(NOTE: Right now, Michael and I are working on our review of THE BOOK OF ELI. In the meantime, since people love lists, I thought I’d go back in time a little and post this “Best Of” column we did for 2008. I’d meant to post it last night. And the BOOK OF ELI review goes up Monday morning. Have a good weekend! ~ LLS)
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE BEST OF 2008
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(THE SCENE: Orchestral music swells as MICHAEL ARRUDA and LL SOARES are dressed in tuxedos and seated inside a mad scientist’s laboratory, complete with bubbling test tubes, colorful beakers, flashing lights, and electronic sounds. They each hold a glass of champagne and a “Happy New Year” banner hangs behind them)
MA (lifting glass): Happy New Year, everyone!
LS: Yes, Happy New Year!
MA: Welcome to a special edition of Cinema Knife Fight, where LL and I each choose our top 5 horror releases for 2008. The rules to this thing are simple. We reviewed a bunch of movies this year, and LL and I each had to come up with our top 5 favorites of the year. We’ll give you our 5, and of course, we’ll, eh hem, “comment” on each other’s selections. By luck of the draw, I go first, so, weighing in at #5 is—.
LS (interrupting): Don’t forget the hardware, you goober.
MA: Oh yes. As you can see, we’re here in the laboratory of one of our mad scientist friends, and he’s been generous enough to donate for our use today a time/place machine/device that we can use to travel to various locations to give you our top 5 picks in the settings which they so horrendously deserve. (He removes a small device from his pocket the size of a flash drive). Here we go!
Weighing in at #5, my pick for the 5th best horror theatrical release of 2008- (MA presses a button on the time/place remote, and suddenly MA and LS find themselves on a dance floor at a high school prom) – PROM NIGHT!
(to LS): Do you mind if I lead?
LS (moves to strike MA): Get out of here!
(They retreat from the dance floor to a punch bowl area underneath disco lights, with Bee Gees music playing in background)
MA (to LS): Now, I know you hated PROM NIGHT, but let me tell you why it’s one of my favorite horror films of the year. First of all, I went into the theater with zero expectations, other than I expected to hate PROM NIGHT, but I was surprised by a production that took itself very seriously. It’s a remake of a 1980s slasher flick with Jamie Lee Curtis, and it tells a rather unimaginative story about an obsessed teacher out to abduct/kill a high school student on the night of her prom. It had every reason to be awful, but it wasn’t.
Director Nelson McCormick shot the movie with clear professionalism, crafting scenes that looked good, and getting top performances from his actors. This was a movie that did not come across as cheap or poorly executed. I enjoyed the performances of all the young leads, especially Brittany Snow in the lead role. My favorite performance though, and in fact my favorite part of the whole movie, was Idris Elba as police detective Winn. He delivered an impassioned performance that was by far the best part of this movie.
PROM NIGHT was not an A+ horror film by any means, and actually played more like a crime drama than a horror flick, but it was well-acted and directed, and for me, provided solid entertainment and a few suspenseful thrills to boot.
LS: I would comment on this film, but I hated just about every detail of it: from acting to directing to the script. This movie wouldn’t even make my top 30 films of 2008, and I saw exactly 29 films in movie theaters last year.
(LS takes the device from MA and presses the button, taking them atop an Aztec pyramid in the middle of a jungle)
My number 5 choice for 2008 was THE RUINS. I was surprised how effective this movie was, despite its simplicity. The plot involves a group of young tourists (including Jena Malone and Laura Ramsey) who find themselves trapped on an ancient pyramid in Aztec country by some homicidal natives. Of course, the locals are the least of the kids’ troubles. The real menace is a form of sentient plant life that burrows under your skin and devours you whole. The best scene in this movie for me was when one of the kids drops down into a pit to find a missing cell phone. At the moment when we realize that the ringing is not a phone at all, but a flower imitating the sound, a chill runs down your spine. Just a really enjoyable horror flick.
Of course, while my review of THE RUINS was under the Cinema Knife Fight banner, it was one of the films I reviewed alone. I don’t know if you have any comments for it, unless you happened to catch it on DVD.
MA: As a matter of fact, I did catch it on DVD, since I had read your review, and you had really liked it. While I enjoyed THE RUINS, it didn’t make my top 5 list. It was certainly creative and scary, but I found it too much of a downer to be thoroughly enjoyed.
(LS presses the button on the time device again, taking them outside a house in the 1960s. Screams are coming from a basement window)
LS : My number four film of 2008 was a tie between two films that didn’t get theatrical releases, except maybe on the festival circuit, and they’re both based on Jack Ketchum novels. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and RED. These two low-budget adaptations made their source material proud with good acting, solid scripts, and focused direction. GIRL NEXT DOOR might edge RED out slightly for me, but both films have a lot to recommend them. They both also deserved a proper theatrical release.
GIRL NEXT DOOR is the tale of Meg (Blythe Auffarth), a girl who (along with her younger sister) is put in the care of psychotic woman named Ruth Chandler (Blanche Baker) when their parents can’t care for them. Ruth proceeds to put the girls through hell on earth, especially Meg, who she ties up in her cellar and lets her kids (and the entire neighborhood) torture mercilessly. Based on a true story, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is both well done and hard to watch at the same time.
RED is the tale of Avery Ludlow, a man whose old dog is killed by a group of vicious kids in rural Maine. When he tries to get justice for the meaningless death of his best friend, it’s a long road to satisfaction; one that ratchets the violence up more and more as it goes on. Brian Cox is especially terrific as Avery.
At one time Ketchum’s work might have been considered unfilmable (especially THE GIRL NEXT DOOR) but this has since been proven wrong. Between these two films and THE LOST, films based on Jack Ketchum’s novels so far have been above-average and powerful. Let’s hope that Mr. K continues to have such good luck with movie versions of his books.
MA: I didn’t see RED, and while I liked THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, I didn’t include it on my list since it wasn’t a theatrical release. I will say that what I liked most about THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was that it took a deplorable topic and presented it in an honest authentic way. This was a film that could have been exploitative, but it’s not. It succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to disturb, but for the right reasons. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is not a pornographic horror film- it’s a sad, adult drama.
May I have the time machine device please? (LS hands MA the device). Thanks. Okay, time for my #4. (presses buttons on miniature time machine gizmo and receives an electric shock.) (screams in pain).
LS (laughing): I couldn’t help myself. Here’s the real one.
MA: I should have seen that one coming.
(MA presses buttons, and he and LS find themselves in a dark alleyway in front of dumpster with sticker that reads “Please do not dump human remains here.”)
LS: I remember this place.
MA: Yep, we were just here recently. My pick for the 4th best movie of 2008 is PUNISHER WAR ZONE. This is yet another movie that I had zero expectations for. In fact, I expected to hate it. Even though I like action movies, I figured this one would be all gore and no substance. I was pleasantly mistaken.
The film was gory, incredibly so, with heads sliced off and human organs eaten by a crazy baddie in the movie, but this tale of unstoppable vigilante Frank Castle (played with unremitting tenacity by Ray Stevenson) hell-bent on killing any and all gangsters in his way, was made even better by director Lexi Alexander who filmed some extremely slick action sequences, and by screenwriters Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway, who pulled off a neat trick by mixing both realistic and comic book characters with believable results.
PUNISHER WAR ZONE is an adult, R-rated action/horror film in every sense of the words, and with a dash of intelligence sprinkled in, it’s one of the best of the year.
LS: PUNISHER WAR ZONE was actually number 3 on my list, so I liked it a bit more than you did. While our fearless leader disagreed with our glowing review of this film, it remains one of my favorite viewing experiences in 2008. I don’t know how “believable” it was, but with its over-the-top violence and unrelenting pace, PWZ was a live-action cartoon for adults, that never lets up. And, as a long-time fan of the character, it was nice to finally see a movie version that didn’t try to soft-pedal Frank Castle and make him some kind of mainstream superhero type. The Punisher is not a superhero. This isn’t IRON MAN. It worked hard to earn its R rating, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
MA: My pick for #3 is HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY. The reason this movie scored so high on my list was the character of Hellboy (played by Ron Perlman). I love this guy, and the way Perlman plays him. I wish he had his own TV series. (presses button on remote, and MA and LS are suddenly inside Hellboy’s room, which is full of TV sets playing various classic horror movies and empty cans of Tecate beer). We are inside Hellboy’s room at the Bureau for Paranormal Research, and as you can see by the surroundings, he’s a cool guy.
In HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, crime fighters Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Hellboy’s pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) take on an underworld prince name Nuada (Luke Goss) who sees it as his destiny to awaken a golden army and conquer the human race. Most of the action in this movie takes place in this underground kingdom.
HELLBOY II is high fantasy, and as directed by Guillermo del Toro, it’s OK, but what lifts this film to #3 status is Hellboy, Hellboy, Hellboy. He’s the reason to see this film, and he’s the reason this film works so well. When he’s on screen, the movie is a hoot, and when he’s not, it’s average.
I think there’s still a Hellboy classic waiting to be made. HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY isn’t it, but the character as played by Ron Perlman is a star, and he carries this film all the way.
LS: I liked HELLBOY 2 a lot, but not enough for it to make my Top 5. It would make the Number 9 spot on my Top 10, though. And I agree that Ron Perlman was terrific as the lead character. I also love director Guillermo del Toro’s visual style and terrific imagination.
Well since PUNISHER WAR ZONE was my Number 3 pick, I’ll go on to my Number 2 film of 2008, which happens to be another movie I reviewed alone for Fear Zone. This time, it’s Dario Argento’s film MOTHER OF TEARS.
(He takes device from MA and pushes the button, setting off a cartoon explosion and a cloud of dust. When the dust clears, there’s a hole in the floor where LS had been standing).
MA: Payback time.
(LS climbs out of hole and brushes himself off. He looks into hole and waves.)
MA: Know someone down there?
LS: I have friends in low places. Now, where was I?
MA: MOTHER OF TEARS.
LS: Oh yeah. (presses button on the device and they find themselves in a cavernous room where a crowd of witches are shouting)
LS (yells to be heard over the crowd): MOTHER OF TEARS is a movie that has caused much heated discussion in the horror community. I haven’t had to defend a movie this much since the original HOSTEL came out. A lot of Argento’s fans were disappointed with this one. After a 28-year wait for him to finally conclude his “Three Mothers” trilogy, a lot of people were waiting for something as intense and powerful as the classic SUSPIRIA. But MOTHER OF TEARS is the exact opposite. It’s wild, campy fun, and at times almost plays more like a comedy than a horror movie. It’s Dario at his most playful, and while the film does have its shortcomings, it actually rises above its flaws in pure entertainment value. And it doesn’t skimp on the gore.
MOTHER is the tale of Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), a woman who finds out she is the last line of defense when Mater Lachrymarum (Moran Atias), the demonic Mother of Tears, is released upon the world.
This is easily the most fun at the movies I’ve had all year, and I left the theater with a goofy grin on my face. While it was different from the classic Argento films we’d grown up on, it was still better than most of his films of the last decade. I continue to stand by this one.
MA: I didn’t see MOTHER OF TEARS, so I can’t comment on it. I did like SUSPIRIA though.
Would you mind handing me the time machine remote? Thanks. (inspects device closely). Okay, my pick for #2, is QUARANTINE. We’re supposed to travel to a darkened apartment building. Maybe we could just stay here.
LS: Press the button, you wimp!
MA: Okay, here goes. (presses button. They suddenly find themselves inside a room with a pole and a female stripper—-) Oops. Wrong button.
LS: What film is this?
MA: I don’t know. Nothing we reviewed this year.
LS: It looks like ZOMBIE STRIPPERS. Isn’t that Jenna Jameson?
MA: I don’t know, but we can’t stay. (Quickly presses buttons and they transfer to dark hotel lobby.) This is more like it. I chose QUARANTINE as my #2 because it was one of the scarier films I sat through this year. I remember feeling mighty uncomfortable as I watched it.
QUARANTINE is the story of television reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) who, along with her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris), spends a night filming a Los Angeles fire department in action. They accompany the fire department on a routine call to an apartment building to treat an ill woman. The call turns out to be anything but routine.
Angela, the firemen, the police on the scene, and the building’s residents suddenly find themselves quarantined, surrounded by government officials who will even use force to keep anyone from leaving the building. Inside the building, the occupants are plagued by a super-intense strain of rabies, which turns its victims into murderous zombie-like creatures.
The thrills in this movie were effective and intense. And while I was very disappointed with the ending, or to be more specific, with the fact that the trailers for this film actually did the bone-headed thing of giving away the ending, it didn’t ruin the movie for me. To be specific, the film worked, even though I knew in advance how it was going to end.
If you like to be scared, and if you’re at all afraid of the dark, then QUARANTINE is the movie for you.
LS: I liked QUARANTINE a lot, too. It’s non-stop from beginning to end, and Jennifer Carpenter is terrific as the reporter on the scene. Unfortunately, QUARANTINE would be Number 6 on my list, just missing the Top 5.
MA: Well, the time has come. We’ve reached Number One. Drum roll please.
(Drum roll plays)
My pick for the #1 horror movie of 2008, you’ve got to go back to the beginning, back to January, with the release of CLOVERFIELD. (Presses button. They are suddenly on NYC streets. People are running and screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”). (turns to LS): Stop that!
LS (grimacing and making scary faces, foaming at the mouth, etc.) Sorry. I can’t help myself. I just like to work a crowd.
MA: Anyway, my pick for the best of the year is no doubt J.J. Abrams’ CLOVERFIELD. Far and above the most entertaining yet scary film of the year, this tale of a giant monster loose in New York City works both as a modern day giant monster movie and an allegory for the events of 9/11.
The acting, the directing, the writing, were all superior. Some people had difficulty with the hand-held camera work, but not me. I thought this worked incredibly well, and when an unseen narrator can be one of the most entertaining characters in a movie full of visual thrills, that’s saying a lot.
The story, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is about a small group of friends who are having a going away party for their friend Rob (Michael Shahl-David) who is leaving to work in Japan. His best friend Hud (T.J. Miller)— I said this in our original review, and I’ll repeat it here- Hud is probably the funniest and most likable character I’ve ever NOT seen in a movie, since he’s behind the camera nearly the whole film—-is filming the party when the lights go out and suddenly all hell breaks loose as a giant “thing” attacks the city. Hud continues filming and what follows is CLOVERFIELD.
My favorite part of CLOVERFIELD is that it does two opposite things well. On the one hand, it’s one of the best giant monster movies ever made, and on the other hand, it doesn’t play like a giant monster movie, which so often come off as goofy. CLOVERFIELD is anything but goofy. It’s a hard-hitting, intelligent, very likeable adult tale that is also downright frightening. Hands down, it’s the best horror movie of the year. If you see one horror movie from 2008, make it CLOVERFIELD.
LS: CLOVERFIELD was a lot of fun, and it was a clever idea to give us a giant monster movie from the point of view of the poor people whose city is getting trampled. I loved this movie, too, and I agree it’s one of the year’s best horror movies. But it would only make it to Number 8 on my Top 10 list.
It’s funny that your choice for the top film was one of the first movies we reviewed in 2008. My choice for Number 1 is actually the last movie I reviewed last year for Fear Zone, and it’s another one I reviewed alone, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.
(LS clicks the time device and they stand in the snow outside a housing complex)
This Swedish vampire film is the story of Eli (Lina Leandersson), an ancient bloodsucker trapped in the body of a 12-year old girl. Atmospheric and quiet, with sudden bursts of bloody violence, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is all about alienation, loss, and the need to connect with at least one other person who understands you, as Eli makes friends with a bullied and friendless boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant). The emotions in this one are dead on, and the acting is superb, even though the two main characters are children. Easily the most impressive, unexpected, and intense movie I’ve seen this year. I loved it.
MA: Sounds good. Well, that about wraps things up. Real quick, before we go, what’s your pick for the worst film of the year? Mine was the kids “horror” movie IGOR. Hard to believe that a kids’ movie could be yawn-fest boring, but this one was. How about you?
LS: There were lots of awful movies in 2008. IGOR would make my list, but I thought your beloved PROM NIGHT was much worse.
The absolute worst film we had to review in 2008, though, had to be X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE. Not only because the movie itself was dismal, with a script that would have been below-average for the TV series, but because it took iconic characters from a once-great television show and pretty much sucked out any remaining good will we might have had for them, leaving us with an empty husk. Nothing else we saw in 2008 came close to this turkey.
MA: I don’t know. I think I could sit through X-FILES with less pain than having to hear those songs from IGOR again! Well, that’s it for 2008. Time to move forward. It’s a new year!
LS: Let’s hope it’s a good year for horror films.
(MA reaches over to shake LS’ hand. There is a huge electric shock followed by a total blackout.)
LS voice: Gotcha!
MA voice: Now you went and done it! I can’t see the buttons on this thing to get us out of this place.
LS voice: Hit any button.
MA voice: Okay.
(MA and LS suddenly find themselves in a movie theater).
MA (smiling): How about that?
LS: Nice work. Now pass the popcorn.
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 1/2/2009)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares