Looking back over the past twelve months has been an eye-opening experience for me. I had this feeling that 2009 had been a renaissance year for genre films-and then I started compiling my best of the year list and discovered that while a lot of horror films came out between January and December, finding ten great ones was going to require a lot more effort than I'd originally anticipated.

I didn't see every horror film released in '09 (I don't go to festivals so I missed out on things like Rec 2 and small market releases like Carriers), but I did see most of them. More than enough, in fact, to make me comfortable talking about the ten best of the past 365 days. This list is what I've come up with. Like any list I craft, it's never entirely etched in stone because I'm fickle and my moods can change on a whim. However, after thinking about it for two weeks, I'm comfortable that this is the closest it's ever going to get to concrete. Could one movie come off in favor of another? Yes (and I've got a movie that just missed making the cut that I've vacillated on quite a bit), but I think that's basically true of any list. So, without further ado, here are my top 10 horror films of 2009.

Click past the jump for the full list.


REC

Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's Spanish horror film had already taken the world by storm prior to this year, but thanks to the folks at Sony (who wanted to hold the release back until their remake, Quarantine, hit theaters) American audiences had to wait until this past July for a legitimate version of Rec to become available. The wait was well worth it, as Balaguero and Plaza's film is a scary experience and interesting melding of cultural influences. I think at least part of the reason why Rec works so well is because it has an odd assortment of inspirations that color the final product. There's certainly a nod to Blair Witch Project in the way it's shot, and the set-up owes to both classic zombie cinema and the rage-infected madmen of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (particularly when you see the monsters-which may be zombies, but bear at least a bit of a resemblance to the creatures of Boyle's film as well). What's even more striking is how much the movie reminded me of a cinematic crossing of videogames like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. The film boasts the atmosphere and the "something isn't quite right" vibe that Konami's Silent Hill games have become so synonymous with while adding in the monsters, jump scares, and relentlessly paced action of the Resident Evil games. The true beauty of this is that Rec is more fun than either-because it doesn't throw a bunch of puzzles at you or require you to backtrack. It's the games distilled down to their purest narrative form. Whether you draw those same conclusions or not is irrelevant--Rec works as both an amalgamation of artistic influences and as a straight up horror film. I wish we'd have gotten an opportunity to see it a few years ago, but at least fans can get it legtimately--even if it is two years after the fact.

Paranormal Activity

Oren Peli's micro-budgeted indie film was the toughest decision on the entire list for me this year. I almost excluded it just because I think everyone's sick of hearing about it by this point, but that didn't seem fair. I also struggled with where it should go in the hierarchy. After much internal debate, I decided to award it the nine slot on this year's rundown, and if you read on I'll share some of my rationale for that decision. Paranormal Activity has the unenviable task of being Blair Witch 2009 (or Blair Witch 2.0 as I prefer to call it). It came out of nowhere, generated tons of critical and public buzz, made truckloads of cash, and then faced an inevitable backlash because we love to tear things down as soon as possible after we've hyped them up. That being said, I think Paranormal Activity is good-my problem is that it doesn't really bring much to the table in terms of rewatchability. I saw PA, talked about it for awhile, but can't really say I have any urge to see it again. I've seen most of the other movies on this list more than once-and if I haven't, I'd like to. Should that count against Paranormal Activity? Probably not. I know a lot of people who never watch a movie again once they've seen it. Yet for me, part of the horror geek thing is seeing films multiple times and finding new things to appreciate or new riddles to unravel. Paranormal Activity appears to be lacking in that regard, but that isn't enough to preclude it from being discussed whenever the topic of the year's best horror comes up.


The Butcher

The biggest surprise on this year's countdown makes its appearance in eighth place. Kim Jin Won's The Butcher is probably the one film featured here that most of you haven't seen or heard of (unless you read my review), but I knew it was going to make my list almost as soon as it started. Another brutal entry in the faux snuff subgenre, The Butcher emerges into the world looking like the aborted fetus formed in a violent tryst between Toe Tag Picture's August Underground and Rockstar's PS2 game Manhunt. Too often I hear the term "torture porn" tossed around in references to films that aren't even remotely worthy of the (admittedly retarded) title. I'm no fan of the label, but The Butcher is one of those films that would be worthy of the torture porn moniker. It's gory and over-the-top and unrepentantly violent, but that's why I love it. A group of innocent Koreans wake up to find themselves trapped in a warehouse. They soon discover they're the "stars" of a new film-unluckily for them, it's a snuff film, and their co-star is a monstrous guy in a pig mask armed with a chainsaw. Kim's low budget aesthetics work in The Butcher's favor and give the film an almost documentary-like feel. No one will mistake it for real, but if you ever wanted to see what snuff would look like (if it were real) without the guilt and abject horror, then The Butcher is definitely worth your time.


House of the Devil

I wouldn't go as far as to classify my relationship with Ti West's House of the Devil as love/hate, but I do find myself warring over whether I love it for what it does well or find it troubling for the spots where it misses the mark. In the end, the love wins out. A modern day film made to look like a satanic panic exploitation flick from the 1980s, it's easy to love House of the Devil for the performances of Tom Noonan and Jocelin Donahue, the visual style, the music, and overall atmosphere of the film. The problems lie almost entirely in the film's pacing. Describing this film's plot progression as slow would be more generous than I'm used to being. Perhaps I'd be a little more understanding if I felt the slow burn build-up led to a major payoff, but I can't really say that's the case. It becomes clear, as the film progresses, that House of the Devil is an exercise in style over substance. I can dig that-it's part of the reason I love classic Italian horror as much as I do. It's just hard to shake the feeling that West could have created a classic for the ages, a film that would turn up not only on year's best lists or decade's best lists, but all-time horror lists with a little more fine tuning. Instead, House of the Devil has to content itself with being a good flick that flirted with greatness. That's enough to warrant its inclusion here.


Dead Snow

Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow brings one of videogaming's favorite tropes, the Nazi zombie, to the big screen with splatterific results. More like Evil Dead than Dawn of the Dead, Dead Snow is a heady mixture of juvenile comedy and over-the-top gore that takes a long time to get going, but makes the wait well worth it once audiences get to the bloody final act. A group of young adults are vacationing in the Norwegian mountains when they run afoul of a battalion of Nazi zombies. The film isn't even remotely original (but Wirkola is aware enough to attempt to deflect that criticism by giving his film an air of postmodernism like that found in countless mid-'90s slasher films), but it's clear that the cast and crew have a love for the material and are savvy genre fans to boot (nothing warms a horror geek's heart more than seeing a character running around in a shirt for Peter Jackson's Braindead aka Dead Alive.) I'm now looking forward to seeing what Wirkola will do in the sequel he keeps hinting at.


Pontypool

I don't do a top 10 list every year, but when I do I invariably wind up with at least one film that no one else has on their ballot. Earlier this year, I feared Pontypoolwas going to be 2009's example, but I'm happy to report that it's not (instead, it's The Butcher). It's nice to see this understated siege flick getting love from the genre community because it's easily one of the more unique films we had a chance to see in the past twelve months. The film focuses on a virus that's spread through the use of the English language--the infected turn into murderous savages who overrun the small Canadian town of Pontypool. The story is presented like a stage play, from the perspective of a local DJ (Stephen McHattie) broadcasting with his two female co-workers from the basement of an abandoned church. Viewers expecting a 28 Days Later styled horror-action flick are going to be let down. Pontypoolis more cerebral, more concerned with implied menace and what the imagination can conjure up than it is in visual mayhem and gore. It's an intriguingly original film propelled forward by McHattie's tour-de-force performance and an idea (that a virus could be spread through language) that's so abstract it requires viewers to think to truly appreciate the film's beauty. There are viewers who don't appreciate cerebral horror (which is okay), but those who like to be challenged-even just a little bit-by their entertainment will want to have a look at Pontypool.


Drag Me to Hell

Wanna know what I think the biggest disappointment of 2009 was? That horror fans didn't get out to theaters and see Drag Me to Hell. For all of our whining about remakes and how Hollywood doesn't do anything original, for all of the complaining that Sam Raimi turned his back on the genre that started his career, you'd think horror fans would have rushed out to see a movie that proved both of those points wrong. Instead, lots of us cried because it wasn't rated R and therefore couldn't be good. If you're one of those people, you're as much a part of the problem as clueless studio executives and greedy film companies who want to reap profits by "re-imagining" films they'd have never made in the first place. Whether these people liked the film or not is irrelevant-it's their complete lack of support for one of our own that bugs me. If we'll not support a Sam Raimi (who's never done anything in the genre to turn us away), then we're going to reap what we deserve as fans. Is Drag Me to Hell perfect? No. Justin Long is as annoying as always and Alison Lohman doesn't make for much of a lead actress. However, the film is a fantastically good time because Raimi (the Evil Dead era Raimi-not the Spider-Man 3 model) is back doing what he's great at: making a genre film that features dark comedy and hilarious gore. I accept the argument that some have put forth that the ratio of comedy to horror is skewed to far toward the slapstick side (although I disagree), but it's fun to see Raimi back in his element and even more impressive to note that he hasn't lost a step in the years he's been away. And to everyone who didn't see it because it wasn't rated R: you missed out on what may be the goriest PG-13 film ever made.


Tokyo Gore Police

I complain a lot about how Ringu ruined Japanese horror by moving it away from extreme gore and exploitation and moving it in the direction of pissed off girl ghosts, but the winds of change seem to be blowing. First, there was the over-the-top Machine Girl-a film that brought blood, gore, and insanity back to the cinema of the land of the rising sun. That film was topped by Tokyo Gore Police-a genre-bending splatter-fest that treats blood like it was water. Some will complain that TGP actually came out in 2008-but its wide DVD release here in America wasn't until earlier this year, hence my including it on the list. The film's story about an angry katana-wielding chick taking on hordes of genetically mutated human hybrids isn't really important to enjoying TGP-instead, the real charm of this new wave of Japanese gore flicks is in the carnage. The FX work in TGP never strives for the implied realism of classics like the Guinea Pig films-it's instead more content to walk the fine line between gruesome and comical, not unlike countless chambara films (the geysers of blood invariably remind me of Lone Wolf and Cub). Trying to view Tokyo Gore Police in a serious light is a fool's errand-films like this exist for one reason: to make an audience laugh and groan at the how far the filmmakers are pushing the envelope. It's not a foolproof formula (as Samurai Princess demonstrates), because even pushing the envelope eventually becomes predictable and boring. However, Tokyo Gore Police manages to get the balance just right-it's outrageous enough to make it utterly unforgettable (I mean, really, how can you ever unsee a woman with crocodile jaws for the lower half of her body?) while staying just grounded enough in the "real world" to keep it from spiraling off into the abyss of pure insanity.


Trick 'r Treat

It took years for Warner Bros. to finally release Michael Dougherty's love letter to Halloween, Trick 'r Treat-and when they did, it was only on DVD. That's a shame, because TrT deserved to be seen in a theater on a chilly October night with a group of like-minded horror fans. More charming than scary, Dougherty's film is an anthology piece comprised of four vignettes all set on Halloween night. Like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, the stories intertwine and overlap in very cool ways, making Trick 'r Treat the horror world's version of The Usual Suspects-you'll want to watch it a few more times after that first viewing to pick up all the subtle little places where the tales cross in their timelines. The lynchpin of the film is the adorably cute but incredibly dangerous Sam-a sort of embodiment of Samhain and protector of all of Halloween's traditions and rules. Breaking the rules is a bad thing-and while Sam may look like a sweet little fella, he's really not. The film works on a number of different levels-the stories aren't groundbreakingly original, but they're told in a way that makes more interesting than one would expect. Brian Cox turns up in a great role, playing the Halloween version of Scrooge, and there's a lot of fun to be had in piecing together all the ways the stories connect. However, what really sets Trick 'r Treat up as not only one of the best films of 2009 but also one of the best of decade is the way Dougherty and crew have perfectly captured what makes Halloween so magical. The holiday in the film is the Halloween I always wish we'd had growing up (minus the brutal murders). The film captures the spirit of the holiday in a way that really has to be seen to be appreciated. I've never been one to clamor for sequels, but I hope Dougherty gets a chance to make his planned follow-up-and that Warner Bros. does a better job of releasing it if he does.


Martyrs

And here we are, the top of the list, numero uno, best horror film of the year according to yours truly. Anyone who knows me is undoubtedly not surprised by this selection because I've been calling Pascal Laugier's Martyrs the best horror film of the year from the very moment I saw it. All these months later, there's still been nothing to unseat it. I've got nothing against light-hearted horror, or horror comedy, or slasher flicks, or any of the various subdivisions of the genre-but my favorite horror films are invariably those that are horrific and unpleasant and filled with darkly subversive philosophy. That's exactly what Martyrs is-maybe the most soul-crushing film I've seen since Gaspar Noe's brilliant Irreversible. Stephen King was once asked what he thought Kubrick was trying to accomplish with his cinematic version of The Shining-and King replied with something along the lines of "I think he wants to hurt people". Pascal Laugier wants to hurt people too-and he does it brilliantly with this film, which has a final act that's the equivalent of getting curb stomped. The thing that makes Martyrs so intriguing is that Laugier paces the story's revelations in such a way that you're continually getting walloped by them. I kept thinking to myself "this is intense, but I know where it's going"-and then he'd pull the rug right out from under me. I'd adjust and find myself thinking "okay-now I REALLY know where this going" and he'd do it again. Trust me, you don't really know where this film is going, and the final scene is one that will inspire debate amongst horror philosophers in much the same way we're still talking about the final sequence of Soavi's Cemetery Man roughly fifteen years later. That's what really elevates Martyrs-the French have been making great horror films for the past few years, but Laugier has managed to take the gore and extremity that many of us have come to love about this new wave of Gallic horror films and meld it with some philosophical underpinnings that are pretty deep for a genre flick. Laugier won't be directing the Hellraiser remake (which is a shame, since Martyrs proved he was a perfect choice for it), but his work on this film should ensure that he has plenty of job offers in his future.