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By Shane M. Dallmann

2013movies

Wow… when you look back and actually count on your fingers, 2013 was one of the sparsest years in a while for the “horror film,” at least as far as the big screen was concerned. I normally dive straight into the “horror” category and then sum up the rest of the movies I caught over the past year, but this time I think I’ll save the scary stuff for last?

Okay, first let’s dispense with the absolutely NON-horror titles I managed to catch on the big screen. These mainly concerned themselves with aging action stars and their appointed (I’d certainly use that term when Sylvester Stallone designs a vehicle to showcase Jason Statham) successors. Interestingly, NONE of these made a splash at the box office.

I didn’t see THE LAST STAND (Schwarzenegger), but I really enjoyed Walter Hill’s good, old-fashioned BULLET TO THE HEAD, which would make a fine double bill with the Stallone-scripted HOMEFRONT (Statham and company deliver exactly what they promise). By comparison, PARKER also gave us some good Statham, but the Donald E. Westlake adaptation could have been seriously streamlined by eliminating the character played by Jennifer Lopez altogether (nothing against her personally, she just slowed the story down immensely).

And all of the above were superior to the weary ESCAPE PLAN, but even that had its moments (mainly from Schwarzenegger).

We also got some strange blendings of action and sentiment from the real “old school” players. STAND UP GUYS wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I found it engaging and amusing. Meanwhile, THE FAMILY was completely and disappointingly unrecognizable as a Luc Besson film, but DeNiro, Tommy Lee Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer still had some worthwhile bits to offer.

And no, I had no interest whatsoever in GRUDGE MATCH. But speaking of “aging,” I have to throw BAD GRANDPA in here somewhere because it doesn’t belong anywhere else. It was an efficient “practical joke/candid camera” movie, but the punchline was done much better in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

OLD BOY doesn’t fit anywhere else, either. I’d call the Spike Lee remake “controversial,” but since almost nobody in the world even saw it? I thought it was a perfectly respectable retelling of somebody else’s story, simple as that.

And Steven Soderbergh’s alleged ‘fiinal’ feature was SIDE EFFECTS, which was one hell of a gripping, surprising medical thriller and so much more.

No, the reason “horror” itself got such short shrift is because this was the year of constant science-fiction/superhero epics, most of them sequels and/or reboots.

Superheroes: IRON MAN THREE was yet another disappointing follow-up to what I thought was the best of the pre-AVENGERS Marvel sequence. But I’ll take that over MAN OF STEEL, which gave us another “angsty” Superman and continued to drain all of the fun out of what was supposed to be the most uplifting of franchises. I don’t care how good the special effects, etc. were. I want Superman to be FUN again. We’ve already GOT a Batman, okay? Meanwhile, reviews were split down the middle on THOR: THE DARK WORLD. Put me in the camp that found it a distinct improvement over a lackluster original.

KICK-ASS 2 was a strange bird which tried a bit too hard to raise the stakes of the original. But Chloe Grace Moretz deserves plenty of kudos, and the film also boasted terrific supporting roles for John Leguizamo and Jim Carrey (who, of course, promptly disowned it, claiming he had no idea how violent it was going to be. Sure, Jim. Sure.).

Also in the sequel department? RIDDICK was better than CHRONICLES OF… but still not up to PITCH BLACK (which it could have been if it hadn’t been determined to linger on screen quite so long). STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS was mostly satisfying as a follow-up to the big-screen reboot… at least until Spock became an action hero. And really… was there any point in naming the otherwise fine villain “Khan?” Far more successful at going above and beyond its origin was CATCHING FIRE, the second installment of THE HUNGER GAMES: this film boasted enough quality for me to recommend that even naysayers of the original take a look at what’s been going on in that world lately. Top cast, too…

As for “original” science fiction? OBLIVION was a fantastic-looking rehash of a very basic story, while GRAVITY made a new art form out of total immersion 3-D in a far more gripping tale.

And thank goodness that lackluster American box office did NOT spell the end of Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM. Nobody honors his childhood monsters so effectively, be it through the subtle DEVIL’S BACKBONE or the bombastic HELLBOY movies… and now he’s given the kaiju concept everything in his arsenal with movie designed to please us as much as it obviously did himself. (To this day I have never seen a TRANSFORMERS film, so I had no chance of being burned out by giant ‘mechas,’ okay?)

NOW let’s segue into “horror” with two projects that aren’t QUITE horror on their own but which draw heavily on our beloved genre… in one case, via one specific film. ROOM 237 was the documentary on all the “conspiracy/hidden meaning” theories expounded upon ever since Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING came out. You don’t have to subscribe to a single one of them in order to enjoy just hearing/seeing about them, especially with the mad editing scheme and bounty of surprise movie clips worked into the frame. Pure entertainment, and enlightening even if you think it’s all crackpot stuff.

And then there’s THE WORLD’S END. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright top off their “Cornetto” trilogy with their best effort yet (yes, I loved SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but this is in a class by itself), earning huge laughs and surprising emotional payoff in the deceptively simple tale of a “pub crawl” that becomes more than a personal apocalypse. Without a doubt, this is my favorite film of 2013. And then some.

As for pure “horror?” I couldn’t even stretch the list to twenty titles (although I’m sure I deliberately skipped a few. No HOBBIT movies for me, either).

THE GOOD:

Here’s Del Toro again, not directing, but choosing and guiding MAMA to another highly successful look at the world of children and the adults who become their monsters.

I’m pushing it to include THE CALL, but see it through and you’ll realize that it does, ultimately qualify as horror. For the most part, it’s a breakneck “real time” kidnap thriller with exceptional work by both Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin (yep, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself).

THE PURGE might have become a little obvious by the time it was over, but the outrageous gimmick at its core was a good one, the preppies terrorizing Ethan Hawke and family were genuinely frightening, and the ending was more than satisfying (not to mention troubling).

Another one they tried not to call “horror” was PRISONERS, but this was far more than a typical “vigilante” outing–this reaches back to INN OF THE FRIGHTENED PEOPLE and captures the intensity of THE VANISHING itself. And again, only by watching all the way through to the end will you be able to make up your mind–but the film more than warns you that the journey won’t be a pleasant one.

Perhaps the most controversial horror title of the year (for long-time fans, anyway) was the new EVIL DEAD. Not quite a remake. Not quite a reboot. Call it what you will… for me it worked quite well and entertained me from beginning to end.

YOU’RE NEXT! was perhaps released too closely to THE PURGE (even though it was filmed first) to stand out on its own, but it’s a pitch-perfect “siege” thriller without gimmicks, boasting plenty of jolts, shocks, humor, perversity and THE best ending of the year. Oh, and it has Barbara Crampton. So there you go.

The previous title had me sorely tempted to call “winner,” and I honestly think it’s more of a tie than anything else, but THE CONJURING represents so much more in the big picture… it’s vindication for James Wan against everyone who thought he was a one-trick “torture porn” pony and scorned every non-SAW effort he offered. This “based on true events” haunting/exorcism tale didn’t have an unfamiliar concept in its entire body, but Wan and company treated it like they were doing it for the first time and without a trace of irony and delivered one of the best (and SCARIEST) horror films of recent years. And now we’re going to lose him to the mainstream as a result, apparently…

THE MIDDLE GROUND:

Why, it’s James Wan again. INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 was slick, efficient and more than competent. It was also one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made. Still, the fadeout hints that this series can still be taken in a fresh direction. Whether Wan gets/wants to helm another horror movie is anyone’s guess at this point, though.

I’ve always enjoyed the work of OLDBOY’s Park Chan-Wook and was looking forward to his first English-language feature. STOKER gave us immensely affecting performances and gorgeous art direction and photography. I wanted to love it. I also understand it as a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, but it was the repeated hammering home of that point that constantly distracted me and made me wonder if Park was putting me on (“see that bit from PSYCHO I just did there? If you missed it, I’ll do it again. Hey, here it is for the third time in ten minutes!”).

Then there were three in a row that actually DID play at my local arthouse, but screenings were restricted to one nightly showing out of my reach and pay-per-view was, ironically, cheaper. And about worth it.

With twenty-six short films to choose from, how could THE ABCs OF DEATH land anywhere else but the middle category? There was some great stuff, there was some revolting garbage, and there was some just plain nonsense. I’m not looking forward to another installment… it’s simply too much to sit through in one gulp. For the record, my favorite bits were “D is for Dogfight” and “Q is for Quack.”

Don Coscarelli’s JOHN DIES AT THE END. I’ve got friends who swear by this feature and who enjoyed every second of it. And I’m happy for them, and I liked quite a bit of it myself. I simply could not get ‘immersed’ the way I was hoping to be. Maybe I’ll try it again sometime. Sorry.

And the year that gave us Barbara Crampton also gave us a fine showcase for Jeffrey Combs in WOULD YOU RATHER. I just wish the SAW-school story had given us more of certain characters and a more inspired wrap-up.

Back to the big screen… another movie I really wanted to love was Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM–it began terrifically and stands out as his most original feature to date–unfortunately, it lost track of itself in a sea of obvious Ken Russell tributes en route to an incoherent ending.

And for all the ballyhoo? WORLD WAR Z also started off with a bang but never quite brought the intensity the way it should have. In the end, it wasn’t awful. It was just… okay.

The CARRIE remake disappointed by being just that–a direct remake of the Brian De Palma film as opposed to a new take on potentially timeless material. Julianne Moore and (for the most part) Chloe Grace Moretz redeemed it with their performances, but it all went to hell the moment the bucket dropped.

As for SCARY MOVIE V? The ONLY reason it doesn’t land at the bottom of the slagheap is on the strength of a truly hilarious and up to the minute EVIL DEAD tribute sequence. For the record, it used MAMA, of all things, as its “base.”

THE BAD:

I suppose the best thing about the horror year 2013 was the dearth of truly dreadful films. I was torn between putting DARK SKIES in the middle ground on the strength of one very good character (the weary, resigned alien expert), but the film itself was too much of a generic rehash that borrowed far too much from POLTERGEIST to impress me.

TEXAS CHAINSAW tried to be different, but I found it woefully misguided, shallow (I kept asking why the appealing Tania Raymonde was given NOTHING to do but “be a slut,” for one thing) and incomplete–not to mention almost completely pointless as a 3-D project.

But you’re not going to find a worse film than THE LAST EXORCISM PART 2… pretty much anywhere. And it’s all the more shameful considering how impressed I was with the first installment. This was the crudest of would-be-cash-ins and it had absolutely nothing to offer. And don’t blame the overly familiar subject matter, either. Look at THE CONJURING and end this year on a good note instead.

What does the future hold? Well, I’d sworn off any further PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, but now they went and used the title for an “in name only” installment that at least has nothing whatsoever to do with that overplayed suburban family. So I’ll start there, regardless.

Happy 2014!

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklers

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