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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Recent horror gems can be found among the garbage

I am a fan of horror and suspense films. Working part-time at the world's largest family-owned video rental chain for the past two years, I've seen a lot of horror titles come through those doors. Let me tell you, the digital age has been both good and bad for the indie film industry. It's truly a double-edged sword, and especially in the case of horror it's mostly the dull edge we get to see.

Digital filmmaking is great in that it puts usable creative tools into the hands of whoever wants them for a very negligible price tag compared to the expense of a major studio's equipment. So many people are shooting on digital now that an indie film can easily look quite professional if they manage to get lighting, sound, and the performances themselves right. This has really opened the door for independent filmmakers in the last 10 to 15 years. In my mind this new age of low budget horror treasures was initiated by The Blair Witch Project.

Say what you want about BWP and I'll honestly tell you it scared the bejeezus out of me. For the minuscule budget, bare-bones script and lack of recognizable cast, it was a masterpiece. But this is not a column about that film in particular. What I'm concerned with here are the handful of horror films from the last couple of years that have genuinely shaken me at least to some degree.

These are the films I recommend to people at the video store when they ask me for a good, recent scary movie. this list is not about mindless slasher horror, bad acting and writing, gross-out flicks like Human Centipede 3 or torture porn garbage like Green Inferno.

As Above So Below - Mockumentary horror movie about a film crew investigating secrets in the catacombs of Paris. Shit turns scary. Shit turns bloody. Shit turns upside down. Crazy film. Somewhat unnerving. Should appeal to both the bloodbath lovers and the suspense fiends.

It Follows - Simple, effective horror film that has a real '80s retro feel. Girl gets a supernatural curse passed on to her by losing her virginity to someone she doesn't know very well. Someone is chasing her. Following her. Slowly and methodically. Who, you ask? Hard telling. It's an entity that hops from person to person, kind of like in that Denzel movie, Fallen. What'll it do when it catches her? Let's hope we don't find out... The soundtrack on this one, by synthwave master Disasterpeace, is nothing short of amazing. Creepy AF.

The Visit - Once throwing a seemingly endless run of gutterball after gutterball, M. Night Shyamalan finally picks up the spare with The Visit! This movie creeped the living shit out of me several times. A couple of kids go to meet their long-estranged grandparents for the first time after their mother finally makes amends with them online for a fight that happened before the kids were even born. Much effed-up Shyamalaniness ensues.

Creep - First impression: "Oh no, not another low budget, first-person shot, crap horror movie with a $20 budget..." WRONG. Definitely worth a watch. A guy goes answers a classified ad to he;p someone shoot a film. It turns out that the subject of the film is chronicling the life of a terminal cancer patient (the guy who placed the ad) so that his unborn son can get to know him - you know, like that Michael Keaton movie My Life. Then it gets creepy to say the least. Very creepy. Only two people are on-screen throughout the whole film, but their performances are very convincing and the threat is real, present and palpable. My heart was in my throat a couple of times.

The Boy - Yet another person answers an ad, this time it's an American woman (Lauren Cohan of Walking Dead fame) traveling to the UK to play nanny for a British boy. When she gets to the remote estate, she finds that the elderly parents actually want her to nanny a four-foot, poseable porcelain doll as though it's alive. They seem convinced that it's not actually even a doll, but that it is in fact their human son, Brahms. It's silly, right? But they're paying her major bankroll, so she stays. Then it turns from silly to creepy. Then it gets downright supernatural, and finally, dangerous. I really liked this one more than I expected to. I was totally along for the ride, and I experienced every revelation along with the main characters. It's not the most original, I'll admit; I've seen a lot of the plot devices done better elsewhere, but they were recycled efficiently.

The Witch - I'll start by saying this one is NOT for everyone. And I'll give that caveat when it starts renting on May 17. It's not a "smack-you-over-the-head-with-scariness" horror movie. It's a subtle, slow creeper that builds methodically toward a horrible crescendo. It's a period film set in the mid-1600's New England, and as such, so is the language. If thou art not ready for language that speaketh as though it hails from a far distant time, thou ought not partake in this drama. A family makes their home on the edge of a forest after being ejected from town after the father committed a crime. The kids come to believe a witch lives deep in the forest. Shit starts happening that backs up that theory, not the least of which is the unexplained sudden disappearance of the baby from under his eldest sister's nose during a game of peek-a-boo. Psychological and supernatural tensions rise as the family deals with their predicament, and as the shite hitteth the fan, I squirm and want it to be over. Without spoilers, I love the final scene of this movie. I can't wait to give this film another viewing next week. Another killer soundtrack too. This one is minimal with frequently dissonant, sometimes screeching strings that brings to mind portions of Kronos Quartet's fantastically jarring Black Angels album. Add to that an occasional layer of Damien-worthy choir vocals and some extremely agitated chanting, and you have Mark Korven's deliciously creepy complement to this cinematic creepfest.

Don't Breathe - Not a supernatural horror picture, but rather a more plausible-in-real-life sort of storyline. Normally I have a hard time relating to film characters when they've displayed criminal behavior. In this case, we have a small group of young adults who decide to rob an old, blind hermit whom it's rumored has a large sum of cash in his house. Turns out this dude is a former marine and he's kinda like an old, pissed off Daredevil. He locks everyone in, secures the house, shuts out the lights, and chases these would-be criminals around the house, hunting them down one by one. It's hard not to be on the side of the millennial loser wannabe crooks by the time they become the victims. This is one nail-biter of a film that I've recommended countless times lately.
So anyway, there's a handful of recent thrillers that I'd recommend checking out. They're sparse treasures among the glut of common, low-budget dreck that litters the video store wall. Have fun with them! I'll have more recommendations for you another time.