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Killing It

In a terrifying world, a reinvigorated horror genre might be our best source of hope (and fear)

To the genre devotee, every year is “The Year of Horror.” But 2017 may finally be the time when that crowning honor is most widely acknowledged, first and foremost because it gave us what has become the highest-grossing horror title of all time—Andy Muschietti’s It, so far earning almost $700 million across the globe—but also an overall genre gross of one-billion-plus dollars worldwide, accounting for nearly 15 percent of 2017’s entire take. The year also produced a surprise hit, Jordan Peele’s Get Out ($250 million and counting), that skewered racial politics. And on top of their financial successes, both films’ studios are running Oscar campaigns asking for consideration in almost every major category, which in an era of dwindling theater attendance and within a genre that doesn’t usually rely on positive critical reception or star power is no small deal. While superheroes may continue to reel bodies in, it could in fact be horror that keeps cinemas alive. It’s the genre that filmgoers can still most value as a collective viewing experience (even if for some just the sake of “safety in numbers”). These days who wants to contend with lighted gadgets and incessant chatter during an intense emotional drama? Good horror, though, grabs audiences in such a visceral way that phones more realistically remain tucked away, and shouting nervously at the screen is welcomed.

Both of Peele and Muschietti’s powerhouses, strongly acted and written, are undeniably beneficial to the genre, but for serious fans, it’s arguable whether either of them is by strict definition true horror. It succeeds more as a Stand by Me–like coming-of-age story, with the attention-stealing clown Pennywise actually the least intriguing character, thrilling only in that he serves to bring out the children’s fears. And Get Out is a dark social satire with the catharsis of comic relief, disguised as a scary movie.

More horrific and adult-minded than It were two additional Stephen King adaptations, both stellar, that debuted in the fall on Netflix—a company that’s posing something of a conundrum. They have great taste, for the genre specifically, and make certain titles available to a wider audience than they might ever have been otherwise, yet still deprive the majority of their slate of well-deserved theatrical runs and the chance to win Oscars. As streaming-only releases become more prevalent, award-nomination rules may have to be reconsidered, but for now certain performances will sadly have to be overlooked. In a rare critical high for the genre back in 1990, Kathy Bates was awarded Best Actress for Misery; had Netflix released Gerald’s Game in theaters, its lead, Carla Gugino, could have at least been a contender. She carries a movie that in the wrong hands may have proved highly uncinematic, appearing as Jessie, a woman who travels with her husband (Bruce Greenwood, also very good) to their secluded beachside house in attempt to revitalize their crumbling marriage. She puts on some lingerie, is handcuffed to the bed, and reluctantly begins to go along with Gerald’s rough role-playing games. But you can clearly see in her expressive face her initial discomfort transform into sheer panic. She demands to be freed; he refuses and before he can give in has a heart attack, dying right on top of her. Feels like a plot’s end, but this is where the film really gets started. As directed by Mike Flanagan (one of today’s most exciting horror talents), the action is now turned inside out, with Jessie’s imagination and flashbacks to her harrowing childhood taking over, as she converses with her out-of-body self, a stray dog hungry for flesh (yes, a Cujo joke is made), and her husband (who’s a nasty asshole even dead) to stay alert, before the film veers into real horror-villainry in its final 10 minutes. Gugino is absolutely entrancing throughout, and how she gets out of the cuffs—one of the most graphic scenes witnessed all year, and one crying for audience reaction—will not soon leave your mind.

Gerald’s Game

The year’s other Netflix original King adaptation, 1922, is also driven by a stunning lead performance. Thomas Jane—practically unrecognizable in voice and appearance—plays Wilfred James, a farmer in Nebraska whose wife (Molly Parker) inherits prime land but is determined to sell it and move to the city. Unwilling to accept this fate, Wilfred decides that killing her is the only way to stay in his home and manipulates his 15-year-old son, enamored of a local girl he has no interest in leaving, into assisting with the dirty deed. But the brutal act—not easy to watch—of course breeds only further misery. He loses his son’s respect and shreds of his sanity as guilt eats away at him à la Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” while he experiences otherworldly visions involving his decomposing wife and lots and lots of rats. He also sustains a nasty hand injury that rivals the one in Gerald’s Game. A breakthrough effort for writer-director Zak Hilditch, 1922 is thoroughly unpleasant yet utterly gripping and features impeccable cinematography and a standout score. (Interestingly, in what could also be known as “The Year of Stephen King,” the other film version of his work, The Dark Tower, a fantasy, was widely dismissed.)

In addition to multiple King adaptations, this year also saw an unusually high number of the genre’s familiar faces in franchises aplenty. The best of these offerings was Annabelle: Creation, strikingly directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), who injects the film, set in an orphanage during the 1950s, with period atmosphere and depth reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a rare sequel, or rather origin story (to a spin-off!), that far surpasses its original (the ultra-clunky Annabelle). Cult of Chucky also provided high entertainment, and impressive gore, while seriously upping the meta factor often found in these endless off-shoots in an effort to keep them fresh (the crude, destructive doll likes the show Hannibal; when Jennifer Tilly shows up, as Chucky’s ex-wife, Tiffany, someone tells her she looks like Jennifer Tilly). Helmed by Don Mancini (the creator of the franchise and a screenwriter on all seven editions and the director of two previous others), the film is set in a psychiatric hospital where a surviving victim of Chucky’s from the most recent edition (a very appealing Fiona Dourif, son of Brad, the voice of the killer doll) now resides—and is visited by multiple Chuckys, who wreak havoc on patients not exactly in touch with reality. Another straight-to-VOD release (via Netflix), Creep 2 also showcases a glorified serial killer (Mark Duplass), slightly less cartoonish than Chucky, who meets his match in an unflappable video artist (Desiree Akhavan) committed to creating an exposé on his criminal life. It’s a grating experience you want to hate, yet director Patrick Brice keeps you glued as he out-creeps his first film.

Not as commendable were the slick but forgettable Leatherface, the first disappointment by French filmmaking duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury; the Spierig Brothers’ Jigsaw, part 8 of the exhausted Saw series; the dull Amityville: The Awakening by Franck Khalfoun, usually a respectable genre director, who does still add his share of clever touches (and meta moments, like when a group of teenagers watch the original Amityville Horror in the “real” Amityville haunted house, into which one’s family has just moved); Open Water 3: Cage Dive, whose shark-franchise designation was tacked on as an afterthought, not that it helped to draw in audiences (in an anemic year for great whites, 47 Meters Down takes the prize for the best shark film); Jeepers Creepers 3, a super-limited release—surely in part because of director Victor Salva’s history as a convicted child molester—which just a tiny bit later would probably have been shelved permanently in light of the slew of reprehensible-male-behavior outings in recent months. And don’t forget (or do?) Victor Crowley, the fourth in Adam Green’s Hatchet series; the long-delayed Rings; and even another juvenile high-camp WolfCop movie called… Another WolfCop. (In 2018, audiences can see how the next Halloween, Conjuring, Insidious, Predator, Tremors, Puppet Master, Re-Animator, Children of the Corn, and Purge films will fare. It must be a sign of a genre’s health when there’s room for so many franchises…)

Cult of Chucky

Additionally, the year saw some unwelcome remakes such as Flatliners and Netflix’s Death Note, directed by Adam Wingard, who needs to go back to making truly original stories such as You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die immediately.

To find such original works, IFC Midnight remains one of the most reliable sources. This year alone, they released six of the most inventive, quality offerings out there: two terrifying survival thrillers, Damien Power’s devastating and brilliant Killing Ground and Sam Patton’s lesser but still-worthy Desolation; Sean Byrne’s masterful tale of artistic obsession and satanic possession The Devil’s Candy (all three even harder to endure because the featured families in peril are so human and likable); A Dark Song, an unnerving occult thriller in which a woman hires a medium to help make contact with her dead daughter; and House on Willow Street, which, similar to last year’s horror highlight Don’t Breathe, sees a house robbery—led by a woman with a mission, played by modern scream-queen Sharni Vinson—go terrible wrong, but this time in a more supernatural way.

This year also saw premier horror streaming site Shudder branch out into theatrical releasing and securing original VOD titles. They are poised to become true ambassadors for the genre alongside the likes of Blumhouse Films, Jason Blum’s booming production company that this year had its hand in Happy Death Day, Get Out, Creep 2, Amityville: The Awakening, The Belko Experiment, and Split.

Happy Death Day demonstrates that not all PG-13 horror movies have to insult adults’ intelligence and that being a box-office hit doesn’t require big-name stars—though the lead will surely become one. What separates horror from other genres is that the films are more often than not female-driven, and here an energetic Jessica Rothe effortlessly transcends a gimmicky premise—a macabre Groundhog Day, in which a sorority girl named Tree is murdered, but then wakes up to that same morning again and again, allowing her time to uncover the identity of her cosplay-masked killer, and to also realize what a shallow, awful person she’s become. An incessant partier, she awakens on her death day (which also happens to be her birthday) in the dorm room of a geeky nice guy, clearly not the sort she usually goes for. The ensuing string of repeat days is handled with surprising savvy and wit by director Christopher Landon. And it also provides breathing room for some genuine emotion, as she contends with her tenuous relationship with her dad, her growing feelings for the decent dude (who we of course learn did not take advantage of having a pretty drunk girl in his bed), and the fact that this fateful day is also the birthday of her recently deceased mother.

Happy Death Day

Like Happy Death Day, many of the year’s highlights, which toyed with or injected life into often-tired subgenres, came in smaller packages, such as the home-invasion thrillers Better Watch Out, The Babysitter (another Netflix original), and Jackals; the clever zombie-in-the-desert flick It Stains the Sands Red (much better than the silly cannibal-in-the-desert-flick The Bad Batch); the flesh-eating family drama Raw; the blood-sucking confused-teen drama The Transfiguration; the sci-fi/fantasy/horror hybrids The Void, The Untamed, and The Lure, which also had elements of the musical; and the ultra-disturbing tale of youth Super Dark Times, about the unraveling of a group of friends after the accidental killing of a classmate, which offers a significantly more satisfying experience than It.

But perhaps the most notable turn of events within the field in 2017 was the sheer number of artier terror-infused stories—all exquisitely made yet variously successful—that came from the minds of tried-and-true directors who don’t usually traverse so deep into horror territory. There was Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, in which a young American woman in Paris (played by a lifeless Kristen Stewart as if she herself were the walking dead) searches for connection with the spirit of her twin brother; Trey Edward Shults’s intense, claustrophobic, but not terribly original apocalyptic nightmare It Comes at Night; Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an astonishingly shot, pitch-black absurdist revenge thriller about a family paying for the mistake of its heart-surgeon father, featuring a truly chilling performance by Barry Keoghan as the troubled vengeance-seeker; Darren Aronofsky’s equally absurd but effectively riveting and blistering tale of idolatry and a whole lot more, mother!; and perhaps the most purely horror of them all, Joachim Trier’s Thelma, a coming-of-age-with-telekinesis story that features some of the most haunting visuals put to screen all year (a father pointing a shotgun at the back of his young daughter’s head, a baby trapped below the surface of an iced-over lake; a man in a rowboat suddenly catching fire, shattered glass mixed with blood-swirled milk).

If these films are any indication, and they most likely are, there’s a boost in store for horror, a genre that already factors prominently into the box office, prompts much discussion and strong reactions (whether positive or negative), and includes some of the gutsiest voices around. These are horrific times, and for those who haven’t already reached their capacity of terror, and have the stomach for it, there’s something strangely cathartic about seeing fear played out fearlessly on screen. So expect more, scarier works than ever before, made by a larger pool of cultivated, unflinching filmmakers, to be consumed by a wider range of tastes.