10/28/2018 – 2010s: Unsane (2018)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
It’s impossible to seriously look back at a decade with any clarity when we haven’t even finished it, so now I’m going to do just that. While some trends may seem apparent thus far, even a year or two of separation can completely redefine how we view it as more films from that year get distribution or just get seen, as patterns start to emerge, or a trend that seemed to be developing peters out. What looks like the start of an era can be revealed as a fad and what may look like a large number of films in a certain genre, from a certain nation, from a certain gender, or of a certain quality may prove to be tiny in retrospect. It happened to the ’00s in retrospect where their notion of a large boom in foreign films seems quite small in comparison and the hyperbolic statements about the taking over of extreme horror and bland remakes of foreign films proved for naught as the former faded away and most of the latter never happened.
I won’t even pretend that my horror watching for films from this decade is as comprehensive as that of previous decades. I don’t generally watch movies on streaming services unless specifically for this feature which means they all pile up waiting to be seen especially since I haven’t had years to pick over them. It’s also been a time of a seemingly never-ending stream of interesting titles both from the burgeoning independent scene and from the many nations now churning out worthwhile films. Thankfully, you can check out the rest of our horror coverage here since plenty of them come from the past decade.
Drew Goddard’s directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods took a while to make it to the screen, delayed by the financial difficulties at MGM, but thankfully it did not wind up buried because its mix of meta humor and pure horror fanservice was exactly what the genre needed at the time. Speaking of, as we transitioned into this decade, a new brand of critically acclaimed horror film took hold. The kind that rely heavily on atmosphere and filled with deeper meanings to consider. It Follows is the pinnacle of that kind of film as well as a fantastically tense and well-acted one that does it all with a ceaseless, unknowable force that cannot be stopped. It brings the Michael Myers archetype into the present day better than Halloween 2018. The most recent classic is also by far the most divisive in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!. It’s a film that reinspired my love of film when it was at a low ebb, and its amazing build of terror, tension, and madness made it my favorite film from last year. The performances are stellar, the interpretations are many, and it made for a truly special experience.
The wouldn’t be Arofnosky’s first horror title as the psychological horror film Black Swan kicked off the decade strongly with its tale of a sexually repressed ballet dancer. Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs Evil would subvert the hillbilly horror movie and features a great comedic pair in Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk. You’re Next inexplicably took two years after its 2011 festival premiere to be released, but Adam Wingard’s effort did far more with the home invasion genre than could be expected. The director’s next film The Guest wasn’t quite as good, but it was still a thrilling follow up. Hobo with a Shotgun originated from a fake trailer submission for an entry for last time, Grindhouse, and Jason Eisener’s expansion wound up outshining either effort by the more experienced directors in delivering pure bloody fun.
Park Chan-wook’s Stoker gets a mention if only for its heavy horror influences (though hewing closer in point of reference to Shadow of a Doubt and the psychological thriller) which is likewise why 2014’s Godzilla (which despite some wooden acting finally got back to the original in tone and probably quality) and Kong: Skull Island (which takes a heavily action oriented route to the story and delivered the best Kong film since the original) will get mentioned despite straying from their horror roots.
Green Room on the other hand (from director Jeremy Saulnier of the earlier Murder Party and this year’s Hold the Dark), featuring a punk band being menaced by skinheads, is very much horror and featuring a rare and intimidating villainous turn from Patrick Stewart. Bone Tomahawk is wonderfully acted slow build western that pays off into something far more. Last year’s Get Out brought the genre Oscar recognition unseen since Silence of the Lambs with Jordan Peele’s debut having the kind of appeal and sticking power films dream about. This year’s seen two contenders to join this crowd in Hereditary (from Ari Aster) and Annihilation (from Alex Garland) even if both have serious flaws in the last half hour betraying what came before in the former and the dialogue in the latter.
Mike Flannagan’s Hush remains his best film, a clever use of the characters deafness to put a twist on the home invasion tale, but he’s become one of the most prominent horror directors of the decade. Starting with his decent 2011 debut Absentia, he’d move on to the much improved supernatural Oculus (based on an earlier short of his), the delayed for years Before I Wake, the improbably (and significantly) improved sequel Ouija: Origin of Evil, the disappointing Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game as well as the series The Haunting of Hill House (which I am nearly finished). Speaking of King, quite a few horror works have been based off his writings in the 2010s, none of them (save maybe Castle Rock which I haven’t seen but have heard great things) have been particularly good. 2017’s redo of It (one of six King adaptations that year) has been by far the best and most successful that I’ve seen and even that is an uneven film which falls apart when it gets away from its Stand by Me type drama scenes and tries to be a horror movie. Still, it is the highest grossing horror film ever made and one of two financial successes for director Andy Muschietti (the laughable Mama).
I’ve spoken only last year about James Wan‘s influence and it only grows more each year. His supernatural horror films Insidious and The Conjuring would each start out fairly strong and popular only to spawn respectively three sequels and a film universe that consists of five films (including the Annabelle subseries of which the sequel will be reviewed tomorrow) with three more announced. They dominate the box office in a way few horror films can. Speaking of successful horror of questionable quality, M. Night Shyamalan has been a constant case of critic’s trying desperately to claim he’s back. First there was the awful elevator film Devil, then the merely bad found footage The Visit, and finally, his biggest financial success in year with the deeply aggravating Split.
Back to good films for a while and Piranha 3D which perfectly captured the goofy 3D charm making for a bloody, satisfying horror comedy. It wasn’t the only good remake with Breck Eisner’s The Crazies and Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are exceeded their originals while Evil Dead went in a bit of a different direction and mostly satisfied (the still rolling out Suspiria is to be determined). In the wake of the success of the Twilight films and various other vampire media, there was a trickle-down effect even to independent cinema. Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, Neil Jordan’s Irish film Byzantium, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, and Taika Waititi’s comedic Aussie film What We Do in the Shadows, and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night all offered interesting and unique takes on the genre.
The slasher has already seen a number of quality titles starting with Adam Greens, bloodier and better sequel Hatchet II, Curse of Chucky which brought the Chucky series back to seriousness and back to a level of quality (before Cult of Chucky went and ruined it), the well-received though unseen by me The Final Girls, the far better than expected time loop film Happy Death Day, and the do-over sequel Halloween. The decade also gave us the disaster that was the attempted reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street and attempted do-over sequel and prequels for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in Texas Chainsaw 3D and Leatherface. While not a slasher franchise, Final Destination 5, certainly contains quite a few elements in common with them and managed to go out as the best of the bunch.
The most successful British horror films of the era have been comedic in tone, most notably Joe Cornish’s sci-fi Attack the Block, Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, Matthias Hoene’s Cockneys vs Zombies, Alice Lowe’s Prevenge, and the British-Irish Grabbers. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (very good, yet also frustrating) and A Field in England would break free from that trend however. Australia too would get in on the action with the zombie film Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead and The Babadook.
After the release of Paranormal Activity, the rush of found footage films trying to cash in on its wake was fierce. While the rush was not strictly horror, those are where I’ll focus. The Paranormal Activity films would get six sequels (including the Japanese one), and none of them lived up to the success of the original. The Norwegian film Trollhunter is the best of the post-PA films to see release, with Barry Levinson’s The Bay another view, but there have been others such as The Last Exorcism, The Den/Unfriended and Willow Creek which have done interesting things with the genre.
If you’re looking for weird, there’s plenty to find too with the deliriously bad Birdemic: Shock and Terror, the stylishly bloody dream sequences of Excision, the musical horror of The Devil’s Carnival and its superior sequel, Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of the Joe Hill novel Horns, the sci-fi action body horror Upgrade, and any number of other smaller titles and foreign films available at your disposal. Other great films include Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic romance Crimson Peak, Robert Eggers’s atmospheric The Witch, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, Sophia Takal’s Always Shine, Anna Biller’s retro The Love Witch, and the sci-fi horror of Daniel Espinosa’s Life. The Cloverfield series would continue with 10 Cloverfield Lane (a tense thriller that threatened to go off the rails at the end) and The Cloverfield Paradox (a film only I enjoyed for the ridiculous mess it was). The Purge started as a great film idea hiding in the back of a dull home invasion movie only for each successive installment (Anarchy, Election Year, and The First Purge) to expand on the titular event and the satirical potential of it, clawing the series toward respectability (and a decent TV series).
A number of long running series would continue into the 2010s with Resident Evil wrapping up its final three interchangeable films while it’s stablemate Underworld stumbled into two embarrassing installments before losing its lead. Saw 3D: The Final Chapter would seemingly bring an end to the splatter franchise of the ’00s as it sputtered to an ignoble close only for 2017’s Jigsaw to resurrect the franchise. Ridley Scott would make his return to the long dormant mainline Alien series with the unfairly maligned Prometheus (with one of the best horror scenes of the franchise) and the more traditional to both the series and genre Alien: Covenant a dull flick which deserves any maligning it may get. Universal would also try repeatedly to revive their monsters franchise with The Wolfman, Dracula Untold, and The Mummy with all failing in their efforts, not least in the latter cases for trying to emphasize the action elements.
Before continuing on, it’s also important to note a few other films. World War Z may have been a disaster of a production and disappointed fans of the book (or people like me who just wanted to see a good movie), but it’s status as one of the highest grossing horror titles of the decade is undeniable and impressive in the face of that. I also didn’t think much of Don’t Breathe, Fede Avarez’s critically and financially successful follow up to his Evil Dead remake, even less of the punch pulling The Meg, and I feel like I’m missing a lot of the hype surrounding A Quiet Place, but I can’t omit them from any discussion of the decade.
As part of this series, I’ve looked at over fifty country’s film industry’s and even just over the past couple years of this feature, it has gotten so much easier to find and watch films from so many of them. The number of countries which have produced their first prominent horror title grows each year and the quality for foreign language titles and even for ones in nations without much of a history is markedly improving as it becomes possible for just about anyone to make a good-looking film. I’ll get the controversial one out of the way first. I haven’t seen A Serbian Film, but as the latest film to gain notoriety for its content as well as a harbinger (along with the Human Centipede films) of the end of an era of trying to push that line further.
The primary focus of these films is admittedly Euro-centric but the best films I’m familiar with are spread out across the continent. There’s the Finnish killer Santa film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, the Spanish films Sleep Tight (a home invasion film from [REC] director Jaume Balagueró) and Witching and Bitching (a crazy and hilarious if uneven film from Álex de la Iglesia, the improved Norwegian Nazi zombie sequel Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, the Polish musical The Lure, the surrealist Turkish film Baskin, and the French films Raw and Revenge (which we will get to tomorrow). Don’t overlook the underrated Venezuelan The House at the End of Time, however, and there are plenty interesting if lesser titles from elsewhere including the Uruguayan The Silent House which is best known for its fake all in one shot gimmick and not for nearly shooting itself in the foot in the end, the Israeli Rabies, the Cuban zombie film Juan of the Dead, the Nigerian zombie film Ojuju, the Peruvian We Are Not Alone, the Laotian Dearest Sister, and back to Europe for the Icelandic I Remember You.
While I have my much longer list that I pull from at the bottom of my schedule (including such titles as Julia’s Eyes and The Devil’s Candy), I also had my “Was Really Hoping to See but Haven’t Had Time Because I’ve Been Wasting It Writing These Things” List which is filled with such titles as I Saw the Devil, The Innkeepers, Starry Eyes, The Wailing, Under the Shadow, Train to Busan, The Void, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Endless, Terrifier, and from this year Mandy and Apostle (currently the most popular horror title on IMDb). Maybe I’ll have time to get to one or two or more of them before the year is up but, in all likelihood, they will remain uncovered. Still waiting on Overlord, Climax, and the aforementioned, Suspiria to be released
Horror television has also been doing well between underrated Canadian comedy-horror Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, the surreal The Heart, She Holler (which worked better as a miniseries before they drove the conceit into the ground), the short lived British series The Fades and In the Flesh, the gorgeous, pushing what you can get away with on Network TV horror of Hannibal, the Gothic fiction mashup of Penny Dreadful, the hilarious expansion of its film universe of Ash vs Evil Dead, the terribly titled but delightful for at least its first few seasons iZombie, the underrated comedic BrainDead, the effectively unsettling anthology horror Channel Zero, the abundant humor and playing with expectations of Santa Clarita Diet, and the immaculately shot The Terror. The Exorcist managed to at least not disgrace its namesake (unlike at least half the sequels) while Bates Motel even managed to be good, bordering on great when it didn’t get lost in unnecessary plots, and Wolf Creek improved on its source. The Walking Dead and American Horror Story remain popular.
If you’re wondering why I picked Unsane over all the other titles I wanted to see from this decade, simple, a sense of obligation. It certainly wasn’t because I had any desire to see it as you’ll note there was never a regular review of it despite being a well-reviewed and wide-released horror movie. I have liked most of Soderbergh’s efforts in the past and some (notably Traffic, Solaris, Che, Contagion, and The Knick) have risen above that in the past. That being said, I have been open about my distaste for the kind of horror movie plot that Unsane traffics in and more than that, there’s his style of filming.
Soderbergh has often been experimental with his use of new technologies including becoming an early adopted of digital and of cheaper digital cameras. It’s something that works against a lot of his films. Recently he’s found a new toy in the iPhone. His Mosaic IOS/TV project thing is one of the ugliest productions I have seen in my life. It’s a disaster which not even Devin Ratray’s surprisingly good performance in the latter half can save. Having then seen the trailers for Unsane which was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, I was dissuaded then and there from ever giving his stupid, ugly experiment money. Also, the title (which was originally the US title for Dario Argento’s Tenebrae) is stupid and should not be rewarded.
Claire Foy (Wolf Hall, First Man) is an analyst at a bank, living in constant fear since she was stalked. She doesn’t feel safe for even one minute and despite her confidence during a meeting with a man at a bar, taking him home, she instead winds up panicking. Not wishing to continue living life like this anymore, she visits a behavioral center expecting just to be discussing the next treatment steps. Instead, not reading the contract carefully and winds up checking herself in and being locked up with a bunch of other mental patients.
It’s the same kind of generic support cast there is in every mental institution movie with Juno Temple giving one of her overblown performances. SPOILERS1 I appreciate that the film doesn’t even bother trying to keep either of these facts in mystery, it’s just that the film forgets to put anything in its place. There’s attempts at commentary on the mental health system and insurance, but it’s ham-fisted on its own and fumbled by forcing it to share space with the other plot. There’s possibly a compelling horror movie to be made about the uneasy relationship between treatment and insurance, but this sure as shit isn’t it. The thriller elements are also just as lackluster with SPOILERS2
But more than the pathetic attempts at serious social commentary, huge plot holes, or awkward acting from people not named Claire Foy, it’s those awful visuals that condemn the film. It creates such an unnatural feel and seems to distort the image somehow. They might as well have filmed the entire film with a fisheye lens. It also forces the camera to remain largely static, something that is extremely noticeable. The best thing that can be said about Unsane is that it gives hope to film students the world over that their student film too can see a theatrical release.
I’ll admit that another reason I picked Unsane before the month started was I knew I’d want a good cleansing hate for a film and it didn’t even give me that. Sure, it was terrible and satisfying to take out some anger on it, but it was a chore to sit through and most of my complaints could be sussed out in minutes. Instead I was left with a film, which more conventionally shot could have reached the dizzying heights of merely bad.
PICTURE NOT FOUND
Bonus Episode #S-1 – A – 2010s: The Strange Life of Dr. Frankenstein (2018)
Directed by Jean Froment
For a special bit of programming, this documentary which recently aired on TCM. Just shy of an hour (which is why it doesn’t count to the official tally), it tells how Mary Shelley came up with the story for Frankenstein as well detailing the actual story itself, analyzes it and the various character motivations, and compares the early film adaptations to the novel. It’s an interesting enough discussion of the novel, focused toward those like myself who haven’t read it and despite the length devoted to a single book, wouldn’t be confused with anything scholarly in depth. The doc flies by as a light bit of television and only minimally looking like something they’d show in a school when a substitute was in or the teacher had resigned themselves to what life in public education was really like.
Bonus Episode #40 – A – 2010s: Resolution (2012)
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead
Our last film would receive a sort of sequel set in the same universe in 2017’s The Endless that I hope to get to before the month is out, partly because people keep banging on about it lately and partly because I was quite impressed with their first effort here. A man (Mike) receives a video of his old friend Chris acting crazily and shooting his gun off at nothing. Chris has long since alienated all of his old friends with his behavior, becoming a crackhead and retreating to a rundown house to run out his life. Mike becomes determined however to try one last time to try and save him and get him into rehab.
He finds Chris significantly skinnier than he last left him, swearing and firing his gun constantly (at one point making the sound go out from a gunshot and he owns a damn arsenal). When Chris refuse to go to rehab, Mike tasers him and handcuffs him to the house, wanting to get him cleaned up for at least a week to see if he’ll change his mind then, and if not, then he can move on for good. He lies to his wife about his actions and what the two are getting up to, pretending that Chris is going far more willingly along with the plan.
Chris’s house serves as the intersection for a wide variety of strange occurrences and stories as two of his friends come looking for the drugs of theirs he has holding, Mike meets three people from a cult who talk about the celestial messiah (though they seem like nice enough people), a girl from some kind of mental institution where people wander out all the time, and the owner of the property (Zahn McClarnon of Fargo and Westworld) who informs them they are on a reservation and who they have to pay to stay on the land. He also keeps finding random, mysterious objects that Chris doesn’t know or care at all about, wanting to just be left alone.
It’s an interesting cast of characters and side stories that all makes for a slow build SPOILERS3 The most important part of the slow build however is that the detox scenes between Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran are compelling all their own, just for the simple conversations between the two of them. It’s a patient film, but the patience pays off and SPOILERS4
Resolution might be a bit too plot free for its own good and those of you with an aversion to slow or SPOILERS5 storytelling with be assuredly put off, but it’s a very strong and clever film.
Next up: We finish up our look at female directors in horror with Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge.