Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Top 10 Horror Films of 2014, Plus Meh Movies and the Biggest Disappointments of the Year

Happy New Year! Looking back, 2014 was a pretty stellar year for horror films, especially independent horror. There were tons of horror movies to check out (I still haven’t seen all the ones I wanted to), and for the most part horror movies seemed smarter and more original then they have been in past years.

It was also easier than ever to watch horror films, as many were released on Netflix, on-demand, or through streaming services like Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc. instead of theatrically (I think I only saw a few in theaters or at film festivals). Many of my top picks weren't even released in theaters, but rather debuted on digital platforms. This made films all the more accessible in 2014.

Another positive from the horror films of 2014 – almost all of my favorites (except a few) have strong female leads – not only are they strong, but they are also fully-developed characters, complete with flaws as well as strengths. These are not the one-dimensional damsels-in-distress, virginal final girls, or the victims of the killers that females in lesser horror films are often relegated to. There are also a few stunning films directed by women, huzzah! It's so great to see women getting recognition for some incredible horror films.

Below you will find my top 10 horror films of 2014, as well as some films I had mixed feelings on and my biggest disappointments of 2014. All links lead to Amazon where you can learn more and/or purchase the films!

Top 10 Horror Films of 2014:

1.) Only Lovers Left Alive – Director/writer Jim Jarmusch crafts a brooding, dark, and enchanting modern gothic tale with Only Lovers Left Alive. I was enthralled with the film's story of two vampire soulmates dealing with living through centuries of change. This isn't a film for everyone and by no means a traditional horror movie, but it made my dark heart sing. Not only did our leads ponder deep philosophical issues and love, but their true treasures (besides each other) were their books and music. Swoon. And both Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston gave stellar performances (and neither has ever looked hotter!).

Artist: Akiko Stehrenberger [image source]
2.) Under the Skin – Here is another movie that isn't considered tradition horror, but one that I loved nonetheless. From the moment I started watching director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer's film, I was sucked it and my eyes were glued to the screen for the entire time. It was absolutely mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. Scarlett Johansson commands all attention as a sense of dread builds as the film progresses, leading to a startling and heartbreaking conclusion. When I finished watching it the first time, I couldn't tell if I even liked the film, but I couldn't shake it days after watching. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and came to realize just how truly brilliant that is to pull that off. It may be too artsy for some, but I found it gripping. 

3.) Starry Eyes – This is another film that had me thinking about it long after I watched it. I enjoyed how the film tackled the "disposable youth" aspect of Hollywood, and that it asked just how much you would be willing to give up to see your dreams come true. This Faustian concept is nothing new, but the execution the film employed is where it truly succeeded. The film is absolutely unnerving, from the lead’s (played by Alex Essoe) nervous habit of pulling out chunks of hair after failed auditions, to the portrayal of LA and its bleak, shallow culture, to the lead's harrowing auditions for a coveted role that ushers her into a dark new world and sees her through a hideous transformation. I love how directors/writers Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer bathe Los Angeles in grim grays (the sun, which is ever present here in SoCal, is rarely seen), which only emphasizes the foreboding feeling throughout the film.

Artist: Gary Pullin [image source]
4.) The Babadook – This film by director and writer Jennifer Kent is on everyone’s best list for a multitude of good reasons. It is a multi-layered film, which I think many people overlook based on all the hype now surrounding it. This is a pity, because on a repeat viewings, I can appreciate the film's brilliance even more and always discover another layer to the horror unfolding onscreen. The film is disquieting enough dealing with the grief and loneliness of the main character, but pile on being a single mom while also working a difficult job and dealing with family that doesn't understand you or your son for even more stress. And then, add a mysterious book and a son's not-so imaginary "friend" to the mix. All this creates an unsettled atmosphere and characters. The frustrations and sheer exhaustion of the lead (played wonderfully by Essie Davis) can be felt by the audience, so when the real terror starts it just overtakes you completely. The small glimpses of the Babadook itself are brief, but the implications of where the monster came from and why are where the true horror lie, even though some audience members might miss the meaning of the monster.

5.) The Taking of Deborah Logan – Since I am dealing with a grandma with Alzheimer’s myself, I had a bit of trepidation going into this movie when I stumbled upon it on Netflix. I wasn't sure if it would hit too close to home or be too hard to watch. However, I am glad I gave it a go since it was easily one of the scariest films I saw this year and one of the most real to me. Yes, it is another "found footage" type flick, but director/co-writer Adam Robitel crafts a believable (a documentary crew is filming the effects of Alzheimer's) and terrifying film. What if the symptoms of Alzheimer's were really signs of demonic possession? The film follows this premise in a realistic manner and I like how it takes a real-life disease that is already horrifying and makes it even more frightening.

Poster design: Blood & Chocolate [image source]
6.) The Guest – The previous movies I've listed are serious in tone, but The Guest was an absolute blast! Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, this film had one of the most bad ass leads (played with relish by Dan Stevens) of the year! I couldn't help but root for him despite the trail of destruction (and bodies) he left in his wake. It also had one of the best soundtracks of the year, featuring some excellent 80s-inspired synthpop and goth tunes! Plus, explosions, action, conspiracy, AND it’s all set around Halloween! I can’t think of anything I didn't like in this fun flick.

7.) Honeymoon – This was a chilling, atmospheric film from first-time director Leigh Janiak with some nice subtle moments of psychological fear, like when his wife is "practicing" in the mirror. I really loved the performances by both Rose Leslie and Harry Treadway as the newlyweds. They were so sickly sweet at first, but as the wife started acting odd and paranoia began to infect the husband, their relationship went from warm and loving to cold and distant. I liked how this tackled the fears of not fully knowing those closest to us, the possibility of our loved ones hiding deep secrets, and those we love changing into absolute strangers.

8.) Afflicted – I probably would have never seen this film were it not from a recommendation from a friend. Yes, it is another "found footage" flick, but it has such a cool premise. Two friends (Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, who also wrote and directed) decide to travel the world and film it all for their blog, but when one starts undergoing a weird transformation, their focus switches to documenting his changes. I can best describe it as being like the dark superhero film Chronicle, but with vampires. I dug how the characters reacted realistically to the transformation - first, thinking the new abilities of super-strength and speed were wicked awesome, but slowly realizing that the affected character's need for human blood, aversion to sunlight, and other peculiarities meant he was a vampire. Plus, the location of Italy for the majority of the film was an added bonus for this Italian gal!

9.) Oculus – Many people were divided on this film, directed by Mike Flanagan, but I thought it was brilliant! Maybe I loved it so much because I had low expectations (I expected some cheesy horror film about haunted mirrors like the lame-o Mirrors), but it had a unique, engaging story and characters I cared about. It also moved fluidly between time periods throughout the film, flashing back to the past to when the main leads were kids to the present. I also liked how it made the characters and the audience question reality and not believe everything they saw. And oh my god...the creepy glowy-eyed apparitions made my skin crawl!

10.) The Den - Probably the most plausible horror film, dealing with technology, how easy it is to stalk someone digitally, and just how terrifying it is when someone can use technology to invade your own home and privacy. This film was directed by Zachary Donohue and written by Donahue and Lauren Thompson, and kudos to them for seriously creeping me out! I'm surprised this hasn't ended up on more "best of" lists, because I nearly had to sleep with the lights on after watching this movie.
Honorable Mentions: As Above, So Below (loved the surreal imagery and Dante's Inferno aspect), ABC's of Death 2 (the first anthology was awful, the shorts in this one are 100% more enjoyable), Witching and Bitching (this foreign witch film was an absolute riot!), Blue Ruin (a revenge thriller at its finest!), and Horns (gorgeous film with an intriguing concept and gripping mystery).

Movies I was Meh About That Everyone Else Seems to Love:
  1. Housebound - I really loved the main character and her mom, but after all the hype I heard about this film I expected more. It was still enjoyable, but dragged a bit and was a bit too straightforward for me to enjoy. Maybe on a second viewing my opinion will improve since everyone else adores this movie.
  2. Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead - I loved the first, so I was really looking forward to the sequel...but basically fell asleep half-way through. There is plenty of action and gore, but it was just missing the magic of the first film and didn't keep my attention. Still, there are some funny bits and plenty of gore to keep most horror fans entertained. 
  3. The Sacrament - Meh, I just think the true story is much scarier than a horror film could ever be. It is certainly well-made, but since you know the ultimate outcome I think it just fell a little flat. It's a grim film and has great performances, but it just didn't stick with me.  
  4. At the Devil's Door - This had some decent twists and creepy atmosphere, but it felt too fragmented to be truly good. This one ended up fading fast from my memory, though I do remember liking the performances by the leads. 
  5. The Canal - Again, this had some good parts (and one really creepy scene with a dark shadowy creature coming towards the camera), but overall wasn't really memorable. It had an eerie atmosphere and a compelling mystery, but the ending was kind of a letdown. 
  6. Big Bad Wolves - This Israeli revenge thriller didn't grip me like I expected it too, though it had it's fair share of squirm-worthy torture (though I wouldn't call it gory), bits of dark comedy, and really made you question who to root for. Despite this, the story was lackluster and didn't have the bite I was looking for.  
Biggest Disappointments (i.e. The Worst of 2014):
  1. V/H/S: Viral - Ugh, I really liked the first two but this was was absolute garbage. The wraparound story was a disaster, and none of the segments were any good, at all. So disappointing. 
  2. The Houses October Built - A group of people visiting the most extreme Halloween haunted houses/attractions?! I thought this would film would be a slam dunk and I would LOVE it, but I ended up HATING it. It had so much potential but squandered everything with stupid horror movie stereotypes, bad dialogue that was pointless most of the time, and unlikable characters I ended up hating. 
  3. The Quiet Ones - This also looked like a film that would be engaging and smart, focusing on a professor and his students attempting an experiment to create a poltergeist from stressing a human test subject. Unfortunately, it was awful and totally forgettable. 
  4. Nurse - Even though this film was purposefully cheeky, it still sucked. The lead was annoying, the story blah, and it was a chore to sit through. 
  5. Devil's Due - I thought this one might have potential, but I was wrong. Boring, stereotypical, and totally forgettable. 
  6. Cabin Fever: Patient Zero - Ok, I wasn't expecting much out of this one, but I like Cabin Fever and enjoyed the zaniness of the second one, but this third installment is really lame. There are no quirky characters to care about, no solid storyline, the gore was meh, and it lost my interest about 10 minutes in. 
  7. Wolf Creek 2 - Hated the first film, thought this one might be better, I was wrong. Hated it, too. It just felt like a boring exercise in brutality and gore-for-gore's sake. 
  8. I'm sure there are many more, but I tried to steer clear of all other movies that looked awful (Ouija, I'm looking at you)
And then there was Tusk: 

I'm not sure where to put this film, so I think it deserves its own WTF category! I knew exactly what to expect going in, pretty much everyone does. Tusk is Kevin Smith's crazy vision of a character obsessed with creating a human/walrus hybrid, all conceived while high (how else?) on his own podcast. I have mixed feelings on this - on one hand I really dug it - Justin Long's podcaster is perfectly obnoxious, Michael Parks plays the deranged Dr. Frankenstein character just right, and even Haley Joel Osment is spot-on as Long's sidekick, but on the other hand the last half of the movie was a long, drawn-out, unfunny mess. It's like they didn't know where to go after the walrus transformation and filled the last half of the film with uninteresting fodder, like the Guy Lapointe detective character (played by Johnny Depp). Ugh, that character was awful and really helped ruin the film with stupid dialogue that just killed the vibe of the film. A pity, because it's such a crazy concept and I wanted to love it (and partly did), but it just stalls towards the middle and never quite picks up momentum again. 

Closing Thoughts:

Of course, I didn't see ALL the horror released in 2014. There are still some 2014 horror films I'd like to see that I just didn't get to (Nightcrawler, Exists, Late Phases, Cub, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Willow Creek, REC 4, What We Do in the Shadows, etc.), while other releases I avoided because I could tell I wouldn't like them (Dracula Untold, Deliver Us from Evil, Ouija, Jessabelle, etc.). I think I made a decent dent in the 2014 horror releases, though!

While 2014 held its fair share of stinkers, I think overall it was a good year for smaller, independent horror flicks and their audiences. I also think it showed that even direct-to-Netflix releases can be great films and that films don't really need theatrical releases any more to be seen. Direct-to-Netflix or digital releases to Amazon, iTunes, etc. (many before the theatrical release, if there is one) are becoming more and more common for films, making them more accessible to consumers.

What did I miss? What were your favorite horror films in 2014? What were your biggest disappointments?

Soon I'll do a post on horror films I'm looking forward to in 2015...stay tuned! 


  1. This is a great list that I'm definitely going to come back to!

  2. I think someone else recommended The Guest as well but thanks for doing so. It was a great flick!


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