Horror is subjective, but vital. 2016 was a great year for horror while also being inadvertantly horrific. The horror films that colored the cinematic landscape of this year may not have intentionally predicted or reflected the turmoil of the world to come, but it’s difficult not to look back upon them through the lens of what we know now. Dread is the word of the year here, and boy was there a lot of it to go around. Let’s look at the Best Horror Films of 2016.
In Mike Flanagan’s Hush, a young woman named Maddie is alone in her big secluded house one evening when a masked killer comes calling. This is a fairly creepy scenario, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. But looks can be deceiving, and Hush is trickier and more clever than it appears. For instance: Maddie is deaf, and while she can read people’s lips and feel heavy vibrations, she can’t hear a killer sneaking up behind her with a knife at the ready. Director-editor Flanagan moves Hush along a clipped pace, never letting the tension, or your attention, waver.
14. THE WAILING
Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing certainly lives up to its name — this gonzo horror extravaganza shrieks and hollers its way under your skin, spinning a confusing, unsettling saga. Set in a rainy, isolated Korean village, The Wailing follows a local cop (Kwak Do-won) who gets wrapped up in a case involving demonic possession, barking dogs and mysterious strangers. Na’s film plumbs the depths of the horror genre and dregs up a narrative that’s part Exorcist-style possession tale, part ghost story, part monster-attack movie. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo keeps the film looking breathtaking, alternating between scenery shrouded in ghostly mists and dreary downpours you can almost feel in your bones, or landscapes shot-through with dappled sunlight. Some of the creepiest moments of The Wailing happen in broad daylight, and that contrast — the presumed safety of the light being utterly destroyed by something straight out of hell — results in something truly remarkable.
The horror anthology film is a time honored, but frequently uneven movie tradition. In anthology form, one is presented with the prospect of great horror condensed into small packages and displayed side-by-side with similar spooky scenarios. Yet more often than not, you end up with an unbalanced, unfocused mess. One story nestled amongst the others may stand-out, but you have to practically slog through whatever dreck surrounds it to get there. Southbound defies expectations and bucks the overloaded horror anthology trend — please, no more horror anthologies that have a short film for every single letter of the alphabet — to result in some wildly inventive and genuinely surprising moments of modern horror. Complete with genre-fave Larry Fessenden vocally on-hand as a radio DJ playing the Rod Serling to this film’s Twilight Zone, this is a film sure to deliver for genre fans seeking out something fresh.
12. TRAIN TO BUSAN
Train to Busan could’ve easily been a silly Snakes on a Plane-style thriller: neat premise, little substance, instantly forgettable. Instead, Sang-ho Yeon’s zombies-on-a-train extravaganza is a tense, action-packed bolt from the blue. Trapped on a train with rabid passengers, a self-centered businessman and his daughter are thrust into a terrifying, dangerous journey. Even if Train to Busan had stopped here with its premise it would’ve been successful thanks to Sang-ho Yeon’s quick, animation-inspired direction. But there’s a surprisingly empathetic message at the heart of Train to Busan; the type of message more people would do well to listen to.
11. SUN CHOKE
Sun Choke is a sinister psychological horror film that says so much by saying so little. It isn’t interested in providing many answers, and that makes the film all the more disturbing. Sarah Hagan plays a disturbed young woman in the care of an equally disturbing woman, played by the always-welcomed Barbara Crampton. The film travels down a twisty, unkept path towards gnarled, unpleasant places. The unpleasantness is, oddly enough, one of Sun Choke’s biggest assets. This is not an easy film to watch, and you won’t leave it with a particularly sunny disposition. But there’s something to be said for a film that so brazenly isn’t trying to please and kowtow to its audience. Sometimes it’s nice to be a little nasty.
10. THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
So deceptively simply yet so compellingly creepy, André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe puts two guys in a room with a corpse and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way. As a pair of father/son morticians, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch make for fine foils against a dead mystery woman who keeps revealing more and more secrets the further the men cut into her. It doesn’t seem like enough to sustain a full film, but director Øvredal keeps Jane Doe lively through style and a touch of gothic wonder.
9. I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE
A creeping, creepy ghost story dripping with dread, Osgood Perkins’ I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is like a long-lost Shirley Jackson story brought to life. Described by Perkins as “almost a horror film”, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is less The Shining and more The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That is, the film has all the energy of a lazy, rainy autumn day. There are no jump-scares here. No standard horror beats. Nothing to please a rowdy teenage audience. Instead, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House relies on intelligence and dread. This is the cure for the stupid, generic horror film.
8. THE NEON DEMON
Nicolas Winding Refn’s glitzy, trashy hate-letter to the City of Angels, The Neon Demon is a Suspiria meets Showgirls, and if that doesn’t get you a little excited I honestly don’t know what your deal is. Elle Fanning is an underage model thrust into a world of horrid beauty, where other people are willing to literally eat her alive to possess what she has — beauty. Refn builds his story slowly, never quite letting you in on the sick secrets he’s saving up. Then, the rug gets pulled out from under your feet and the film becomes so incredibly bonkers that you’ll either fall madly in love with it or condemn it to a fiery death.
7. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
A secret sequel (sort-of) to Cloverfield, Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane came out of nowhere and blew everyone away in the process. It’s a tense, clever, extremely well-acted work of genre filmmaking, with a story that explores deeper themes that other films in this mold might eschew, particularly about abuse and control. Moving at a brisk 1 hour and 45 minutes, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a Swiss clock of a film, with two dynamite performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Some may take umbrage with the film’s third act twist, but those paying close attention will realize that 10 Cloverfield Lane has been building towards its destination perfectly for its entire runtime.
6. GREEN ROOM
Jeremy Saulnier likely never predicted that his Blue Ruin follow-up would end up becoming the film that best captures the existential terror of the year 2016. A group of affable punk rockers are trapped and surrounded by Nazi skinheads, and the only way out is to draw blood. What makes Green Room so terrifying isn’t its descent into gore-soaked violence (though that’s plenty disturbing, too), but rather how human and, well, normalized the Nazis here are. Led by Patrick Stewart in a deliciously low-key but scary-as-fuck performance, the Nazis killers here are just a few steps away from rebranding themselves as “Alt-Right” and assimilating into society. It was a scary concept to begin with when the film hit theaters in April. Now, as 2016 comes to a close, it’s almost too terrifying to contemplate.
5. THE LOVE WITCH
The Love Witch is a glorious technicolor dream of a movie from writer – director – producer -production designer Anna Biller. While few would ever declare The Love Witch to be “scary”, it’s supernatural and homicidal undertones blend deftly with its feminist message. Shot in luscious 35mm, Biller’s film adopts the zooms and pans prevalent in the films of the 60s and 70s she’s inspired by. The director employs these tricks to perfection, never once dipping into parody. The same can be said of the performances of the cast — across the board, each actor plays their part with a tinge of referential acting while simultaneously taking it all very seriously. It’s a wonder to behold, just as much as the lovely mise-en-scène of the film itself. The Love Witch will cast a spell over you, one that you won’t soon shake off. This is pure cinema, destined to be obsessed over and longed for.
4. ALWAYS SHINE
Estranged friends and struggling actresses Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) head to Big Sur with hopes of getting away from it all and re-connecting in the process. Things do not go according to plan. Director Sophia Takal’s unsettling, anxiety-ridden Always Shine has hints of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but is really its own unique experience. At the center of it all is a fierce, startling performance from Mackenzie Davis balanced by much different, but equally incredible work from Caitlin FitzGerald. A meditation of jealousy, sexism and self-hatred, Always Shine won’t strike many as a “traditional” horror movie, but it’s horror roots are firmly planted. Always Shine is the best type of horror: the subtle kind that creeps its way under your skin when you least suspect it.
3. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
The Eyes of My Mother is a nightmare. A beautiful, fairy tale-like nightmare rendered in stark black and white. Is it allegorical, metaphorical? Is it someone’s terrifying waking dream, plucked from a subconscious for all to see? Can it be all these things, and more? First-time writer-director Nicolas Pesce has constructed a slice of American Gothic that is brimming with untold dread. Even before anything terrifying happens there is the unmistakable hint of bad omens, and horror to come. Like a tone poem crossed with a fever dream, The Eyes of My Mother is one of the most striking, unique horror films in recent memory. It seems almost impossible that this film exists, simultaneously unpleasant and alluring as it is. How can a story that’s so inherently horrific and unpleasant be so achingly lovely? Director Pesce has somehow tapped into a coursing, phantasmagorical pulse; a lunatic wavelength imperceptible to most ears. This is intoxicating, illuminating horror filmmaking at its finest.
2. THE INVITATION
With The Invitation, director Karyn Kusama has crafted a film of propulsive, insurmountable dread — dread that takes hold almost from the very first frame and never lets up. The Invitation takes its time revealing its true nature, and like all great horror films, the horror comes real life — here playing with themes of grief, anger, acceptance and even faith. The Invitation focuses on a group of friends who reunite for the most awkward dinner party in history — and the trouble that follows. Like the aforementioned Green Room, The Invitation is a film that inadvertently speaks to the mentality of many in 2016: those who blindly follow cultish logic, and those too politie to speak up and say anything about it. As The Invitation builds towards its chilling climax, you’ll be in the film’s vice-like grip, unable to break free. And when the credits roll, you won’t be able to get what you’ve just seen out of your head.
1. THE WITCH
When The Exorcist was released in 1973, Christian evangelist Billy Graham proclaimed that the film had “evil embodied on the very celluloid” itself. Graham’s hysteria-driven words could also apply to Robert Eggers’ horrific masterpiece The Witch — and I mean that in the best possible way. Seductive evil pulses through every shadowy frame of The Witch, and horror cinema is all the better for it. For some strange reason, certain audiences who witnessed Eggers’ film complained that it was “not really a horror movie.” This is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous. The Witch is exactly what a horror movie should be: a film loaded with precise, nerve-shattering dread building towards a climax of demonic ecstasy. Perhaps an audience conditioned on slasher knock-offs and torture porn just weren’t prepared to succumb to unholy terror that pulses in this film. Oh well — it’s their loss. The rest of us shall live deliciously.