Julia's Eyes (dir. Guillem Morales, 2010, Spain)
Spain will remind you that there needn't be gratuitous violence and bloodshed to make a film viscerally scary. Just check Guillermo del Toro's own Pan's Labyrinth, a not-for-children fairy tale whose jarring outbreaks of brutality burn unceasingly into your retinas. He produced Morales' exceedingly dark and creepy film, which uses soundtrack and ambient noise to effectively keep us on the edge of our chairs through its duration. This perpetually twilit story focuses on the titular character (played w/ athletic desperation by Belen Rueda, star of other creepy Spanish film The Orphanage), who shares a debilitating eye condition w/ her recently deceased twin sister. Julia is slowly going blind, the camera mimicking this by producing blurred fingers of shadow into the frame, but she's not letting that stop her investigation of her sister Sara's apparent suicide. Julia is absolutely, unquestionably positive that something is a bit off here, and neither her somewhat mollifying husband Isaac nor the investigators nor Sara's friends will convince her otherwise. Julia has one spine-tingling encounter w/ a quintet of blind patients who knew Sara, moving about them like they'll petrify her w/ their glassy gazes a la the Gorgons and Perseus. Her vision temporarily halted in an emergency operation, Julia is bandaged (or blindfolded), given an unseen male nurse attendant, and Morales plunges us headlong into an increasingly shadowy, claustrophobic realm. Sounds magnify here, as Julia relies more her own hearing, and figures like the nurse and a seemingly helpful girl from next door are shown always from behind or truncated in frame, so their faces are not visible, shifting the uncertainty and dread even further into the red zone. The climax isn't exactly unexpected, but Julia's struggle to overcome her terrifying affliction and face the intrusion is horrifying all the same.
13 Assassins (dir. Takashi Miike, 2010, Japan)
How you appropriately close out America's largest genre film festival? How about w/ Japanese gore- and horror-guru Miike-san and his gloves-off sendup to Eiichi Kudo's '63 Thirteen Assassins? A period piece both more serious and more violent than Miike's rollicking Sukiyaki Western Django, w/ a kill ratio that only a Miike film can muster. The plot, despite its depiction of late-Feudal Japan and large cast, is deceptively simple: one of the last remaining samurai Shinzaemon (no one but Koji Yakusho could've done this role justice) gathers 12 other assassins to intercept an evil, spoiled young lord Hanbei, the Shogun's younger brother and the raper of women and murderer of men, and take his ass out. The first half of the film does this, w/ backstories on Hanbei's petulant ruthlessness and on each of the assassins (incl. a rowdy mountain-dweller who scoffs at samurai but wields a sling-rock like nobody's business), plus their orchestration in turning a remote village on Hanbei's path into one very deadly pre-Saw booby trap. The second half, a cool 60+ minutes, is full-out fighting, arrows, spears, moving spiked-log walls, old-school dynamite and fireballs, and sword-to-sword clashes, as the mud grows thicker and carcasses litter the ground. We cheered at each decapitation, gasped at the level of ingenuity in the assassins' obstacles, booed when one of our heroes bit the dust, and cheered even harder when the ronin faces down and takes out like 30 guys at once. And the final showdown b/w Shinzaemon w/ Hanbei is just as electrifying and satisfying as the 55+ minutes that preceded it, w/ one more cool severed head for a punctuation mark. Miike-san, we bow down.