Best of 2009 – American Made Horror

During this decade, the horror genre has flourished with masterpieces; Most of which have been foreign exports like Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 creature film The Host or last year’s great Let the Right One In.  But this year, two phenomenal American horror films have made up for the long drought: one from a newcomer in the indie horror scene and the other from one of our greatest auteurs of the genre.

First is Ti West’s surprise hit House of the Devil, a throwback haunted house film that takes a page from the great old horror film from masters like Polanski or Hitchcock, and holds back on the violence and dials up the suspense. Taking place in the early 80s, West’s film follows a Samantha Hughes, a college student eying a one bedroom apartment which she can’t afford. Hating her current living situation, she decides to take a babysitting job for a peculiar older couple, the Ulmans. But as she arrives, the couple reveals to her that they don’t have a child and that the babysitting job is for their elderly mother. While skeptical about the whole situation, Samantha agrees to the job after the Ulmans raise the prices. From then on, West creates a suspenseful atmosphere as we see Samantha wonder the halls of the Ulman’s old creepy mansion, slowly discovering clues to whats really going on.

The reveal in the end is a thing of beauty for any horror fan and will surely satisfy any gore fans of the genre. But most horror film enthusiasts will appreciate  the the vintage look, from a great opening sequence to the bright colored blood reminiscent of the great 60s Italian horror films from Dario Argento or Mari0 Bava. Jocelin Donahue gives a very good understated performance as the lead and Tom Noonan is always a delight to see as he proves he still knows how to play creepy characters 23 years after his great performance in Micheal Mann’s rather awful adaptation of Red Dragon, Manhunter.

The second is Sam Raimi’s comeback to the horror genre, Drag Me to Hell. A film with a very simple plot: Christine Brown, a loan officer, evicts an 0ld gypsy women late on her rent, and in return is given a curse that has her being tormented by a demon known as the Lamia. It’s a rather absurd premise and one that may have audiences laughing rather than trembling in their seats. But because Raimi’s wonderfully use of props, strange camera angles, and ability to present some of creative and just flat out weird gross out sequences (which range from nose bleeds to fly swallowing), makes this one of best horror films of the decade as well as one of Raimi’s greatest features. Like his brilliant Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi finds a certain humor in his work that makes the film enjoyable and, in my opinion, worthy of standing the tests of time like the gimmicky, campy yet endlessly entertaining horror films from William Castle.

My biggest problem with the film, however, is that it doesn’t go as far in its gross out scenes and demonic characters as some of his other horror films, notebly something like his great Evil Dead II. But Raimi aimed for a pg 13 rating, feeling that the film shouldn’t be “strictly driven by gore.” I applaud him for that, though I’m sure many Evil Dead fans were disappointed hearing him make that decision. But the film still manages pushes the pg 13 to the limit, and in the end, the film still ranks among the best of the director’s catalog of great works. Also, it would be a shame if I forget the performance from Alison Lohman as Christine. When I watched the film when it first came out I really didn’t notice her performance, and actually thought that Ellen Page, the actress who was originally slated to play the role, would have done a better job. But after re-watching the film on DVD, I was surprised how much life she brings to her character and, after watching the featurettes, how physically demanding the role was. Lohman has delivered good performances before in films like Ridley Scott’s underrated Matchstick Men and Tim Burton’s equally underrated Big Fish, but here she was given an opportunity to really carry a film and she was up for the challenge with a performance that ranks among the many great female horror film performances.

Both films are sure to become cult classics and hopefully get some recognition on critics end of the year lists.

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