This has not only been a terrific year for movies, but one that’s been filled with a variety of eclectic, spine-tingling works of cinema. Several films that I saw in the past twelve months filled me with dread and haunted my dreams, even if most people wouldn’t categorize them within the ‘horror’ genre.
For me, horror is extremely subjective; fear can seep into the heart of a viewer regardless of its particular classification, just like how a film can make us laugh uproariously without being universally recognized as a ‘comedy.’ Therefore, while certain movies on my list are great examples of the genre in a straightforward sense, some frightened me in a more obscure (particularly psychological) fashion.
In addition to that, other selections may feature horror-esque elements while their primary motive may not be to ‘scare’ the viewer, but I’ve included them anyways to convey the complexity of these tropes.
Last, but certainly not least, I cannot stress how happy I am that three of these films are debuts from female directors, all of which are massive achievements. It certainly shows that women are just as capable of crafting an exceptional motion picture as their male counterparts, and in a world where sexism still reigns supreme within the film industry, this is a massive step forward that deserves to be properly acknowledged.
Without further ado, here are my picks:
Jonathan Glazer’s first feature in ten years since his underrated spellbinder, Birth, is a masterpiece; a gorgeously trippy science fiction parable that’s as terrifying as it is utterly brilliant. Scarlett Johansson, in the best performance of her career, stars as an enigmatic alien, disguised as a beautiful woman, who preys upon lustful men in the Scottish countryside. Offering to give the gentlemen a lift in her sketchy white van, she brings them to an abandoned old home, seducing the horny bastards until they’re ultimately ‘harvested’ for food. Before long, though, Johansson’s otherworldly being begins to feel trapped within her human form, resulting in tragic repercussions amongst her effort to exist as a female member of mankind. Filled with stunning visuals, surrealistic body-horror, and a chilling original score from Mica Levi, Under the Skin is a deeply disturbing allegory that examines the objectification of women in society. The film may be too bizarre or perplexing for some audiences, but Glazer’s deconstruction of the male gaze is a frighteningly provocative tour de force that demands to be seen, and is one of the crowning cinematic achievements of 2014.
This astonishing feature-film debut from writer and director Jennifer Kent is the most critically acclaimed horror film of the year, and justifiably so. It’s also an emotionally nuanced gothic fable that tells the story of a widowed single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis, in a riveting performance) who’s struggling to raise her troubled seven-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). One night, the two of them find a pop-up book on Samuel’s shelf titled, “Mister Babadook,” which Amelia has no recollection of obtaining. After realizing it’s a bedtime story from hell, in which the title character threatens to commit violence against a child, Samuel begins to believe that the Babadook is real. Initially passing off her child’s claims as him having overactive imagination, it isn’t long until Amelia starts to feel haunted by a malevolent force as well, escalating into a nightmarish climax that’s as heartbreaking as it is horrifying. Regardless of whether the ghoulish specter is real or all in Amelia’s head, The Babadook succeeds as a blood-curdling metaphor for learning to cope with past traumas, mental illness and the deep-seated fears of motherhood.
Many of my colleagues have stated that they want to live inside this film, and I can’t think of a more accurate statement to describe my feelings for it as well. Jim Jarmusch’s exquisite vampire tale isn’t really a horror film by any means, but it provides ingenious new twists on various tropes that are common within the genre. It also features one of the most tender supernatural love stories ever put on celluloid. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston star as Adam and Eve, whose romance has spanned for centuries over the course of their immortal existence. When Adam begins to feel overwhelmed by the corruption of the latest generation of humans (or ‘zombies,’ as he likes to call them), Eve leaves her native land of Tangier to visit him in Detroit, reminding him of all the natural beauty the world has to offer. A celebration of art, history and the small things that make us feel so happy to be alive, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of Jarmusch’s very best films; a mesmerizing motion picture about the undead that made me want to go live my life to the fullest.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
A gorgeous Iranian vampire-western, shot in luscious black-and-white, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is pure enchantment. This debut-feature from the immensely talented newcomer, Ana Lily Amirpour, takes place in the fictionalized community of Bad City, comprised of citizens who are filled with loneliness and degradation. Unbeknownst to them, a vampire known only as The Girl (Sheila Vand) is feeding on the wicked members of society, and in many ways, becomes a feminist vigilante against the men who oppress women in Iran. She also begins a romantic relationship with the son of a local junkie named Arash (Arash Marandi), and their scenes together are as hypnotic as they are lovely. The film is clearly influenced by the early work of Jim Jarmusch, such as Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, yet it’s still an idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking. Through this poignant cinematic allegory, Amirpour has defined herself as a genuine new talent to keep an eye on.
I actually wasn’t a fan of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which was released last year, but Enemy is something entirely different: A complex psychological horror film that echoes the work of David Lynch through the menacing power of its themes and dense nightmare-logic. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a phenomenal dual-performance as a deeply introverted history professor named Adam, who seeks out an actor who looks exactly like him, known only as Anthony, after spotting him in the background of a movie he rented. Both men, played with hauntingly effective precision by Gyllenhaal, begin to spiral down a terrifying rabbit-hole after their encounter with one another, and their deterioration not only affects their own lives, but the lives of their female partners, terrifically played by Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon. What you take away from this surreal mind-bender is entirely subjective, which is part of its allure, but personally, I found it to be a scathing takedown of misogyny. To go into detail as to why would involve me delving into spoilers, yet, regardless of what my own thoughts are, this film will captivate you all the way up to its batshit-insane finale.
Shot over the course of five days in director James Ward Byrkit’s home, with improvisational actors, no film crew and practically no script, Coherencesounds like an absolute train-wreck based on its production history, but it’s actually a groundbreaking piece of minimalist cinema. After a group of friends gather for a dinner party during an evening in which a comet passes over their suburban home, they become plagued by eerie occurrences, sending everyone into a fury of paranoia and existential dread. To reveal anything more about the plot would ruin the fun of watching this diabolically clever puzzle play out, but the unpredictability of its truly unnerving outcomes is what makes this twisted science fiction thriller so enthralling. By relying on dark, theoretical fears rather than cheap scares, Byrkit’s cerebral debut burrows into the mind of the viewer and lingers there long after its over.
A disturbingly bold piece of sadomasochistic filmmaking, Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius is the most viciously depraved melodrama in quite some time. It’s also sickeningly funny, to the extent where I’d go from being appalled to practically shooting beer out of my nose in mere seconds. A dialogue-free examination of gender roles and family dynamics in transnational Asian culture, the film starts with the mother of a South Korean family, played by Eun-woo Lee, attempting to castrate her husband (Jae-hyeon Jo) after his affair with another woman. Defending himself against her attempted assault, the father throws his wife out of their bedroom, resulting in her committing the heinous act against their son, sending the family into a catastrophic downward spiral. This descent into domestic hell is as nauseating and fucked up as it sounds, but it’s undeniably powerful through its perverse social commentaries. By the end of this engrossing picture, it’s hard not to be moved, or at the very least, affected, by its combination of pitch-black humor and devastating tragedy.
As someone who’s a sappy romantic at heart, nothing is more terrifying than realizing the person you’ve fallen in love with is not who they initially seemed to be. Hence, why Leigh Janiak’s superb debut-feature, Honeymoon, scared the living shit out of me. Its premise is familiar: Bea and Paul (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway, both phenomenal here) are a newlywed couple who spend their celebratory getaway at a cabin in the woods. Their vacation begins wonderfully, until one night, Paul finds Bea in the middle of the woods, naked and trembling. She claims to be fine, but later on in the week she begins to suffer from bizarre mood swings, has difficulty completing simple tasks, and strange marks start to appear all over her body. Paranoid and extremely upset, Paul starts to lash out at Bea’s odd behavior, culminating in terrifying outcomes for the two of them. Not only is the film a horrific, even heartbreaking examination of this theme, but it’s also a meticulously calculated piece of work. Janiak makes you feel as claustrophobic as her protagonists; her marvelous utilization of light and sound creates an atmosphere that oozes with dread. When the film reaches its startlingly gruesome climax, you’ll be watching the rest of it through your fingers.
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but it’s also sloppy, bloody and horribly difficult to stomach. This is what sets Jeremy Saulnier’s gripping thriller apart from the pack of more conventional movies about vengeance; it conveys the horror of retribution in an unflinchingly brutal fashion. The violence is not stylized or sugarcoated, its uncompromisingly raw, to the point where every blow has a visceral impact on the viewer. Macon Blair, in a commanding performance, stars as Dwight Evans, who, when the film starts, appears to be little more than a dirty, troubled homeless man. As it turns out, though, Dwight has a sinister agenda, and begins to kill various people who he claims are responsible for a personal tragedy within his family. However, despite his primal motivations, Dwight is messy and inexperienced when it comes to enacting bloodshed, making his deterioration into psychological despair all the more unsettling. Blue Ruin is a powerful rumination on violence only begetting more violence that will have you gripping your armrest with sweaty palms throughout the course of its exhilarating 91-minute runtime.
As someone who found Adam Wingard’s previous film, You’re Next, to be tonally jarring and wildly uneven, I was stunned by how much I loved this electrifying follow-up. Filled with vibrant cinematography, blazing action sequences and a pitch-perfect electronic score, The Guest is a wickedly entertaining homage to the work of John Carpenter. Its plot centers on a family known as the Petersons, who are visited by David Collins (Dan Stevens), a former soldier claiming to have served in the military with the Peterson’s oldest son, Caleb, who was killed in action. Professing that he told Caleb he’d take care of his family before he died, David begins to live with the Petersons at their residence, initially seeming supportive in helping them grieve. That is, until people start turning up dead all around him, escalating into a series of violent showdowns ranging from explosive gun fights to slasher-movie standoffs. A rollicking throwback to delightfully trashy films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, this ferocious little B-movie is full of A-level craft.
This savage debut feature from E.L. Katz is one wildly depraved piece of work; a sadistically funny black comedy layered with a series of gruesome set pieces, each one more terrifying than the last. After getting let go from his job as an auto mechanic, straight-laced family man Craig (Pat Healy) meets up with an old friend from high school named Vince (Ethan Embry) at a local bar. Following a few drinks, Vince introduces Pat to Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a wealthy couple that offer the two men large sums of money to complete a series of increasingly stomach-churning dares. Watching these two ordinary guys morph into brutish animals, losing all sense of morality, may sound repugnant, but the film’s darkly comic undertones prevent it from descending into torture-porn. Cheap Thrills may be tough to watch, but its also thought-provoking, hilarious, and utterly compelling in the most ingeniously nasty was possible. If its doozy of a final shot doesn’t give you some kind of jolt, I doubt that you have a pulse.
Ever have one of those nights where you’re lost, driving around in the middle of nowhere, and you can’t help but feel that you’re being followed? That’s the simple, but sensationally executed premise for In Fear, a deeply unnerving nail-biter that amps up its minimalistic concept all the way to eleven for maximum scares. Determined to stop at a hotel before making their way to a music festival in Ireland, Tom (Iain De Caestecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert) soon become lost in an isolated labyrinth of woods, Suddenly, Lucy claims that she sees someone out there lurking in the dark, stalking their every move, but Tom keeps insisting she’s being paranoid. Director Jeremy Lovering toys with the viewer’s imagination throughout, making them feel as disoriented and afraid as the characters themselves. The claustrophobic shots from inside of their car and foreboding sense of menace slowly creep up on you, steadily increasing the psychological terror. Then, before you know it, the film feels like a hand gripping around your throat, squeezing tighter and tighter until a stunning conclusion… It’s one hell of a ride.
Honorable Mentions: Among the Living, Starry Eyes, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears