2015 was a fairly uneven year cinematically. For every major stinker that made us regret having eyeballs, there were just as many solid examples which showed that the craft was still alive and vibrant as ever. This was no more obviously a fact than with the genre side of things. From the January slugs to the sweet to the major released nuggets to nearly forgotten gems, 2015 held more than its fair share of extremely engrossing examples of why people like the readers of Gruesome Magazine still keep their hopes up every year for fantastic horror films and genre cinema in general.
I’ve already divulged my Worst of List on Horror News Radio’s 141st episode and even this list on the recently released Episode 143, but I wanted to call attention to my best list in more detail here on Gruesome. As loyal listeners would know, I’m more keen to explore wider genre perspectives. Yet, despite most of my picks here having a foot in the horror direction, most of them dabble in some other genre to their benefit. Hell, one is an outright exception to that. Still, I’d like to mention a few honorable mentions (both horror and otherwise) before I get to the list proper just as other recommendations :
Worthy Non-Horror Efforts (In No Particular Order):
- Ex-Machina (easily one of the best modern examples of the modern Frankenstein myth within a sci-fi context)
- The Gift (low key yet unnerving thriller that was a fine example of Joel Edgerton’s talents as a triple threat and easily the best Blumhouse release of the year)
- The Martian (one of the more entertaining sci-fi films in the last decade and easily director Ridley Scott’s finest work in multiple)
- Sicario (brutal action thriller that shows the true horror of the War on Drugs, including plenty of mutilated corpses to spare)
- Room (not really genre at all as much as it is a low budget drama about a genuinely horrific situation that will make you crumbling apart and then build you back up with phenomenal performances and subtle filmmaking. My favorite film of 2015 overall).
Horr-onorable Mentions (In No Particular Order):
- The Boy (a low key horror drama character study of a young man’s descent into madness with fine performances from Rainn Wilson and David Morse)
- Creep (writer/co-star Mark Duplass carries this horror comedy with a character I’d genuinely want to see more low budget exploits of)
- Crimson Peak (decadently designed Guillermo del Toro horror with solid performances all around)
- Cub (clever Danish horror that took odd chances and kept close to its fairy tale roots)
- Deathgasm (Sam Raimi and metal inspired horror comedy with a genuine heart that’s as infectious as it is gory)
Now… the list:
10) Yakuza Apocalypse
I’ve already spoken highly of this one in a full on Gruesome Review, so I’ll be brief here. The latest from director Takashi Miike is – not surprisingly – bonkers. With human bird monsters, vampiric yakuza and a mysterious marital arts badass under a frog suit, Yakuza Apocalypse is an insanely madcap genre mashup that is unrelenting in its silliness. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but what it lacks in that department it more than makes up for in balls-to-the-wall craziness.
9) The Voices
Ryan Reynolds is a guy that I really enjoy despite having terrible career choices. So often, he’ll be entertaining in a movie that isn’t worthy of his charm and comedic timing (see The Proposal, Just Friends, X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Yet with The Voices, Reynolds found the first worthy outlet for his talents since Buried. Reynolds not only stars as our shy yet endearing lead Jerry, but also the various titular voices that his mentally unstable mind creates for the animals around him. Each one represents some side of him, whether it be his killer instinct or his rational desire to pay for his crimes. All that conflict is darkly funny, but also quite heartbreaking. Every death makes us actually feel for the growing mental sickness of Reynolds, which comedically contrasts with director Marjane Satrapi’s cartoonishly bright colors. It’s a movie where the gore means something as it splashes. Where seeing that red color means more than losing some vital liquids. It means losing more of your humanity.
8) He Never Died
Former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins has clearly had a storied life. Recent interviews with Rollins have gone into great detail about his exploits on tour and the many strange people he’s encountered while singing about American Wastes and TV Parties. So, it only makes sense to have him play an immortal cannibal that is nihilistically tired of the world around him. He Never Died provides Rollins with a strong character focused vehicle for this under appreciated actor, though in a much more deadpan and cynical fashion. Rollins showcases the full range of this character, from his nonchalant methods of murder to his blunt ways of cutting ties from others. Some of this can be a bit odd and seemingly inconsistent, but it all clicks together perfectly once Rollins reveals the extent of his mysterious mythology in a shocking but completely logical fashion. Plus, he fights against his gangster villain played by Steve “Trevor from GTA V” Ogg. What else do you need?
7) Bone Tomahawk
While Kurt Russell’s more high profile western work this year was with Quentin Tarantino’s super gory The Hateful Eight, one shouldn’t discount the more under seen effort that he displayed with the more horror tinged western drama Bone Tomahawk. Despite being nearly an hour shorter than Eight, Tomahawk has a much more deliberate slow burn pace to it. These characters – brought to life by talents like Russell, Patrick Wilson and a near unrecognizable Richard Jenkins -come off as fully realized with the detail of a novel that gives the bluntly gory actions cast upon them more weight.So much time is spent with this major group of characters, journeying to take on their traditional masculine roles by being saviors. Yet, those roles are constantly subverted by the cruel harsh nature of the violence that’s inflicted upon them, whether by these mutated Native American “Troglodytes” or their own hubris. Both are equal parts enemy.
6) It Follows
The concept of people following you isn’t a new one to horror by any stretch. Halloween made an entire sub genre out of that idea in a way that only strengthened with every new slasher franchise. Yet, 2015’s It Follows taps into a much more etherial and ghastly version of that fear by having it primarily focus on themes of purity and budding sexuality being tainted by the lingering presence of regret. That regret comes to light in the form of this social pariah inducing killer that directly comes after our hero, with genuinely terrifying scenarios of being followed by strangers with the limited yet effective lighting and incredibly tense score by Disasterpiece. It’s a film where the killer isn’t just out to kill you. The killer is out there to make your life a waking unforgivable nightmare… which is far more horrific.
5) What We Do In The Shadows
Even though I saw this at SXSW back in 2014, it’s limited release this February was enough to make it worthy of consideration for this list. Yet, What We Do In The Shadows earns its status in the Top 5 because of just how clever and rewatchable it is. The vampiric characters are so well realized by the cast (including co-writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi) that each gag feels grounded in their personalities, which lends more credence to the mockumentary style and immerses the audience further in this world they’ve created. It’s the type of comedy where the humor not only comes from character, but molds and develops them into the slice of life. Plus, the comparison of virgin blood to sandwiches is easily the best comedic moment of this year.
4) The Final Girls
This is another one I’ve talked about at length for a Gruesome Review, so I’ll once again be brief. With some incredible comedic talent in the cast and an incredibly endearing heart, The Final Girls is one of the crowning examples of what horror comedy can accomplish. The laughs come constantly, both from making fun of the tropes of slasher films and playing with the concept of being trapped within a film. Yet, it’s put on another level thanks to Todd Strauss-Schulson’s vibrant comedic direction and a genuine emotional center that makes for the best possible retooling of the basic arc of Back to the Future. It has what so many horror spoofs rarely have: fully realized arcs and characters that are earned.
Horror and romance rarely mix in film. There’s obviously the more gothic romance of something like a Bram Stoker’s Dracula or more recently with Crimson Peak, but in most cases the horror waters down the romance for the sake of more gore or scares. Yet, with Spring, directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead managed to develop a wonderful budding romance that evokes the wide range of emotions of a young blossoming couple. The initial awkwardness, the slow development of rapport and the frustration over dealing with revelations that could compromise everything. In this case, the stumbling block is that the female in the relationship may be a monster. But the film doesn’t suddenly abandon the endearing chemistry of Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker. Instead, we see that kinship come to a realistic boil as we see this endearing relationship hit a true speed bump that makes us wonder if these two crazy kids can make it… even if one of them isn’t what they seem.
Few holiday centered films that have come out in this millennium immediately become a part of the holiday rotation. Christmas films are particularly hard to enter the canon, especially given horror fans haven’t had much variety since Gremlins. There are only so many Silent Night Deadly Night sequels one can take. However, after managing to add a new Halloween film to the rotation with Trick R Treat, writer/director Michael Dougherty has entered a new must watch to the Christmas season: Krampus. Much in the same way Gremlins managed to introduce a young me to horror, Krampus with its bloodless yet creepy scares is likely to serve as a wonderful introductory horror for kids and an emotionally honest take on the holiday stress of family for adults with a horror twist. It helps that the film is full of wonderfully designed creatures brought to life by creative practical effects, a masterful use of Christmas iconography and a theme of anti-consumerism that is perfectly solidified with the enjoyably creepy final shot.
1) Mad Max Fury Road
So yeah, this was the big exception I was talking about from horror. While several items on the list combined comedy, western and even martial arts with horror to varying degrees, Mad Max Fury Road has mostly been classified as a dystopian action adventure. Yet, the truth is Fury Road defies specification. Sure, it’s a new entry in the 30 year dormant Mad Max franchise, but it really doesn’t require any sort of knowledge of the past films. Or even a passing interest in general genre efforts. With its expert use of economic story telling, subtle world building and deliberate character action, Fury Road managed to evoke the kind of heights that hadn’t been achieved since the silent era in terms of visual story telling. Without much dialogue spoken, the gorgeously choreographed action sequences and brief character interactions drive home what’s familiar about the Mad Max series while reconstructing this world anew, just like Furiosa and the women of the film hoping to regain a sense of society in a world ruled by men with the help of the lost madness of Max. It’s a tale that’s told by campfire to keep hope alive in a world gone to hell, which resonants in our world that seems to be on the cusp of breaking apart.