Jeff Allard’s Best/Worst of 2007

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Our resident reviewer reflects on a rough year

2007 was so top-heavy with terrible films – nearly every weekend for the first few months of the year seemed to bring a new blight on the genre’s reputation – that I carried a discouraged attitude with me throughout the entire year. In fact, this was the first year since I started seeing movies on my own dime that I stopped feeling obliged to see every new horror film that came to theaters (and that’s saying something when you’re talking about a guy who made it a point to see the likes of “Leviathan,” “The Mangler,” and “Bats” on their opening days). That said, a few films broke through my funk to prove to me that horror was as formidable and fun as ever.

The Best of 2007

1.) Zodiac: Serial killers have become so omnipresent in today’s pop culture landscape that filmmakers have all but given up on depicting them as figures of fear. More often than not, they’re portrayed as charismatic, hyper-intelligent anti-heroes with filmmakers applying as much ingenuity as they can towards giving their killers more outlandish and outré M.O.’s to catch the attention of jaded moviegoers. The accomplishment of director David Fincher’s painstakingly rendered “Zodiac,” based on the true-life account of the never-apprehended Zodiac Killer who terrorized the Bay Area through the late ‘60s into the ‘70s, is that he’s able to make a serial killer film so free of gimmickry that it seems as though he’s the first filmmaker sent to inform us of an exotic, barely documented subject. To see the Zodiac striding across a public park in broad daylight towards a young couple is to feel as if you’re watching a new and terrible monster force its way into our world.

2.) The Mist: There’s nothing like a mysterious mist filled with eldritch creatures From Beyond Our World to cause people to start unraveling. Writer/director Frank Darabont realizes yet another Stephen King story on screen and once again does the source material proud. “The Mist” is disarmingly retro in its genre influences – staying in step with King to evoke the vintage vibe of ‘50s creature features and the morality plays of “The Twilight Zone,” which only gives its very contemporary fury more of a gut punch. No single shot in any film this year took the wind out of me like the shot Darabont includes towards the end of “The Mist” of young Billy Drayton (played by Nathan Gamble) opening his eyes to look at his father.

3.) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: As someone ignorant to the theater (sorry, I lack culture!), I can’t offer an informed opinion on how this adaptation departs from the play or how well it honors its source material but I can say that it works wonderfully as a horror film. Burton gets even closer to the feel of classic Hammer with this than he did with 1999’s “Sleepy Hollow.” And based on the amount of MPAA-sanctioned bloodshed here, I guess the next “Friday the 13th” film is going to have to be a musical.

4.) Grindhouse: The indifference this film met with from the movie-going public still confounds me. I never thought that so many people would pass on a double feature from two of today’s most notable directors. But I guess that just shows how little I know. Most reviews have naturally made a point to compare Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” against Tarantino’s “Death Proof” but the whole package is intractably fused in my mind. Which makes it all the more galling that Dimension Films has denied fans the opportunity to get both films on one disc as they originally played in theaters.

Some may have criticized Rodriguez and Tarantino for needing a gazillion dollars to mount a tribute to films that were noted for being made on chump change but when Spielberg and Lucas’ revived the cliffhanging thrills of an earlier era with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” they didn’t feel morally obliged to work with the same money that those serials had so I can’t fault Rodriguez and Tarantino for doing the same for the disreputable films of their youth. While this may not be a true ‘down and dirty’ affair of the sort that populated grindhouses in their heyday, this was still the most fun I had in a theater this year.

5.) Bug: If “Exorcist” director William Friedkin’s name wasn’t on this intense psychodrama, you would think you were watching the debut of a major new talent. Based on the off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts (who also penned Bug’s screenplay), this material has inspired Friedkin to deliver his strongest work since his ‘70s hey-day. Set almost entirely in a single motel room, “Bug” documents the deterioration of two lost souls – played by Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon – as Shannon’s war vet character’s paranoia proves to be a contagious condition. With its naturalistic mood and performances, “Bug” eases the viewer so gradually into its character’s delusions that we understand just how vulnerable our sense of reality can be. It also speaks to that age-old truth – Love makes us do strange things.

6.) Mulberry Street: An encouraging slice of indie horror for those of us weary of the low budget arena becoming a haven for splatter comedies. This grim, lower Manhattan-shot film has an absurd premise involving rat people invading New York but it delivers it with total conviction. The actors are all solid across the board (with special credit to lead actor – and co-writer – Nick Damici, whose character of ‘Clutch’ deserves a place of note in the ranks of great movie tough guys), the photography is striking and its ingenuity in depicting hordes of rat people laying siege to NYC puts the CGI mutants of “I Am Legend” to shame.

7.) Vacancy: Logic is sometimes forfeited here in this tale of a troubled couple – played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale – who are unwittingly chosen to star in a snuff video but a welcome sense of narrative brevity, effective lead performances, and a sure hand on the part of director Nimrod Antal in delivering some of the best jump scares of the year make this a should’ve-been horror sleeper. Love the Saul Bass-inspired title sequence and end credits.

8.) Masters of Horror: “The Black Cat”: The second season of this Showtime series was even more problematic than the first. But among such clunkers as “The V Word” came this outstanding love letter to the work of Edgar Allen Poe from director Stuart Gordon. Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs excels as Poe and with one appalling scene, cat fanciers of the world were sent into cardiac arrest.

9.) 1408: Horror made a welcome comeback at the box office last June thanks to this modest chiller. Smart and scary and anchored by a standout performance by John Cusack, the supernatural scares of 1408 were a refreshing break from the flesh flaying likes of “Captivity” and “Hostel Part II”.

10.) Wrong Turn 2: Dead End: This gets my vote as the direct-to-DVD release that most deserved a theatrical run. To this old-school gorehound’s eyes this sequel – directed by Joe Lynch – was a far more satisfying throwback to ‘80s splatter than the much more ballyhooed Hatchet (a fun film for sure, but just not this fun).

The Worst of 2007

To my mind, when it comes to a ‘worst’ list, rankings are irrelevant so I’ll just give you these in alphabetical order:

1.) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: Even taking this as a tongue-in-cheek exercise, I just couldn’t buy it. And I definitely couldn’t buy it as an effective ‘meta’ commentary on the genre. Outside of giving horror fans an excuse to flatter themselves for recognizing cameos and clichés, there’s nothing to this.

2.) Dead Silence: I’ll give any killer doll film the time of day so when one sucks as bad as this one does, I can’t help but take it hard. This really should’ve gone out as a PG-13 – undiscriminating kids would’ve been “Dead Silence’s best audience.

3.) Halloween: Unrated Cut: Rob Zombie’s director’s cut of his controversial remake is so misguided it makes me sorry that I ever defended his film in the first place. Rather than revealing that the theatrical cut had compromised Zombie’s vision, this unrated version only proves that he never had the right grasp on this material. Read my full review here.

4.) The Hitcher: Sean Bean is a great actor but he has nowhere to go here but to simply mimic Rutger Hauer’s indelible performance. Not a truly awful film, just a depressingly inert one given the foot-to-the-floor acceleration of the original.

5.) Primeval: When a giant crocodile movie is trying to sell itself as a serial killer film, that’s a sign of serious problems. This January release was the harbinger of a very bad year for the horror genre.

6.) P2: How this mediocrity about a woman evading a psycho in a parking garage made it to as many theaters as it did while more deserving films languished unreleased or went direct-to-DVD puzzles the shit out of me. And honestly, why this was even made in the first place doesn’t make any sense to me either. Completely clichéd, standard-issue woman-in-peril tripe – why bother?

7.) The Reaping: Religious-themed horror has to be done just right or else it’s unwatchable. I don’t know why that is, but it’s a rule you can live by. A mediocre slasher movie or monster movie can still be a passable flick. But if it’s a religious horror film, if it’s not great – if it’s not a classic like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Exorcist” – then it’s strictly a bottom of the barrel affair like “Lost Souls” or “Bless the Child.” And as further proof, we now have “The Reaping.”

8.) Resident Evil: Extinction: I really thought this was going to be a slam-dunk. That is to say, the other two films in this series were mindlessly entertaining so why shouldn’t this be just as enjoyable? But with this last installment that should’ve been a Sci-Fi Channel premiere, the “Resident Evil” films lost whatever groove they had.

9.) 30 Days of Night: I know there’s plenty of other movies that fans will feel should be here in place of this but I avoided most of the films this year that already looked atrocious so I can’t vent about the likes of “Invasion,” “The Number 23,” “Skinwalkers” or “The Hills Have Eyes 2.” I’m sure these movies do suck but even if I did see them I might still have made a point to include “30 Days of Night” on my worst list because it was such an abysmal waste of time.

If it had been a fifteen-minute film I might be ok with it. But once the overhead shot of the vampires tearing through the town of Barrow, Alaska was over, it was time for the credits to roll on this – not for another hour plus of lame story to push through. When a month is supposed to be going by in a film yet there’s no sense of time passing and so your “month” just seems like a matter of a few hours, that’s a serious gaffe. And as a note to future filmmakers, if you want to make vampires scary again, don’t have them speak in Klingon, or whatever Star Trek language it is that these bloodsuckers communicate in.

10.) 28 Weeks Later: This sequel ended up on many top ten lists and I admit that it boasted some of the most nail-biting scenes of the year so maybe it doesn’t belong here. But this movie does something with one of its zombies that I just couldn’t go along with. You can have fast zombies, you can have slow zombies, you can even have zombies that show an aptitude for learning but you can’t have a zombie that possesses ninja tracking skills. Sure, they don’t specifically call it “ninja tracking skills” in the movie but that’s what it is. For a zombie to be able to follow the group of main characters as they flee through the chaos exploding across London and eventually intercept them in a pitch-black underground platform is just too much. I know I should just overlook it and applaud this movie for the things it does right – but I can’t. If you can, I understand.

Source: Jeff Allard