The year that is 2019 has been a tremendous one for genre cinema – especially on the film festival track. I say genre cinema, because horror is so fluid and can weave its darkness and emotion into almost any narrative, conflict, social issue or situational fear. For those who have read my work in the pages of HorrorHound, my focus is generally films from the festival circuit. Viewing over a 140 genre features, I was blessed to witness so much dark brilliance and timely storytelling. Over the last five years, I have attended an average of over twenty festivals a year that span around the world. Making stops in 2019 at festivals, the films were selected from festivals like BIFFF, Frightfest, Sitges, SXSW, Fantastic Fest, Fantasia, Cinepocalypse, and more, I have watched hundreds of genre films and shorts both discovering new projects and supporting the indie horror film community.
From daddy issues to low tier porn stars to mental illness to hellish drug trips to true crime to the undead to the humanity to supernatural romance, horror festival cinema has been very fruitful this year. 2020 looks to offer an incredible slate of genre titles from filmmakers, cast & crew from the different dark corners of the genre. Here are my 20 favorite genre features to usher in the new decade. Thanks for reading and see you on the fest track…
1. Daniel Isn’t Real – by Adam Egypt Mortimer (SXSW)
This has been my number one film since I saw it back in March in Austin. Daniel Isn’t Real is a powerful tale. Addressing the topic of mental illness, Director Adam Egypt Mortimer blends the severity of this real life horror with eye fluttering visuals, a masterful sound scape, and truly breakout performances from the majority of the leads. Having watched this film multiple times since its release, the film connects with something deep inside of me. Each viewing digs deeper, as I pull more out of it. Pairing with the genius and revolutionary minds at Spectrevision, Daniel Isn’t Real blew me away from moment one for everything said in this blurb and more. Thos who love Spectrevision’s signature visual spectacle will love this film. Adapted from the novel, the narrative goes deeper into mental illness, riding the line of madness. A stand out audio design that transports you, Mortimer shows his potential met with this film. Dirty, bruising, smart, and laced with dark humor, Daniel Isn’t Real is head and shoulders the best film of this year so far with Patrick Schwarzenegger playing perhaps one of the best antagonists of 2019. Plus, it has one of the best posters of this year! (Out Now)
2. Mope – by Lucas Heyne (Cinepocalypse)
As I travel to so many festivals each year, I miss films on the first or second time they screen. This was the case with perhaps one of the most balanced genre films of 2019 in Mope. Why this is more of a true crime blend and not straight horror, for me, the reality is far more frightening. Based on true events surrounding a pair of friends who have the same goal of working their way up through the porn industry to the top, Mope is sheer brilliance as it balances an empowering feel, comedy, drama, and then slowly decays into madness and horror. Truly not a film for everyone, Mope pulls no punches and like Daniel Isn’t Real, you care and want to invest in these characters as the narrative moves through. Casting comedic actors in prime roles, adds a dynamic and depth to stranger than fiction storytelling. For those who argue this is not horror, watch the build throughout of Steve Driver’s fracturing psychosis which is brought to brilliant life by Actor Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Frightening and tragic, Mope is everything you could want and more! (TBA 2020)
3. Bliss – by Joe Begos (Tribeca Film Festival)
WTF did I just watch?! Somewhat autobiographical and the most experimental horror film of 2019, Bliss is the nightmare that you want to experience over and over again. Directed by one of my favorite modern horror filmmakers in Joe Begos, Bliss focuses on a tortured artist named ‘Dezzy’ who has hit an artistic block. She has an eye opening and truly disturbing drug experience that begins the bloody, spiral downwards into madness and freedom. Shot on 16mm, Begos unleashes the demons inside of him in a technicolor nightmare that twists a variety of horror sub-genres together in clever and unexpected ways. Bliss is horror cinema done right and dirty. It lacks depth in the story but pays off in the constant battering of blood, sex, madness, and destructive filmmaking that makes me come back to re-watch again and again. (Out Now)
4. Cut Off/Abgeschnitten – by Christian Alvart (Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival)
Holy hell! This may be my surprise favorite of 2019 so far! Before seeing this adapted crime thriller come to life at BIFFF, I was already a big fan of Christian Alvart’s work on such films as Antibodies and Pandorum. Known for his brutality and unflinching embrace of the genre, Alvart took the novel written by Sebastian Fitzek and Michael Tsokos to a very surprising and tense levels that brings together the best elements of the crime thriller with the gory horror signature Alvart has established in a Se7en way. Blending incredible special FX, a study of forensics science, a palpable suspense, an effective soundscape, and a Saw feel, Cut Off begins with an abduction of the young girl whose distant father works as a medical examiner. As the demands are made and events are set in motion, we become fully immersed in the story structure and characters down this slippery slope. A wild ride to say the least, Cut Off is a long ride but raises the level of Alvart’s film artistry that shows how much he truly embraces the darkness within each character, conflict, and disturbing moment making a non-stop ride of revenge and the evil of humanity. (TBA 2020)
5. Aamis/Ravening – by Bhaskar Hazarika (Tribeca Film Festival)
What defines a horror story? Is it the fear it invokes? Is it the risks that characters will take? Is it the monster around, besides or inside of us? Perhaps, the disturbing nature of our actions? Then Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis is one of the most frightening horror narratives of 2019. Part horror film, part true crime, and part forbidden love story, Aamis tells the story of a doctor, housewife, and mother who is repressed by the society she lives in. Helping a stranger one day, her world is opened to new sensations and temptations that will lead them both into a dark world neither could have dreamed possible. Hats off to Ted Geoghegan for repping this film and reaching out during Tribeca. One of the most surprising experiences on the fest trail in 2019, Aamis offers something for everyone. The performances from the lead cast is powerful, slowly moving down that rabbit hole of madness to finale that you are not prepared for. A cautionary tale, Hazarika addresses relevant themes using the platforms of love, consumption, repression, obsession, and ultimate sin to make the character studies deeper and the horror more potent between the two leads to a beautiful tragedy. (TBA 2020)
6. Color Out of Space – by Richard Stanley (Fantastic Fest)
I remember around the time of Fantasia, more than two years ago. Spectrevision was joining forces with the mythical creator of world unknown in Richard Stanley to bring a Lovecraft tale to vivid and surreal life. Based on Lovecraft’s personal favorite of his stories, a close family named the Gardner’s are living their best life until a meteor crashes one evening into their front yard changing everything and everyone around it. To be honest, it took the second screening in the massive theatre at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain for me to lose myself into Stanley vision of an invasion film with very few of the traditional troupes of that sub genre of science fiction. I have no doubt that this film was a risk based on Stanley’s history and the pressure by the fans to find a faithful adaption. However, Spectrevision and Stanley hit a homerun on this collaboration. The film is eye candy and MUST be seen in the theatre to fully experience the entire journey. The film breaks Lovecraft sins and traditions. It is also about as complete of a film as you will see this year. Beyond the dreamscape cinematography and an audio design that feels living entity, Color Out of Space features narrative that infuses emotion and a humanity in what will be a very alien world. For me, I felt Nic Cage took away from this film. I understand why he is there and accept that but it would have been higher on my list if Stanley’s original hope for casting has been in his place. (Out in Theaters on January 24th)
7. Volition – by Tony Dean Smith (Frightfest)
One of the few films found on my favorites list this year to play more than the top tier festivals, Tony Dean Smith’s Volition is one of the truly, best hybrids of horror and science fiction this year and perhaps this decade. Anchored by a series of stellar performances that lays a human foundation to the complex storytelling, the film features lead actor Adrian Glynn McMorran as ‘James’ and the character ‘Uncle Ray’ played by the versatile John Cassini. Volition, tells the story of James, who is afflicted by clairvoyance. Going down a wrong path since he was a teen, James one day, witnesses a bunch of events that may lead to his death. As a mysterious woman and a former friend enter his life, James’s world is turned upside down as he puts the pieces together in search of the meaning behind these events as well as who he can trust. One of the most surprising films this year, the Smith Brothers (Tony and Ryan) craft a complex narrative that weaves a mystery that compliments the emotional weight, flawed characters, stellar cinematography, and circular storytelling. Tied up nicely with the strong edit by Tony Dean Smith, Volition just hooks you with the humor, horror, and heart from moment one. (TBA 2020)
8. Little Monsters – by Abe Forsythe (SXSW)
Did you ever think that an Adam Sandler film like Big Daddy, could be made into any sort of a horror film? Well, Little Monsters is that unlikely but welcomed twist on the slacker sub-genre of film. Blending smart casting, unexpected thrills, a respectful use of troupes, and a full investment of the story and characters, you have a film that redefines a tired sub-genre. I had heard about this film coming out of Sundance and when I had the chance to watch it at SXSW, I made sure to be there. It was worth the time! Like Extra Ordinary, Little Monsters has stand out performances by each of the lead actors including the Josh Gaf as Teddy, Alexander England as the slacker Dave, the endearing Lupita Nyong’o who plays the teacher, and the class of child actors who you can’t help but be amazed by their presence and chemistry on screen. The film has an energy and spirit that hooks you no matter how dark or emotional it may get. (Available now on Hulu)
9. Us – by Jordan Peele (SXSW)
My lord Jordan Peele is brilliant. Going into SXSW, I was not a fan of Get Out for several reasons. I had respect for the work, but it just did not do it for me. So, going into Us, I was not sure what to expect. I was glad I was glad to be wrong and that I had waited in line for hours to experience the human horror that Peele unleashes. Some of the best and most unexpected performances of the year are at the forefront of this layered tale that not only shows Peele’s love of the genre but his understanding of a message and the that thin line between comedy and horror. Beyond the stellar dual performances (hats off to Winston Duke), the smart references to pop cultural, the bible, and literature make this film so rich and challenging. The stunning sets, the mood cultivated from the lighting and sound design are palpable. A scene that stands out for me, is the escalator that Adelaide rides down into what feels like the inferno. As Adelaide slowly lowers below ground, the sound, pace, and the reflective use off the metallic surface is just chilling. (Out Now)
10. Come to Daddy – by Ant Timpson (Tribeca Film Festival)
From Producer Ant Timpson, Come to Daddy is Timpson’s personal debut that is clever, uneasy, and reactive. Timpson, who has produced several major genre-based projects over the last decade, cultivates a cluster fuck right before our eyes. Blending dark humor with twists and escalating violence, this story revolves around a son Norvel, returning home to reconnect with his father that he has not seen since he was a child. Sporting a dynamic cast including Elijah Wood (who is perfectly cast in this awkward role), Stephen McHattie, and Martin Donovan, Come to Daddy is a wicked treat that never allows you to have a handle or predict what is coming next. Abrasive and nasty, this clever thriller reminds me of Cheap Thrills and Lowlife. The film features an effective sound design and many uncomfortable laughs which adds to the tension and edge this film creates. (Out on February 7th)
10 More Film Fest Track Favorites & Films to Watch for in 2020
Feedback – by Pedro C. Alonso (Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival) Pure tension from moment one…
Sator – by Jordan Graham (Fantasia) Remarkable, eye fluttering cinema…
Deerskin – by Quentin Dupieux (Fantastic Fest) From the mind of Rubber, enough said…
Why Don’t You Just Die! – by Kirill Sokolov (Sitges Film Festival) A brutal WTF film about revenge…
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find – by Abner Pastoll (Frightfest) Sarah Bolger gives one of the best performances of the year in this balanced thriller with a horror cherry on top…
Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made – by David Amito & Michael Laicini (Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival) Surreal genre cinema that affects you whether your like it or not…
Saint Maud – by Rose Glass (Fantastic Fest) Visually stunning journey that takes you into those dark corners of humanity…
The Lodge – by Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz (The Overlook Film Festival) A portrait of pure isolated terror…
Synchronic – by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead (Fantastic Fest) Benson and Moorehead are film artists who craft a story that frightens us deep inside…
Extra Ordinary -Mike Ahern & Enda Loughman (Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival) The most effective comedy and horror hybrid of 2019!
Opening recently at FrightFest 2019 this past August, Volition, directed to perfection by Tony Dean Smith (The Killer Downstairs 2019) and co-written with his brother, Ryan W. Smith (Next Gen 2018), is a brainy and brilliant crime thriller. The film stars Adrian Glynn McMorran (Arrow TV series), Magda Apanowicz (The Green Inferno 2013), John Cassini (Se7en 1995), Frank Cassini (Timecop 1994), Aleks Paunovic (War For The Planet Of The Apes 2017), and Bill Marchant (Chappie 2015).
A man afflicted with clairvoyance tries to change his fate when a series of events leads to a vision of his own imminent murder.
Volition opens with the main character, James (Glynn McMorran), saying in a voice over: “They say when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. I wish it were that simple.” James has a gift, you see, to foretell the future in glimpses, enough to allow him to be of use to his criminal associates. But he doesn’t have any real control over it.
This an interesting irony considering the film’s title, because the word “volition” means: the power to make your own decisions. But in James’ world, the future seems set, and he’s just stuck watching it play out. He soon gets a job from a gangster to ensure the safe moving of some diamonds. He also has a chance encounter with a woman (Apanowicz) that he had seen in flashes, so he knows they are connected. Things do not go as planned, leading James to see his own death in one of his visions. Now, he must decide whether he should try to change what is already written.
The way that Volition is written reminds me a bit of Inception (2010) crossed with Memento (2000). The film flashes forward and crosses back on itself as James attempts to alter his fate again and again.
As a college student, I was obsessed with the writings of Thomas Hardy, whose characters would vainly struggle against a terrible fate that they were destined for. And no matter how long, how hard, and how nobly they struggled, they could never escape it. Much like a Hardy protagonist, James seems hurtling towards certain death. The difference is that, in James’ world, he knows what is coming, but can he do anything to change his fate? Or is he just another doomed character?
Needless to say, I am wildly impressed with Volition. It’s been a long time since a film has made me think so much about the nature of fate and free will. It also had a level of the unexpected that surprised me. You will absolutely believe the film is going a certain direction, and then midway through, there is a clever twist that will change everything. The writing and crafting of Volition is just masterful, insuring that each and every part keeps the whole puzzle standing. It’s an incredible feat that you must see to fully appreciate. The acting is fantastic, with Glynn McMorran doing an sensational job as the doomed man struggling to stay alive. I was also impressed with the solid presence of the always wonderful Bill Marchant.
This isn’t a film that will blow you away with action, but for a mind-bending great time, you absolutely cannot miss Volition.