core cinephiles happy – if they can get past the narrative, which is a real head-scratcher. Post Tenebras Lux’s is reminiscent of impressionistic autobiographical cinema practiced by such filmmakers as Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, and David Lynch. Reygadas casts a strange and powerful spell, and leaves everything open for interpretation. More art-house than horror, Post Tenebras Lux still deserves a special mention, if only for its bewildering array of alarming imagery.
5. The Conjuring
Directed by James Wan
Written by Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes
The Conjuring is this year’s big surprise — an Amityville Horror for a new generation. And like The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring derives from an alleged true-life haunting, also probed by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), world-renowned paranormal investigators who were called to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in a secluded farmhouse. While it owes an obvious debt to the likes of The Exorcist, Poltergeist, and Amityville, The Conjuring is a creepy supernatural shocker firmly rooted in the visual language of 1970s filmmaking without feeling lazy or self-conscious. There is nothing wrong with telling a familiar story so long as you tell it well, and sibling scriptwriting-team Carey and Chad Hayes treat the story’s spiritual overtones with the utmost sincerity even as their script playfully incorporates many of the genre’s cliches. Yes, we get creaky doors, dark cellars, hidden attics, and demonic dolls, but Wan does such a fine job directing, he turns a simple game of hide-and-seek into a tour de force of nail-biting suspense. The mere sound of two hands clapping will have audiences screaming for more. Wan’s command of horror technique is most impressive, using every trick available to him to ratchet up the level of tension. Cinematographer John R. Leonetti does a fabulous job with his widescreen compositions and innovative handheld camera work, moving around the interior and exterior of the house in a series of complex extended takes. The handheld camera follows the characters from room to room in patient tracking shots, while prowling every corner of the creepy interiors. Wan is a master of manipulation and strikes an ideal balance between the power of suggestion and the satisfaction of a good jump scare. His camera placement and movement is so precise that he often tricks the audience by delaying the film’s many payoffs – allowing the money shot to occur shortly after expected. In addition, Joseph Bishara supplies a nerve-shredding symphony without feeling intrusive or overwhelming. Coming from the director who broke into the scene with his torture-laced-horror hit Saw 10 years ago, The Conjuring might surprise many for being a relatively gore-free piece of mainstream cinema, despite its R rating.
4. You’re Next
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Simon Barrett
You’re Next might be structured as a classic home-invasion horror movie, but it also comes with a number of fresh ideas, keeping viewers guessing all the way until the end. The latest indie horror opus from Adam Wingard is effective at keeping the atmosphere creepy and tense. The table-turning script by Simon Barrett follows a group of black-clad killers in animal face masks and brandishing crossbows, who take a country home and its family under siege. Barrett and Wingard, who previously collaborated on 2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, revel in genre conventions without becoming a slave to them. You’re Next keeps its tongue firmly planted in cheek, playing to those conventions instead. And it’s complete with a killer retro ’80s-horror synth score, a blood-soaked finale, and a cast that includes Larry Fessenden, Re-Animator star Barbara Crampton, prolific mumblecore filmmaker Joe Swanberg, director Ti West (House of the Devil), and Upstream Color co-star Amy Seimetz.
3. Berberian Sound Studio
Written and directed by Peter Strickland
Berberian Sound Studio reminds us of the power of sound over the visual image, and can surely join the ranks of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian DePalma’s Blow Out as an absorbing appreciation of sound design. But both thematically and visually, Berberian is more a descendant of the school of David Lynch and Roman Polanski. As things get increasingly, insanely bizarre, a pervasive mood of exploitation and corruption seeps through every frame. Although shot on a limited budget, the detail in this film is exquisite. Cinematographer Nic Knowland’s dreamlike imagery is mesmerizing and the Goblin-esque music from a fake band called Hypnotera is terrifying.
2. The Battery
Directed by Jeremy Gardner
Written by Jeremy Gardner
The world doesn’t need another zombie movie, but if you think you’ve seen it all — think again. The Battery breathes new life into this over-saturated sub-genre with a whip-smart script that follows two average guys wandering the backroads of New England in the wake of a undead apocalypse. The film works best as a two-person character study and a buddy road movie, but horror aficionados will appreciate its unique slant on the undead narrative. Made with a microscopic $6000 budget, this lo-fi hipster flick is clever, honest and thoroughly engaging. There’s something to be said about a director who’s patient enough to keep his two leads confined within a small area for ten minutes while they contemplate how to survive. Blessed with a sun-drenched pastoral atmosphere, two charismatic leads, and the years best soundtrack, The Battery introduces the world to a promising young filmmaker.
1. The Lords of Salem
Written and directed by Rob Zombie
Rock star-turned-director Rob Zombie has always been a controversial figure and perhaps the most polarizing director in modern horror. With The Lords of Salem, Zombie creates a suffocating sense of foreboding dread. Much like Ti West’s The Innkeepers, mood and atmosphere are his primary concerns. As the film progresses, things grow increasingly strange by the minute. Heidi’s nightmares recall the best of Alejandro Jodorowsky and the surrealistic moments (specifically within the apartment) raise comparisons to early Polanski. But there’s no confusing his aesthetic with anyone else. With his latest, Zombie was given complete creative control, and the end result is a work of phantasmagorical cinema. The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s most patient and mature film. Salem is a textbook study on how to do horror right – largely bypassing gore until the climax and avoiding cheap “gotcha” scares that directors employ far too often. Salem is essentially a 70’s-style European art-house horror flick culminating with an air of ambiguity – a take-no-prisoners final act painted with moments of crazed inspirations, an old-school horror flick sporadically interested in experimental decor.