Horror is truly the director’s genre (which is to say true suspense horror like Hitchcock and De Palma, not tedious torture porn and simple, contrived jump scares), and for proof of that look no further than John Hyam’s latest, the excellent, upsetting and artful small scale survival thriller freakout, Alone.
With any luck this will be Hyam’s breakthrough film as he continues to show so much promise and poise in the director’s chair (check out 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning should you doubt his directorial chops).
Alone is definitely bolstered by remarkable performances from leads Jules Wilcox and Marc Menchaca (you thought he was creepy in HBO’s The Outsider, well wait until you get a load of him here!) as Jessica (Wilcox), a recent widow dealing with grief amidst a small cross-country trek, is kidnapped by a cruel, cold-blooded killer (Menchaca) who won’t give up the chase.
As far as the cat-and-mouse game goes, all the players here make Alone an outstanding, even breathtaking, feat. Not at all for the squeamish, Alone is a rewarding but deeply troubling cut of bucolic terror.
9. Blow the Man Down
Tapping in to the alienated small town vibe of Fargo, though here transported to a rocky coastal Maine fishing village called Easter Cove, rather than the icy sticks of North Dakota, co-writers/co-directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole don’t exactly reinvent the wheel here, but they present an engagingly good and gruesome time uncovering dark secrets, sharp comedy, and genuine mystery.
The Connolly sisters (Morgan Saylor and Sophie Lowe, both excellent) have been grieving the loss of their matriarch for some time before they have an unfortunate and murderous run-in with an inebriated reprobate named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) that will end in a defensive misfortune involving a harpoon and a heavy brick. This inciting incident will take the viewer on a clever, droll, occasionally cruel trip, that will offer up several surprises as momentum builds to a tense but satisfying finish. Don’t miss it.
8. Come True
Writer-director Anthony Scott Burns serves up some imaginative ghostly imagery, a weirdly effective washed-out look, and another in a string of strong performances from Julia Sarah Stone (The Unseen, Weirdos) to elevate this “sleep study from hell” supernatural sci-fi shocker, Come True.
Genre fans will no doubt detect shades of Brian De Palma’s the Fury, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Wes Craven’s Elm Street films when Come True is working (which is most of the time), with citations to rehashed X-men films and lesser Elm Street slashers when it’s not (there are definitely some predictable situations and outcomes that don’t do anyone any favors). So yes, while many of the tropes here have been done many times before, there’s still more than a few fascinating new wrinkles to this psychic-teen-in-distress thriller and a satisfying finish that make it worth a solid recommendation and something of a genre standout for the year.
Sooner or later Stone will get the breakout role she deserves and that will certainly send fans back to this film where they will not be disappointed. You read it here first.
The prolific and provocative filmmaker Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) once again reteams with his current mainstay and ready muse Willem Dafoe in this surreal digression that feels like a subarctic delineation of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” and is perhaps just as polarizing.
As Ferrara’s allegorical and byzantine-like film unfolds, it becomes the kind of deep dive where it’s very easy to lose track of all the narrative threads and that may well be part of it’s elaborate duplicity. Dafoe’s many doppelgängers, brushes with sorcerers, lactating women and naked dwarves all depose such fascinations.
Is it pretentious? Absolutely. Is that a problem? For some, maybe. Admittedly I could seldom make sense of what was happening on screen much of the time, but I didn’t let that dampen the enjoyment I felt splashing around in these strangely surreal waters with the consistently wonderful Dafoe and the odd assortment of dreamlike no-goodniks, alluring sirens and dangerous visions that suck him and us into the sly abyss. It’s a dark deathtrip and some kind of vivid and sequential coup d’etat.
6. Scare Me
A delightfully droll horror anthology (of sorts) that had us grinning and guessing from the get go. This low-budget but highly creative indie earns bonus points for Aya Cash (The Boys) and costar Josh Ruben (who also wrote and directed) wringing laughs, derision and some very choice scares throughout.
During a power outage in a remote cabin in the Catskills, two recently acquainted neighbours, Fred (Ruben) and Fanny (Cash), who are also rival writers of horror fiction, have an opportunity to share their most unsettling tales with one another. What ever could go terrifyingly wrong?
Whatever Ruben does next (which looks to be a riff on the lycanthrope-addled video game “Werewolves Within”), we’ll be right there, as Scare Me so satisfyingly displays, he does the genre a lot of ingenuity.
5. Yes, God, Yes
Writer-director Karen Maine’s coming-of-age comedy (she previously wrote the brilliant, button-pushing abortion comedy Obvious Child) is much smarter and shrewder than that well tread genre deserves as she lacerates the hypocrisy of a Catholic upbringing in the American Midwest.
Stranger Thing’s Natalia Dyer radiates charm and sympathy as she elicits awkward laughs as Alice, an atypical teen whose sexual awakening is at odds with her Morality class’s teachings as taught by the self-righteous Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) at her Catholic high school.
Before long Alice and her BFF Laura (Francesca Reale) find themselves enscripted in Kairos, a school retreat program aimed at bringing more God into the girl’s lives, and less of those burgeoning, pesky thoughts about sex. What could go wrong?
Yes, God, Yes is a small film with a generous heart, yes, it has satirical barbs that cut both ways when it comes to the crossroads of religion and adolescent life, and it smartly sidesteps cruelty and sarcasm in pursuit of empathetic truths and genuine, self-effacing laughter and enduring understanding.
One of the most sheerly enjoyable films from 2020 (and hardest to find, outside of festivals), writer-director Noah Hutton’s Lapsis is a dazzling and inconspicuous amalgam of science fiction, social commentary and dark comedy that contains a multitude of tiny and refined pleasures.
Ray (Dean Imperial) lives in a familiar near-future where the gig economy is the best bet for most Americans, as the gap between the rich and the poor widens.
A cautionary tale with some hilarious and even harrowing conclusions, Lapsis is the best kind of quirky New Age nightmare. It’s a consistently smart and unsettling dystopian prevarication that pretty much has it all; reasonably high stakes, a likeable lead, amusing and observant dialogue, a splash of potential romance for our hangdog hero, cute robots, and a strange but conceivable conspiracy at the center of it all.
Realizing the game is rigged, Ray plays it anyway with what he hopes to be an ace up his sleeve. “That’s what you get Beeftech, you goddamn asshole,” shouts an antagonistic competitor, before adding a last slight of “LOSER!” while he trudges away into the bush. Lapsis may be a modest film but it’s also masterly.
The horror comedy was alive and well in 2020, just ask director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U), who here landed another fun, fast-paced, and enjoyably outrageous teen exploitation horror comedy, which is quickly becoming his trademark.
Without delving into too many spoilery details, Freaky is an iteration on Freaky Friday (here more of a “Freaky Friday the 13th” if you will), as we meet one Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a high school teen who has inadvertently swapped bodies with “the Blissfield Butcher” (Vince Vaughn, excellent), a middle-aged serial killer who recently acquired an ancient mystical dagger.
The cast is uniformly strong and it’s a great vehicle for Vaughn (he’ll always be Trent to me, and I mean that with much admiration), in the best comic role he’s had in ages. Freaky is the slasher comedy you’ve been pining for and it’s a shit ton of fun.
2. Saint Maud
Rose Glass’s first feature, after a string of eerie short films, is a bone-chilling, slow burning psychological freakout.
Buoyed by strong performances (Morfydd Clark is the standout, but Jennifer Ehle is fantastic as well), and wisely balancing the psychological tensions and uncertainties with clever comedy, it makes for a dazzling tale of possession and suspicion.
While there’s no denying many of the visual echoes to past touchstones like The Exorcist and Carrie, suggesting that Saint Maud strives to be, in its own modest means, something of a prestige horror outing, and it largely succeeds as such.
Harrowing, hard to shake, economically executed, artfully assembled, and an ending to fuel your nightmares for many nights to come, it’s a great little horror film, the kind that will have you wincing one minute, giggling the next, and never has you quite prepared for where the next dark turn will take you.
Traditional biopics are often overrun with tedious tropes and predictable plotting, and much to the credit of director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), there’s nothing traditional about the entirely fictional Shirley. Eschewing the dull trappings of the genre at almost every turn, Decker offers up a steady stream of dreamlike incidents and imagery familiar to the Shirley Jackson milieu, that makes it a visually dense and rather muscular feat of storytelling strength and epicurean strangeness.
Elizabeth Moss, who is in imminent danger of overexposure, is great in the eponymous role of the famous horror writer, and Michael Stuhlbarg shines as her forlorn husband, and as their wedded bliss unravels, their journey becomes all the more surreal as the certainty of it all becomes far less tangible. As tensions rise, a delirious perspective holds sway, and while Moss’s other big genre film from 2020, The Invisible Man, might hog most of the plaudits, Shirley is the serenely sinister chamber piece that offers intellectual stimulation and opulent eye candy that will truly persist and plague the viewer for days afterwards.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.