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The Year In Horror, 2014: Chris Alexander’s Top 10 Films

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The days of December deplete and 2014 is well on its way to oblivion, and with it goes the 35th year of FANGORIA.

I saw hundreds upon hundreds of films, most of them old or obscure as I am a prisoner of the past; some were new and awful; some were indie and unwatchable; some were bursting with ingenuity and ideas; a few were masterpieces. A few were shameful. Lots of flicks. Lots of words spilled about those flicks.

Oh, and I turned 40 this year.

Now, that last useless fact only matters because, at this stage in my life, I know that for a contemporary horror film to lock its jaws upon my throat proper, it has to not try to be a horror film at all. It has to forgo cliché. It has to challenge and speak to me on levels in which other films do not. What I love about classic cinema rarely figures into what I need out of movies made in the present. Older horror films are products of their time and place, and I am not terribly interested in films that imitate without aim to progress.

Take that or leave that. But with that sentiment, allow me to dish on the films that left the largest impact upon me this year.

In no particular order…

NURSE (dir. Douglas Aarniokoski, dist. Lionsgate)

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Or NURSE 3D, if you saw it in stereo, but considering very few did, we’ll just call it NURSE. I ended my Best of 2013 list last year citing that NURSE would top my list this year and seeing as I’m a man of my word, here it sits. I loved this weird, trashy, skeezy yet oddly classy deranged soap opera noir in which the statuesque and reportedly nuts Paz de la Huerta pouts and prances across the screen as the world’s deadliest sexual deviant RN. The tacky voice over had me roaring, the dirty sex had me grinning and the senseless, ridiculous violence had me cringing. This is a modern “grindhouse” film done right, without the bullshit, computer-tweaked faux 70’s film grain, print flickers and ersatz missing reels. This one is about fetishizing sex and violence while celebrating cheap thrills, not sadism. And I loved that, buried in the cartoonish goofiness of it all, was a semblance of a soul, a sad motive for Paz’s deviant behavior. And speaking of Paz… what a creature. Wow…

ENEMY (dir. Denis Villeneuve, dist. A24 Films)

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My Canadian compadre Denis Villeneuve follows his equally deft thriller PRISONERS with yet another immaculately designed, atmospheric mood piece, once more starring Jake Gyllenhaal in a psychotronic performance as both a college professor and his exact double, an actor who is threatening to replace him. Or is he trying to replace the actor? Or is the world on the verge of an apocalypse? Or is Gyllenhaal crazy? And what the hell is with the giant spiders scuttling and pulsing in rooms and over cityscapes? Who knows and who cares. This is challenging cinema, very much a Luis Bunuel-inspired piece. Based on the Spanish novel THE DOUBLE, ENEMY trades in intensity and sheer weirdness and features doe-eyed Canadian “It” girl Sarah Gadon, who is fast becoming one of my personal feminine obsessions. And extra bonus points for having the movie shot in Toronto and neighboring ugly suburb Mississauga (where I grew up) and actually taking PLACE there. Trust me, NO movie takes place in Mississauga. EVER. It’s as boring as a dog’s ass. And yet here,  the city is terrifying, bathed in a yellow haze and filled with danger and sensuality. And my Granny used to live in one of the featured locations so I feel extra close to this one…

JOE (dir. David Gordon Green, dist. Lionsgate)

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Now, I love Nicolas Cage and many faithful FANGO readers know this. And some are mighty confused about that passion. But there’s no one else like Nic Cage. He’s entertaining, weird, cool and crazy; a performer of the highest order. And when he works with a director who knows how to channel that maniacal energy, he’s one hell of an actor. In David Gordon Green’s JOE, we get Cage, the actor, delivering a performance that in a perfect world would win him some awards that matter. You might think JOE is not a horror film, but if you think that, then you don’t understand what a horror movie is. This dripping Southern Gothic finds Cage playing, yep, you guessed it, a guy named Joe, who is about as flawed a dude as they come and yet has the heart and soul of a hero. Adrift in a rural world of drunks, rough trade, winos and scumbags, Joe has a moral code. And when he encounters a young boy who is a prisoner of his abusive, murderous, alcoholic father, he steps in with upsetting results. A nightmare of ugliness and lyricism, JOE has profound things to say about the darkness that lurks within the hearts of men.

MAPS TO THE STARS (dir. David Cronenberg, dist. Focus World)

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Another step in the evolution of the themes that make up the bulk of the work of maverick director David Cronenberg, MAPS TO THE STARS was such an arch snapshot of desperation and the banal evil of stardom that I read it as a horror film as well as as a perfect DC joint. Read my review HERE and see if you agree. And Sarah Gadon’s in it. So that’s a good thing.

NYMPHOMANIAC (dir. Lars von Trier, dist. Magnolia Pictures)

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Lars von Trier will tell you he’s made only one bona fide horror film and indeed, that film, ANTICHRIST is a landmark shocker. But for my money, every movie the man makes is a horror film. The pornographic, deranged, operatically debauched and yet oddly empowering and uplifting exploitation art film NYMPHOMANIAC is the best film Jess Franco never made.

NIGHTCRAWLER (dir. Dan Gilroy, dist. Open Road Films)

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Jake Gyllenhaal appears again, and again, another film that functions as “hidden horror”, a movie that plays with conventions and isn’t slave to pedestrian narrative. NIGHTCRAWLER kisses the cousin of TAXI DRIVER, following an obsessive sociopath (Gyellenhall, whose Bert-from-SESAME STREET unibrow is terrifying in and of itself) who finds purpose as a “nightcrawler”, a would-be videographer, chasing ambulances to accident scenes to capture gore and misery, selling the footage to a local news station run by Rene Russo. It’s great to have the still-super-sexy Russo back in a meaty role, and as Gyllenhall becomes better at both his “job” and his perverted manipulation of the voyeuristic world around him, her character becomes his vile equal. A fascinating, disturbing film that will stick to your ribs.

OCULUS (dir. Mike Flanagan, dist. Relativity Media)

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Haunted mirrors were mined by German trash master Uli Lommell back in 1980 with his popular sorta-slasher film THE BOOGEYMAN, but Mike Flanagan’s OCULUS takes the idea much further, anchoring the story of an evil looking glass with a heartbreaking tale of domestic breakdown that makes its final moments as affecting as anything I’ve seen in any great horror movie. Not without problems, OCULUS is still a serious-minded and majestic piece of modern horror, and further cements Flanagan’s status as a genre filmmaker who delivers the goods and transcends expectations. Read my full review HERE.

SNOWPIERCER (dir. Bong Joon-ho, dist. Radius-TWC)

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Maybe Joon Ho-Bong’s SNOWPIERCER is more of a dystopian science fiction action film than a horror movie, but horror is all I felt watching it. With its nightmarish futuristic train marauding endlessly through the frozen apocalypse, visually, SNOWPIERCER is unique. Its heavy handed, oft-mined themes of class systems and corruption are far less novel, but that’s okay because they kick into motion a bleak WIZARD OF OZ-esque odyssey from Hell, as one man from the slummy lower end of the train leads an uprising to the front to face-off against the mythic, never-seen engineer who built the vessel and is worshipped by the privileged as a deity. Along the way, there is tons and tons of violence, unsettling plot twists, oppressive sound design, claustrophobic production design, not to mention a jaw-dropping, hilarious and horrific turn by the great Tilda Swinton as a toothy, grinning she-devil who acts as administrator of the most hideous orders. I am not sure if SNOWPIERCER is a great movie or an awesomely bad one, but I loved it and it really got under my skin.

Speaking of…

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The other two films that really spoke to me this year were in fact on my Best of 2013 list, as I saw them at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Jonathan Glazer’s alarming UNDER THE SKIN is not just my favorite film of 2013, it’s my favorite film of 2014 and is a peerless picture that now stands tall in my top 5 movie obsessions of all time.  The other film that spoke to me that falls under this repetitive umbrella is Jim Jarmusch’s groovy, sensory vampire riff ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Another day, another brilliant Tilda Swinton performance.

Oh, sure, there were other great films my eyeballs absorbed and stamped onto by bloody brain, like THE BABADOOK, THE SACRAMENT, STARRY EYES… but for all the craft they offered, the plain truth is I forgot about them as soon as I left them. The ones above? I’m still thinking about them.

What were some of your favorite talkies this year?

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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