Away from the needless remakes and crud blockbusters, 2011 was actually a very decent year for the genre. A number of movies narrowly avoided missing out on a place in the final top ten and it seems a shame to deny them a mention here. Wake Wood, the least publicised but by far the best of the Hammer Horror revival, was a visceral and jolting contemporary spin on the much recycled “Monkey’s Paw” story. Tucker And Dale Vs Evil offered a superbly inventive comic reversal of all those chased-through-the-woods-and-raped-or-generally-fucked-up-by-crazed-rednecks movies. Dick Maas returned to form with delightful retro 80’s style slasher Saint, while The Tunnel (uniquely available as a free download before its DVD release) overcome its obvious similarities to The Descent to be the creepiest of the various found-footage horror movies of the year. The very different Kidnapped and Julia’s Eyes showed Spanish horror on strong form, while the best mainstream sequel of the year was far and away the ghoulishly inventive Final Destination 5 which opened with an elaborate bridge disaster better than anything in the CG-dominated $200 million summer blockbusters. The droll Rubber, the haunting low-key sci-fi Never Let Me Go, highly creepy documentary Cropsey and monster mash Mega Python Vs Gatoroid were all hugely entertaining in very different ways. For the record, no one remembers how the Python and Gatoroid fared but the battle between 80’s pop sirens Tiffany (huge tits crammed into too-small outfits, acting talent on a par with Julian Sands) and Debbie Gibson (deluded enough to still dress like she’s 18, acting abilities on a par with Tiffany) was one of the most fabulous movie moments since an 80 foot monster snake gave a girl oral sex in Boa Vs Python.
10 .Super (2011) Eternal movie / television nebbish Rainn Wilson has a tailor made part in James Gunn’s witty and wonderful subversion of the superhero genre. He’s a loser diner cook whose improbably attractive wife (Liv Tyler) falls in with Kevin Bacon’s drug-dealing crowd, an event which inspires him (along with The Finger Of God and some Manga-style tentacles) to reinvent himself as “The Crimson Bolt”. He has no special powers so tends to bludgeon paedophiles, queue jumpers and callous vandals to death with everyday weapons. Gunn – who made the similarly underrated Slither - started his career at Troma, which explains the array of bad taste gags, surrealistic visuals, weird sexual scenes, Lloyd Kaufman cameo and bouts of genuinely startling graphic violence. The cast is incredible (Rob Zombie plays the Voice Of God and Ellen Page is superb as Wilson’s almost psychotically enthusiastic self-styled sidekick) and the movie refuses to settle down into a well-behaved spoof. Contains at least one shocking end for a loveable character and ending with one of the most unexpectedly moving final shots of the movie year.
9 .Bereavement (2011) A few years ago writer-director Stevan Mena made the suspenseful low-budget retro-slasher Malevolence and Bereavement works as both a stand-alone picture and an unrelentingly grim prequel. The psychopath at the centre of Malevolence, Martin Bristol, is a ten year old boy at the outset of Bereavement. Abducted from his back garden by sadistic weirdo Brett Rickaby he becomes an unwitting apprentice as Rickaby tortures and kills kidnapped women. Enjoy the pleasant images of comely heroine Daddario squeezed into an arousing vest top and the easy going charisma of Michael Biehn (as her dad), because the rest of Bereavement is designed to make you uncomfortable. If the plot doesn’t always ring true (Rickaby eludes capture despite driving around in a van that screams “Abduction Vehicle” and bludgeoning women in public during the day) and the torture scenes seem old-hat in the post-Hostel horror genre, Mena is a finer director than many of his peers and this well-acted picture is rife with impressive widescreen compositions. The nature of the story means an unusual – and genuinely disturbing – emphasis on a child’s terrorisation, and, after an hour or so of relatively restrained unpleasantries, it bows out with one of the slasher genre’s cruellest finales. The closing bloodshed calls to mind key moments from video-nasty era fodder like Pieces and Nightmares In A Damaged Brain, providing a suitably harrowing end to this skilful feel-bad picture.
8 .Stakeland (2011) In a post-apocalyptic vampire-dominated world where the U.S. President is dead, currency is redundant and the Middle East has ceased to exist, a mismatched pair of survivors head off in search of the possibly mythical “New Eden”. Director Jim Mickle’s breakthrough movie following the promising, modest Mulberry Street does a remarkable job of making vampires a potent, horrific source of menace in the era of Twilight and has some extraordinarily evocative images of destroyed homes and people. Its harsh tone set by the merciless killing of a baby in the first few minutes, the movie channels both Romero and Cormac McCarthy as the vampires become almost irrelevant while good people die horribly and hope is harshly snuffed out at regular intervals. Jeff Grace’s beautiful original score accompanies an uncommonly poignant and human horror movie, strong on character and eerie end-of-the-line ambience.
7 .Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) Fulfilling the insane promise of director Jason Eisener’s demented short Treevenge, this feature length extension of a faux-Grindhouse trailer was easily the best of 2011’s various trying-too-hard wannabe-cult horror pictures. Aided by Karim Hussein’s endlessly inventive cinematography, the vibe of Hobois close to 80’s gem Street Trash and elevated by the presence of a tremendous Rutger Hauer in the title role, left for dead in a dumpster and mowing down scum in an unspecified urban Hell. Hauer gets to say lines like “You child-molesting shit-licker” as he blasts holes in paedophiles and junkies, while Eisener’s fine line in sicko humour extends to a show-stopping sequence in which a bus full of screaming school kids burn to death to the tune of “Disco Inferno”. The movie is never more than a few minutes away from a disembowelment, a castration or a scantily clad babe showered in gore, but Eisener never lets it become merely a one-note gore cartoon, and Hauer’s presence is off the chain: the sequence in which he explains to two new-born babies what a shit future awaits them, perfectly encapsulates the pathos and gritty wit he brings to his best role since The Hitcher.
6 .Insidious (2011) In a year where Hollywood’s idea of a horror movie was the smug, useless destroyer of Wes Craven’s credibility named Scream 4, director James Wan went back to his indie roots to remind us he made the subtlest, creepiest Saw movie. The first half of Insidious, a gore-free homage to Poltergeist and The Entity (complete with Barbara Hershey), is outstanding : all ominously ticking Grandfather clocks, figures in darkened bedrooms, shadows, slowly opening doors, creaking steps and a superbly used widescreen frame designed to make us look for things that (usually) aren’t there. When a second half twist turns this apparent haunted house flick into a conceptually elaborate trip into the realm of “The Further”, there’s a high “Yeah, right!” factor that, along with a pair of goofy only-in-the-movies parapsychologists, almost derails the whole movie. Wan, however, sustains the dread-soaked atmosphere right up to the marvellously sour 70’s horror-influenced punch line, and along the way came up with the best single shock moment of 2011’s horror output. Trivia note : this isn’t the first movie to make uber-creepy use of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” – check out pervy slasher movie Blood Harvest (1986).
5 .I saw the Devil (2011) The director of one of the finest 21st century ghost stories (A Tale Of Two Sisters) gave us this nihilistic entry in the post-Se7en cycle of serial killer movies in which the ostensible “hero” is dragged down to the moral depths of the predatory sicko he is tracking. When his fiancée is dismembered by a prolific hammer-wielding psychopath, National Intelligence agent Byung-hun Lee routinely bludgeons the genitals of people who might be (but aren’t) the culprit before fitting the real madman with a tracking device allowing him to follow – and torture – his nemesis. “Revenge is for the movies…that bastard is a psycho…” Steadfastly refusing to offer any conventional movie catharsis and punishing its audience with harsh – yet never gratuitous – brutality, Jee woon-Kim’s brilliantly crafted descent into the abyss features one of the most hateful cinematic serial killers in recent memory and never loses its suffocating sense of dread despite a hefty running time. After considerable bloodshed and a remarkably suspenseful climactic confrontation, it culminates with an emotionally shattering outpouring grief defining the hero’s movie-long mission as a futile attempt to erode his pain.
4 .Kill List (2011) If Dead Cert was enough to make you lose all faith in home-grown genre pictures, Wake Wood and the mesmerising Kill List made you realise British horror could still surprise and terrify. Ben Wheatley’s movie (very well scripted by his wife Amy Jump) unfolds against an uncomfortably real backdrop of recession and strained relationships and takes a devastating about-turn into the realm of 70’s-style occult horror pictures in its latter stages. Before some bursts of cringe-inducing extreme violence and an all-out horror finale, Wheatley displays a knack for making mundane scenes of anti-hero Neil Maskell – dragged back into his old job as a contract killer and assigned to rub out some of society’s less savoury characters – brushing his teeth or playing with his young son inexplicably disturbing. This hot-headed family man, traumatised by an earlier Kiev-based assignment and struggling in the domestic environment, reaches the point of no return as he works his way through a mysterious “kill-list”. Although lent considerable warmth and humour by Michael Smiley’s witty performance as Maskell’s loyal friend, this ends up following a similar narrative path to A Serbian Film, delivering one of the harshest murder sequences in recent memory (you’ll know which one) and an uncompromisingly downbeat Wicker Man inspired finale.
3 .The Woman (2011) Conceived by writer Jack Ketchum and director Lucky McKee as an unofficial third entry in the gruesome backwoods horror trilogy began by “The Off Season”, The Woman (released simultaneously as a book and a movie) riffs on the familiar modern American horror theme of us all being savages at heart regardless of how pleasant and privileged our surroundings may be. Like Ketchum’s earlier The Girl Next Door it revolves around an extended scenario of a woman held captive in a threatening family environment. Gun-happy arrogant court officer Sean Bridgers leads an unhappy middle class family life with subservient housewife Angela Bettis and his three kids. He chances upon a wild woman (the astonishing Pollyanna McIntosh) catching her food in a stream, and takes her home to show her some suburban hospitality. This, of course, means chaining her to a wall in the family cellar and treating her as a pet as part of a deluded mission to make her obedient and “civilised”. As the movie slowly lures its audience into an escalating domestic horror-show, we get the kind of upsetting physical and psychological horror that has become Ketchum’s trademark, including a brilliantly edited rape sequence that cruelly cuts to a sobbing Bettis (heart-breaking) alone in the marital bed. Some of the most harrowing stuff is implied, but the bloodbath climax delivers heart-munching, child-killing carnage and, true to Ketchum’s nihilistic outlook, involves the destruction of characters both odious and sympathetic.
2 .Red State (2011) Although the playful dirty talk at the outset between three school friends planning a three-way with a faceless internet slut suggests writer-director Kevin Smith is in familiar vulgar-comic territory, Red State soon delivers on its pre-release directorial promise of being a “nasty-ass horror movie with few redeeming characters”, and then some. Fire-and-brimstone Pastor Michael Parks dominates the Five Points Trinity Church, vehemently protesting homosexuality and convinced the End of Days is imminent. This two-dozen-strong cult of gun-toting nut-jobs drug and cage the three lads after they meet with their shop-worn “slut”, and an increasingly horrific Waco-style siege is the end result. Long-time B movie character actor Parks is remarkably hateful and terrifying at the core of Smith’s characteristically witty but unusually angry movie. The second half, in which John Goodman provides welcome humanity and humour as the veteran in charge of infiltrating the siege, turns into a well done action movie from Hell, with bouts of shocking violence and brutal exits for prominent characters. Starting as an insidiously creepy horror movie, by the end it has turned into a distressing story of religious extremists and the disturbing way post-9/11 America deals with them. Its confidence with shifting tones is best reflected by an equal parts frightening / comical climactic “Rapture”.
1 .The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) (2011) The original Human Centipede, essentially a fairly old-fashioned mad-scientist horror yarn with an old-school villain who just happened to favour torture-movie-style experiments, was relatively inexplicit – something writer / director Tom Six deliberately exploits with a sequel that shows everything its predecessor implied. Most impressive, however, is that he refuses to let the movie descend into a Troma-esque shit-spraying sicko comedy, instead offering a compelling self-reflexive commentary on the original movie and its reception while crafting a genuinely uneasy movie experience that stands alone. Set and shot in harsh black and white in a suitably grotty looking, rainy London, this claustrophobic, voyeuristically shot cause celebre features 2011’s most uncomfortable and least flattering movie performance. Laurence R Harvey is incredible as bug-eyed, obese middle aged car park security guard Martin who doesn’t speak a single word in the whole movie and has a beyond-unhealthy obsession with the original Human Centipede, using it as inspiration to create his own 12-person “centipede”, and even tricking the first film’s actress Ashylnn Yennie (sending herself up nicely as a dumb, vain actress easily lured by a creepy silent fat man to the dingiest location possible but too self-absorbed to really notice the threat) into being part of it.
Abused as a kid and routinely prone to wanking with sandpaper at work, Martin abducts the least sympathetic characters imaginable to be stapled bum-to-mouth : one of the BBFC’s main concerns when initially rejecting (and then cutting) the movie was that Martin is the closest the story has to a genuinely sympathetic, well rounded character. An unforgiving and relentlessly cruel picture, this loses the vague comfort the original had with its hammy Udo Kier-ish mad doctor and, in spite of the potential for sick laughs, refuses to allow its audience to chortle at the extremities to which it goes. In response to the original’s cult status, Six challenges and punishes the viewers who yearned to see more graphic human centipede events. The array of mutilations (owners of teeth and knee-caps might need to look away), violations and explosions of shit that dominate the second half leave you feeling that Six has captured a microcosm of the End of Days on camera. The film gleefully crosses the line in the final ten minutes with an almost throwaway scene that recalls a taboo broken by A Serbian Film and provides a suitably harrowing end to a unique, satisfyingly upsetting movie experience.