The Absolute Best Horror Cinema Offered in 2019
2019 was another great year for the horror genre, and while we could have easily listed about thirty movies we’d love to recommend, we decided instead to narrow it down to our fifteen favourites.
We here at Sordid Cinema believe horror transcends explicit gore, jump scares or supernatural content, which is why you’ll soon notice that our list ranges from independent art films to psychological thrillers to parodies to satire and more. Whether you’re a fan of psychological terror, sci-fi dread, traditional slasher flicks, or gory splatterfests, we hope you’ll find at least one movie on this list that you’ll enjoy.
Editor’s Note: In order to qualify, a movie must have been released either theatrically or on VOD in 2019. We are not including any of the amazing horror films we watched at film festivals that have not yet been released. In addition, because it was such a strong year for horror films, we also listed some special mentions below. That out of the way, here are the fifteen best horror movies of 2019.
During the lead-up to Gaspar Noé’s most recent provocation, Climax, he released a one-sheet that’s one the more honest bits of film advertising ever created: “You despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, you cursed Love, now try Climax.” Nothing it says is wrong — each film has its defenders and detractors, but few filmmakers can turn off viewers like Noé. What’s most amazing about his latest is how completely enjoyable it is for the first 45 minutes or so. What follows is peppered with his standard touchstones: sex, sexual violence, regular ol’ violence, and hallucinogenic drug trips. Noé fans will find everything they like about his films here in Climax, but even his usual critics may be seduced by his style — at least until the drugs take hold.
Climax telegraphs where it will go in its opening minutes. After a quick flashforward to future violence, we see a series of interviews with dancers on an old TV circa 1996. The on-screen text suggests the film is based on real events from 1996, but it’s all a fabrication on Noé’s part. His performers are congregated in a dance hall with their choreographer (Sofia Boutella, the film’s only professional actor), who plans to take the troupe on a US tour. In Climax’s first section, they perform a choreographed dance soundtracked with incessant ‘90s dance music. Even the staunchest Noé critics will have trouble finding fault with the voguing (the actors are all professional dancers and YouTubers), but someone has spiked their bowl of sangria with LSD, and the stylish music video soon turns into an even more stylish nightmare.
Noé’s camera is as fleeting and energized as the dancers in front of it. His regular cinematographer, Benoît Debie, plays up the garish club lighting — a candy-colored rave nightmare. There’s a virtuoso sequence toward the end where the camera flips upside down (mirroring its acrobatics in Irréversible), which cleverly dehumanizes the dancers. When looking at faces upside down, our brains struggle to reorient them; we can figure out who the character is through isolated features, but they look foreign, alien. The LSD has warped them into panicky monsters, and the camera allows us to see them in this new light by actually transforming them.
There’s plenty that’s sickening and offensive, including the fate of a child unfortunate enough to be roped into the debauchery, but few Noé films allow the audience to sit back and revel in the music and images quite like Climax. His movies always sit uncomfortably at the precipice of horror, and this one is more delightful than anything in his oeuvre in its first half, and more destabilizing than any of his films (aside from Irréversible) in its back half. Chances are, you’ll have a much better trip than the unfortunate souls on screen — that is, if you don’t vomit first. (Brian Marks)
Though little in the script elevates it above your average SyFy creature feature, director Alexandre Aja’s Crawl offers plenty of tightly constructed, toothy thrills courtesy of some sharp direction and a lead performance that consistently buoys even the more ridiculous bits (and bites). While it may not live up to “you’ll never go in the water again” standards, this is nevertheless breezy horror entertainment that delivers enough murky spooks and gruesome attacks to make audiences think twice about wading in the reedy shallows.
Sporting a simplistic plot that could have just as easily been titled Gatorcane, Crawl sees Florida college swimmer Haley (an incredibly game Kaya Scodelario) trapped in a flooding basement with her father and some bitey reptiles during a massive storm. This type of setup has all the makings of classic B-movie schlock, but Crawl manages a better grade thanks to production values that are a cut above most ‘killer beast’ fare. Aja (The Hills Have Eyes remake, Piranha 3D) creates a creaky, muddy, desolate place for his characters to be trapped in; the dripping dankness is palpable, while the diffused light keeps the water shimmering — and goads viewers into constantly searching for scaly movement.
A subplot involving the now-distant daddy-daughter relationship is clumsy, but mercifully takes little time away from the tense cat-and-mouse action; some typical monster physics issues also arise. Regardless, Crawl slithers past any flaws on the muscular strength of its merits. This is a spare, confident creature feature that gets quickly where it wants to go, and doesn’t ease up on the tension. Perhaps not quite apex predator material, but definitely near the top of the summer horror entertainment food chain. (Patrick Murphy)
The Dead Don’t Die
Director Jim Jarmusch has worked in many genres and styles over the last three decades, but The Dead Don’t Die might be his most delightful film. It’s a star-studded zombie comedy that pays equal homage to George Romero and Frank Zappa, in which the characters seem to be aware that they are characters in a movie.
The film has so many fun touches, from Sturgill Simpson’s repetitive, eponymous theme song, to Carol Kane asking for coffee, to Rosie Perez’s TV reporter character’s name being “Posey Juarez.” And I don’t know that I’ve gotten a bigger laugh out of any sight this year than that of the very tall Adam Driver driving a very small smart car. (Stephen Silver)
It: Chapter Two
Where, It: Chapter One uses the fight against Pennywise as a metaphor for the characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood, Chapter Two tackles themes of memory and childhood trauma, exploring the loss of innocence decades after our heroes faced off against the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice, and a habit of eating kids. And like Chapter One, Chapter Two deals with grief, insecurities, trauma, and guilt. These characters may be older, but they continue to be haunted by their own personal demons, and they have ways to go before they can ever heal.
For better or for worse, It stands out as one of the rare films that have attempted to remain as true as possible to the source material and despite the running time, there’s a lot to like here, as It: Chapter Two oozes with spectacular scenery, stupefying effects, an epic score, and plenty of nerve-jangling scenes that will have viewers shrieking. In between the odd prologue and the disappointing climax is roughly two hours of well-crafted filmmaking and fifty minutes of excess. (Ricky D)
It’s difficult to nail down the exact start of cinema, but historians generally peg it to December 1895, when the Lumières exhibited ten of their short films in Paris. So far, the rising filmmaker Robert Eggers has set both of his feature films in this pre-cinema period, with The Witch taking place in barely colonized America of the 1630s, and his newest, The Lighthouse, occurring sometime around the 1890s. With his first-period horror film, he drew on the style of meticulous (and meticulously slow) period films that began to flourish in the 1960s and ‘70s. But he’s taken a differing approach with The Lighthouse, which finds him working in chilling black and white. Though the settings appear to be a note-perfect (owing to Eggers’ past as a production and costume designer), the style and tone of his latest film evoke the madness-inducing mood of German expressionism. In place of the twisting, snaking sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), he utilizes the rocky coast of Nova Scotia to create an alien world that seems inhospitable to human life.
Robert Pattinson stars as Ephraim Winslow, a mush-mouthed wanderer who has moved to a lighthouse on a remote island for a four-week rotation in which he’ll care for the giant beam and its upkeep. Joining him is the more senior Thomas Wake (an astounding Willem Dafoe), a grizzled veteran of the lighthouse duty who fancies himself the boss, even though they’re ostensibly of the same rank. As in another film that he clearly admires, The Shining (1980), Eggers establishes an immediate sense of dread. We know something terrible will happen — it’s just not clear what that is. He eschews easy scares, or even the kind of harmless jumps that make you chuckle with relief afterward. Instead, he lightens the oppressive mood with plenty of humorous interactions between the salty seadogs (and fart jokes galore). The greatest horror directors often know the maximum amount of humor they can inject without toning down their frights, and Eggers walks that line delicately. Not that his frights are all that piercing to begin with. His two features to date have been masterful exercises in style, and their success depends wholly on whether or not one gets on his wavelength. But anyone who connects to The Lighthouse’s meticulous compositions and deliberate pacing will be richly rewarded by its final bloody moments. (Brian Marks)
Ari Aster’s Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and the slow dissolution of her relationship with distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), as they accompany his school friends to remote Swedish festival that soon spirals into a blood-soaked nightmare. The film deserves acclaim for its excellent cinematography, acting performances, and originality. The entirety is shot in a way that lends direct praise to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, but there are several choice scenes throughout Midsommar that are pulled straight from Aster’s screenplay — evidence of how tightly his directing plays into his screenwriting.
For instance, a simple scene transition from a city apartment to an airplane bathroom is instantly transformed into a remarkable shot; the camera floats seamlessly overhead as Dani is transported onto a transatlantic flight. The direction works in tandem with Pugh’s performance, preventing her character from fully escaping the constant panic attack that threatens to overwhelm her.
Later on, the effects of drugs used throughout the film are echoed in the scenery and camera movements, creating a disorienting climax. As characters’ faces blur and colors appear to ooze through the screen, Aster’s directing style is simultaneously powerful yet purposefully disconcerting, which might as well be the thesis for Midsommar itself.
Although the dialogue is less overtly dramatic than that of Hereditary (Aster’s film debut), the passive death of Dani and Christian’s relationship is painted with a delicate but knowing hand. During press for Midsommar, Aster disclosed that he wrote the screenplay in the aftermath of a nasty breakup. While certain liberties are taken with his story (the bear carcass, for one), personal trauma is written all over Midsommar. For anyone who has lived through a slow and inevitable breakup, the depiction of Dani and Christian’s relationship cuts close to home, and is even palpable from their first scene, in which Dani talks to him on the phone, pleading for reassurance as she downplays her anxiety.
It’s also worth noting that Pugh’s portrayal of a young woman grappling with an anxiety disorder is visceral in every scene. Whether it’s shown through primal screams or a quiet, unending hum, Pugh embodies her anxiety — as well as her battle to dampen it at every turn — perfectly. While the early plot development of Dani’s mentally ill sister killing herself and both of their parents is a symptom of a disappointing trend in horror films to make synonyms of the concepts “crazy” and “evil,” the rest of Midsommar does an enviable job of validating Dani’s anxiety. When the climax finally allows Dani to fully feel everything, and ultimately shed those worries for a new life, the moment feels earned. In short, Midsommar is by no means flawless, but it’s a welcome entry in an art form that’s quickly running out of creative corners to turn to. It’s beautiful, it’s disgusting, and above all it’s cathartic; all the traits of a modern horror film destined for cult status. (Meghan Cook)
Luz is directed with such care and such precision, that what could have been a simple chamber drama ends up being one of the best-directed and best-edited films I’ve seen all year. It really is an incredible achievement given how much mileage the cast and crew get out of a small budget. Even more impressive is that from my understanding, Luz began as a student film, and was Tilman’s thesis project while attending the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Not bad for a first feature!
The story of Luz is a relatively simple one (even if it is told out of sequence, using a series of vignettes), but if you’re open to films that twist the conventions and bend the language of image and sound in creative new ways, you won’t want to miss this. Tilman Singer’s take on demonic possession is a breath of fresh air, and Luz is a real treat for fans of vintage horror cinema (in particular, the experimental Giallo genre). The fun of watching Luz is admiring how Tilman and his very talented team rely on old tricks of the trade used before the age of computers and digital effects. (Ricky D)
One Cut of the Dead
A giddy, hilarious, invigorating celebration of the spirit of movie-making, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead cleverly plays with technique in carefully crafting a bonkers story of a micro-budget film crew tasked with shooting a C-level zombie pic in an abandoned warehouse. Things start going wrong, blood starts splattering, and the ragtag group of goofballs must come together to overcome a maniacal director, bad improv, severed arms, method acting, axes to the head, untimely slips, and zombie vomit in order to come out on top and survive until the credits roll. The result is simply one of the most entertaining movies about making movies that you will ever see.
The one-take opening act might catch viewers off guard, as in addition to the spurting neck bites, flailing hatchets, and the obligatory sprained ankle, audiences also might notice how awkward the whole thing comes off. Odd looks, wonky camerawork, jerky timing, and strange asides remind one of late-night horror schlock. And yet…there’s no doubt that even the most gracious horror audiences will get the feeling that something isn’t quite right, and be wishing that there was a bit more. Luckily, the real fun is just beginning.
Suffice to say, as One Cut of the Dead begins to flesh itself out, that ambitious (if somewhat clunky on the surface) opening pays off in such a supremely satisfying way that many viewers will immediately want to immediately re-watch it in order to spot little moments that they initially missed. A cast of unknowns admirably puts their passion on full display, all the way through a resoundingly satisfying end. From the expert crafting of its revelations to the blatant love for filmmaking’s cavalcade of catastrophes, One Cut of the Dead is a wonderful treasure that needs to be seen by anyone and everyone who delights in both the magic on screen, and the passion behind the scenes. (Patrick Murphy)
The notion that pain and suffering make for great artistry is an idea as old as art itself. However, few films use that conceit to as chilling an effect as The Perfection.
Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a child prodigy cellist. She learned from a world-renowned instructor, and could be playing in concerts today if she hadn’t been forced to take care of her terminally-ill mother. Now, years later, her mother has passed and Charlotte hopes to regain her glory. There’s just one problem: someone has taken her place. Lizzie (Logan Browning) is now the belle of the ball, and if Charlotte wants her place back at the head of the class, she’s going to have to get nasty.
With enough twists and turns to keep things remarkably fresh for its 90-minute runtime, The Perfection is a great piece of original horror for an October night. Just note that this one isn’t for the squeamish, in terms of both subject matter and gruesome violence. (Mike Worby)
Ready or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are collectively credited as Radio Silence (V/H/S, Southbound), Ready or Not has a lot to offer in wit, style, and entertainment. It feels tailor-made for a midnight audience, as the bloodthirsty relatives arm themselves to the teeth in a wedding night filled with crossbows, shotguns, decapitations, a car chase, and a level of gore I didn’t expect given the marketing. The climax is especially memorable — an all-out gore extravaganza that left the audience laughing hysterically.
There’s a lot to like here, from the score by composer Brian Tyler to the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, but the reason this film works so well is because of the talented cast they’ve assembled, most notably Alex’s alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), who serves as the family’s moral core. And of course, there’s also Samara Weaving, (Mayhem, The Babysitter) who pretty much sacrifices her body in blood-soaked scenes of action and terror. The actress is fully dedicated in her role, turning into her own version of Ripley while tearing apart the upper-class society, their ridiculous traditions, and their silly superstitions. (Ricky D)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Movies depicting the scarier side of life aren’t often made for teens, and either skew too young (Goosebumps) or older (Hereditary). Still, there’s a space in the market out there for horror that rides a fine line between condescending and inappropriately gory. With Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) manages to walk that tightrope, albeit with few wobbles.
The plot is fairly generic — a group of friends discovers a sinister-looking book in the local haunted house, demise ensues — but it’s simply a by-product of the genre; what makes this movie work is the imagery and scares that come when the book starts to write itself, going after each teen in turn. Pushing the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, the young cast is violently turned into scarecrows, covered in spiders, and chased by a terrifying creature called the Jangly Man, with segment having unique and disturbing imagery.
It may not go down in history as one of the best horror movies of all time, but with some decent scares, captivating images, and a good cast (Zoe Colletti as lead Stella, in particular, is excellent), it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing ride. (Veronica Cooper)
One of those films that sticks long after, even if you’re not sure why, Starfish‘s story of a woman coming to terms with the death of her friend — as well as the appearance of inter-dimensional portals that bring stalking beasts to the streets of a small mountain town — is more about mood than motives, willing to test boundaries by going to some weird places. It’s also strangely hypnotic, even during unbroken shots of its protagonist simply staring straight ahead, or trippy fourth-wall-breaking moments like a visit to the film’s own set (more unsettling in context than it sounds).
Much of this is due to wide compositions that capture the loneliness of the post-apocalyptic environment, yet also manage to convey the safety and comfort of familiar surroundings. The use of effects can also be particularly startling in their quality, whether portraying frightful, stalking beasts or magnificently beautiful, towering behemoths (there are inklings of The Mist in its mix of terror and awe). Rarely is there not something to look at, no framing that highlights an object of interest. Anchoring all of this is Virginia Gardner, who seems strangely grounded and otherworldly at once. Though her character is not especially talkative, Gardner’s nebular face is often the most fascinating thing on screen, conveying just enough pieces of her puzzle to lure viewers into her quest, all while never overplaying her hand.
These elements add up to a fascinating cinematic experience. A.T. White’s debut is an opaque, meandering film definitely more interested in exploring inwards than reaching for the philosophical cosmos, but though its frigid atmosphere and sparse narrative can sometimes be hard to penetrate, there’s something magnetic at play here — a sci-fi siren’s song that lures viewers in with an engaging lead performance and often stunning visuals. (Patrick Murphy)
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Issa López immediately sets the stage for her latest film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, with an opening text screen detailing the horrific loss of human life in Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The voices of schoolchildren enter the soundtrack, as they recount the creatures and heroes of fairy tales. Moments later, their classroom falls into chaos as gunfire begins to thunder outside, and bullets perforate the walls over their cowering heads. The dichotomy is striking, and purposeful; ‘What use are fairytales to these children?’ the film seems to demand. ‘What business do princes and genies have when we’re confronted with such brutality, such callous disregard for life?’ Tigers Are Not Afraid spends the rest of its runtime grappling with these questions, and the result is one of the best and most urgent fantasy films in recent memory, destined to be a classic among fans of socially-charged fantasy and horror. It stands alongside works like Pan’s Labyrinth in contrasting the fantastical and the brutal, but speaks in its own voice from the first moments to the last. (Thomas O’Connor)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a smashing hit back in 2017 — a biting satire on racial tension in America that won Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade, catapulting the first-time director firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has returned with his sophomore effort, the physiological thriller US, that pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Where Get Out took a simple premise and turned it into a brilliant allegory for what it’s like to be black in America, Us structures itself as a home invasion thriller that touches on issues of class, capitalism, gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma and/or mental illness. It’s a smorgasbord of terrifying sights, sounds, and images, with a climax that will likely leave audiences with split opinions. For some, the reveal will enhance the experience, but for others, it will leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Regardless of where you stand, US demands to be seen a second time, as it is the sort of film that will be over-analyzed for years to come — something the best horror movies all do. (Ricky D)
Dan Gilroy’sVelvet Buzzsaw is a quirky, quasi-ghost story involving cursed paintings that terrorize an already cutthroat Los Angeles art scene. Those able to parse the pseudo-intellectual gibberish will find some bloody genre thrills beneath a savage critique of self-obsessed artists, vapid dealers, and elitist tastemakers. Brightly shot and darkly funny, this cultural roast may seem like low-hanging fruit, but Gilroy’s sharp dialogue coupled with off-beat performances from his stellar cast keeps things zipping devilishly along even when the story gets bogged down in trying to explain its own silliness.
Involving the discovery of a series of haunted paintings that are picking off elitist tastemakers like it’s back in style (did it ever leave?), Velvet Buzzsaw finds snooty art critic Morf Vandewalt (an entertainingly mannered Jake Gyllenhaal) poking his nose in search of answers. Much of the fun of Velvet Buzzsaw is watching him interact with the comfortable bubble he and his cronies have blown for themselves, then be forced to deal with outside forces they don’t understand. Cocktail parties are rife with the kinds of people who would blindly applaud the Emperor’s new clothes, wannabe geniuses desperate to lap up any scraps from the table of their gallery masters, all the while conniving their own ascent. In one wickedly funny moment, a gruesome murder scene is obliviously mistaken for an installation; reality is checked at the door for these people.
Determining exactly why these people are biting that dust is like looking at an impressionist painting up close, but viewed from a distance, Velvet Buzzsaw is a skillful romp. The brush strokes might be too broad for those who like their slices more incisive, but outsiders curious about this specific world will find much to revel in. Dan Gilroy has painted another part of his town red, slathering satire over slaughter. It may not be art, but I know what I like. (Patrick Murphy)
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won a Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly have been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
The Career of Roger Ebert
Every Film Critic Owes A Bit to Roger Ebert
I recently wrote a profile on the late, great Robert Mitchum. In the course of researching the piece, I came across the fun tidbit that Mitchum had been a favorite of film critic Roger Ebert.
The mind rarely works in a linear fashion, and I suspect mine may even be more chaotic than most. That item pinballed around the ol’ noggin, and, somewhere in all that bouncing here and there, triggered a bit of nostalgia. Probably because I was working on the piece during Oscar season, the mention of Ebert reminded me that there had been a time when this would’ve been the point in the year I’d be looking forward to the annual “If We Gave Out the Oscars” (or something like that) show done by Ebert along with his on-screen partner of nearly two dozen years, fellow film critic Gene Siskel.
That first Ebert/Siskel memory triggered others, and as they bubbled up and percolated a bit, they started to gel together and bing: Gestalt light bulb.
Roger Ebert, and the long-lasting TV presence he’s had, particularly in association with Siskel, has been such a visible part of the media landscape for so long that he’s taken for granted; viewed as an institution with a sense of was-is-and-always-will-be.
Which, as is the case with any institution, is hardly true. There was a time before, and the difference between then and what came after is so stark as… Well, you wouldn’t think it, but when Ebert and Siskel hit the air, the changes they wrought on the public face of film criticism, were – dare I say it? Yes, I dare! – nothing less than revolutionary. And if it doesn’t seem so today, that only testifies as to how some revolutions, in time, become the new long-standing status quo.
As late as the 1970s, and, arguably, even into the 1980s, the public face of movie criticism — … Well, it didn’t have a public face. Not much of one, anyway.
According to Gerald Peary’s 2009 documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, in which Ebert is a prominent talking head, up to that period most people didn’t know reviewers, not by name, anyway, nor did they much care what they had to say.
Not that there weren’t a number of critics out there flexing considerable intellectual muscle. Several were, in fact, among the all-time heavyweight champs of American film criticism, like Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, and her rival Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, or Bosley Crowther over at The New York Times, to name just a few.
They were more than just reviewers. Their passion went far beyond recommending a good watch for the weekend. They appreciated film in-depth, in a way extending past what was at the movies that week. They wrote articles and essays and books which seriously contemplated the larger issues – corporate and aesthetic, and that area where they overlapped or bumped into each other – in cinema. When I took my first film study class in high school, Kael’s novella-length essay “Raising Kane” – the story behind the making and an appreciation of Citizen Kane – was our text. Later, as a film student in college, Sarris’ The American Cinema was a much-dog-eared reference work, a landmark as the first aesthetic overview of the body of all significant American directors up to that time compiled outside of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd.
They had their notable triumphs, too. Kael’s support for Bonnie & Clyde is – at least by some — considered the beginning of the commercial turn-around for that ground-breaking piece of 1960s moviemaking. She fired the first volley in a critical cannonade which turned what had been a sputtering, often panned release into one of the major commercial hits and artistic highpoints of the decade.
These were serious appreciators as well as serious students of film, writing seriously about – as often as they could – serious films and serious filmmaking. But as such – and Bonnie & Clyde notwithstanding — they had little to say to less serious Joe and Joan Average, or at least little Joe and Joan were interested in hearing…or could possibly want to make an effort to understand. Kael, for instance, managed to get herself fired from an early gig at McCall’s by – according to her editor Robert Stein – “…panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day’s Night.”
We film students – a rather serious lot, too, or so we considered ourselves — knew who many of these critical leading lights were, read their work, argued about what they had to say, but beyond that… Not a lot of echo out there with all those Joes and Joans who were only looking for a fun movie for date night. Kael and Sarris and that crowd wrote and mused in something of an intellectual bubble, and it was easy to imagine they were really only talking to each other; their true – and possibly only – peers.
There were a few reviewers who did manage to connect with the general public, and I suspect that some in the critical community at that time wished they hadn’t.
Like Rex Reed. Reed, who still writes for The New York Observer, was a semi-regular guest on the talk show circuit back in those days. Draped lazily in a chair opposite Johnny or Merv, wallowing in an air of boredom and bare tolerance, he was colorful as hell, a real-life Waldo Lydecker – a professional snob. He vindicated every suspicion the general public had of film critics as something vastly removed from themselves, coming off, as he did, as effete, arrogant, condescending, and skewering most movies and the general public who enjoyed them with volleys of acid-tipped bon mots.
Still more public and recognized was NBC’s resident film reviewer, Gene Shallit, who presented as something of a cross between a kiddy party clown and a bad Borscht Belt comic. He wore goggle-sized eyeglasses and garish bowties, had an electro-shocked head of hair with a face-bisecting mustache to match. His one-two minute reviews, delivered with a frozen grin and a tone of malicious delight, were line after line of groan-inducing puns and corny one-liners. I recall times when it seemed Shallit had been so committed to being funny, in his groan-inducing corny way, that I hadn’t been able to tell if he’d ever actually gotten around to saying if the movie he’d been reviewing had been any good or not.
But that was the thing with Reed and Shallit and others like them. They weren’t there to inform or edify as much as entertain. I’ve always fancied people were more interested in watching them “perform” than in hearing if they had anything of value to say. And the way they entertained was with a flair for a well-honed but gratuitous bitchiness in their reviews, an edge sometimes bordering on a nastiness and cruelty simply for the fun of being nasty and cruel.
The Artful Roger Ebert
And this was, more or less, the lay of the land – at least as I remember it — when, in 1975, a Chicago PBS affiliate teamed up the film critics from the city’s two leading newspapers on a movie review show: Roger Ebert – the first, and I believe, only film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize — from The Chicago Sun-Times, and, from the competing The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel.
The format of what was then called Sneak Previews was staggeringly simple. The two men, seated in a mock cinema balcony (remember movie house balconies anyone?), would screen clips of the week’s releases, opinionate on each movie and conclude with a recommended/not recommended vote of thumbs-up/down.
It was also staggeringly effective. In 1978, PBS picked the show up for national telecast. Come 1982, the duo would leave PBS for the still-larger audience – and more lucrative paychecks – of syndication with At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and then later, in 1986, come out with yet another incarnation in Siskel and Ebert and the Movies. The show would be nominated seven times for prime time Emmys, and the two critics would become so recognizable they graduated to the tier of talk show-worthy guests. In 2005, Ebert received what must be considered the ultimate recognition of his prominent standing in the movie universe: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Try to find another film critic there.
Pairing up the critics did something for the public that stand-alone reviews by stand-alone reviewers didn’t do: it gave viewers the ability to compare and contrast two sensibilities as the reviewers argued the merits – or lack thereof – of recent releases. It seems simple enough now, but that kind of back-and-forth was unique at the time.
It helped that they were accessible. Ebert and Siskel didn’t talk over viewers’ heads, but didn’t talk down to them either. Their passion for movies was obvious, especially when they found one they liked, and, more particularly one they both liked.
Conversely, as much as they might hate a particular title to the point of denouncing it with scalpel-sharp sarcasm, they still lacked the bitchy cruel-for-cruelty’s sake of a Reed or Shallit. For Ebert and Siskel, it wasn’t about showcasing their wit as much as it was about making a point.
Whether they were arguing or in rare communion, in the back-and-forthing the show also displayed what any successful TV show has: that ephemeral, unpredictable, often accidental, yet essential quality called chemistry.
Ebert and Siskel were perfect for each other. They were intellectual peers, so it was always a fair fight and, frankly, when the sparks flew was when the show was at its best…well, at least at its most fun. I know some people watched the show waiting for a spat the way some NASCAR freaks watch races hoping for the excitement of a crash. There were times the dueling duo were so impassioned in their clash of opinions it seemed they were just a hair’s breadth from “Jackass!” “Pinhead!” and throwing Milk Duds at each other.
They even looked great together. People who couldn’t remember their names still remembered them, even if it was by the rather politically incorrect labels of The Skinny One and The Fat One. They were the Stan & Ollie of film criticism; iconic.
Stephen Whitty, film critic for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, understands the nature of the lightning in a bottle Roger and Gene caught. Asked about it, he says they “…did more than anyone to popularize (film) criticism, and show people just what fun arguing about movies could be…”
And, I suppose, that was the thing. They were fun to watch, but they weren’t entertainers. They sometimes stumbled when they talked, they weren’t always particularly glib; it wasn’t about them. It was about movies. The fun in watching them sometimes go at each other was knowing it came from the absolute cocksure commitment on each of their parts that they thought the other one – on this one, particular occasion – had his head up his ass. I think that honesty was what people connected with, and what they responded to, and why the show – combined with their unique chemistry – was such a success.
I suspect Ebert – and I’m only guessing here – probably had more mainstream fans than Siskel because he approached movie reviewing from a different perspective. Siskel more or less judged movies against an absolute, whereas Ebert understood some movies were, well, they were what they were…and that was ok. It wasn’t about an absolute good or absolute bad, but whether or not a movie did what it set out to do. He explained his philosophy in a 2004 review of Shaolin Soccer:
“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.”
As the show grew in popularity and became more entrenched in the media landscape, the two critics used it as a bully pulpit to regularly bring attention to the small, low-profile art house flicks most average moviegoers didn’t even know were out there. Better, they tried to make the case for those movies expressly to that average moviegoer; to demystify for Joe and Joan out-of-the-mainstream flicks, and show they could be just as entertaining, if not more so, than the star-filled big releases taking up three and four screens at the multiplex.
They expanded the format of the show to include occasional one-offs, like their annual Oscar show, or focusing on films of a particular actor, genre, etc. A personal favorite I’ve always remembered was a compare-and-contrast show they did between the films of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, then the two kings of the movie comedy heap. It was a great layman’s lesson in the evolution of two ultimately opposite comedic sensibilities; the kind of opportunity to broaden mass audience sensibilities TV and TV pundits rarely take.
Gene Siskel died in 1999 of complications from surgery for a cancerous brain tumor. Ebert continued on, first with a rotating series of co-hosts before settling on his Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper. Roeper was – and is – a capable enough critic, but Siskel’s absence showed just how much of the show’s charm had been about the spark between he and Ebert. One only had to look at their PBS replacements – Neal Gabler and Jeffrey Lyons (Gabler would leave in 1985 and be replaced by Michael Medved) – to see that as easily as the Ebert/Siskel format was to reproduce, the Ebert/Siskel dynamic was one of a kind. The PBS show was finally cancelled in 1996 while Roger and Gene were still a syndication staple.
And if it proved impossible to follow their act, they still opened a door, making talking about movies something of popular interest. As it happens, while working on this piece, I heard an interview with actor Topher Grace on a New York radio station. Grace knew Bosley Crowther; the critic had introduced Grace’s parents. Grace unknowingly told me the difference between pre-E&S and today: “There were, like, a billion less critics in those days.”
Everything from Robert Osborne’s one-on-one chats on TMC to Rotten Tomatoes, Peter Bart and Peter Guber dissecting the current state of Hollywood on AMC to the bazillion websites devoted to movies (including this one) are all branches of the family tree first planted by Roger and Gene on Sneak Previews.
Between 2002 and 2006, Roger Ebert underwent several surgeries for cancer in his thyroid, salivary glands, and jaw. Complications from the surgeries robbed him of his voice, his ability to eat and drink forcing him to be nourished through a feeding tube, and left him seriously scarred. He no longer regularly appeared on TV. But, as he once said, though he may not be able to speak, he can still write.
It is the paradox of our visually-driven age, Roger Ebert will probably always be known – most for his TV presence. But before then and during the remainder of his career, he was first and foremost a journalist, a chronicler of movies and the business of movies. He may be famous for being on TV, but his reviews, essays, and many books are probably his more substantive contribution, and one he amazingly continued despite his travails. He’s put out at least a half-dozen books over the years. It’s impossible – even for those who question his taste – not to be impressed by Ebert’s choice to follow the passion that so obviously drove him. “I’m still in awe of his work ethic even into his last days,” says Steven Whitty. “The only thing more remarkable than Roger Ebert’s influence…was his indomitability. It’s not just that he kept at it, after more than forty years and a host of ailments worthy of Job – it’s that he worked harder and with more enthusiasm than writers half his age. He was an inspiration to everyone.”
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