The Cabin in the Woods is #1
By Steve Newton
#10. 1408 (2007). Directed by Mikael Håfström.
Unforgettable haunted-house flicks are extremely hard to come by; the only two I can think of are 1963’s The Haunting and The Shining. The subgenre of haunted-hotel-room flicks is promising in that the number of hotel patrons passing through maximizes the potential for untimely death and subsequent souls in limbo.
More importantly, the hotel-room setting allows guys like John Cusack to study the minibar menu and declare: “Eight bucks for beer nuts? This room is evil!”
In 1408, Cusack plays jaded author Mike Enslin, a specialist in debunking ghostly haunts who sets his cynical sights on Room 1408 (the numbers add up to 13) at Manhattan’s Dolphin Hotel. The upscale establishment is managed by the smooth-talking Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who does his oily best to persuade Enslin from occupying the cursed room, where 56 people have died.
“I don’t want you in 1408 because I don’t want to have to clean up the mess,” Olin argues, attempting to sway Enslin with a free upgrade to penthouse digs and an $800 bottle of cognac. But since the stubborn writer doesn’t believe in anything but good liquor, he snarfles the booze and defiantly heads up to the 14th floor to see what all the fuss is about.
The tedium of 1408‘s first half-hour quickly fades once Enslin gets trapped in the suite and tormented by everything from scalding tap water to the ghost of a masked slasher. Through well-paced flashbacks, we’re shown exactly how Enslin lost his faith in everything: his only child died at a young age from some godforsaken disease. The film is based on a short story by Stephen King, who, knowing full well what scares people the most, never backs away from exploiting the dead-kid angle.
Derailed director Mikael Håfström effectively counterbalances the scenes of throat-clenching sadness and claustrophobic shocks, which unfurl in a Groundhog Day delirium. But things go overboard when the unbridled effects crew turns Room 1408 into a set from The Poseidon Adventure–and, honestly, who really needs another shot of dirty-looking liquid seeping from cracked walls.
Cusack is convincing as the unraveling writer who, hollowed out by grief, must fight to survive a supernatural ordeal. The success of 1408 rests squarely on his Hawaiian shirt–clad shoulders, and he pulls it off.
The role, that is.
The tacky shirt stays on pretty well the whole time.
#9. The Platform (2019). Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia.
My teenage son suggested we watch The Platform on Netflix last night, and man is that one crazy-ass, whacked-out dystopian horror flick.
Gory as hell too, if you’re into that kinda thing.
Iván Massagué stars as Goreng, who wakes up in a grubby concrete cell with a copy of Don Quixote and a freaky older guy named Trimigasi (Zorion Eguileor). Turns out they’re confined to a tower-like prison where each level has a big hole cut in the floor and ceiling, through which the titular table-like structure passes once a day. On the platform is a vast array of delicious food, which each prisoner gets to eat from for two minutes before it carries on down to the next level.
Sure, it might sound like an okay way to do time, reading about the Man of La Mancha and waiting to pig out, but the problem is there’s over 200 levels in the tower, and the grub comes from the top, so if you’re stuck way down in cell #171 there’s not much left to snack on by the time the smorgasbord hits your floor.
The notion is that, if each person took just enough to get by, there’d be plenty for everyone. But that’s not always how people act. Have you tried buying toilet paper lately?
As social commentary The Platform couldn’t be more timely, but director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia isn’t concerned with just making people think: he wants to shock them even more. So besides the gross scenes of people squishing food and spitting it up there’s cannibalism, decapitation, stabbings, bludgeonings, and doggy disembowelment. One poor sap even gets shat on right in the face.
The goodness of humanity triumphs in the end, though.
#8. Backcountry (2014). Directed by Adam MacDonald.
If you’re thinking about going camping anywhere bears might be, Backcountry is definitely not for you. It’s Stephen Colbert’s worst nightmare come to life, basically.
Surrey escapee Missy Peregrym, from TV’s Rookie Blue, and Montreal’s Jeff Roop star as Jenn and Alex, a young couple embarking on a camping trip to the provincial park he visited as a child. We first meet them as Alex is loading their backpacks into his SUV, and his furtive glances at Jenn texting away make it clear that he’d much rather she leave her phone behind. It’s the first of many bad ideas on his part.
While renting a canoe to start their trip Alex scoffs at the safety advice offered by Nicholas Campbell’s park ranger, but Jenn is cautious enough to bring along a can of bear spray.
Things go fine until, while Alex is off gathering wood, Jenn befriends sketchy-looking hiker Brad (horror vet Eric Balfour from Cell 213 and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake), whom Alex immediately takes a paranoid dislike to. Brad picks up on the vibe, but stays for dinner anyway, showing off his big knife and bad table manners. When the simmering conflict between the two guys boils over, the stranger departs in the dead of night, so now they’ve got a pissed off survivalist with a wicked blade to worry about, as well as any furry, thousand-pound killing machines.
The terror starts to ramp up once the overconfident Alex gets them hopelessly lost without a map—shades of the best parts of The Blair Witch Project, sans jittery camerawork. Writer-director Adam MacDonald does a keen job of coaxing equal parts desperation and determination from his stars, although Peregrym’s performance proves strongest overall.
It all leads up to a scene of flat-out, primal horror that brings to mind how Werner Herzog might have felt listening to that tape of Timothy Treadwell’s final moments in Grizzly Man.
#7. Saw II (2005). Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.
The original Saw had a pretty interesting premise, and one that kept the options wide open for gruesome, sadistic, squirm-in-your-seat horror. It was about a psychopathic genius named Jigsaw who trapped people and made them play horrific beat-the-clock games for a slim chance at avoiding a grisly death.
The weakest components of the original were actually its two main stars, Carey Elwes and Danny Glover, neither of whom were believable in their respective roles of imprisoned dentist and hard-nosed cop. For the sequel, the filmmakers made a smart choice: they dumped the name actors and concentrated on the devious hoops that Jigsaw’s guinea pigs are forced to jump through in order to try and save their skins.
The result is a grimy and relentless portrayal of high-tension cruelty that’s excruciating to watch but as riveting as a nail gun to the nut sack.
The opening scene sets the tone. We’re shown some poor sap with a gouged-up eye who wakes up to find that he’s been kidnapped and fitted with a rusty metal contraption around his neck that’s set with rows of sharp spikes. From a nearby TV monitor, Jigsaw calmly explains to the freaked-out captive that he gets one chance to find a small key that can release the wicked mechanism from his trembling shoulders.
Trick is, it’s been implanted directly behind his mangled eye, and he only has a short amount of time to retrieve it–with the use of a scalpel–before the springloaded “Venus Flytrap” snaps shut around his achin’ head.
Two scenes after that sick but suspenseful intro, it looks like Saw II might be garbage after all, because when hard-ass detective Eric Mason (Donnie Wahlberg) confronts his delinquent son Daniel (Erik Knudsen), a wayward boom-mike dips down into frame. That’s director-cowriter Darren Lynn Bousman’s only major screwup, though; most of his time during Saw II‘s whirlwind 25-day shoot was spent injecting a feverish intensity into the nasty goings-on, which, like Saw, revolve around a cop’s frantic attempts to save people from Jigsaw’s booby-trapped house of horrors.
Tobin Bell returns to steal the show as the soft-spoken and brilliantly twisted villain, channeling Rutger Hauer and veteran character actor Brion James, whom he closely resembles. All the lesser-knowns cast as Jigsaw’s tormented playthings do good work depicting their drawn-out suffering, not that the constant spitting up of blood requires much rehearsal.
Unless you’re a dedicated gorehound, there’s a good chance you’ll come out of Saw II feeling sickened and disgusted. But you could also look at it from an educational standpoint. For example, I learned that the sight of a musclebound man swinging a spike-laden baseball bat into the back of a living guy’s skull was infinitely less disturbing than the sight of a petite woman wrenching said bat from the back of a dead guy’s skull.
Who says horror flicks are for dummies?
#6. Evil Dead (2013). Directed by Fede Alvarez.
At what point in life does the attraction of extreme gore–even to the lifelong horror fan–start to fade? It depends, I guess. All I know is, the sight of a possessed woman slicing her own tongue in half lengthwise just doesn’t do it for me any more.
If, however, the sight of a possessed woman slicing her own tongue in half lengthwise is precisely what turns your cinematic crank, have I got a film for you.
Evil Dead is a remake of writer-director Sam Raimi’s deliriously gruesome 1981 cult hit about five friends who travel to a rundown cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleash some particularly cranky demons. This time around the quintet isn’t just out in the boonies for kicks–they’re there to help heroin addict Mia (Jane Levy) go cold turkey before she has another overdose.
So you have to sit through some ho-hum human drama before any demonic tongue-slicing action kicks in.
It doesn’t take that long. Before you know it Mia is alone in the woods getting raped by tree roots and implanted with the demon that will soon possess her and turn the rest of the movie into an over-the-top bloodbath melding the supernatural vomit terror of The Exorcist with the sadistic nail-gun nastiness of Hostel/Saw.
The main goal of director-cowriter Fede Alvarez is clearly to take every violent scene in the original and ramp the gore level up to 11, and to his credit–and that of his makeup-FX team–he achieves that end.
It’s arguable whether Evil Dead lives up to all the hype, and it’s definitely–setting aside–no Cabin in the Woods, but the sheer exhiliration of its final sequences could leave even the most gore-jaded critic feeling young again.
So, in memory of beloved horror-booster Roger Ebert, I’m gonna give it one hideously mangled tongues-up.
#5. Hostel (2006). Directed by Eli Roth.
The horror scene seems to be in the grip of a hardcore revolution these days. It’s as if a cabal of serious fright-film fanatics got together and organized a bitter backlash against hokey Hollywood body-count flicks with cookie-cutter plots and predictable outcomes. In the last couple of years, there’s been a resurgence of grim, graphic, in-your-face scare films.
Shock-rocker Rob Zombie kickstarted the trend in 2003 with his blood-spattered love letter to ’70s exploitation flicks, House of 1000 Corpses, and the hugely popular Saw grabbed the gore torch from him in 2004. Both of those films spawned sequels in 2005 that ratcheted up the sadism and nastiness, and then just last month Aussie fearmonger Greg McLean topped off the year with his torture-the-tourists entry, Wolf Creek. Now comes Hostel, the most extreme, punishing, pain-filled gorefest yours truly has ever cringed through.
It doesn’t start out that way, though. Writer-director Eli Roth is a sly one, so he lets us believe that this follow-up to his 2002 killer-virus debut, Cabin Fever, could be just a routine tale of nauseating Yank backpackers getting snuffed over in Europe. The film opens in Amsterdam, where randy American college buddies Paxton and Josh (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson)-along with their Icelandic travelling companion Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson)-act like immature bozos, get in barroom scraps, and call a prostitute with a bit of flab on her a “hog”.
You can hardly wait for these jerks to get sliced and diced by some maniac in a Dutch hostel, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, they take the advice of a slimy Russian geek-pimp who impresses them with digital photos of himself frolicking with a bevy of naked Slovak babes. He convinces these lawyers- and writers-to-be that if they book into a certain hostel in Bratislava, the beautiful women there will be crawling all over them. So they catch the next train out. Sure enough, as soon as they get to the place two scantily clad Euro-foxes suggestively invite the bug-eyed guys to join them at the spa.
Around this time, though, the pussy-hunt vibe starts to erode like the decaying surfaces of the Slovakian buildings. Their Icelandic buddy disappears, along with a Japanese tourist, and a sinister gang of pint-sized street kids threaten Josh. Then, in one harrowing scene that sets the ghastly tone for things to come, Hostel switches from being an overseas American Pie-type romp to being a no-holds-barred look at the international pay-to-kill trade. If there is a place in the world where wealthy businessmen can spend upward of 50 grand for the opportunity to torture someone to death, Roth has done a killer job of depicting it.
There is one particular moment of torture that literally had me gritting my teeth in revulsion, and it’s sure to go down in the annals of film as one of the most stomach-churning images ever released in theatres. If you thought The Exorcist was famous for making people puke and/or pass out, just wait till Hostel‘s little snip-snip scene.
#4. Hereditary (2018). Directed by Ali Aster.
Hereditary has been generating a lot of buzz lately as the scariest horror flick in years, and I gotta admit that it’s pretty damn frightening in spots. It’s also brutally unsettling throughout, so be warned.
The movie opens with a shot of a typewritten obituary, and the fact that it doesn’t include one positive word about the deceased in its three paragraphs sets the tone for writer-director Ali Aster’s punishing portrait of grief, psychological trauma, and Satanism.
Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) stars as Annie Graham, a diorama artist working on a project for an upcoming big-city gallery exhibit. Thanks to the exquisite camerawork of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, we are taken right inside the meticulously crafted rooms of the miniature homes Annie builds—faithful re-creations of the ones in her own house, a beautiful wooden mansion in a forest. (The film was shot in Utah.) She’s joined in a mostly joyless existence there by dour husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), typical teenage son Peter (My Friend Dahmer’s Alex Wolff), and odd 13-year-old daughter Charlie (enigmatic newcomer Milly Shapiro).
At the funeral for her mother—the subject of the terse obit—Annie reads a harsh eulogy that portrays the matriarch as secretive, eccentric, and anything but the ideal mom. Soon after the dead woman’s grave is desecrated, a tragic and shocking car accident cloaks the family in despair. The Grahams seemed pretty messed up to begin with, but the recent events take things to a whole new level of anguish.
In obvious need of help, Annie is befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman from the grief-support group she occasionally attends, who raves about the therapeutic benefits of holding a séance to communicate with lost loved ones. But Annie’s guilt-driven attempt to contact the other side only proves that you should never, ever mess with the occult.
With so much real-life emotional torment going on, by the time Hereditary’s supernatural set pieces arrive you’ve already been horrified to the max. The wrath of Satan seems pretty tame compared to the suffering that damaged family members can inflict on one another.
#3. Creep (2015). Directed by Patrick Brice.
I had a hankering for a scary movie late last night so took a look at the Horror Movies section on Netflix to see what was available.
The first five offerings were Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Prometheus, The Conjuring, Orphan, and World War Z, all of which I’d already seen, and all of which–apart from the totally decent WWZ–sucked the biggie.
The sixth pick was something from 2014 called Creep, which caught my attention with its eerie image of a man’s silhouette at the top of a flight of stairs. It stars Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice, which didn’t bode well because I remembered Duplass unfondly from The Lazarus Effect, that lame Flatliners rip-off from last February.
But I went ahead and watched Creep anyway, and man was it enjoyable.
It’s about an easygoing videographer named Aaron (co-writer and director Brice) who gets hired by a man named Josef (cowriter Duplass) to film him non-stop for a day at his semi-remote cabin. Josef explains that he’s been diagnosed with a baseball-sized tumor in his head, and only a couple of months to live, so wants to leave a video document for his unborn soon, like Michael Keaton did in My Life.
Josef comes off as bit of a strange bird, but at first you think that maybe he’s just quirky, or that his weirdness might be due to the fact that he’s facing imminent death. Soon enough, though, you come to see that he’s a total freak–especially when he confesses to a terrible crime against his own wife.
The bizarre relationship that develops between Josef and Aaron is hugely compelling, made more so as Josef’s potential danger to Aaron is both hinted at and revealed.
The fact that Aaron records every damn thing–even when he should be dropping the camera and running away–seems ridiculous at times, as it is in most found-footage horror flicks. But if you give yourself over to the idea that he’s a videographer whose instinct is to keep the camera rolling, it’s not so hard to take.
Duplass’s whacked-out performance keeps you fairly riveted to the screen, wondering what crazy shit Josef’s gonna pull next–and how the tormented Aaron will respond. It’s one of the most memorable sicko roles I’ve seen in a while.
It definitely makes up for his wasted effort in The Lazarus Effect.
Creep is yet another project from Blumhouse Productions, which is best known for its supernatural horror franchises like Paranormal Activity and Insidious, but lately–with the thoroughly impressive The Gift–is doing great work portraying the evil that mortals do as well.
Way to go, Blumhouse! At this rate we might one day even forgive you for The Boy Next Door!
#2. A Perfect Getaway (2009). Directed by David Twohy.
Watching too many scary tourist-in-peril flicks can make you paranoid. The last time I was in Puerto Vallarta, I hopped in a cab before realizing that the car had neither a meter nor a two-way radio. And why was the driver heading away from the general direction of my destination? Was this Mexican dude gonna take me somewhere where I’d be butchered and relieved of my vital organs?
Or, worse yet, forced to sit through a time-share presentation?
I eventually made it safely to my hotel—the worrisome detour turned out to be a shortcut—but the same can’t be said about the vacationers in A Perfect Getaway, a riveting horror-thriller that should do for hiking in Hawaii what Hostel did for backpacking in Slovakia.
Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich play semi-geeky screenwriter Cliff and upbeat party girl Cydney, blissfully unaware newlyweds who arrive in paradise just as news of another couple’s brutal murder is making headlines there. Cliff wastes no time in drawing the attention of unsavoury-looking locals by flashing a hefty wad of cash; soon after, his flippant remarks make him enemies with a pair of sketchy hitchhikers (Chris Hemsworth and Planet Terror’s Marley Shelton).
The suspense ratchets up when the honeymooners become hiking buddies with a tough-as-nails ex-Marine (Timothy Olyphant, channeling Michael Biehn) and his free-spirited southern girlfriend (Lost’s Kiele Sanchez).
I won’t reveal anything else because the less you know about this engrossing heart stopper the better. I can say that the mayhem unfolds against some stunningly gorgeous shots of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Jamaica, and for that reason alone you should see it on the big screen.
Writer-director David Twohy’s exhilarating shocker is, indeed, a perfect getaway for horror fans hoping to escape Hollywood’s typically tepid fright fare.
#1. The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Directed by Drew Goddard.
The Cabin in the Woods is crammed with so many twists and turns that the mere thought of reviewing it and ruining the fun for others is scary in and of itself. But I don’t feel bad about revealing at least one huge surprise: it’s the best horror flick ever made in Vancouver.
A gaggle of attractive young victims-to-be head out for some weekend fun in what looks like your typical Friday the 13th–style slaughterfest, but for some reason the group’s every move is being tracked by a shadowy team using state-of-the-art gadgetry. The operation is overseen in a NASA-like control room by a pair of total dickheads—brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Bradley Whitford (TV’s The West Wing)—whose manipulations drive the action once the human lab rats arrive at the titular location.
Why, exactly, these two assholes subject their innocent prey to deadly torment won’t be exposed here, but the hoops the victims are forced to jump through in order to survive (if they’re lucky) makes for some of the most exhilarating horror action since Scream revitalized the genre back in 1996.
Working from an idea of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon, cowriter and director Drew Goddard goes hilariously nutzoid, testing people’s preconceptions of scary movies while at the same time questioning humanity itself. Things just keep getting wilder and more intense as the shocks and bodies pile up, but the entertainment level never wavers.
The Cabin in the Woods really is the most fun you can have at the movies with your clothes on.
To read over 300 of the Newt’s horror-movie reviews go here.