Character and Claustrophobia
Some of the best horror movies know how to take their time, to simmer at a low heat for a long time before tossing you into a raging inferno. The real trick is how you make that simmering process sing. The Autopsy of Jane Doe sings this particular song as well as any other movie. André Øvredal‘s follow-up to Trollhunter takes place mostly in a single autopsy room, where a skilled coroner and his medical assistant son literally dig into the corpse of a young woman who died under mysterious circumstances. It takes a long time for them to discover the truth about this dead body and when they do, the film gets, to use the scientific expression, scary as shit. But up until that point, the movie works a different kind of magic. As the two leads, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are nothing short of wonderful, with their dynamic feeling as lived-in as any other pairing I saw in 2016. And most importantly, the movie never forgets that these two are wickedly intelligent men doing a job they’re very good at. Before things go to hell, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a thrilling look at the process and purpose of an autopsy, with two fascinating and charismatic figures acting as tour guides.
However, the slow burn of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is running the 50-meter dash when compare to the slow burn of The Invitation, Karyn Kusama‘s agonizing (in the best possible way!) exploration of social dynamics at a party gone…right? Wrong? You’ll have to stick all the way to the final stretch to see where this movie goes and what it does with its slow, but never tedious, set-up. For the bulk of its running time, you’re at a slightly awkward dinner party hosted by a woman who is seeing her friends (and ex-husband) for the first time in quite a while. Where she has been, and how she met her new husband, will be explored. The purpose of the get-together will be revealed. And whether there’s something sinister going on or not is the question you’ll be asking yourself in every scene as Kusama ratchets up the tension in even the most innocuous moment. And then it all culminates in one of the greatest closing shots you will ever see.
While both of those films limit their characters to a single, inescapable location, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the most claustrophobic of the bunch. Set almost entirely in an underground bunker built by (and lorded over) by John Goodman‘s Howard Stambler, Dan Trachtenberg‘s thriller spends the bulk of its running time slowly confirming every Worst Case Scenario. Yes, Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s Michelle is trapped down here. Yes, the world outside really has ended (more or less). Yes, Howard is not a well man. Yes, there really are…well, the third act should be discovered yourself. For its first two-thirds, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a character-driven thriller that sets the thematic stage for the left-field final act, with Michelle rising to the occasion against an all-too-human monster. It’s a disquieting crowd-pleaser of the highest magnitude.
Compared to most of 2016’s horror movies, The Conjuring 2 is a blockbuster. Expensive and glossy and full of CGI-powered set pieces that cost more than entire movies, James Wan‘s sequel to his 2013 masterpiece (yeah, I’ll use the m-word) is a very, very good haunted house movie that follows its director’s modus operandi to the T: a few minutes of unbearable tension released by an effective jump scare that leaves you screaming and chuckling with appreciation. Rinse, repeat. Wan has gotten his formula down by now and it remains a pleasure to watch him operate in the genre that made his name.
However, The Conjuring 2‘s real power comes not from its scares or its creepy monsters (especially that “Cooked Man”), but from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson‘s lead performances. In Ed and Lorraine Warren, Farmiga, Wilson, and Wan have created one of modern cinema’s great married couples, two people who are very much in love even as they make a living fighting ghosts and demons. They’re a stable force in a world gone awry, a husband and wife who actively work to improve their relationship, communicate, and find time to remind one another that they still care. Is there room this kind of sweet sentiment in a horror movie? You betcha. The best scene in The Conjuring 2 isn’t one of the many scares – it’s when Ed grabs a guitar, breaks out his Elvis impression, and makes it very clear that the lyrics to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” apply to his dear Lorraine.
A Good Old Fashioned tale of Terror
Is it a little disappointing that Blair Witch isn’t an experimental exercise in dread like the original The Blair Witch Project? Maybe. Perhaps. But at the same time, it was probably the right choice for director Adam Wingard to avoid trying to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time and just go for something completely different. Blair Witch wants to do its own thing and it does that thing very well: it’s a roller coaster, a first-person thrill ride through a theme park haunted house that spares no expense. It’s a white knuckle 89 minutes that commands you in the moment…even if it won’t replicate the deep psychological grooves that the original movie left in your brain. But still, any horror movie that gets the adrenaline pumping is nothing to scoff at.
Jaume Collet-Serra also knows a thing or two about adrenaline and The Shallows is a hoot, a shark-sploitation tale of a surfer who finds herself stranded on a tiny rocky 300 meters from the beach while a hungry Carcharodon carcharias circles. The film’s unenlightened view of sharks will surely (and honestly, rightfully) ruffle the feathers of more enlightened audiences, but that’s a small price to pay to enjoy one of 2016’s more outrageous and bombastic horror movies. Even when the film’s reach exceeds its grasp/budget, the style and ambition on display here are delightful and its willingness to abuse the hell out of Blake Lively (who turns in a game and compelling performance) is as effective as it is shocking. It only took seven years, but Collet-Serra has finally made another movie as wacky and entertaining and absurd as Orphan.
There isn’t much nuance in Lights Out. It’s attempt to use its central monster as a metaphor for mental illness feels half-baked at best and it becomes increasingly laughable every time the lead character stumbles across a literal mountain of exposition to explain what’s going on. However, director David F. Sandberg‘s film (based on his own short) works where it counts: it’s perfectly freaky. The central conceit, that the main characters must battle a creature that can only manifest in darkness and shadow, is an effective way to harness our inherent fear of the dark and the various ways the monster navigates patches of light is disconcerting and effective.
And that brings us to one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016. Despite that January release date, those abysmal trailers, and the fact that director William Brent Bell‘s The Devil Inside is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life, The Boy is a delight, an atmospheric, strange, and oddly compelling tale of an isolated mansion, a nanny, the possibly haunted doll she’s been hired to watch. While the big twist is a carbon copy of a superior, non-Hollywood horror movie (whose identity would instantly spoil The Boy‘s surprises), it just plain works, damn it.