On the Dark Side
2017 was the year I finally learned to stop worrying and embrace the darkness. It was a year of terrors both global and personal, with my ability to see a bright future clouded by anxiety and depression.
It was the year the Future let me down. And the year horror rescued me from despair.
As a science fiction writer who loves his chosen genre and now seems to have lost his faith, I have to wonder why the movies released over the past few years have been so routine and uninspired, whereas I can find at least two dozen horror pictures from the same period that, despite flaws and series issues, often have more drive, energy, insight, daring, and wit than even the better sf efforts. It's not that science fiction has lacked strong cinematic material; in fact, 2017 saw the release of Denis Villeneuve's sequel to one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. Whether Blade Runner 2049 endures the march of time alongside its predecessor remains to be seen. But it doesn't stop me from placing it on my list of ten best movies of 2017.*
Once you look past this mesmerizing sequel, the quality leaps into the abyss of the abysmal. Yes, Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi proffered impressive moments and dared to venture into new territory, but it the rocks of ingrained tradition required Herculean effort to lift, even with the assistance of Disney's best Jedi masters. Other sf movies fared even worse. Message smothered War for the Planet of the Apes, while both Alien: Covenant and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets veered into idiocy and irrelevance. And don't get me started on Beyond Skyline, a movie so bad that not even MST3k-style snark saved it during its premiere at Other Worlds Austin. (The inclusion of comic book movies may boost the number of good sf movies, but I seldom think of comic book movies as sf.)
Meanwhile, horror movies made released in 2017 eclipsed sf both in numbers and in quality. I used to think that did not live in the dark worlds posited by horror's grim imaginings, but the command of storytelling and strength of insight this harrowing genre provide allowed me to cope with lackluster, indifferent movies. I struggle to come up with a list of ten great sf movies, but the challenge in tripping the cinema of the dark fantastic is to not leave out incredible work.
To that end, what follows is my list of the ten best horror movies released this year. Whether or not any of these will become classics is something I cannot say, nor can I say to have seen everything released, which is why you won't find Gerald's Game, Raw, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer listed. But all are remarkable works by talented filmmakers. It's worth your while to seek them out.
In alphabetical order:
Better Watch Out: At first, very little seems to separate Chris Peckover's home invasion movie from such well-crafted entries as Hush and You're Next, but it doesn't take long for this tale of a babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) looking after a precocious tween to suddenly upend conventions. Clever, well-paced, and often surprising, Better Watch Out crosses the black comedy of Heathers with the banal evil of Funny Games yet never resembles either.
The Blackcoat's Daughter: Oz Perkins heightens the unease he brought to his absorbing first feature I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House to this tale of a schoolgirl (Kiernan Shipka) trapped at her boarding school as she awaits her parents. As with his first feature, Perkins suffuses this chilly picture with unease and dread, its even pace drawing the viewer in with shocks right up to the final, terrifying revelation. I can't say that The Blackcoat's Daughter is the best horror movie made this year, but it is my personal favorite.
Creep 2: Just when you think found footage movies ought to remain hidden (to say nothing of movies leaving numbers out of their titles), along comes one that delivers on the suspense and outright verisimilitude that elevated The Blair Witch Project to classic status. Rather than simply repeat the success of the their disquieting 2014 feature, Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass bring back their narcissistic killer, now suffering ennui and aimlessness. He crosses paths with Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a college student who runs a YouTube channel devoted to strangers in need of companionship. Deeper than Creep and thus more terrifying, it says much about our obsession with online culture and the alienation brought on by communications technology.
A Dark Song: A grief-stricken woman (Catherine Walker) hires an occultist (Steve Oram) to help her perform a ritual that will summon a guardian angel with the power to avenge her murdered son. Tensions mount as the months-long Kabbalistic ritual encounters obstacles and the frustration. Understated and rich in detail, Liam Gavin's directorial debut delivers intriguing characters too trapped in their own egos and pain to ever find full release from it. Some fans dislike the ending, but I found it to be transformative. Of all the movies on this list, this is a true must-see...
Get Out: ...along with Jordan Peele's debut, about a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who visits the home of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) and begins to question the strange behavior of their black servants. Insightful yet creepy, Get Out examines race and class in 2017 America with a keen eye, and tells its story with a rich understanding of genre. It suffers now from overpraise, but remains one of the freshest horror movies of the year.
House on Willow Street: Director Alistair Orr takes this tale of a kidnapping gone very wrong in several unexpected places. Starring Sharni Vinson as a desperate crook who kidnaps the evil heiress Katherine (Carlyn Burchell), this South African feature builds tension from the beginning. Not the greatest movie on this list, it remains a strong exercise in terror.
It: Full confession: the original television movie based on Stephen King's large, brilliant, and messy novel never appealed to me. Part of it was the casting (John Ritter and Richard Thomas? Really?) but mostly it had to do with the lack of inspiration in its shots, the routine manner of its telling, and the cheapness of the entire production. This Andy Muschietti-directed adaptation, however, answers all of my criticisms by telling the story of the Losers Club as it does battle with the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) beneath the sewers of Derry, Maine. Yes, the movie suffers from comparison to the exceptional television show Stranger Things (It stars at least two of It's cast members) but still delivers old-school scares with care and affection.
It Comes at Night: In Terry Edward Shults's relentlessly grim psychological horror film, a family survives in a secluded location after a plague has ravaged the world. When they meet another family they invite them to stay, but tensions and paranoia begin to threaten their easy peace. The movie highlights the themes of love and loss, with one of the most devastation final shots I've seen this year. Not as energetic or as aggressive as many other recent horror movies, It Comes at Night terrifies with its understated telling.
Split: We all wrote off M. Night Shayamalan (with cause) after the silly Signs, the strained The Village, and the jawdroppingly bad The Happening. Then he redeemed himself with the found footage thriller The Visit, and reminded us how good he could be with Split, about a man (James McAvoy) with 23 separate personalities who captures three girls and holds them prisoner in an underground facility. Shayamalan keeps all of the action focused inside the cell, where claustrophobia only adds to the disorientation. The ending transforms the movie into something unexpected (and thus may dampen its impact), but it thrills throughout its entire run time.
The Transfiguration: Like found footage movies, there seems no reason to reopen any vampire's coffin, especially after the Twilight saga all but killed our need to yet again examine their feeding habits. And then comes the disturbing The Transfiguration, about a young boy (Eric Ruffin) who lives in a housing project and believes himself to be one of the undead. He begins to rethink his life when he meets a teenage girl (Chloe Levine) in need of a friend. Brilliantly cast and smartly directed, it's a movie about children who have no illusions about childhood, about family and loyalty where neither exist. Part George Romero's Martin and John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let Me In, it is probably the most genuinely terrifying movie on this list.
*My top ten movies for 2017 include Baby Driver, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Colossal, Dunkirk, Get Out, Logan, Personal Shopper, The Shape of Water, and Wonder Woman.
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Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. His work has appeared in The Horror Zine, Rayguns Over Texas!, Horror U.S.A.: Texas, Campfire Macabre, The Dread Machine, and Generation X-ed.
He lives in Central Texas.