You didn’t need to look far to find escapism in the horror genre this past year. If you felt like losing yourself in a movie, Pennywise was waiting with open arms in the sewer drain. If you wanted to feel like a kid again, Mike and his friends were waiting for you on Netflix, their bikes parked at the Hawkins arcade when they're not fending off the Demidogs. Looking back on 2017, here are some of my favorite slices of escapism oases in the horror genre:
Stranger Things Season 2: Whether you look at it from a character, creature, or story standpoint, Stranger Things Season 2 was the Aliens to the first season’s Alien. Despite having a bigger story, The Duffer Brothers never lose sight of the characters, further exploring the tested friendships of Mike’s group (if you can even call it Mike’s group anymore, since Dustin, Lucas, and Will all get more screen time this season) while introducing new characters with intriguing backstories of their own. With a palpable rage pulsating just beneath the surface, Red Ranger Dacre Montgomery pulls off a mullet like he grew up in the ’80s, and Sean Astin is a welcome addition as the sweet Bob Newby—his best role since Borderland. With new pieces in place at season’s end, I can’t wait to see what the Mind Flayer and other Upside Down horrors have in store for the Hawkins gang in season 3.
My Friend Dahmer: Even compared to the otherworldly terrors of the Upside Down, humans can often still be the worst monsters of all. What’s perhaps the most scary about real-life serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer is that they were kids once. They come from somewhere. And while that by no means excuses their actions later in life, it’s a reminder that they too are human… which is all the more horrifying. An adaptation of John “Derf” Backderf’s graphic novel of the same name, My Friend Dahmer shines a spotlight on the troubled high school years of Jeffrey Dahmer, offering insights into his hellish home life and showing the subtle steps that someone like Dahmer takes to become one of the most notorious humans in American history. As Dahmer, Ross Lynch radiates silent rage in one of the most impressive performances of the year.
Inoperable: As someone who grew up playing and watching a lot of PlayStation 1 games, Inoperable brought me back to the giddy days of watching my cousins play the “Stealth Mode” levels on Metal Gear Solid, and I mean that as a compliment. As per usual, Danielle Harris is solid in her role, this time playing a woman stuck in a deadly time loop during a hurricane at a hospital. In each time loop, she has to sneak through the halls and avoid being caught by the hospital staff, who now take pleasure in delivering pain rather than relieving it. What really surprised me about Inoperable is the choreography and camerawork by cinematographer/editor Giorgio Daveed, who seemingly glides through the halls, placing viewers right in the middle of the carnage and making it feel like we’re trying to survive every single second alongside Harris. Inoperable feels like a Twilight Zone/Metal Gear Solid mash-up, and I truly do mean that as a compliment.
Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters Exhibit: I never thought I’d stand inches away from the Pale Man, but yet there I was, close enough for him to reach out and grab me with his eyeball hands at Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters exhibit. I can’t thank the Minneapolis Institute of Art enough for being one of only a few locations to host this mesmerizing exhibit over the past year (the Twin Cities art scene never ceases to amaze), because walking under the archway and into this display of del Toro’s movies and personal inspirations was a truly transformative experience.
If there is a horror mecca, At Home with Monsters might be it. The exhibit doesn’t just feature impressive props and practical effects from movies like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, it also showcases items from del Toro’s personal horror collections. One of the most fascinating parts of this experience was looking at issues of Fangoria that del Toro collected growing up, or sifting through the incredibly detailed notes (including enough text and illustrations for several full-length books) that he wrote while coming up with some of his greatest creations. At Home with Monsters isn’t just an exhibit on del Toro’s many movies and TV projects, it’s a journey into the mind of one of the greatest modern artists—and fans—of cinema.
Preacher Season 2: If you were hoping to see more of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s comic book series come to life on screen in season 1 of Preacher, then season 2 should scratch that itch and then some. With the introduction of Herr Starr and more peeks into Jesse Custer’s haunted past, series developers Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg have crafted a masterful adaptation of the groundbreaking work Ennis and Dillon did with their Vertigo series, all while continuing to expand on the world of Preacher as we know it. Season 2 takes us to the bowels of Hell with Eugene and the streets of New Orleans with Jesse and friends, incorporating flashbacks that are just as interesting (and necessary) as the main narrative. While the dialogue and storytelling decisions are immensely entertaining and gutsy (I don’t know how Rogen and company got away with half of the things they did in season 2, but I’m glad they did), it’s the impeccably choreographed fight scenes that blow me away, including one battle in a torture chamber with Billy Joel's “Uptown Girl” as a backdrop that had me grinning more than vampire Cassidy after a satisfying meal of blood.
The Hematophages: Space and horror go together like peanut butter and jelly as far as I’m concerned. The vastness of space lends itself well to scary situations, so whenever a horror story takes place in dark corners of the galaxy, I’m on board with my phaser set to stun. Thankfully, Sinister Grin Press provided my space horror fix this year with Stephen Kozeniewski’s The Hematophages, a novel with enough ambitious ideas and intriguing characters to populate a nine-film franchise. Alas, we only get 326 pages this time around, but not a word goes to waste in this tale about a crew “surfing the ink” in search of a fleshworld (a giant, living organism the size of a planet) that is home to a ship that crash landed centuries before.
Nothing can prepare the crew for what they find on a planet where the oceans are blood and its crimson depths are home to something far more horrifying than sharks, and nothing can prepare you for the humor and horror that Kozeniewski blends so fluidly. Did I mention that it takes place in a future where only women have survived (and men are referred to as the “dead gender”)? That’s one of only many subtle touches that Kozeniewski adds to make his latest novel a thought-provoking space horror masterpiece. If you love to look up at the stars and wonder “what if?”, or if you adore movies like Event Horizon and Aliens, then you need to read this book. Just stay frosty, because you might not be ready for the horrors that lurk within its pages.
Kyle MacLachlan in Showtime's Twin Peaks: As someone who loves Twin Peaks Season 2, which expanded the show’s mythology while fleshing out the characters beyond what we saw in the first season (which I also adore), I was literally trembling with excitement to see what the characters I came to know and love were up to these days in a place “both wonderful and strange."
Drastically different than what I expected, Showtime’s Twin Peaks limited event series (also known as season 3) is something I’m still grappling with. I’m in awe of the story David Lynch and Mark Frost told this time around, but I also wish I had gotten to spend much more time with the characters from the first two seasons, especially since a future installment isn't guaranteed.
That said, one thing I'm not grappling with are my feelings about Kyle MacLachlan’s performances (emphases on the plural), which I absolutely loved. MacLachlan plays four characters on Twin Peaks’ third season, and while I’m still craving more screen time for the “damn fine” personality of Agent Cooper, I’m amazed at how sinister, funny, and heartbreaking MacLachlan was through 18 episodes and four different characters. As mysterious as the Black Lodge can be, the biggest mystery of all is how MacLachlan didn’t win a Golden Globe after putting on an acting master class that we were lucky enough to enroll in this past summer.
IT: The ’80s were alive and well on the big screen this fall thanks to Andy Muschietti’s IT. Set largely in the summer of 1989, this adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel feels like an R-rated Stranger Things mixed with A Nightmare on Elm Street movie (there was even a nice shout-out to The Dream Child). Bill Skarsgård cements himself in horror movie history as one of the creepiest characters to haunt the big screen, but even with Pennywise’s ghoulish grin of sharp teeth, it’s the Losers' Club that steals the show thanks to a talented ensemble of young actors who click with chemistry that’s lightning in a bottle and Pennywise’s worst nightmare. The casting for the adult versions of these kids will be the most anticipated casting in a long time outside of a Star Wars or Marvel movie, and I can't wait to see who gets to be haunted by Pennywise in Chapter Two.
Get Out: Visiting the Sunken Place in Get Out was the scariest movie-going moment for me in 2017. Just the thought of what happens to the victims in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut makes my hairs stand on end. It’s a fate worse than death, and one that complements and amplifies the film’s spot-on social commentary about how race is truly perceived in America today. What’s really scary about Get Out is how real its observations on people are, and that’s even more horrifying than a wide-eyed groundskeeper charging at you in the middle of the night.
Gerald’s Game: “Out of all the Stephen King stories that exist, how do you film Gerald’s Game?” That’s the thought I couldn’t get out of my head since I first found out that Mike Flanagan was moving forward with a film adaptation of King’s 1992 novel, but my initial worries were washed away upon seeing Flanagan’s nerve-shredding take on the material. I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the powerhouse performances from Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, and Carel Struycken, or the way Flanagan and Jeff Howard keep the story moving at a bone-breaking pace despite being largely confined to one room.
A Cure for Wellness: While I’m not crazy about the final destination in A Cure for Wellness, I sure as hell enjoy the journey. Director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe weave a cautionary tale about working too hard and losing sense of yourself in a sea of technology—and that’s only in the film’s first third. The rest of the movie is a gradual descent into madness with several nightmare-inducing moments sprinkled along the way (if you have a fear of the dentist, this will not help you get over your odontophobia). No movie I saw this year was more gorgeously shot than this one, with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli capturing the staggering beauty of the Swiss Alps—a welcome contrast to the horrors that await you in Dr. Heinreich’s lab.
Betty Buckley in Split: James McAvoy may have had 23 (and eventually 24) personalities in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, but it was Betty Buckley’s one personality as Dr. Karen Fletcher that made the film one of my favorite theater outings of the year. The Carrie (1976) and Eight is Enough actress brings a realism, likability, and genuine concern to Dr. Fletcher, whether she’s lecturing a packed hall from her apartment/office via Skype or watching TV with her neighbor next door.
It's Fletcher’s mental chess matches with Kevin Wendell Crumb, though, that are the most fascinating to watch. Even though she may not be in mortal danger in those moments, one wrong word could prevent her from uncovering what Crumb’s personalities are hiding. Every second counts in those intricately crafted conversations, and Shyamalan cranks up the tension to palpable levels.
Buckley has now acted in two of Shyamalan’s movies (she also famously shattered windows with her head in The Happening), and similar to Lin Shaye in the Insidious franchise, I hope we get to see more of Buckley in Shyamalan’s future films—she has a lot more characters to bring to life, and if they’re half as interesting as Fletcher, they’ll probably still be the most captivating ones in the room.
Muse's "Dig Down" Music Video: I’ve seen Muse live five times now, and it’s not hyperbole to say that every concert has been a life-changing experience. Seeing them perform in person is both rejuvenating and mind-altering in the best possible way, and if you could bottle up the sheer collective energy from one of their shows, you would have some seriously potent stuff on your hands. In addition to seeing them under the stars in Kansas City this summer, Muse had one of my favorite online moments of the year when they released the music video for their new song “Dig Down.” Not only is the song a motivational pick-me-up, but the music video that accompanies it is a great short film in its own right. Directed by Lance Drake and starring activist and amputee Lauren Wasser, the music video takes cues from The Fifth Element and Chan-wook Park's Oldboy in its depiction of a sole survivor taking on an army of masked assailants in hand-to-hand combat. It’s energetic, uplifting, and one hell of an adrenaline-booster if you’re feeling down after 2017.
John Carpenter Live in Concert: When the Master of Horror comes to town, you wait outside in frigid temperatures to pay your respects, and you do so gladly. Halloween lasted a little longer in Minnesota this year thanks to John Carpenter and his band, who traveled to the Myth Live club in early November to perform the music from his own movies as well as his Lost Themes records. If there is a horror heaven, I’m pretty sure it would include being able to watch John Carpenter play music from The Fog and Halloween while footage from those films plays in the background, so I may have died for a little while that night, I’m not entirely sure. What I am certain of is that watching the audience react to the nightmarish moments from In the Mouth of Madness was one of the most eerie and satisfying experiences of 2017, and I’m already wishing for Carpenter to bring his synthesizer back to Minnesota again soon—I’ll even wait outside in the cold for a little while, see what happens.
Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures: Full disclosure, I edited Heather Wixson's Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures, and therefore am more than a little biased when it comes to including it here, but this really is a must-read for any lovers of cinematic creatures and the artists who bring them to life. Wixson is equally thorough and enthralling in her 444-page tribute to practical effects masters, taking readers back to garages and bedrooms where artists put together their first creations before moving up the ladder to the bright spotlights of the studio lots. Wixson not only celebrates horror history in her new book, she preserves it, and I couldn't be more proud to work with someone who made her dream a reality by celebrating the dreams that came true for her idols.
Want to know what other members of the Daily Dead team enjoyed in 2017? Catch up on all of our favorites coverage here.