2017 was really such a great year for horror. I didn’t see/read/play even half the things I wanted to and I didn’t get to write about half of the things I did, which leaves me with a lot of love to unburden myself of going into the new year. And you know what’s good for unburdening? Listicles. So without further ado, here’s my list of Ten Things I Loved in Horror This Past Year (That I Didn’t Already Write About), 2017 Edition.
Get Out (Film, 2017, written and directed by Jordan Peele)
I didn’t write about Get Out because everyone was writing about Get Out, and everyone was writing about Get Out because it is superlative. There is nothing I can tell you about Get Out more important than to see it if you haven’t and to see it again if you’ve only seen it once. Very, very broadly, it’s about what happens after a young white woman (Allison Williams) brings her black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her affluent, liberal parents. I know, not the most sinister of horror premises, but it is so good. Not just as the social-political commentary I’m sure you’ve gleaned it may be, but as a genuinely disturbing horror movie offered by a master of the craft. It’s layered, it’s subtle, it’s funny and chilling in turns, and I will put up the requisite [SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER SPOILER ALERT] before admitting I continue to be haunted by the depiction of white women as not just collaborators in an evil conspiracy, compelled by tradition, status, and menfolk, but enthusiastic architects of the conspiracy themselves. It’s a bit of a tell on myself, but the notion of unsympathetic (both in the sense of being unsympathetic to the viewer and unsympathetic to victims) liberal, educated white ladies bothers me a lot. Jordan Peele is freaking amazing and I can’t wait to see his Twilight Zone.
Stan Against Evil (TV series, IFC, 2016-ongoing)
I’m afraid that IFC’s Stan Against Evil might be unfairly seen as the cable version of the also excellent Ash Vs. Evil Dead over on premium Starz. I’m afraid that it might be fairly seen as same, too. But despite having a stingier budget for blood spurts and necrotic flesh while employing similar dramatic throughlines and titular characters* — not that it’s a competition — I prefer Stan. As our hero, John McGinley is a sarcastic, misanthropic, crusty Al Bundy (or later Ashley J. Williams) of a man, recently widowed and forced into retirement from being town sheriff after having an apparent psychotic break at his wife’s funeral. Now, Stan has no ambition grander than parking his butt in his favorite chair and drinking his way through a day of the History Channel while ignoring his ditzy daughter, but he soon finds out his late wife was a witch protecting him from an ancient curse on the sheriffs of his town, and now he and his young, go-getter replacement Evie (Janet Varney) will have to stare down monsters of the week on the regular. What I love about Stan has everything to do with head writer/creator Dana Gould’s sense of humor, which is set to permanent Simpsons Halloween Special mode and often shakes the rafters of Castle Englert with laughter. At its best, Stan Against Evil still delivers gruesome creepiness, gore, and the occasional freakout along with the yuks. I also really enjoy Janet Varney, who doesn’t get as many Dr. Cox zingers as Stan, but holds her own as a heroine in the mold of a younger, less fatalistic Stan/Ash.
Season 1 is currently streaming on Hulu. Season 2 recently finished on IFC.
It (Film, 2017, directed by Andy Muschietti, written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman)
Like most of Generation X, I was traumatized by the 1990 ABC miniseries version of It, especially Tim Curry’s iconic turn as Pennywise, and of course, I followed that up by inhaling the book, which lead to about a week of sleeping in my mom’s room. I love It. And I love this It, even though — maybe because — it takes huge liberties with the source material that tighten and modernize the narrative. With It, Stephen King created a monster capable of being any nightmare you could imagine, although it defaulted to clown, and he pitted it against seven outcasts, first as kids and then later as adults, the Losers’ Club, led by the brother of one of its guileless child victims. This made for a sprawling novel even by King’s standards. Most of the changes in this film version struck me as smart moves, like transplanting the Losers’ Club from the 1960s to the 1980s, losing the kids having a kind of ritual sex in that one infamous scene, and rewriting individual backstories. The only exception would be the changes to Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). I’m not sure it’s fair to judge until the planned second part of It comes out, but this version brings him into the story later than either the novel or the miniseries and gives him short shift. It’s a crowded cast, I realize, but I would revisit that, particularly given that he is the only non-white principal character in the story. Again, the character’s development in part two might change my feelings about this. Overall, I was surprised at how many details could be changed while preserving the soul of the story. That’s absolutely intact, and I appreciate why King himself was very sanguine about it. Without taking anything away from Curry’s Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal – aided by a hefty modern effects budget – is its own thing, and that thing is going to traumatize a whole new generation.
Beyond the Gates (Film, 2016, directed by Jackson Stewart, written by Jackson Stewart and Stephen Scarlata)
Beyond the Gates is a low budget love letter to 80s/90s nostalgia screeching out of dot matrix printer. It’s an easy film to enjoy, but more difficult to recommend, mainly because pace. Not a lot happens in the first, oh, half, though it is absolutely drenched in direct-to-video atmosphere. The plot concerns two estranged brothers drawn together to dispose of their missing father’s video store business. While packing up the place, they discover an old VCR horror board game (ask your parents, kids) in Dad’s office hosted by a creepy lady (Barbara Crampton!) and, as one might guess, the lines between game and real world get real blurry, real quick-like. Listen, here’s the intro. If you dig it, you’ll dig the movie. If you’re into it but want more action, I refer you again to It above or Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Beyond the Gates is currently streaming on Netflix.
I am lumping together both of writer-director Oz Perkins’ (yep, Norman Bates’ kid) feature efforts because, besides being his babies, they are compelling in similar ways, as one might expect. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the story of a couple of girls (Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton) stranded with a demonic influence at their religious boarding school during winter break while a mysterious young woman (Emma Roberts) hitchhikes to the same school with a married couple. I Am the Pretty Thing follows an easily-spooked live-in nurse (Ruth Wilson) as she assumes her new position caring for a famous horror writer (Paula Prentiss) suffering from dementia. Both stories are flashback-riddled and drenched in mood, trading on ambiguities in identity and perception more than complexities of character or plot to sustain gorgeous, spun-sugar dread. In both cases, it’s almost like watching a poem, albeit pretty bloody poems. I might prefer I Am the Pretty Thing a shade more due to my engagement with Ruth Wilson’s character and the cleaner, simpler story, but the films might easily serve as ghostly reflections of each other, from a certain point of view.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is streaming on Netflix. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is streaming on Amazon Prime.
XX (Film, 2017, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Jovanka Vuckovic, and Sofia Carrillo)
I was so excited for XX when it was announced because A) Women writers in horror! Women directors in horror! Yay! B) An anthology horror film! Yay! And C) KARYN KUSAMA, YAY! I am a huge fan of Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation. So, yes, XX is a series of 4 unrelated horror tales, all written and directed by women. As with any anthology film, mileage will vary and there’s quite a bit of tonal and stylistic difference among the pieces, from the stomach-turning “The Box” to St. Vincent’s black comedy “The Birthday Party.” My only complaint is that three of four tales revolve around women as mothers, but that’s a quibble as four out of four tales are worth watching, and the stop-motion interstitial bits are Coraline levels of freaky.
XX is streaming on Netflix.
The Void (Film, 2017, written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski)
The Void will fill any void of truly squicky Lovecraftian cinematic horror that might have yawned in one’s heart with tentacles and pulp and doom. It’s a siege film in the most short-staffed hospital since Halloween II as a motley group of survivors are closed on by an eldritch cult without and meaty strobe-lit horrors within, and you don’t really need much more story than that, do you? It’s really a masterpiece of low budget execution, but what impressed me most was the sense of cosmic isolation and dread at its core. I didn’t love its ending, but the journey was worth taking. Maybe eat first though. It’s pretty gross.
The Void is currently streaming on Netflix.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Comic, 2014-ongoing, Archie Horror, writing by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, art by Robert Hack, lettering by Jack Morelli)
Like most awesome comics and TV I light upon that aren’t Doctor Who, Comics Editor Carol turned me on to Sabrina and Archie Horror, which she talks more about here and here. (And she recommends their newest series, Jughead: The Hunger, in her own year-end top ten list here.) I really enjoy the pulpiness of Chilling Adventures. There is no romanticism, no Bewitched soft-pedaling beneficium. Our heroes shout “Hail Satan!”** and murder, sex, cannibalism, blood sacrifices, and madness are the order of the day at Pop’s Chock’Lit Shoppe. This year saw the debut of the Witch War arc, in which Sabrina defies her coven and her aunts to protect [spoiler], not knowing that he is [spoiler], in an ongoing chess match she doesn’t know she’s playing with the vengeful Madam Satan. Plus, Netflix just announced a series based on Chilling Adventures starring The Blackcoat’s Daughter‘s Kiernan Shipka. Man, I haven’t been this excited about teen witches since I was one. Also consider checking out Chilling Adventures in Sorcery (2018), which collects vintage Tales From the Crypt-style vignettes published by Archie Comics back in the day, as presented by Sabrina.
Prevenge (Film, 2016, written and directed by Alice Lowe WHILE HERSELF PREGNANT. I WILL NEVER GET OVER THIS. Dear God, woman. How.)
I love my daughter more than myself, and I know that, to some degree, this is biologically determined. Along with the morning sickness, body-length aches, and acid belches of pregnancy, an imperative woke in the deeps of my grey matter, wrapped in gauzy chemicals and heart shapes, but no less definite: Everything for The Baby. The fetus hijacks your body. It’s what they do. And that imperative is at the bottom of Alice Lowe’s horror-comedy, in which a pregnant woman is commanded by her unborn child to cut a bloody swath through unsuspecting Londoners. I love everything about this movie, from its garish absurdity to its unflinching honesty to its aggressively off-kilter electronica score, and I also love this brilliant piece Gutter guest star Nick Hanover wrote about it last year.
Prevenge is streaming on Shudder.
Within the Wires (Podcast, 2016-ongoing, written by Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson)
I mainly listen to podcasts when I’m walking my two noble chow mixes, both strong-willed gentlemen who favor crisscrossing each other and stopping every 90 seconds to interrogate patches of earth. So high concept is not generally something I seek out in my podcasts, as my attention is continually, sometimes literally, tugged in opposite directions. I mention this because Within the Wires at first seemed prohibitively high concept. There are two series, the first unfolding through a series of relaxation tapes, the second during a series of museum audio tours, with creepy stories from an alternate dystopian universe insinuating themselves amid the superficially innocuous media. Once I finally gave it a shot though, I was instantly hooked and began binging at every opportunity. The writing is intoxicating, top-level stuff and the stories are whatever the podcast equivalent of page-turners would be. Episode queuers? It really reminded me of Nabokov’s great masterpiece of metafiction, Pale Fire, in which an obsessive biographer edits and annotates the unpublished work of a dead poet, inserting his own bizarre story between the lines. You shouldn’t worry about working too hard as an audience to get to the sinister stuff in Within the Wires though; it’ll get to you and, like a curious child examining a damselfly’s wings, it’s not going to let you go in the same state it found you.
*For example, I’m pretty sure both Stan and Ash would make a joke, or at least mug to the camera, on being called titular characters.
**SO MANY Rosemary’s Baby references. And Sabrina’s daddy looks just like Butch Patrick as Eddie Munster as a boy. And I’m pretty sure one devil is based on John Carradine.