With just days before the end of 2013, it’s time to reflect back on the best in horror this year. It was a pretty good one, with exceptional frighteners found on the big screen, the small screen, and even on Smart phones. Here then, are the ten best of the genre I viewed this year.
The scariest and most deftly told tale of terror at the Cineplex this year was “The Conjuring”. Insidiously directed by James Wan, this haunted house saga earned its scares through the sharply focused screenplay by Chris Hayes and Carey Hayes that dwelled upon believable dread rather than cheap scares (http://exm.nr/JAGmX0). Ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigate the ghostly activity in a 1970’s farmhouse that leads to dozens of thrills, chills and a demonic possession that’s truly terrifying because it’s so believable. The Warrens conducted many paranormal investigations, including the Amityville Horror case, and here’s hoping that the potential franchise lives up to this sublime starter.
What new things could possibly be done with the story of Hannibal Lecter to keep enthralling horror audiences? How about a TV series prequel that serves up the cannibalistic character's origins? As told by show-runner Bryan Fuller, it was not only the highpoint of horror on television this year but it was the best done horror I saw anywhere in 2013 (http://exm.nr/19uO7rE). Focusing on the aftermath of the serial killer’s crimes, including the emotional effects on his FBI cronies, this NBC show was an intricate game of psychological cat & mouse. Filled with a sublime cast playing rich characters (including leads Hugh Dancy as profiler Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen as the title character), it also contained some of the best production design and cinematography ever in the medium. And it sustained a taut sense of dread that few movies could ever muster. (And all this with commercial breaks!)
Director Chan-wook Park plays in the world of Alfred Hitchcock with his film about a strange uncle (Matthew Goode) who insinuates himself into his brother’s family and seduces both the mother and daughter (Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, respectively). The uncle is a sociopath and his hold on the troubled teen raises the question of whether evil comes by nature or nurture (http://exm.nr/1bvcDFF). It's smart, sexy, and uncompromising in its darkness. And the scene where Wasikowska showers after partaking in a murder remains one of the most chilling scenes in any genre movie this year.
“iPoe Collection Volume 2”
Edgar Allan Poe has seldom been successfully transferred to any screen. (2012’s “The Raven” starring John Cusack had noble intentions but ended up conjuring more Eli Roth than Poe.) Leave it to Creatividad to create a perfect screen adaptation with their iPhone app (http://exm.nr/1inaF2k). It showcased three of the most famous of Poe’s prose in 2012, and this year’s second volume was even a greater success. Brought to life through the animated illustrations by the brilliant David Garcia Fores, it made your Chicago Horror Examiner wonder if all further Poe adaptations for any screen shouldn’t be animated as well.
Jessica Chastain dazzled in early 2013 with the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and again with her Emo girl turned reluctant mom in “Mama”. She and her boyfriend take in his brother’s long-lost-in-the-wilderness girls and attempt to give them a stable home. That’s difficult when a shrieking banshee follows the girls everywhere. This ghost story never quite went where you expected it to go, starting with the casting of Chastain in such a dark role, and the payoff was stellar as this unpredictable tale kept audiences, including yours truly, on the edges of their seats.
Two home invasion stories hit Cineplexes this autumn – the barely watchable “The Purge” and “You’re Next”, a cheeky black comedy about a dysfunctional family battling intruders outside and jealous siblings inside. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett get lots of credit for keeping the twists coming and coming here. And they also deserve plaudits for finding a good role for the beautiful Barbara Crampton to return to the genre in. Here's hoping we see more from all of these terrific talents.
Vera Farmiga had a banner year starring in “The Conjuring” and this A & E television series about the origins of Norman Bates and his mother (http://exm.nr/1bvffmR). Given a modern update, the show's rewrite kept the legendary characters from “Psycho” both fresh and yet familiar. Freddie Highmore made for a sweet and sympathetic Norman as a teen, and Farmiga made us understand the man and monster he'd soon become from her excessive smothering. And the supporting cast made a terrific impression too, from Max Therioit as Norma's other son Max to Nestor Carbonell as the corrupt sheriff to the effervescent Emma Cooke as Norman's compassionate school mate. The second season starts in March 2014, so do check in, won't you?
Relate to a serial killer with more sexual hang-ups than Norman Bates? Yes, if it’s this shrewdly told remake of the 1980’s grindhouse classic (http://exm.nr/1gbHxbd). Director Franck Khalhoun tells this film's story from the POV of the deranged young man Frank Zito (Elijah Wood, about a million miles from Middle Earth here). We see everything he sees, from the attractive women he wants to love more than covet, to the boredom he faces when not prowling the night looking for escape. This film doesn’t ask us to sympathize with such a maniac, only to understand how such a twisted soul sees the world. It’s hard to watch, true, but impossible to look away from.
Expertly made by writer/director Eric England, despite an indie budget, this frightening film put bigger-budgeted fare to shame. A young woman (Najarra Townsend), coming off a break-up, has sex with a stranger she meets at a party. Then, stranger and stranger things start happening to her. Her body starts to crumble due to a monstrous STD and along with it, so goes her sanity and her world of order. It’s a savage black comedy dissing the lies we all tell ourselves and each other. And the fact that it takes place in a self-absorbed LA makes the pungent commentary all the richer.
Another TV re-imagining like “Hannibal” and “Bates Motel”, NBC’s vampire saga rewrites almost all the clichés of Bram Stoker’s oft-told tale. And miraculously, the results are spectacular and a must-see. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the count in Victorian England out for revenge against the Masonic-like order that destroyed his life centuries earlier. The reworked narrative here challenges our notions of who’s who in the “Dracula” oeuvre as Van Helsing is an ally and Renfield is an African-American lawyer this time out. And most surprising of all is how Dracula’s bite has nothing on the teeth of the elite 1 % he’s up against in this richly rewarding new take on the oldest of frighteners.
Those are my ten best in horror for 2013 - six movies, three TV shows and one phone app - and if you missed any of them, you can catch most on Netflix, VOD, at iTunes, or on TV in 2014. Happy New Year and happy haunts too!