By the time you all read this, we’ll likely be a week into 2022, with a fresh set of horrors (cinematic and otherwise, I’m sure) before us. But I wanted to take a moment to look back at 2021, a year where I had to face some tough realities and make some difficult choices regarding whatever the hell it is I’m doing in my own little corner of the horror ecosystem here at OTH. For years, I prided myself on the volume of my output—you could always count on a review for major releases, and I’d manage to find some time to catch-up with the various indies that premiered at festivals or debuted on streaming services. And on top of that, I could write about recent home video releases and whatever struck my fancy—part of the reason I’ve kept this place going for so long is because I answer only to myself, and that’s absolutely freeing when it comes to stuff like word counts, deadlines, and assignments.
But with that also comes an odd sort of personal pressure to maintain a standard—paradoxically, this freedom started to become a crucible of expectations. Answering only to yourself becomes a problem when you become your toughest critic. As you’ve no doubt noticed, 2021 wasn’t exactly the most productive year for OTH—I posted the least amount of reviews in the site’s history, I didn’t have enough to post for the annual October Overflow celebration, and I even allowed several major releases—Last Night in Soho, Antlers, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City—go unreviewed. It’s easy to say that those movies got lost in the holiday crunch and I simply never found time to get around to writing about them, and that’s exactly what I did tell myself in what I now know was a bit of denial. The truth is I didn’t write about them because I didn’t have the mental and emotional bandwidth to do so—simply put, I just didn’t feel up to it, and I felt guilty about admitting that. After all, who am I if I can’t muster some enthusiasm for the thing that’s become a huge component of my identity for 13 years? Is there something wrong with me? Does it mean I’m losing my touch? What if I can’t write at all anymore? Is this a midlife existential crisis?
The truth is that all of these things are true and untrue all at once because, yes, the act of writing has become undeniably harder. However, in the interest of being kind to myself, it’s only because I’m completely burned out—during these 13 years, I’ve written nearly 2,000 pieces here and elsewhere, all while maintaining an emotionally and mentally taxing job for most of those years. And I think I’m finally in a place where I can admit that this site should be for fun—it should be here when I absolutely need an outlet and not necessarily when I’m forcing an outlet. This shouldn’t be a second job, no matter how much I think my writing will keep me sane—it’s “just” a hobby, something I have been hesitant to admit for years because it seemed extraordinarily silly to attribute this much importance to a hobby.
But what’s wrong with considering yourself a hobbyist, especially when I’ve been extremely blessed by what this site has done for me? I’ve met an incredible number of awesome people by just being a guy who writes about horror movies for fun, people I’ve come to consider acquaintances, friends, and colleagues. I’ve had some extraordinary opportunities to contribute writing to other places: Certified Forgotten, Council of Zoom, Daily Grindhouse, Secret Handshake, and even Fangoria, a lifelong dream that may have also played a small part in allowing myself to take a little bit of a break this year. I even branched out and guested on a podcast this year! Even though I’m sure the experts would label me a millennial, some Gen-X DNA lurks inside of me, particularly the part that’s not supposed to care about validation. But, damnit, sometimes it’s nice to be validated, and I’m finally at a place where I can also admit that: it’s damn cool to achieve something after grinding away for over a decade, wondering if anyone noticed. It’s nice to be noticed, and it’s even nicer when you can admit to yourself that an accomplishment should be an opportunity to take a breather instead of immediately returning to the grind.
I think that’s a big problem we have culturally these days: this idea that we should always be “on” and that we should always have an eye trained to the future, often at the expense of the present. Being forever online and plugged into social media demands you have a take of some sort, which can be exhausting. During the past 2 years especially, we all should have been a little kinder on ourselves and consider it a victory that we’re still fucking here at all, even if we’re struggling to add to the dreaded “discourse.” We should be taking the time to appreciate the moments we have instead of constantly worrying about the ones to come, even if it just means enjoying a movie without worrying about what to write about it.
That brings me to my last admission: I just really wanted to watch a lot of movies in 2021, even if it came at the expense of my writing. I needed a year to remind myself that I really love movies, and it’s okay to not always have an elaborate take, much less a 1500-word review of everything. Sometimes, you just need to take a break and actually enjoy the things you consider a hobby. It’s okay for your hobby to combat anxiety instead of compounding it.
What does that mean for OTH in 2022? In the interest of not walking back everything I just wrote here and entangling myself in the mesh of the grind and expectations, I’m not going to make any grand statements or predictions. You’ll be hearing from me here for sure, and you’ll be hearing from me at Daily Grindhouse, where I’m producing a monthly newsletter and other regular pieces. Hopefully the good folks at other outlets I’ve contributed to will continue to sanction my buffoonery as well. But just know if something really strikes my fancy—like, say, a certain slasher sequel that’s due this month—OTH will always be the outlet. It’ll always be home, even if I’m not visiting as often.
And, now that you’ve indulged all of this personal nonsense, enjoy these capsule reviews of some 2021 horror movies I didn’t get around to writing about at length. Sorry, some habits die hard—I felt like I had to say something about some of the genre fare that defined the year.
Scott Cooper’s moody creature feature was one of the more high-profile films to be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally slated for April 2020, it was finally (and unceremoniously) released at the end of October this year, where it got lost in the shadow of Halloween Kills and Last Night in Soho. It’s a shame, too, because it’s one of the year’s more singular and compelling horror efforts. While it sometimes strains to be about something as it explores poverty and addiction in rural America, it’s gripped in an oppressive dread. Cooper transforms the Pacific Northwest setting into a tableau of grief, loss, and repressed horrors, evoking the Native mythology of the Wendigo and exploiting it for all its horrific body horror implications. However, like any effective body horror film, Antlers also taps into an existential terror as its characters reckon with the utter void they’re confronting. Like so many of the films delayed by the pandemic, it’s an unwitting reflection of the hopelessness and despair we’ve experienced during the past two years. It might be appropriately gnarly and gory, but it’s not exactly a good time at the movies.
Censor is the latest nostalgia-gazing horror movie, but it pitches its tent in an unlikely place. I’m guessing few who lived through the Video Nasties panic that gripped England in the 80s would look upon it fondly, yet Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor transports viewers right into the thick of it as BBFC censor Edith Baines (Niamh Algar) is mired in the depths of the sickest, goriest movies 1985 has to offer. Bailey-Bond indulges the era’s aesthetic via the work of Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), the provocateur responsible for the likes of Don’t Go in the Church, an especially nasty piece of work that Edith is eager to censor. As Edith watches, she becomes convinced that the film has somehow conjured the ghosts of her personal trauma, particularly the disappearance of her sister, sending her down the rabbit hole of underground video store rentals and tense confrontations with her parents. The audience plunges into the depths with her, lured into the dizzying spiral by the film’s hypnotic style and its twisting, violent story until the lines between reality and fiction blur. Censor proves that I’m not immune whenever a filmmaker deploys neon, synthesizers, and 35mm photography, even if its climax proves to be a bit on the nose, its titular censor having fallen prey to the line of thinking that drives her moralizing work as she resorts to the very violence she’s hoped to curb during her crusade.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To
Vampires have been a cultural staple since time immemorial for a reason: there’s something inherently compelling about that which is dead yet lives, especially since the premise is so malleable. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To is of the grounded sort of vampire picture, one that imagines what this otherworldly condition would look like in the mundane reality of suburbia, where the bloodsucker is a pitiable teenager rather than a ghastly predator. Instead, it’s the young Thomas’s (Owen Campbell) older siblings (Patrick Fugit and Ingrid Sophie Schram) that carry out his gruesome bloodlust on his behalf, luring in unsuspecting targets in order to feed their brother, who spends his days pining to see the outside world. Haunted by the same tender melancholia as George Romero’s Martin, Jonathan Cuartas’s films similarly insists that there is no magic. This is a bleak portrait of familial life, a muted chamber drama that finds a trio of characters grappling with loneliness and anxiety in a world that offers nothing but a grim, unrelenting demand for crimson. Fugit, all grown-up from his Almost Famous days, is particularly remarkable in realizing Dwight, the older brother who feels suffocated by these demands: caught between family loyalty and agonizing over losing his soul to violence, he embarks on a harrowing journey that transforms vampirism into an allegory for how we deal with addiction. What a sad, despairing little movie this is, unfolding in the shadow of a dimly lit Christmas tree resting in the corner of a house that’s cluttered with sordid secrets and repressed resentments. Curatas has crafted a vampire movie where the monster is the most achingly human without resorting to mawkish sentiment, a rare but rewarding gambit that makes all the difference here.
I’m going to be up-front with you about Psycho Goreman: I don’t exactly share the same unbridled enthusiasm that a lot of my fellow genre fans have for this one. I certainly appreciate its go-for-broke energy and its singular vision, which feels like some kid’s VHS mix-tape of Saturday morning cartoons and late-night cable fare got completely scrambled together into one maelstrom of gory, silly madness. However, it’s played a bit too broadly for my tastes, so most of the humor just isn’t quite for me. Don’t get me wrong: it’s quite good-natured and I totally get why Psycho Goreman endeared itself to so many—it’s just that the premise wears itself thin, and the two kids who find themselves in command of the titular alien warlord are a bit too precocious. That said, it bears all the hallmarks of director Steven Kostanski’s Astron-6, particularly its lovingly handcrafted (if not kit-bashed) aesthetic, which boasts an assortment of cool creatures and gnarly gore gags. Even if Psycho Goreman might not be completely for me, its raucous, unrepentant enthusiasm and belief in its own nonsense is the type of thing that should be championed. Few films are as happy about being themselves as this one is, and that’s aspirational.
By now, you probably know that Slaxx is the movie about a killer pair of sentient blue jeans, a logline that understandably invites skepticism and maybe even downright disdain. Considering we spent the last decade enduring some of the most cynical, half-assed nonsense from SyFy, it’s natural to scoff at this premise. It’s downright easy to assume that it’s just another one of those one-note, “get a load of this shit” jokes that only exists because the idea itself will garner attention. None of this is remotely true about Slaxx, though, for at least two reasons. First of all, director Elza Kephart and co-writer Patricia Gomez are completely invested in making this a real movie. Not only do they make the premise believable, but the film is made with wit, verve, and style as they remind us that low budgets and wild ideas aren’t incompatible. Secondly, they are completely serious about their wild idea: yes, Slaxx is about a pair of killer jeans that compel their possessed hosts to commit murder.
However, it’s in the service of some sharp, consumerist satire: instead of punching down and treating its audience like seals clapping ironically at a dumb idea, it takes a stab at the capitalist fixation with profits at any cost. In doing so, it punches way above its weight class, treating audiences to a Black Friday orgy of consumption that goes haywire when this pair of popular jeans turns the tables. Corporate overlords and bad bosses do their best to discard bodies as if they were damaged merchandise, only to meet with the grim realization that they can’t escape the blood-soaked horrors that cursed the pants in the first place. Like so many movies released in the shadow of COVID, Slaxx takes on even heightened resonance as it holds up a gory funhouse mirror to the exploitative dynamics of capitalism that this pandemic opened up like a festering scab, laying bare a truth that become even more difficult to ignore. Slaxx isn’t just one of the best horror movies of the past couple of years—it’s one of the definitive horror movies of the era.
Speaking of definitive horror movies of the era, Superhost captures the horrific zeitgeist of being extremely online. Teddy and Claire (Osric Chau and Sara Canning) are a couple of travel vloggers in search of viral content, and their latest excursion brings them to Rebecca (Gracie Gilliam), the titular “superhost” who allows the duo to film in her home. It soon becomes clear that something is quite wrong with Rebecca, whose lust for fame dovetails violently with Teddy and Claire’s own aspirations. With their engagement dwindling, the two become desperate for any content, even if it means being at the mercy of an unhinged person. Gilliam gives one of the most indelible, infectious performances in recent memory here by capturing the glimmer of sad, desperate humanity lurking behind Rebecca’s madness. It’s a clever disarming tactic that works in concert with writer/director Brandon Christensen’s sharp script, which hides one hell of a mean streak behind its arch façade, especially when genre legend Barbara Crampton shows up as an additional fly in the ointment.
Look, I’m not even going to pretend I have all the answers about Julia Ducournau’s weird, obtuse sophomore effort, but that’s exactly what I like about it. In an era where many puzzle box movies are ultimately solved by easily digestible story twists and surprise reveals, Titane insists on peculiarity and alienation. It’s another one where its logline—which involves a collision of cars, sex, and violence—doesn’t come close to adequately capturing Docournau’s haunting exploration of trauma, identity, and hope. Again, I don’t have all the dots connected in this allegorical tale, but I do know that every frame of this movie is utterly entrancing. For her own part, Docournau’s transgressive vision of this ghastly story—which involves a serial killer hiding in plain sight—has plenty of flourishes to spare between various rave sequences and the most haunting rendition of the “Macarena” imaginable. Her two stars, Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon, crucially underpin the strangeness, bringing an unexpectedly poignant and human dimension to a story where chrome and flesh meld together, ultimately providing one of the weirdest reminders that something beautiful sometimes emerges from loss, grief, and trauma. Titane reminds me that one of my favorite things a movie can do is operate on some weird, wild wavelength that I could never aspire to, yet still manage to communicate something profound. A truly transcendent experience.
Here’s yet another horror film that’s about grief and trauma. I get it—there’s a lot of that going around lately, and I can understand if anyone’s grown a little tired of it. But if you have room for a little bit more of this kind of thing in your life, Keith Thomas’s The Vigil is a sparse but sharp riff on the theme. Rooted in the Jewish tradition of the shomer (a person hired to keep a vigil over the body of a deceased family member), it finds a young man, Yacov (Dave Davis), who’s been recently estranged from his orthodox community following a faith-shattering event involving his younger brother. However, he’s drawn back when an old friend hires him to watch over the body of an old man after the first shomer left due to being too afraid to stay in the house. Stories naturally abound about the deceased, who essentially lived like a hermit and was known to hold eccentric views about the occult, giving Yacov’s imagination plenty of places to wander when he finds himself alone in the spooky old house. Or maybe it’s not just his imagination running wild when Thomas deploys familiar haunted house parlor tricks: shadowy figures, strange noises, inexplicable text and video messages seemingly from the beyond. The Vigil is a creepy, simmering pot-boiler, a slow burn that forces its haunted protagonist to sift through layers of historical and personal trauma as its oppressive atmosphere and well-timed jolts unnerve the audience. It provides two potent reminders: that solid craftsmanship can overcome a familiar premise, and that horror can be a crucial avenue for filmmakers to explore cultural horrors.
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