Before You Break Her Heart, Think It Over

The Loved Ones (2010)

Film Society of Lincoln Center

Horror needs more female villains, killers filled with estrogen to rival the genre’s male big dogs (such as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, to name a few). There have been a few women invited to join the murderer’s row: the below-middle-ground “Sleepaway Camp” series had Angela Baker; and the latter “Prom Night” entries introduced the homicidal specter Mary Lou. But the role of women in horror has far too often been relegated to victim, or heroine, or nude shower inhabitant.

First-time Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne flips that sad truth on its head with the gonzo “The Loved Ones,” an unhinged — in the best possible ways — blend of extreme gore, wince-inducing shocks and self-aware comedy. Antagonized by a psychotic high-school girl Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), the film’s protagonist isn’t a damsel but a dude in distress. And that’s just one of the many aspects of “The Loved Ones” that feels fresh.

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Get Mad and Get Even

I Spit on Your Grave (2010)

Steve Dietl/Anchor Bay Films

Consider this not a recommendation, but, rather, a warning: "I Spit on Your Grave" gets the job done. The film succeeds on nearly every level its architects, director Steven R. Monroe and screenwriter Stuart Morse, no doubt intended. When remaking one of the more notorious of '70s-era exploitation pictures (the same-titled 1978 button-pusher from director Meir Zarchi), the main goal, theoretically, is to up the ante. Mr. Monroe's take on "I Spit on Your Grave" most certainly accomplishes that. The drawn-out rape scenes pour over viewers' eyes like thick, slow-oozing acid. There's nary a sympathetic character save for the film's heroine, Jennifer (Sarah Butler), a city-bred writer unfortunate enough to pick a rural getaway with deviant redneck neighbors, five scumbags-in-flannels that defile her and leave her humiliated, decimated and mostly naked body to die. This makes her five-part revenge all the more satisfying in a pro-girl-power way, and extremely nauseating for those with weak stomachs.

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Raise the Stakes Through the Hearts

Daybreakers (2010)

Ben Rothstein/Lionsgate

On its mission to suck the unoriginality out of the vampire canon, “Daybreakers” can’t avoid the familiar altogether. Traces of Alfonso Cuarón’s future-citizens-in-revolt “Children of Men,” itself an adaptation of P. D. James’s 1992 novel, are all over this breakneck action-horror hybrid written and directed by Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Both follow a disenchanted brainiac (here, Ethan Hawke’s reluctant bloodsucker Edward Dalton) who’s also humanity’s last hope. In the 2019-set world of “Daybreakers,” vampires have taken over, leaving only 5 percent of the human race still breathing — which, in turn, means that the now-rulers’ life liquid (human blood) is running out. Dalton, a top-ranked hematologist, stumbles across a cure, though vampires toting automatic weapons and sporadic geysers of dark-red blood make enacting the solution difficult as expected.

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Fear the Best

Francois Duhamel/The Weinstein Company

This list must be prefaced with the following: Each of these films should be happy (if cinema could actually emote, that is) that Martin Scorcese's "Shutter Island" got pushed back to February 2010. Something tells me that I'm going to adore that one like none other, and that something hopefully isn't the fact that the same-titled, original Dennis Lehane novel is a personal favorite. The point being here that "Shutter Island" could have easily knocked one of the following flicks off this rundown had it made its once-scheduled October release date.

Missed opportunities aside, cinema in 2009 was all over the place, in a good way. Combing through the year's list of eligible films, I found it difficult to select a dime's worth of standouts. Really, these kinds of lists are hopeless endeavors; the second you submit or post your own, a good five or six films tap your shoulder and whisper, "You forgot about me, sir. I thought you loved me?" Like a neglected lady friend, only less affectionate. The forgotten films go on to torment your thoughts, remind you of your now-sealed 2009-filled time capsule. Sadly, there's no Wite-Out available here.

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Fleshing Out a Horror Hit

[REC] 2 (2009)

Magnet Releasing

The best horror sequels never know when to pull back — It’s their greatest trait. James Cameron showed genre filmmakers how to increase the quality with 2005’s “Aliens,” technically science fiction but still embraced by lovers of extreme tension and violence. In 1986, Rob Zombie deleted the black comedy from his previous film, “House of 1,000 Corpses,” for its nihilistic, superior follow-up, “The Devil’s Rejects.” And then there was “28 Weeks Later,” a descending roller coaster that traded its predecessor’s dependence on character exposition for one dynamite set piece after another. The formula is tried and true; of course, the film itself needs to actually be good. There’s no wonder why the increasingly-gorier “Friday the 13th” sequels don’t deserve to be in the same sentence as the aforementioned pictures.

“[REC] 2,” Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s supercharged continuation of 2007’s already-unrelenting cinéma vérité success, carries on the exemplary part-two tradition. Its characters’ names are inconsequential; in what ferocious, highly-stylized way each will be decimated by his or her infected neighbors is the film’s preoccupation. Though, this adrenaline rush’s blatant feeding of the horror-loving beast is quite endearing. As well as beneficiary, since the sensory uppercut fired by “[REC]” is slightly lowered to a powerful jab here, the downside of back-ending a film as unexpected and devastating as Messrs. Balagueró and Plaza’s 2007 gem.

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Once Upon a Time of the Wolf

The Road (2009)

Macall Polay/2929/Dimension Films

John Hillcoat’s book-to-film adaptation “The Road” does everything it can to repel. The cinematography — while quite remarkable — is layered in grime, depicting a landscape decimated after unexplained destruction. The very few actors seen in the film (prominently Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) look distressed throughout, smeared in dirt and unrelenting desperation. A somber, bleak story of a father’s undying love for his son in the face of hopelessness, “The Road” even comes equipped with images of a pistol pressed against a little boy’s forehead and a father washing a man’s brains out of his son’s hair.

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Fright on the Button

The Box (2009)

Dale Robinette/Warner Bros. Pictures

The most cynical fans of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” consider 1963 to be the year that the immortal television series jumped the shark, albeit momentarily. In its fourth season, the beloved anthology program expanded its episodes from 30 minutes to a full hour with decidedly mixed results. For every superlative entry, such as the Martin Balsam-starring “The New Exhibit,” that justified the stretched-out running time, that uneven season also gave viewers interminable bores the likes of “I Dream of Genie.” What fans — along with Mr. Serling alike — learned in ’63 was that, on the whole, the tried-and-true “Twilight Zone” structure (three to-the-point acts leading to a head-smacking ending) worked best at a half-hour clip.

Richard Kelly — the 34-year-old, .500-batting filmmaker responsible for 2001’s wondrous “Donnie Darko” and its inferior follow-up, 2007’s all-kinds-of-wrong “Southland Tales” — should have sat with “I Dream of Genie” before taking on “The Box.” Based on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” “The Box” operates with a pure “Twilight Zone” level, that of a morality tale disguised masked in creepy mood. Mr. Matheson wrote 16 of Serling’s “Twilight Zone” scripts, and saw “Button, Button” adapted into a sloppy episode of the show’s early 1980s revival. At least Mr. Kelly’s film is better than that. Still, at 110 scatterbrained minutes, Mr. Kelly’s film pushes Mr. Matheson’s perfectly fine short work to the point of narrative obesity. Two problematic 1963 “Twilight Zone” episodes for the price of one.

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X-Filing Away

The Fourth Kind (2009)

Simon Vesrano/Universal Pictures

The pretension that suffocates "The Fourth Kind" belittles common sense. Writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi wants his film — equal parts dramatization of a Nome, Alaska-based psychologist's close encounters of the fourth kind (alien abduction), which were supposedly recorded in 2000 and said "archival footage" from the hypnosis sessions — to leave the audience in uncomfortable deliberation: Was what we just saw real? Could that have actually happened? The way Mr. Osunsanmi conducts "The Fourth Kind," though, those questions are repeatedly silenced by his increasingly hokey structure. A stacked deck of sci-fi promise is squandered.

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Laying the Foundation Stone for a House of Horrors

Magnet Releasing

The next time you’re idly browsing for new threads in the nearest clothing chain store, don’t underestimate the guy hawking his services for a larger commission check. Because if this were 2005, and you were in a Diesel outlet in Philadelphia, Ti West would be regurgitating his rehearsed two-pairs-for-the-price-of-one sales pitch, yet beneath the spiel would rest the foundation for what will become one of 2009’s best horror films, “The House of the Devil.”

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Collateral Savage

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

John Baer/Overture Films

In director F. Gary Gray’s revenge thriller “Law Abiding Citizen,” the vengeance is front and center. Acts of payback that range from robotic sniper machines to limb dissection keep the momentum in gear, the gory red stuff smeared like graffiti in surprising amounts. The plot’s crux involves a loving suburban father (Gerard Butler) who waits 10 years to wage violent retribution against the legal-system players (led by Jamie Foxx as a hotshot assistant district attorney) that let a murderer — the greasy, abhorrent deviant who killed the father’s wife and daughter — walk free. That Mr. Butler is behind bars as the plan unfolds lends an air of implausibility.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to grip any semblance of narrative fat. The cat-and-mice game orchestrated by Mr. Butler’s Clyde Shelton is so overpowering that any human elements are lost in the bloody translation. As his 2003 action triumph “The Italian Job” showed, Mr. Gray certainly knows his way around stylish anarchy, and the glossy brutality of “Law Abiding Citizen” is at times quite enthralling. Higher stakes, which could have been upped if the characters existed as more than archetypes, just aren’t in the cards.

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