2019 in horror cinema

by Jane Clewett

2019 in horror cinema
February 2, 2020 Jane Clewett

The 2010s were a great decade for horror movie fans. 2019 brought us a wide variety of offerings, from Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie hunters in The Dead Don’t Die to the high concept, Superman-as-slasher stylings of Brightburn. We take a look at a few of last year’s biggest releases, and recommend some gems you may have missed.

 

The heavy hitters

 

Us

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the barnstormingly brilliant Get Out is less immediately appealing than its predecessor, but it marries that film’s social satire to a more complex narrative told in uncomfortable shades of moral grey. In the film’s terrifying pre-title sequence, a little girl wanders into a beachside hall of mirrors and has a life-changing encounter with a doppelgänger. Three decades later, she comes back to the beach with her husband and children; she fears that her double is going to return for her, but the danger soon proves to be much greater.

Us is a film made to be argued about. What initially looks like a home invasion thriller with a twist quickly broadens its scope, and keeps broadening it right up to the closing shot. It’s not simply about fear of the uncanny, or the other — this is a story that raises questions about nature versus nurture, ethics and strategies of resistance to oppression, and the implications of living in a society with a permanent underclass; and it refuses to provide any easy answers. After its tour de force opening, it’s content not to be very scary. This is a movie that’s much more interested in frightening concepts than it is in making you jump. It benefits enormously from its performances: Lupita Nyong’o is breathtaking in her double lead role, but she’s amply supported by Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, and Tim Heidecker, while Shahadi Wright Joseph (who was thirteen at the time of filming) very nearly steals the whole show and is definitely a young actor to watch out for.

Us is a more uneven film than Get Out; it’s probably too long, and it’s arguable whether the exposition in the third act adds to or detracts from the experience. Nevertheless, this is a solid second feature from Peele, who continues to be an exciting and thoughtful voice in genre filmmaking.

Midsommar

Another highly anticipated sophomore effort, Midsommar came out less than a year after hit supernatural horror Hereditary — one wonders when writer-director Ari Aster has time to sleep. It follows Dani (Florence Pugh) as, still reeling from a family tragedy, she joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his university friends at a nine-day midsummer celebration hosted by the Hårga, a remote Swedish community.

Fans of folk horror will find very familiar territory in Midsommar; it’s weirdly free of suspense and even surprise. There are hypnotic psychedelic sequences, some pleasingly squishy gore effects (shown off by the bright sunlight that permeates most of the movie), and a number of visual nods to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, seemingly just for the hell of it. The story, though, goes exactly where you think it will. It also suffers from the inclusion of ‘Ruben’, less a character than a mound of grotesque clichés about mental and physical disability that would have felt uncomfortably outdated 20 years ago.

However, there’s an emotional truth in the way Midsommar portrays grief, and the terrible toll it takes on personal lives. At the film’s heart is a couple who really need to split up. Christian is bored with the relationship but can’t bear to be the bad guy, while Dani is unfulfilled but can’t face one more loss. Ari Aster has described this as his “breakup movie”, and it’s as that that it truly shines. The Hårga are a source of predictable horror for most of Midsommar’s protagonists, but they give Dani a new way of looking at death, a radical empathy that she desperately needs, and the strength to make changes to her life. Seeing the story from her perspective ultimately saves the film from being a mere retread of The Wicker Man.

 

Child’s Play

This reboot of the long-running horror series has some fun ideas, but the execution is muddled. In a bold move, it begins by throwing out the central premise of all the other Child’s Play films; instead of being a regular doll possessed by a serial killer, Chucky is now an AI-controlled robot whose safety protocols have been disabled by a vengeful factory worker. Chucky bonds with Andy, the film’s thirteen year-old protagonist, but Andy soon discovers that having a killer doll for a friend is an extremely mixed blessing.

Mark Hamill gives a typically excellent vocal performance as Chucky, and there are some good setpieces; the scene in which Chucky learns about murder from the movies is particularly funny. However, the film fails to capitalise on its ‘what if Alexa but evil?’ conceit, and shows clear evidence of reshoots. Fans of the franchise may be better off waiting for the Don Manchini-penned television series, due next year.

 

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was most hotly anticipated in the US, as it’s based on a series of children’s books first published in the 1980s that are a staple of many American childhoods. The film actually goes a little further back in time, to 1968. The period hasn’t been picked for nostalgia value; the decade is presented as the time America lost its innocence, and thus provides a fitting backdrop for Scary Stories’ surprisingly sober coming of age tale. The film has an interesting not-quite-anthology structure; its young protagonists discover a book of horror stories that begin to play out in real life, menacing their friends and family. The computer-generated effects are variable in quality, but the practical ones are great, and it’s clear enormous care has been taken in replicating Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations. This is not a movie for adults, but that’s not a criticism; it’s smart, it’s got plenty of great scares, and its intended teenage audience will lap it up.

It Chapter Two

The sequel to 2017’s It Chapter One is not without its pleasures, but it’s badly structured and distinctly overlong. 27 years after the Losers Club confronted It as children, they are summoned back to Derry by Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member to remain in the town. ‘It’ has come back, and they must fulfil their oath and defeat their nemesis for good.

The grown-up Losers are all convincing; director Andy Muschetti’s decision to allow the child actors to play the parts as they liked and ask the adult actors to copy them seems to have paid off. Bill Hader’s waspish, vulnerable Richie is particularly strong. The opening, in which the Losers are reintroduced and It lures a girl under the bleachers in a scene at least as good as the original’s “Hiya, Georgie!”, works really well. Sadly, from this point the film deteriorates into a series of identically-formatted scenes in which individual Losers visit a location, have a flashback to their childhoods, and are scared by It. The final confrontation runs very long, and the substitution of a 30 foot-tall CGI spider for the book’s more genuinely weird eldritch monster feels like a timid decision.

Ultimately, what made It Chapter One so great is what hampers the sequel; the children’s timeline is the best part of the novel, with the adult sections being something closer to a framing device. Lacking the strong coming of age throughline of the first film, Chapter Two flounders, and the interesting character beats it provides fail to save it from being mostly a collection of setpieces without an emotional core.

It Chapter Two

Zombieland: Double Tap

Coming a decade after 2009’s well-regarded Zombieland, and with its director and writers having moved on to the Venom and Deadpool franchises respectively, this sequel can hardly help feeling like an afterthought. Ten years after the events of the original film, zombie-hunting found family Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock have moved into the White House. They bond and bicker, meet new characters and fight newly evolved super zombies, go their separate ways, and eventually take a road trip to reunite. Double Tap is fairly charming, lightweight fun, with some good gags and a mid-credits sequence worth waiting around for. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of structure, feeling more like a collection of sketches than a coherent whole and with character arcs that retread ground covered in the first film. For better or worse, it’s also on the very lightest end of horror-comedy; only the most squeamish will find anything to disturb them here.

 

The diamonds in the rough

 

Happy Death Day 2U

This sequel to 2017’s terrific comic slasher Happy Death Day didn’t make the same impact at the box office as its predecessor, but it’s well worth seeking out for home viewing. The beautiful simplicity of the first film’s Groundhog Day-but-with-murder premise has been replaced with a more convoluted, sci-fi-inflected plot; however, there’s still a high hit rate of both laughs and deaths. The series’ secret weapon is leading actor Jessica Rothe. Her flawed protagonist Tree is charismatic and very funny, but there’s also a real depth to her emotions, allowing 2U to earn its occasional moments of pathos.

The Perfection

The Perfection never had a cinematic release, landing on Netflix with relatively little fanfare in May. Don’t let that fool you — this is one of the year’s most interesting horror films. After the death of her mother, who she has been caring for, former cello prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out her old music teacher; and finds his new star pupil, Lizzie (Logan Browning). The Perfection plays out in a series of marked chapters, constantly shifting its tone, its apparent genre, and the nature and relationships of its characters. It lands somewhere very dark, but ultimately satisfying. The film also comes with a content warning for basically everything; if you would prefer to be spoiled, its Wikipedia entry provides a thorough plot description.

 

In Fabric

Already sporting a handful of awards, Peter Strickland’s latest is a dazzling, woozy, darkly-comic slice of British weirdery. Old fashioned department store Dentley and Soper is staffed by women who look like mannequins dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein and then brought to life. It advertises itself with an image of them ritualistically beckoning towards the camera. And it sells Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s unhappy divorcee Sheila a cursed red dress, which travels from person to person spreading catastrophe in its wake. Part ghost story, part workplace satire, often disturbing and occasionally uncomfortably sexy, In Fabric takes place in a world where any collection of words can be a spell, and any image can evoke existential horror if you look at it just right.

In Fabric

Come to Daddy

If you didn’t catch Ant Timpson’s startling debut film at one of its festival appearances you may have missed your chance to see it in a cinema, but it should be hitting small screens in 2020. Elijah Wood plays Norval Greenwood, a young man with a gold-plated phone and a terrible haircut who arrives at a remote cabin hoping to reconcile with the estranged father he’s never spoken to; the man he finds isn’t at all what he hoped for. Toby Harvard’s sharply-written script puts Norval through a series of increasingly disturbing events before descending into outright, blood-soaked madness in the third act, but remains funny and strangely touching throughout. Michael Smiley also deserves plaudits for his turn as one of the year’s weirdest and most memorable villains.

 

Ready or Not

This smart, bloody black comedy takes a simple premise and runs with it (pun very much intended). It follows Grace (Samara Weaving) as she marries into the Le Domas family, only to discover that her new in-laws aren’t the harmless kind of rich eccentrics. Tradition demands they play a midnight game of Hide and Seek — to the death. Ready or Not’s thesis that ‘the rich aren’t like you and me’ is familiar territory for horror, but it plays it out with wit, a brilliantly spare, tense narrative structure, and some truly wince-inducing gore effects. Weaving is terrific in the lead role, running the gamut from gamine charm to shaking terror and animalistic fury, and she’s given great support from the rest of the cast, with Adam Brody’s sympathetic alcoholic and Andie MacDowell’s deceptively warm matriarch the standouts.