Three crime films with some pretty horrific tones to them: The Black Panther (1977) The Candy Snatchers (1973) and Man on a Swing (1974). The Black Panther is one of the great unsung British crime films and chronicles the real-life robbery, kidnapping and murder spree of Donald Neilson, who most notably kidnapped, entombed and subsequently killed Lesley Whittle in a drainage shaft while trying to collect a ransom. The film does a great job showing how unhinged this guy is; The Phantom Killer from The Town that Dreaded Sundown immediately comes to mind looking at this guy's get up. It also really imparts on the viewer the terror of being in the clutches of a madman.
The Candy Snatchers has a similar plot in which three criminals kidnap and bury a young girl alive in a bid for ransom from her family, unfortunately, her step father uses this as an opportunity to collect a multimillion-dollar inheritance. The film has several twists and turns like that and creates a tense and bleak atmosphere in which you hope for a sunny resolution but at the end of which you are simply left saying "Damn…". Man on a Swing follows a cop (Cliff Robertson) investigating a murder and becoming involved with a creepy, malevolent little clairvoyant, played by Joel Grey, whom he begins to suspect may be more involved in one way or another than at first he thought.
Three films about houses of psychotic women: The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973), Symptoms (1974) and Singapore Sling (1990). In The Corruption of Chris Miller, when he takes up residence in the isolated country home of two reclusive, repressed misandrist women, a man who is wrongly thought to be a particularly vicious serial killer, suffers for it. Jose Ramon Larraz is one of my favorite horror directors and with Symptoms he created a truly great and atmospheric film about madness which imparts a rain-soaked sense of dread. Singapore Sling is a bizarre mashup of noir, horror and art film which tells the story of a detective searching for his missing lover and who winds up in the clutches of her murderers, a profoundly insane and incestuous mother-daughter pair who hold him hostage and incorporate him into their sex activities.
Three films about female revenge: Lipstick (1976), Remember My Name (1978) and Tattoo (1981). Lipstick is a rape-revenge film starring Chris Sarandon and the Hemingway sisters, Margaux and Mariel. A slimy rapist is acquitted after attacking a model and sets his sites on her younger sister for which she removes him from the earth. Remember My Name is a stunning film starring Geraldine Chaplin and Anthony Perkins about a murderess being released from jail and tracking down her former husband and ruining his newfound marital bliss in a bid to win him back. Tattoo tells the story of a model (Maud Adams) being kidnapped, held hostage and inked by a deranged tattoo artist (Bruce Dern) who seeks to realize his masterpiece on a living canvas.
THE RUNESTONE (1991) is an over the top, sense-defying would-be epic adventure that juggles Norse legends, a possessed Pennsylvanian archeologist and a glorious rubber-suited monster that terrorizes an art gallery with hilarious results. It’s supremely stylized, super silly and an overall singular experience that deserves to be far more notorious among genre fans than it currently is (full review HERE).
METAMORPHOSIS: THE ALIEN FACTOR (1990) is a science fiction horror hybrid that delivers a smorgasbord of deliciously old school special effects from stop motion animation to eye-popping puppetry. Not since THE DEADLY SPAWN (’83), (which this film was originally conceived to be a sequel to), has an alien invasion been so delightfully demented. Pass it by if you’re seeking out a heady plot or competent acting but if you’re of fan of monster mayhem, it’s a generous provider (More HERE).
THE RELIC ('97) wants to know what would happen if you combined a giant rhinoceros with some kind of spider/crab and let it loose on a well populated charity ball in the Chicago Natural History museum and frankly, so do I. Directed by the underrated Peter Hyams (CAPRICORN ONE, OUTLAND, the ever important STAY TUNED) and featuring one of the greatest casts ever assembled in the form of Tom Sizemore, Penelope Anne Miller, Linda Hunt, Audra “Mrs. Roper” Lindley and somehow even EGOT recipient James Whitmore. Although frustratingly dark and murky at times, THE RELIC still features an impressively gnarly beast and a highly appreciated decapitation or two (full review back HERE).
CREATURE (1985) may be yet another ALIEN (’79) rip-off but as far as wannabes go, it’s one of the best. Sure, you’ve likely seen all this before but unlike many of its brethren, CREATURE showcases some nifty set design, compelling characters (especially the wonderful Diane Salinger as Security officer Melanie Bryce), a formidable sharp toothed space baddie and plenty of freaky gore (More HERE)
UNDERWATER (2020) is drug down by an abysmal title and apparently not everyone is a fan of its divisive lead (Kristen Stewart, who’s actually great in this) but it’s still one the best sci-fi, horror, disaster thrillers of recent memory. It also ends up being quite the monster movie before the end credits role. Exploiting the universal fears of confined spaces, drowning and well, literally exploding, this beautiful to behold well-oiled suspense machine also offers some poignant thoughts on loss, recovery and the noble act of simple perseverance. I can’t recommend it enough and by golly, I’ve just convinced myself to watch it again as soon as possible (Full review yonder HERE).
TALK TO ME takes this year’s cake for me by a large margin. Danny & Michael Philippou’s merciless dunk into an unfriendly afterworld chilled me to the bone (and when I viewed it a second time it done my psyche equal damage). A wonderfully performed, freshly directed goosebump inflictor unafraid of exploring the complexities of grief and guilt, this is a truly frightening film that gives even an old codger like myself, great hope and anticipation for the next generation of horror. Much applause.
THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER is a rare treat that truly transports you into an another (wonderfully gloomy) time and place. I’ve had a lifelong love of seafaring horror films and Andre (TROLL HUNTER, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK) Ovredal’s take on “The Captain’s Log” chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is right up my rain-soaked, waterlogged alley. It certainly doesn’t hurt that this particular cruise features the most alarmingly frightening vision of a vampire since SALEM’S LOT (’79).
THANKSGIVING is a devout homage to eighties slashers (particularly of the Canadian variety) that impishly high-fives every beloved trope before it stomps on home plate AND is the best thing to happen to the titular holiday since green bean casserole was invented. Extra points earned for it’s opening mob scene take down of rabid consumerism. Many had been waiting for this flick since Eli Roth’s faux trailer of the same name appeared in 2007’s GRINDHOUSE but I feel like I’ve been sadly missing out on its existence since about 1981.
WHEN EVIL LURKS came around just in time to disprove my premature belief (aka wishful thinking) that I had outgrown my lifelong fear of possession films. Turns out that in the right, thoughtful hands there’s plenty of life (and death) left in the sub-genre that had me quaking in my bobo brand shoes as a child. There’s a wild, frenzied, uncontrollable spirit to Demian (TERRIFIED) Rung’s backyard epic that kept me happily grinding my teeth throughout.
M3GAN was built to last and pretty much achieved icon status before her films release based on her meme-baiting trailer alone. For decades, many have tried and failed to rival fan favorite, Chucky in the killer doll department and this smirky, knowingly campy, yet still uncannily creepy robotic hellion is the first to come close. None of this should work and yet its circuitry runs smoothly with zero glitch. I don’t know how they pulled it off but just as Megs did with a poor unfortunate bully’s ear, they happily did.
SCREAM VI leaves its predecessor in the dust and what more can you ask for from a slasher sequel? It’s New York City setting certainly did much to breath new life in the long in the tooth franchise but more impressively, it changed the trajectory of a few of its characters from snoresville to somewhat engaging. I’d rank this much higher if it actually had the cojones to off some of its leads but I thought it was a surprisingly invigorating (yet wildly implausible) jaunt just the same.
THE CONFERENCE is a Swedish black comedy that continues 2023’s slasher revival. It takes its time revving up but once its game pieces are securely in place, its a joy to watch them get mischievously knocked down with sly sight gags, clever editing, highly rewindable kills and a Bob’s Big Boy-esque masked killer with a hard to argue with motive.
INFINITY POOL is quite the challenging, slippery fish and I think we’ve established that I’m leaning toward tried and true comfort horror in my current mental state but I’m also easily mesmerized by both Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgard so here we are. I’m not sure I can explain the plot of this latest surreal mind-screw from Brandon uber-Cronenberg but suffice to say, it expertly stoked my fear of traveling to foreign lands and left me with a lingering feeling of unease.
EVIL DEAD RISE bravely takes its mother franchise into unfamiliar urban territory and although it may not utilize the full potential of its fresh environment, its penchant towards extravagant splatter is hard to argue with. If Alyssa Sutherland’s wickedly demonic grimace doesn’t get under your skin, director Lee Cronin’s gloriously gory (not to mention groovy) climax certainly will.
TOTALLY KILLER & THE BLACKENING are slasher comedies that I actually found genuinely funny. The former mixes BACK TO THE FUTURE time travel with neon eighties horror excesses to charming effect and the latter pointedly pokes fun of the genre’s sketchy history with black representation. Perhaps even more so than horror, comedy is highly subjective so don’t sue me if you ribs are more resistant to tickling than mine. I mean, I also found THE POPE’S EXORCIST hilarious so maybe don’t go by me!
COBWEB deep dives into childhood fears (especially of parents) and has a crisp, spooky Halloween vibe that’s hard to resist. Visually, it’s an eye-candy stunner, although it may have fared better in the scares department if it was more grounded and less precious and artsy (I’m also extracting points for including yet another home invasion by folks in animal masks bit). The direction and cast are great (Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr are memorably unnerving) but best to take this one in as a dark fantasy akin to MATILDA or CAROLINE rather than straightforward horror for full effect.
THE BOOGEYMAN and THE NUN 2 are audience-friendly jolt dispensers that may not have what it takes to set the world on fire but graciously delivered the well-oiled horror escapism that I (almost medically) require. Rob (HOST) Savage’s stab at Stephen King’s short story is more creature feature than its more psychological (and slim) source material and that’s way OK by me. The cast is top notch, the scares work and it does a fine job of representing those fears of things that go bump in the night. As for the latest cinematic run-in with the demon nun known as Valak, this sequel easily outdoes the original outing, features an awesome giant goat monster (!) and I have to admit I found myself strangely invested in the plight of its main characters. Both are about as mainstream as they come but still deserve kudos for delivering the goods. Additionally, I also had a pleasant enough time with the family drama leaning INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR though it may say something that my favorite part of that film was Patrick Wilson & Ghost’s cover of Shakespeare’s Sister’s “Stay” over the closing credits.
NO ONE WILL SAVE YOU involves an alien abduction and therefore I’m automatically intrigued. Written and directed by Brian Duffield (SPONTANEOUS) and starring the effortlessly expressive Kaitlyn Dever, this marathon-like take on the home invasion flick is brazenly in your face (there’s no cruel waiting for the final reel for a momentary glimpse of the intergalactic interlopers), non-stop startling and delightfully low on dialogue. It may not permanently destroy your well being like FIRE IN THE SKY (’93) but its captivating its its own stellar way none the less.
THE OUTWATERS and SKINAMARINK are the troublemakers in class this year and I don’t mind giving them props for willfully singing their own tunes no matter what’s on the radio. Both flicks are confounding puzzle jumbles at times (OUTS is a patience pusher, SKINS brings new meaning to the term vague) and yet, this devious duo delivered images (OUTS with its gruesome decapitated head sticks, SKINS with its diabolical Fisher Price phone) that will be burned into my brain forever and as a horror fan, I can’t help appreciating that. Additionally, I’m thinking Mark Jenkin's THE WICKER MAN wannabe ENYS MEN is a spiritual sibling to this off-center duo though as much as I loved that film’s poetic visuals, the rest of it pretty much flew kite-like right over my poor addled head.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN and SICK despite boasting the impressive pedigrees of KNOCK being directed by the periodically great M. Night Shyamalan and SICK being written by SCREAM’s Kevin Williamson, failed to make much of an impression on me. Still, both were entertaining enough watches thanks to heavy-lifting performances by Dave Bautista (KNOCK) and quirky Jane Adams (SICK). I wouldn’t be opposed to giving both a second viewing in the future because it’s highly possible I simply watched them on a zombie-mode off day.
SAW X was met with open arms by both fans and critics so I figured I’d give it a shot. I never had much motivation to keep up with the franchise but since this offering took place between the first and SAW II, I figured I’d be all up to date. Turns out that even though I dig the work of Tobin Bell and especially the great Shawnee (THE BLOB) Smith, even this above average sequel is still not my bag. I’m not feeling the industrial warehouse vibe or the moralizing (the pig mask is cool though!). I mean, this film opens with Jigsaw fantasizing about vacuuming some dude’s eyes out of his head all because he briefly considered stealing a watch! Talk about being tightly wound! I appreciate a good grudge, I guess I just like my killers to be a little more stoic and a lot less scold-y.
EXORCIST: BELIEVER is one of the few true clunkers that I witnessed this year and I’d like it to go sit in the corner and think about what it's done. What can be said about a legacy sequel that not only disappoints on a storytelling level but also frustratingly squanders the amazing cast it fails to deserve? But hey, let’s not end this ramble on a negative note, I will begrudgingly admit that it did feature some impressive make-up effects (even if much was jettisoned to the cutting room floor) and a competent performance or two. Plus, think of all the animals dear Linda Blair helped with her paycheck!
What were your favorite horror films of 2023? I know I’ve missed more than a few so leave a comment with your thoughts! Recommendations, opinions and dire warnings appreciated!
Around the age of 4, I was spending time at my Mamaw and Papaw's house which certainly wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Some of my happiest childhood memories took place inside their home and, usually, on the carpet in front of their RCA TV set or behind their recliners where they kept a handy dandy VHS rewinder so that they could always rewind the tapes before returning them to the video rental store. Yes, fine upstanding citizens, my grandparents. Beverly Sutphin approved! On this day, we were only stopping by for a few minutes and I headed into their wood-paneled TV room to see what they were watching. On screen, I saw a bespeckled man grabbing a late-night snack in a kitchen when his steak started moving across the counter with an icky squishing sound. Before long, the steak had erupted with all kinds of disgusting looking worms and guts and, to make matters worse, the chicken leg he'd dropped after seeing the shock of this spooky steak had maggots crawling all over it.
Thankfully, someone came in and changed the channel before I could see any more, but the damage was done and I was haunted. I figured I'd never be brave enough to watch this entire movie. Who could be? I couldn't even imagine how scary the rest of the movie had to be. It was several years before I got the courage to rent POLTERGEIST and watch it in its entirety and the rest of this scene, where this man rushes into the bathroom and starts pulling off chunks of his face, caused me to run out of the room with a shriek and come get my parents to take the tape out of the VCR for me, because I didn't even want to go back in that room. I was convinced the titular poltergeist had gotten out through the TV during that scene and was about to run amok in our home. Boy, was I glad I didn't see that full scene during my first encounter with the movie! As the years have gone on, I've certainly seen far more graphic films than POLTERGEIST, but I can't say that I don't always gulp and take a deep breath when I'm rewatching it and this scene's about to come on. Some of those early scares have a surprisingly long shelf life.
UNK SEZ: Thanks for the awesome and relatable traumafession, Chris! POLTERGEIST sure offered a plethora of indelible traumas! Folks, make sure you track down our pal Chris Moore’s latest film, the slash-tastic WHEN THE TRASH MAN KNOCKS! It’s currently stalking Amazon Prime and you can check out the menacing trailer HERE!
Lord help me, I rather enjoyed THE NUN 2. I’ve gathered this CONJURING universe offshoot is considered to be a lesser branch on the franchise tree but I appreciate its pure simplicity and love how it generously pours on the gothic ambiance.The ever unassuming Taissa Farmiga returns as sister Irene who, after some globetrotting and Nancy Drew-ing, discovers that her nemesis, the demon nun Valak (Bonnie Aarons) rather than being relinquished to hell as assumed, has hitched a ride inside her good buddy Maurice (Jonas Bloquet) aka “Frenchie” and is hanging out in a boarding school in France. I can’t help but find myself grossly concerned with the jump-scare-happy happenings that follow because gosh darn it, I really want these two characters to live full and happy, demon nun-free lives. This is one of my favorite aspects of cinema, it allows the viewer to feel empathy for other humans while keeping them safe from any damage that fellow humans may potentially cause. I’m fine with simply being a cheerleader here. Go Irene and Frenchie! Down with Valek! Boo too all evil demon nuns!
Much like ANNABELLE CREATION and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, I’m thinking THE NUN 2 is a happy step up from its underachieving foundation building predecessor. The scares (or at least the chair shaking, bombastic Dolby system my local theater wields) work well. In fact, one clever bit that plays with apophenia at a newsstand startled me even after I’d witnessed it countless times in the trailer. The titular Nun herself looks especially formidable throughout the climax and as hoary as many of the visual elements are, I have to admit they pretty much match my own personal aesthetic and I’d gladly hang many of the shots in this film on my wall. Better still, there is a previously unseen monster that makes a late in the game appearance (via a stained glass window no less) that absolutely turned my pupils into giant cartoon hearts. I wish I could describe this creature further without ruining his inauguration but suffice to say, I now covet an action figure of this glorious cherry on the cake beast. Consider me a convert, THE NUN 2 delivers the gruesome goods you'd expect and several you might not see coming.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE
I’ve always considered murder mysteries as horror adjacent fare and the latest Agatha Christie adaption courtesy of Kenneth Branagh A HAUNTING IN VENICE (proceeded by MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) & DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)) favors the fright zone even more so than usual. Based on Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party”, this outing (again featuring the director as detective Hercule Poirot) focuses on seances, curses, ghosts and of course, murder most foul.
On Halloween night mystery author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey… now, I know you may be thinking, “Hey Unk, one of the many benefits of being a horror fan is that it makes it easy to avoid movies that prominently feature Tina Fey” but trust me, Branagh is well aware of the delicate situation and puts her innate snarkiness to ample use) coerces a retired and uninspired Poirot to attend a seance in a cursed orphanage inhabited by a grieving opera singer (EDEN LAKE’s Kelly Reilly) in order to expose the assumed phony psychic medium Joyce Reynolds (recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh). Poirot is quick to find a slew of flim-flam falsehoods throughout the session but as the night progresses and bodies pile up, it appears something supernatural may actually be afloat. It’s unlikely anyone will get too frightened of the goings-on here but there’s absolutely no denying the cozy nest of tension built or the dark foreboding beauty of the surroundings. As an epic storm rages outside, Branagh dips into the Orson Welles bag of cinematic artistry he has not deigned to plunder since DEAD AGAIN (’91) and wow, Venice has not been this visually stunning and haunting sinister since Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW.
In our household, there are kids’ channels and picture-driven menus that corral my son and daughter to a safe haven of youth programming, and restrictions that prohibit them from most else, if they would even be so inclined to try venturing out of bounds at an early age.
For any other pentagenarians out there, the TV of my youth was navigated via a dial that you had to physically get up and turn and covered all of twelve channels (13 if you counted the “U”). The menu was the TV Guide at home next to Dad’s ashtray. As a kid, you knew when the cartoons were on, as well as general kid-fare, and the few channels that would deliver it. Saturday mornings, and about an hour before and after school was all there was, and even that was relegated to maybe two channels at best. The rest was a roulette wheel of “anything goes”, and the further the clock strayed from those kid times the better the odds were that you would stumble upon something best left unseen.
With that stage set, I remember vividly stumbling upon a rerun of The Outer Limits, one channel away from Philadelphia’s The Wee Willy Weber Show, which showed my favorite cartoon, Milton the Monster. The Outer Limits, in its high contrast black and white, was a great example of a trap show for impressionable young minds of the early 70’s. The episode (as I’ve backfilled with research) was Behold, Eck! – featuring a two-dimensional electricity monster that could only be seen with special glasses, by various forehead-sweaty scientists, and shrieking damsels.
Tame and goofy as it is by today’s standards, it was enough to nightmare me out, come bedtime. The remedy was simple enough….stay away from channel 5 during Wee Willy Weber.(approach the channel counter-clockwise, no less!) But therein lie the problem…I knew it was there, and just one small channel change away. I let it go a few days I suppose as my false bravado built, and debated a quick flick back and forth, for a quick peer into Pandora’s Box. I’m sure I had a few quick back-and-forth’s without any problem as I set approached the inevitable.
But then, of course, in the spirit of William Shatner opening his airplane window shade to be met with the fuselage-ripping Gremlin, I managed to go from this: