The Possession of David O'Reilly - An insulated, small-scale horror tale from the UK, which can perhaps be seen as a response to Paranormal Entity, or the Paranormal Activity films, but if I may wax Anglophile for a moment, The Possession of David O'Reilly is indeed possessed, of much greater subtlety and mystery, where many aspects of the story are never fully explained, only shown. For example, as the movie starts, the young couple have already installed a motion-activated camera in their flat, though the reason why is only very passingly discussed. The couple's friend David shows up, uninvited, and clearly in distress—his girlfriend, Sarah, is seeing someone else, though the implication of more sinister reasons for his untimely visit are immediate. Did David harm, or even kill Sarah? We never find out. As the story progresses, David quickly goes from distraught to downright loony, referring to a mysterious "they" who may "get in" and cause the trio some kind of harm. There are so many clever, unforgettable, haunting elements to this film, like the newspaper-and-shot-glass spirit board, the upstairs neighbor (a pregnant woman that only David can see), and some of most horrifying, non-CGI monsters ever conceived since Lovecraft set pen to paper. The paranoia knot tightens exponentially, as David's mania seems highly catching, and builds the film to an exhausting climax.
YellowBrickRoad - In the canon of tales that describe or depict a theoretical journey, such as Barbet Schroeder's film La Vallee, Tarkovsky's Stalker, or Rene Daumal's great, unfinished novel Mont Analogue, YellowBrickRoad stands as an intelligent, complex, horror version of such a tale. A group of experienced hikers and friends decide to attempt to duplicate the journey of a group of New Hampshire townsfolk, who, 70 years earlier, set out on a trail called the Yellow Brick Road, many never to be heard from again, while a great many others turned up brutally murdered. Five days into their expedition, they start to hear a distant, prevalent music, that seems to come from everywhere around them, an endless cavalcade of pre-WWII hits echoing through the forest. The music has different effects on each individual, creating torment in some, dependency in others. Psychological breakdowns occur, and things go from very bad to much, much worse. In stories such as these, the "destination" becomes an individual experience for each explorer, the getting there being of equal significance to whatever "Oz" colors their eventual demise. As one character says towards the end of the film, "there are many endings." Highly recommended.
The Films of Michael Findlay - Michael Findlay (aka Julian Marsh) is the kind of preternatural animal that only New York City could have produced. A thorough discussion of his life and films takes more than a paragraph within a blog post . But this year was MY year of the Findlay, and much like taking LSD, it's an experience you can't turn back from; once you've viewed The Ultimate Degenerate, the Flesh Trilogy, Sin Syndicate, Satan's Bed, or even his latter-day, hyper-bizarre attempt at a "Bigfoot movie," Shriek of the Mutilated, your DNA has been altered, such that you'll find yourself thinking about these films at odd times of the day, referencing them constantly, and divining some much deeper meaning within the sleaze. Championed by Something Weird Video, who have re-released many of his works (he made 24 features in 12 years, from '65 to '77), Findlay's movies were made for the Times Square soft-core market, but with innovative content and cracked ideas that far transcend the slap and tickle, hump-hump of most soft-core pornography of any era. Take The Ultimate Degenerate, for example, where Findlay cast himself in the lead, as a wheelchair-bound deviant named Spencer, who runs a house where dope-addicted women trade sex for cash, and are primed and "trained" for their work by way of Spencer's hack sexual science, involving electrodes to the labia, and huge plates of corn on the cob, among much else. If you're the right kind of person (or the wrong kind) you'll be sucked in by the over-the-top oddness of these features, and will be possessed by a craving to see everything of Findlay's you can lay your hands on, just to inhabit that universe—the one with the sedate, slow-motion go-go dancers, outrageous dialogue, giant machetes, and Findlay's own hypnotic gaze and New-Yawk twang. Explore at your own peril; there's been much talk of a "Findlay curse," as the director died horribly, decapitated, and otherwise made into human sushi, by the spinning rotor blades of a helicopter atop the Pan Am building in 1977. An obsession with these films may derail your once-placid existence, however pleasurably. The brassy refrain of the stripper's music will echo in your brain while you're trying to concentrate. You've been warned.
Colin - Just when I think that I can start to shovel the dirt over the zombie mythos in film, a new movie comes along to tell the zombie tale through a fresh set of eyes. Colin is a young man, "turned to soon" you might say, and through his gradual decline into irreversible zombiehood, we experience his struggles and the tragic dissolution of his human consciousness. For example, in the requisite scene where an outnumbering horde of zombies overwhelms a group of human victims, our Colin seems to be wondering if he's at the wrong party, and feeds only reluctantly. The film has true pathos, and we sympathize as Colin struggles with his memories, which will soon be wholly unavailable to him. He seems desperate to piece together how he got here while he still has the chance. A reluctant zombie, who doesn't just rise to a complete transformation within a matter of seconds—that alone is really something new! But Colin has even more to offer, with believable acting and a visual palette that is deceptively low-budget, and very appropriate to the proceedings. Lots of muted blues, off whites, and a generally grainy twilight pervades the film, as Colin briefly reunites with family, wards off anti-zombie vigilante attacks, and seems to generally mourn the collapse of his life as a human being. Perhaps my favorite film on this year's list.
Five Across the Eyes - One terrible, terrible night in the life of a half-dozen or so high school girls. Riding around in a parent's minivan, they ram the wrong car in a convenience store parking lot, hit and run, and end up pursued, terrorized and eventually tortured, by a shotgun-toting, psychopathic middle-aged woman. Much is made of the unfortunate dynamic between two disparate social classes of female—a woman who's been wronged, and it's thrown her off the edge of sanity, WAY off, and a group of relatively carefree adolescent girls with nothing but a promising future before them—prior to this night, that is. Played for realism with a shaky, handheld camera, and very well-acted, despite an obvious minimum of means, Five Across the Eyes is an effective, "small" tale about one, unforgettably bad night.
A Horrible Way to Die - Told in non-linear chunks is this story of a compulsive serial killer and his live-in girlfriend. The acting is superb, with AJ Bowen as the killer, who's by far the best actor working in independent horror today, this starring role coming on the heels of brilliant turns in The House of The Devil and The Signal, both films featured on my best-of lists in previous years. Bowen's killer is a sad figure, out of control, who hates what he does but cannot stop himself, and the significant parallel of his girlfriend's alcoholism will not go unnoticed by the astute viewer; both addictions inflict inner and outer pain, though one causes more immediate and intense harm to strangers than the other. A moody and dreary drama, but with horrific murders aplenty, A Horrible Way to Die plays out a human tragedy, more neo-realist than coy genre film. In fact, this film is a downer in the best sense of the word, owing more to a story like Five Easy Pieces than any serial-killer film that comes to mind.
The Troll Hunter - Who could resist a movie with the title The Troll Hunter? Not I. One has to at least see how the filmmakers go about backing up that enormously potent title, I would think. Yet another handheld-camera, POV tale, The Troll Hunter springboards from its medium to tell an engrossing tale of some hack documentarians, determined to capture the day-to-day activities of a real-life troll hunter, a now-elderly man, living in a trailer, who's made a lifetime of this bizarre under-the-radar career, and it's the government who secretly signs his paychecks. Yes, trolls are REAL, and did you know that some of them are not really all that small, either? In fact, some of them are absolutely HUGE. It's a credit to the filmmakers that The Troll Hunter never once descends into silliness, nor does it abandon the viewer by resorting to the tongue-in-cheek. The troll effects are also excellent, very convincing and minus any obvious computer-graphic help. Much to my great pleasure and satisfaction, I put aside my prejudices and doubts incurred via the title, and you should, too. Take the ride, as it's everything you'd want a film called The Troll Hunter to be.
The Horror Films of Norman J. Warren - Terror / Prey / Inseminoid / Satan's Slave / Bloody New Year - Though I've been into them for some time, it's taken me until this year to gain a heightened, broad-scope appreciation for the films of British director Norman J. Warren, and it all started with WFMU's acquisition of a soundtrack CD. Warren often worked with a unique composer named Ivor Slaney, and it was the disc for the Terror and Prey soundtracks, released in 2009, that got me jonesing to reexamine Warren's movies (I had seen Terror and Prey, his two most notable films, previously.) Though Warren's films decline in quality from the 70s into the 80s (as so many things did), even the later ones are a dynamite combination of sophistication and cheese, and almost all of them feature above-average acting for "B" films, and boldly weave in adult themes (Prey, for example, features as its centerpiece a very mature and realistic lesbian relationship.) Inseminoid (aka Horror Planet) draws heavily on Ridley Scott's Alien, though it's possessed of its own gloomy atmosphere, and you likely won't be laughing when Judy Geeson is impregnated by a cleverly calculating and physically revolting alien beast. Bloody New Year, though it is on its face the standard group of celebrants being picked off one-by-one in imaginative ways, features innovative themes, and some very bizarre makeup treatments. Terror and Prey are the best of the lot, and the obvious place to start, being the smartest and most mature of Warren's work, though if you're like me, you'll be led to Inseminoid, Satan's Slave and Bloody New Year as well, left craving for more of Warren's campy-yet-chilling and ultimately original "B" universe.
God's Lonely Man - Yet another film inspired by Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver screenplay about the social decline and psychoses of one man, a tortured Catholic with a haywire, seemingly random moral code. Like Taxi Driver, there's a sympathetic teenage girl (the Blessed Virgin), men who must be punished (merchants in the Temple), guns, pornography and the backdrop of New York City. Unlike Taxi Driver, the antihero of God's Lonely Man abuses drugs, worsening his situation, and eventually (or so it's implied) takes advantage of the sexual charms of the young nubile. His morality is less clearly cut than DeNiro's characterization, and hence this film takes many a flight of fancy and indeed can be said to have an ending that may or may not be based in the characters' external reality. In fact, the entire film takes a bit from Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone (another Taxi Driver-inspired film), in that the whole story may indeed be taking place in the internal, hellish fantasy world of the character's own, roiling monologue.
The Last Exorcism - Handheld-camera POV horror is abundant these days, though a great many of the films offer great conceptual promise that is only partly delivered upon (Skew, for example.) TLE is a sneaky, apparently benign tale, that plays at first almost like a comedy, and by the time it's become most decidedly a horror film, the creep factor has risen to a point of no return. A completely self-aggrandizing and generally self-absorbed sham exorcist and faith healer has decided to abandon his bogus "exorcist training" practice, but wants to go out with one, final big bang of an exorcism to cement his reputation. He answers a letter from a small, Southern town, a letter that pleads for his help in the demonic possession of a local adolescent, and from there onward, The Last Exorcism plays like a low-rent Wicker Man, as the sinister townsfolk don't seem to really want him or his entourage there, and by the time it becomes clear that their lives are in danger, our "hero" has come to fancy himself as a "real" exorcist, determined to see the trouble through, though from the very beginning, it was already too late. Echoes of both The Devil's Rain and The Brotherhood of Satan will give 70s horror-film fans a warm fuzzy.
Honorable mention -
The Ceremony - A hapless student falls into spiritual peril, simply by lighting a few candles and reading out loud from a book one of his roommates left behind. Trapped in student housing he is, and weird things start to happen. All this from reading a few passages in an ancient language. In order to be able to ever leave the building, and / or continue with his life at all, he must pass the curse on to someone else, but who?
The Entrance - In a full-scale parking garage on the Williamsburg, Brooklyn waterfront, people are being captured, and forced to engage in a series of simple games until one of them loses. They are then shown a film of their greatest wrongdoing as it occurred, before being flung off to some demon-maintaned eternal hell. Baal-Berith leaps from person to person to get his foul work done, and The Entrance is a nice, creepy little nighttime mood piece.
2011, The music I loved this year (CD unless otherwise indicated) >>>
Dhampyr - assorted releases | Moloch - assorted releases | Sesso Violento - Sesso Violento + Pacificador | Exordium - In Wrath Principle LP | One Master - The Quiet Eye of Eternity LP | Putrid Servant - cassette demo | Castevet - Mounds of Ash | Physical Demon - Hyperdrift CDr | Solid Attitude - Prison Water 7" | Hell - Hell I LP reissue | Music of the Group Ongaku LP reissue | Psychic Limb - Queens o/s LP | Occultation - Somber Dawn CDr demo | Lussuria - Sunken Meadow CS + Ghost Entanglement LP | Yskelgroth - Unholy Primitive Nihilism | Psykotisk / Vredgad split | K.P. - Archaeological 8 CS boxed set | Sovereign - Rehearsal 1995 10" | Raspberry Bulbs - Nature Tries Again LP | Sword Heaven - Gone LP | Josh Lay & Teeth Collection - s/t LP & CDr | Roman Torment / Feed the Dragon split LP | Future Blondes - vila'gok 2 CS | Shingles - Shingles CS | Hex Breaker Quintet - Knightcourt CS | Instinct Control - assorted releases | Coprophagic Substratum - A Libidinal Hypothesis CS | Lake of Blood - As Time and Tide Erodes Stone | York Factory Complaint - Will & Testament CS | C.C.C.C. - Live at Velvet Sun CS | Flesh Coffin - The Horns of Your Altars CS | Kakerlak / Macronympha split picture disc LP | Unknown Artist - Untitled (black metal from Portugal) | Odz Manouk - s/t CS | Glossolalia - Gold in the Throat CS | Narcorgasm - Ways of Infernal Brain Destruction CS | Demonologists - assorted releases | Decimus - assorted releases | Half An Abortion - Naked Math Machinery | Tomhet - Astral Isolation CS | Long Distance Poison - assorted releases | Telecult Powers - Zion Traveler LP | Grasshopper - Goodnight Sweet Prince LP | Vesicus - Magi: Within the Sigil of Kia CS | Tukaaria - assorted tapes | Kuxan Suum - Kinich Ahau CS | Arizmenda - Without Circumference Nor Center CS | The Haunting Presence - s/t CS | Hive Mind - Elemental Disgrace LP | NRIII - Solus Patoir | Ov - Pleasure CS | Moonknight - Toplov CS | Lord Time - Forgotten Future + Black Hole at the End of the Tunnel CS | No Pleasure in Life - Happiness Is Not an Option CS | Harassor - Harassor LP | Barghest - s/t LP