Black Friday: Horror With Maria Lewis

December 24, 2016
The best horror films of 2016, as picked by Maria Lewis…

Looking back at the year in horror movies, 2016 was an eclectic one, with high highs (Green Roooooom!) and low lows (The Forrest, I mean, honestly). There were a lot of good, mid-level contenders like Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, and The Shallows, but there were five truly great ones that went above, beyond, and into our subconscious nightmares. Note: This is all per horror films released in Australia from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. International release dates vary.

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(5) BELIEF: THE POSSESSION OF JANET MOSES One of the scariest films of the year wasn’t fiction: it was a beautifully made and disturbing doco out of New Zealand. Based on the true story of the death of Janet Moses during a makutu lifting (a Maori exorcism), it uses a combination of interviews, dramatic retellings, and gorgeous cinematography to tell the tale of one of the most fascinating Kiwi cases in modern memory. Real-life accounts of exorcism have long been popular fodder in the genre of horror (think The Exorcist, Deliver Us From Evil, and The Exorcism Of Emily Rose), and writer/director, David Stubbs, skillfully utilises some of the key genre techniques juxtaposed with powerful first-hand accounts. Perhaps not since The Jinx has a documentary looked so cinematic and creepy simultaneously. Whatever your belief system, there are no black or white answers in this film: instead, the audience is suffocated with the endless grey possibilities.

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(4) THE INVITATION Karyn Kusama’s first three films looked like gorgeous, lickable pop art that just so happened to tell – almost exclusively – the stories of very interesting women in a female boxer (Girlfight), a futuristic fighter (Aeon Flux), and a two childhood best friends (Jennifer’s Body). With The Invitation, Kusama takes one of those mid-career left turns that are so exciting to watch as both an audience member and a fan of her work (which is largely underrated…yeah, at come at me, bro’). All of the groundwork is laid down in the screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, which is a masterclass in how to carefully manipulate your viewers and build an encroaching sense of dread. Logan Marshall-Green plays Will, a grieving man who takes his new girlfriend to the house of his ex-wife for a very awkward dinner party with friends. What begins as a film playing on people’s fears of social discomfort slowly – sometimes agonisingly slowly – begins to morph into something much more sinister and, welp, downright apocalyptic. With one of the best final acts and ending reveals of any movie from the past decade, The Invitation plays on your mind long after the credits have rolled.

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(3) THE WITNESS Have you heard the story of the woman who was brutally stabbed to death in her New York neighbourhood over the course of an hour, while some 38 witnesses stood by and did nothing? It’s the kind of case you learn about in school, university, and college, and it coined the term “bystander effect.” In most cases, the name of the woman is never mentioned – let alone her life – as she lives on in death as the ultimate victim. The Witness sets out to prove whether that idea still exists, and whether the original account is even accurate. The brother of Kitty Genovese goes on a painful and personal quest over fifty years after her murder in an attempt to look into her final moments, and whether her death was something that could have been prevented if just someone – anyone – had stepped in to help. The second doco to make this list, The Witness’ horror lies in its examination of humanity. This is an endlessly tough watch, but one essential largely thanks to the dedication and persistence of the narrator, Bill Genovese. On the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary (alongside the equally brilliant and horrific O.J: Made In America), The Witness is not only one of the best horror films of 2016, but one of the best movies – period. 3a95a4b736a3055105277ad88f3a34a7ba039e7d

(2) HUSH It was a busy year for one of the most interesting horror filmmakers in the game, Mike Flanagan, who had three – yes, three – films released in 2016: Before I Wake, Ouija: Origin Of Evil, and Hush. All were impressive, but none quite matched the sheer brilliance of Hush in concept, execution, and terror. Made on a US $1M budget for Netflix, it follows a deaf and mute woman who is caught in a game of cat and mouse with a killer stalking her isolated home. Hinging entirely on the performances of its two leads in Katie Siegel (who also wrote the film with Flanagan) and an against-type John Gallagher Jr, it adds much-needed originality to the home invasion and slasher sub-genres. While his other two 2016 films had much bigger budgets and many more moving parts, it’s with this stripped down feature that you truly get to see Flanagan’s skill as a filmmaker. One of the most effective tools in Hush’s arsenal is Siegel’s character of Maddie, who due to her condition doesn’t react to conventional horror movie triggers – heavy sound design, creepy noises, screaming – in the way that audiences have been programmed to expect, with much more tension building throughout the film because of it. With one set and a tiny cast, Hush manages to be more effective than all but one horror film this year, and by the time the finale rolls out, there’s little doubt that Maddie will go on to become one of the great and enduring final girls.

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(1) GREEN ROOM Just last week in this column, I talked about how 2016 had seen the rise of horror movies about neo-Nazis – just as 2016 IRL had seen the rise of neo-Nazis. Yet nowhere was that done more effectively than in the terrifying, visceral and punk rock masterpiece that is Green Room. Tragically one of the late Anton Yelchin’s last films, it’s fitting that it’s just as fine and unique as his entire body of work. Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, it follows a punk band called The Ain’t Rights as – desperate and broke – they take a last minute gig at a skinhead bar in rural America. Suffice to say, things go to shit. Although falling into that gory, survivalist horror sphere, it’s testament to how special Green Room is to say that there has never really been another horror film like it (A Girl Who Walks Home Alone At Night and The Loved Ones maybe share sensibilities). One of the most endearing things about the movie, which sees it buck the trend of a lot of its peers, is that everyone makes smart decisions. Whether that’s the villains (led by the enigmatic Patrick Stewart as a neo-Nazi supreme), the heroes (the amazing quartet of Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner), or the unfortunate people caught in the middle (Imogen Poots and Macon Blair both shine), everyone makes exceedingly smart choices in exceedingly horrible situations. They don’t always work out for the best, but it’s a large part of what makes Green Room such a tense and unforgettable experience: its intelligence. The layers upon layers of story that are piled into what seems like a basic premise on paper take it far from anything that you could dream (or nightmare, as the case may be).

Maria Lewis is a journalist and author who can be seen on The Feed, weeknights on SBS Viceland. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016, with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – due for release on January 17, 2017. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz.

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