The best scares aren't the cheap ones, where the cat jumps out of a closet, but rather, those moments that make your heart race.
This past year was pretty tame for horror movie fans. There were a few wide releases that delivered what their trailers promised, but for the most part, we needed to do some serious scrounging and sifting to come across some unknown gem. That said, we all know that few major studios take it seriously enough to recruit quality writers, directors, and performers, and instead keep their budget focus on jolts and effects. And while 2012 served up its fair share of duds (The Possession, The Apparition, and The Devil Inside), we were still graced with some wonderful genre hybrids, self-referential meta-pieces, and good old-fashioned ghost stories.
Even as horror regularly delivers some of the best elements of filmmaking, it rarely wins awards. Hell, even the Saturn Awards -- originally meant to honour key players in the horror genre -- neglect the best horror films in favour of the latest CGI-driven superhero movie. The list that follows doesn't simply count down the 10 best horror films of the year. Instead, I note the best aspects in horror in 2012. The criteria? The films must have had local, non-festival North American releases (either direct to video or theatrical) during the year, and be recognizable as a horror movie (sorry, Sound of My Voice).
Best Male Performance in a Supporting Role
Winner: Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
While it can be argued that Prometheus is more science fiction than horror, its horror overtones make it a certifiable hybrid. And while Ransone’s performance of the dopey police officer who ends up being the most aware and intelligent character in Sinister was impressive, this year’s Supporting Actor award goes to Fassbender. His David, more advanced than Ian Holm’s Ash in the original Alien, is a tricky role. David follows the tradition of the unpredictable synthetic, rivaling some of the best from the franchise (with the exception of Winona Ryder’s laughable Call in Alien Resurrection). Fassbender quietly suggests this character -- who is ostensibly incapable of experiencing emotions -- is roiling with them.
Best Female Performance in a Supporting Role
Winner: Charlize Theron, Prometheus
Though McTeer is superbly messed up and Elizabeth Shue is surprisingly alluring in a fairly boring film, Theron's cold performance as Meredith Vickers earns the award for Supporting Actress. If you pay close attention, you can see the subtle notes that Theron hits as a scorned and bitter child, desperate to keep the mission on track, and so, please her father. Vickers never sees any form of emotional release, until her brutal demise, but Theron indicates how she has come to be utterly self-preserving. It’s the kind of performance that lesser actors would trample all over, playing it for camp.
Winner: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods
Other nominees: Ti West, The Innkeepers, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump for Kill List; Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy, The Awakening; Richard Bates Jr., Excision
The main problem with The Cabin in the Woods is that it’s just not scary. And while I do believe that scare factor isn’t always a necessary element for a superb horror film as long as theme and atmosphere are strong, there's something to be said for films that deliver on this front. Still, Cabin benefits from a top-notch screenplay by good friends Goddard and Whedon. Starring a pre-post-Thor Chris Hemsworth, The Cabin in the Woods is a spectacular meta horror film that turns the genre upside down without ever being condescending or disrespectful. Carefully crafted and detailed, it plays with character tropes, inverting them and then reinstalling them.
Winner: Bughuul, Sinister
Other nominees: Lola, The Loved Ones; The Woman in Black, The Woman in Black; The Buckners, The Cabin in the Woods; Mother, Mother's Day
A great scary movie is really only as good as its villain. This year we saw some pretty wonderfully demented villains, from the lunatic Lola in Australia’s little horror film that could, The Loved Ones, and De Mornay’s mad mother scorned to the vengeful child-killer spirit in The Woman in Black and cannibalistic redneck zombies in The Cabin in the Woods. However, the most terrifying is undeniably Bughuul in Sinister. The film never over-explains the demon's motives. Most of the evil doings are manipulated by Baghuul rather than committed outright. It also helps that he’s hella-creepy.
Winner: The lawnmower home video in Sinister
Other nominees: Someone's in the car with Sarah in Silent House; The woman in black is here in The Woman in Black; The old man is following Claire in The Innkeepers; Ghosts abound in Grave Encounters 2
The best scares aren't the cheap ones, where the cat jumps out of a closet, but rather, those moments that make your heart race. Occasionally, a film manages to create a scare that is more horrifying the more you think about it, and the more the image repeats in your mind. This year’s Best Scare award goes to the lawnmower home video in Sinister. Without giving too much away, as Ethan Hawke's Ellison stumbles upon a collection of disturbing home videos, the lawnmower video is the last and most gruesome he pops into the 8mm projector. It’s a scare that benefits from a long build up, but when it passes, you realize that you are more scared than you were when it was happening.
Best Twist Ending
Other nominees: Kill List; House at the End of the Street; Sinister; The Innkeepers
The twist ending has lately become a staple of horror films. Instead of opting for the neatly tied up conclusion where survivors rejoice and the monster is vanquished, recent horror movies prefer to leave the evil lurking. This year’s nominees do have some interesting last minutes, but most pale in comparison to the absolutely twisted and psychotic ending that happens in Excision. It’s an ending that you don’t see coming because, besides Pauline's (AnnaLynne McCord) bloody nightmares, Excision plays like a coming-of-age film, one gone horribly wrong. Though we have clues as to where we're headed, because of the movie's pleasant undertones, we want to believe that it couldn’t possibly happen. Not like this.
Best Prequel, Sequel, or Remake
Other nominees: Silent Night; Grave Encounters 2; Silent House; The Collection
Sequels, prequels, and remakes don't have to detract from the original (hell, I still really enjoy the original Wrong Turn, even though it barfed up four embarrassing sequels, and the original Halloween has not been sullied by the sequel featuring Busta Rhymes). A sequel, prequel or remake can be assessed on its own merits. Though The 2012 Best Prequel, Sequel or Remake award goes to Prometheus. Initially intended as a direct prequel to Alien, the film became an expansion and the first of a new trilogy. Prometheus deftly juggles the impossible tasks of developing themes from the preceding films and simultaneously setting its own tone and pace. Oh, and that space ship does not crash in the same position as the one discovered by the Nostromo in the original Alien. So there.
Best Male Lead Performance
Winner: Neil Maskell, Kill List
Other nominees: Ethan Hawke, Sinister; Cillian Murphy, Red Lights; Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black; Rupert Evans, Asylum Blackout
Radcliffe is unexpectedly effective as a widower reacting to practically nothing as he paces through the halls of Eel Marsh House. But it’s Maskell's work as Jay, a hitman forced to go on one last hit, that deserves the Best Male Lead Performance award. He seems never to suspect the twist that awaits him at the end of the beyond.
Best Female Lead Performance
Winner: Sara Paxton, The Innkeepers
Other nominees: Rebecca De Mornay, Mother's Day; Rebecca Hall, The Awakening; Elizabeth Olsen, Silent House; AnnaLynne McCord, Excision
De Mornay plays a more sadistic version of her role in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Olsen is superbly watchable in every single frame of Silent House, and McCord proves she’s capable of much more than crappy teenage drama. However, this year’s Best Female Lead Performance award goes to Paxton, who effectively conveys the ennui of a young woman trying to shirk off the affection of her coworker while keeping a playful camaraderie going and also being spooked out of her gourd while investigating paranormal phenomenon.
Winner: Scott Derrickson, Sinister
Other nominees: Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods; Ti West, The Innkeepers; Ridley Scott, Prometheus; Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, Silent House
Goddard does a terrific job with The Cabin in the Woods, but it’s difficult not to wonder what Whedon could have done with it. West again shows he's a superb horror movie director. Our winner, Derrickson, deftly manages the temporal and thematic elements of Sinister. The home videos, the jump scares, the character development -- all are beautifully handled.
Best Horror Film
Other nominees: The Innkeepers; Kill List; The Cabin in the Woods; Prometheus
This year's best horror film is Sinister, a shocking demon-haunting story. It delivers on the scary horror front, and oh boy, does it leave you disturbed. It deploys the expected conventions, wisely and intensely. Boasting a villain that is actually scary, and an impressive performance from Hawke, Sinister combines the best elements of horror.