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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Overlooked Films of 2017 (January 2017)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2017 was a very good year for cinema in general and for horror films in particular.

While critically-acclaimed box-office monsters like Andy Muschietti’s It and Jordan Peele’s Get Out rightly received a lot of attention, and quieter fare like Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes At Night, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Julia Ducournau’s Raw also earned some well-deserved accolades, a number of other interesting flicks may have slipped through the cracks.

To this end, instead of the typical best-of-the-year roundup, here’s a selection of ten movies you may have overlooked.

Thelma (Dir. Joachim Trier)

Much to its benefit, this well-directed Norwegian film, centered on a quietly compelling performance by Eili Harboe as the titular young woman, plays out less as a horror thriller than it does a coming-of-age drama. Thelma leaves the security of her home, and what appears to be a strict religious upbringing, to study at Oslo. Her new experiences there, and her budding feelings for a fellow student, appear to be connected with a series of physical seizures. In turn these lead to convulsive insights into Thelma’s own family history. The pacing is slow, and the resolution perhaps too pat, but this beautifully staged existential chiller is a notable investigation into what it means to be different.

Hounds of Love (Dir. Ben Young)

If an Aussie director with the impeccable craftsmanship of David Fincher made a non-histrionic version of Natural Born Killers, and decided to set it in Perth in 1987, the result might be something like the hypnotic Hounds of Love. Emma Booth and Stephen Curry provide tremendous performances as a pair of murderous kidnappers who may have reeled in more than they bargained for when they snatch up the independently-minded teen Vicki, heart-rendingly brought to life by Ashleigh Cummings. Lighting, editing, photography, set design, and the use of music conspire to create a riveting thriller oozing with psycho-sexual tension.

A Dark Song (Dir. Liam Gavin)

Occultist magic and deep personal loss inform this minimalist Irish film about a middle-aged English woman, played by Catherine Walker, who rents a house in Wales and hires a man named Joseph (Steve Oram) to perform an intricate, months-long ritual for--and with--her. Will the conjuring work, or is she being duped? Dripping with atmosphere and claustrophobia, completely unfaltering in its depiction of the mindsets necessary to experience the otherworldly, this mesmerizing picture is the Rocky of incantatory movies.

Gerald’s Game (Dir. Mike Flanagan)

We live in a golden age of Stephen King adaptations, wherein each new year brings us several film and TV series versions of some of his most beloved stories—and even the not-so-loved ones too. Enter Gerald’s Game, based on a novel published in 1992, about a couple who head off to their quiet Western Maine cabin for a relaxing weekend of kinky handcuff sex. Like the previous entry in this list, this film is a two-person show (well, almost; Henry Thomas is definitely memorable as Tom, and may be the film’s creepiest creature), in which Bruce Greenwood and Carla Cugino play convincing versions of themselves and not-themselves. There’s not much original here—cue the solar eclipse from the excellent Dolores Claiborne, a non-rabid version of Cujo, and so on—, and the ending may feel contrived, but Flanagan puts his genre chops to good use, dramatically and sensitively bringing to life the characters’ thoughts and memories.

The Limehouse Golem (Dir. Juan Carlos Medina)

Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is the source material for this slick and smart, though at times confusing, gaslight slasher. Bill Nighy plays Inspector John Kildare, whose investigation into a series of grisly murders in the Limehouse community of Victorian London appears to be thwarted both by his superiors and the suspects on his list (which include the real-life historical figures Karl Marx and George Gissing, in addition to the lesser-known Dan Leno, aka George Wild Galvin). The period detail and robust editing help ground a somewhat labyrinthine plot, elegantly constructed around the notion of audience v performer.

The Dark Tapes (Dir. Michael McQuown, Vincent J. Guastini)

As long as they don’t have too many chapters and thus feel overly gimmicky, I’m partial to anthology films (Southbound, for instance, made my 2016 best-of list), and the idea of an anthology movie comprised of found footage piqued my interest. This frightfest dishes out four main horrific entrees, plus one clever “wraparound” appetizer that doubles as dessert. Strong ingredients include intelligent writing and clever twists. Less savory: obnoxious sound design and hokey effects--even in the scenes when they weren’t meant to be.

Phoenix Forgotten (Dir. Justin Barber)

Early info about this project—an alien-abduction teen thriller based on a purported UFO sighting in Phoenix, Arizona in 1997, produced, among others, by Ridley Scott—had me hooked, but the film’s terrible poster and shaky-cam trailer turned me off from seeing it at the theater. Ultimately I’m glad I overcame my reluctance, because the first hour, which plays like (and explicitly references) the X-Files, is surprisingly involving and affecting. Rather than a straight found-footage chronicle, Sophie’s investigation into the disappearance of her brother Josh and two of his teen friends decades earlier is presented as a documentary-in-the-making, providing much needed gravitas (and image stabilization). When the film focuses on the shattering impact of the teens’ loss upon their families, and the frustration and difficulty inherent in trying to reconstruct the past in order to solve a mystery, all is well. The last twenty or so minutes, though, are a bust.

Leatherface (Dir. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo)

Time to crank up the trusty old chainsaw. This prequel to the legendary 1974 classic, unbelievably the eighth film in the franchise, got my attention by casting of Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorf. Having sat through this blood-spattered gonzo-fest masquerading as both tribute and post-modern recontextualization, do I regret my decision? Taylor and Dorf weren’t in many scenes, but they did chew up the scenery with gusto--and that introductory birthday sequence is priceless. Other isolated hijinks are enthralling in a kind of alternately revolting and hammy way, but they’re stitched together with tiresome threads, and I found the framing of the film’s shots annoyingly tight and close throughout. I think Leatherface is definitely better than some of the franchise’s other helpings, but that’s the kind of backhanded compliment that makes me wonder why I’m including it on this list. Oh yeah, that’s right, Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorf.

Okja (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

This near-future parable-cum-corporate-satire-animal-rights-heist-sci-fi-romp about the relationship between a young girl named Mija (in an excellent performance by Ahn Seo-hyun) and her genetically-engineered superpig Okja shouldn’t work, and maybe it doesn’t completely. But it’s a daring, rollicking experiment in multi-toned storytelling, powered by a talented cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal (so annoying—I think on purpose) and many others. Individual scenes are engaging if often absurd, and Okja is appropriately lovable. My main problems are the film’s consistent over-writing and annoyingly incessant music. Though the conventional wisdom is to not cast your pearls before swine, you should consider making an exception for Okja.

1922 (Dir. Zak Hilditch)

Here’s another one of those Stephen King adaptations I was alluding to, this time tapping into a an eponymous novella of recent vintage about a Nebraska farmer with murderous plans for his wife. In short: a bad person does something bad and bad things happen. If that’s too reductionist, maybe this is fairer: a man poisoned by years of struggle and a failed relationship gives in to the most bitter and pernicious impulses within, irrevocably destroying several lives in the process. I’ve seen great reviews of Thomas Jane’s central performance, but to be honest I found myself enjoying it in a mostly theoretical way, and preferred the work of his wife (Molly Parker) and child of the corn (Dylan Schmid). Fortunately the film’s pacing, writing and character development kept me engaged. There’s a certain brooding beauty in the film’s unrelenting grimness.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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