To say that I’ve watched a lot of horror movies in my day would be a drastic understatement. While I don’t profess to be any type of expert film critic, I know what I like and I think I know what makes a film great versus not so much.
I get asked for horror movie recommendations quite a bit, whether it’s a friend looking for a film within a certain sub-genre or someone else wanting to know the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, I find myself talking horror movies with people almost as much as I do music. So I thought, why not start writing more about them.
Welcome to the first of what will be monthly posts highlighting all of the horror films (and possibly series) that I’ve viewed from the previous month. Unlike the monthly music posts, where I only write about a handful of albums I truly enjoyed, I’ll be much more discerning here and let you know if I think a film is worth your time or not.
With out further ado…
The Woman In The Window (2021 – Netflix)
When I saw the trailer for this film I immediately added it to my growing “Remind Me” list on Netlfix. The book from which it was adapted played out like one long and loving homage to Hitchcock. The film, as is often the case, didn’t stack up. Amy Adams wouldn’t have been my first choice for the lead role. While there’s certainly no denying her acting chops, there were absolutely moments when I needed a more powerful performance that convinced me this person was actually unraveling. Instead I felt like she was acting down to the rest of the cast, all of whom looked like they were sleepwalking through the whole thing. Many astute viewers will also quickly pick up on at least one of the two big plot twists. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t necessarily lessen its impact, but if you’re going to make a psychological thriller drowned in mystery, at least make it…I don’t know…mysterious? The last ten minutes play out like something more akin to a bad action movie, which was really the final nail in this film’s coffin. Not the worst thing I’ve seen recently but if you’re tempted just go watch Rear Window instead.
Rating (1-10): 5
Things Heard & Seen (2021 – Netflix)
This was another Netlfix film that I was very excited for upon viewing the trailer, although part of my excitement stemmed from the casting of James Norton in one of the lead roles. (I was a huge fan of his work on the British mystery show Grantchester.) Unfortunately, once again, my expectations were much higher than what was delivered. The best part of this film was the toxicity and deterioration of the marriage between Norton’s character and his wife, played by Amanda Seyfried. I know this was adapted from a novel (one which I will admit to not having read), but somehow I kept getting this feeling that if the story had simply been written as a drama with a psychological thriller twist at the end it would have played out much better. Instead this movie tries to walk the line between thriller and straight ghost story, never really perfecting either. Most of the haunting elements feel forced, leaving so much of what makes this film watchable buried under things like hokey seances and questionable CGI. Not the worst film you’ll see, but there are certainly better of this ilk.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020 – Netflix DVD)
I have a confession to make. Whenever I see a film described as a “comedy horror” I usually turn tail and run in the other direction. While I love comedies that touch on horror themes – Beetlejuice, The Burbs, Shaun of the Dead, etc. – films that call themselves horror first and then attempt to weave in comedic elements are usually my least favorite of the genre by a mile. I watch horror films because I want to feel the intensity of them, there’s a sort of release there. Films that get goofy for the sake of goofiness within a story that should be otherwise terrifying can find a corner to crawl into and die a slow death. (Too harsh? Maybe.) With all of that said I thoroughly enjoyed 2020’s The Wolf of Snow Hollow. This film gets lumped into the “comedy horror” sub-genre but in actuality there really isn’t a single scene that’s supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny. There are moments where Jim Cummings’ sheriff has to deal with incompetence bordering on idiocy, and while these scenes certainly could generate laughs, they felt more surreal than anything else. Picture something along the lines of maybe three or four Andy characters from Twin Peaks trying to chase down a serial killer and you’ll understand the almost Lynchian approach to comedy in this film. It’s more about showcasing the absurdities of life than something akin to cheap fart jokes. The werewolf in question and the twist to get there felt slightly abrupt but that’s a minor complaint. This was an enjoyable watch and one that I’d undertake again.
Saint Maud (2019 – Hulu)
I had been patiently waiting since the end of 2019 to finally sit down with this British psychological horror, and thankfully Hulu delivered. The film centers around a nurse who after a traumatic experience in her former job falls deeply into her newly found Roman Catholicism. She gets a job as a live-in nurse for a terminally ill former dancer and becomes obsessed with saving her charge’s soul. I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you now that this was easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen this year. The acting is superb, the cinematography is gorgeous in a muted sort of throwback to classic 1970s cinema, and the story (penned by director Rose Glass) is tense at every turn. There is literally not a single interaction between characters in this film in which you don’t sit there waiting for something bad to happen. It’s a completely suffocating film in the best possible sense. Some may find the pacing to be slow at certain points, and there are moments where I might agree, however I’d also argue that the pacing is equally important as someone doesn’t simply go mad in the blink of an eye, it’s a long, terrible process and one that we are latched onto from the opening scene to the last. Oh, and speaking of that final scene? Instantly one of my absolute favorite final acts in horror history. It was so good I actually hit the rewind button and watched the last five or so minutes a second time, something I almost never do.
The Vigil (2019 – Hulu)
I’m almost always on board when a horror film takes various tropes and tries to run them through a new (or even rarely used) filter. In this case it’s the haunted house thriller set to a former Orthodox Jew who gets paid to keep vigil overnight at the house of a recently deceased Orthodox community member. Come to find out that an ancient, and malevolent, Hebrew spirit also happens to be looking for a new host. The concept alone was enough to pique my interest. The execution was enough to get me to stick it out until the end. Truth be told, outside the story’s setting and mythology there is very little in terms of originality in this film. Creepy old lady with cryptic messages? Check. Protagonist seeing things going bump in the night? Check. Secrets best left alone being uncovered? Check. However, there also wasn’t a lot to hate about this film either. The acting was solid, the story was decent, and the cinematography was well done. This wouldn’t be the first recent horror movie I’d recommend, but I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone to stay away from it either.
La Llorona (2019 – Shudder)
No, this is not the crappy American-made supernatural horror film that was vomited out of The Conjuring universe. This is the Guatemalan-made, Spanish language film that centers around a deposed dictator and his family who are basically living under house arrest after having a guilty verdict for the genocide of native Mayans overturned by the courts. While locked down and under siege from protestors looking for more justice than his comfy abode allows him to face, said dictator, his family, and the only two servants left in the household start to experience things beyond the physical world. Right from the first scene this film is a much more thoughtful, intelligent take on the La Llorona myth than its American counterpart. It offers real world destruction and debauchery as a backdrop which adds to the story’s tenacity, and helps it rise from simple ghost story to something much more poignant. (A foreign language film bests a similar Hollywood film? Shocking! <insert sarcasm font here>) If you’re looking for a film full of jump scares and ridiculous CGI then you should probably pass on this one. But if you are looking for a smart, gripping, slow-burn thriller then I highly recommend this film.
Crimson Peak (2015 – Netflix)
I decided this past month to go back and catch up on some films I missed upon their release. In certain cases I missed them on purpose initially because I just didn’t think they would be something I like. Sometimes a film surprises me…most of the times I’m pretty accurate in my initial assessment. When I look at the filmography of Guillermo del Toro every single film falls into two camps for me. I either absolutely love it, or I hate it. There’s virtually no in between for some reason. Crimson Peak unfortunately falls into the latter. To be brutally honest, I found very little redeeming value in this film. The sets and costumes were gorgeous, but beyond being pretty to look at this film falls flat. Every single acting performance misses the mark, the CGI ghosts are laughably bad and look like something straight from a rejected Disney film, and there isn’t a single likeable character in the whole damn thing. I have literally no idea why this film has garnered the praise it has. What am I missing? Hell, Stephen King himself went on record as calling the movie “terrifying” and “gorgeous”. I’ll allow him the gorgeous part, but terrifying? It was all I could do to stay awake until the big reveal (which I blindly guessed out loud to an empty room about 20 minutes into the film).
As Above, So Below (2014 – Netflix)
This is the perfect example of a film with an interesting concept, yet lacking in execution. Done as a found footage/mockumentary style film, As Above, So Below follows a Lara Croft knock-off, her colleagues, and a few locals into the world of Paris’ underground catacombs. What begins though as a tense, claustrophobic thriller quickly derails into a jump-scare fest where the only real thing you need to fear from everyone running around in the dark is the nausea all the shaky handicam footage produces. While there are a few surreal scenes that truly grab your attention (…wait a minute why is that car on fire in a tunnel…), this film relies way too hard on cheap thrills that never actually thrill. Still there was potential here to make something utterly esoteric, and thus utterly terrifying. Unfortunately either the writer/director didn’t realize it or decided that it wasn’t worth the effort.
Drag Me To Hell (2009 – Netflix DVD)
Remember when I said I hated “comedy horror” movies? Remember when I said that I’m usually right when I assume I’m not going to like a film? So what the hell was I thinking going back and watching a movie from a director whose filmography I’ve either loathed or ignored since 1987? I knew this was Sam Raimi’s attempt to recapture whatever magic he thought he produced with Army of Darkness. (Another film that I absolutely detest despite my love of the first two Evil Dead movies.) So why, why, why did I subject myself to this film. Forget the fact that neither lead actor could act their way out of a paper bag. Forget that the dialogue, characters, and story itself were all so dumbed down I felt like I was losing brain cells as I watched it. No, it really wasn’t until there was a guy flying through the air doing a fancy jig to some uptempo music during a seance gone wrong that I wanted to punch this movie in the face. Hard. Literally one of the worst horror films the 2000s ever produced. Every time someone gives this movie a good rating or adds it to a list of the Greatest Films of XYZ I want to throw up in my mouth.