Monday, October 28, 2019

My Top 10 Horror Movies of the 2010’s

    2019 marks the end of a decade, and it’s time to reflect on what’s transpired in the past ten years … namely for this topic, what were my favorite horror movies of the decade. Ten years ago, I constructed a list of my top 13 personal favorite horror movies, and if I were to include all the winning horror films of the past decade, it would be a radically different list then what I initially had. Straight to the point, this decade really impressed me with its ambition to produce new and original horror movies, as well as jump starting original franchises, which have sense become to staples of the genera. So, to close out October 2019, I wanted to count down my own personal top 10 favorite new horror movies from 2010 – 2019. Again, this is just my own personal list, I’m not trying to make anything official, but with that said, let’s celebrate Halloween by looking over some of our most recent big screen frights.    

#10 “Insidious” (2010) 

When a little boy falls and gets injured, he slips into a mysterious coma, in which his spirit is trapped in a mysterious void, and is suddenly at the mercy of a frightening demon. Desperate to get their son back, the father seeks help from a psychic on how to rescue his son, even if that means entering the hellish void himself. The plot may seem a bit cartoony, but it’s pulled off effectively thanks to its relatable characters, inventive ideas and eerie atmosphere. The whole sub-genera revolving around demonic forces has been done to death, but this film managed to take old ideas, and create something unique in the process. Visually, I think it’s one of the best-looking horror movies of the whole decade, especially with its other worldly setting. With it’s twisted supernatural premise, horrific visuals, and likable characters at the helm, Insidious” was the point when the decade really started showing it’s creative potential, but things were only just beginning. 


#9 “IT” (2017) 

Tim Curry’s original portrayal of Pennywise the clown has always stuck with me as one of the all-time greatest villains of the horror genera … yet, the 1990 adaption of “Steven Kings It”, was only half as good. The 2017 remake by contrast features a passable wicked-clown portrayed by Bill Skarsgard, while I feel everything else on display is far superior to its predecessor. Centering all the focus on just the kids, their lives and their struggles was very smart, as the adult story-line from both the novel and Mini-Series never did anything for me. The performances are all solid, the emotional beats worked, there’s good old-fashioned haunted house scares, along with truly disturbing real-life issues the kids face at home, and it makes for an effective balance. This version also knows how to be a fun-scary venture, without getting too cheesy in its presentation. All around, “IT” is one of those rare horror remakes that’s arguably superior to its predecessor, and can be viewed as a small classic of the decade.     

#8 “Don’t Breathe” (2016) 

The thing I love most about horror is that it can leave an impact through varying presentations. Sometimes the excitement comes in the form of haunted house movies, or supernatural thrillers, and sometimes it can be consistently grounded in some form of reality, and still leave a chilling impact.
 2016’s “Don’t Breathe” is a special case of a horror movie giving me so much with so little. The plot is simple, as it follows a group of young teens who learn of a big stash of money in an old blind man’s house, so they think it’ll be easy to break in and steal it. What they didn’t expect was for this seemingly frail old blind man to be extremely dangerous, has a killer dog at his command, and has a dark secret hidden away in his basement of terrors. Now, the chase is on as the group try to escape the house, while also protecting the lead girl from the old man, who plans on using her for his own sinister motive. This is a very intense, white knuckled, cat and mouse game, and features one of the best human villains I’ve seen in a while. The brilliance of this concept is that it’s a reverse of the time warn home-invasion genera, except this time, it’s the invaders who are in danger. While we don’t support their actions of robbing a house, the movie still gets us to care for them, and we want to see them escape this intense situation. I also love when scary films are contained to a single location, as it gives the filmmakers free range to get creative with how to generate suspense and excitement. With a memorable villain, claustrophobic house setting, and tight direction, “Don’t Breathe” just made for a simple, yet thrilling experience.    

#7 “Ghost Stories” (2018) 

I’m always open to foreign horror films, as they seem to expand the genera in ways that are a little more unconventional then what we get in the US. 
The 2018 British horror film “Ghost Stories” is one of the finer examples, and it’s perhaps my favorite foreign horror movie of the decade. Professor Phillip Godman is a man devoted to debunking fraudulent psychics, and one day is tasked with solving three unexplained paranormal events. As he dives deeper into these frightening tales, the harder it is for him to explain anything, and soon … he finds himself haunted in a very personal nature by these tales. There’s a stand out scene in which a young man’s car breaks down in the middle of the woods, and as he tries to call for help … he’s unaware that he’s being stalked by a mysterious creature. That whole sequence gave me chills from head to toe, and played to a personal paranoia of mine. In general, I’ve always been a fan of Horror anthology films, and I think this might just be the best one sense the 1945 classic “Dead of Night”. Both movies are a collection of spooky tales, but there’s also little threads that tie each story together, and in the end, we see how they become a whole. It’s all very well crafted, suspenseful, and packed with unforgettable imagery. More to the point, this film combines it’s scares with real human drama and regrets, and that for me is when the horror genera is at its most effective.      

#6 “It Follows” (2015) 

It’s a common trope in horror movies that … when someone has sex, there going to die, that’s just the way it so commonly goes. Well, in this brilliant modern age thriller, the threat is quite literally brought on through sexual interplay. 
After some private time in a car, a young girl finds she’s now marked for death by a mysterious entity that can take the shape of an ordinary person, and it she dies, the threat will fall right back to the last person carrying the mark. While the commentary is obvious, everything adds to a very suspenseful, slow burning chase, with an entirely original creature taking center stage. I’ve truthfully never been scared of things popping out of corners and going BOO! In fact, ever sense I saw the original 1978 classic “Halloween”, I’ve always been more frightened by the dangers I see coming at me from a distance … and that’s what this movie perfects. I love the subtlety of seeing a danger coming to you from far away … you can’t stop it, you can’t run from it, and your only option is to delay the inevitable. It’s a brilliant concept, and it’s a film that can be highlighted as a modern-day horror classic.    

#5 “Annabelle Creation” (2017) 

If there's one thing that horror movie sequels have proven in this new millennium, it's that there frequently better than their first films … at least, the ones that weren't very good at first. 
Case in point, the 2014 movie "Annabelle" was terrible and set a new low for the genera, yet this squeal/prequel not only brought back some real scares, but also had a lot of admirable aspects. In general, the Annabelle doll has become a mascot for modern horror cinema, and giving her a detailed origin was a risky venture, but it worked, as her dark secrets make the doll both more terrifying and subsequently more tragic. The film revolves around two orphaned girls finding a new place of residence, but they each in turn find themselves haunted by the mysterious doll, as well as the secrets revolving around the house keeper’s late daughter. Putting the focus on two girls was a great start, but it's the performances and chemistry between the two that gives this film it's substance. It also makes the scares effective, because I really cared about the two. This is also the first time I genuinely felt terrified of a creepy, motionless doll. The film also lends to some terrific haunted house scenarios, spooky action, and some memorable frightening highlights.   

#4 “Gerald's Game” (2017) 

Adapted from the novel by renowned author Steven King, and directed by Mike Flanagan, who’s one of the modern-day titans of the horror genera comes “Gerald's Game”. This was one of those special experiences in which a movie just snuck-up on me without, and left an impact. 
It’s also a great example of how a horror film can accomplish so much with so little. The premise is as simple as they get, in which a husband and wife are about to have hand-cuffed sex, but the husband suddenly collapses due to heart failure, leaving the pore woman chained to the bed ... and that’s the whole movie. Yet through this premise, we embark on a fascinating character journey, though one persons troubled life, and how her current situation is likewise a metaphor of how she’s chained to the sins of her past that she’s never broken free from.  Mike Flanagan’s direction, editing and creative camera tricks are aw-inspiring, and highlight how to make the most of a single location. There’s also very high stakes, as she’s not only cuffed to a bed, but also out in a secluded area, the house door was accidentally left open, a blood hungry dog is on the prowl, and there’s an even greater danger in the form of a mysterious “Moon-Light Man”, who may either be a frightening illusion caused by dehydration, or a real life serial killer who’s closing in on a helpless victim. The imagery and choice visuals are downright chilling spectacles, and Carla Gugino lead performance is down-right Oscar worthy.     

#3 “Us” (2019) 

Jordan Peele follows up on the break out success of the Oscar Nominated horror movie “Get Out” with one of my absolute favorite thrillers, which helped close the decade on a high note. I was a kid that grew up watching the classic “Twilight Zone” series, and an episode that always stuck with me was called “Mirror Image”, in which a woman is stocked by an evil reflection of herself. 
This movie was heavily inspired by the very episode, as it involved a seemingly normal family who are being hunted by malevolent and ruthless reflections of themselves. It takes such a durable premise, up’s the stakes, ad’s twists on-top of turns, and further explores its grey themes of personal identity. It’s a situation that starts in a single home, then goes outside, gradually builds, and builds into something larger in scope then what we initially started with. The music is as chilling as they get, the comedy is just right, and the performances are perfect all around. Especially from Lupita Nyong'o, and her dual portrayal of both the frightened mother and her wicked double, which is easily one of the greatest horror performances of the decade.  


#2 “Lights Out” (2016) 

From the creators of "The Conjuring" comes "Lights Out" and this is the most resent Horror movie to be featured on my countdown, but it's quickly become a new personal favorite of mine that's worth watching annually around October. 
Ever sense the earliest years of human kind, our most instinctive fear was that of being alone in the dark, and this movie is a very exciting take on the trope of why you should stay out of the shadows. A family is being haunted by a mysterious entity that can only lurk in darkness, so as long as the family stays in the light their safe, but when the lights go out, their suddenly at the mercy of this hostile beast. I love the simplicity of this premise, and the film knows how to play around with it's genera tropes to keep things exciting to insure it never gets repetitive with the formula. There's an eerie atmosphere and sustained tension that never lets up throughout the film, all while great care is put into the details of both the story and characters. The performances are all very solid, and the characters manage to break away from your typical horror victim stereotypes. These characters are actually quiet resourceful, know how to take action while still showing their vulnerability and there's even some depth to them. When you look past all the scary elements you'll notice that there's a very thoughtful story being told here about family struggles and the sacrifices we make for those we love. So there's just the right amount of substance to balance out the effective scares. It's simply a perfect late-night horror film to watch with the lights out.

Before I reveal my #1 favorite, here are some Honorable Mentions … 

Fright Night” (2011) 

The Babadook” 





#1 “The Conjuring 2” (2016) 

Back in 2013, “The Conjuring” made a big impact, launched several spin-off films, imitators and is regarded as a small classic of the modern era. However, while I thought the first was very well constructed, it just didn’t stick with me as either a frightening or memorable experience. 
By contrast, it’s 2016 sequel “The Conjuring 2” scared me senseless, and has stuck with me as one of the better films in the haunted house genera. The premise is very similar to the first, as it revolves around a family haunted by vengeful spirits, and two paranormal investigators are sent by the church to dispel the demons plaguing their house. James Wan proves once again to be one of the greatest horror filmmakers of our time, as he takes old haunted house clich├ęs and gives them a tense new edge. If you think too hard, you’ll find plenty of details to pick at, but as an experience, this film builds a relentlessly haunting atmosphere, tells a very competent ghost story. It’s also chalk full of memorable visuals, like the rocking chair, and new characters like The Crooked Man. It’s one of those scary movies that still leaves a cold chill in the air after it ends. The most unsettling moment of all is a nightmare involving a painting of a scary nun. The performances are all solid, especially from child actress Madison Wolfe, who’s portrayal of the real-life Janet Hodgson is one of the best the horror genera has to offer. In my opinion, her performances rivals that of the original Exorcist, which I don’t say lightly. 

The End

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) (Movie Review)

    Tim Burton is one of those filmmakers where … just saying his name instantly brings to mind classic movie titles like “Batman”, “Beetlejuice”, “Edward Scissorhands” and so forth. I’ve personally always connected his name to the Halloween season, as some of my favorite movies to watch around October are movies he directed, like 1999’s “Sleepy Hollow”. Perhaps the most famous title to be associated with Tim Burton is the 1993 holiday classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. 
Ironic as he only produced the picture, while it was directed by the equally talented Henry Selick, who would later go on to direct such stop-motion hits as “Coraline” and “James and the Giant Peach”. Regardless, the film was based on a hard-cover poem that Burton wrote prior, and thus his name remains above the title. To this day, it’s always the first movie that comes to my mind when I think of Tim Burton. More to the point, this film ranks among my top three absolute favorite movies to regularly watch during the Halloween season. It’s a film I instantly fell in love with as a kid, and it still carries a magic holiday touch even into my adult years. However, even though this movie means the world to me, I’m not going to pretend that it’s perfect either … being brutally honest, I actually have some reservations with the movie. That’s the odd thing about “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, as it’s a movie I have some issues with, yet still love and continue to re-watch to this day. "This movie just confuses me so ... confound it all ... I love it though". So, let’s take a look back at this iconic holiday classic to see why it still holds up … despite it’s short-comings.

   After a short narration of the different holidays, and their individual worlds, we begin our story in Halloween town. 
This leads into what I can only describe as … my all-time favorite song number from any Halloween special. It’s the witching hour, and the residents of Halloween town are throwing a celebration set to the song “This is Halloween”. The images, creatures, visuals, and variety of characters on display in this opening number just blew my mind as a child. We got ghosts, vampires, trees with skeletons, witches, shadows, Jack O’ lanterns, faceless clowns, black cat’s, a flaming scarecrow, and it all builds to that unforgettable final image of Jack Skellington rising up from the well. It’s simply the definitive opening for a Halloween movie. There’s also a relentless amount of energy to this scene, as the camera is constantly zooming through different rooms, interiors and landscapes. It’s almost like a simulated roller-coaster ride, but set in a highly decorative Halloween world. 
With all kinds of great designs and surreal images just flying out at the screen, it’s probably one of the most over the top and mind-blowing (or mind-numbing) scenes for a holiday special. It’s almost too good, because as a kid, I rarely continued the rest of the film ... truthfully, I just kept replaying this opening song. While there are obviously more terrific songs and highlights throughout, nothing as bonkers crazy as this opening ever happens again. It’s a musical number that lives up to its title 100%, and in my opinion deserves to be called the number one Halloween song of all time. This unfortunately brings me to my first critical observation of the film … just what dose Halloween mean for these guys anyway? Is it just a night for these monsters to sing about the holiday, dose this party have any barring on the human world … it’s really never explained.   

    Anyway, after that amazing intro, we learn that Jack Skellington is idolized by all the creatures of Halloween town as the greatest at scaring, and has taken the title of pumpkin-king. However, his ghostly highness is getting tied of his crown, has grown sick of screams, and so badly wants something new. One day, he’s magically whisked away to the enchanted realm of “Christmas Town”. Dazzled by the wonders all around him, Jack falls in love with this new holiday, and gets so obsessed that he not only wants to take the holiday for himself, but he especially wants to take on the role of Santa Clause. It’s an interesting contrast to characters like the Grinch or Mr. Scrooge who hate the holiday, and yet despite his joyful nature, Jack still brings an equal level of harm to the season. In the end, Jack has to learn to appreciate the simple joys of what he already has, and stop being so self-centered. The story all around is wonderful, but it’s also very simple, with no real twists, or deep emotional character arcs, it’s all very basic, yet wholesome in its simplicity. It’s really all about the experience of combining these two polar opposite holidays in one package, and bringing it to life through a unique vision and laced with memorable songs. Also, while the characters in the movie aren’t exactly layered, there is something about them that stick with us a memorable holiday figures, thus they add to the strengths of the films simplicity.  

    The same applies for classic stop-motion Christmas specials in the vain of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, but the one key difference is that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is stretched out to a theatrical run time. 
In other words, there’s a lot of padding in this movie, and lengthy sequences that have no real bearing on the narrative, yet exist to pad out the run time. Personally, there’s a series of events set after Jack’s discovery of Christmas that just feels like aimless meandering, until the film finds it’s narrative focus again. This in turn could be boring for some viewers, while others can coast on its consistent holiday atmosphere and presentation. Even when the narrative can get boring, the film continues to win me over as a visual experience, as the look and design of the production is a marvel to behold. So often kids films of this sort rely on CGI, but the majority of visuals on display here are real props, puppets, sets and animatronics performing in front of the camera, and it’s really an art-form to admire. While stop-motion had been utilized before, it had never been seen on this big a scale. The detailed set designs, the striking colors, the creative camera movement, the layered environments … it just creates a life of his own. The design borrows heavily from the German Expressionism look of 1920’s silent movies. Even Halloween town resembles an old Black and White picture, which is meant to contrast to the colorful and decorative Christmas town. Personally, while I love the setting of Halloween town, I wish it was set entirely at nighttime, which allows for more atmosphere and striking imagery, whereas the colorless day-time look of the town just kind of bums me out.

     Fans often debate whether or not this is more of a Halloween movie or a Christmas film, and my answer unfortunately ties into another one of my issues. I think that Halloween has too big a foot-hold on this film, as a good 85% is set in Halloween Town, with 10% set in the human world, and 5% set in Christmas Town. It’s a shame because, even though I like the former a pinch more than the ladder … I still love Christmas will all my heart, and I want to see it on display in more than just one terrific song number. Seriously, when Jack Skellington first arrives in Christmas Town, we get that outstanding musical number … “What’s This, What’s This” … and the detail of the setting is outstanding! It’s probably the greatest looking Christmas world I’ve ever seen in a movie, yet … once the song ends, we abruptly cut back to the joyless looking Halloween town, where we’re forced to spend the majority of the movie. Granted the story and the moral is more in tune with a Christmas movie, but the features on display constantly put me in the mood for Halloween. There are also too many Halloween characters, with Santa Clause being the only Christmas character, and he’s barley seen in the film.

     Personally, I think this could have been fixed if Jack Skellington’s love interest was a character from Christmas town, like something along the lines of a Christmas Angel. That would be so fitting for a movie about Halloween and Christmas coming together, with a relationship between two characters from opposing holidays at the center, and it would fit right in with Burton’s wheel house of odd romances. Heck, there could be some poetry in seeing a relation between a Halloween Skeleton and a Christmas Angel, as both are characters representing death, yet are still polar opposites. This brings me to the character Sally, who I find boring, and mostly useless in the grand scheme of things. Every one of her actions has no bearing on the narrative … as she warns Jack that his holiday will be a disaster, but that doesn’t help at all … she fogs the town to keep him from leaving on Christmas, but that doesn’t work at all … she tries to free Santa, only to get kidnapped herself … she’s really just there to be an observer of sorts. Think of her as an Avatar character that the audience can imagine themselves as, or put themselves in her place. Even her supposed romance with Jack is barley given any time to really set-in. She has that one song number where she wonders if they’ll be together, yet none of their previous scenes really justify any kind of emotional connection between these two. I will admit that, much like the simplistic appeal of the movie, both Jack and Sally share select moments that may not be that layered, but leave me feeling a warm connection all the same.     

      Let’s take a moment to talk about my absolute favorite character, the villainess Boogie Man, who’s keeping Santa prisoner in his basement of terrors. Once again, we have a character who’s added in just so the film could have a villain, as he’s got no real motivations, and he’s barley even in the movie until the third act, in which he suddenly becomes the main threat. Having said that, he is consistently the most entertaining presence in the film. He’s just bursting with a hammy personality, making his presence feel larger than life. I also love the simplicity of his design, as it’s very basic, and leaves more of an impression opposed to some kind of over the top, spooky monster design. His introduction number, “The Oogie -Boogi Song” is yet another highlight that’s very bouncy in tone, and shows off his colorful, black-lit environment. Unfortunately, the film just spends more time focusing on other less interesting side characters, like the towns mayor, or the nasty scientist that created Sally, or even the Boogie Mans evil trick r' treating henchman. I really can’t stand those nasty kids, as I feel they rob screen-time from the villain I actually want to see on screen. Heck, even the henchmen have their own song number, which is really annoying, and completely unnecessary, as the villain already has a big song number … we don’t need two villain songs.    

    Speaking of songs … let’s finally acknowledge arguably the most important contribution to this movies appeal and success … Danny Elfman, who both composed the music and wrote the songs. While Elfman has had a number of musical credits under his belt, like forming “Onigo Boingo” in 1979, or the iconic scores he’s composed for “The Simpsons”, “Spider-Man” and just about every other Tim Burton production … I’ll always look back on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as his crowning achievement. 
He is the glue that holds this film together, as his music and songs carry so much of the film’s identity and lasting appeal. Unlike all the animated Disney movies of the time that contained at least five songs at most, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was one of the first full-on animated musicals, in which most of the events are told through song and dance. The song “Making Christmas” ranks high among my favorites, with a catchy beat, and contains one of the best visual montages of the film. The singing voice of Jack Skellington is also provided by Danny Elfman himself, and his voice really fits with the character. Although, I must admit … I think Jack Skellington has too many single song numbers. His first song is outstanding, as the cemetery setting is one of my all-time favorites, and the image of Jack on that strange hill-side is about as iconic as they get. However, the more single songs he gets, the more repetitive they feel. I think that “Jack’s Obsession Song” should have been reconstructed into a duet between he and Sally, as that would have given the songs more variety, as well as given them more scenes together.   

     This leads me to Jack Skellington himself, and personally … he might just be my all-time favorite holiday character, as he’s a figurehead for both Christmas and Halloween ... which is awesome. I adore his design, as there’s more to him then just a basic Skellington. His skull looks more like a ghost face, and yet, despite not having any eyes, he still conveys a variety of expressions and emotions. 
His attire is like a cross between Beetlejuice and Dracula, with a nice little bat bowtie bringing it together. Of course, I love his ghost dog side-kick named Zero, who’s very cute. Zero actually represents a trend with Tim Burton’s spooky stop-motion films, as every one of them features a deceased, yet still adorable dog character. Back to Jack Skellington, he’s also kind of a fun Santa Clause in his own right. Even though he’s in the wrong, there’s something about his passion and joy on display that just makes him a delightful Santa … even if he’s unleashing all kids of spooky gifts on kids. Heck, even after he realizes the errors of his ways, I love that he still took pride in the experience as something life changing. If it weren’t for Jack Skellington, I don’t think this movie would have stuck with kids as well as it did. He’s an instantly recognizable holiday icon, and despite both his ghoulish demeanor and selfish interests, he’s still a very curious, soft spoken, and wide-eyed individual. Even if you don’t think he’s the absolute best, I feel Jack Skellington earns a badge as one of the all-time great holiday mascots.

    So, for all my reservations with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, it still remains one of my all-time favorites. It’s simply a feast for the imagination, bonded with creative ideas, and still … I can’t think of any other movie that gets me in the holiday spirit more than this one. I’ve always regarded this film as the perfect holiday special ... why, because it’s both Halloween and Christmas rolled into one awesome package. Even though I still feel Halloween has more of a foot-hold then Christmas, the former is still the main focus of attention, and all the main events do still occur on Christmas Eve. Both holidays mean the world to me, and experiencing them both together in a movie that’s brought to life through stunning visuals, iconic characters, a wildly original premise, and unforgettable musical numbers make it an easy win for me. I still have issues with the pacing at times, and there are those narrative beats that I wish could have been changed around, but it never tarnishes either the appeal or simplicity of the experience. Two holidays are better than one, and this is that rare Halloween/Christmas film that you can watch twice in the holiday season.  

Thanks for reading my review of the 1993 animated holiday classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas” … and continue to make every day in October feel like Halloween.