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year in review

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…

This is as much for me as it is for you.

I started out 2015 with a modest goal: To watch more movies that I hadn’t seen before than I did ones that I had. Last year, I watched 269 movies, not including TV series, of which 123 were new to me, which means that I didn’t quite manage even a 50/50 split. So this year I’ve made a conscious effort to watch more movies that I’ve never seen before, and so far it seems to be paying off.

As I have for a couple of years now, I keep a notebook where I write down every movie that I watch, along with the year it was released and an asterisk if I’ve seen it before. As of the morning of July 1, I had watched 126 movies so far this year, of which 79 were new to me, leaving only 47 that I had ever seen before. I’m sure I won’t keep up exactly that divide for the remainder of the year, but that puts me off to a pretty good lead to hit my goal of seeing more movies for the first time than I do for the second, or third, or hundredth.

I’m not really trying this goal for any special reason, besides that there are lots and lots of and lots of movies out there that I’ve never seen, and that I want to see, and I know that I’ll never have enough time, even in a long lifetime of watching lots and lots of movies, to get to them all, so I figure I’ll take an active role in trying to knock out a few more of them.

(For those who’re curious, so far in July I’ve seen 8 movies, at an average of a movie a day, which are thus far evenly divided between new-to-me and not, so that doesn’t really skew our data one way or the other at all.)

The Oscars are tonight. I don’t really care too much about them any year, and this year is no different, mostly because I haven’t seen the vast majority of the movies that are nominated for anything, so I can’t have much of an opinion either way. About the only category where I have a horse in the race is Best Animated Feature, where I’m hoping Big Hero 6 takes home the statue it so richly deserves, though I’m thinking that How to Train Your Dragon 2 will probably win it as an apology Oscar for snubbing its predecessor back in 2010.

I’m not here to talk about the Oscars, though. I’m here to talk about the year in movie monsters. I’m a little late with what will be my third annual Year in Creatures, but I honestly held off this long because I just kept thinking that there must have been more good monsters in movies in 2014 than I had yet seen, and that any moment I would stumble upon them, but as the Oscars are upon us and we’re now well into 2015, I think I’ve just got to acknowledge that 2014 wasn’t a very good year for movie monsters, and call it a day. (We can’t have a Pacific Rim every year, after all.)

This year followed the established pattern that the majority of screen creatures were not in horror or monster movies at all, but rather in big budget sci-fi, superhero, and fantasy spectacles. There were a few non-ghost monsters in lower budget horror films, but of those, few were especially memorable, and even the fantasy epics this year tended toward generic critters, with some exceptions coming in the form of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow, the surprisingly decent MUTOs from the otherwise lackluster Godzilla, and, if they can truly count as creatures, the future Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The only creature to really give this year’s winner a run for its money, though, was the breakout star of Guardians of the Galaxy, Groot. Who might have been monster of the year had it not been for…

The Babadook 

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While the film itself was one of the year’s better horror films, don’t get me wrong, it suffered a bit from overhype and a somewhat weak third act. But the titular monster stole the show, with its combination of silent movie aesthetics and a Pokemon-esque tendency to say its own name. (Particularly effective in a chilling phone call scene.)

Would the Babadook have been able to hold its own in a year with stronger monster representation? Who can say. All I know is, two months into 2015, it’s still my pick for last year’s Movie Monster of the Year.

Two years ago, I started keeping a notebook where I write down every movie that I watch. Not really any notes about them, just the movie, the year it came out, and an asterisk if I’ve seen it before. This has proved immensely helpful to me in all sorts of ways, not least when it comes to stuff like making end of the year best of lists. It also lets me do things like track how many movies I watched in a year, and so, if anyone is at all interested in that kind of minutia, here are some metrics on the movies I watched in 2014.

In 2014 I watched a grand total of 269 movies. In spite of the fact that I was working from home that entire time, that is actually down 31 movies from 2013. Of those movies, I watched 123 of them for the first time. Of those, 22 came out in 2014. You can still find my top 10 list at Downright Creepy, though in the days that followed its original posting I saw The Babadook, which would have slotted in somewhere around the 6 or 7 mark and pushed Snowpiercer off the bottom. Some of the worst movies I saw include Blood GlacierTusk, and Maleficent, though I watched I, Frankenstein last night, and if I’d actually seen it in 2014, it would totally be on that list.

My biggest month was May, where I managed to watch 35 movies, clocking in somehow at just over a movie a day. September was the smallest number, with only 13 movies total.

In 2015, I’m hoping to read more, which will probably mean watching movies less, but we’ll see. I’m also hoping to institute some kind of monthly Monster Movie Night where I watch some old cheesy monster movie with whatever friends happen to be free that night and inclined to watch lousy B movies about giant crabs or some such. More on that if and as it transpires.

So, I’m jumping the gun a bit on this, as we’ve still got a couple weeks of 2014 left, but there’s pretty good odds that I won’t see any movies or read any books or publish anything that I don’t already know about or anything else of note between now and then, and if I do, I’ll put up an addendum to this entry. So, looking back at 2014, what’s the biggest thing on my mind, besides how amazingly fast it went? Well, the main thing is that this means one full calendar year of me running my own business as a full-time writer, and it’s been pretty great. There have been periods that were financially lean–we’re actually in the midst of one right now–and ones that have been fairly flush, but all in all, it’s been a ride, and even if everything goes pear-shaped from here, I’ll at least have known what it was like for a while.

It turns out that having nothing else to do all day–and having your mortgage depend on your doing it–does wonders for your productivity, and I’ve sold and published quite a lot of fiction in the past year, even while it wasn’t my main source of writing income. I published seven stories in 2014 and one reprint, as well as selling several others that have yet to see print, and writing a decent body of licensed work for Privateer Press, some of which has seen print and some of which remains to be announced. I got to see my name in an actual core rulebook for Hordes, which was a pretty fantastic feeling. All told, I sold or published around two dozen pieces of fiction, including licensed work, over the course of the year. That’s a pretty big jump, especially considering that in 2013 I only published two stories, three if you count licensed work.

I also put out Gardinel’s Real Estate with my friend M.S. Corley, which sold out in only a couple of weeks, though you can still get a digital version via Gumroad. I participated in the online Deltorocon convention, attended the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival as a guest for the second year in a row, and wrote my first introduction for a collection by a contemporary writer, The Nickronomicon. Along with a host of other stuff that either hasn’t been announced yet, or that I’m forgetting to mention.

My goals for next year are mostly more of the same. I want to diversify the revenue streams for my business, so that slow months don’t hit as hard, and I want to keep on keeping my head above water, which, only a little over a year in, still feels doable, but like a big enough goal, thanks. The one really big piece of news on the horizon that I already know about is that 2015 will see the publication of my second fiction collection, this time through Ross Lockhart’s Word Horde imprint, where you can expect some really big things in the coming year. The collection is tentatively titled Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, and you’ll have to wait a bit longer to learn too much more, but I can tell you that I just recently wrapped the first draft of a brand new novella for the book, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Another goal for 2015 is to read more. I’ve actually seen a big dent in my reading time since I quit my day job. Previously, I spent the couple of hours a day that were otherwise consigned to the limbo of the city bus reading, and without that bracket of pre-loaded time, I’ve found it harder to put away the books at the pace I once could. I only read about 20 books in 2014, and as usual for me, most of those were graphic novels. Of the non-Hellboy stuff I did read, some of the standouts include the first collection from Daniel Mills (The Lord Came at Twilight), the latest collection from Slivia Moreno-Garcia (Love & Other Poisons), a couple from Adam Cesare (Video NightAll-Night Terror), and The Children of Old Leech, which also contained my story “Walpurgisnacht,” but hopefully that doesn’t make me too biased.

Movies, on the other hand, I had no trouble watching in 2014, though I still only managed to catch 21 that were released this year. My top ten list is currently live at Downright Creepy, but there are literally piles and piles of almost certainly great stuff that didn’t make the cut simply by virtue of my not catching it yet. Of the ones I did see, though, that’s a pretty accurate representation, and I didn’t have to leave anything on the cutting room floor due to DRC’s rubric of only allowing horror, thriller, sci-fi, and comic book flicks. (It was, as you can see, a great year for comic book flicks!) I may do some kind of total movie watching metric once the year is actually closed out, but we’ll see.

At this rate, I may have to wait until we’re a ways into 2015 before I do a Year In Creatures roundup, because while there were plenty of creatures in at least some of the movies I watched in 2014, very few of them really stood out. It seems that, whatever the best creature of the year was, it must have been somewhere outside of my experience so far.

The end of my first full year as a full-time writer is a big milestone, and I’m hopeful–if also a little anxious, as is usual and customary for me–for more good things to come in 2015. As I finish out the last few days of December, I’m thankful for all the opportunities that I’ve had, and for all the friends and family who’ve stood by me. One of the best things about doing what I do is that I get to meet and work with some of the best, coolest, and most exciting people I can think of, and I couldn’t have done it without the lot of you. Thanks to all of my friends both online and off, particularly to my dear friend Jay, who this year honored me immeasurably by asking me to be his best man at his wedding. Perhaps most of all, though, I couldn’t have done it without my loving and supportive wife, Grace, who has always believed in me, even and most especially when I myself did not.

Here’s to the end of 2014, and the beginning of bigger and better things for all of us in 2015! Soupy twist!

So here’s my last year-in-review-type-post for 2013, and my attempt at a second annual unofficial Best Movie Monster of the Year post (here’s last year’s). It’ll also be the second year in a row (out of two!) that I gave the award to a whole movie, rather than any one particular monster. So I’m obviously good at this, is what I’m saying.

Normally I’d try to play coy, and save the announcements for the end of the post, but really, nobody who’s been paying attention is going to be surprised about this year’s winner, so I may as well go ahead and say it. The winner by a margin so substantial that all other movies may as well be competing in a different category altogether: Pacific Rim

Yeah, shock, nobody is surprised. First of all, any year with a Guillermo del Toro movie in the running, the competition had better be pretty fierce for anything else to have a chance. And Pacific Rim is maybe del Toro’s monsteriest movie, a lover letter to kaiju films and giant robots that is every bit as inspired and meticulous as the best of his other films, though it comes from a much more bombastic portion of his vast and monster-loving heart.

I’ve already talked about why Pacific Rim was a great movie, and the kaiju themselves are a big piece of that particular puzzle. Wonderfully designed, and beautifully executed, they are some of the most awesome (in every sense of the word) and lovely monsters ever put on film. The fact that del Toro carefully designed them to move with the feel of a man in a suit, while also feeling completely real, just makes them all the better. But the biggest win for me is the gorgeous use of bioluminescence, making for some unexpectedly striking moments in an always striking film.

As has been the case for a few years now, the movie monster landscape in 2013 was dominated by movies that weren’t actually monster movies. These days the vast majority of blockbuster fare contains some manner of (more or less inspired) creature, while horror films tend to trade in more mundane threats. 2013 saw at least one truly phenomenal horror film, in the form of James Wan’s The Conjuring, but it didn’t really have much that could be called a monster, just ghosts and a very creepy doll (naturally).

Monsters made appearances in just about every movie with a sizable budget, many of which I’ve yet to see. From the second installment of the (inexplicable) Hobbit trilogy to the Thor sequel to the execrable Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, there were no shortage of creatures at the multiplexes this year. Surprisingly, some of the better monsters I saw were actually in the raunchy comedy This is the End, which featured demons that, while looking like bosses from Darksiders, still had enough character to rise above the majority of the blockbuster creatures thrown our way.

But Pacific Rim‘s biggest competition in the monster category ultimately came from the corner of a little film called Frankenstein’s Army, which deserves an honorary trophy for the fact that its inspired array of spookhouse creatures were all accomplished using practical effects. And if the movie itself serves mostly as a showcase for Nazi Frankenstein’s monsters complete with propeller heads and saw arms, well, there are certainly worse things to be.