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year in review

In my previous wrap-up of movies that I watched in 2017, I neglected to mention that I also attended the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland as a guest again this year, where I think I only saw one movie, but that was Philip Gelatt’s really excellent They Remain, which I talked about right after the Festival back here.  For various reasons, I didn’t consider They Remain for my top 10 movies from last year, but if I had, it no doubt would have made the list.

I’m very pleased to say that They Remain will also be showing at this year’s Panic Fest right here in Kansas City, with director Philip Gelatt in attendance! I think it will prove a divisive film, but one that’ll get talked about a lot as more and more people get a chance to see it. I’m especially happy to have it playing here in my own hometown, at our kickass local horror film fest at our kickass local theatre, because I played a small (but I’m going to pretend pivotal) role in helping it find a home at Panic Fest.

If you’re local to KC (or even relatively close), Panic Fest is the place to be the last weekend in January. I’ve already got my tickets, and I’ll be there all weekend, probably haunting the dealer room when I’m not watching movies. So come find me and say hi!

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In 2017 I watched 245 movies. Of those, I watched 152 of them for the first time, only keeping ahead of my “watch more movies that I haven’t seen before than ones that I have” goal by about 30 titles.

Of those, I watched 32 movies that were released in 2017 (depending upon how you count release dates). That’s actually a higher-than-usual number for me, which also means that, for the first time in a while, I saw enough good movies that came out in 2017 that I feel comfortable assembling a top ten list without just including every movie that I didn’t hate on it. So, with the usual caveats that this is a list of my ten favorite movies of 2017, certainly not necessarily the ten best, and that at only 32 movies, there are lots more that I haven’t seen than ones that I have, here are my Top Ten Movies of 2017 as they stand right now:

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10. Better Watch Out
I saw Better Watch Out back in August during a special theatrical screening and it blew me away; a vicious, funny, frequently surprising take on the home invasion formula and also a chilling look at male entitlement. If I was still going entirely off of that initial experience, this would be higher on my list, but a second viewing took off some of the shine. Still, if you’re going to see this one, see it as cold as possible, And whatever you do, don’t watch the trailer, which gives away many of the film’s best reveals.

9. Kong: Skull Island
There are plenty of better movies that didn’t make this list, but pretty much no matter what else I saw this year, Skull Island‘s complete and unflinching dedication to being a two-hour pilot for a gory Saturday morning cartoon meant that it was always going to have a place here. Plus, lots and lots of monsters.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This slot could basically be a tie between Three Billboards and the Netflix original I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. But, gun to my head, Martin McDonagh’s third feature takes the edge thanks to incredible performances from its leads and an unexpected emotional through-line that takes the Coen Brothers-esque premise someplace perhaps less satisfying but ultimately more cathartic than it seems.

7. Gerald’s Game
When I initially watched Mike Flanagan’s passion project adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, I walked away with mixed feelings. But the more I thought about it, the more this intricate meditation on the long-term effects of trauma stuck with me. As someone who is still working through the aftereffects of childhood trauma, there were plenty of moments here that felt all-too-familiar.

6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
I’ve been waiting all my life for them to finally get a Spider-Man movie right. Guess it only took six tries.

5. Baby Driver
Baby Driver is an imperfect movie, especially in its last third where even its best elements begin to break down. But its central conceit — a musical in which the characters listen to the music rather than singing it — is so enjoyable that it carries the movie well beyond anyplace it might otherwise have crashed on its own.

4. The Shape of Water
It is maybe a little ironic that what is probably Guillermo del Toro’s most assured film to date is also the one that feels the least like a Del Toro film. In The Shape of Water, Del Toro channels his affection for The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Abe Sapien, 60s Cold War paranoia, golden age Hollywood musicals, and a whole lot more into a love letter to outsiders that feels as much like a piece of French fabulism as it does any of Del Toro’s Spanish-language films.

4. Blade of the Immortal
For his 100th movie (depending on how you count), Takashi Miike combines the over-the-top qualities for which he is perhaps best known with the beauty and control of his more stately samurai films to create the bonkers and beautiful Blade of the Immortal. I watched it while recovering from surgery, and wrote up my slightly-drug-addled impressions at greater length for Unwinnable.

2. Thor: Ragnarok
There are lots of better movies lower on this list, but I probably didn’t have a better time at the movies all year than I did with Thor: Ragnarok. The various Marvel Cinematic Universe films have always done a pretty good job of feeling like they occupied an ever-expanding comic book universe, but Thor: Ragnarok may be the first one that actually feels like reading a four-issue comic book arc, in all the very best ways. For various reasons, I seldom see movies more than once during their initial theatrical run. In fact, I can almost count the number of times I have done so on one hand. Sadly, I haven’t yet gone to see Thor: Ragnarok twice while in the theatre (and probably won’t), but I really want to, which maybe says all I need to say.

1. Get Out
When I left the theatre after seeing Get Out, one of the first things I said was, “I’ve got to stop watching the best movie I’m going to see all year in February.” (Last year it was The Witch.) I said it partly as a joke, but I also wasn’t kidding. From the minute I finished Get Out, I knew I wouldn’t see a better movie in 2017 because, let’s be honest, how amazing a year would it have been if we got two movies as good as Get Out?

My least favorite movie of the year has also remained the same since the moment I walked out of the theatre, and let us hope that it shall always remain so, because if I see a movie that I hate more than I hated Alien: Covenant in the immediate future, I will be very sad.

Besides those movies above, I had a lot of great experiences in the theatre watching revival showings in 2017. Once again, I made it out to Panic Fest in January, this time attending as a civilian for the first time ever, and I’m planning to go again this year. I caught the Nerdoween mystery triple feature with the Nerds of Nostalgia at the Tapcade for the third year in a row, in what has rapidly become my Halloween tradition. This year I saw Tales from the Hood for the first time, and got to introduce Jay to both Waxwork and Creepshow. And if Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t the best time I had at the movies all year, then seeing The Deadly Spawn for the first time ever on the big screen at the Alamo definitely was. Not only did I love the movie, but there was just that magic in the air that made the screening a particularly special event.

The last movie that I watched in 2017 was either The Last Jedi or Terminator 2, depending on how you count. The first movie I watched in 2018 was The Debt (2010), but the next one I watch is likely to be the much more on-brand Hell Night.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve still got, like, a week left, but it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to publish anything more in those few days, so let’s go ahead and get this dumpster fire of a year behind us, shall we? (Remember when we all thought that 2016 was kind of the epitome of a bad year? We were so adorable.)

Given the way the last few months of this year, especially, have gone, with various health crises and escalating stress, it’s easy to forget that I accomplished much of anything at all during the rest of it, but I actually published a few stories and, hard as it is to believe, two books in 2017! And by “a few” I mean roughly five new stories of mine came out in 2017, six if you count the one new story in the deluxe hardcover edition of Never Bet the Devil. I had stories in The Children of Gla’akiFor Mortal Things UnsungTerror in 16-BitsTales from a Talking Board, and Darker Companions. (For those keeping score at home, that’s actually two Ramsey Campbell tribute anthologies, and not a single overtly Lovecraft-themed one. Maybe a record?)

On top of that, 2017 saw the release of my first novel, in a manner that I would never have expected in a million years. Godless, the first volume in a proposed series chronicling the adventures of Tristan, nicest of all the Protectorate of Menoth warcasters, was released by Privateer Press back in April. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I also got the distinction of being the first writer to permanently kill off a major in-game character, so that was pretty cool. The book was written in something of a rush to meet my deadlines, but it seems to have been received fairly well. I dedicated it to Ray Harryhausen, and earlier this month I got to visit an exhibit of Ray Harryhausen models, storyboards, concept art, and other ephemera in Oklahoma City, which was a rare pleasure indeed.

In non-licensed work, 2017 also saw the re-release of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, in a fancy deluxe hardcover edition courtesy of Strix Publishing. The (jaw-dropping) cover design and pitch-perfect interior illustrations are all the work of Mike Corley, one of my favorite artists in the business and pretty much my first and only choice to work on this book. Besides adding new illustrations by Mike, I wanted to make sure that the deluxe edition had some added value for those who had already purchased the (now out of print) paperback original, so we also included two additional stories that weren’t in the first release. One of them, “Goblins,” was entirely original to the collection, while the other, “A Night for Mothing,” is a difficult-to-find rarity that was originally published in The Mothman Files all the way back in 2011.

Besides heading out to the Ray Harryhausen exhibit in early December, I managed to make a handful of convention appearances throughout the year, despite my wretched health. I attended Panic Fest here in Kansas City back in January for the first time as a civilian (previous years I had helped out with booths and other odds-and-ends), something I plan to do again this year. I was a guest of the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in Atlanta back in March and at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland in October, where we actually launched Never Bet the Devil & Other Warning. I’m told that no less a personage than Barbara Steele stopped by the booth to inquire about the book, but at the time I was out getting a burrito, which is probably just as well, so that I couldn’t pitch it to her by explaining that, “I think it’s got ghosts and stuff.”

In-between all of those, I also made a trip up to Minneapolis to see the Guillermo del Toro exhibit At Home with Monsters, and a trip to the Boulder area of Colorado, mostly to accompany Grace to a low flutes retreat, though I also used the opportunity to meet up with some writing acquaintances and do a bit of writing myself, including penning a story that I’m pretty proud of which is part of a lengthier story cycle that I mostly finished during the course of this year, though none of the new additions to it have seen print just yet.

Lots more stuff happened in 2017. I watched a lot of movies, read a few books, was sick a lot, had an emergency surgery, spent my birthday recovering from that, and did a whole host of the other usual stuff that you do in a year, even one where everything is on fire. I’ll have most posts about the movies I watched in 2017, as well as a Year in Creatures, most likely, but those will have to wait until the year is actually over. For now, that’s most of what I accomplished as far as writing and publishing go, and that’s what we’re here for.

Odds are you don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a rough year. Even leaving aside any political… happenstance, we lost a lot of great people in 2016. Some were losses shared by the world, others hit closer to home. But if I restrict my sights to only those things that were localized entirely within the walls of my house, 2016 was actually a pretty good year. Freelance work picked up considerably from its low point in 2015, Grace got a new job that she is extremely happy with, and I published two books: Monsters from the Vault, a collection of my Vault of Secrets columns from Innsmouth Free Press, and The Cult of Headless Men, a chapbook novelette from Dunhams Manor with an incredible cover by Michael Bukowski.

Since my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings had fallen out of print at the end of 2015, this past year also saw the launch of a successful Kickstarter to get it back in print in a deluxe, fully-illustrated hardcover edition featuring killer art from my good friend MS Corley. The new edition is due out sometime this year from Strix Publishing, and should be available for order direct from them for those who missed the Kickstarter.

Following on the heels of the Kickstarter, the last few months of 2016 were a little hectic for me. I ended September with a tonsillectomy, which more or less put me out of commission for the month of October, and then spent November and December writing my first novel in only 53 days! For those who missed the previous announcement, that novel will be a Protectorate of Menoth novel set in the world of the Iron Kingdoms from Privateer Press. It’s the first in a proposed series called Fire & Faith, and the book itself is going to be called Godless. It’s due out later this year. I’ll be posting a lot more about it–and the process of writing it–once things have gone a little farther, but for now you can read a brief interview with me over at their blog.

Over the course of the year, I published only 6 new short stories (not counting The Cult of Headless Men), but I’m pretty proud of all of them. They showed up in venues like Autumn CthulhuSwords v. Cthulhu, Children of LovecraftEternal FrankensteinThe Madness of Dr. Caligari, and Gothic Lovecraft. (Lots of “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu” titles this year.) Thanks to Children of Lovecraft, I finally got to check my lifelong dream of appearing behind a Mignola cover off my list, and my story from Autumn Cthulhu made the Bram Stoker Award reading list, which I think is a first for me. I also made my debut in the pages of Nightmare magazine, albeit in nonfiction form, writing an entry for their H Word column about creating and consuming horror that isn’t meant to be scary.

I didn’t read very many books in 2016 (a little less than 30, most of them graphic novels), but of those, a few were actually published in 2016 and were legitimately great, perhaps most notably Matthew M. Bartlett’s Creeping Waves and Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism. I was also lucky enough to provide blurbs for a couple of books that came out in 2016, including Pete Rawlik’s most recent addition to his rollicking Wold Newton-ish universe Reanimatrix, and Jonathan Raab’s The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie. (Though really, with a title like that, why do you need a blurb from me to sell it to you?)

I did watch a lot of movies in 2016, however. 333, to be exact. 47 of those were in the month of October, which is what happens when you have a tonsillectomy and can neither sleep nor do much else besides lay on the couch and watch movies. In continuing my efforts to see more movies that I haven’t seen than ones that I have, 197 of those movies were new-to-me, though of those only about 25 actually came out in 2016. Nothing I saw in 2016 ever managed to beat the first movie that I saw in theatres last year, so The Witch is probably still my favorite movie of the year. Other good ones that I saw include Green Room, I Am Not a Serial Killer, Ouija: Origin of Evil (yeah, I’m as surprised as you are), Captain America: Civil WarThe Nice GuysZootopiaThe Shallows, and the first half of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The last movie that I watched in 2016 was Blood Diner, and the first one that I watched in 2017 was Cellar Dweller, so that seems about right.

In breaking with my annual tradition, there probably won’t be a Year in Creatures this year because, frankly, I just didn’t see enough movies in 2016 that had creatures in them. The big alien in Independence Day: Resurgence was totally wasted, and besides it and a few ghosts there was, what, a shark and that thing from I Am Not a Serial Killer? I guess Black Phillip would about have to be the Monster of the Year in 2016, though if there are good creatures I’m missing in movies that I didn’t see do please let me know, because I want to track them down!

In 2017 I’m hoping to read more books, which may entail watching fewer movies, but we’ll see how the year pans out. I’ve already picked up my full-weekend pass for Panic Fest this year, so that’s a pile of movies I’ll probably be seeing later this month. There’s a lot of cool stuff in the works for 2017, including that aforementioned novel, so you’ll be hearing from me more down the line. For now, let’s finish kicking the detritus of 2016 to the curb, and set our sights on getting through the next few days, months, and then years.

 

Well, it took me a while to get to this, so here we are almost two months into 2016, but here’s a recap of how writing went in 2015. First off, it was my second full year as a full time freelance writer. It was also, by far, the hardest year as such, but unexpected factors came into play to help get us through it, and so far 2016 is looking up (knock on wood).

Of course, the big writing event in 2015 was the release of my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts from Word Horde. The second-biggest piece of writing news last year was probably my ghost apocalypse story “Persistence of Vision” getting reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 7, marking my first (and so far only) best of the year publication.

Besides Painted Monsters and the three original stories contained therein, 2015 saw the publication of six new stories by yours truly. I also continued to do freelance work for Privateer Press and started doing regular freelance gigs for The Lineup. Plus I got to check something off my bucket list by making my first sale to Clarkesworld in the form of a nonfiction piece about bugs in the films of Guillermo del Toro.

So in spite of being a rough year in a lot of ways, 2015 was also a pretty great year for writing in a lot of other ways. And 2016 is off to a promising start. I’ve got at least one book coming out this year, Monsters from the Vault, a collection of my Vault of Secrets columns from Innsmouth Free Press. (More on that very soon.) I’m also in talks to get a new edition of Never Bet the Devil back into print sooner rather than later.

I’ve already got six stories in press that should be coming out in various anthologies in 2016. Some of them I’ve already talked about, others are still a secret for now, and there’s one that’s still under wraps that I’m very excited about. Besides that, I’ve also got four stories in various stages of progress for various anthology invitations, plus a project that I’m working on for Dunhams Manor. And I’m working on a pitch for an illustrated mid-grade book with Eric Orchard, among other projects. So 2016 is shaping up to be an exciting year.

Well, 2015 may have been the big year of high-number sequels in long-running franchises, but it bucked recent tradition in one major way: For the first time in a long time, the majority of movie monsters on screen this year were not in multi-million-dollar blockbuster tentpoles (Star Wars notwithstanding), but in modestly-budgeted, honest-to-Godzilla monster movies. So regardless, really, of the ultimate quality of any of those movies, that’s something to be thankful for. When you also factor in that a majority of the monsters on screen this year were also primarily practical effects, it really is downright jaw-dropping.

While most people are probably expecting the titular creature from It Follows to take the crown for 2015–and while there are, admittedly, few more intriguing loglines in recent memory than that movie’s central conceit–ultimately I found the execution of said monster, while frequently chilling, to be too uneven and, yes, maybe too metaphorical for it to take the top spot among movie monsters in a year that’s actually crowded with contenders.

Up until literally the month of December, I really thought The Hallow would walk away with the prize. While the film itself is of mixed quality, its woody/fungal monsters, brought to unsettling life principally via practical effects, would have dominated most any normal Year in Creatures. What I didn’t expect was to find a contender in an unlikely Hollywood epic in November. While the C.H.U.D.-alikes in Mockingjay Part 2 may not have been the most inventive monsters ever to hit cinema screens, their deployment was one of the most effective I have ever seen, full stop. It helps that they’re in easily one of the best movies that I saw in a theatre this year.

Ultimately, though, for all the best intentions and incredible critters in such a ridiculous quantity of movies, there was no real competition for the top honor, not after Krampus hit theatres in early December. While my feelings about the film itself may not have been as unanimous as I had hoped, there’s no denying the sheer quantity and bravura of its creatures. Krampus is a film that could easily have gotten away with having only the titular Christmas demon, along with maybe an evil toy or two. Instead, it crams the screen with monsters, from Demonic Toys-like demonic toys (though director Michael Dougherty claims never to have seen that dubious classic) to dark elves to “Yule goats” to Krampus himself, almost all of them brought to life primarily through puppetry and suit effects. Even the movie’s snowmen–which, spoilers, don’t actually do anything besides appear creepily in the front yard–are almost enough to count as additional monsters.

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Even if there weren’t any other monsters in the mix, though, Krampus himself would probably be enough to steal the show. With enormous, heavy hooves, a hunched back, and more sheer scale than you might imagine, it’s actually the little touches the make Krampus work, from the bells that jingle on the chains he wears to the slipping mask of an old man face that he ultimately displays. While the character may lack the personality of Sam from Trick ‘R Treat–Dougherty’s previous contribution to the horror canon–as a monster he’s hard to resist.

When you get right down to it, though, whatever you think of any of my picks here, the real winner in 2015 is us. We haven’t had a year this crammed full of movie monsters in actual monster movies in a long time, so whatever your particular poison, make sure you enjoy it while it lasts!

I started 2015 with a modest goal: I wanted to watch more movies that I had never seen before than ones that I had. I think I accomplished that pretty handily. In 2015, I watch 255 movies, 156 of them for the first time. Of those 156, 25 of them were released in 2015. (Yeah, I don’t make it out to the theatres as much as I used to…)

For me, 2015 was a year full of movies that I liked but didn’t love. Since there’s no one twisting my arm to make a ranked Top Ten list this year, I’ll simply say that, of the movies that I saw that were released in 2015, a few of my favorites include: Mockingjay Part 2, Insidious Chapter 3, Crimson Peak, Krampus, and Mad Max: Fury Road. And before you ask, no, I still haven’t seen The Force Awakens, so you’ll have to wait to hear what I think of it. I did catch Hateful Eight just under the wire, watching it on New Year’s Eve in 70mm, but, while the experience was pretty amazing, I’m not yet sure how I felt about the movie. I also saw Bone Tomahawk over the weekend, and it was every bit as good as everyone’s been saying, though it definitely did drama better than it did horror.

There are lots of other likely contenders for a best of the year list that I just haven’t gotten the chance to sit down with yet. In spite of the best efforts of movies like Hellions and Run All Night, the worst movie that I saw that came out in 2015 remains Tremors 5, and I say that as a fan of the franchise, even its later entries.

When you only see 25 movies that came out in a year, you’re bound to miss a lot of good ones. So it probably comes as no surprise that I saw more older movies for the first time that left a big impression on me than I did movies that actually came out this year. A few highlights include: The Guest, The Canal, Nightcrawler, April Fool’s Day, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Resolution, The Warriors, Hide and Seek (2013), Kill, Baby… Kill!, Black Mountain Side, Blood and Black Lace, Night of the Demons, Phantom of the Paradise, Santo y Blue Demon Contra Los Monstruos, Kiss Me Deadly, and Mockingjay Part 1.

While I didn’t make it out to the theatre very often this year, I did have several superlative theatre-going experiences. Back at the tail-end of January, I attended Panic Fest, where I got to catch a midnight double-feature of WolfCop and The Editor. I’ll be there again this year, on the weekend of February 5. In October, I was a guest at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, where I caught a bunch of movies, the best of which was probably Black Mountain Side.

On my birthday I attended a mystery horror triple-feature at the Tapcade, where I got to see both Demons and Night of the Demons for the first time, and then in November I saw the Mockingjay double-feature at the Alamo. Finally, just a few nights ago, I watched The Hateful Eight in 70mm, as I already mentioned.

In 2016, I hope to continue the trend of watching more movies that are new-to-me, and fewer re-watches, although going back to classics (or not-so-classics) that I haven’t revisited in a long time is also high on my list. I’m also hoping, though it seems that I say this every year now that I’m a freelancer, to read more books in 2016, so that may cut into my movie watching time. We’ll see…