The best horror of 2020

In which I offer a completely accurate but also subjective ranking.

Hello, it’s me. I started writing my newsletter again, and then predictably got distracted by something else — the pandemic, the election, the sad ongoing coup attempt, who can say — and forgot to keep updating. (Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I simply couldn’t find the will to keep updating, which sounds dire, but is really just my way of articulating that my motivation has been limited in 2020.)

It has not been a great year. Some would call it an exceptionally bad one, and they would be correct. Others would quibble that years are arbitrary designations of the passage of time, but those people are fucking annoying and we don’t need to listen to them. Besides, if we can’t look forward to 2021 because we’re too traumatized by the preceding 12 months, we can at least use this transitional period as an excuse to toss out some year-end lists.

At the risk of being too ambitious, I decided I should just focus on one: the best horror of 2020. When I was at BuzzFeed, ranking the year’s best horror films was my favorite annual task, even if it forced me to spend November and December cramming a ton of nightmare fodder. I didn’t get around to putting anything together last year, but somehow, amid the real-life horror of 2020, I watched a whole lot of scary movies, several of which were quite good.

I narrowed my list down to 20, which is still too long, but brevity is… wit (I stole this joke from The Simpsons) and I will keep my write-ups short. I should probably note that many of these movies are films I felt were good but not great, flawed endeavors that I liked enough to recommend to others. One of the things I love about horror is the way the genre lends itself to wild swings, so I’m always more accustomed to include some noble misses on lists like these.

20. Hunter Hunter. Everyone talks about the ending of Hunter Hunter, and with good reason — it’s the climax that propels this film from survivalist thriller to full-on horror. It’s solid all around, but those final moments are what will keep you up at night. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

19. The Dark and the Wicked. On the one hand, it feels a little too evocative of Ari Aster at times. On the other hand, it has the always phenomenal Marin Ireland and some of the most disturbing visuals in any film this year. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

18. Scare Me. An anthology film that’s not really an anthology film, and a horror-comedy that’s maybe not actually that funny. It works in large part because there’s nothing Aya Cash can’t do, and she’s paired well with writer-director-star Josh Ruben. Stream it on Shudder.

17. La Llorona. Not to be confused with The Curse of La Llorona, this movie has far fewer jump scares. In fact, some might not even consider it horror. But even before things take a turn for the supernatural, it’s haunting in its exploration of historical trauma. Stream it on Shudder.

16. The Beach House. Maybe it’s because I watched it amid a pandemic, but The Beach House’s depiction of a rapidly spreading infection got under my skin. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s effectively stress-inducing body horror. Stream it on Shudder.

15. The Wolf of Snow Hollow. There are definite Fargo vibes in this horror-comedy that isn’t afraid to get messy, whether in terms of graphically violent werewolf attacks or sharp tonal shifts. Jim Cummings is great. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

14. After Midnight. When there’s a monster in an indie relationship drama, you can bet that monster is a metaphor. But what After Midnight lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in strong performances and a killer conclusion. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

13. Sea Fever. It’s a little bit Alien (though not as good) and a little bit Sphere (though considerably better). OK, this movie about the crew of a fishing vessel and the underwater creature attacking them owes quite a debt to the former, but it has its own tricks up its sleeve. Stream it on Hulu.

12. His House. Like La Llorona, His House explores real-life atrocities, and it’s those elements that end up leaving the most lasting impression. The horror of this film is not so much the less-than-impressive demon, and more... everything else. Stream it on Netflix.

11. The Mortuary Collection. The rare anthology horror film that works all the way through, thanks to a keen sense of humor, some memorably gross moments, and a wraparound story that actually ties the whole thing together. Stream it on Shudder.

10. Vampires vs. the Bronx. Honestly way more fun than it has any right to be. Think Stranger Things if that show took a page from Buffy, and if vampires were a very obvious stand-in for gentrification. It’s a total delight. Stream it on Netflix.

9. The Invisible Man. I didn’t really think we needed another adaptation of The Invisible Man, but writer-director Leigh Whannell and star Elisabeth Moss proved me wrong. This is one of the first new movies I screened at home after theaters closed, and it still managed to keep me on the edge of my seat (read: bed). Stream it on HBO Max.

8. #Alive. Zombie survival horror has also been done to death, but Yoo Ah-in is someone you feel compelled to root for, especially when he’s playing a hapless gamer just trying to reunite with his family. Tense and surprisingly moving. Stream it on Netflix.

7. Extra Ordinary. A driving instructor who can communicate with spirits falls for a man haunted by his dead wife, all while a washed-up rock star is trying to sacrifice the man’s virgin daughter. Irish people just do horror-comedy better, what can I say. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

6. Impetigore. Terrible English title, really good movie. I’m not familiar with a lot of Indonesian horror, but this made me want to seek more out — Joko Anwar’s dark fable is spooky, thrilling, and occasionally quite funny. Stream it on Shudder.

5. Swallow. Never has pica been more terrifying. Actually, Swallow isn’t a traditional horror film, but its depiction of a woman trying to escape her empty marriage by swallowing inanimate (and often sharp) objects is both wildly distressing and stunningly shot. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

4. Host. Am I annoyed that I accomplished next to nothing in quarantine, while Rob Savage made a remarkably effective found footage horror film that perfectly captures the moment? Yes. Is this the scariest movie of the year? It just might be! Stream it on Shudder.

3. Relic. Though Relic isn’t the first movie to link aging with possession, few have managed the delicate balancing act that this film pulls off. To say too much about the ending would be giving it away, but it captures that perfect blend of poignance and repulsion that makes the whole thing so compelling. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

2. Possessor. It’s hard to emerge as your own distinctive voice in the genre when your last name is already an adjective for a certain kind of body horror, but if Brandon Cronenberg keeps cranking out movies as slick, gripping, and, yes, gorgeously brutal as Possessor, he’ll be in good shape. Rent it on Amazon Prime.

1. She Dies Tomorrow. Another movie that hits that much harder during a pandemic. There aren’t a lot of answers in Amy Seimetz’s deliberately open-ended film — just a colorful, dizzying, sometimes overwhelming exploration of paranoia, infection, and that 2020 stand-by, dread. Stream it on Hulu.

Photos via Neon, RLJE Films, Netflix, and Shudder.

This shit, and other things that Leah elevates

In which I bid a not-so-fond farewell to Season 12 of “RHONY.”

A little over a week ago, I resurrected this newsletter for the sole purpose of ranking the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills after another season of bold fashion choices, conspicuous consumption, and refusing to let the mouse go. Also, I rather missed writing about the things I care about, including Bravo.

I originally intended to keep this newsletter eclectic, splitting my posts between musings on various Housewives series, theater, and horror. Unfortunately, live theater remains mostly non-existent and I can’t remember the last time I sat through an entire movie (I can, it was hard), and these days I pretty much just watch Bravo shows and play Mario Kart. Which is to say that I’m going to rank the New York City Housewives now, because it was that or rank Mario Kart courses, and I’m not sure I have the range.

If you don’t care about Bravo, I’m sorry, but also I owed it to the New York ladies, the Housewives fans who follow me, and — well, that’s it, really, but these posts are free now, so I can pretty much write about whatever, legally speaking. Anyway, let’s get cracking!

1. Leah. A first-year Housewife nabbing the top spot on a post-season power ranking? I never thought I’d see the day. But Bravo gave us some real new stars this year (see also: Garcelle, Sutton, Wendy), and no one burned hotter and brighter than Leah McSweeney. Was she, at times, distressingly drunk? Sure. Are her politics questionable? I prefer not to think about it. Her flaws notwithstanding, Leah came in like a hurricane, destroying white supremacist-linked tiki torches and Upper East Side face lifts in her wake. She was funny, vulnerable, and a perpetual thorn in the side of Ramona Singer, who would prefer that her friends have zero tattoos, let alone tattoos on or around their vaginas. Sorry, Ramona, but Leah elevates this shit.

2. Luann. The Countess deciding to hop off the wagon after two seasons worth of sobriety storylines was a choice, to say the least. It could easily have been a disaster, but thankfully, Lu’s friends took one for the team and decided to be such hot messes that she looked like a teetotaler in comparison. The one time Luann did get drunk and veer into asshole territory, she immediately pulled back and decided to never get that sloppy again — at least, not on camera, which is all that really matters. She was truly the voice of reason this season, displaying surprising compassion while also refusing to let Dorinda repeatedly use one lousy mugshot against her. Also, “Viva La Diva” is… kind of a bop.

3. Sonja. At some point during the season — probably around the time she stopped mixing her water pills with alcohol, and also Xanax — Sonja transitioned from hard-to-watch drunk to downright aspirational. She finally got a product into stores! And then Century 21 filed for bankruptcy, but that is completely unrelated, and also happened after the show wrapped, so we are not letting it undermine her happy ending. Usually Sonja gets a coherent season followed by a shitfaced season, but this time, we got a little of both. What’s important is where she ended up, looking better than ever with her brand new face, and lovingly calling out Ramona on her shit.

4. Tinsley. I can already hear Dorinda screaming at me, both for the mere mention of Tinsley Mortimer’s name, and because I dared rank her at all. She abandoned the show! Walking away from filming is the ultimate sin, yes, but Tinsley didn’t bail because she couldn’t take the heat — she bailed because she found something better, a life of stability and the prospect of a family. And yes, as a bonus, she no longer has to get raked over the coals by women old enough to be her mother. I’m not as sold on Scott as Tinsley is, but who cares. She seems happy, and she managed to win the whole damn reunion simply by keeping her cool and casually exposing the root of Dorinda’s seething hatred of her. Chic!

5. Ramona. One of the most remarkable things about RHONY airing for as long as it has is that we’ve really been able to see these women grow. Just look at the difference between Season 12 Luann and Season 1 The Countess: truly a masterclass in character development. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Ramona, who will never not be the absolute worst. Growth is not in her nature! And yes, at some point between voting for Trump and being a one-woman COVID superspreader event, she did manage, however briefly, to be a voice of reason amid the alarming drunkenness of her castmates. Unfortunately, Ramona sucks at being the voice of reason almost as much as she sucks at apologies, and we are, for some reason, cursed to bear witness to her bullshit until the end of time.

6. Dorinda. Few Housewives have had a worse season than Dorinda did. I’m not even sure what to say at this point about her tragic, often infuriating fall from grace. The last few episodes of the season were borderline unwatchable, from her constant raging to her slurring denials that she was drunk to her perpetual refusal to take any accountability for her actions. I know that the defense of Dorinda is that she was in a really bad place while filming, which, sure, but a lot of this isn’t new — it was just cranked up to a level that could not be ignored. My not-unpopular opinion is that Bravo was right to fire Dorinda. My probably-less-popular opinion is that she should stay gone. I sincerely wish her all the best dealing with her anger issues and whatever else is going on far away from any cameras.

Photo via Bravo.

When there is nothing left to own, you have to set yourself on fire

In which I return to survey the wreckage of Denise Richards.

High Drama is back, resurrected by the truly egregious display of fuckery throughout the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion. (Did it need to be three parts? Did they show restraint by editing out a fourth episode that was just Denise silently weeping and going over her sides?)

But seriously, I miss writing, which is to say I miss writing about theater, Housewives, horror, and any other facets of pop culture I’ve managed to find a way to talk about here. Between my full-time job and the ongoing collapse of civilization, I can’t promise a return to full regularity, but I’m going to do my damnedest to be as online here as I am on Twitter. Posts will continue to be free, though I hope you’ll consider an unpaid subscription just for the thrill of having an extra email to delete from time to time.

Anyway, enough preamble. Now that the season has (mercifully) ended: RHOBH power rankings.

1. Dorit. I truly never would have guessed that Dorit — Dorit — would end up in the top position, but there really wasn’t that much competition. She had a great season! As a homosexual who doesn’t understand fashion, I’m not sure I get all her looks, but Dorit continues to strike me as someone cosplaying as a glamorous person, and I love that. Like pretending that Buca di Beppo is a very important Italian restaurant, I think it qualifies as camp. She was also one of the few women who emerged from the season appearing to be at least mostly decent, believing Denise over Brandi because Denise is her friend and sometimes that’s just what you do! Should Dorit be the voice of reason? Well, no, but here we are.

2. Garcelle. The only reason Garcelle didn’t claim the number one spot is that she simply wasn’t around enough, and that was really unfortunate, because I enjoyed every one of her appearances. She strikes me as someone who is genuinely busy, both professionally and personally, and I can understand why she opted out of so many group events. It just made her feel less integral to the season as Sutton, at times. It’s not Garcelle’s fault that the Housewife she most closely allied herself with ended up preemptively fleeing the show! But while she may not have been as present as I would have liked, she did call out Kyle and Rinna on their bullshit, and that’s reason enough to put her in second place.

3. Sutton. Give this woman a diamond. Sutton arrived insufferable and quickly became a breath of fresh Southern air (I’m confident she smells of peaches and magnolias underneath the Dolce & Gabbana). Sutton told Dorit to “let the mouse go,” an instantly iconic line. She called Teddi boring to her face. And, most importantly, she seemed eager to be part of the group in a way that could have been Elyse-level cringey if she hadn’t been so damn charming about it. I adore Sutton, and I really feel like she’s the perfect blend of rich lady nonsense and surprising self-deprecation this franchise needs. Along with Garcelle, she’s the only one of these women I actually want to hang out with.

4. Erika. I’ve always been a little chilly on Erika (get it? because she’s cold), but this was mostly a good season for her. She felt engaged in a way she hadn’t been in ages. She was fun, she was communicative, she didn’t make Eileen cry for no reason. I actually appreciated the way Erika stood up for herself with Aaron, because it did remind me of her first season beef with PK. Also, genuinely happy that she got to do Chicago, and since I was lucky enough to see her in the role, I will afford bonus points for her being a damn good Roxie. Unfortunately, by the end of the season, Erika had turned on Denise. If she’d opted out of the pile-on — which she easily could have done — she’d be up there with Dorit.

5. Denise. I really wanted to root for Denise this season, because the villain edit she was getting throughout the early episodes was so transparent that it felt ridiculous. She didn’t want her kids hearing the women talk about threesomes. Who cares? Where I landed with everything that followed is that she probably had sex with Brandi, but almost everything else about that story was made up with the intention to harm her. Sadly, Denise did herself no favors with the way she handled everything, including her snarky confessional quips that made it seem like she was lying. But she was also put in a tough position, and I do believe she was probably thinking about what Brandi spilling about her open marriage could do to her family, particularly her ongoing custody clashes with Charlie Sheen.

I was fascinated by the way Denise tried to essentially dismantle The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills from within, as Brian Moylan so beautifully articulated. But while I enjoyed seeing Denise confront Rinna on the fundamental flaw of her character — Lisa is so committed to being a good reality TV personality that she will torpedo a 20-year friendship for the storyline — by the end of the reunion, it was just unpleasant to watch. Denise didn’t want to make the devil’s bargain that so many of these women have made, sacrificing their reputations and emotional wellbeing for a chance at celebrity and exposure. (Frankly, she had done that prior to joining the cast.) By the time she wanted to opt out, however, it was too late, and no amount of “Bravo, Bravo, fucking Bravo” could save her.

6. Kyle. The one backhanded compliment I will give Kyle is that she was more upfront about being an asshole this season, and I guess I respect that. I don’t think it’s owning it, the way Rinna would demand, so much as being unable to hide what a selfish, petty, manipulative person she can be. I think she had more to do with the The Plot Against Denise Richards than she will ever admit: My theory is that Kim passed along the information, and Kyle decided to make sure it got on the show. Aside from that, she’s not a particularly compelling presence, and she’s as much a backseat producer as LVP was at this point, so I’m not sure why she continues to get a pass. What does she offer that we should have to put up with this? Her pathological inability to restrain herself from doing the splits at least once a season? I could live without it!

7. Rinna. I honestly believe that Rinna thinks she is earning her paycheck, and frankly, she pretty much is. But there’s a fine line between stirring the pot and sadism, and she really slid full force into relentless cruelty by the end of the season. Maybe there are people who enjoy Rinna’s schtick, which is to play the soap opera villain under the pretense of being a truth-teller who just wants people to own it, but her obsession with crushing Denise was one of the ugliest things I’ve seen on this franchise in years. Even after she’d clearly “won,” in the sense that Denise was never going to return to the show, she couldn’t let the mouse go. To see Denise genuinely shell-shocked at the betrayal of a friend, and Rinna’s smug pride at a job well done, was truly revolting.

8. Teddi. Natalie Walker said it best: “I do not like when the people on TV are both evil and boring. Choose!” Who is Teddi Mellencamp in this world? Even if I were just focusing on her on-camera behavior, she would be at the bottom of the pile. Teddi is a completely useless addition to the franchise, a needy, unlikeable attention drain who was determined to destroy Denise because Denise maybe called her thirsty and boring once — and truly, who among us. Oh, and then there’s this horrifying shit. Please fire this woman, both because she’s bad TV and, more pressingly, because she is doing active harm with her platform. Shame on production for enabling this.

Photo via Bravo.

Pause

In which I'm on hiatus.

I haven’t been sending out my newsletter, because — listen, on Twitter, it’s easier. I can amplify black voices and causes and share links to fundraisers, amid the rest of my bullshit. And while I can absolutely do that here, this just doesn’t feel like the right platform. For one thing, I don’t have the same audience, but more importantly, my voice is too central here.

So I’m continuing this brief pause. As I’ve said on Twitter, all current newsletter posts are public, which means there is no need for a paid subscription. If you currently have a paid subscription, please consider canceling it and donating that money to Black Lives Matter — I’m going to include some links below of where I’ve given recently. If you subscribed for an entire year and would like to be refunded, please reach out to me privately and I will reimburse you.

Note that I will still be writing things here — about theater, horror, and Housewives, yes, and also about anything else pop culture that strikes my fancy. I just wanted to acknowledge that I’m on a little hiatus, in large part because I don’t want anyone who has paid for a subscription to feel cheated. And please do remain a free subscriber, if you’d like! I’m not going anywhere, and I hope you’re not either.

Here are some fundraisers/organizations I’ve supported recently, if you’re looking for any ideas:

Justice for Breonna Taylor

Official George Floyd Memorial Fund

Black Trans Femmes in the Arts (raising money for Black Trans Protestors Fund)

G.L.I.T.S. (and more information here)

The Official Peace and Healing for Darnella Fund

Homeless Black Trans Women Fund

Emergency Release Fund

Reclaim the Block

And this page has Black Lives Matter educational resources, as well as more ways to donate, support black-owned businesses, and get involved.

#BlackLivesMatter #BlackTransLivesMatter

Every single verse can make it that much worse

In which I revisit Season 6 once more, with feeling.

It’s been a little over a month since I wrote about the Buffy and Angel rewatch I had embarked on with my boyfriend — or, more specifically, since I wrote about my least favorite episodes of the show, inspired by our rewatch — and now we are somehow nearing the end. We’re on Season 7 of Buffy and Season 4 of Angel, which is, to be totally candid, not a great place to be. (Some words of warning: I am about to say critical things about at least one of these shows, so if you worked on either or are otherwise sensitive about them, which I completely understand, you should probably stop reading now so I don’t feel bad later. Thanks.) Rather than attempt to write about the flaws in these two seasons while we’re only halfway through, I wanted to write a little about the preceding seasons — Buffy Season 6 and Angel Season 3 — and why one fails where the other succeeds.

Think back, if you can, to the 2001-2002 television season. Buffy and Angel were on different networks at this point, and the occasional crossovers that had peppered the prior two seasons were suddenly verboten. (The closest thing we got here was Angel learning Buffy had been resurrected, and the two agreeing to meet somewhere between Sunnydale and Los Angeles, which is like, I don’t know, Valencia?) But in watching these two seasons side-by-side, which I’d actually never done before, I discovered some surprising commonalities: more serialized storytelling, a marked increase in darkness, beloved characters’ falls from grace, and the lack of a consistent Big Bad. Most of which, it’s worth noting, wasn’t really new to Angel, but felt like a rather jarring departure for Buffy. That might be the root of the problem.

It’s not that Buffy, whose characters were a few years out of high school at this point, shouldn’t have been allowed to play in Angel’s sandbox, but that Buffy hadn’t figured out how to do so effectively. The result is a season that feels scattered, unnecessarily bleak, and dragged down by inconsistent characterization. There are, to its credit, some high highs — “Once More, With Feeling” remains one of the show’s greatest achievements — and even a weaker season of Buffy is pretty damn good. But while I thought rewatching Season 6 would reveal it to be underrated, as so many fans claim, rewatching it alongside Angel Season 3 only served to further expose its weaknesses.

Angel has an unfair advantage here: The areas where Season 6 of Buffy falls flat were basically built into Angel’s DNA, particularly the darkness that characterized Angel from its inception. It’s not that Buffy never got dark, but that it had never — up until Season 6, that is — delved into the level of trauma and despair that was inflicted on fans. An episode like “Dead Things,” probably the most challenging Season 6 episode to rewatch next to “Seeing Red,” feels notably out of place on Buffy, a failed experiment in seeing how low every character can sink. Watching Buffy and Xander and Willow hit their respective rock bottoms in Season 6 is frankly unpleasant, not because Buffy was never a show where bad things happened, but because the bad things never happened so relentlessly. Even so, it’s less where the show arrives and more how it gets there. Here again, the comparison to Angel Season 3 is unflattering.

There were some really lovely arcs on Buffy over the years, and I don’t want to take away from that, but on the whole, Angel was stronger when it came to serialized storytelling. (On the flip side, Angel has fewer memorable standout episodes, so nyah, take that.) This really comes through when you consider the respective downward spirals of two characters on both shows: Willow and Wesley, the bookish, brainy, mostly well-behaved members of the team. Season 3 of Angel presents a compelling case for Wesley’s betrayal, and the fallout that sees him estranged from his friends and sleeping with the enemy. Season 6 of Buffy, on the other hand, turns Willow into a hardcore magic junkie over the span of two episodes. Yes, the seeds of Willow using too much magic had been planted long before then, but the abrupt shift to Willow as a literal addict — one of my biggest issues with the season — is enough to give you whiplash.

There are also, of course, parallels between Wesley/Lilah and Buffy/Spike, though I don’t think the latter’s severely toxic relationship is necessarily a mark against Season 6. It feels like both the natural conclusion of years of sexual tension and a symptom of Buffy’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. The problem comes in “Seeing Red,” when things take a sudden and nauseating turn. Here, again, the issue seems to be the show’s failure to lay the groundwork for another character’s rock bottom, and an inability to place the moment within the context of a larger arc with more cohesive characterization. It’s not so much that idea that Spike could never inflict sexual violence, but that it doesn’t really gibe with the Spike the show had been building up as a flawed demon vying for antihero status, and certainly not with his Season 7 redemption arc.

Sometimes the characters on these shows, even the “good guys,” do unforgivable things. But we do move past Angel trying to smother Wesley with a pillow in the hospital, despite how heinous that is. Spike’s sexual assault of Buffy, however, is obviously in another category, and as such it’s something the show as a whole struggles to contextualize and ultimately brushes under the rug (much like Jaime’s out-of-character rape of Cersei on Game of Thrones). It becomes just another shocking, terrible, unbelievably upsetting thing that happens in Season 6 — dark for the sake of being dark.

I realize that I am being awfully hard on Buffy, but that’s because I’m more passionate about the missteps of something I care deeply about. Buffy remains my favorite show of all time — yes, above Angel, which I also love a lot. And I think my frustration with Season 6 is that so much of it actually does look good to me on paper. There’s a version of that story that comes closer to Angel’s stunning execution of Season 3: painful and sometimes challenging but thematically rich and cathartic. And I do think, for what it’s worth, that one of Buffy Season 6’s most effective moments is thematically rich and cathartic — Buffy climbing out of the grave in the finale, with Dawn at her side. In fact, I’ll take that over glowy Cordelia floating into the heavens. Point: Buffy.

Photo via 20th Television.

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