2015 Horror and Scifi Year in Review — What To Watch, What To Skip

Entertainment, Horror Movies, Lists
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by Billy Russell

Worst-of 2015

These movies you might want to politely refrain from…

The Final Girls

Have you ever wondered what would happen if someone who didn’t know anything about slasher films decided to make a loving parody of one?  You’d get The Final Girls, one of the worst movies I’ve seen all year long.  It at once wants to be a loving tribute to the slasher genre, while also gently ribbing it.  The problem is, it has no idea how the genre actually works.  It’s like seeing a parody of human behavior as written and directed by aliens.  None of it makes a whole lot of sense.

Most of the people in The Final Girls are actually really talented people.  But you’d never know that watching this movie.  You would assume everyone involved was working on their very first project.  No one comes across as being their best.  The only person actually worth watching is Adam DeVine, but he appears to be confused about what kind of movie he’s in.  He belongs elsewhere.  He belongs in a better project that knows what it’s doing.


Consider the timeframe:  The movie more or less takes place today.  Apparently, the popular slasher film everyone remembers was made twenty years prior, which would land it smack-dab in the 90s.  No one was making camp-themed slasher movies then.  And if they were, no one was watching them.  “Camp Bloodbath” seems to be a parody of ‘80s horror movies, but no one looks like they’re of that era… they look like rejects from the Disney Channel.  They listen to music that no slasher movie of that era would have the money to secure the rights to.

Consider the existential conundrum:  Okay, our group of heroes wanders into a movie not unlike the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero, but at least that movie had a magical ticket.  The Final Girls has a poorly-staged fire as an excuse to cut open a screen and just walk straight into the movie that’s playing.  The characters inside the movie don’t want to die.  They say this.  But no one thinks this is a big deal… we all watch movies where people die.  Can you imagine the implications of such a thing involved?  Well, clearly the filmmakers don’t.  The most interesting question arisen is unaddressed.

Jurassic World


Somehow, over twenty years after the original, Jurassic World has the worst special effects of any of the Jurassic Park movies.  It has CGI that disobeys the laws of physics as we know them.  They look fake to a degree that our eyes and brains immediately dismiss the dinosaurs as being an illusion.  A bad illusion at that.  The action sequences look like something made for a made-for-cable movie (think Dinocroc) but given a massive, massive budget and allowed to run amok.

Effects are one thing.  They’re of the utmost importance to a blockbuster summer movie.  But, even if they lag, that’s okay.  If the characters and dialogue are something we care about, we can overlook just about any flaw.  But when the movie contains not only awful special effects, but every single of the characters are painful to listen to speak, why are we even here in the first place?  The movie seems to make a particularly cruel point with the death of the character Zara.

Jurassic World isn’t fun.  It’s ugly, nihilistic and poorly made.  It doesn’t seem to be aware of how awful it is, either.  It seems to be made by children in that regard, in that children think something will be fun, but they lack the experience and maturity to realize that plucking the wings off a fly might actually just be sadistic.


The Avengers: Age of Ultron

The second Avengers movie is a pretty good example of what can happen to a film when expectations are built up too much in one direction and a product is made simply to have a product when there’s not so much passion behind it anymore.

The first Avengers movie was a fun blockbuster action movie that had been built up for a long time, since the ending credits of the first Iron Man movie.  It delivered.  It had a rare amount of character development for these kinds of action movies, and it was a blast.  We cared about the characters and we cared about what happened.

And while I still do care about ol’ Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor, their reason for getting back together in Age of Ultron is less clear.  It’s much more contrived.  It’s not as fleshed out.  While James Spader is excellent as the voice of Ultron, his villain deserved a better movie.

There was a lot to enjoy and appreciate about this second outing, it did fall a bit short.  Hopefully, the third one, Infinity War (which will be in two parts), will be better.  I have faith in the Russo brothers.

Best-of 2015

See these movies!

The Martian


Matt Damon really needs to stop getting himself stranded in places, and having expensive bail-out missions.  Or, hell, maybe he needs to do it more often, because these are usually the best movies that he’s in.  From Saving Private Ryan to Interstellar and finally this year’s The Martian, cinema has shown that busting your hump to save Matt Damon makes for pretty good entertainment.

The strength of The Martian is in how it uses humor as its form of character development.  It’s just as tense as anything overly serious or dramatic, and it hits many of the same beats with the familiar swell of music, but The Martian sees everyday exchanges as something people do to brighten each other’s days with a smile.  It’s understated, but absolutely crucial to the audience’s understanding of the characters on screen.

And it goes without saying that the real-world-grounded science helped us understand the stranded plight a little bit better.  It’s one thing when someone is stranded on an alien world when transporters are available; it’s another when it’s a world we recognize with technical limitations.

The Visit


The Visit is M. Night Shyamalan’s first good movie since… well, that’s debatable.  It depends on how you feel about Unbreakable or Signs.  For the sake of argument, let’s call it his first good movie since who knows when.  It’s been a hot minute since he’s had anything worth watching.  Make no mistake, though: The Visit is a deeply flawed movie, but it’s still one of the best this year because it was a sincere effort.  There was a love of craft that was clear, so much so that my quibbles could be suspended and set aside for a bit.

The Visit is a found-footage (or, I guess, mockumentary technically?) about a “visit” to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the country.  Once there, brother and sister Becca and Tyler begin to suspect something is not right with them.  We figure that out a lot sooner than they do, but the plot moves fast and the ending was, to me, genuinely surprising.

Unlike many films in the genre, I think The Visit was actually hindered by its found footage format.  The tool here was much more of a gimmick.  My enjoyment was sometimes halted and I would have to be like, “Okay, it’s just a movie… that’s why these young kids have such awesome camera equipment.”

Goodnight, Mommy


Similar to The Visit the film Goodnight, Mommy plays with our expectations again and again and begins to tweak and subvert the reality we’ve just begun to expect and shows us something new.  It does so with absolute ease.  Goodnight, Mommy is almost a master class in how to take a twisty-turny type of plot and portray it without it being ham-fisted or predictable.

Although, parts of Goodnight, Mommy are absolutely difficult to watch.  And upon re-watching the movie, those parts only get worse when you have more knowledge about the direction of the story.

Goodnight, Mommy has a chilling coldness to it, and an existential sadness that is so similar to childhood blues.  It reminds me of a loss of innocence, just as twins Lukas and Elias feel when they begin to suspect that the woman who’s at home wrapped up in bandages is not their mother at all, but someone else entirely.  What ends up happening confined to the house (most of the action is in that one location), it completely unexpected.  It’s a horror movie for your soul.  It’s tragic and genuinely upsetting.  It’s one of the best this year, just don’t see it if you’re already in a bad mood.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


As a semi-cynical, jaded film-goer, imagine my surprise when I walked out of a new Star Wars movie happy.  It was bizarre.  It felt like a dream.  It felt good.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a return to form.  So much so that its plot very much resembles 1977’s original Star Wars—the first, the original, written and directed by George Lucas.  The comparisons in plot are generally pretty endless, but it stands up as being its own story.  The Force Awakens is, well, a fun movie.  It’s a movie that knows its audience frontward and backward and wants to enliven their spirits by showing them familiar imagery, sometimes with a nice little twist.  Especially in the theater, with booming music and iconic sound effects, it’s the kind of movie-going experience that invites a lot of cheers and laughter.

JJ Abrams actually proves himself as a really visual director here.  The Force Awakens is just attractive to look at.  Its blending of practical and digital effects makes it one of the absolute best effects movies to come out all year long.  It might be the effects movie of the year, actually.

Ash Vs Evil Dead


Star WarsMad MaxEvil Dead.  I think maybe 2015 was the year for followups and sequels that everyone with any sense assumed would suck, given historical precedence, but were actually quite good.

I was not a fan of the Evil Dead remake.  I thought it was wrong in many, many ways.  It was too serious, which I was fine with, but it was also incredibly stupid at the same time.  Tonally, it was just a mess.  But, Ash Vs Evil Dead, the long-awaited actual followup to the Evil Dead series actually starring Bruce Campbell, is one of the most awesome pieces of horror, sci-fi or fantasy to come out this year.  Yes, it’s a TV show and not a movie, but that doesn’t matter in this case.  It is so perfectly reminiscent of the movies, it may as well be a very, very long sequel split up into chapters.

And it wouldn’t be an Evil Dead movie if it was somehow add odds with its predecessors.  In this entry, you have to pretend Army of Darkness never happened.  Just like in Army of Darkness, you have to pretty much pretend that the final five minutes of Evil Dead II happened a bit differently.  And with Evil Dead II, well, the events of the first one are just remade and condensed into ten minutes of introduction.

It Follows


Allow me to be upfront about this:  It Follows is one of the most overrated, over-hyped movies to come out in years.  Its descriptors of it being the best horror movie of the year (or, as some people have said, of ANY year) are hyperbolic at worst and exaggerated at best.  It has a third act that comes close to derailing the entire movie.  It has fundamental flaws in its own logic.  Some of the characters are so annoying I just wished that “It” would get them.

Even still, even with all my bitching and moaning, It Follows is still one of the very best horror movies of the year.  It’s a visceral experience, with a great throwback soundtrack.  But the soundtrack isn’t just a retro treat, it has a heartbeat to it and piercing chords that feel like a panic attack welling up from inside of us.  It’s like a John Carpenter score with the same mechanical percussion of Brad Fiedel’s score to The Terminator.

A movie like It Follows reminds you of one of those bad dreams you have that begin simply, but something minor becomes sinister and that thing that became sinister is now so terrifying that you can’t run or even scream to save yourself.  You have to just watch and see what happens, and hopefully you just wake up.

It Follows is a must-see because its imaginative premise makes up for a lot.  And it’s directed so well that the first two-thirds of it are absolutely, just stunningly brilliant.  At the end of the day, it falls short of being one of the all-time greats, but it really is fantastic for what it is:  Overrated, but still damn good.

Mad Max: Fury Road


Mad Max: Fury Road is somehow my favorite underdog story of the year for a movie.  All of the odds were stacked against Mad Max.  First of all, we live in an era in which a big budget Rated-R movie is a huge gamble.  People, for some reason these days, prefer their big-budget action to be consequence and blood free—death has to be cheap and easy.  Secondly, how often does a sequel released decades after its last entry, with a new lead to boot, live up to any expectation?  And lastly, everyone had an opinion about its class as a feminist film before it had even come out.  MRA’s decried it as feminist propaganda.  Other people said it was actually sexist.  Everyone seemed to have an opinion on it.

Against all odds, Mad Max found its audience, and it found success.  Not just financially, but critically—and movies like Mad Max are ones critics love to hate.  It’s also been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which has to be some sort of award in of itself… a part four in a series, decades after the last one, nominated for Best Picture.  Has that ever happened before?

Fury Road is about a sort of beauty in mayhem.  The whole movie, even in its quiet moments, is one extended chase scene.  That it was achieved in its current form is just an amazing combination of special effects techniques.  It pulls no punches in how it portrays its ugly world.  Immortan Joe and his followers are terrifying.

Crimson Peak


Guillermo del Toro doesn’t make horror movies as much as he makes melodramas that happen to be populated with ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night.  Crimson Peak isn’t about how terrifying it would be to see a ghost, transparent and spectral, floating in a darkened hallway; it’s about ghosts being a product of human cruelty.

The plot, though fairly predictable, is about Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), now orphaned after the death of her father, falling into a marriage with Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), whose relationship with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) borders on the inappropriate.

There were rarely any “surprises” in Crimson Peak.  It’s a pretty standard story, but it’s told well, and with imagination.  In terms of visuals, Guillermo del Toro is unparalleled. His use of color in the production design makes anything he makes at the very least something to watch with a sense of awe.

Ex Machina


Ex Machina is one of those movies that comes out every couple of years that just takes an absolute delight in its own creation.  I feel like writer/director Alex Garland is perfectly aware of how clever his scenario was, and instead of being cocky about it, there was a subliminal giddiness to how everything played out.  Ex Machina would have been right at home as an episode of the British television series Black Mirror and it would have been their best episode.  Domhnall Gleeson even stars, and it’s a plot about artificial intelligence.

Oscar Isaac continues his acting trend of being one of the greatest actors alive today.  In Ex Machina he has a way of conveying disguised rage.  It’s in the way he blinks too hard, or breathes out of his nose, or taps his fingers impatiently.  It’s all very subtle, and it’s all very good.  He is pitch perfect at playing a man who’s basically a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein (with a dash of Steve Jobs), but sees himself maybe as being an actual messiah, not just a tinkerer of technology.

Ex Machina is almost entirely driven by dialogue, but the dialogue is great to listen to.  It’s like having the opportunity to sit in on a great conversation as a fly on the wall, and hear these two great minds wax philosophical about artificial intelligence… to hear pros and cons about a new breed of life.  Is it life at all or just a complex series of programs?

Alicia Vikander has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Danish Girl.  It should have been for this, instead.

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