The theme of the year is horror, apparently. Depending on how you define it between seven and nine of the eleven items on this list are in the horror genre.
In a way, this is a return to form for me. I've always loved horror, but I've been reaching for it more and more often over the past year. A couple of the games I loved and many of my favorite reads from the past year are also horror — a genre that is oddly comforting to me, providing a safe space for processing my stress.
Talk to Me
In Talk to Me (directed by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou), a group of teens gather to play a game of ghosts. The game begins with a one of the teens sitting before a strange porcelain hand, which they take in their own and say, "Talk to me," which allows them to then welcomes in the ghost for a brief possession — a thrilling experience akin to being high. However, the supernatural parlor trick grows deadly when it's taken too far and they accidentally allow the ghosts to linger for too long, particularly when Mia (Sophie Wilde) becomes deeply entangled in her communication with the spirits due to her grief over the death of her mother.
The first half of Talk to Me is tightly tense and exciting with the cinematography and sound design evoking the chaotic, gleeful energy of partying teens who are unaware of their own mortal limitations, while also relating the haunting presence of the dead. Though the film looses a bit of energy in the second half, the ending came back around and walloped me hard.
The Last of Us
A fungal plague spreads through the world turning humanity into twitchy, terrifying infected and ripping society apart. Twenty years after the start of the plague, Joel (Pedro Pascal) is a hardened survivor. When he and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) are tasked with smuggling a girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), out of the Boston quarantine zone, they find themselves struggling to survive in the face of the many dangers outside the walls, including the infected, raiders, and military groups.
The Last of Us is probably one of the best video game adaptations ever made. The actors are spot on for the beloved characters that they're playing, and the set design is stunning, evoking the feeling of a decaying and collapsing world being retaken by nature. The creature design is also phenomenal and the screenwriting is stellar. The creators kept the core of what made the game fantastic — it's emotional heartbeat, questions of morality, and sense of humanity. What they changed, they changed in service of building a more moving and impactful story. It hits all of the powerful, emotional beats, and even creates new ones that are more heart-wrenching than I could have imagined.
Watchmen tells the story of masked superheroes working within a police system that is not always just. Essentially continuing the events of the 2009 movie of the same name (both based on the Alan Moore comic), the series deals with the aftermath of a massive massive alien attack that destroyed New York and killed thousands of people — an event concocted by Adrian Veidt ("the smartest man in the world" played by Jeremy Irons) to prevent the destruction of humanity via full-scale nuclear war. The elaborate con succeeds and humanity's destruction is averted, but it does not even remotely solve the full scope of systemic problems in the world, such as racism and fascism, which remain prevalent — with the police being generally disinterested with stopping these issues.
At the heart of the series is Angela Abar (known as Sister Night when wearing the mask), who wants the truth about the mysterious reappearance of her grandfather and simultaneously uncovers terrible truths and encounters dangerous factions. The show builds, bringing all the characters together into either collaboration or conflict and leaving the view with a powerful, emotionally devastating, and nevertheless hopeful conclusion.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Mike Flanagan latest horror mini-series, The Fall of the House of Usher, is a stunning spectacle of death based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Opening with the revelation that all of the children of billionaire Roderick Usher are dead, the show weaves together the lives of each of the family members and reveals the events that lead to their destruction. At the same time, Usher intricately incorporates the plot points, themes, and poetry of Poe's work into a cohesive whole that also delves into modern issues, such as the opioid epidemic, ethical medical research, and corporations getting away with anything and everything. The series might be less emotionally weighty than Flanagan's other work, but it is nonetheless masterful in it's execution — and I love it. (Read my full thoughts on the series.)
An elite group of foodies travel to a remote island for the ultimate fine dining experience hosted by esteemed Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). As the menu unfolds, containing deconstructed dishes and strange metaphorical plating — the courses grow increasingly cryptic and disturbing. Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the other diners soon discover that they are caught in the Chef's trap and there is no means of escape.
The Menu is hard to classify — walking the line between satirical black comedy, food culture drama, and horror film. It explores the way people place value in elitist systems, the conflict between those in the service industry versus those who consume, and how an artists passion can be destroyed by success. This film is wickedly entertaining and wonderfully surprising.
Evil Dead Rise
Evil Dead Rise brings the Evil Dead franchise out of the woods and into the city, with the story centering on a family of rockers and artists living in a decrepit apartment block (that should probably be condemned). After finding out she’s pregnant, Beth (Lily Sullivan) visits her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and her three cool kids for support. A sudden earthquake reveals a hidden valt, leading the son to discover Naturom Demonto (also known as The Book of The Dead). He accidentally unleashes a demon that possesses Elie and vents its malice in an exhibition of bloodshed and chaos. The violence is diabolically malicious, graphic, and gory — and the amount of blood was obscenely abundant (so much so, the crew had to hire an industrial kitchen to produce the more than 1,700 gallons required).
Rose (Sosie Bacon) is an overworked therapist at a hospital, who is compelled to help those with mental illnesses in response to witnessing her mother's depression and unstable behavior as a child. When a woman (Caitlin Stasey) is brought in to the hospital for having visions of an entity stalking her, Rose makes an attempt to help her — only to end up witnessing the woman's sudden violent suicide. As she begins to have her own visions of the entity, with it's disturbing smile, Rose finds little support from her family and fiancee, leaving her to face down her own past trauma as she tries to escape her impending doom.
Bacon gives a phenomenal performance, reflecting the layers of trauma to which the character has been exposed — and the style of filmmaking and use of empty space maintains the sense of looming anxiety in every scene.
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
Demon Slayer is a Japanese anime about a brother Tanjiro Kamado and sister Nezuko Kamado who are the sole survivors of a demon attack that leaves Tanjiro injured and Nezuko infected with demon blood. Despite her infection, Nezuko is able to hold on to her humanity and control her murderous urges. Meanwhile, Tanjiro vows to become a great demon slayer and discover a means of turning his sister human again.
The show features a host of cool heroes and fascinating villains — some of whom enter into the unsettling realm of body-horror. It also combines heartfelt moments with wacky humor and absolutely gorgeous fight sequences, rich with movement and excitement.
Currently, there are four seasons, named the Unwavering Resolve Arc, the Mugen Train Arc, the Entertainment District Arc, and the Swordsmith Village Arc. One of the things I like about the series is that, despite having an ongoing storyline that will likely last years, each season (or arc) provides a single storyline that feels complete in itself — providing a sense of satisfaction while waiting for subsequent seasons to come out.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Honor Among Thieves is the story a team of thieves who make a terrible mistake, leading to them accidentally granting power to a great evil and causing them to become imprisoned. In order to make things right, they must gather a new team together and commit more crimes in order to save themselves and the world. This cast of characters — Edgin, a charming bard (Chris Pine), Holga, a surly barbarian (Michelle Rodriguez), Simon, a sorcerer who lacks any confidence (Justice Smith), Doric, an egalitarian druid (Sophia Lillis), and Xenk, a humorless paladin (Regé-Jean Page) — are absolutely delightful and the charisma between them is fantastic. Plus there are fun villains, a chonky dragon, and a number of creative action sequences. I'm not enough of a D&D expert to catch all of the easter eggs, but those I did catch added greatly to the amusement of the experience. This is definitely going to be regular comfort watch for me.
When Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotic engineer, is faced with the death of her sister and brother-in-law, finding herself in charge of her young niece Cady (Violet McGraw), she completes the development of a life-like toy doll empowered by AI, named M3gan (Amie Donald as the physical actress and Jenna Davis as the voice). The doll simultaneously provides comfort to Cady, while also furthering Gemma's career. The doll quickly grows more intelligent and advanced and begins taking her determination to protect Cady to deadly extremes. While not particularly frightening, M3gan is a hell of a lot of fun.
Sam and Dean Winchester (played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) are two brother who hunt ghosts, demons, and other monsters that go bump in the night, while also searching for their missing father. As they continue to hunt monsters, they slowly start to uncover the truth about the demon who killed their mother when they were children and unravel its plans for them. For all its action, humor, and thrills, at its heart, this show is about the love between these two brothers and what their willing to do and how much they're willing to sacrifice in order to protect each other. Supernatural turned into a huge rabbit hole for me, so much so that I ended up watching all 15 season in a month (definitely not something I did intentionally).