M.L. Miller aka the @$$hole formerly known as Ambush Bug here! I posted my very first horror reviews on October 1, 2010 and have been posting every Friday ever since on AICN until just recently. I’ve uprooted the show and taken it to my own site just in time for this year’s Best of the Best in Horror Countdown. It’s going to be running all through October, counting down to the best horror film of the year. Some of these films can be found in theaters, but others have unfortunately only seen the light of day on Video On Demand or simply go straight to DVD, BluRay, or digital download. I’ve tried to indicate in the reviews where you can check these films out.
As far as how I compiled this list? Well, I simply looked through my reviews over the last year since October 1st, 2016 and worked and reworked the list until I had 31. No real method to my special brand of madness. We’ll be counting down every day until Halloween to my favorite horror film of the year. I’ll also provide a second film suggestion at the end of each post that is worth nothing or missed being on the list by a little bit for those who can’t get enough horror.
So let’s get to it! Chime in after the article and let me know what you think of the film, how on the nose or mind-numbingly wrong I am, and most importantly, come up with your own list…let’s go!
#26 XX #26
Why is XX #26? Because it stands as an important film as it features some of the brightest and most up and coming female filmmakers in the industry. While not all of the stories in this anthology are perfect, this collection serves as a testament that gals can do scary too. You can find it here on iTunes and Amazon here!
Available On Demand and Netflix from Magnet Releasing!
Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Box”), Annie Clark (“The Birthday Party”), Roxanne Benjamin (“Don’t Fall”), Karyn Kusama (“Her Only Living Son”), Sofìa Carrillo (bookend animation)
Written by Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Box” screenplay, based on a short story by Jack Ketchum), Roxanne Benjamin (“The Birthday Party”, “Don’t Fall”), Annie Clark (“The Birthday Party”), Karyn Kusama (“Her Only Living Son”)
Starring Natalie Brown, Peyton Kennedy, Peter DaCunha, Jonathan Watton, Ron Lea, Michael Dyson (“The Box”), Melanie Lynskey, Sheila Vand, Sanai Victoria, Clayton Jackson, Laura G. Chirinos, Joe Swanberg, Jay Chirinos, Ozzy Villazon (“The Birthday Party”), Angela Trimbur, Breeda Wool, Morgan Krantz, Casey Adams (“Don’t Fall”), Kyle Allen, Christina Kirk, Mike Doyle, Brenda Wehle, Lisa Renee Pitts, Ruben Pla, Morgan Peter Brown, Lisa Costanza, Curt Cornelius (“Her Only Living Son”)
Find out more about this film here. @xxfilm, and on Facebook here
While I try not to get too political, I do want to recognize that while there certainly have been prolific female horror filmmakers, it still has been a pretty male dominated genre. At last year’s New York Comic Con, during my quarterly “Reinventing Horror” panel, we discussed the fact that much of horror has been seen through one lens. Now, I try to stay out of gender politics for the most part, but I do want to give attention to a sort of opening of the gates in terms of horror from other genders, other races, and other cultures. What is terrifying to one culture, may not be so frightening to another (see the evil sheet from UNDER THE SHADOW that I felt to be less than terrifying). Still, there is something to be said about the human experience and some horrors are universal.
XX proves both points and while it is not an overtly political feminist statement, it is horror from the minds and cameras of female filmmakers. I didn’t know what to expect going into this film. Was it just going to be a bunch of castration scenes, or were these horrors going to be more sophisticated. Turns out it was the latter. XX is a horror anthology first and a female horror anthology second. This means that it never beats you about the head and shoulders that it is a movie made by women. It’s just a good movie and for that, I appreciate it all the more. XX had a limited budget, but still, all of the contributors seemed to have given their all and the end result is a mixed bag of fun, frightening, and thought-provoking horror that works. Sometimes, if you dig deep enough, there is a feminist message in there (you can do that with pretty much any kind of film, BTW), but those who want to come at this as simply a horror movie with a variety of scares are going to be surprised that this one can be viewed without taking politics into consideration. Then again, it’s there if you dg enough and I did so a few times in the below review.
The first segment is by former Rue Morgue Magazine Editor and producer of XX, Jovanka Vuckovic and I think was the perfect way to start off this anthology. The story is not overtly feminist in the least, but instead is more subtle with its message while never forgetting that this is a horror story. In “The Box,” a curious young boy asks a stranger on a train what is in a box he has on his lap. The man happily shows what is inside, despite his mother (Natalie Brown) attempting to keep her child from being nosy. When the boy gets home, he kindly refuses to eat dinner, to which his mother and father shake off as the boy sneaking snacks at school. But when this continues for days, with the child refusing to eat, the story gets much more dire. Soon, the boy is telling the rest of the family members, one by one, what the secret of the box is, leaving the entire family, save the mother, without hunger. The story exemplifies a fantastic build tension as each family member visibly withers away while the mother is forced to watch, not knowing what to do. This palpable dread is realized in an awesome, yet patient manner, progressing to a horrific end.
I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to look at this segment, and all of the others for that matter, through a feminist lens, as that is the point of this anthology. In this segment, it is the mother who works while the father is the stay at home dad. He is the one who gets emotional when the kids don’t eat, while the mother calmly observes and thinks nothing of it until it’s too late. I don’t want to read too much into this, but my interpretation is that “The Box” wants to address the real guilt women often get when leaving the home and going against gender roles. Brown’s mother character is rather distant at times, not pressing the issue or supporting her husband when he wants to make this hunger strike an issue. This reversal of gender roles in the household is a powerful way of subtly dealing with feminist issues, while all the while telling a compelling story with real heft. Patience, subtle musical cues, and some very miniscule CG to make people look emaciated make this a simple, yet powerful little opener.
Next up is “The Birthday Party” a fantastic dark comedy starring HEAVENLY CREATURES’ Melanie Lynskey. While this one plays shorter, it really does do a lot with very little as a well to do mother (Lynskey) tries to make her daughter’s birthday party the best it can be. Too bad father has died in his office over night. But Lynskey’s character doesn’t want to let that get in the way of a good party, so she does her best to try to hide the body from her child, her housekeeper, and all of the party guests. A lot of what makes this short segment so good is the fact that Lynskey is such a great actress with a lot of great comedic timing. The film, written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark (aka songstress St. Vincent) and directed by Clark, is best when it lets Lynskey shine in an almost Lucielle Ball like manner to try to cover up the body. Some nice musical cues set to slo mo towards the end makes everything nicely comedic and darkly dramatic all at once. This one was slickly produced, but very short. The final alternate title sequence for the short is equally entertaining.
“Don’t Fall,” written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (who also contributed to the SOUTHBOUND anthology) delivers as straight forward a monster segment as you can get. As with all of these shorts, this one breezes by very quickly , but delivers some nice performances from THE FINAL GIRLS’ Angela Trimbur and Breeda Wool as a group of campers find themselves in an unmapped territory with ties to ancient evil beings. The result is an assault on a trailer home that is pretty epic, albeit very short and to the point. What this installment showed me though is that Benjamin knows how to make her shots exciting and vibrant. We’ve seen attacks like this in many a horror film, but Benjamin makes it all feel new and electric with come creative shots and some fresh gore. While this one went by too quickly for my liking, I liked what I saw under Benjamin’s direction in that it takes a typical horror scenario and makes it atypical through creative camerawork.
The final segment “Her Only Living Son” is from THE INVITATION’s Karyn Kusama and much of the same notes of paranoia that permeated every scene of her comeback film from last year occur in this short as well. This one focuses on the sacrifices mothers make for their children. Paced nicely with some fantastically wicked little beats along the way, this short follows a mother (POWERLESS’ Christina Kirk) who is struggling with the knowledge that her son is turning 18 and becoming a man. While on the metaphorical sense, this segment is steeped in empty nest syndrome, Kusama casts a more devilish pall over the dilemma by adding in a secret conspiracy, a pact made long ago, and a looming monster who is intent on taking her son away from her. This film could have easily been a continuation of such films as THE OMEN or ROSEMARY’S BABY as they all deal with motherhood and the fear a woman has that what they have created would one day become evil. Kusama shows her sophisticated storytelling skills by pacing this one out perfectly and coming to a conclusion that is dramatic and epic, though it plays out simply and probably didn’t break the bank. All in all, this is a nuanced and resonant segment that made me want to call my mother afterwards.
Each segment is bookended by the surreal and macabre stop motion animation one saw in those old Tool videos like “Sober” and “Prison Sex.” These segments were created and directed by Sofìa Carrillo, these set the tone nicely for these four segments utilizing broken toys wandering through a gothic mansion. XX is a fantastic little anthology, filled with both heady and hearty horror. I found it to be less of a political statement about womanhood and more of a simple statement that there are quite a few female filmmakers out there who are able to make good horror. I hope to see more from each of these filmmakers as all four segments were well produced and successful in telling compelling and terrifying little ditties.
Worth noting: PREVENGE!
Made by another strong female director, this one pregnant during the time of shooting! I’ve been aware that Alice Lowe is a fantastic actress since SIGHTSEERS, but I had no idea she had such a deft handling of comedy and tragedy. It’s on full display here in PREVENGE, a twisted tale of a pregnant woman tracking down people and killing them. The only reason this isn’t on the proper list is that it is more of a character piece and a comedy than a horror film, but if you’re looking for some off-kilter takes on motherhood, this one’s got it! You can find it here on iTunes and Amazon here!
Available on SHUDDER!
Directed by Alice Lowe
Written by Alice Lowe
Starring Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Kayvan Novak, Tom Davis, Eileen Davies, Dan Renton Skinner, Mike Wozniak, Marc Bessant, Gemma Whelan, Kate Dickie, Tom Meeten, Leila Hoffman, Sara Dee, Grace Calder, Della Moon Synnott as the Baby!
Find out more about this film here, @PrevengeMovie, and on Facebook here
Pregnancy is a horrifying time for women. As a man, I’ll never truly understand it, but PREVENGE does a great job of illustrating the horror one might feel whilst knocked up though its biting dialog and twisted story.
SIGHTSEERS’ Alice Lowe plays Ruth, a recent widow who finds out she is preggers soon after her husband dies in a freak mountain climbing accident. Though we don’t know specifically what her motivation is and how she is picking her victims, the film follows the eight month pregnant widow as she stalks, meets, and kills seemingly random people because the voice from her belly tells her to. As the kill count rises, Ruth begins to doubt her own sanity and dreads what she is about to give birth to.
Lowe was actually pregnant while this film was being made and this seems to add an air of legitimacy to the film through Lowe’s dialog as she describes what it is like to have a small person living inside of her, compelling her to do things she wouldn’t normally do, and controlling every aspect of her life. While this film takes it to an extreme and we can actually hear the baby telling Ruth who to kill, when to do it, and how to do it, the metaphor for the overall experience of being pregnant as a whole is pretty obvious here. Lowe is unbelievably honest about the discomfort she feels about having a person inside of her as well as taking on the responsibility of raising a life without the love of her life, making this one a truly tragic little tale. Even though Ruth is doing some pretty heinous things (like MURDER!!!), you can’t help but be sympathetic to her in her plight as we see her agonizing about killing people and dealing with the guilt afterwards.
Lowe delivers a smart and rich script that is heavy on darkly comedic situations and even blacker ways of getting out of them. The film is sort of one comedic situation stacked onto another and another until the end, but while the film repeats itself a few times, there is a point to it and an endgame in sight, even though it isn’t really shared with the viewer until late in the game. Punctuating these moments of murder are equally entertaining visits to a midwife who is concerned about whether Ruth is fit for motherhood. Though the midwife (Jo Hartley) is clueless as to how on the nose Ruth is when she describes the baby inside of her as a monster making her do horrible things, the double entendre that comes from these conversations about the highs and lows of motherhood are pretty brilliant.
If there is a problem with PREVENGE it is that it really isn’t all that scary. It’s not all that gory either, though the film does relish in taking the viewer along with Ruth into some extremely uncomfortable situations. This makes me pause a bit before recommending this film as a good horror movie because the normal feelings I feel during a horror movie just aren’t there. It’s more of a tragedy than anything else as if focuses on a truly desperate and cerebrally cracked woman trying to deal with the hand she was dealt and failing miserably at it. Lowe is deft in setting up darkly comedic situations to fall into and I laughed a lot here. And though this film didn’t really scare me much or gross me out (though the Cesarean scene is rough to watch), PREVENGE makes for an amazing little character study that is both metaphorically rich and emotionally potent.
THE COUNTDOWN SO FAR…
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow Mark on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.
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