horror

My Favorite Horrors, 2022

2022 was an amazing year for films, especially for horror–a year full of past masters, spiritual successors, and strange new worlds. While I stuffed myself near to the point of Sam Neill Event Horizon eyes, I wasn’t able to share most of the ridiculous plenty here at the Gutter. So, in the sacred, cleansing tradition of end-of-year listicles, let’s look back at five of my favorite horrors from 2022, all the better to usher in the new year of gods and monsters.

Master, written and directed by Mariama Diallo, starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, and Amber Gray. 

In Master, Regina Hall plays Gail Bishop, the newly-appointed house master of an elite New England university, one that proudly traces its lineage all the way back to the country’s founding. Gail is not only new to the honor; she’s the only Black woman ever to gain the position, and add to that she’s one of few professors of color at the university, period. As Gail moves into the master’s lodgings and takes up her responsibilities, she struggles with the sense that she is being used by the white establishment, whether knowingly or simply unthinkingly. At the same time, she’s being more literally haunted: servant bells are struck while she’s alone in the house; she battles recurring infestations of maggots; a vision of a Black servant looks back accusingly in the darkness. And that’s not all.

One of Gail’s new charges is also haunted. Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is a brilliant high-achiever accustomed to success, but as the lone Black freshman, she finds herself routinely, casually discriminated against by classmates and faculty. Plagued with nightmares, Jasmine also sleepwalks, waking up confused to a terrified roommate and telltale marks on her skin. As Jasmine obsesses about a university legend of a witch’s curse, it’s increasingly hard to know if her real struggle is against the living or the dead. Zoe Renee is heartbreakingly credible in her performance of Jasmine’s winnowing from a vibrant young scholar into a hollow-eyed, trembling wreck.

It’s the performances that elevate Master to the next levelnot just Hall and Renee, but Amber Gray in the gray-shaded role of an ambitious Black professor who seemingly joins in the discrimination against Jasmine–but I was struck again and again by the vivid, Argento-like use of light and shadow, delirious Gothic nightmare sequences, and touches of folk horror in the silhouettes of hooded women who might just be vengeful witches back from the grave. Master’s New England context does not scream giallo horror, but everything in the style and execution does, particularly the night scenes, and it’s amazing. So, too, the deft weave of supernatural and natural terrors that drives each of these women to the brink. Is it worse, Master asks, if a living person or a phantom hung a noose on Jasmine’s door? The hate behind either is as deathless and ubiquitous.

Master is one of those films that will wind up on Shudder or Screambox or something and the comments will be full of things like “good movie but it isn’t horror.” It’s true that this isn’t Suspiria or Black Christmas, but even leaving aside the spooky witch curse, shadowy apparitions, maggot-infested portraits, unattended bells ringing, and creepy dream sequences…actually, I’m not leaving those aside. This is a horror movie, and at least half of it could actually happen. 

Crimes of the Future (2022–obvious, you might think, but he did direct an unrelated film with the same title in 1970), written and directed by David Cronenberg, starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart.

In a not-too-specific future, there is no longer pain or disease, mutilated flesh is chic, and humanity itself is changing, both through the physical integration of technology and more fundamentally, as individuals start popping up with fun new kinds of organs. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is so talented at this last that evolving novel guts and performing public surgery on them becomes his chosen art form, alongside his surgeon and partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Cutting each other up is also their preferred way of getting down, and not just theirs either. “Surgery is the new sex,” breathes Kirsten Stewart’s government agent Timlin, clearly horny to get cutting herself.

Cronenberg harvests spy-fi and noir to gin up a dual life for Saul, as a government agency tasks him with infiltrating a radical evolutionist group. This plot honestly is just not that enthralling, not when we’re presented with the spectacles of erotic surgeries and Saul being fed by a bio-organic chair like a tortured infant. Still, it’s classic Cronenberg, opposing terrorist rebels against a fascist-curious state. In a world where kids snack on plastic trash cans and a dude is covered in decorative ears, bodily autonomy and questions of where society must prevail over an individual’s civil rights are the hot issues–same as now, same as always. But with such vivid, squicky metaphors onscreen, the problems in the film’s world do enlist fresh objectivity.

Apart from its timeliness–unplanned and unsought according to Cronenberg–I love the gorgeous, grimy aesthetic of this world, half ancient walls and beaches and sunsets and half warm shadows in a warren-like city. I love the blended electronic and orchestral Howard Shore score following Saul as he slinks, hooded, through city streets, strangely hopeful for all its strident strings and foghorn waltzes. I love every moment of Kristen Stewart’s mousy, obviously corruptible Timlin and the irrefutable chemistry between Saul and Caprice that wordlessly testifies to a love story that goes cell deep.

For what it’s worth, too, while this probably isn’t Cronenberg’s best work–that’s going to always be a debate anyway–I believe it is the Cronenbergiest of his works so far. Crimes of the Future, outside of an appreciation of the story for its own sake, recapitulates so many of Cronenberg’s techniques, motifs, tendencies, and even flaws, it could work as a digest (no pun intended) of his oeuvre, a kind of subconscious Cronenberg on Cronenberg. Not as gory as most of Cronenberg’s horror films, too, Crimes of the Future might be a good opening for the uninitiated.

Hellraiser (2022), directed by David Bruckner, written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, starring Odessa A’zion and Jamie Brucker as Your Hell Priest.

[Deep breath] I have written A LOT about the Hellraiser series, and that’s because I love it even when I don’t like it. It is like family to me. Hellraiser is in my heart and in my blood, and what an annoying supplement to a review except I need you to know how hard I’m trying not to be tedious. I am trying.

Let’s start simple. I loved this.

Now, there are a lot of ways a Hellraiser reboot could have gone: full on slate wiping with a completely different story, selective amnesia continuation, or a proper reboot with an update of the original story. We got a combination of a and b, with a completely new cast and no reference to previous films, but nothing denying previous continuity either.* The new story revolves around Riley (Odessa A’zion), a recovering addict living with her brother and his boyfriend while trying to get her life back together. Relatable! Part of her attempt to get said life back together–or maybe a subconscious attempt at self-sabotage–is a relationship with another recovering addict, Trevor. No spoilers that addict boyfriends have terrible ideas: Trevor enlists Riley’s help to break into a warehouse, where the pair of them uncover a mysterious puzzle box. Riley takes the box and after a fight with her brother, relapses–right before she solves the box.

I loved this Hellraiser. I loved the metaphor of Riley’s addiction dovetailing with the insidious appeal of the Cenobites. I loved Riley. She’s a mess, but she’s a mess I can sympathize with. I loved the new Cenobites, too. Jamie Clayton is absolutely perfect as the Hell Priest, terrifying and gorgeous. And to my surprise, the story folds in the Hellraiser II mythology, which I’ve never loved on its own, in a way that I could maybe sort of like. It has flaws, especially in the second half, but the new Hellraiser was made with love and intelligence and there are scenes that have affected me as deeply as anything in any Hellraiser, as much as anything in any movie. 

I cannot say that I prefer this Hellraiser to the original. I absolutely do not. The movie should have done more with Riley’s addiction after she unwittingly summons the Cenobites. The villain, let’s call him the Frank of this piece, is rote, another missed opportunity. And I particularly have problems with…shall we say the rules of the Cenobites in this version. They are now governed by something that is less about their merciless zeal and more, as the Gutter’s own Carol put it, “reverse Hot Potato.” Although, I will admit…as much as I philosophically, artistically, nerdily disagree with the motivations and methods of this version of the Cenobites…I think they are scarier this way.  If that’s what you’re into.

Barbarian, written and directed by Zach Cregger, starring Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long.

Barbarian begins on a dark and stormy night with a young woman alone in a bad part of Detroit, discovering the house rental she booked online is already occupied by a mysterious white dude (Bill Skarsgård). Come on in, he says; you can stay here until we figure this out. He’s confused, maybe a little put out, but also…spooky. A little awkward. The street behind her is desolate and dark. If that door closes behind her, who would know? Who would come if she cried out? Run, girl, run, right? 

I do not believe in spoilers; if a story is well told, I just don’t think it matters if I know what the gotcha moment is. That’s not what I’m watching for. But Barbarian is the exception that proves the rule. It comes very, very close to being my favorite film of the year in any genre, but given its wild swings, maybe Barbarian should count not as one of my favorites, but two or three.

What can I tell you? Not much. I love Georgina Campbell. Tess is an amazing heroine, resourceful and smart and as ooked out as we are by all the red flags in the beginning. Justin Long’s smooth Hollywood bro AJ is more complex than he has a right to be, and I love how the beginning of the film provides a counterpoint to what an audience would naturally assume about him, much as the mere casting of Bill Skarsgård–also a producer–plays with audience expectations. I loved his work as Keith so much. Is this guy actually trustworthy? Does he know more than he lets on? Do I ship this? You won’t know until you know. The back half of Barbarian is insane, as weird as last year’s Malignant, but like Malignant, it’s a genuinely clever film that never lies to you to surprise you. I cannot recommend Barbarian enough, even if that’s all I can really say about it.

X, written and directed by Ti West, starring Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega.

Pearl, directed by Ti West, written by Mia Goth and Ti West, starring Mia Goth.

All right. This is a cheat, bundling these two together, but they are a package deal. Imagine. Ti West and Mia Goth gave us not one, but TWO virtually perfect horror films in the same year. In X, we get a love letter to 70s grindhouse as an ill-fated group films a porno on an elderly couple’s isolated farm. In Pearl, we get the origin story of the elderly couple, focusing specifically on Pearl, as she languishes on her family farm, dreaming of Hollywood while her new husband serves in the WWI trenches overseas.

Mia Goth, of course, is the genius who plays not only the wannabe starlet Maxine in X, but Pearl in both films. It’s more than cute casting. Maxine and Pearl are the same soul suffering the same struggle, and you could well believe one is the reincarnation of the other if, um, they weren’t actually trying to kill each other in X. (That’s probably not a spoiler, right?) They’re both defined by this single-minded, maybe sociopathic desire for stardom and fierce resentment for anyone who would look down on their ambitions–and both happen to come from backgrounds where their hopes and dreams are the stuff of sin and damnation. 

What distinguishes many of Ti West’s films to me is how thoughtful he is about using the past as a setting, and that’s very much the case here. Both X and Pearl are period pieces, with their respective 1970s and 1918 settings staked on a thesis about the ways technological innovations in entertainment push down the barriers in society, with his hopeful, hopeless protagonists trying to take democratization from disruption–for Pearl, this means the fantasy of moving pictures in general, while Maxine’s dreams are pinned to the rise of home video. There’s so much more to both films that I hope to revisit in more detail, but for now, I will leave off with my biggest heart eyes for these stylish, witty, suspenseful slashers and the nerdy historiography lurking underneath.

Speaking of lurking, I also love the use of alligators.

*Unless you consider the Cenobites’ conduct and the box’s mechanisms here an irreconcilable contradiction of the previous films, which is definitely arguable.

~~~

Angela is officially renaming Chekov’s Gun Ti West’s Alligator.

4 replies »

  1. Great listicle! I will bump some of these up in my endless list of more things to watch than time. I feel like “she’s a mess, but she’s a mess I can sympathize with” describes how I relate to so many stories…

    Liked by 1 person

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