Looking Back: Tim Buel Picks His Top 8 Favorite Horror Films of 2013
by Tim Buel
December 26, 2013
As 2013 comes to an end, everyone is scrambling to put together their "Best of the Year" lists (trust me, I'm scrambling too). However when it comes to the genre I love, there is a fervent desire in me to make sure people are aware of some of the films I've been enjoying so much this year. Horror as a whole has been seeing a revival in the past few years, predominantly in the independent scene but even mainstream studios are getting it right every so often, and this pleases me. Horror films in the public eye aren't the most seat-packing bookings and often a lot of the great genre work throughout the year slips through the cracks.
While there have been tons of excellent independent horror releases this year, larger budget films surprised me. So when I was putting together my list, I wanted to mention of a few of each that I thought really stood out as some of the best flicks in the genre this year. As a disclaimer, there are still a couple I am in the process of catching up on like The Battery, Resolution, Dark Touch and Kiss of the Damned to name a few. So don't worry, I don't think any of these are better than some that you may not see on this list. It's been a busy year and I love catching up but here's what I've dug the most this year in the horror genre! Here we go!
#8. Lords of Salem
Rob Zombie is someone who I am endlessly fascinated with. The rockstar turned director sure has a knack for stylized cinema yet he more often than not falls flat in the story department. However, I always seek out his films regardless of how I felt about the last one. I first saw the reviews of Lords of Salem from TIFF; folks were declaring it as some of Zombie's best work and some were again in the camp of style over substance. When I saw this when it hit VOD, I gave it a rental and really was taken aback by it.
Lords of Salem is soaked in exploitation and giallo love and the color pallet creates a surreal and hypnotic world in which Zombie spins his tale. I love the slow burn progression, the witch characters and most importantly, the droning track played by The Lords of Salem. The film does indeed still have its share of issues, namely Zombie's wife Sheri in the lead role. She isn't as bad as she has been in previous works but her performance still left something to be desired. It was a mistake to cast her as the lead, but hey, it's the guy's wife. I get it. Lords of Salem is still very much worth your time for its nightmare inducing visuals, monotonous and haunting score and overall excellence in its desired atmosphere.
#7. Insidious: Chapter 2
What a year for James Wan! You will see him mentioned again on this list but Wan has been hitting it out of the park in the last few years and 2013 seemed to be the year he finally got the accolades he deserves. When a sequel to 2011's Insidious was announced, I was slightly wary (as all sequels make me) yet the prospect of both Wan and collaborator Leigh Whanell returning gave me hope. Insidious Chapter II feels slightly leaner and quicker than its predecessor but it actually worked well for me. The plot has enough to fill some holes from part I and also add some depth to the mythology in a fun way. I've seen people say this is a major step down from the first film, however its funhouse mentality completely worked for me personally and I had a spooky good time with Insidious: Chapter 2.
I finally got a chance to see the Maniac remake a month or so back when it hit Netflix Instant and I was greatly pleased albeit disturbed with the final product. I had seen the original Maniac many years ago when I first started getting into horror and thought it was solid but nothing to write home about. Franck Kahlfoun has taken the original subject matter and updated it with a moody and voyeuristic spirit and significantly updated the film with some brutal violence and gore. The film is not for the faint of heart and it may not be one I will revisit often, but it is an excellently made slice of life of a disturbed man who scalps young woman.
The cinematography must be mentioned as the film is predominantly from the view point of Frank Zito and therefore the shots are very purposeful and stylized to evoke this experience. However, I found myself continuously forgetting these POV shots and being jarred back to the sick reality of "being Frank Zito" as the film goes on. Maxime Alexandre serves as the DP on the flick, and the bulk of the film is really set on the shoulders of the visuals and it never ceases to keep you completely absorbed in the story. Again, Maniac is not for the squeamish because of some of its stomach churning gore, but if you are brave enough to take the ride, the film is very worth your time.
#5. V/H/S 2
VHS was a very interesting exercise in the found-footage genre, with multiple stories from multiple filmmakers making up an all encompassing tale. It didn't completely succeed for me, with only a few of the shorts really being stand-outs, but the concept was enough to make me game for additional franchise installments. V/H/S2 brought additional names to the table that definitely grabbed my interest including Hobo With a Shotgun director Jason Eisner, The Raid filmmaker Gareth Evans and Blair Witch Project's Eduardo Sánchez. The film works much better than the first one, with the through line story (Tape 49) doing a better job of wrapping things together to cater to the larger plot line.
Perhaps the strongest of the short films is also the longest. Safe Haven, directed by Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto is an apocalpytic tale told in the slowest of burns and the payoff is completely worth the wait. This one would have stood out very well on YouTube had it been released as a stand alone short. The rest of the segments weigh in as good to great therefore setting V/H/S2 as a very worthwhile follow up to a somewhat shaky original, so it's definitely worth checking out!
#4. Evil Dead
I know I may get some excessive hate for this but bring it! I kind of love the new Evil Dead. Let's face it, Fede Alvarez was a dead man from the get go. No one should remake Evil Dead. Why? What's the point? I agree in every capacity, however…I think he nailed it. I was one of the first people ready to dump on the remake and I was ridiculously surprised when over an hour into the film, I was grinning ear to ear. This new film is incredibly stylized (some stated this was a bad thing a la Platinum Dunes' horror duds) however I think it created atmosphere and a character out of the story itself. Things have been altered, updated and overall flipped on their heads for this story, yet again I never felt the changes were irreverant or offensive to the original. This is a new story, a new Evil Dead experience and in that regard, I truly think it rocks.
The violence is excellent, with kills and dismemberments reaching new visceral heights. The characters, while some what flat (besides the inspiring Jane Levy) are merely there to move the greater plot along, the rise of the deadites and the reign of the "abomination." I have seen this flick 4 times since the theaters and every time I have a blast. I wasn't fond of the post-credits stinger (again, why?) but everything preceding it tickled me right in the horror feels. I'm a big fan of 2013's Evil Dead and I implore you to be too!
#3. We Are What We Are
I have been a Jim Mickle fan for a bit now, after seeing his zombie-esque indie Mulberry Street and the much lauded Americana fueled vampire tale Stake Land. His new film is a remake/retelling of 2010's Spanish language Somos Lo Que Hay (We Are What We Are) done in English and set in a small and dreary upper east coast town. The story involves a family maintaining a morbid tradition every year in honor of their descendants dark journey across early rural America.
Mickle carefully paces the film and the tone is perfectly set throughout by the wonderful visuals and striking score by Jeff Grace (with Darren Morris and Phil Mossman). The truly remarkable talking points of the film are the outstanding performances of Bill Sage, Julia Garner, Amber Childers and Michael Parks. The film deals with a taboo subject matter (which I won't spoil in case you have stayed completely spoiler free on this one) but the characters and their motives never seem false or contrived, mainly due to the finesse of the actors in their skins. The plot takes twists and turns throughout and never ceased to keep me completely engaged. We Are What We Are is a special breed of American horror and one that I hope audiences don't pass on as it's more readily available this year.
#2. You're Next
After I saw You're Next at Midnight at Fantastic Fest 2011, I knew I had found a new genre favorite. The film is written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard (both of VHS2) and the two have set out to craft a new and fun spin on something familiar. Home Invasion is a genre that is incredibly familiar to the horror community with entries like Ills (2006) and The Strangers (2008) and it's a very challenging feat to find something new to add. The guys have gone the avenue of Scream, Cabin in the Woods and other self-aware horror and made a film that deconstructs the very genre it takes place in.
The dialogue between the characters (namely AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) does nothing but fuel your general disdain for most of them, therefore making the ensuing chaos all the more fun and hilarious to view. As the film progresses, it's very clear that the home invasion aspect of the film is the least of its plot devices and that is what makes this flick all the more fun to revisit and show new viewers. After a two year wait, it has been a huge delight of mine to show and recommend You're Next to genre fans world wide. Seek this out when it hits shelves in January folks, it's a golden one.
#1. The Conjuring
The Conjuring is hands down the most well crafted horror film this year (for me personally of course) and therefore it lands on the top of my Best Horror list. James Wan (again, with an incredible year in film) has taken a very classical and old school approach to this story of The Perron family and their interactions with the evil spirits in their Rhode Island home. We also are introduced to the mythical Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) and their work of helping people rid their homes of supernatural plagues. The reason The Conjuring works so well is its classic and familiar format.
This is not a story we haven't seen before, at least not necessarily. This fresh but familiar approach is what really invites audiences along for the ride and the flick continuously subverts these tropes under Wan's carefully timed direction. There are some terrifying moments in this film when there is seemingly nothing too alarming in the scene yet Wan's shot selection and pacing fully evoke the mood needed for the tension to feel palpable. The performances are quite solid all around but the true standouts Lili Taylor as Carolyn Perron and the group of gifted young actresses playing the Perron girls. It takes some truly excellent work to convey true emotionally jarring terror and they all deliver above the bar.
James Wan is a breath of fresh air to the genre and now he has been elevated to action film director with Fast and Furious 7 and much deservedly so. If the rumors are true and he is done with horror for the time being, he's left us with a couple of solid films, one of which I will remember for years to come. I love this flick and I love introducing it to new viewers. Surprisingly tons of my friends missed it in theaters, so subsequent re-watches have been really rewarding to experience. Check out The Conjuring if you haven't had a chance!
And that's it for my favorite horror films of the year. Don't forget to check out today's post of the Best Official Movie Posters of 2013, and also our posts from earlier in the week with Joey Magidson's picks of the Best Performances of 2013 (for both actors and actresses) and his picks for the Best Scenes of 2013 as well. Coming up later this week we'll have Ethan Anderton's favorite comedies, Jeremy Kirk's picks for the best scores/soundtracks, and our favorite films of the year too. Thoughts on the 2013 Best Horror picks?