Mike Thorn is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. He completed his B.A. with honors at Mount Royal University and his M.A. in English Literature at the University of Calgary. His fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Darkfuse, Dark Moon Digest and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. His film criticism has appeared recently in MUBI Notebook, The Seventh Row and The Film Stage. He writes Unnerving Magazine’s “Thorn’s Thoughts” book review column and co-authors the horror-themed series “Devious Dialogues” with A.M. Novak for Vague Visages.
Check out his website http://www.mikethornwrites.com
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Click the link to order Mike Thorn’s debut novel Darkest Hours
Horror cinema still suffers from the burden of David Edelstein’s reductive, vaguely moralizing mid-2000s condemnation of “torture porn.” Throughout the 2010s, the genre has mostly strayed away from the urgency, viscera and political heft of films like The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and Hostel (2005), opting instead for low-budget supernatural found footage fare (see most of Blumhouse’s output) and prestige exercises in genre-deaf bluffing (see most of the most popularly praised titles of the past three or so years). I tend to like horror films that proudly inhabit their genre, paying respect to its central affect while also demonstrating formal knowledge and identifying new possibilities. I prefer to see horror films pushing boundaries within a contemporary context than vaguely “cerebral” repetitions of the past. Limiting myself to one title per director, I’ve highlighted ten of my favorite horror films released between 2010 and 2017 (organized chronologically).
My Soul to Take (Wes Craven, 2010)
If any single film provides a summative statement of Wes Craven’s career, it might be My Soul to Take. Craven described the movie as a personal piece, which incorporates everything from his adolescent feelings of alienation to his interests in bird-watching. My Soul to Take taps into the frenetic, confusing and often awkward feelings of teenage life, using its young protagonist’s point-of-view as a lens for sensibility and style. It also makes statements on many of the genre’s folkloric, pop cultural and affective attributes, synthesizing ideas from a number of its director’s previous films (especially A Nightmare on Elm Street , Shocker , The People Under the Stairs  and Scream ). My Soul to Take is a moving late statement from one of the most lasting and complex voices in mainstream American horror.
The Ward (John Carpenter, 2010)
Nearly a decade after the experimental, genre-reflexive bombast of Ghosts of Mars (2001), John Carpenter returned to the stage with a showcase of subdued Gothic classicism. Carpenter, the ultimate genre auteur, has proven time and again that he can expertly reinvent the siege model typified by films like Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959)—consider everything from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to The Fog (1980) to Prince of Darkness (1987). The Ward psychologizes and internalizes that motif, mining dread from within. If anyone can derive lasting impact from a camera prowling dimly lit hallways, from closed rooms and unseen corners, it’s Carpenter. The Ward finds a maestro putting his lifetime of experience to work in confined conditions, and it’s a formal powerhouse.
Twixt (Francis Ford Coppola, 2011)
The third in a late-career sequence of experimental narrative films (preceded by Youth Without Youth  and Tetro ), Twixt allows Francis Ford Coppola to study grief, artifice and genre’s cathartic possibilities. If the Gothic is fundamentally about atmosphere and the return of the repressed, then Coppola gives us both in spades. The rich and adventurous visual style is there to underscore the thematic heartbeat—how can the cinematic medium offer a means of comprehending death? What if “the repressed” is the unexpected loss of a loved one, and the associated resurgence of regret? These ideas might initially sound cumbersome and depressing, but Twixt is one of the director’s most playful and visually jubilant works—it shows shades of One from the Heart (1981), Rumble Fish (1983) and, of course, Dracula (1992), but Twixt really does occupy its own space.
The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, 2012)
Halloween II (2009) saw Rob Zombie using slasher subgenre conventions to delve seriously into lineages of violence and trauma. The director’s follow-up The Lords of Salem (2012) advances and complicates these ideas even further, extending its reach to regional mythology and atrocity. The imagery oscillates between the extremes of American grindhouse and 1970s European horror, unafraid to delve into both the terrifying and the ludicrous (often within the course the same scene). When it comes to the central tenets, though, Rob Zombie takes this material seriously. The Lords of Salem is about many things, including the roots of addiction and temptation, desecrating the sacred and the virtues of defying social order. It’s elevated by Zombie’s genuine commitment to horror and metal music, to the incumbent iconography and attitudes and vibes. Also worth mentioning: lead actor Sheri Moon Zombie delivers one of the decade’s best genre performances.
Djinn (Tobe Hooper, 2013)
The existing version is compromised and studio-adjusted, making me long for a universe in which Tobe Hooper saw the respect he deserved for his entire filmography during his lifetime. Even despite producers’ best efforts at sabotage, though, Djinn remains a meticulously crafted and fascinating film. Stripping the Americana away from Poltergeist (1982) and reworking the nu-horror of The Toolbox Murders (2004) and Mortuary (2005), Hooper directs Djinn with simultaneous allegiances to classicism and experimentation.
Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze, 2014)
I wish more recent horror films were willing to fully and convincingly occupy contemporary space. In comparison to the onslaught of studio-sanitized found footage films in Paranormal Activity (2007)’s wake, Unfriended is unafraid to work within and celebrate its medium’s confines. Like a 21st century riff on many of William Castle’s conceptual (or “gimmick”-based) works, Unfriended organizes itself around a bold central caveat: a group Skype call between friends, wherein a laptop screen is the audience’s one and only inescapable perspective. It derives much of its horror and unease from the removal of customary “space,” locking us into the very mode of haunting.
Exeter (Marcus Nispel, 2015)
Marcus Nispel is unapologetically entrenched in the mythology of popular American horror, establishing his name with strong 21st century updates of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and Friday the 13th (2009). Exeter provides the director the opportunity to generate his very own imagery and spaces, and the result is every bit as brutal, visually calculated and genre-conscious as his reboots. This film plays fast and loose with familiar tropes and set-ups (a party in a forbidden place, possession and exorcism, locked-in slasher chases, brash sexuality and drug intake), demonstrating an affection for those traditions while also revising them for its own 2010s milieu.
Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)
Directing the likes of Pulse (2001), Loft (2005) and Retribution (2006), Kiyoshi Kurosawa has already established himself as one of the 21st century’s most vital horror auteurs. Creepy hearkens back to the director’s dread-inducing Cure (1997), zoning in on the mounting unease of individual psyches and relationships while gesturing always to larger sociopolitical implications. As with much of Kurosawa’s work, the film works so quietly and unassumingly that its impact doesn’t fully register until after it has played through. Days after I finished watching it, I was left with lingering and indescribable unease.
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)
As he did in Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayas finds within Personal Shopper (2016) specifically current possibilities for genre conventions. The film deserves recognition for its complex use of current-day technology (specifically instant messaging), but above all else it finds its locus of power in lead actor Kristen Stewart. Allegedly developed as a partial result of improvisations and discussions between the actor and director, Personal Shopper owes at least some of its authorship credit to Stewart. Building off their working relationship from 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas and Stewart design this follow-up around a haunting and angst-ridden aporia.
The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
To identify The Love Witch merely as pastiche is to short-change its singular point of view. Yes, Anna Biller showcases a deep knowledge for cinema history and 1960s/70s iconography/visual language, but attempting to pinpoint her specific references is limiting. Usually, such efforts result in indicators of critics’ tastes rather than shedding any light on the film itself. This is no Quentin Tarantino-esque collage of “what’s that line from?” moments; rather, Biller inhabits established conventions and traditions in order both to enjoy their aesthetic merits and to politically critique their problems. This is a brutal, incisive, hilarious, and brilliant feminist statement that works on its own register while also calling necessary attention to the twisted status quo.
Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)
M. Night Shyamalan might be the most sensitive auteur currently working in the thriller genre. Remarkably, though, he’s almost always able to steer clear of doe-eyed, goopy humanism (excepting the misguided Lady in the Water ). He’s often at his best when he’s applying his empathy within nasty and unsettling contexts (e.g. The Sixth Sense , Signs , The Happening  and The Visit ). Split sees him working within a much more cynical and distanced genre climate than he was navigating for his break-out release, The Sixth Sense. Even still, he manages to lend pathos to both sides of a moralized and trope-laden paradigm (predator and prey, victim and oppressor). The film does not come away from its treacherous territory unfazed (many have taken issue with its incorporation of mental illness), but Shyamalan’s perspective is surprisingly cautious and thoughtful, lending attention to positivist possibilities for reading “the other.”
Thank you very much Mike.
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