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Monday, December 21, 2009

Best in Horror for 2009

2009 will be remembered as a year in which drippy emo vampires took over the big screen while kick-ass vampires stalked the airwaves. Zombies came back from the dead and so did remakes and sequels. Here's a list of some of my favorites of the year, in no particular order.

1. Zombieland. Following in the footsteps of "Shaun of the Dead," this is a funny movie about zombies, not a movie about funny zombies, a critical difference. Woody Harrelson is a riot as Tallahassee, a hair-trigger, testosterone-driven lug whose fondness for Twinkies knows no bounds. Jesse Eisenberg plays...Jesse Eisenberg, but this role was tailor-made for him. Bill Murray provides an amusing cameo and the list of rules Eisenberg's character follows is hilarious, popping up at random throughout the film. Not even 90 minutes long, it's brisk, amusing entertainment.

2. Drag Me To Hell. Praise the Gods of Cinema! Instead of another Eli Roth torture-porn travesty, we had Sam Raimi back in form showing everyone how to make a comedy horror film. Walking the thin line between creepy and goofy, it provides jolts as well as laughs and even gets away with a wonderfully nihilistic ending. It already pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating, but the unrated DVD is even better. No new scenes are added, but each of the gooey sequences are extended, providing a messier experience that would probably earn an "R."

3. Everything's better in 3D. Okay, these films would probably be a snooze in flat versions, but in RealD, they're a hell of a lot of fun. My Bloody Valentine kick-started the year for me, providing lots of refreshingly un-PC mayhem and various things (knives, breasts) being hurled from the screen. It was so cool when the killer miner turned his headlight to the audience; it actually felt like we were being illuminated and, therefore, recognized as potential victims! A side benefit of the film was Lion's Gate's DVD release of the 1981 original with the censored gore effects restored. Sure, the cut scenes were scratchy and didn't always match, but it was great to see what the filmmakers had intended when Paramount prudishly cut out all the fun on its original release. The Final Destination was a little more routine. Previous installments of the series were far more inspired even without the added dimension; it's like the filmmakers traded ideas for effects. That said, the RealD gave it the needed boost.

4. Orphan. I know, I dissed this one at first based on the poster, but it was a lot of fun and left films like "The Good Son" running home to their mommy. I mean, if you're going to depict a creepy little kid, do it with guns a-blazing. The film's multiple layers—screwed-up family, deceitful husband, disturbed wife—made the drama all the more intense.

5. District 9. This Peter Jackson-produced sci-fier from South Africa took on the issues of xenophobia and bigotry with admirable restraint. When a spaceship breaks down and hovers over Johannesburg, its alien inhabitants are rounded up and put into concentration camps. Nearly thirty years later, the creatures, called "prawns" by their human captors, still live in these harsh conditions in a slum known as District 9, and the government hires mercenary soldiers to relocate them to District 10. Shot in a documentary style, it's touching, humorous and delivers a powerful message without proselytizing. I was actually choked up at the conclusion!

Speaking of Jackson, word on the street is that "The Lovely Bones" is a stinker. I can't comment because I haven't seen it. Come on, Peter. First the labored "King Kong" and now a stoopid ghost story? He should take a lesson from Raimi—return to his roots with a nice inexpensive splatter comedy to loosen up.

6. Let the Right One In. Made in 2008 but not reaching American shores until early this year, this striking Swedish film tells the story of the relationship that develops between a lonely 12-year-old boy and the vampire next door. As deliberately paced as anything Bergman directed, it's set in the atmospherically chilly Scandinavian winter and the two young leads are marvelously natural and persuasive even in light of the fantastic story.

7. True Blood. Speaking of vampires, this HBO hit completed its second season this fall, leaving viewers like myself clamoring for more. It's sexy and shocking, a real spit in the face to those wimpy "Twilight" pretty boys. Yes, it's basically a soap opera with fangs, but it's a lot of fun. The culture it's created—vampires attempting to live (unlive?) peacefully among humans while fundamentalists flip out—is wonderfully clever, and other creatures in addition to the bloodsuckers keeps it interesting. I mean, who ever heard of a Maenad until this year?

8. Dexter. Another selection from television, this Showtime series came back with a bang this year after what I thought was a rather lackluster season in 2008. John Lithgow makes a terrific villain, and his Trinity was a marvelously complex and creepy character. Best of all is what he did to Dexter. He really got the hooks into him, screwing up his judgment and—gasp!—causing him to make mistakes. And if you haven't seen the finale, it's a controversial mind-blower that's making us "Dexterites" impatient for the new season.

It's easy to categorize the stinkers of the year—remakes. "Friday the 13th" was unbelievably awful (and surprising, since the director, Zack Snyder, made the excellent remake of "Dawn of the Dead). Instead of a seemingly indestructible phantom killer, here Jason is portrayed as some sort of lunatic survivalist who just doesn't like people. Add a gang of cliched kids snorting and drinking everything in sight and you just want everyone to die. Except you're not interested in watching. "Last House on the Left" wasn't as bad, but certainly no improvement on the original. As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn't see Rob Zombie's "Halloween 2" because his films are just terrible! On television, the CW's "Vampire Diaries" is also awful—"Gossip Girl" with fangs. Much better is the old "Forever Knight" series currently airing on Chiller. Although its early '90s roots are showing, it's still a fun vampire detective show.

Well, the new year brings us Benicio Del Toro as "The Wolfman" and Kelly Leek—I mean Jackie Earle Haley—as Freddy in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" redo. I'll be interested in them both. There'll be another (yawn) "Saw" film and Sam Raimi's remaking "Evil Dead"! The director of the "My Bloody Valentine" remake is doing "Halloween 3D," which could be a lot of fun. And William Lustig is remaking his own "Maniac" (1980). Weird. And—oh, God!—another "Hostel"! If this list is accurate, there will be tons of other remakes as well, some in 3D (which is the only reason to do it, in my opinion).

Surely the most horrifying thing I've seen this year is L. Ron Hubbard's Winter Wonderland near the Scientology building in Hollywood last Saturday night. Check out this creepy Santa! I wonder if he's a Thetan. You can see part of the band on the  left, dressed as pirates and singing "Highway to Hell."

Now back to your regularly scheduled holiday programming, already in progress.

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