2019 in horror was the year of cinematic surprises. I began it with high hopes for Ari Aster’s trippy looking Midsommar, which turned out to be nothing more than an update of The Wicker Man for Millennials with relationship issues. I also had considerable animosity towards the remake of Child’s Play upon its announcement. They weren’t including series creator Don Mancini, and they had updated Chucky to the Wifi era. It reeked of a big budget studio failure, but ultimately succeeded by being completely different than the 1988 original. I thought it was ridiculous that 47 Meters Down, an average shark film at best, was even getting a sequel. But the film, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, was surprisingly layered and featured a terrifically over the top finale. You couldn’t tell what was going to work and what would fall flat in 2019. Without further adieu, here are my picks for the best of the year that was.
Directed by J.D. Dillard
In the aftermath of a disaster at sea, a young woman named Jenn (the excellent Kiersey Clemons) washes up on a seemingly deserted island. Over time, she discovers the campsites and belongings of past inhabitants who have since disappeared. When darkness falls, she also discovers that the cause of the disappearances is a hideous monster from the sea. The girl uses her wits to wage war against the hungry aquatic beast, and the result is a lean and mean monster movie.
Given that we spend quite a bit of time alone with Jenn, it helps that she’s engaging and resourceful. Much of Kiersey’s performance is silent, since there’s no one to speak to, and her expressions masterfully convey her emotional states. On the antagonistic side, the creature is gorgeously designed. It’s an incredibly impressive practical suit augmented occasionally with CGI, and the end result is that this thing has personality. Bonus points for a truly badass and realistic final battle that plays to both Jenn’s intelligence and the creature’s deadly strength.
Sweetheart is Brundlefly’s movie of 2019 because it embraces a philosophy that mainstream Hollywood has mostly forgotten: don’t insult your audience’s intelligence. If you lay down certain rules for the world you are creating for a novel or a screenplay, don’t turn around and disregard them. Events happening ‘because reasons’ doesn’t work. When Jenn first sees the creature, she doesn’t knock it into the sky with a single Mary Sue punch. She flees in terror and waits for it to go away, as any of us would. During the finale, she uses the only weapons available to her: her diminutive size and intellect. As an audience, you want outcomes to feel earned. That’s where the excitement and drama comes from. If you have a protagonist who can do everything perfectly and has no weaknesses, congratulations! You have successfully ejected drama from your narrative. Five Sea Monsters out of Five.
Ready Or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
A young bride (Samara Weaving) marrying into a wealthy family discovers that she must first take part in a dark ritual. And the name of this arcane rite is… Hide & Seek? It seems that hundreds of years before, family ancestors made a deal with Satan for great wealth and success. But with every Satanic bargain comes the clause that requires a human sacrifice on family game night.
Black comedy meets buckets of blood in this often hilarious take on The Most Dangerous Game. Weaving, who livened up her previous horror films The Babysitter and Mayhem, shines here as a scrappy bride in a wedding dress. She ducks crossbow bolts and tricks family members into killing each other gruesomely. Ready Or Not, with its outrageous kills and one liners, is a fine choice for a gathering of friends. It’s a bloody party movie. Five Red Brides out of Five.
Directed by Alexandrein Aja
An Olympic swimmer (Kaya Scodelario) must rescue her father from a flooding house during a massive hurricane. Complicating matters is a horde of alligators swimming through the home in search of prey. Like a less sensitive and less contemplative version of Sweetheart, Crawl is designed to do one thing: keep you on the edge of your seat with the tale of a lone woman fighting back against amphibious evil.
Streamlined and sleek as a bullet, this one gave us one of the more finely crafted entries in the Nature Runs Amok subgenre. Crawl is another hit from French horror auteur Alexandre Aja, who gave us the brilliant and brutal remake of The Hills Have Eyes, Elijah Wood’s Maniac, the hilarious gorefest Piranha 3D, Haute Tension, the parking garage nightmare P2, etc. In short, this is a precision craftsman behind the wheel and it absolutely shows. Five Snapping Jaws out of Five.
Directed by Lars Klevberg
A young boy adjusting to a new move receives an advanced AI doll, which evolves from his best friend to his terrifying enemy in this bloody and R-rated remake of the 1988 classic.
After having its learning parameter safeguards removed by a sweatshop slave on the manufacturing line in Vietnam, an animatronic doll called Buddy is acquired by a big box store employee (Aubrey Plaza) as a gift for her lonely son, Andy. A recent move to a new school and friction with his mother’s new boyfriend have made Andy sullen and moody, but he perks up at the sight of a new and incredibly expensive mechanical friend. The doll, which can learn and make decisions, immediately names itself Chucky and soon attracts human friends to Andy. They swear, they smoke, they watch violent slasher films. Chucky takes all of this in and proceeds to “entertain” them by behaving like the crazed cinematic killers the kids worship. Andy is eventually forced to part with the doll after it becomes too dangerous, which leads to it falling into the hands of the sleazy apartment maintenance man. He hopes to sell the doll for a huge profit, but his tinkering with the internal electronics makes the situation even worse. And the killing spree begins.
I went into this one prepared for the worst. I didn’t like initial shots online of the doll’s redesign and I didn’t like the WiFi-era upgrade. But I was ultimately won over by the charming relationship between Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and Chucky (the amazing voice of Mark Hamill) and the conceit that the doll is only evil because he’s emulating us humans. The famed horror icon is re-imagined as sweet and child-like, nothing like the foul-mouthed hellion from the original franchise. He doesn’t even curse! But he does still have a penchant for blackly funny murders, such as when he slaughters a department store Santa Claus in front of a group of hopeful children and then orders an army of electronic toys to kill all humans. It’s meant to be funny, and it works. At the core of the original Child’s Play, you had a serial killer attempting to reincarnate himself in the body of the little boy who came to own him. In the remake, you have a doll who feels genuine affection for the boy and will go to absolutely any lengths to preserve that friendship. When he says he wants to be friends till the end, it’s not meant as a threat. It’s a promise. Five Broken Toys out of Five.
Directed by Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz
An engaged woman with a dark past is left with the hostile children of her fiancé at an isolated winter lodge several days before Christmas. In the midst of a relentless blizzard, tensions mount and terrifying truths surface.
Six months after a shocking family tragedy, true crime author Richard (Richard Armitage of The Hobbit Trilogy) takes his young son Aidan (Jaeden Martell from IT) and daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) on a holiday trip to the family’s snowbound lodge. Along for the ride is Richard’s new fiancé Grace (Riley Keough) and her dog. The children break into their father’s true crime files and discover that Grace was once the 12 year old survivor of a cult massacre orchestrated by her psychotic preacher father. 39 people died, and Grace was commanded to spread the cult’s teachings throughout the world.
After spending a fun day in the snow, Richard leaves the children in Grace’s care for three days while he deals with business in New York City. After being chilly as ice to Grace, the kids suddenly warm to her and even cuddle with her near a gas powered space heater.
In the morning, a massive blizzard closes the mountain roads as Grace discovers that her dog, her psychiatric medication and all the food and clothing are missing. Aidan forms the theory that the gas powered heater malfunctioned and suffocated them, and that they are now dead and trapped in Purgatory. On his way back up to the lodge, Richard stops at home and discovers something terrifying inside Mia’s elaborate doll house. And then the real nightmare begins.
Psychological horror at its most tragic and coldest. Like the snow swept landscapes of Grace’s mind and surroundings, this is an unforgiving and bleak exploration of human cruelty, faith and the lasting effects of trauma. Five Snowdrifts out of Five.
Directed by Patrick Lussier
A police detective (Omar Epps) pursues a seemingly dead serial killer who reappears every Halloween to kill again. Is it really the same man, or is this all one elaborate trick?
Making a horror film that successfully introduces a new slasher icon is no easy feat, particularly when the film in question takes place at Halloween. That patch of real estate is already lorded over by Michael Myers and Trick R Treat’s Sam. But it turns out there’s room for one more. Patrick ‘Trick’ Weaver is a teenager who suddenly snaps in the middle of a Halloween party and kills several of his peers. Unlike Michael, this kid is limber and lightning fast. It’s like watching someone doing parkour with a knife. After being apprehended by the police and taken to a local hospital, he escapes and is seemingly gunned down. A year later, he returns to slaughter at another Halloween shindig. And a year after that, and so on. It’s an unusual plot structure. Imagine if all the Halloween sequels took place in the same jam packed film, with Myers returning and getting defeated each time. Trick ultimately leads to a huge twist that is both completely ridiculous and also a helluva lot of good fun. Also, Jamie Kennedy of Scream fame appears as a doctor. Five Tricks out of Five.
Directed by Scott Beck & Bryan Woods
On Halloween night, a gang of friends experience a terrifying interactive haunted house.
This bloody masterpiece vied for 1st place with Sweetheart. Well paced, creepy as hell and gory, this Eli Roth-produced slasher romp redefines the haunted house sub-genre. The quiet and lingering moments are what will truly haunt you. It also features one of the scariest clowns in recent memory, and this one seems tailor made for Halloween party viewing. Five Masks out of Five.
I See You
Directed by Adam Randall
A small town police detective tracks the killer of a young boy back to his own home.
You want twists, turns and an engrossing enigma to puzzle out? I See You has you covered. It also has a creepy frog-masked villain, a moody performance by Helen Hunt, and a game changing plot twist that rewinds the first half of the movie and shows events from a different POV. This flick didn’t land with a splash in 2019, but is gaining traction on VOD. It’s a sleeper like Haunt, the kind of film you can’t believe didn’t get bigger visibility early on. Five Evil Frogs out of Five for I See You.
Directed by Mike Flanagan
27 years after escaping the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance (Ewan MacGregor) works in a hospice. He uses his Shine to help terminally ill patients peacefully cross over, until he meets a psychic child pursued by vampiric evil.
There are many elements of Doctor Sleep that work: Rebecca Ferguson’s spooky and complex villain Rose The Hat, Ewan MacGregor as the troubled adult Danny Torrance, the trippy visuals associated with psychic phenomenon, and the return of the infamous Overlook Hotel. Flanagan is a brilliant director, and the Overlook finale doesn’t disappoint. Five Hats out of Five for Doctor Sleep.
Directed by Joe Begos
A group of aging Vietnam veterans reunite for a friend’s birthday party, but then must protect a young murder witness from a drug lord and his gang of drugged mutants.
A punkish dealer named Tank peddles his designer drug, Hype, out of a movie theater lair. He and his female ninja enforcer oversee an army of mindless killing machines rendered loyal with doses of Hype. After a street kid named Lizard sees her sister murdered by Tank, she flees into a local VFW and seeks the protection of very drunk veterans partying the night away. Soon, the armies of bad guys show up with axes and machetes. What follows is deliciously gruesome.
Joe Begos makes movies for me. He churns out midnight cult flicks left and right, and his latest is his greatest. Neon-drenched, nightmarish, beyond ultra-violent and packed with legends like Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, William Sadler and more. Everything about it screams early 1980’s urban sleazefest. It’s the perfect midnight snack for Grindhouse hounds. Five Hypes out of Five.