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!
#5 IT #5
Why is IT #5? Well, IT being the highest grossing horror film ever has a lot to do with it. Millions of people can’t be wrong. And I agree, IT is a potent little horror film. While my reservations about the film lay in the structure they chose to take for the film which basically leaves the second half set in the present and kid free. The part with the children is the strongest in the miniseries and from what I hear, the book itself. Taking that part out of the second half is going to be tough without cute kids and nostalgia to rest upon. I’m rooting for it though. You might just be able to catch IT in theaters still and it’ll be around soon enough through the usual outlets.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga & Gary Dauberman (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Molly Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders, Megan Charpentier, Joe Bostick, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Katie Lunman, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee, Edie Inksetter, Martha Gibson, Neil Crone, Sonia Gascón, Janet Porter, & Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise!
Find out more about this film here, @ITmovie, and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
IT is the type of big blockbuster horror I’d love to see more of. While it isn’t a perfect movie, it will bring attention to the horror genre and you’re going to see plenty of headlines reading “Horror is a big thing again!” With the success of the film, expect knockoffs from unimaginative hacks. But despite that, it allows mass audiences to try to understand what it is about horror that we all love. Maybe more money will be put into the production of some other genre filmmakers project because of IT and because of that, I am not hating it for its mass appeal. MAMA director Andy Muschietti put together a slick production, a talented cast, and one hell of a scary clown to produce one of the best looking horror films of the year.
IT focuses on the town of Derry. A small town with a long history of violence and death. More kids go missing in Derry than anywhere else. And it seems that every 27 years, a major catastrophe causing a large loss of life occurs. While the original miniseries interspersed the stories of the adult protagonists with a tale from their youth, IT focuses directly on the childhood years, or rather, one summer where a group of kids’ innocence was lost to an entity they refer to as It. After the death of a young boy named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), seven kids are each haunted by a clown-like entity and are proven to be no match for him. But together, this group self-dubbed as the Loser’s stand a chance to vanquish this monster.
Taking full advantage of our love of all things Amblin, Muschietti is able to capture that nostalgia of riding your bike through suburban streets until dark and getting into all kinds of adventures. It’s an American dream age/simpler time that many folks long for and the establishing shots of the summer of 1985 really does feel authentic through Muschietti’s lens. It’s the real feel of familiarity and nostalgia that Muschietti lulls us in to a comfort zone to be disrupted by Pennywise the Dancing Clown played by Bill Skarsgård.
Skarsgård is a standout here. It would take something original to break the mold Tim Curry set as Pennywise the Clown and apart from being a clown and speaking some of the same key lines, breaking that mold is exactly what Skarsgård does. From his first appearance, cleverly shadowed all but his mouth and eyes inside a sewer drain, Skarsgård is the epitome to menace and innocence lost. Seeing a creature that is meant to entertain be twisted and perverted as it is with Pennywise, it truly is the stuff of nightmares and Skarsgård brings a lot in simple unblinking eyes, some drool from his pouty lips, and a cartoonish voice that is both outlandish and tempting as he tries to lure Georgie into the sewer where he can float with the rest of the circus. This opening scene is staged and played perfectly by all involved and this seduction Pennywise is attempting with Georgie is terrifyingly realized and paced to perfection, culminating with some truly graphic violence that tells the viewer that we are about to witness some truly awful stuff.
But it is in these opening moments that a glaring problem occurs. Pennywise is successful in luring Georgie into the sewer by being subtle, more like a fisherman tugging a lure ever so slightly in order to get his prey and eventually, it works. This scene takes a while to play out, but the tension is nerve-shredding. Later in the film, Pennywise adopts a more aggressive tone, choosing to appear as the kid’s worst fears and simply trying to take them with force. I would have liked to see a little more variation to Pennywise’s strategy with some temptation and subtlety rather than simply bombastically running at the kids and trying to snatch them up. Sure it makes for a startling jump scare, but repeating it seven times for each kid kind of gets tedious, even though Muschietti varies it up with different twisted imagery. Still, each attempt to take the kids can be summed up with Pennywise or some kind of version of Pennywise haunting and scaring the kids and then charging them. Why change to a more aggressive strategy when the baiting one worked so well with Georgie?
That said, this cast of kids is so, so good. All of them (okay, maybe despite the reserved performance of Chosen Jacobs and Wyatt Oleff who gets less screen time than most) are realized in a likable, yet flawed way. Standouts abound. Sophia Lillis epitomizes that girl everyone is has a crush on, and she knows it, but simply doesn’t care because hanging with these losers is better than the hell she has at home. Finn Wolfhard might have been the only distraction simply because of the similarity of the imagery to STRANGER THINGS, but his Mouth from GOONIES like demeanor sets him apart from that role pretty well. Jack Dylan Grazer is hilarious and tragic as the hypochondriac and common sense spouter of the group. Jeremy Ray Taylor is the shy kid in all of us, who longs to connect, but is just too self-conscious to do anything. Taylor plays the role perfectly and instantly becomes something much more than another annoying fat kid Chunk stereotype. And leading the Loser’s is MIDNIGHT SPECIAL’s Jaeden Lieberher who is flawed himself, yet shows leadership and bravery all the way through. His obsession with finding his lost brother is the guiding force of this film and Lieberher is believable all the way through.
While Muschietti relies a little too much on the “comin’ at cha!” effect and jump scares in this film, the moments where he calms down and simply plots out a suspenseful scene is pretty great. The child cast worked with honors. And Skarsgård proved to be a risky, but inspired choice as Pennywise. There’s a lot to love about this movie, despite it’s flaws, but the true challenge is going to be the second movie where you don’t have the comfort of nostalgia or the cuteness of child actors to propel the story and win the audience. Casting will be crucial with IT: CHAPTER TWO and I’m rooting for it to work. While the adult portions of the miniseries is where its failings are most evident, I’m hoping the second outing in Derry will be equally terrifying as this one. I’ll be seeing IT: CHAPTER ONE over again as it is definitely a crowd-pleasing movie filled to the brim with scares and looking forward to what comes next.
Worth noting: PHANTASM Remastered!
Another film released this year that’ll twang some chords of nostalgia is the newly remastered PHANTASM. While not a new film, this is by far the best version you’ll ever see with clearer sights and sharper sounds, but still the same creepy Tall Man and his glorious silver balls. You can find it here on iTunes and Amazon here!
Available in a PHASTASM 5-Film Collection set from Well Go USA!
PHANTASM Remastered (1979)
aka MORNINGSIDE, THE NEVER DEAD, ZOMBIES
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli
Starring A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Terrie Kalbus, Kenneth V. Jones, Susan Harper, Lynn Eastman-Rossi, David Arntzen, Ralph Richmond, Bill Cone, Laura Mann, Mary Ellen Shaw, Myrtle Scotton, and Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man!
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
There’s a wicked genius to the often nonsensical and often creatively overstuffed film called PHANTASM. It was a film I visited and revisted through the years. As I kid, I loved the endless waves of random monstrosities Michael, his hep cat brother Jody, and singin’ ice cream man Reggie confront in this film. But as I grew older, I began to understand some of the method behind the madness.
Watching the film again in this review, I kind of finally understood what PHANTASM is about. Sure there is a lot of hullabaloo about other worlds, corpse collecting Tall Men, silver flying balls, grunting Jawas, and toothy flies that just won’t go down the drain. But at its core, it’s about a young man trying to understand that which is unexplainable—death. As an adult, it’s hard enough to understand why someone is taken from one’s life, but as a child, it’s even harder to fathom. As Michael (played by A. Michael Baldwin) tries to understand the death of his parents and ***SPOILER the death of his protective brother Jody (Bill Thornbury)END SPOILER***, he encounters one horror after another. Along the way, his brother appears to him, gives him advice, but then disappears just as quickly, leaving Michael to cope and understand the personification of death in the form of The Tall Man and his little Jawa monsters. A fan of scifi and horror as indicated by the posters and toys in his room, Michael of course incorporates familiar monstrosities from those films as physical threats to take him to the same place where they took his parents. We see this film through Michael’s eyes, and because of that, the narrative is choppy and nonsensical. People pop in and out of the scene with little explanation. Motives are murky. And randomness abounds. But that is the world of a mind that doesn’t fully understand what is happening after a tragedy, as the Tall Man appears again in the final moments, it’s a feeling that seems never ending and indefinable. In one scene, Michael even climbs into a coffin himself in order to hide from the Tall Man, so he even experiences what it is like to be dead as an attempt to understand it. This film is a nightmare through a child’s eyes with a childish understanding. If you understand that, you’ll appreciate this film a whole lot more.
Then again, it is also a very amateurly made film. While symbolic significance can be applied to it, there are some very rough edges to Coscarelli’s PHANTASM. If you are of a more literal minded viewer, I’m sure there will be aspects of this film that will be unforgivable and downright unwatchable. A maid, never before mentioned in the film, pops up for a jump scare. A hair-brained plan to knock the Tall Man into a well is hatched at the last second. People die and then appear alive ten minutes later. All of this is what makes this film much more of a stream of consciousness nightmare you just ride out rather than rack your brain to make sense of. If you do that, this film is sure to give you a headache and you’ll be left wondering what the hubbub is all about with this movie.
In terms of ideas, PHANTASM is loaded with them, but the genius in the ideas comes from how this film seems to have been pieced together with whatever was around that particular day. They have an idea for a fly that grows from a severed finger, so a fake fly is used for the scene. Someone has a few extra robes? Well, let’s have the monsters be snarling Jawas. It’s that type of ingenuity that makes this do it yourself nightmare fun. This is before CG effects, but somehow, Coscarelli manages to create an entire world and mythos with this first film—a mythos that is elaborated on and developed in future installments. But the charm here is that nothing is really explained. It’s just random shit happening to Michael and his loved ones and this unpredictable nature makes the entire film a rapidly paced thrill ride of a film.
Sure the acting stinks. Seeing Baldwin trying to emote and not be nervous in the quieter scenes is wince inducing as are most of the other performances aside from the truly iconic look and feel of Scrimm as the Tall Man. It’s because of Scrimm’s every action that this film became the series it is today as everything about him makes him something that seems to have stepped from the most twisted childhood nightmare. But despite Scrimm, this is some rough thespian work exemplified here.
That said, this new restoration cleans up this film so well. It highlights the depths of the darkness Michael is running through and even delves in to clean up the effects by taking out the obvious wires the silver balls were floating on. But thee most significant improvement is the way this film sounds. Not only is the score cleaned up and sharpened, the creature effects make the whole thing feel all the more chilling; from the guttural grunts of the Jawas to the otherworldly hum of the silver orbs.
See PHANTASM if you can. If you saw it as a kid, you most likely didn’t pick up on the heavy themes of death and acceptance. It plays with the narrative and tries to fool you into following one POV (Jody’s), yet it is telling a story with an idealized version of that character seen through the eyes of his brother (Michael). These are themes that only made me appreciate this film more after seeing it again. Seeing it as an adult made me appreciate it more as well as long for that time when I simply marveled at the cool effects. It’s one of those rare films that is just as good seeing it later in life as it is when you first saw it and if you’ve never seen it. Hang convention at the door and just dive into the oblivion. You’ll enjoy it better that way.
THE COUNTDOWN SO FAR…
#31 – THE DEMOLISHER
#30 – PLANK FACE
#29 – LAST GIRL STANDING
#28 – DEVIL IN THE DARK
#27 – HELL HOUSE LLC
#26 – XX
#25 – THE SUBLET aka THE RESIDENT
#24 – PATCHWORK
#23 – Morgan Spurlock’s RATS
#22 – SPLIT
#21 – ANNABELLE 2: CREATION
#20– I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE
#19 – THE GREASY STRANGLER
#18 – IT STAINS THE SANDS RED
#17 –SEOUL STATION
#16 – 47 METERS DOWN
#15 – THE TRANSFIGURATION
#14 – THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER
#13 – THE SIMILARS
#12 – IT COMES AT NIGHT
#11 – SWEET SWEET LONELY GIRL
#10 – SAVAGELAND
#9 – GET OUT
#8 – THE VOID
#7 – CAPTURE KILL RELEASE
#6 – THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
#5 – IT
Best of lists from previous years;
2015-16 #1 – THE VVITCH
2014-15 #1 – THE CANAL
2013-14 #1 – PROXY
2012-13 #1 – MANIAC
2012 #1 – THE WOMAN
2011 #1 – THE LAST CIRCUS
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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