As 2015 draws to an end, it’s time to look back at the horror films that shaped the year. The horror films of 2015 found new ways to make old things exciting again, be it in the form of “found footage” style framing, John Carpenter infused suburban tales of terror, up close and personal looks at vampires, or bloody new recreations of Hammer-style horror. Hell, even exiled filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan returned with an funny, spooky cinematic thrill ride. Join us now as we count-down the 10 Best Horror films of 2015.
10. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s inventive ode to vampire films operates in the style of a faux documentary about a group of bloodsuckers sharing a flat in New Zealand. What We Do in the Shadows pays tribute to vampires, and vampire films, of every era — from the horrific rat-like vamp of Nosferatu to the more sensitive kind of creature of the night made popular by Twilight. What makes it all work is that Clement and Waititi take the vampiric world they’ve created seriously while still crafting a funny horror-comedy. It’s the type of film that makes you wish it were longer, or even a several-seasoned TV series just so we could spend more time within the universe it inhabits. There’s also quite a bit of horror in the film itself, from the 8,000-year-old Count Orlock look-alike Petyr to a moment when Clement’s shape-shifts into a simultaneously funny and horrifying cat with a human face. In the same league as horror comedies American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, and Cabin in the Woods, What We Do in the Shadows is a horror-comedy that actually wants to praise horror films instead of mocking them.
Creep is a two-man show with a simple premise, yet director/co-star Patrick Brice keeps it all moving at a steady pace, building a palpable ever-mounting dread, culminating in a true horror-movie climax. It’s a breezy, amusing, creepy 82 minutes that gets great mileage out of well-worn tropes intermixed with surprising revelations. If you’ve been in a situation where you continuously put up with another person’s uncomfortable behavior just to avoid seeming rude brace yourself, as the funny, unnerving Creep takes that scenario to the extreme, with interesting results. Ceep finds interesting ways to do new things with its “found footage” gimmick: at one point, the camera is left running on a table, filming a wide shot of a character frantically searching for his missing keys is very effective. Later, there are several transitions as the camera is spun away from the action to reveal that it has actually been filming another screen showing footage the entire time — found footage within found footage, if you will. Little tricks like this add a neat aesthetic to Creep, unlike other recent horror films using the same approach that seem to be “found footage” simply because it’s trendy to do so. Carrying it all is a unhinged performance from Mark Duplass. Rather than just a one-note weirdo, Duplass creates a layered character, and every time he does something that catches his co-star (and the audience) off-guard, he’s quick to offer a seemingly genuine apology. It makes the character somehow endearing despite all his lunacy. It all builds to a truly creepy conclusion that will leave the viewer genuinely unsettled.
8. THE FINAL GIRLS
The Final Girls is a mishmash of horror tropes that plays out like Back to the Future meets Scream meets, of all things, Last Action Hero. While the horror aspects at play here are light and playful, there’s an emotional core to the horror-comedy that you might not expect. Here is a charming, clever film that finds creative ways to get around its small budget. And most of all, there are characters who are all likable in their own unique ways; they’re not the type of disposable lunkheads who we can’t wait to see get axed by the killer in some gruesome fashion. Instead, we actually hope they make it out of here alive. The center conflict of The Final Girls deals with Max (Taissa Farmiga) still grieving the death of her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) after a tragic car accident. Amanda was an actress, and while she dreamed of movie stardom her most famous role was a scream queen in the Friday the 13th-esque slasher film Camp Bloodbath, and by a strange turn of events Max and her friends find themselves inside that very slasher movie. Max is confronted by a younger version of her mother, but it’s a cinematic creation who has no idea who Max is. The young woman strikes upon a crazy notion: if she can keep her fictionalized mother alive in the slasher movie, maybe she can keep her real-life mother alive as well. It seems silly, but it’s oddly sweet, and you’ll find yourself right there along with Max hoping it all works out for the best. As stated in my review: “What if I don’t make it?” Amanda fearfully asks Max at one point. “This time you will,” Max replies, and damn it, we want it to be true.
7. WE ARE STILL HERE
A loving pastiche of Euro-Horror, Peter Jackson-style bloodbaths, and even a little bit of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure, Ted Geoghegan’s feature debut We Are Still Here is not your typical haunted house movie. But it sure is a lot of fun. Director Geoghegan recalls Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery with his effective haunted house flick. Making great use of few locations and a strong cast — particularly Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig, who are perfectly matched and seem like a real couple intuned with one another — We Are Still Here builds to a wonderfully batshit, bloody conclusion that will catch you off guard in the best possible way. From my review: “As the film draws to a gloriously blood-soaked finale and hellish ghouls literally come out of the floorboards, it becomes the type of horror movie that seems to be in short supply recently: a horror movie that’s having fun. It’s a climax of well-constructed lunacy, with each frame of the film drenched in torrents of gleeful gore. We Are Still Here may not tread entirely new ground, but it still expertly maneuvers the well-worn path it’s on. We Are Still Here is the most fun you’ll have getting creeped out all year.”
6. THE VISIT
M. Night Shyamalan returns from bad movie exile to craft the funny, creepy, downright weird The Visit. Playing off the horrors of old age, The Visit finds two hapless youngsters visiting their grandparents who seem, for lack of a better word, insane. Whereas Shyamalan’s The Happening received unintentional laughs, The Visit perfectly mixes horror with humor, and indeed some of the laughs come from how unsettling and strange the film’s goings-on are. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the director finds a way to cleverly use the film’s “found footage” angle. In our review of the film, we opined that “as a faux documentary style film, The Visit finds creative ways to work in its ‘found footage’ material. Too often, horror films fall back on this without even bothering to explain who is filming what, and why, and who on earth compiled all this footage. Shyamalan understands that if you’re going to have your characters filming all the action, you damn well better explain how and why. In the process he’s able to achieve some remarkably effective shots that other “found footage” style horror couldn’t even come close to achieving. Both Tyler and Becca have their own cameras, and Shyamalan finds ways to shoot one scene from different perspectives, creating tension and humor in the process.”
5. IT FOLLOWS
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows created a large amount of buzz this year, and rightfully so. Drawing on the stylings of John Carpenter, Mitchell’s film is a masterfully directed, tense journey that turns the concept of STDs and possible sexual abuse into a literal boogeyman, a sentient shape-shifting entity that follows the teen characters around, terrifying them in the process. While I have my problems with the film (particularly in its third act and denouement), this is exciting, clever horror filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated. Mitchell’s stylistic choices are all spot-on; the way he films the following characters is almost always unsettling, as is his decision to almost never show Jay’s mother in focus. In fact, most adults in the film are always in the background, giving all the young characters in the film a feeling of abandonment. It’s not perfect, but It Follows is an unsettling, effective horror film that deserves its acclaim.
Richard Linklater’s Before… series meets Cronenbergian body horror by way of H.P. Lovecraft in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s surprising, wonderful Spring. Lou Taylor Pucci jets off to Italy where he meets the alluring Nadia Hilker. The two share an instant spark, but she’s hiding a rather monstrous secret. Employing gorgeous photography (and some great usage of drones), Benson and Moorhead’s film slowly sneaks up, playing its cards close to the vest until it pulls the rug out from under you. Spring is more romantic than scary, but this is a great illustration of how the horror genre can be molded to be something greater than just found footage jump scares or remake fodder. As I said in my review, “Spring is an ambitious little curiosity. It works hard to let us get to know its two lovebirds, and Pucci brings a charming shaggy dog kind of demeanor to his role, while Hilker strikes the perfect amount of well-traveled European seductiveness mixed with secretive menace…A lesser film would’ve shoved all the love stuff aside and made with the gore. You have to appreciate a horror movie that has time for some poetry in its heart.” Also, if Linklater’s got a trilogy out of his series, I’m all for two more films about the romantic couple at the heart of this film. Make it happen, Benson and Moorehead!
Unfriended should not work. A “found footage”-style horror film taking place entirely within the confines of a laptop screen, the premise of Unfriended sounds like a nightmare, and not the enjoyable kind of nightmare horror films bring us. But shockingly, and delightfully, Levan Gabriadze’s film works on almost every level. The laptop screen angle may seem like a gimmick at first, but Gabriadze finds the perfect way to suck you in and keep you hooked. Everything feels authentic here, from the use of Spotify to the desktops littered with downloaded images and files. As our own Jeff Rollins stated in his review, “Unfriended is an incredible achievement in filmmaking. Its clever and practical use of everyday modern staples like Facebook, Skype, and instant messaging make it an anomaly in a world where the movies have almost never gotten technology right.” Unfriended is also a perfect reflection of modern sensibilities among certain young people, both in how they consume media and how they react to the world around them. Similar to how the teen slasher films of the 80s warned audiences of the dangers of the era, Unfriended has a message of its own: don’t be such a trouble-making asshole through the “safety” of the internet, because it might just come back to haunt you.
2. QUEEN OF EARTH
Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth may not have been billed as a horror film, but make no mistake: this is the epitome of horror. Elisabeth Moss delivers a blistering, show-stopping performance as a young woman slowly coming unhinged over a weekend getaway. Drawing on the same type of female neurosis in horror that Kier-La Janisse chronicled perfectly in her book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, Queen of Earth builds its horror slowly until it crescendos into an unsettling, uncomfortable conclusion. Per my review, “Queen of Earth features nothing supernatural, nor does it contain a monster or masked killer lurking in the darkness ready to pounce on our heroines. But it’s a horror film all the same. [T]he horror that is here comes in the form of an unstoppable monster that is unchecked mental illness. As a result, the final moments of Queen of Earth will send a chill down your spine in the most unexpected ways.”
1. CRIMSON PEAK
Guillermo del Toro’s beautiful romantic horror film is one 2015’s most unjustly overlooked experiences. Lush in production design, blessed with a great, maniacal performance from Jessica Chastain, and containing equal parts romance and terror, Crimson Peak is destined to become a cult classic in future years. “This isn’t a ghost story,” explains shy writer Edith (Mia Wasikowska) at the film’s start. “It’s a story with ghosts in it.” It’s that and more. Drenched in gore, rife with passion, Crimson Peak has a few moments of predictability, but it doesn’t matter. As I stated in my review: “Whatever Crimson Peak lacks in originality it makes up for in spectacle and charm. The romance feels genuine, the horror is unsettling, and the aesthetic of the film, from the incredible mansion to the poofy shoulders on Wasikowska’s dresses, all work seamlessly together to invoke the perfect ghastly delight. Here is a film of foggy, damp evenings; of flickering candles, disembodied voices and bloody, violent murder. It’s gothic, gorgeous and genuinely a treat to watch.” And, as a result, the best horror film of 2015.