The 2020 Samhain Awards
Wash your hands, you sinners - James 4:8
This was another magnificent year for weird, brutal, visionary horror films. I definitely watched a lot of horseshit trash, don't get me wrong, but what stands out to me about 2020 is what an unholy feast it was. This here is the longest Samhain Awards I've ever done, and certainly the most difficult to organize. Enjoy.
Archons. This was definitely my favorite trip of 2020. It looks like a billion shining dollars, from the wilderness cinematography to the creature design, and the core mythology here is ingenious and subversive. Writer / director Nick Szostakiwskyj gave us Black Mountain Side, my favorite horror film of 2016, and he's only improved since then. The story is Jungian as fuck, but what really stood out to me is how casually the horror gets delivered. For a movie about tripping, it's emphatically not a trippy movie. There are so many turning points here that other auteurs would have delivered as scares or shocks, and this calm restraint gives Archons immense power.
Impetigore. There are few things I love more than throwing on a movie just for the sake of being thorough and stumbling onto something truly great. This had one of the best opening scenes of the year and it never once lost the beat from there. Like the Turkish hell-fest Baskin, it's a truly foreign foreign film, steeped in cultural mores and traditional art. And like Baskin, it is unflinchingly brutal -- and extremely moral, too. The plot itself is such a body horror buffet I won't deny you the pleasure of being increasingly creeped out by it.
Blood Quantum was a knockout that will be an eternal cult favorite. Critics are quick to play up the social commentary angle, but this Canuckistan masterpiece is all red meat. It is appropriate that the zombie genre will never truly die. There was also a sequel to Train to Busan that dropped this year, Peninsula. As Korean action-horror fare, it was a perfectly good meal: two thumbs up. But Blood Quantum, by hundreds of miles, was the best zombie flick that 2020 had to offer. No quarter, no mercy, no weak links.
Gretel and Hansel. There were so, so many great art school weirdo joints this year I wanted to give props to. In fact, most of the movies that people will give me shit for leaving off the 2020 list fit that description like a corpse folds into a coffin. This was vastly better than the rest of the pack. Oz Perkins is the director of The Blackcoat's Daughter, one of the best indie horror films of the past ten years. Here, he out-does himself. This is pure cinematic self-indulgence but Perkins has the goods to justify it.
Come To Daddy was a strange and solid thriller, and another reminder that Elijah Wood is One Of Us, completely dedicated to the horror genre, both as an actor and a producer. (He's also willing to speak out about how common child sexual abuse is in Hollywood.) Wood and Canuck genius Stephen McHattie both deliver incredible work here, creating characters who are obvious caricatures at first, but quickly evolve into something far stranger. Credit there, of course, is shared with Toby Harvard's brilliant screenplay -- he even violates genre conventions by giving the film a solid ending. In fact, this is such a good screenplay you can actually watch the preview and still have no idea what you're in for here.
Night of the Virgin. This was extremely funny and extremely disgusting. Much like Impetigore, I thought I was just doing due diligence and yet this was one of the best rollercoasters I found all year. I want to emphasize the "extremely disgusting" part again. For all the B-Movie excesses here, though, it's also extremely well done -- the shots, the pacing, the effects, and most especially the acting. If you thought Dead Alive was a classic and you love fucked-up comedy, I will say no more. Just find this. Now.
Sputnik. It's great to see a Russian horror film with real heft, real weight. Sure, this goes off the rails a bit in the final act -- a horror tradition, after all -- but the opening 90 minutes are top notch horror sci-fi, and it's an appropriately melodramatic arc to the finish. (Did I mention it was Russian?) This is some world class creature design, too, but the team here is smart enough to tell far more than they show, even with that ace card up their sleeve.
Extra Ordinary. This film is such a daft, feel-good crowd pleaser I might leave it off. But. I know that many of you who actually read these annual dispatches are not, in fact, rabid fans of dismemberment, creative torture and confusing nightmares. This puppy is for you, kind souls. An Irish heart-warmer with Hollywood production values and Will Forte chewing the scenery as a Satanic bad guy, it's sweet, hilarious, and yet moves at a John Carpenter pace: relentless. There is a scene here involving a fox that I rewound easily a dozen times and I'm still laughing about it today.
Color Out Of Space. This was oddball dynamite, yet widely sold as another "Nic Cage going crazy" vehicle. This is because film buffs are deeply stupid people ... and, to be fair, everyone is still recovering from Mandy. This is nothing like that. It's just a straightforward horror flick built around an HP Lovecraft adaptation with some brutal, shocking turns, including one of the most outright horrifying reveals I saw this year. Who could subvert the low expectations for both Lovecraft films and Cage's indie work? Only Richard Stanley, returning to deliver his first movie in decades.
VFW. A surprisingly dope 80's tribute with some iconic scenes and a slew of great performances. I only expected a fun ride, but it was definitely one of the best low-budget genre love letters of the year. It's a non-stop clinic on making the absolute most of a limited budget, a dirty indie movie that's overflowing with beautiful shots. They also lined up an A-team of B-movie talent who are clearly having a blast, led by Stephen Lang.
Uncle Peckerhead. This is very much a "festival film," geared towards true believers, hitting comic beats, and delivering the gory shots midnight crowds will cheer for. It also develops a simple, consistent mythos, and features some great characters. None of that is why this one made the cut, though -- that would be the performance of David Littleton, who not only makes the monster loveable and funny, but completely unpredictable, all evasive angles and awkward timing. At every twist, he plays off Chet Siegel's work as the protagonist, keeping things human and real. Great horror comedy flick. It's also a merciless dunk on the vapid wasteland of what punk rock culture has evolved into, decades after any of it mattered.
Finally, one of the very best horror films I saw this year was not remotely new. In fact, it is from nineteen sixty seven. It was a Russian film named VIY and it fucking floored me. The set design, the camerawork, the makeup effects ... Jesus, bud. This is based on a Gogol story and that's about all I intend to tell you about the plot. Those of you who love high octane high strangeness must see this, and the film is even more mandatory for those of you who intended to make some of your own. This is one of those hidden masterpieces that everyone has been ripping off ever since.
So: on to the best scraps on the slaughterhouse floor. Unless you're super-dedicated, you're done; thanks for reading. For those of you who truly love this, though, all of these are worth your time.
Metamorphosis. I have to give the Koreans some love, and I reckon this was the single best film they gave us in the past twelve months. It is a Grand Guignol Exorcist pastiche, full of twists and shocking moments. More importantly, it's an acting tour de force where you get to watch a loving family get slowly -- then very quickly -- savaged by demons, distrust and destiny. The middle act is the very best part, and it will stay in your bones. That said, of course, 2016's The Wailing was an exponentially better treatment of the same material. If you've never seen it, fix that.
Terrified. Argentina coming through with the goods. This was definitely a muddled remix of a half dozen better ghost story / possession movies, but it also featured a few the best scenes I saw this year. I can't pretend it was one of the best flicks I saw this year but I have to give them props. The balance of realism and over-the-top insanity was mostly carried by a cast of older actors who all do ace work.
The Other Lamb was amazingly well-done, but I still don't know what the sweet shit it even was. A tone poem about a sex cult, it's sort of horror, sort of arthouse, but ultimately inexplicable. Which is to say, I loved it and you will, too. Fans of transcendental cinema with world-class photography absolutely must track this one down.
Relic. Australia came through again this year. Last year, The Furies was a gloriously realized slasher with a lot more to offer, but Relic is completely different, a slow burn allegory about dementia and heartbreak. The opening was a two minute nightmare that will drag you in, and I'm glad I stuck with it. Far from perfect but very cutting stuff.
Horror comedy had another damn strong year. The Hunt was howlingly funny, another victory for the Blumhouse machine. Yummy was a hella decent low-budget Euro-trash ride, especially for fans of gross-out laughs, and it also had the rare virtue of a perfect ending. The Wolf of Snow Hollow looked like a TV show but it delivered the goods in quirky way; I laughed a lot.
12 Hour Shift was pitch black comedy with a high voltage lead performance, but cheap production doomed it all straight to Hell. Lots of ugly hilarious moments and lots of cheap, forced laughs, but for Angela Bettis alone, I have to give it honorable mention. She needs more work, and better work, she can carry anything.
Then there's the Attack of the Classic Retreads: Sea Fever was basically The Thing set on a boat, but I have to admit, it really worked -- at least it managed to be far better than Harbinger Down. Same goes for Underwater, which is basically a big budget remix of The Abyss and DeepStar Six with Kristen Stewart. Still, I was surprised how much I actually enjoyed it.
The Invisible Man remake had a few excellent jump scenes but overall, not nearly as good as the hype. I know many folks who absolutely loved The Platform, and I agree it was both great design work and deeply weird shit. It frequently reminded me of Pandorum, another high-concept sci-fi horror joint that somehow just never cohered into a good movie. So I guess that's still a recommendation, right? At least they were swinging for the fences.
On that note: The Lighthouse. A lot of people I love recommended it this year, I disagree with every one of you. It reminded me of nothing so much as The Eyes Of My Mother, Nicholas Pesce's first outing before he got his shit together and made Piercing, my favorite movie of 2019. It was all film school excesses, black and white and overwrought, and features a few amazing shots. I would only recommend it to genre purists, though. Even then ... you could do better. Especially in 2020.
Vivarium. This was a nothingburger, a shaggy-dog art movie, but I have to admit: I still think about it. A frustrating film but it also nails a dreamspace all it's own, so I'll keep an eye out for Lorcan Finnegan's next joint, assuming he gets to make one. Then again, based on all his previous output, maybe pointless horror films with gorgeously stylized photography is all he really wants to do? Same goes for She Dies Tomorrow, a compelling collage that doesn't amount to much but sticks with you.
Another outstanding low-budget joint was The Hill And The Hole; especially recommended for fans of high strangeness and those of you who dislike blood and gore. It's well done parable about mystery cults and thresholds that shouldn't be crossed, and features a few UFOlogy nerds in the cast, both as co-stars and cameos. The absolute star of the film is cinematographer Christopher Ernst, who makes the most of New Mexico and keeps an incoherent in-joke of a screenplay watchable for two hours.
I had a lot of folks recommend The Pool, and while it was clever and very well shot, I wasn't feeling it. Same goes for most of the year's best attempts at making the most of a small set or simple premise: Host had some great jump scare moments but they were all recycled plastic, and Spree managed to make a manic lead performance boring. The Rental? Wack. Ghosts of War? Wack. The Lodge? Stylish claustrophobia, but wack. The Pale Door? Trash that aspired to be Bone Tomahawk but looked like a basic cable TV movie.
Then there's The Shed. While it was too underwhelming to make the cut, it marks a real achievement for writer / director Frank Sabatella and the cast kills it ... right up until the bungled last act kills them. I'm betting Sabatella's next flick will be far stronger stuff. Another fatally flawed indie effort: After Midnight, driven by some performances and cinematography that punch way above budget, and a grimly mature take on mid-life failure after happiness leaves. Overall, too much down time and not enough quality control. My number one plucky independent slaughterhouse pick, though? Just a robbery, a car and a house.
Villains. The 'home invasion gone wrong' trope has been done poorly and often lately - The Owners, At The End of Eight, Bad Samaritan, Monster Party - all thanks to Fede's operatic hit Don't Breathe. (And, secretly, the earlier Maury & Bustillo masterpiece Livide.) Villains represents the first solid entry in this ripoff sub-subgenre, and I really dug it. It's a simple premise, full of twists, and carried by strong performances (especially Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgewick going apeshit) and while it's often very funny, it's also wise and sad. Not quite best of the year material, but a guaranteed movie night for hardcore fans and curious tourists alike.
Thank you for your time ... and may you all survive to reconvene next year.