It's time once again for the traditional HMC Boxing Day round up of new movies that have found their way into the screening room this year. Of course, 2020 has been the worst year in living memory for many and the world of film was no exception. Cinemas closed, festivals went online and streaming services suddenly saw an increase in viewing figures as everyone was forced into spending a lot more time at home.
The world of film fought back as best it could. After a terrific Glasgow Frightfest in February the festival went digital for the rest of the year, delivering loaded programmes in both August and October. Other festivals followed suit, with HMC enjoying the digital experiences offered by both Manchester's Grimmfest and Abertoir as well.
There were plenty of great movies out there (and some awful ones as well, more about which in a moment) and certainly enough for me to put together a top ten. The rules stay the same as for previous years - each film had to be shown in the UK for the first time during the year, either at the cinema or on disc, or at a festival screening. Also, bigger budget major studio successes don't get a look in because you already know Leigh Whannell's THE INVISIBLE MAN is a cracker, don't you? Other greats like HELD, Oz Perkins' GRETEL & HANSEL, Remi Weekes' HIS HOUSE and Charlie Kaufman's I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS were just bubbling under the top ten, and Brandon Cronenberg's POSSESSOR will have to wait until next year (and for the 4K disc to turn up).
Before we get to the best, however, by popular demand here are a few words about the worst. There were plenty of terrible films but only three really warrant a mention, so here we go:
The Worst Films of 2020
3 The Reckoning
Neil Marshall, director of THE DESCENT and DOG SOLDIERS scores his first entry on HMC's worst list with this, a Hallmark TV Movie version of MARK OF THE DEVIL saddled with the thinnest of plotlines steamrollered out to 110 minutes, cardboard cutout characters, and a vapid, uninteresting and ridiculously over airbrushed lead. Poor old Sean Pertwee does his best Peter Wyngarde channelling as the witchfinder but this does little to raise the bar that is constantly being dragged down by the central performance. On the plus side the music score is great, but it's for another film. You know a film is in trouble when everyone is outacted by a hat.
Currently available to watch on Shudder and directed by Glenn Danzig, VEROTIKA is an anthology movie consisting of three stories. The first is about a woman with enormous breasts that have eyes for nipples. Why is never explained. The nipple eyes cry tears that transform a tiny spider into an enormous neck-breaking anal sex fiend. Told with all the sensitivity of a Richard Driscoll on steroids (yes this feels like THE COMIC) the story is also set in France for no good reason. Second up is Mr Danzig's tribute to the worst failings of Jess Franco with a face-snatching female serial killer who dances at a strip club. A lot. Admittedly this does allow the viewer an opportunity for fast forwarding / going to the toilet / vacuuming the lounge / all three but not all at once unless you want to end up in Mr Danzig's next masterpiece. We end with a Countess Bathory tale filmed with all the authenticity of Nigel Wingrove's massive-breast-implant nun fetish epic SACRED FLESH. Every young female victim seems to have the circulatory capacity of a woolly mammoth as their blood fills a bath with ease. It's all terrible and all utterly mesmerising. Doubtless some people's favourite bad film of the year. But not ours. Oh no.
In the opinion of House of Mortal Cinema, if you are going to watch one example of Truly Terrible Film from 2020 then you have to watch BLIND, a film so entertaining that the live chat running concurrently on the Frightfest Facebook Group during its digital screening was a testament to how much this one is a cult item in the making that has the potential to reach THE ROOM-sized proportions. A blind woman who lives in a house filled with sharp edges and easily breakable objects? Who doesn't know if the lights work but has filled her house with lit candles? Who is in a support group run by a cut-price Jason Momoa who can't speak and has a machine that makes him sound like Ned from South Park? I haven't even mentioned the panty-sniffing sushi delivery man, the speech by the threatened heroine at the end that feels as if it goes on for longer than the running time of the film, the numerous full glasses of wine she drinks during the climax from a thin-stemmed easily knocked over and broken glass, how her makeup is suddenly immaculately restored after her shower, or the ending where everyone just gives up and sticks the credits on. My initial comments were met with such good humour by the director, the screenwriter and the stars that I cannot help but feel a tiny bit of love for BLIND. It's currently on Amazon Prime at no extra charge. One of the standout movies of the year in all the wrong ways. "Treat" yourself.
Ok that will do for the bad films. Here are the films that I thought were the best of 2020:
10 Alien On Stage
THE feelgood low budget horror documentary of the year. A group of bus drivers from Dorset decide to perform ALIEN as their end of year pantomime and we get to see the rehearsals, the performance, and the outcome of them getting to take it to the West End stage. Utterly charming. Premiered at Frightfest where someone called it this year's ONE CUT OF THE DEAD and they're right.
9 It Cuts Deep
If you're a fan of the exquisitely perverse horror comedies of Richard Bates Jr (EXCISION et al) or Rob Grant (HARPOON) then definitely catch this. It's not easy to do comedy horror but IT CUTS DEEP makes it look easy, being both charming and disturbing in equal measure. Well written, well acted and very well put together. There's also a great synth score that manages to homage both Philip Glass and Joseph LoDuca. Loved it.
8 Concrete PlansHigh in the remote Welsh mountains five builders are employed to renovate a farmhouse. It's all part of a plan by their employer to avoid paying inheritance tax. As their work progresses and their pay still fails to materialise, the shady pasts of the five men begin to surface as the situation quickly escalates into violence. A clever script and a talented cast including Steve Speirs (Upstart Crow's Mr Burbage himself) and James Lance from JANUARY (aka ESTRANGED) both elevate CONCRETE PLANS to the level of a superior thriller that never goes quite where you expect it to thanks to Will Jewell's directorial sleight of hand, giving this one the feel of a Welsh Coen Brothers movie.
7 AloneBilled as DUEL meets THE VANISHING there's also something of the feel of Ted Kotcheff's FIRST BLOOD to this cat and mouse pursuit of recently widowed Jessica by a smiling serial killer through the wet and mud of an Oregon forest. One to look out for although as is so often the case these days there seem to be quite a few films with this title. You want the one directed by John Hyams.
A lonely 40 yr old man who cares for his Alzheimer's-affected mother picks up a VHS tape that promises him a new friend in the shape of an onscreen Wil Wheaton. Despite that his attempts to find love and his social care pressures mean his world starts to cave in on him and is his video friend making things worse or is it just in his head? RENT-A-PAL is a genuine surprise - the kind of subject matter that doesn't necessarily always work for me because the handling can be too relentlessly grim, but this was just perfect - well scripted and well-acted while delivering a real punch of a message.
In which three generations of women (grandmother, mother and daughter) encounter a creeping manifestation of the oldest woman's dementia that threatens to rot the whole house. This has been compared to HEREDITARY by publicity machines that don't know any better. For me RELIC is by far the better film, has a lot more to say, and is sufficiently creepy with enough nightmarish imagery to make it a splendid immersive experience.
Joe Begos, director of last year's BLISS knocks it out of the park with this, a fine mix of and tribute to John Carpenter's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and Enzo G Castellari's BRONX WARRIORS, one which is so hip to its 1970s and 1980s inspirations it even has a cast featuring Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and Stephen Lang. A veteran soldiers' bar is threatened by an army of drug-crazed lunatics. Much violence and mayhem ensues, all to Steve Moore's pounding John Carpenter-style synths. Begos' best yet.
3 St Maud
2 Benny Loves You
"If, like me, you're Northern then you'll want every penny of value out of this screening, so there's a Q&A afterwards" said director Karl Holt in his very funny intro to this very, very funny film. A discarded cuddly toy becomes a vengeful killer in this unexpectedly brilliant British comedy horror. The last time I remember a festival response like this to a film that was five years in the making and all done by a bloke making it in his shed at weekends was in 1989 at Shock Around the Clock. It was BAD TASTE by Peter Jackson. So no pressure for Mr Holt's follow up there, then.
1 A Ghost Waits
A real surprise from first time-film-maker Adam Stovall, A GHOST WAITS is quite likely the funniest, most romantic, touching supernatural horror we'll see for some time. A man has to renovate a house where a female ghost has been given the job of driving away the occupants. Gradually they fall in love. This one is superb, evoking the best of writers like R Chetwynd-Hayes while never losing its profound emotional core. Really, truly, madly, deeply wonderful. Loved it.
And that's it. It goes without saying (but let's say it anyway in case it helps) that hopefully 2021 will be a better year for everyone. There's certainly plenty of interesting stuff coming out on Blu-ray. The review pile is already growing. But for now, take care, be nice to each other & I'll see you all next year.