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Top Ten Horror Movies of 2009 That You Probably Didn’t See

December 07, 2009 By: Category: Best of 2009, Horror Films You'll Never See, Lists, Movie Reviews

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So – here is my contribution to the Awkward Press end-of-the-year Top Ten blowout. Given that Jeffrey requested we pick a topic near and dear to our hearts, I went ahead and came up with the Top Ten Horror Movies of 2009 That You Probably Didn’t See. Considering most of the horror movies you probably did see in the theatres this year were absolutely dreadful (Orphan, The Fourth Kind, Saw VI, Drag Me To Hell, The Collector, The Final Destination, Friday the 13th, Halloween II, Sorority Row, The Unborn, The Uninvited), with the potential exception of the box office phenom of Paranormal Activity – chances are, you haven’t seen or even heard of the following horror movies. Unless you’re a total horror film geek like me.

Clay#1010. THE BURROWERS
Written and directed by J.T. Petty.
(Watch the preview here.)

J.T. Petty is one of those filmmakers that seems to volley between making interesting, complex, thought-provoking horror films (such as the amazing S@Man) and bizarro mainstream direct-to-DVD sequels (such as the unnecessary Mimic: Sentinel). The Burrowers is somewhere in between – a Tremors-inspired western yarn, complete with shades of Pitch Black and Young Guns thrown in for good measure. While the movie suffers in the center, it is most definitely a fun film that prefers patience over cheap thrills. Considering Petty is a compatriot to such New York-based indie-horror filmmakers as Ti West and Larry Fessenden, it’s exciting to think what scares he’ll be coming up with next year.

Clay#99. THIRST
Written and directed by Chan-wook Park.
(Watch the preview here.)

I’ll admit that Thirst was just not doing it for me for the longest time. The first two thirds of the film just seemed to drain the life right out of me. For a vampire film, you’d think this would be a compliment – but no. Thirst unfolds at such a glacial pace you’d pine to put these vampires out of their own philosophy-pontificating misery. Chan-wook Park’s insistence on style over content (see his contribution to the Three…Extremes anthology) can send him into such gluttonous visual excess akin to middling Dario Argento – that what ends up suffering the most, beyond the audience, is his own storyline. But – and this is a big ol’ but here – make it to the last third of the movie, and it’s as if this vampire flick has received its first taste of blood in a long, long time. The final two set-pieces of this film are fun enough to make up for what rolled out before it. The first, set amidst a friendly family game of mah jong, recalls Hitchcock at his most perverse – while the brilliant final scene is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. Be patient with it. Thirst goes out with a bang.

Clay#88. SAUNA
Written by Iiro Kuttner. Directed by Antti-Jussi Annila.
(Watch the preview here.)

I can’t quite say I know what Sauna is about per se, given the fact that at a certain point this horror film from Finland makes little if any narrative sense – but on a sheer level of tension and what-the-fuckery, this is a must-see. Chalk the mysterious storyline up to cultural differences, but as best as I can tell – Sauna is about two opposing battalions, one Finnish, the other Russian, in the thick of the twenty-five year Long War of 1595, sent forth with the task of drafting up a new map to determine the borders between their two countries. In the process, they come upon a netherland of sorts that… Well. Just see it. Sauna references another war/horror-film, Elem Klimov’s WWII masterpiece Come and See, streamlining the madness of battle into a simple yarn about ghosts and… bath-houses.

Clay#77. PONTYPOOL
Written by Tony Burgess. Directed by Bruce McDonald.
(Watch the preview here.)

Pontypool gets on the list for concept alone. The less you know about the film, probably the better, merely because any explanation would make the film sound a bit hokey – but suffice it to say it’s what George Romero would have come up with if he decided to adapt the writings of William S. Burroughs for the big screen. By rooting the action of the film in a radio station, we are privy to a series of random outbreaks of violence all happening within the world well beyond the central location of our talk show host’s sound booth – but only through the live call-ins and increasingly grisly updates from spectators we never see. With the majority of carnage happening off-camera, Pontypool conjures up echoes of Orson Welles’ War of the World radio play – where the sound of the human voice in peril is enough to send chills up the audience’s spine.

Clay#66. VINYAN
Written by Fabrice Du Welz and Oliver Blackburn. Directed by Fabrice De Welz.
(Watch the preview here.)

Something akin to a family vacation through the murky rivers of Apocalypse Now, Vinyan is an interesting attempt to filter the downward descent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness through a domestic lens. A married couple loses their son during the Southeast Asia tsunami, sending them into a tail-spin of mourning. When the mother, played with intense sincerity by Emmanuelle Beart, discovers the possibility that her child may still be alive somewhere in Burma – she drags her husband deeper and deeper into the wilderness, not to mention her own madness, in hopes of finding her son. Vinyan suffers for its artistic pretensions here and there, but as writer/director Fabrice Du Welz proved with his previous mind-fuck of a film, Calvaire, the pastiche of the familiar (here being Lord of the Flies and Francis Ford Coppola’s aforementioned classic) along with beautiful camera-work and locations, along with an ending to die for, Vinyan is well-worth exploring.

Clay#55. TRICK ‘R TREAT
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty.
(Watch the preview here.)

Oddly enough, Trick ‘r Treat is a rather wholesome horror movie. I mean no disrespect by saying it’s actually quite charming. It is in fact one of the cutest, quaintest horror movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. It is steeped in nostalgia. Think Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates. Interweaving a handful of different narratives all happening simultaneously within one sleepy proto-American small town – Trick ‘r Treat chooses to tug at the sentimental heart-strings of horror aficionados rather than rip them out for all to witness their still-pulsing-ness, going down the checklist of what makes the Halloween holiday so special to the inner-kid within us all. Local folklore turned ghastly urban legend? Check. Creepy kooky neighbor all the neighborhood kids dare each other to ring and run? Check. Sexy Snow White? Sexy Little Red Riding Hood? Sexy Cinderella? Check, check, check. There are no huge surprises in Trick ‘r Treat. But that seems beyond the point. You feel a sense of appreciation and love for horror from behind the camera, making its way onto the screen. What we have here is a 90-minute Hallmark card to a holiday that brings out the creepy kid lingering within every monster-movie fan. Safe and sentimental, for sure – but sweet as an apple with a razorblade slipped inside.

Clay#44. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
Written and directed by Oren Peli.
(Watch the preview here.)

Have you heard of this movie? Not many people have. I’ll personally take The Blair Witch Project over Paranormal Activity any day, given that Blair Witch continues to resonate with me even years later, rooting its horror in a mythology that I could still recite to anyone who asked me today – while I pretty much forgot nearly everything about Paranormal Activity’s airy-scary cotton candy quality the morning after seeing it. But man oh man – I haven’t had this much fun in a packed theatre in a long time. If you haven’t seen it (all three of you), do yourself and favor and be sure not to view the trailer beforehand. The best scares are given away.

Clay#33. GRACE
Written and directed by Paul Solet.
(Watch the preview here.)

A bad suggestion on my part would be to recommend a double-feature of both Deadgirl and Paul Solet’s stomach-churning Grace. While the thematically queasy-qualities of these two films could easily connect them together, not to mention the fact that both storylines revolve around, well, said-unsaid undead characters – what makes this proposed double-bill really not such a hot idea is that, while Deadgirl, written and directed by men, focuses on the male gaze on the feminine body as an integral component to its central storyline, Grace filters the intensely feminine matter of motherhood through the male gaze of its writer/director. We as the audience are not watching a movie that generates a fear-response towards motherhood – we are watching one filmmaker’s personal expression of his own fear, his own disgust of motherhood.

But hell. There is a lot to enjoy here. Madeline Mattheson learns that her baby has died in utero, insisting that she still carry her child to term. Upon delivery, Madeline’s reluctance to let her newborn/stillborn daughter go is rewarded by the discovery that Grace isn’t in fact dead all. For all intensive purposes, Grace is quite alive… And now she’s hungry.

It was nearly impossible for me to distance myself from the notion that this movie was made by a man. Viewing scenes of granola-fed lesbian midwives seemed to have an air of masculine-campiness that, for me, tended to undermine the film’s otherwise unnerving storyline. Of course, horror has always been a male dominated genre – but when I reflect on such films as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which Grace clearly descends from, I believe there are those films where the director’s masculine viewpoint is there to comment on the inherently feminine narrative or at least create a tension between the action onscreen and the way in which it is captured. With Grace, Solet seems only capable of further distancing himself from the women in his narrative, thereby objectifying several of his incidental characters that clutter his film. A singular standout would be Gabrielle Rose’s turn as the perverted mother-in-law, imbuing what could have easily descended into camp with a strong sense of pathos and heart. You’ll never look at a woman breastfeeding the same way – believe you me.

Clay#22. HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
Written and directed by Ti West.
(Watch the preview here.)

Avid horror movie fans (such as myself) seem to be an oddly sentimental lot. It should be said that a fair amount of the movies listed here made it to my Top Ten because they elicited some sense of necro-nostalgia in me, conjuring up memories of watching horror movies as a kid – which I think is a commonality amongst most horror film fanatics. Most pine for those simpler slasher times of gore-yore, wishing to return to the 70’s/early-80’s heyday of horror, where low budget constraints and poor lighting quality have now in retrospect become something of an aesthetic hallmark. With contemporary horror filmmakers having not only to contend with digital video and other technological advances behind the camera – on a narrative level, there are far too many innovations (cell phones, internet) that render the babysitter-in-distress scenario of John Carpenter’s day entirely moot. Which is why House of the Devil’s return to the 80’s, not only on a narrative level but on a filmmaking level as well, is a total must-see for any horror film fan who grew up on a steady diet of Friday the 13ths and Black Christmas.

Ti West has crafted a love letter to grindhouse cinema, much in the same way as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez did with their double-feature – but, rather than punch his tongue all the way through his cheek (much in the way Tarantino and Rodriquez did), West never lets his retro-concept get the best of him. The key difference between House and Grindhouse is that, West lets his retro-tendencies transport his audience directly back to the 80’s, immersing them in the period and all its lavish details, rather than simply give a meta-pastiche wink-wink as Tarantino and Rodriquez’s film does. House of the Devil doesn’t comment on the 80’s as much as it seems to exist in the 80’s. A true taste-test challenge would be to screen House to an uninitiated audience member right alongside, say, 1981’s Jaws of Satan or 1980’s He Knows You’re Alone – and see if they could tell whether or not it was in fact shot in 2008/2009 and not 1979/1980.

What’s most impressive about House is its insistence on patience. The slow-burn of the first three-quarters of the film permits one’s imagination to conjure up the worst what’s-to-come – so that when the film does reach its own eventual, inevitable reveal, it’s arguable that the conclusion we’ve all had time to conjure up within our minds far out-frightens the actually climax of the movie itself. But still. House asks something of its audience which so few contemporary horror films have the courage to do: Be patient.

Next: Clay’s shocking and disturbing pick for the #1 horror film of the year!

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