2019 was a bumper, and particularly brutal, year for the genre picture. The films that follow represent the cream of the features I saw throughout the year at various film festivals, screeners and on VOD.
The abundance of female filmmakers and central characters heralded a palpable sea change in the balance of equality within the genre. A lot of the years most edgy cinema and most courageous performances came from women. Men fared less well as a propensity for genitalia based misfortune became clearly thematic. In this list alone you will find separate instances of the male sex organ being ripped off, liquified by acid, stabbed with a turkey fork and smothered in out of date hot mustard.
There was a salubrious mix of art-house slow burners and balls to the wall exploitation that ensured everyone could attain their desired genre fix. The current divisive climate in cinema, in general, will mean that some of the films I selected will not suit everybody. However, if you track them down you are certain to find something that shocks, repulses, compels or inspires.
Thank you to all the festival crews, publicity people and filmmakers who made it possible for me to watch such breathtaking cinema over the year.
Amanda, played with gutsy relish by the excellent Sabina Friedman-Seitz, is a mental health app designer with a serious case of physician heal thyself. Irrational fears of black dwarfs, birthmarked hands and more conventional anxieties about her early pregnancy blight her life. When her employee Walter turns into work with a series of freshly pruned fingers he proves the tipping point for a domino effect of derangement.
Fingers has the audacity to get pretty nasty when it wants to. Vicious appendage violence, baseball bat shellacking in a shipping container and casual cannibalism darken the mirthful mood. One scene involving the cold sweat of terror is so uniformly disgusting that it is a veritable love letter to the gag reflex.
Those who delight in the punk rock aphorism of truly independent movies will revel in this perverse journey from crippling revulsion to a spunky reclamation of self-confidence and contentment.
19. COME TO DADDY
Norval is a delicate hipster musician in his thirties who still lives with his mother. After a mysterious phone call, he decides to pay his estranged father a long-overdue visit. It is not long before he realises his dad is a raging shit bag ex limo driver with a limitless arsenal of C-bombs. But that’s not the worst of it, he also has a past that is about to push poor Norval to the limit of his sensibilities and beyond.
The tone and pace of Come To Daddy is beautifully judged with some of the most wilfully obscure references ever slapped onto celluloid, alongside some of the most brazenly derivative film references you will ever witness.
Bereft of creative boundaries the only filters in operation during Come To Daddy are the ones that remove the grit of boredom. Gory, left-field and shamelessly entertaining this brilliant genre flick will delight those in search of schlocky midnight thrills, and those seeking cerebral cult craziness.
18. THE FURIES
Kidnapped epileptic high schooler Kayla wakes up in a black coffin in the middle of a remote eucalyptus forest. With vague memories of a cruel operation to replace one of her eyes with a camera, she is thrown in at the deep end of a spectacularly vicious pool of final girls and garishly garbed psycho killers.
A brutal battle royale hackathon is a mega-violent blast from start to finish. It has all the necessary components of being a slasher fanboys wet nightmare and then some. The gore is mostly practical with kills that make the recently popular Terrifier look like a classroom art project. Seriously, there are some deaths in this flick that will have even the most cynical gorehound punching the air.
This quality shocker is another fine entry in the fiery Australian exploitation revival. Made with passion and care The Furies proves that low denominator flicks can be cinematic and exhilarating rather than derivative and patronising.
17. HERE COMES HELL
A disparate crew of 1930s socialites assemble in a dilapidated country manor, once owned by the narcotically prolific occultist Ichabod Quinn, intent on booze laced frivolities. However, cracks in the etiquette soon compromise the veneer of politeness and the social sniping starts. Things escalate way, way beyond gnarly posho bitching, when a medium arrives to open an extra-large can of demonic worms.
Constantly surprising and rigorously entertaining, Here Comes Hell harks back to the early works of James Whale, whilst simultaneously embracing the frenetic demonology of early Sam Rami.
Despite its hammy persona and penchant for farce, Here Comes Hell is also creepy and ferociously violent. Its main intentions may well be to regale and amuse, but it also has no qualms at all being a full-blooded horror flick along the way.
12-year-old Paul lives in the woods with his therapist mother. He becomes close to one of her young patients and after a violent encounter, the pair go on the run leaving a wake of chaos.
Belgian trailblazer Fabrice du Welz follows up the impressive Calvaire and Alleluia with another mesmerising exploration of the pitfalls of obsessive love.
Stylish, impeccably acted and potentially controversial this is one of the most criminally neglected genre films of the year.
James the clairvoyant gets himself involved with dodgy diamonds to pay his rent. When he glimpses premonitions of his own bloody demise he must make choices that would give Einstien a stress migraine. Can he and Elliot, the cardigan-wearing motherfucker, knit together fragments of his future in time to thwart his deadly destiny?
Thematically Volition is a rich and diverting experience, with moral and ethical conundrums orbiting the central concept of the pliability of fate. The choices finally made by the likeable James, as he seeks to break from the white knuckle grip of inevitability, are compelling and unexpectedly moving.
Movies with this much intelligence and finite logistics are often prone to smug self-aggrandising. They seem to relish the Machiavellian headlock they have inflicted on the viewer, forcing them to acquiesce in the sheer cleverness of it all. Where Volition is crucially different is that it presents its elegant narrative as a case for cherishing the present we live in as connected humans, rather than a celebration of its own hubris.
Volition is an exceptional genre flick with a shit ton of ideas and the limitless heart to express them in a way that charms rather than bulldozes.
14. LORDS OF CHAOS
During the birth of Norweigan Black Metal in Oslo in the early 1990s, a dangerous game of one-upmanship between band members leads to colossal tragedy.
Part black comedy, part true-life biopic this energetic future cult classic is always engaging. It deals with themes of artistic integrity and cultural authenticity with both guile and venom. The needlessly graphic gore and pithy violence is next level exploitation, however, the film is so passionately curated it gets away with it.
Adherent atheists, in particular, will have a blast as the theological terrorism escalates into a church burning frenzy.
13. THE MIRACLE OF THE SARGASSO SEA
Exiled unceremoniously from her high flying job in Athens, Elisabeth is festering as the local police chief in the small Greek town of Messolonghi. She has become a toxic mess of bitterness and boozy coke binges, with procedural methods that make Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant look like Bob Ross on Xanax. Rita is the downtrodden and damaged sister of a seedily charismatic nightclub singer. A tragic suicide proves the catalyst that could slingshot both women out of their twin orbits of emotional and geographical stagnation. But first, they must survive the viperous fallout of degenerate barn sex parties, a mute with an Olympian lack of hygiene and perverse corruption at the highest level.
It is perfectly possible to enjoy The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea as a nasty contemporary thriller with arthouse overtones. It is equally possible to engage at a higher thematic and philosophical level that decodes its motives and agenda.
This is artistically satisfying, hermetically sealed cinema, with the confidence to embrace a wide range of genre elements and a first-rate thriller to boot. The grimly explicit sex, theological symbolism and wince-inducing violence will keep you on your toes. But ultimately, it is a masterful tale of redemption come full circle via the conduit of moral bankruptcy and how the oxygen of freedom can still exist in the ethical vacuum of oppression.
Dezzy is a temperamental but brilliant painter, who is facing eviction unless she can rekindle her artistic mojo. Dropped by her slimy agent, she seeks inspiration in the form of a hyper potent mind-altering narcotic called Diablo. Whacked off her face for days, she manages to snort her way past the artistic blockage, but at what horrifying cost?
Bliss may not be the druggiest film in the world but it is definitely on the podium. The plot is threadbare and at times nonsensical, Dezzy can’t afford rent but can buy an industrial-sized bag of top-notch mind smashing gear, but that really is not the point of the film. The characters that infest its universe are selfish, hedonistic, entitlement monsters, but building empathy bridges is not a tabled motion either.
The unflinching strength of Bliss lies in its ability to demand undivided attention without pretentious posturing, to be nothing other than an outpouring of raw creative bilge spewing in your face, and expecting you to thank it for the privilege.
Bliss is the ground zero of independent cinema, and if you enjoy being sadistically tormented by your art, then trust me, you have just found your favourite new playmate.
11. THE NIGHTINGALE
Jennifer Kent’s follow up to the divisive The Babadook is a relentless hell ride into the dark heart of Tasmania in 1825. A young Irish convict woman teams up with an Aboriginal tracker as they hunt down a band of evil British soldiers who have destroyed her life.
One of the most gruesome cinematic endurance tests for quite some time this grim picture is a clear statement of intent from a director out to cause trouble. Proving too rapey and uber-violent for many festivals goers The Nightingale is an angry salvo of anti-hate masquerading as an epic road movie.
The film’s ultimate message is somewhat muddied by its determination to graphically depict the inherent malignity of the human condition. Yet, as a powerhouse of historical filmmaking, it shines like an uncut diamond in the turgid trough of traditionalist period cinema.
It’s 1992 and a nieve cinema crew, under the auspice of Christian life coach Mr Pike, stumble upon an old movie print in a secret archive. They decide to screen the flick and as a consequence evoke an evil fuck demon with an unquenchable affection for penis mutilation. This motley band of misfits must find a way to defeat the unholy sex pest or become her personal pleasure ponies for eternity.
This consistently hilarious splatter-comedy comes at you like the sexually deviant offspring of The Breakfast Club and Lamberto Bava’s Demons. The film’s approach to humorous horror is much more early Peter Jackson than vintage John Landis, but that is no way detrimental to the film. Porno is a blast from start to bloody finish, with an avalanche of quotable one-liners and the irrepressible spirit of the drive-in midnight movies of yore.
Porno is the kind of flick that will have you heatedly debating real bush or Mirkin and teach you that you instantly morph into a confirmed nihilist once your testicles have exploded. A rare breed of film, that is pitch-perfect for viewing with beers and a bunch of similarly depraves souls, and also a creatively rich piece of cinema crafted with care and reverence for the genre.
This utterly bonkers, and frequently funny, oddity examines the power of masculinity using a tiny Indian village as a microcosm. After establishing the often monotonous routine of the community, utilising the Delicatessen method of rhythm through repetition, the film spirals into astonishing mayhem when a buffalo goes postal. Every Alpha male from miles around converges to vanquish the creature, reigniting age-old feuds and exacerbating current grudges.
Arguably the best shot movie of the year this cinematic and expansive exploration of man’s inner beast lulls the audience into a false sense of tone and scale before unleashing the most insane final reel in recent memory.
Beautiful, starkly primal and flawlessly executed cinema.
An unemployed family begin to integrate themselves into the daily life of a wealthy couple and their son, whilst maintaining fragile anonymity as to their true connections. As they begin to prosper on the financial coat tales of their nonplussed benefactors, a shocking discovery leaves them facing the horrifying consequences of extreme deception.
Part of the 2019 trend for ‘eat the rich’ cinema, personified by the anarchically acerbic Knives Out, this incredibly intricate social satire defies all other classification. Thriller, horror and comedic elements gel into an exquisite masterclass in progressive cinema.
The elaborate stage set design of the gorgeous house, where many of the twisty turns unravel, is nothing short of stunning. The building becomes at one with the characters in this endlessly intelligent example of classy storytelling.
Young American couple Dani and Christian are on the verge of breaking up when one of them suffers a devastating tragedy. Desperate Dani goes full invitation obligation and stalks Christian and his wanky pals on a once in a lifetime visit to a remote Swedish commune. The plan is to bask in the idyllic surroundings and soak up the summery vibe of a charming ancient ritual… and do a shit ton of drugs. However, once they are ripped to the proverbial tits on rural pharmaceutics they slip down a rabbit hell-hole of fanatical paganism.
Midsommar may wear the embroidered smock of a folk horror film but it is first and foremost a brutal break-up chronical shivering in the insecure rags of susceptibility. As we are forced to bear witness to both sides of the rejection coin, many will bristle with awkward recognition at the frantic passive-aggressive neediness and the arrogant exploitation of relationship power politics. The stench of unhealthy co-dependency pervades Midsommar like a nosegay of rotting meadow flowers.
The bottom line is that Midsommar hounds a very similar structural and narrative fox as Hereditary, albeit a slower more viciously playful one, so if you really did not dig his first picture then this one will leave you colder than a Siberian morgue slab. Conversely, those already attuned to the unique frequency of Astor’s discordant vibe, or just wrong in the head, will adore this spectacularly hilarious horror yarn.
That being said, Midsommar is such a disgracefully eccentric piece of cinema that no matter how much you hate it, and plenty will, tangy morsels of it will stick in your teeth forever.
6. READY OR NOT
Grace(Samara Weaving) has just married into the outrageously rich Le Domus family after a whirlwind 18-month bonerthon. Her new husband, Daniel, explains that her first act as his wife must be to take part in a seemingly harmless family tradition. And so begins a game of Hide and Seek that will escalate into all-out warfare.
This dazzling thriller from the Radio Silence team is a masterclass in comic timing, character development and quicksilver script writing. It manages to be horrifying, tense and utterly hilarious by turns, never once losing its focus or direction. Rollicking along at an astonishing pace, there is no dead air, or excess fat, to be found during its lethally entertaining run time.
Ready or Not is best enjoyed with a packed house, on the biggest screen you can find. It might just be the most purely entertaining film of the year.
5. THE LIGHTHOUSE
It is the late 19th century and Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe), a superstitious semi crippled ex-mariner, is the dictatorial keeper of a remote Lighthouse on the Nova Scotia peninsula. Lumberjack Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), is to assist him for four weeks after the previous help went mad and committed suicide. A life path he soon regrets as he becomes the fresh target of Wake’s spiteful bullying, drunken hectoring and despotic farting.
Buffeted by the incessantly harsh elements, and worked to the dank embedded bone by his sadistic taskmaster, Winslow begins to feel his own sanity slipping on the wet rocks of paranoia. Is his frazzled mental state a compound of binge drinking, claustrophobia and fatigue? Or, are the militant gull that bedevils him, and the lewd visions of gulping mermaid vaginas, really seafaring omens of impending doom?
Robert Egger’s follow up to the highly divisive The VVitch is more of an aural, visual and psychological endurance test than a movie. Like a rain-lashed mental double marathon of the senses, it will test the patience, not to mention the expectations, of horror fans like no other film before it.
For some, this will be the edgy, force of nature horror they have been yearning for, an artistic tour de force that redefines the core concepts of horror. For others, this will be nothing more than a sulphurous, hard to swallow cure-all for insomnia. A shit-pelted rack of Emperor’s new clothes, stinking up the genre wardrobe with its tedious arthouse wankery. To be honest, the only thing that is definitively black and white about The Lighthouse is its photography.
What it definitely will be, is the eager new successor to the throne of cinematic polarisation. A blazing beacon for the difference in what critics gush over and what the majority of paying horror addicts actually want to see. Cue elitist, more intelligent than you, pontificating and mutinous cinema-goers demanding recompense. Eggers knows exactly what buttons he is pushing and will be delighted that the pitchforks and burning torches will be out in such numbers for his movie.
Personally, I was utterly beguiled by this wildly eccentric powerhouse of filmmaking.
A young girl is held as a virtual hostage by her overly paranoid father. But things are not as they seem as she is forced to confront the reality of who she really is and what she is truly capable of.
What this film achieves on its relatively meagre budget is a testament to the power of hard cinematic graft and a genuinely original premise. The script is so bright and inventive that you will forgive the head-spinning rug pulls and concentrate on rooting for the impeccably rendered characters.
The fact that so few people talk about this film is mind-blowing. A true cult movie lying in wait, Freaks is everything independent cinema needs to be. Not only to challenge mainstream offerings but put them in a corner.
Easily the most underestimated genre film of the year.
3. BLOODY MARIE
Marie Wankelmut is an alcoholic whirlwind of bad decision making and painful self-condemnation. Barely existing on the past glories of her best selling graphic novel Porn for The Blind, the gravitational pull of addiction has robbed her of all creative impetus. She wanders the bars and liquor stores of Amsterdam with her loyal Czech hunting dog, embracing confrontation and chaos at every turn.
As Marie plummets toward her personal rock bottom she blunders into the deadly orbit of ruthless pimps. As a consequence, a gruesome game of ethical chicken ensues that threatens to end her days even quicker than her toxic lifestyle.
Bloody Marie works just perfectly as a tense thriller, but as a humanist character study of a life lost to the bottle, it is a heart-wrenching masterpiece. Never judgemental or preachy, the themes are so subtle in their delicate layering that the film transcends critical analysis and becomes a personal, almost spiritual, experience.
The emotional wreckage of codependency, the redemptive power of dogs and the relentless degradation of self-destructive self-medication is just the tip of the empathetic ice burg.
If you have ever lost someone you love to alcoholism then approach this film with extreme caution, and if you haven’t, then you will not witness a more candid account of the fresh hell it represents.
Grown-up, curiously uplifting and magnificent film making of the highest order.
2. THE GOLDEN GLOVE
The true-life story of a maniac who stalked the dive bars of Hamburg during the early 1970s praying on societies most vulnerable. With a penchant for anal violation by way of live fish and easily the worst drunk you will ever meet, Fritz Honka is a churning cesspool of sexual hatred. Like a haunched, dentally challenged cross between Albert Steptoe and Patrick Bateman you can almost smell him oozing out of the screen.
The Golden Glove of the film’s title was his main hunting ground, and what a depressing cavern of misery it is. A hellish hybrid of a city centre Wetherspoon’s on a drizzly Monday afternoon and an 18th-century wet house.
This disgraceful film is crammed full of the very worst of human cruelty and depraved acts that only the most desperate will sink to. The brutal misogyny on show will have Lars von Trier asking for his coat, and while savagely uncomfortable to watch, its blunt honesty in the depiction of a sick serial killer is astonishing.
It is also made the with the kind of blistering fuck you attitude that leaves some art teetering on the brink of genius. For fans of extreme exploitation cinema, that is more competently made than the mainstream mundanity it mocks, then it does not get better than this. On top of that, it is brilliantly hilarious and will have you laughing out loud along with the outrageousness of it all.
The Golden Glove will leave you craving a power hose shower and a lice powder dust down. And that is just halfway through.
It is also a gorgeously shot, lovingly made period piece that is the best serial killer film in decades. You will never look at those green tree-shaped car air-fresheners in the same way ever again and you will definitely think twice where you leave your hot mustard.
Lemon Cassidy lives with her partner and son on a tiny farm in Appalachia. When her husband vanishes under shady circumstances, she becomes drawn into a ruthless game of penance and retribution. Labelled as expendable, with her son held as collateral, she must fight with all her considerable cunning, to turn victimisation into vengeance.
The Appalachian region has long been a potent source of myth and legend, particularly the intensity and prevalence of endemic feuding. Mercilessly stereotyped and misrepresented through blatant yellow journalism, its 25 million-plus inhabitants have been painted as uneducated, inbred powder kegs for generations. However, the actuality of the matter was quite different. These bitter altercations were not by-products of philistinism, beggary and seclusion, but, the trickle-down fallout from the political power struggles of the local elite.
One of the many achievements of this remarkable film is to go some way to setting the record straight and redressing the balance.
The rugged spine of Reckoning is Lemon’s path to a stark realisation, that she must mirror the abhorrent behaviour of her oppressors if she and her son are to prevail. Crucial to this, Danielle Deadwyler is nothing short of miraculous in the role. She unleashes a performance of such self-disciplined ferocity, it is impossible to do anything but root for her. The flawless timing, abraded emotion and dignified defiance at the core of this characterisation are purified empathy fuel.
Despite its divergence and a relatively small budget, Reckoning is a riveting and edifying thrill ride, that has all the potential to blow up completely and become a stone-cold genre classic.