What a year it’s been for the genre. Horror is going from strength to strength right now and 2019 provided us with yet another bumper crop of great movies. I think it’s been more difficult than ever to pick the ten best of 2019 but somehow I’ve finally narrowed it down to that number (with six further honourable mentions), so here goes.
The films are listed in alphabetical order – further complicated by the fact that one title is a number – and I’m not going to rank them. Except for the fact that I’m going to say which was my favourite (and second favourite of the year) if you read on.
In any case, I thought the following ten films were great, totally worth tracking down if you haven’t seen them and definitely worth seeing again if you have. Enough of my rambling, let’s get on with this thing.
William (Garth Breytenbach) is renovating the run-down farm he’s inherited from his father and enlists the help of Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) who had previously worked there. The situation is helped initially by the kindness of Lazarus and the bond he develops with William’s daughter Mary (Keita Luna). But there’s much more to Lazarus than meets the eye…
It’s always pleasing to see different takes on horror from around the globe and this first foray into feature films from writer/director Harold Hölscher gives the viewer a fascinating insight into South Africa, with all its beautiful landscapes, societal contradictions and tribal mysticism. Through the filter of a spooky and tense genre flick there’s plenty of pleasingly woven comment about the issues still facing the country and it has much to say about the human condition besides.
With a complex, interesting portrait of a character who would be an out-and-out bad guy in most other horror films, 8 has a more nuanced take than most on what drives us to do terrible things. It also refuses to provide the viewer the safety net which generally comes as standard with horror stories which involve families and, more specifically, children. Threats to everyone in the piece loom large from very early on and there’s an effective feeling of dread throughout.
Belying its low budget with stunning cinematography, ingeniously crafted special effects and a talented cast bringing a smart story to vivid life (not to mention scary, down and dirty death), 8 is an unexpected treat. And there’s something terrifying in the shadows too. What more could you want?
Hank (Jeremy Gardiner) owns a bar in a small town and is in a loving relationship with girl of his dreams Abby (Brea Grant). However, after ten years of unwedded bliss Abby leaves suddenly, giving no idea as to when or if she’s ever coming back. Also, Hank’s attempts to come to terms with this aren’t being helped by the fact that Abby’s departure has coincided with the arrival of a creature which shows up at Hank’s door every night, trying to get in…
As with a couple of other films in Top Ten, you really need to go into this knowing as little in advance as possible. What I will say is I expected one thing and got something totally different, not to mention a whole lot more satisfying. It’s a tale full of heart, quirky humour and winning performances. Gardiner and Grant are excellent as the central couple – watch for the long scene shot in one take, it’s wonderful – but the supporting cast are just as vital to the success of the story, notably Henry Zebrowski as Hank’s best friend Wade and Justin Benson as the town’s Sheriff.
Jeremy Gardiner and Christian Stella’s offbeat monster movie is beautifully judged, romantic, suspenseful, comedic and dramatic. It also features the very best, not to mention the most hilarious, jump scare there’s been in a movie for years and the payoff is perfect.
Joe Begos’ vivid, nightmarish, modern vampire tale follows struggling artist Dezzy (Dora Madison) who’s languishing in a creative funk, spending too much time drinking and taking drugs in local bars and clubs. It’s during one of these substance-fuelled nights that she ends up in a wild threesome that sparks her creative urge back into vivid life. Trouble is, she now needs blood to stay on the edge.
A glorious, full-on, audio visual assault on the sense, Bliss is an 80-minute gory mindfuck of a movie with a pulsating soundtrack and an incredible central performance from Madison who deserves to be a massive star on the strength of this. I pretty much staggered out of the screening; such is the intensity of this movie.
Bliss is a film which takes creative chances throughout and it’s clear that Begos is not concerned with pleasing everyone. Hell, he may not be concerned with pleasing anyone. But it’s exactly this ballsy approach which makes Bliss such an incredible experience. Its blitz on the sensibilities may not be to the taste of mainstream audiences but I loved it will all my heart and I can’t wait to see it again.
COME TO DADDY
What starts out as a peculiar, spiky relationship comedy as sensitive hipster Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) travels to the beachfront home of his long-estranged father heads into uncharted territory as his father Brian (Steven McHattie) becomes more and more difficult, at which point…
At which point I can’t really spoil the rest of the movie. In fact, I’m not even going to spoil the next few seconds of it. What can I say? There are laugh-out loud moments, there’s wince-inducing violence, there’s wince-inducing violence which may also make you laugh out loud. Wood and McHattie are outstanding and they’re given splendid support by the rest of the cast.
It’s rare these days for me to see a film where I have no idea where the film’s going next 20 minutes in and even rarer to have absolutely no idea where it’s going next 40 minutes in. Come To Daddy is that film. Go in with as little knowledge of the plot as possible and chances are you’ll have as much of a blast as I did. This is a sheer delight. And it has the oddest reference to a British politician I’ve ever come across in a film. Happy to be corrected if there’s anything more bizarre out there.
Father Ted meets The Exorcist as driving instructor Rose (Maeve Higgins) must confront her tragic past and dust off her supernatural gifts when a local teenager becomes possessed by a spirit. Could minor celebrity and one-hit wonder Christian Winter (Will Forte) have anything to do with it?
As well as being consistently hilarious, there’s a clear knowledge of the horror tropes Extra Ordinary is using as the base for its plot and the various hauntings will be easily recognisable to horror hounds, whether it’s a spectre-inhabited wheelie bin or the ghost of a formidably foul-mouthed, chain-smoking wife.
The performances are note perfect, notably Higgins as the sweet, well-meaning but conflicted Rose and Forte as the humility-free, faded pop star who’s finding it tough existing outside of the business called show. The laughs keep coming right to the very end, with a final line that sums up the feeling of the whole film impeccably. A real treat and an absolute must see.
A seven-and-a-half-year-old girl (Lexy Kolker) is forbidden from leaving her house, her protective father (Emile Hirsch) warning her of the dire consequences that would follow if she did so. But what’s out there? Why does she need to stay indoors? And why does she need to practice “being normal”?
To tell you any more about Adam Stein’s terrific Freaks would be totally wrong of me because you should experience all the imaginative twists and turns of this movie with no knowledge of what might (or might not) be coming next.
What I can tell you is that it’s funny, scary, packed with thrills and is chock full of terrific performances, including a brilliantly layered turn from the forever reliable Bruce Dern. Much of the kudos must go to the astonishing Kolker who convinces from the word go and commands the screen as much as her more experienced screen partners.
It’s a film which takes its central idea – still not going to tell you what that central idea is – and uses it to address big themes which are perhaps more relevant now than ever, leaving you with a jaw-droppingly ambiguous closing line that will give you something to think about long after the credits have rolled.
LORDS OF CHAOS
Jonas Åkerlund’s bold, brilliant biopic of the 1990s Norwegian black metal scene is based on “the truth, lies and what actually happened” and pulls absolutely no punches in its depiction of how the lines between publicity stunts and reality can so easily blur.
Rory Culkin is excellent as Euronymus, who has a vision to create a new type of music for those who feel oppressed by the country’s Christian values. He forms the band Mayhem and the group initially gains some small measure of notoriety but as the stakes are raised matters get out of hand quickly, resulting in church burnings and murder…
The subject matter is bound to be offensive to some but this movie in no way condones any of the behaviour of the individuals involved. It’s even-handed in its portrait of those within – you feel that Euronymus is a decent guy underneath all of the showmanship and bluster – but equally it points up the extreme absurdity of the actions of a group of guys who took toxic masculinity and hate for society to a terrifying level. The violence is realistic, brutal, grim and emotionally shattering. You have been warned.
If you’re the person who’s been reading my reviews over the past few years, firstly thank you and secondly you’ll probably have noticed how much I liked Mindless and Mab, the last couple of short films from Katie Bonham. Well, it’s Dial M for Magnificent once again as Midnight makes maximum marks. Okay, enough with the Ms.
A zero-budget, single location, shot-in-one-day marvel (okay, maybe just one more M), this is a tricky little ghost story. And it’s a ghost story. Focusing on the horrific history of a house, what could have been a straightforward take on things that go bump in the night is presented in an altogether different and gripping way.
The eight minutes zip by and yet there’s an unhurried, confident pace to Midnight. Its steady reveals are a joy and the limited resources available to make the film have, in my mind, made the piece so much stronger. The fact there are no flashy visual effects or elaborate gore set-pieces grounds the narrative and unnerves the viewer in a far more subtle way. In short (apologies for the pun), it’s another mini model of majestic merit. Oh, again with the Ms.
THE RUSALKA (aka THE SIREN)
At a secluded lakeside spot, Al (MacLeod Andrews) is searching for the creature which murdered his husband. Meanwhile, the deeply religious Tom (Evan Dumouchel) arrives at one of the holiday cabins and soon attracts the attention of a mysterious girl (Margaret Ying Drake) who seems to spend most of her time swimming in the very same lake where a worrying number of people have drowned.
As someone who loves They Look Like People – go seek it out if you haven’t seen it – I admit that I approached The Rusalka with more than a little trepidation, hoping it would be great but bracing myself for the potential disappointment.
What did I worry for? It looks beautiful, it’s fiercely romantic and the underlying tension is built deftly and deliberately. In the hands of less skilled filmmakers, elements such as a mute main character and the exploration of a gay marriage could have been clumsily handled but here these details develop organically and enhance the story rather than overwhelm it.
The Rusalka is a film which demands – and rewards – patience. The story unfolds in an unsensational way but it’s this approach which makes it so much easier for the viewer to identify and become involved with the otherwise otherworldly events taking place. The three principal characters are detailed, flawed and real, all of them fascinating in their own different ways. An ominous sense of impending doom hangs over the proceedings but for whom? It’s not clear until the very end and the messy conclusion is perfect.
I first saw this in February and it was my favourite film of the 2019 for a very long time, only to be edged out by the slightest of margins by…
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead make it four unmissable films out of four with this imaginative, emotional tale to paramedics Steve and Dennis (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) who work the streets of New Orleans and whose lives will be changed beyond measure as they experience a series of callouts linked to the designer legal high of the title.
Synchronic has all the usual genre-hopping you’d expect from Benson and Moorhead, with a life-affirming story of friendship as its anchor. The performances are top-notch across the entire cast. Ally Ioannides, as Dennis’ daughter Brianna, is the sort of college-age character you hardly ever get in film. There’s rebellion there but it’s portrayed in a real, unshowy way and the relationship with her parents is free of all that fraught melodrama so beloved of a thousand other movies.
Dornan is excellent as a man whose life is thrown into turmoil and is forced to question everything about the situation he’s in but at the end of the day it’s Mackie’s movie (you’ll appreciate why when you see it). You’re with Steve every step of the way and his journey is a riveting, affecting one.
I’ve seen Synchronic twice so far and my second viewing further confirmed my absolute love for the film. It’s a superb, involving piece of work full of suspense, laughs and thrills. You might shed the odd tear as well. I know I did.
Honourable mentions must also go to the following:
BLOOD AND FLESH: THE REEL LIFE AND GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON – David Gregory’s impressive documentary mixes a fun film-making retrospective with a heart-breaking true crime story about one of cinema’s true mavericks.
COLOR OUT OF SPACE – Richard Stanley’s returning to directing is a psychedelic HP Lovecraft adaptation with sumptuous visuals, a slightly more reined-in than usual Nic Cage and some pleasingly icky body horror.
THE DEAD CENTER – Shane Carruth’s psychiatrist tries to unravel the mystery of a patient who claims he has died in Billy Senese’s tense, grim thriller. It’s imbued with dread and delivers the goods with an impressively dark final act.
HERE COMES HELL – Jack McHenry’s micro-budgeted debut feature mashes up 1930s old dark house thriller with 1980s video nasty. The effects are practical and clever, the performances fit the tone very nicely indeed and the location is just right for evoking that vintage chiller atmosphere. It’s gruesome, it’s fun, it’s British! Top hole, chaps!
MIDSOMMAR – Ari Aster follows up Hereditary with another carefully-built wall of dread. Florence Pugh heads to a Swedish festival in the aftermath of a family tragedy but it’s not long before the idyllic break turns increasingly weird and sinister.
WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE? – Kirill Sokolov’s fast-moving, blackly comic, splattery crime pic interweaves the various stories of its principals and bounces around its timeline with aplomb. A crowd-pleasing blast with big laughs and gory violence.