The Best Films of 2021

This year I watched 298 films. This figure, however, only counts the first time a film was viewed, and doesn’t include subsequent rewatches, of which there were plenty. It was another year where there were quite a few films I liked, but no real stand out, so the following list is in no particular order.

Enjoy!

Annette

I gotta admit, I was not excited to watch this, and had put it off several times. After all, its a musical about a pair of celebrities who give birth to a singing prodigy, with the child portrayed by a marionette puppet. But it was breathtakingly original – all sumptuous visuals like half-remembered dreams, the story operatic in tone and scope, the songs, composed entirely by Sparks, were emotive and cutting, the performances by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard were fully committed, and the storyline about a malignant narcissist and an abusive marriage that becomes a story about a controlling parent failing to put his child first, was moving and memorable.

Music

The second musical on my list. As directed and written by musical genius Sia, this is so her; and that’s an aesthetic you either embrace or reject. This film tells the story of Music (Maddie Zeigler), a low-functioning autistic teenager who ends up under the guardianship of her sister Zu (Kate Hudson) who has her own troubles with drugs, alcohol and mental health. I know this is a controversial film, mostly because of the huge backlash against Sia for not casting an autistic actor in the title role, but the film itself is magical. It moved me to tears a few times, and the songs are so damn good; not to mention the use of imagination and colourful imagery to tell the story. I really loved this movie.

Our Friend

Do you want to cry? Do you want a film that will rip your heart out and stomp on it but still leave you glad you watched it? Then this is the film for you! Parents of two little girls, couple Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) receive life changing medical news, and their long-time friend Dane (Jason Segel) puts his life on hold to live with them and help them through this tough time. Sounds a little pedestrian and depressing but it really isn’t, its about the power of friendship, and finding beauty where you can, and how rewarding it is to support someone in need. But yeah, bring tissues.

Shadow In The Cloud

I really had low expectations for this one, expecting a schlocky c-grade horror featuring an actress i really don’t rate – Chloe Grace Moretz. What I didn’t expect was a film that said “I see your c-grade schlock and raise you a feminist, kick-ass action that fully embraces its pulpiness and adds in a touch of Lovecraft for good measure”! This movie tells the story of Maud (Mortiz – who made me rethink my opinion of her talents), a female pilot during world war 2, who talks her way onto the last mission of B52 bomber with its all-male crew; she has a secret package to deliver, and, to add even more tension, there are monstrous stowaways onboard. This creature-feature war movie is gonzo crazy and an absolute riot until the end credits when a sobering truth about our past heroes is shared. Expertly directed by Roseanne Laing, I can’t wait to see what she brings us nextand the synth score is sublime!

Nobody

I’ve always liked Bob Odenkirk, there’s something very comforting about his gravelly voice, and his face is full of character, which is probably why he never seems to be the lead but part of the supporting cast, on film at least (Better call Saul definitely benefits from having him front and center). Nobody, the story of a retired hitman who is reminded of how much he enjoyed his prior life of crime and dives straight back in with gusto when his family is threatened, also knows how to trade on Odenkirks likability and ‘everyman’ vibe. This is entertaining as heck from start to finish with escalating action and bone-crunching violence aplenty – the over-the-top cartoonish variety of violence, not the sobering, ugly kind. Featuring the best needle-drop moment of 2021 when “heartbreaker’ by Pat Benatar accompanies a thrilling city car chase, this also contains one of the best ‘man and kitten’ scenes I’ve ever seen. So much damn fun!

The Mauritanian

A true story about the horrors inflicted upon a man imprisoned at Guantanamo without charge for years, and the people working on either side of his imprisonment. Jodie Foster plays the lawyer tasked with investigating and ultimately fighting for his freedom. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the idealistic soldier recruited to prosecute the prisoner who instead finds his own faith in the system, the military and the government, challenged. As Mohamedu the prisoner, Tahar Rahim (who should have been Oscar nominated) is mesmerising and revelatory, and Foster lends strong support in her Golden Globe award winning performance, with Cumberbatch solid as always. A galvanising and shocking meditation on the abuse of power.

Judas and The Black Messiah

Another true story, IMDB summarises this film as ‘offered a plea deal by the FBI, William O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton’. It is a mini-biopic of Fred Hampton combined with the edginess of a spy movie; only this is also about betrayal and racism and the birth of a movement, and the decisions made by the characters had real-world consequences. A little dry ocassionally, this is buoyed by stellar performances from our two leads – Daniel Kaluuya (always riveting but an Oscar winner here) and LaKeith Stanfield (Oscar nominated for this, and also always good). With great support from Jessie Plemons, this one will make you outraged at the injustice. Powerful stuff.

Free Guy

Trapped in a video game, this riff on ‘The Truman Show’ starring Ryan Reynolds as ‘Blue Shirt Guy’ is a riot from start to finish. Sweet, warm-hearted, smart and with the added spice of a winning Jodie Comer, as well as an all-round likeable support cast, this is laugh-out-loud funny but still manages to get you in the feels by the end. Taika Waititi’s bizarre and OTT performance is the only misstep in this utter joy of a movie. Endlessly rewatchable.

Synchronic

What if there was a drug that allowed you to travel back in time? A drug that is like the most psychedelic trip ever but its dangerous because you have no control where you will end up, as the drug opens you up to ‘portals’ or ‘doors’ that can lead to anywhere and anywhen, would you take it? In Synchronic, this drug has already flooded the black market and our two world-weary EMT leads (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are dealing with the medical fallout. I love the movies of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, they are always mind-opening affairs that exist within their own mythologies with a dash of magic realism and science fiction threaded through the narrative. Turn it on and strap in – this ride is unwieldy and unpredictable, but you’ll be glad you took it.

Possessor

Starring an actress I find fascinating – Andrea Riseborough, who plays an agent who uses brain-implant tech to ‘get inside’ a target and then use their body like a meat-puppet to assassinate victims selected by her rich clientele, to call this screenplay bold would be an understatement. The first feature film of Brandon Cronenberg, son of avant-garde director David, to call this cronenbergian may be on the nose, but its accurate. This combines body-horror, science fiction and touches on the dangers inerrant at the intersection of technology and humans. It talks about the cost of literally losing yourself in your work; and the ending is shocking as all get-out! A cerebral mind-fuck with ultra violence and a bloody raw heart, I didn’t shake this one for days.

Luca

I seem to always have an animated movie in my best of list these days, which is surprising to me as I don’t consider myself a fan of animated movies at all, but here we are. Luca (the film that shoud have won best animated feature at this years Golden Globes, not Encrapto) is a simple story about a sea creature child who wants more than just the sheltered under-sea life he leads with his over-protective parents, and after discovering he turns human on land, he befriends a cocky fellow sea creature with a secret – Alberto. Together with human Giulia, they form a relay team to compete in the Porto Rosso cup and win a Vespa. With major coming-out undertones, and its idyllic Italian summer vibe – this is a family-friendly ‘Call me by your name’ with fish. Nostalgic, gentle, moving and funny with great voice work by Jacob Tremblay and especially Jack Dylan Grazer, this is a movie I know I’ll enjoy on rainy Sunday afternoons for years to come.

Long Weekend

This is one of two very small indies to make my list this year, and is described on IMDB thusly – ‘ a down-on-his-luck struggling writer, meets an enigmatic woman who enters his life at the right time. While this synopsis is accurate, it doesn’t encompass the oodles of charm and naturalism the two mains (played to perfection by Finn Wittrock and Zoe Chao) bring to this movie, it also doesn’t give away the many interesting plot twists that hurtle this film through several different genres before landing on a genuinely touching finale; and I’m not gunna give away the big twist either, suffice to say I was invested from the first scene. For a directorial debut (Steve Basilone) this is impressive, and the music is lovely too. A unique little gem that I wish more people had seen.

Beast Beast

The second small indie on my list, this was a chance find on a late night and I’m so glad I took the journey. Essentially a coming of age film with all the nostalgia removed, this follows the lives of four gen z teens in a typical American high school – it documents the choices hey make, the way their lives intersect and how they navigate their lives in the context of the world as it is now. At times this is uncomfortable viewing with palpable desperation and a true sense of unease even in the most benign moments, but its always compelling. Strong stuff.

The Courier

Based on the true story of an ordinary joe recruited by the British government to be a spy and help end the Cuban Missile Crisis with the aid of their Russian source. This for me was a film that came out of nowhere; I’d seen no advertising and read no reviews, and I found it fascinating. Its remarkable the danger a government was willing to put a regular citizen like Greville Wynne in, and I enjoyed the ultimately moving friendship that developed between Greville and his Russian counterpart, Oleg. I have taken some time to warm to Benedict Cumberbatch, I think part of me will never move past his slimy pedophilic character in the excellent ‘Atonement’, but he certainly opened my eyes with his brilliant performance in ‘The Imitation Game’, and again here he is proving to be one the more impressive actors working today. Everyone brings their A game, but Cumberbatch goes a step further than I had expected of him.

Don’t Look Up

I’d been waiting for this movie. I’d heard about it and the synopsis sounded like a perfect combination of most things I like – Leo DiCaprio, director Adam McKay, Timothee Chalamet, climate change, large cast of stars, so when it finally hit the theatres for a limited time, I was keen to go. I’m so glad I did, because even though it was released on Netflix a few days later, the big screen was where this film deserved to be seen. The storyline poked wry and clever fingers at Trump and his ilk – his skewed ‘values’ and damaging persona, it satirized our push to not hear what isn’t convenient, to keep that smile plastered on even as we eat our own lies; it was a scathing look at humanity as it is now, our warped priorities and ‘bull in a china shop’ effect on the world. The big screen made those macro shots of nature and animals and hummingbirds not just effecting, but genuinely heartbreaking. The thought of losing those we share the planet with should stop us in our tracks, should break us. Funny, smart, important and quietly devastating. I hope someone out there listens, but I suspect its far too late.

Antlers

A horror film as much about child abuse, neglect and poverty as it is about monsters and mythology. This examines the after effects of damaging childhoods whilst also telling the story of young Lucas, trying to hold his family together and stop his father from becoming a literal monster – way too big a burden for a child to bear. The imagery is breathtaking, and the scares effective. Director Scott Cooper has managed to create an atmospheric, darkly fantastical tale featuring fine performances from the always great Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, with an amazing accomplished turn from young Jeremy T. Thomas in his big screen debut. The best horror of the year.

The French Dispatch

I like Wes Anderson films, they can be twee and quaint but their aesthetic works for me, and he is reliably good even with his lesser films. Featuring, of course, an ensemble cast, this is not one of his lesser films. His usual troupe of players are here – Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, Frances McDormand, and more; they tell an anthology of stories revolving around a Newspaper called The French Dispatch. Essentially a love letter to old fashioned newspapering and the journalists who sought out and were passionate about their stories, this is outrageously amusing, and supremely creative. Like a good degustation, each course (story) brings you something different, but each portion is delicious and satisfying.

The Last Duel

I don’t much care for entertainment based in the medieval times, so this had not been much on my radar until a friend said she had seen it and thought it was good. I liked the cast, Ridley Scott is a solid director so I decided to give it a go. This is a true story about a woman who has a great wrong committed against her and how her efforts for justice are hijacked by a conceited husband. Set in the era when ‘truth’ is decided by a jousting duel, and women had no ownership of their lives or bodies, I loved the telling of the story from 3 different viewpoints – it worked wonderfully well in this, and kept me on the edge of my seat all the way to the finale. Starring Matt Damon (playing a sniveling pompous character that surprised me), Adam Driver and Jodie Comer (strong!) this is a sumptuous and brutal film that shies away from nothing whilst also not exploiting scenes that needed to be handled sensitively. Utterly engrossing.

The Eyes Of Tammy Faye

Buoyed by a chameleonic performance by Jessica Chastain, this deep dive into the life and crimes of real life 80’s christian evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker is by turns surprising, sympathetic and honest. The recreations of sets, clothes, attitudes of the times etc. are completely spot on and show the care and attention to detail given to every facet of this story. Andrew Garfield as Jim is outshined by Chastain only because her performance is so remarkable; without that attention grabbing accompaniment, he would be the one to praise. Tammy Faye herself is afforded a type of character restoration here, and the films goes a long way to right the wrongs that were heaped upon her.

Spider-man: No Way Home

I enjoy superhero films – they generally feature high quality production values, are well acted and big popcorn entertainment; if they seem to all blend in for me that’s ok, they have a job to do and they do it well – they entertain. I’d seen the previous two Spider-mans featuring Tom Holland as our titular hero and thought they were just fine, nothing special (his best friend Ned annoys me to unreasonable levels) but I cant fault them. This part is different, this part has everything you could want from a superhero film, and, more specifically, a spider-man film. In fact, this is the spider-man film you didn’t even know you needed. I cant summarise it, the joy is in the discovery, but I cant imagine anyone not having a good time with this film.

Honorable mentions –

Blue Bayou – American immigration woes in this smart heartfelt indie – I ugly-cried, you will too.

The Card Counter – Oscar Isaacs is a broken ex-soldier hitting the casino circuit – intricate and gritty.

Together Together – Ed Helms bonds with the woman surrogating his baby – heart-warming, not cloying.

Horror in The High Desert – found footage with an endearing central character and genuine chills.

The Worst List

Much as it pains me to admit, most of the worst films of the year were horrors:

Halloween Kills – Please tell me this was a parody.

Malignant – Ugly and stupid. James Wan please leave horror alone.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It – a hallmark movie disguised as a telegraphed horror and a snoozefest.

The Empty Man – So boring, So long, So trite. A tonally awkward mess.

Titane – Nonsensical, distancing, meandering and gross. There is nothing to connect with or enjoy.

Vanquish – So bad its almost funny, my love for Ruby Rose led me astray… again!

Suicide Squad – One of the most cynical films I’ve seen, it’s like the film makers hate the audience – an ensemble film with no character development? No thanks

The Stylist

The Stylist begins with a haircut. Our protagonist Clare (Najarra Townsend), is cutting the hair of a client who is chatting away about her life. As the woman talks more, you can see the envy in Clare’s eyes. She makes the client a drink, waits for it to take effect, scalps the poor woman and then gets her body ready for disposal. It’s all done with the efficiency of someone who has done this before.

Because she has.

When she gets back home and puts the still-wet scalp onto one of the mannequin heads that adorn her under ground dress-up space, we can see many other scalps adorning other mannequins. This is something Clare likes to do, and does often, using the stories the clients have told her about their lives, she wears their scalps and pretends to be them. Using the same mannerisms and habits, she can become someone else, someone not Clare.

Problems arise when she gets an urgent call from Olivia (Brea Grant), who needs help styling her hair before her big wedding. As Clare gets closer to Olivia, she can’t decide if she wants to be her friend, or just be her. Olivia, sensing a growing strangeness in her new friend, withdraws, and this could prove catastrophic for them both.

Written and directed by Jill Gevargizian, this is an artfully rendered film, with some beautiful cinematography and a dreamy quality about much of it. There is a ‘Maniac’ vibe, but mostly because of the scalpings and the mannequins; this is a gentler film than that one, and works harder to create a real person out of the awkward troubled murderer at its centre.

As Clare, Townsend manages to induce sympathy but doesn’t shy away from embracing the insanity of her character, and the sadness of who she could have been. You watch her make mistake after mistake and then commit some truly atrocious acts, but you never hate her, even while you hate what she’s doing.

As for Olivia, the less showy part, Grant imbues her with a freshness and a kindness that makes the inexorableness of the spider web she’s in, that much more difficult to witness; It would have been easy to make her a ‘mean girl’ but she never is.

There aren’t many slashers directed by women, and there aren’t many these days at all; falling out of favour lately with ‘elevated horror’ taking the reins for a while, so it’s interesting to see what a feminine, modern slasher looks like.

This is a car crash movie; you are horrified but cant look away. Its tense and gross and upsetting.

It’s also good.

7.5/10

Antlers

Horror films have always been a catalyst for discussion about the issues that occupy us; they address societal concerns, socio-economic problems, and the dynamics of our relationships with each other and the world we inhabit. Not all horrors have such loftiness in mind, but it’s often there regardless, hidden in the subtext.

Antlers, whilst essentially on the surface – a monster movie, addresses the weightier subjects of child abuse and its after-effects, drug addiction, family, and poverty; and is all the richer for it.

We begin with Frank (Scott Haze), unwittingly leading his small child, Aiden (Sawyer Jones) into an abandoned mine, after he fails to make good on returning from his work there (the mine in fact, a place for troubled Frank to cook meth). Something happens to them in that dark cramped place, and they come back changed; much to the sorrow of Frank’s older son, long-suffering Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a ten-year-old tasked with the impossible role of caretaker for his increasingly violent father and younger brother – both ‘infected’ somehow, and far from the family he knew. The unstable home-life he had grown used to, now far worse than he could have imagined.

Meanwhile, we get to know teacher Julia (Keri Russell), back in town after an extended absence; she has moved into the home she grew up in, the home that is still inhabited by her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons). There is tension between them, they are cautious around each other, learning to reconnect, painful secrets and hard truths between them. We see flashbacks to a sickeningly abusive childhood, where Julia was a plaything for her father to use and hurt on a whim.

With her baggage firmly in place, she comes to grow increasingly worried about Lucas, who is a student in her class at the local primary school.

Their individual struggles connect them, and before long it becomes an obsession for her – to save him from the terrible life she believes he is living. She decides to investigate, but what she finds will go far beyond what she had envisioned.

Back at home, behind a bolted attic door, dad Frank is getting hungry, and angry.

Touching on myths that First Nations people have been sharing for generations, writers Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, create a compelling story through which they interweave that mythology. Cleverly placing the fantastic within an ordinary world, leaves less room for the audience to doubt and question. It also gives the film the breathing space to claim that what appears to be reality, may instead be allegorical.

I’m a fan of both Russell and Plemons and both bring truth and pain to their performances, but the surprise stand-out is Jeremy T Thomas who gives a truly committed turn – he is never less than 100% genuine, no matter what is asked of him emotionally.

The direction by Scott Cooper is also to be commended – the dark foreboding atmosphere is almost visceral, the child abuse scenes are filmed in both literal and suggestive ways that give them an almost nightmare quality which is hugely effective, and this is one of the very few films that actually made me jump. I rarely do; but I realised thinking back its because the ‘jumps’ in this movie are filmed as they would happen in real life – with no jarring musical cue to ‘add’ to the moment; because when shocks happen in life, there isn’t any musical accompaniment – they just happen when your world is going on as it always has – and isn’t that the true horror?

This is a heavy film, its about drug abuse and neglect and poverty and painful childhoods and inner suffering – it’s not for everyone.

However, if you want a film that will affect you, that will give you food for thought and a few scares on the way, I highly recommend Antlers.

In a year when we have endured some truly woeful horror movies, this one stands out as a winner.

8/10

Halloween Kills

You know those musicals where members of the cast basically say a line back and forth to each other and it builds up into a crescendo until everyone is saying the same line over and over again, and it becomes a song and everyone takes part?
Well that kind of happens in this movie, only it’s not joyous, there’s no song, and it’s utterly annoying as hell.

Halloween Kills is the sequel to the 2018 version of Halloween as directed by David Gordon Green, in which we saw a sequel to the original Halloween, choosing to ignore all the original sequels that happened in between. The 2018 outing was good, it was creepier and nastier than expected, the familial connections between the 3 Strode women – Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Karen (Judy Greer) and Allyson (Andi Matichak) are well realised and give weight to the events that befall them, they fight hard and work together to defeat the ‘boogey’man who has been renting space in Laurie’s mind since her violent encounter with him 40 years prior.

In my review of that previous film I asked for no sequel – turns out, I was right; because this is a train wreck.

Halloween Kills begins directly where Halloween 2018 left off, with Laurie stabbed and Michael trapped in the basement of her burning house. We go to the hospital with Laurie where she learns she didn’t kill him as she thought, as he was let loose by the team of fit firemen who showed up at her home, and whom Michael Myers then turned into chunks of flesh on the burning pavement (uh huh, sure). We cut across town to meet up with actors and/or characters from the original movie including an entirely obnoxious Tommy Doyle (now horribly overplayed by Anthony Michal Hall), Lindsay, Marion and Lonny (who all played teeny parts in the original). Lonny’s inclusion is particularly ludicrous given he once caught a glimpse of Michael walking the halloween streets 40 years ago and has been stuck in that town haunted by that event ever since (uh huh, sure). We are treated to a 70s flashback featuring Jim Cummings (which had me fangirling) but really didn’t serve much purpose except to give Sherriff Beckett (Patton Oswalt) some backstory before he spent the entirety of the movie laying in a hospital bed. Which is what Laurie of course should be doing, after we witnessed her major abdominal surgery. She is inexplicably left unattended, not on opioids, not in the icu, to be dramatic and pull out her iv before stabbing herself in the butt with a needle full of mystery drugs because “she’s the one whos got to kill him!” except that she cant, and ends up in bed for the rest of the film. Its a super duper professional hospital too, with the morgue right there in the middle of the waiting area with a handy viewing window. And people wandering in and out without any security clearance. Karen takes it upon herself to be a social conscious because well goshdarnit, someone has to, and the survival skills background that was a big part of her back story previously is forgotten here anyway so lets just be the ‘mum’. Tommy decides that ‘Evil dies tonight’ which is basically the sum of his lines from this point on, but don’t worry, if you miss him saying it, the rest of the cast will say it at some point, again and again and again. It could be a fun drinking game. If this film was any fun. Which its not. At all. It takes itself so seriously its embarrassing. In fact the only intentionally funny part was when a character accidently kills themselves, the only other laughs to be had, are at the films own expense.

Michael goes on a killing spree; people make epically stupid decisions and end up dying (like lets form a mob and then all split up, like lets confront him weaponless instead of running away, like lets chase this guy who looks nothing like Michael Myers, like lets wildly shoot in all directions before he’s in front of us so we have no bullets for him, like lets never go for a head shot, like lets hit him with this bat/stick/pitchfork once and then drop it like its on fire – just assume he’s dead and turn your back on him like a good little victim) but it wouldn’t matter what they did anyway because the film makers have decided to go the ‘supernatural’ route and have him suddenly not even really be a person. Slight spoiler – he’s just ‘fear itself’ now – uh huh, sure.

The acting is pretty bad across the board I’m afraid and the dialogue had me cringing so hard it hurt. The theatrics were so off the scale that even Donald Pleasance would be ashamed. The tone is all wrong, lacking grit and feeling almost like satire.

The score by John and Cody Carpenter essentially just riffs on the original but its one of the few positives I can give this movie. I also really like the old-school opening credits, and the mask was cool.

This unnecessary sequel was bad and I’m sure the upcoming ‘Halloween Ends’ will be just as bad, but I guess I’ll still watch it in the faint hope that maybe, for once, Michael would just die for good.

3/10

Halloween Kills Trailer

Malignant

I have to be honest, I don’t like James Wan. I think his films are derivative, boring, obvious and severely lacking in scares. I didn’t mind Insidious though the sequels were rubbish. The Conjuring was well made and acted but, at best, it was unchallenging and generic. The sequel was worse, and the third part was even worse than that. The Nun was laughably bad, Annabelle and her nonsensical sequels the equivalent of a rotten toffee apple. So to say I had low expectations heading into the next James Wan ‘horror’ film is an understatement.

Unfortunately, there are no expectations low enough to make this travesty enjoyable.

The plot is thin and dull as dishwater but here it is – Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is in an abusive relationship with her partner, when he is murdered the suspicion falls to her, and this continues as she is haunted by visions of other murders blah blah blah, there’s a ‘twist’ that anyone who knows anything about horror or watched American Horror Story Freaks can see a mile away and it is as ludicrous as the rest of the film.

There are issues from the first few scenes – pregnant women don’t constantly clutch their stomach, if she’s a nurse with pregnancy issues she’d have stayed at work, abused people don’t ‘antagonise’ their abusers, the crime scene is like a train station with so many people coming and going, the cops display their obvious biases and assumptions from the get go, etc.

We meet Madison’s sister who also feels like someone’s idea of a human, and she joins the two cops Dumb and Dumber as they get closer to the truth and that ‘twist’.

There is so much wrong its hard to know where to start. The set design is murky and uninspired, as is most of this movie, and the soundtrack alternates between bland and jarring.

The acting pretty much across the board is atrocious with the one bright spot being Zoe Bell as a campy butch lesbian stereotype that was bordering on offensive but at least gifted some much-needed levity to the insufferably stuffy self-importance which imbues much of Wan’s work. I suspect however, that the bad performances were not all the fault of the actors as this script from hell is such a laughably over the top, melodramatic ridiculous mess whilst also being completely humourless, that I don’t see how anyone could have made it work.
There’s also the usual James Wan schtick of drifting fog/shadows/things happening behind people, handy heavy exposition scenes and telegraphed jump scares – ho hum!
The CGI was appalling, especially in the police station fight set-piece where the action looked just like a cheap video game.
And she never put that great heavy pelt of obviously fake hair up in a ponytail like anyone would whilst running around and fighting – It was maddening!

In short, people don’t talk like this, police don’t act like this, I cannot believe this made it to the big screen as it felt like a student film in the worst possible way.
This was badly written, badly acted, and very badly directed.

Please let this be James Wan’s retirement piece, he needs to leave horror alone.

2/10

The Top Horrors That Actually Scared Me

The Ring (American remake) 2002

Do I believe there’s a vhs tape out there that will kill me within 7 days of watching it? No. And yet, this film does make me jumpy and uncomfortably squirmy in a way I cant fully comprehend. Perhaps it is the material contained on that cursed tape, replayed in full during the course of this film (yes, I look away for part of it every time!) Or perhaps its the contorted faces of the victims who died of abject terror when confronted by Samara, that little tv-escaper? I’m not sure, I just know that the sight of that jerky malevolent child crawling out of the screen and into a lounge room to relentlessly pursue her victims as if its inevitable, scares me silly.


The Blair Witch Project 1999

The first time I saw this at the movies I already knew the surrounding hype wasn’t true – the stars were actors and it was a found footage ‘mockumentary’ of sorts, not the last scenes of people who had actually died. The film itself had a slower pace than the horrors I was used to but I was fine with that, it had afforded me a few jumps and nasty little treats such as that bag of ‘offcuts’ left at the foot of the tent. And then the ending came, that basic shot of Mike facing the wall whilst Heather screams at his implacable back, and I haven’t been able to look at screengrabs of that scene without a small shudder. Sometimes the scariest things are the simplest.


The Exorcism of Emily Rose 2005

The time 3am means a lot in this film. Its the time that ‘devilish’ things happen to the people who become involved in the strange case of Emily Rose. Part flashback horror/part courtroom drama/part true story, this possession tale has no easy answers for you and just lets the fine contortionist work of titular star Jennifer Carpenter do the ‘talking’. This one never fails to make me jumpy as the terror just escalates to a fever pitch and I always follow up a viewing with something ‘happy’; but if I find myself aware of the time and its 3am, you can bet I’m anxious until the minutes tick their way over to 4.


The Exorcist 1973

I first watched this on my 16th birthday, and while I tried to act tough with my friends, I took any opportunity to look away, because inside I was terrified. Many years later I attended a new years eve screening in Piccadilly Circus, excited to see the long anticipated directors cut featuring the never-before-seen ‘spider walk’. The scene approached and the tension built and the next thing I knew my hands were covering my eyes as that blood-spewing demon made her horrifying way down the stairs. Yep, I’d been so scared that I’d missed it. Honestly I’m still kicking myself over that one. This film, though I’ve seen it many times now, has lost none of its power and still manages to make me feel like I’ve invited something evil into my home whenever I watch it. Masterful stuff.


Lake Mungo 2008

I missed this when it was first released, but years later I read a list compiled by a fellow film-lover of ‘the scariest horror scenes you’ve never seen’ and this film was number two. I made it my mission to seek it out; and I was not disappointed. This film earnt its place on that list and on mine. The scene in question, a sad and frightening glimpse of our own mortality, the dread of our impending doom; it utterly shocked and haunted me. An undervalued gem, this is a great Aussie horror with the ability to both scare and devastate you. Find it and watch it!


Paranormal Activity 2007

I knew this film would scare me, because the trailers did. I wanted to see it because I’m drawn to what frightens me and because I love horror and this one was getting a lot of hype. I decided to avoid a big screen outing as sitting in the dark with no distractions seemed like too much, so I waited until a friend had a copy and headed to hers to watch it in a more friendly setting. Once I arrived at her house though, she informed me that she’d decided to make it ‘like the cinema’ with all the lights out and no talking. My reputation on the line, I feigned enthusiasm and sat down to watch what would turn out to be the film that scared me as an adult, more than any other. Afterwards, this newly single living-alone horror freak slept with the lights on for 3 nights!

An American Werewolf In London 1981

This is the first horror film I ever watched. I don’t remember being overly scared when I watched it but later, as my sister and I huddled in bed, our parents watched it. The sounds of screams and growls etc scared me far more than when I’d watched it during the day with light streaming in the windows and toys to distract me. After the ‘family massacre’ scene I refused to watch The Muppets again, after the ‘demon through the window scene’ I refused to open my curtains from the front; worst of all, I refused to go pretty much anywhere without my mum or sister for years after this night. I’m sure my mum regretted letting me watch it!


Black Christmas 1974

This was a movie I’d put on to watch with my film school friends Matt and Nathan. We were at Nathans house and he’d fallen asleep on the couch. Matt and I watched it around 4am, stretched on the floor laughing at the funny lines until it got scarier and scarier and we drew silent. The eye through the door hinge imagery is something I will never forget. This one still manages to make me uneasy, even though I watch it nearly every christmas now as a holiday tradition.


Wolf Creek 2005

It takes 45 minutes before anything horrifying happens in this film, that time is spent building the characters and allowing you to enjoy their easy camaraderie and involve yourself in their bright promised future. And then the nightmare starts with screams and wailing heard in the distance, your imagination working overtime to fill in the gaps. The subtlety works here, it tells you just enough, shows you just enough for you to see the magnitude of the true terror awaiting these poor people you’ve come to care about. You watch, knowing its based on true things, that bleak feeling of no escape, it works almost too well. Its a film I cant shake for days afterwards, my mind returning to those screams, that raw fear you can taste like metallic shavings on your tongue.


The Exorcist 3 1990

I don’t remember much about this film, I think it was good. I remember it had George C Scott in it but that’s about it. Except for the two scenes that scared me. This is another film watched with Matt and Nathan in 1996 and I remember afterwards sitting in Matts old VW trying to get Nathan to go inside his house and him being too freaked to get out the car. We were thinking about that old lady crawling across the ceiling like a decrepit spider, and we had worked ourselves into a frenzy. Later, when I was alone, the scene that had scared me even more made its way into my forebrain and never left – the walking statue scene. I cant claim this whole film scared me, because as I said, I barely remember it, but that scene haunts me to this day, 25 years later, and not a month goes by when I don’t recall it at least once and get a chill. Now that’s an effective horror scene!

When A Stranger Calls 1979

Didn’t this film scare everyone? I remember the trailer was just footage of cinema audiences screaming, a surprisingly effective advertisement for horror fans – wanna see something really scary, kids? This one is like seeing your nightmares on the screen – Is there someone in your house? Is there someone in your bed? The answer in this film is Yes. When the most innocuous of actions are made to feel threatening, such as babysitting for that nice couple down the street, dinner with your husband, or going to sleep next to your partner, than nowhere is safe. This one plays into those little ordinary terrors we have, and amps them to 11. “Have you checked the children?”

Honourable mentions –

The Changeling 1980

At The Devils Door (Home) 2014

The Blackcoats Daughter (February) 2015

The Pact 2012

The Descent 2005

28 Days Later 2002

Hereditary 2018

A Quiet Place Part II

I really loved ‘A Quiet Place’, ranking it as #6 in my best of the year list in 2018 and scoring it a 9/10. When a sequel was scheduled for release in the early months of 2020, I was excited and had a posse of friends as eager as I was to pick up where the last left off. The trailer for the sequel showed some flashbacks to how the entire story began for the close-knit family the Abbots, about whom the original concerns itself with. These flashbacks gave me some trepidation, mostly due to the fact that the lack of backstory was one of the things I enjoyed about the original, but mostly I was excited.

Then covid hit, and 2020 was a write-off with regards to movies, and my excitement had to be unceremoniously put back on the shelf. Finally, this year, it was released.

Starting, essentially, from the moment the first movie ended, this sequel focuses on the Abbots’ fraught encounters with other survivors of the ‘alien apocalypse’. Before this, however, is the aforementioned flashback scene, where we learn how the alien invasion played out in their small town. This allowed us to see writer/director John Krasinski reprise his role as dearly departed patriarch of the family, Lee. This was, for me, easily the tensest sequence of the film, and so the only way from here is down. Its a shame that the strongest part of the hour and a half runtime is in the first ten minutes, but there we are. For a reason I’m not sure is stated (maybe I missed it?) the family decides to leave the safety of their farmhouse. They run into Emmett (the always great Cillian Murphy) who has survived on his own after losing his family during the invasion. He’s a neighbour from ‘Before’, and so they shelter with him for a time, whilst son Marcus (Noah Jupe) mends from a horrible injury he sustained on the perimeter of Emmett’s hideout. After stumbling onto a radio signal one night, deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) determines its time to find the source of it and use it to tell others how to defeat the aliens (a nifty trick they discovered in the first instalment – feedback from her cochlear implant destabilises them and makes them vulnerable to gunshots).

This decision creates a splintering of the family unit, when she sets off accompanied by a reluctant Emmett whilst mum Evelyn (Emily Blunt) stays home with her newborn baby and the recovering Marcus. There are dangers to be encountered by both pairings, and new threats in the world of the survivors; these encounters and threats make up the rest of the movie.


Well, in all honesty, I was disappointed. For me, this film was a pale and anaemic follow on from a film that felt rich with nuance and care. The thoughtful touches placed throughout the original are pushed aside for some rather obvious set-pieces and scares. The original had me so tense I almost couldn’t stand it, this one barely raised my pulse above a resting rate. The first was was one of the rare horrors that actually made me cry, but this film really made me feel nothing. One of the best things about the original was the lack of ‘stupid choices’; people acted in ways that made sense; but in this one I found myself rolling my eyes at some of the decisions made, seemingly just to move the plot to the next sequence.

I also found it troubling how conservative it felt in the script machinations to create a nuclear family; why was Evelyn not allowed to be ‘head of the family’? Why did they again need a patriarch to make those tough decisions and be a saviour whilst the marginalised mother gets to literally stay home with the baby? That didn’t sit real well with me.

Acting wise, everyone was great as expected, but young Noah Jupe managed to out-act them all. That kid’s gunna be a star!


Perhaps its unfair to compare this to the original as there is no way this could ever feel as fresh due to the audience’s familiarity with the subject; but then that beggars the question – if it had nothing new to say, why make it in the first place? Ultimately, given how tightly woven the two stories/films are, it really is impossible to separate them and review this one without referencing the original. The film itself feels unfinished and superfluous, unable to stand on its own and with no complete story arc, like an awkward middle sibling.


The infuriating ending allows for another sequel but I hope they don’t make it, one cash grab is enough.

What a bummer.

5/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpdDN9d9Jio
a quiet place part II trailer

Army Of The Dead

Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of The Dead remake is arguably one of the best horror remakes, not to mention one of the best zombie movies made. I say arguably because many purists believe the original 1978 Romero classic can never be bested, and should not have been remade in the first place. I however, am not in this camp. Having seen the original on the big screen in LA a few years ago I do feel its big cheesiness and fluorescent paint-like blood effects didn’t stand up to scrutiny; and so whist I respect its status in the annals of horror classics, I don’t really rate it as a movie. Sacrilege to some I know!

Some 16 years later Snyder is back with a new zombie effort – Army of The Dead. Opening frugally on its own backstory, we quickly learn how the zombie outbreak occurred, how it overtook Vegas and how ‘Zombie Town’ was effectively walled off from the assorted Las Vegas survivors; this is all before the opening credits.

The meat of the story concerns a sprawling cast of intrepid scrappers, gathered together by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward, ostensibly for a heist in zombie town. The story goes that when Vegas was effectively shut down, a few millionaires lost access to their riches, and one such mogul is hoping to hire some mercenaries to infiltrate a casino deep in the heart of zombie town and retrieve said millions. There is added pressure however when plans to nuke Vegas and eliminate the zombie threat is announced; and so the countdown begins.

This ragtag group is comprised of Scott, his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro), various tough guys/gals, YouTube sensation Guzman and his partner Chambers, tracker The Coyotye, sadistic guard Bart and more. Interestingly, even with so many characters they do all manage to make an impact, perhaps that’s down to the ambitious runtime of 2.5 hours. This length allows us to spend time with each character before the action gets going, but once we are in the zombie zone it doesn’t let up. There are sacrifices to make, safes to crack and bombs to dodge; before we head to a largely satisfying finale, though I felt the last few shots were disappointingly ‘as expected’.

I didn’t care for the whole ‘evolved zombie’ sideline they had going here, and rolled my eyes at some of the ‘alpha and his wife’ antics, but overall the storyline was hugely entertaining. Sure the daughters reasons for estrangement seem weird and nonsensical (‘you didn’t spend time with me so now I will not allow you to spend time with me’?) and the chances of there being a German ace safecracker in Vegas are slim, but any film featuring Garret Dillahunt and Theo Rossi has me there front and centre.

It would be easy to pick holes in this movie – the heist itself was a bit of a washout, the zombie melodrama was on the nose, the CGI was not always the most convincing, there were maybe too many characters, there was far too much slow motion gunplay for this little pacifists heart, and it wasn’t in any way scary; but so what. I enjoyed it, and for all the fuss about its runtime, I never once looked at my watch.

In fact, I’d watch it again, and for a two and a half hour movie about zombies, that’s pretty good going in my book.

7.5/10

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

As anyone who knows me is likely aware, I’m no fan of the conjuring movies. Well, to put it more accurately, I’m no fan of what I feel they represent for the horror genre. The films themselves are well made and acted albeit pedestrian and devoid of actual scares. This latest entry follows the same tired obvious formula of the Warren’s battling some sort of supernatural entity. 


Beginning with real-life ghost busters The Warren’s assisting in the exorcism of a possessed child (though they aren’t ordained so…?) we are witness to body contortions and a lot of spittle. Teenage Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) picks up young possessed David and yells over and over at him “take me instead”; but even though everyone’s attention is on the child apparently no one but Ed (Patrick Wilson) hears it.
Arne goes on to murder an incredibly annoying character who we had only met five minutes before and the Warren’s convince him to use demonic possession as his defence in court.
Lots of exposition, flashbacks, and portentous dialogue follows, as Ed and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) work on finding evidence to support their claim.
Arne, fighting his literal demons in prison, takes on the pasty white complexion of a corpse, but is never attended to by a doctor, the prison chaplain just slips him some holy water and tells him god believes in self-defence.
The Warren’s do a little side crime-solving and morgue bothering as well as reminiscing about how they met -aww.
There’s a convoluted story involving occultists, satanic alters, curses and conveniently ‘found’ ancient books that spell out exactly what to do. It all leads to an unfocused and saccharine ending that does a true disservice to the real life story; not to mention that anyone hoping for some courtroom drama will also find themselves sorely disappointed.


This is tediously overlong and over egged, a fussy and unengaging movie that feels like a stretched short story. There is no need for this to be two hours long. At all.

The screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (what a mouthful!) and James Wan is hugely derivative and oddly flat. There’s never any real sense of danger and it steals liberally from many better horror films, most notably The Exorcist 1 & 3, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. There are things here lifted whole cloth from other movies, that line about ‘believing in the devil because we believe in God in the court room’? re-purposed from a similar sentiment in Miracle on 34th Street; that hallway transformation jump scare? Lifted in its entirety from The Prodigy, which was out less than two years ago.


To be fair, it would be hard these days to make a film about exorcism that doesn’t harken back to other movies, but the blatancy does bother me a lot. The direction by Michael Chaves (of the forgettable The Curse of LA Llorona) is perfunctory though he does manage to telegraph the jumps from a mile off and overstays in some scenes.
The acting from both Wilson and Farmiga is of course great, they are very good at what they do; but I hope they don’t make more of these, both actors deserve better.




I am reminded of a quote from Ari Aster when discussing his motivations for making the sublimely horrific Hereditary – he wanted to make a horror like they used to, one that would really hurt for years to come; essentially, he wanted to fuck you up. The Conjuring films’ only ambitions appear to be separating the audience from their money via a slick machine of cheap jump scares and a recognisable brand. This isn’t the only film to operate in this way, but The Conjuring has created an entire universe behind it and I for one, resent it.
Watch something better.


4/10

Spiral: From The Book of Saw

“What do you think of the Saw movies?”, I get asked this a fair amount, being the horror fan that I am. Usually those asking are in favour of the series and so I am likely to reply that I enjoyed the first one but there is a law of diminishing returns that applies here.

Thats not the whole truth, I think they kinda suck. The first one I got three quarters through, felt bored and was going to turn it off until I read online that there was a great twist and so I stuck it out because I really love an unexpected ending. The blood was still fake-looking and the acting sub-par, but I agree the ending was a masterstroke in audience manipulation. A solid 6/10 I thought, mostly because of the ending. The rest of the series I think became an exercise in grotesque grossness and silliness, convoluted rubbish that was slowly eating itself. I also despise James Wan’s efforts and the sight of his name on the credits of any movie is apt to give me hives. Personally I blame him and his Conjuring universe (toothless horror wannabe’s) for the homogenisation of horror films. Thank goodness, we have moved past that era of white-bread banality.

The reason I have brought all that up is that I have no intention of talking about the previous films in this review. This is a new iteration of an ongoing franchise but it seems keen to tun a new leaf and I am going to honour that. Frankly its easy to do so as this film features none of the more ‘iconic’ aspects of the original series, ie theres no Amanda, no Tobin Bell, and no Jigsaw.

Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock, occasionally breaking out from being ‘Chris Rock’ but generally bringing his schtick with him) is lumbered with a new bushy-tailed partner on the same day someone starts killing Police officers in unimaginably gruesome ways. Zeke is disliked by the department for ‘ratting out’ his previous partner as a dirty cop, and spends his time humouring his ageing former-Captain father Marcus (a tired but still respectable Samual L Jackson) and fighting with current captain Angie (Marisol Nichols) to take the case.

Wet-behind-the-ears new partner William (the always good Max Minghella, on the precipice of being a star) is about to get the education of a lifetime helping Banks crack the case, if they can survive long enough to do so.

Saw 2 director Darren Lynn Bousman takes the reigns here, and I liked the grungy 70’s police-procedural look he gave the film , it lended some of the more outlandish plot points a much needed element of grittiness lacking in most of the series. He also lovingly filmed the gruesome set pieces in graphic detail which the gore-hounds should appreciate.

Acting-wise its a mixed bag with some bit players stepping up and delivering, whist others are as wooden as a bag of pegs. Unfortunately one of the least convincing performances comes from Nichols as Angie, her demeanour is never once convincing as a tough inner-city police captain.

This was never going to win any awards and that ok because my expectations really weren’t that high, and maybe because I am not a Saw fan, my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, but apart from the lapses in acting quality I felt it was a solid police/horror; which admittedly is a small sub-genre indeed.

The element of comedy in a film that is not a horror/comedy was good, and, as in It 1 & 2, I enjoy some levity wth my thrills, so that worked well for me.

All in all, I enjoyed it; I laughed, I cringed, and the storyline worked.

But please no more!

6/10