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Jeff Allard’s Best & Worst Horror Films of 2008

A Shock critic weighs in

Good horror was out there somewhere in 2008 – unfortunately it just wasn’t found in many theaters. The number of intriguing, much-talked about titles that most horror fans (including myself) didn’t have an opportunity to see this past year (thanks to studios who give wide releases to the likes of Shutter and Prom Night and let films like Trick R’ Treat or Midnight Meat Train either stay on the shelf entirely or get barely-there releases) is a depressingly long list all its own.

While it was all too easy to see the likes of The Haunting of Molly Hartley and Saw V, the year’s more promising efforts – such as Let The Right One In, Splinter, My Name Is Bruce, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Midnight Meat Train, Fear(s) of the Dark and Eden Lake (as well as the still-unreleased Trick R’ Treat) – weren’t nearly as accessible for fans to come across. I’m still waiting to see most of the films that I really wanted to see in 2008 – and as a result, my ‘best’ list sees a few excellent films sharing space with those that were merely satisfying, as well as with a couple of poorly-received films that I just couldn’t help myself from liking. Sometimes even when there’s good films to be had, a bad film just feels right.

1.) Let The Right One In: Once in a great while, a horror film will rise to the level of art, achieving a transcendent quality not common to the genre, and Let The Right One In marks one of those occasions. This Swedish film, directed by Tomas Alfredson, is the first great vampire film of the current decade (maybe of the last two decades – with Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 favorite Near Dark being the last worthwhile contender). The coming-of-age tale told here, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the screenplay), is told beautifully – supported by remarkable performances from child actors Kare Hedebrant (as bullied twelve year old Oskar) and Lina Leandersson (as Eli, a vampire forever in the body of a twelve year old). At first glance, I thought Let The Right One In was admirable but it didn’t hit me as a classic. But reflecting on the film days after, as I found its impact deepening, I realized that with the exception of George Romero’s 1977 cult classic Martin (which, it could be argued, is not truly a vampire movie at all), this is the first modern vampire film to really haunt me. To read Let The Right One In simply as a love story is to ignore the fate of Oskar’s middle-aged predecessor, Hakan (Per Ragnar), and to fail to imagine that there weren’t others prior even to him, companions (likely of both genders) that Eli encountered first as children only to have them grow old and inevitably need to be replaced. Even though this film ends on what is played as a light, open-ended note, the relationship these two characters are embarking on already has an abyss lying at its center.

2.) The Orphanage: This ghost story came out in some areas in 2007 but it played in my neck of the woods (and many other wider markets) this past January. Telling the tale of a woman returning to the orphanage that she was raised in and her long, determined search for her missing child, this eerie tale expertly mixed poignancy and shocks (including one startling scene that’s a literal jaw-dropper). Director Juan Antonio Bayon made his debut here and The Orphanage instantly marks him as one of the leading talents in the genre. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, I thought this sensitive supernatural tale was accomplished in its artistry enough to rival del Toro’s own celebrated Pan’s Labyrinth.

3.) Stuck: Based on the macabre true story of a woman who hit a homeless man with her car, then drove home to let the injured man bleed to death in her garage, stuck in the shards of her windshield as he begged for help, Stuck sees Stuart Gordon making bitter commentary on the banality of evil. If the real life case in question provoked the question of how anyone could be so callous to another human being, Gordon and screenwriter John Strysik dramatize in 85 terse minutes how deceptively easy it is for ordinary people to live in a moral vacuum.

4.) The Last Winter: Writer/director Larry Fessenden continues to make thoughtful horror films just under the radar of mainstream attention. Although he’s been making films for years, even many horror fans may not be aware yet of his intriguing body of work – which includes Habit (1996) and Wendigo (2001) – but this cautionary environmental tale with a mood that recalls the atmosphere of Carpenter’s The Thing (both in its icy setting and its escalating sense of paranoia) is arguably his finest film to date. Made in 2006 and given a very limited theatrical run in 2007, The Last Winter wasn’t able to reach a wider audience until its DVD debut this year. A moody dissertation on a planet in peril, The Last Winter unfolds with political urgency and narrative ambiguity.

5.) The Strangers: Usually when a film’s release is rescheduled as much as this film’s was, it’s a sign of trouble but this modest chiller went on to become a sleeper hit during the summer, winning the hearts of genre fans who were looking for a credible horror movie to come along after a dismal late winter and spring that was marked by the sorry likes of One Missed Call, The Eye, Shutter and Prom Night. I don’t think The Strangers is a perfect film but writer/director Bryan Bertino shows a natural instinct for generating scares and the imagery of The Strangers (such as the shot of Liv Tyler standing alone in the house as the sack-headed stranger stands in the distance behind her) already feels like it’s a part of the iconography of the genre.

6.) Quarantine: If every unnecessary remake were as competently made as this remake of the Spanish shocker Rec, horror fans would have a lot less to gripe about. While this Americanized version of Rec varies little from its source material, director John Erick Dowdle and writer Drew Dowdle (the team behind the still-unreleased The Poughkeepsie Tapes) don’t lose any of the original’s scares, either. Quarantine may be little more than a series of ‘gotcha’-style jolts rather than a film that gets under your skin but on a visceral level, it’s an expert piece of work.

7.) Rambo: Sylvester Stallone’s return to one of his signature roles wasn’t horror, of course, but Rambo is a film no genre fan can afford to ignore, as this was hands-down the year’s most hyper-violent film. With its graphic depiction of the atrocities occurring in Burma, Rambo evokes memories of the ‘mondo’ documentaries that were a staple of early ’80s home video, such as Faces of Death. And with its final, kill ‘em all onslaught, as Rambo brings it to an army of Burmese soliders, Rambo is a film that merits instant inclusion into the Gorehound Hall of Fame. With honors. Honorable mention goes to Punisher: War Zone in which The Punisher is depicted as a killing machine for the ages, making Jason, Michael, and Leatherface look like hopeless underachievers. Scoff at the half-ass plot and the sometimes overripe acting if you will but watch as Punisher: War Zone goes on to win cult movie immortality on DVD. Give both Stallone and Punisher: War Zone director Lexi Alexander credit for making modern action films that aren’t afflicted with Bourne-esque shaky-cam moves and spastic editing.

8.) The Ruins: The smart money would say that a horror movie about talking, man-eating vines is a tough sell. And judging by The Ruins‘ no-show at the box office last spring, the smart money would be right. But first time feature director Carter Smith should be commended for crafting a nasty little film that turned its attractive cast into shredded meat. Novelist Scott Smith (no relation to Carter) did a mostly admirable job of adapting his own best seller with a screenplay that made few concessions from the grim source material, leaving the most excruciating moments intact.

9.) Mirrors: Yes, everyone agrees that this movie is pretty terrible. I’m not here to argue that (although I will say that the production design here is stellar). On an objective level, Mirrors would be more appropriate fit on a ‘worst’ list but the hell with being objective. Few films entertained me as much as this did and in a year as loaded as ’08 was with films that made me want to give up and walk away from the horror genre forever (well, at least to leave it behind for a day or two), I have to give Mirrors some love. My DVD collection is brimming with cheesy films that I have a lasting affection for and Mirrors will join their company soon. It’s as cracked as a cursed mirror and I can’t wait to revisit it.

10.) The X-Files: I Want to Believe: This would-be revival of the cult TV favorite got crushed in theaters last July and was roundly dismissed by fans and critics as being a sorry return for Mulder and Scully. But while this wasn’t the electrifying comeback that devoted X-philes might’ve hoped for (among its disappointments, it squandered a brief appearance by Mitch Pileggi), I still think there’s much to admire about this film. Mostly I have to applaud director, writer, and series creator Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz for the perversely self-destructive move of betting the franchise’s future on the story of a gay Russian harvesting body parts in order to build a new body to attach his lover’s head to (with a subplot about a pedophile priest thrown in for good measure). Yeah, now that’s how to bring in the summer movie crowd! The decision to go with this storyline in favor of something more conventionally exciting may have been a commercial misstep on the part of Carter and Spotnitz but if it was a mistake, it’s one that I found to be ironically in character with the series itself. After all, it’s an archetypal Mulder move to follow your gut, forfeit the smart play, and end up looking a little foolish in the process. And to my mind, that’s not such a bad legacy for The X-Files to leave. Whatever I Want To Believe’s failings – whether they be noble or otherwise – David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson continue to be the brainiest of duos and I enjoyed being reminded of how much I’ve missed their understated, but unmistakable, chemistry.

As usual, a list of the worst films is always easier to compile because every year there’s just so much of them sucking time out of my life. Rather than waste even more time deciding what order that I hated these films in, I’ve just listed them alphabetically.

1.) Cloverfield: A lot of people loved this but I found it to be an all-around failure. To witness the ground-level perspective of a giant monster attack should’ve made for an instant classic but instead Cloverfield‘s grating characters and uninspired monster caused a lot of devastation without leaving a mark.

2.) Death Race: I like violence for the sake of violence as much as anyone else and I think Jason Statham is the man but this remake of the Corman classic was a non-starter for me, not even fit for spare parts.

3.) Fear Itself: Masters of Horror may have proved uneven through the course of its two seasons on Showtime but there were always some gems along the way that kept me interested. The network version of MoH, however, was just dismal (save for Stuart Gordon’s segment “Eater”). If horror is traditionally more effective in the short form (two of the genre’s most celebrated writers – Poe and Lovecraft – did their best work in short stories), why is it that anthology series are so hard to pull off?

4.) The Haunting of Molly Hartley: This past Halloween didn’t give horror fans much to celebrate, with this PG-13 tale of possession being every bit as lame and unscary as it looked to be. This is the kind of movie where all you can think of while watching it is of all the better genre films that are waiting in vain to be released.

5.) Lost Boys: The Tribe: Why a big budget sequel to The Lost Boys was never made baffles me. If second tier slasher films like Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine can be the subject of slick remakes that score major releases, why did the sequel to a cult classic and box office hit like The Lost Boys have to be such a shabby production?

6.) Mother of Tears: I think my days of rooting for Argento are done. Sure, I’ll keep checking out what he’s up to but Mother of Tears annihilated my hopes of another great Argento film. A few Argento-philes thought this was terrific but Mother of Tears didn’t work for me at all.

7.) One Missed Call: Yet another abysmal remake of an Asian spook story. Some movies should come with their own apology from the filmmakers (along with a promise that they’ll leave the film industry forever) and this is one of them.

8.) Prom Night: I’m just glad that the makers of upcoming remakes like My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th understand that an R-rating is the only way to go when it comes to revisiting classic slasher movies. I mean, the original 1980 Prom Night was lousy to begin with but this PG-13 version was just a full-on insult.

9.) Saw V: I know this series still has its fans, but at this point I believe its continued success at the box office is due to a lack of competition more than from audience interest. This latest entry was so absurd and so convoluted – even by Saw standards – that I just don’t get who’s still enjoying these movies. Other studios need to start putting their own horror offerings head to head with Saw so Halloween isn’t dominated by a lame duck franchise anymore.

10.) Shutter: This tale of yet another dark-haired ghost girl out for revenge runs neck and worthless neck with One Missed Call as the most piss-poor Asian remake of the year. One Missed Call arguably edges Shutter out on that count but with its tepid scares and plodding march to a Twilight Zone-ish twist ending (that ranked as a spine-tingling conclusion in its original Thai version), Shutter should’ve skipped theaters altogether and aired on NBC as an episode of Fear Itself.

For managing editor Ryan Rotten’s best/worst of 2008 click here.

Source: Jeff Allard