Best Horror Films of 2013

While my total for viewed films overall was up in 2013 the new horror that I saw was down. Due to that I decided that a top 10 would be more prudent and meaningful. That does not mean, however, that these are the only horror films I liked. I have created a Letterboxd list that ranks the horror I saw from 1-38. About half that list are films I liked and would recommend viewing.

But these are the best of that faction.

10. Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies (2013, Summit Entertainment)

Making a genre-specific list can be a tough thing, especially when you deal with horror. There are a few reasons for this: first, almost everyone and anyone has their own picks that they peg as horror that are debatable. For example, a few years ago I chose Take Shelter. I stand by that and get arguments against it. Similarly, though one of my favorite films of the year, I don’t see Stoker as a horror film, but I get it.

Which brings us to Warm Bodies. Yes, it’s comedic and romantic and there are zonbies. I can even get it if you don’t want to see zombies this way at all. However, I think it does what it does in a fun and creative way. It’s not perfect, of course, and the balancing act to an extent puts a ceiling on it but I did enjoy it quite a bit, aside from the makeup work.

9. Stitches


This is perhaps the darkest dark horse to crack my list for a few reasons. First, yes, when balancing horror and another genre things get tricky and this movie keeps the laughs and gore working hand-in-hand rather well. Moreover, it not only deals with a hard motif to sell me on, but it incorporates a folklore of the craft of clowning such that it creates a marvelous horror mythology out of it, and most definitely puts its own unique spin on the scary clown motif.

8. Maniac

Maniac (2012, IFC Midnight)

This is the latest-viewed in the year selection that I included. As noted before I didn’t get to finish viewing the original Maniac, and I don’t really mind that now. This one features a memorable score, a great use of POV with some great sleight-of-hand behind the camera and in the editing room. It’s also further testament to how a great performance can elevate a horror film and Elijah Wood is a testament to that here.

7. The Purge

The Purge (2013, Universal)

I do wish some things in The Purge, say the decision to have the antagonists in animal masks, hardly a unique one at that; had been handled differently. However, despite that pet peeve and and overly-short act one that was rather shaky. This definitely worked for me in the end. To the point of my post about it, it sets up as a film whose sequel may surpass it. I do think this is a good first step and that that film functions as a home invasion tale with an added twist.

6. Haunter

Haunter (2013, Dark Sky Films)

I wrote about this film specifically during 61 Days of Halloween and addressed the way it uniquely combines a few tropes that are old hat by now. It’s an engaging low-key horror tale that revels in slight variation, nuance of character takes its slow-burn to a near blaze by the end.

5. The Condemned

The Condemned (2012, Strand Releasing)

It’s a little surprising to even myself that this is the only horror film shot in a language other than English on this list. However, it does bear mentioning that if you limit yourself to American horror only, even with a healthy dose of indies, you’re doing yourself a disservice as you’ll find some really cool stuff globally. This one is not even coming from that far away as it was produced in Puerto Rico. Because it’s likely the least-seen of all of these here’s my review from April:

This can be a tough film to discuss without putting too fine a point on things and giving away several key elements, but like the film I will try to be subtle. There has been much talk in recent years, as it’s been more in vogue as of late than in years past, of the slow burn, particularly as it applies to the horror genre. A slow burning tale, as I’ve likely stated before, is not one that’s in and of itself problematic. Usually, the key to success for these films is either of two things: first, incremental and consistent, even if slight, escalation of stakes, and second, a sufficiently impressive and resonant pay-off to the wait.

The Condemned does not build quickly, even for a slow burn, but it excels tremendously in the pay-off department. What’s interesting is that it dabbles with many known tropes: haunting, children, secrets and the like, but with the way things play out it even toys with the very notion it even being a horror film, in a similar way to how last year’s The Hidden Face did, but ultimately remains one for all else it is.

There are subtleties throughout, things you are advised to recall though you may not think it crucial at the time. The Condemned is a wonderfully rendered tale that does sufficient visual exposition and elaboration on its turning points such that most, if not all, loose ends are tied up and the whole piece is elevated by, and not subjugated to, its trickery.

Its surely for horror fans, and I’d say art house fans too as it is an intelligent, well-acted and crafted film that does linger. It seems like the horror crop of 2013 may be a brainier bunch than ones in the past few years.

4. The Awakening

The Awakening (Universal Home Video, 2011)

This is another one that inspired me to write a piece. Not quite a review but it was the very strong performances in this well-crafted old school ghost story that re-emphasized in my mind the foundation of drama in all other genres, especially horror. Because the performances are so good, the characters so well-drawn and story so conducive to building them the scares (fairly fundamentally employed though they may be) really work.

3. Byzantium

Byzantium (2013, IFC Films)

Yes, this is a vampire love story. This was a dismissed film on Peter Travers summer “skip list” based on vampires alone. But this is Neil Jordan, this is not run of the mill, and most definitely not twilight. And make no mistake this film unlike Warm Bodies definitely emphasizes the horror aspect. It also tells a tale in two time periods, and has the narrative intertwine, has great production design and cinematography and is well worth looking for if you want an escape from the ordinary.

2. The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013, New Line Cinema)

Welcome to the top of the list or as you could call in 2013 James Wan country. Even though I was a huge Insidious fan, and I saw trailers for The Conjuring coming, I didn’t realize ahead of time that he’d have two horror releases so close to one another. Much less did I realize that Wan would throw down the gauntlet before at least taking a hiatus from the genre. The fascinating thing, and I will expound on this below, is that when all is said and down there were really two somewhat different approaches to the genre taken. Many would’ve expected his two films to be two-sides of the same coin, but they’re really not. Not quite.

The Conjuring is old-school scary that gets huge near its finale for better or worse all the chips go to the middle of the table. And notably, publicity stunt or not, genre-necessity for a studio or not, its R-rating can only be intellectually argued based on how effectively made it is, and not based on any MPAA guideline it violates.

1. Insidious: Chapter 2

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013, FilmDistrict)

Landing in the top ten, especially up at number one, is ostensibly about two things in most cases: doing something a little bit different and doing it very well. Yes, Insidious: Chapter 2 is a sequel. However, its status as such gives it even more leeway; heck, it’s almost expected to be a variation on the original. As a testament to Leigh Whannell, James Wan and Blumhouse, they did not play it safe. They took a chance and took this second installment where pretty much no one else expected, and I for one loved it.

2013 BAM Award Considerations – March

Last year I had one massive running list and it became very cumbersome to add to, and to read I’m sure. By creating a new post monthly, and creating massive combo files offline, it should make the process easier for me and more user-friendly for you, the esteemed reader. Enjoy.

Eligible Titles

Jack the Giant Slayer
The Awakening
Sleep Tight
Straight A’s
The Last Exorcism 2
A Dark Truth
Storage 24
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Best Picture

The Awakening
Straight A’s

Best Foreign Film

Best Documentary

Last year this was an omitted category, due mostly to the fact that too few total candidates existed to make the slate feel legitimate. I will hope to be able to rectify that this year.


Most Overlooked Film

As intimated in my Most Underrated announcement this year, I’ve decided to make a change here. Rather than get caught up in me vs. the world nonsense and what a film’s rating is on an aggregate site, the IMDb or anywhere else, I want to champion smaller, lesser-known films. In 2011 with the selection of Toast this move was really in the offing. The nominees from this past year echo that fact. So here, regardless of how well-received something is by those who’ve seen it, I’ll be championing indies and foreign films, and the occasional financial flop from a bigger entity.

Best Director

The Awakening
Straight A’s

Best Actress

Eleanor Tomlinson Jack the Giant Slayer
Rebecca Hall The Awakening
Anna Paquin Straight A’s
Ashley Bell The Last Exorcism 2

Best Actor

Nicholas Hoult Jack the Giant Slayer
Ryan Phillippe Straight A’s
Dominic Hall The Awakening
Pep Tosar Sleep Tight
Steve Carell The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Best Supporting Actress

Imelda Staunton The Awakening

Best Supporting Actor

Stanley Tucci Jack the Giant Slayer
Isaac Hempstead Wright The Awakening
Powers Boothe Straight A’s
Spencer Treat Clark The Last Exorcism 2
Steve Buscemi The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Jim Carrey The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Leading Role

Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Leading Role

Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Supporting Role

Sydney Rawson Jack the Giant Slayer

Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Supporting Role

James Kirkham Jack the Giant Slayer
Isaac Hempstead Wright The Awakening
Riley Thomas Stewart Straight A’s
Zachary Gordon The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Mason Cook The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Luke Vanek The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Peter DaCunha A Dark Truth

Best Cast

The Awakening
Straight A’s
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Best Youth Ensemble

The Awakening
Straight A’s
Jack the Giant Slayer
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Best Original Screenplay

The Awakening
Straight A’s
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Score

The Awakening
Jack the Giant Slayer

Best Editing

The Awakening
Straight A’s

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

Jack the Giant Slayer

Best Cinematography

The Awakening
Straight A’s

Best Art Direction

Jack the Giant Slayer
The Awakening

Best Costume Design

Jack the Giant Slayer
The Awakening

Best Makeup

The Awakening
Straight A’s
Storage 24

Best Visual Effects

The Awakening
Jack the Giant Slayer
Storage 24

Best (Original) Song

Film Thought: The Foundation of Everything is Drama

I’ve always believed that drama is the foundation of all other genres, which could be interpreted to mean that everything is essentially a cross-genre piece, but essentially what lead me to this premise was thinking about how to to approach myriad genres as a writer, I think this can also apply to acting. There are few things that fall outside this cross-section.

Comedy is driven by obsession and as silly, or outlandish as scenarios may get the performers and the world created for them has to be one where there are stakes, consequences, needs and desires that ground these things. Even in parody comedies this should apply. Many cite The Naked Gun series as one of the best examples of this subgenre, and much credit in that case is due to Leslie Nielsen. For as preposterous as what he was saying or doing was he was committed to it, there was a dramatic intent bordering on deadpan that tethered the silliness of the situation to reality.

When applying this precept to horror it carries an additional even more significant burden. A comedy that does not make one laugh cannot really be said to be effective, but a horror film that one doesn’t find scary can be. A horror film is designed to terrify, to frighten, to scare to disquiet. Stephen King in discussing horror literature breaks down his own hierarchy wherein the gross-out is his last recourse.

The issue with the effectiveness of horror films effect on an individual in some cases can be heavily influenced by the individual. As a child I was rather sheltered, and kept to mostly age appropriate fare for quite some time. I didn’t like scary films. Gremlins scared me until, I later watched it in whole and found its dual intent. The first horror film that I really openly embraced, where I enjoyed being scared was The Shining. From there I was hooked and I sought out more.

Yet, seeking out more becomes the issue. You want to learn the genre but there are then fewer and fewer of those films with that seismic impact on you, even if it is that good. You get desensitized, to an extent to the more visceral elements of the film, which are its primary objective.

Thus, if a viewer is desensitized, or a horror film just isn’t as scary as it could be, what recourse is there for it? There is that foundation of drama. If the dramatic beats are set and strong; and I’ve said it’s not necessary before, and that’s true, but if the acting is strong, if the conflict is palpable; if the characters have some definition; if their goals, obstacles and needs are, at some point defined; then you’ve established drama in a horror film. You have there your foundation and the subjective matter of “Is this scary?” while it still matters, isn’t as as pivotal as it might’ve been.

As I said, this is a notion I’ve had for a while and it recently crystallized when I viewed a ghost story entitled The Awakening. It has its creepy moments, and this is easier to do in a ghost story perhaps than in other subgenres, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it terribly frightening, but the character’s conflicts and arcs, their interaction, the human emotion and struggle of the film; in short, the drama is really what drew me to it which is what brought this thought back foremost in my mind.

This may be why some films, and I won’t name names, that insist that their knowing cheesiness and lack of production value is their strongest asset don’t work for me. Great things have been done by filmmakers with limited resources who staunchly believed in what they were trying to commit to celluloid and did their damnedest. Usually, those are the films where you can smile and love it even through the glaring faults.

To conclude, I just want to clarify, if it wasn’t clear already, that I do not mean that everything needs to be treated sternly and severely, which is part of why I made references to comedies and Gremlins. The sensibility has to work for the film in question, however, even in a light tone there’s a dramatic foundation to it, a commitment, a dedication, which does not make itself apparent in the aforementioned unnamed films. To me that is what still strikes me as one of the fascinating things about the horror genre is that there is a when-all-else-fails contingency plan. That’s not to say that all films deal with material in a way that can transcend so well, or treat their foundation with the respect it requires, but it is there and those who use it well are really worth noting.

The foundation of everything is drama. The fenestration you add to it creates genre. It’s a building block to all film narratives, but with the horror film I feel it’s a most crucial one, because the prime objective is so very hard to achieve on a mass level that there needs to be something to fall back on.

Mini-Review Round-Up March 2013

Here’s my standard intro to this post:

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases, regardless of how they are seen whether in an auditorium or on VOD, will get full reviews [That is when deemed necessary. As I wrote here I do want to focus more on non-review writing wherever possible].

For a guide to what scores mean go here.


Bestiaire (2012, Kimstim Films)

This is a film that qualifies for this year because, though I heard of it last year, I had no legitimate chance to see it. I learned of it through a coming soon postcard while I was in New York, the soon it was referring to was not while I would be there.

What’s interesting is that I was anticipating seeing another documentary free of significant dialogue prior to this one, but when I saw this pop up on Netflix instant I had to jump at it.

Bestiare plays out like a non-fiction version of Le Quattro Volte inasmuch as the structuring of the very slight, and completely open to interpretation, narrative is nearly invisible. The description of this film on Netflix is appropriately stripped down there are extended sequences of static shot either of animals observing humans, vice versa or sometimes they seem to be staring right at us.

Some of the shots are framed beautifully to convey either claustrophobia or just how nestled some animal enclosures in the modern world are be they farms, ranches, zoos or what have you. As I mentioned, it doesn’t insist upon deciding for you what the interpretation of the film should be, believing instead that the audience is the ultimate arbiter of meaning.

I found the film very effective in places with some great cuts and angles that underscored a harsh indifference. The incessant rhythmic banging of a zebra against a wall, or the frantic pacing of an ostrich, and the, to me, disquietingly laid back work of a proficient taxidermist were scenes that really shocked me out of the lull that this hypnotic film can get you into.

It’s not a long film but it is deliberate. I would qualify it as experimental, and I think more times than not the scenes work, so I believe a 6/10 is fair for now.

The Awakening

The Awakening (Universal Home Video, 2011)

I will elaborate on this point in a separate piece, but this film is a testament to my theory that drama is the foundation of all other genres. To be brief, even if this film fails to affect you with its creepy atmosphere, it is an effective character piece that delves into psychology as well as the supernatural.

When telling with a ghost tale, especially one that deals with characters who have been so greatly impacted by the sightings, or even suppositions thereof, the acting needs to be up to snuff. This film brings much more than that to the table, there are four top notch performances, one of each “award type” both lead and supporting.

Rebecca Hall, in the lead, is someone I personally I have seen far too little of since Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and she carries this film brilliantly with a fine double-edged performance as a now skeptical ghost hunter. Dominic West plays a character who also has a facade, as seemingly everyone in this film does, his stoicalness is matched by his private pain in this work. Imelda Staunton, is nothing short of riveting. Then there’s Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran on Game of Thrones, where he’s shown flashes of his capability) whom steals scenes and redoubles the impact this film has.

This is a film that eases into its narrative, it never gives its answers away too easily and stays nebulous about some things. Its timing of reveals is perfect and just when you think you’ve lost it, or it’ll flatline, there’s always one more turn than you expected.


Sleep Tight

Sleep Tight (2012, Dark Sky Films)

Upon conferring on his IMDb page I am missing one feature from Jaume Balaguero’s filmography after having seen Sleep Tight. His films that worked for me thus far have worked exceedingly well, namely The Nameless, [REC] and [REC] 2. I barely recall it, but judging by my score of Darkness that was more of complete miss than either of his apartment tales (To Let and Sleep Tight).

Balaguero is still a director I’d put at the vanguard of the current Spanish horror scene due to his voice, and it’s why I want to complete his current filmography and why his name being attached to something still garners my interest.

With regards to these apartment tales, a lot of To Let‘s struggles I attribute to a restricted timeframe for an intimate, nebulous portrait to be painted, which is why half the Films to Keep You Awake titles are amazing, and why the other three are forgettable to poor. Here it’s not that there is anything inherently wrong, it’s more a question of insufficient build, unmoving voyeurism and predictable plot points with minimal impact. The actions and motivations are always fairly clear, which in a way makes this film less engaging than his other ventures. There’s a stark blandness and removal of encumbrance that’s supposed to compound the impact but instead dulls it.

In the end, Sleep Tight presents a portrait of a psychopath with out an excess of depth, engagement or shock; it’s sadly flat.



Leviathan (2012, Cinema Guild)

If you scroll to the top of this post you’ll note that in my review of Bestiaire I stated that it was not the first doc of its kind I was anticipating seeing. The one I thought I’d see first was this film, Leviathan.

Why that came first boils down to chance, but I am glad I saw it first. Both these films have similar constructs in that they’re documentary features with no narration, and practically no dialogue of any significance. Both deal, in part, with the interaction of modern man with animal kingdom, but Leviathan offers a more focused, kinetic, at times dreamlike, other times haunting, look at the subject.

If one were to enter the film completely cold, and watched all the credits through to the end, virtually the only tidbit of information left out of the synopsis was that fisherman were given cameras and told to shoot with them.

The location comes though the end credits, and as nebulous and surreal as some of the early images of the film are, you soon start to see what’s happening.

The most impressive things about Leviathan are: first, the sound design, which more so than the images most of the time, drive home the uneasy balance between monotony and danger of the job. Second, how the Bible passage at the beginning sinks in after it’s done, as does information disseminated in the end credits.

Without knowing what to expect precisely, I found myself retracing certain visual passages and started coming to grips with what I had just seen through the lens.

Leviathan, much like the aforementioned film Bestiaire, is not for everyone, but it is certainly a unique experience and it’s a more immersive, less observational take of this particular documentary niche.


A Dark Truth

A Dark Truth (2012, Magnolia/Sony Home Entertainment)

More and more in modern cinema, in part because audiences sense it and in part because it’s been seen/done, stories with a moral, considered important, or that have some sort of social or political statement, are harder and harder to make. As enthusiasts of film or sociopolitically aware individuals, there are things you’d like to see on screen. The wants of the latter group can be said to be more altruistic and deserving of representation, regardless, a good film is required to support the aesthetic or activist statement it seeks to make.

To be clearer, here are some hypothetical examples: a film fan can say I’d love to see a serious take on rabies as a horror motif, it’s been too long. Now, outside the world of film that has no real weight. Whereas, if you were to say it’d be great if a film could show the negative aspects of privatizing water, there could be real life impact and eventual change.

Now for either rabies to become a popular horror motif or for privatization of resources and utilities to garner serious attention, the film espousing these things has to be good. Which brings me to A Dark Truth, which deals with the latter subject matter. The film has some very good touches, and the finest intentions in the world regarding the aforementioned issue. However, the anti-corporate, water-should-be-free-and-here-are-the-consequences-if-it’s-not messages, which are very valid viewpoints, are squandered in a film that’s poorly executed on some technical levels, is overlong, has some unfortunate and questionable dialogue and a few questionable casting choices and some good actors in uncomfortable surroundings. The extra-long lead-in to this piece is essentially due to the fact that I like the concept and the goals, but the end product failed to live up to the promise, which is sad.


Straight A’s

Straight A's (2013, Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment)

A review of this film can be found here.

Storage 24

Storage 24 (2012, Magnet Releasing)

One certainly cannot complain that Storage 24 doesn’t try to develop its characters. However, it does so to such an extent that it very nearly turns the plot detailed in the synopsis into a MacGuffin. The tale is essentially a couple that recently broke up and their friends meet by chance in a storage facility. They make it there despite a suspected plane crash that shut down most of central London. The cargo was an alien creature that’s not trapped in there with them during a power outage. It’s a good set-up.

The sound design, however, isn’t always great and makes the characters seem more oblivious than they are to what is going on. The effects work is pretty good, as is the design of the creature. The alien does end up being a dominant story force you expect it to, but in a film that runs under 90 minutes about half the time is spent mostly in repetitive discussions that are cited as such, and don’t move things along quickly enough. When things do happen it gets better.

Another failing is that the film tries to have character-based connections to the creature à la Super 8, and to be not about the creature, but is more blunt about it, and far less successful for as much time is spent in development, there aren’t many facets to the characters created. They’re fairly basic.

The scenario doesn’t end up being a MacGuffin, but the narrative pendulum swings very wildly and ineffectively in the film. Lastly, the pace, which isn’t bad overall, takes a hit from one too many tracking establishing shots down the corridor, which are void of significance save to try and build suspense, but it doesn’t. Storage 24 tries its hand at a few things, but is too uneven and unsuccessful with regards to most in order to work.