On the verge of turning over to a new year, it is a great time to look back and reflect on what films were bestowed to horror fans from the film distribution gods this year. While there were some infuriating lows (The Gallows and The Lazarus Effect being two of the worst offenders), there were some surprisingly excellent wide release horror films too. Though neither ultimately made my list, both THE GIFT and THE VISIT were examples of major studios and established directors, returning to inventive storytelling which ultimately resulted in seductively unexpected horror gems. It’s almost enough to warm my cold, coal heart. But in the end, as is nearly tradition, independent film manages to capture the most spots on my list. These filmmakers were fearless in dishing out their frights, and the world is a delightfully scarier place thanks to them. Here is my list of the top 10 horror films of 2015, in no particular order.
A Christmas Horror Story: Initially reviewed by Charlie Nash as a part of ATH’s Fantasia coverage this summer, A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY has really stuck with me. It is a holiday-themed anthology film which weaves together the various narratives rather than presenting them one after the other. The effect could have been messy, but instead it plays with the audience’s emotions and makes us terrified in four separate climaxes all at the same time. From Krampus to ghosts, changelings to zombie elves the film certainly covers its bases for terror. It is a little hokey and at times predictable, but the campiness is intended and the actual level or presentation quite impressive. Christmas horror films do not always work. Anthology films do not always work. A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY absolutely works, and I loved it.
Creep: CREEP is a bare bones film. Starring Mark Duplass and the director Brice, the cast of two take us through a terrifying and rapidly developing plot of two strangers spending the day together. The film starts with an easy premise. Brice’s Aaron is a videographer who has been hired by Duplass’s Joseph to film him for one day. Joseph has cancer and wants to create a keepsake for his wife and child. Though the film starts simple, Duplass’s manic performance carries the film to very dark corners of his psyche where there is no escape. This is one of the few found footage films I have seen that kept me guessing at every single scene. Absolutely smart and engaging, not to mention creepy as hell.
It Follows: One of the most original stories to work within a traditional horror film that I have seen in quite some time, IT FOLLOWS features an unknown force that follows whoever is infected with the curse, but it is much more than that. It is rumination on the current state of sexuality in our country. It is atmospheric and damn disturbing. It is smartly written and never makes the audience feel like they are incapable of following the story. Maika Monroe’s performance as the primary infected woman is subtle and evocative as she spends the film trying to outrun something that cannot be outrun. IT FOLLOWS suffered some backlash this year, as the hype for the film possibly over stepped its bounds, but do not let that prevent you from seeing one of the best films of the year.
Deathgasm: Practically a love letter to the metal head outcasts found in every suburban town, DEATHGASM takes these kids and makes them both black magic conjurers and demon fighting warriors. After finding sheet music that will literally bring a demon to life, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) and his garage band Deathgasm play the tune, rise the beast, and spend the rest of the film trying to pick up the pieces of what is left of their suburban New Zealand. The film’s genuine affection for these high schoolers and their intentional existence on the fringes of popularity gives the film an unanticipated dose of heart and sensitivity. Thankfully, the demon and his devotees also bring the anticipated blood, mayhem, and possession. DEATHGASM has some of the best kills of the year, and it was just announced that there will be a sequel in production too. Rock on.
Goodnight Mommy: The film opens with twin boys trying to deal with their changed mother. Lukas and Elias are a bit freaked by their mother’s extensive facial bandages, and she too seems to be struggling a bit with her temporary appearance. The mother is a television presenter and has gotten what we can only imagine is a good amount of plastic surgery to maintain her youthful looks. The boys’ father is not around or mentioned, though mother does allude to a recent accident which has had a great effect on their family. After seeing GOODNIGHT MOMMY at Fantastic Fest in 2014 I’ve spent the entirety of 2015 singing the film’s praises. The cinematography and storytelling call attention to the film’s strong voice and aesthetic, showing that there is far more at work here than initial impression would have you think.
Unfriended: While the trailers made UNFRIENDED look like another stupid teen slasher, complete with a social media twist, the film actually deserves a lot more than that. Presented entirely through a laptop screen the film is nothing more than a group chat amongst friends, with one uninvited and unshakable guest. Originally programed at film fests under its original title, Cybernatural, UNFRIENDED manages to create a whole heap of terror while working with very little. The tight shots and limited screen space puts an unusual emphasis on performance and writing, and both of these elements come through for us. We get full characterization, back-stories, and even tension all while watching a single desktop display. Other films have attempted the in-screen scares (THE DEN was successful while OPEN WINDOWS was abysmal), but UNFRIENDED was able to rise above the gimmick and create a truly scary film. Good work.
The Hallow: It is rare for me to actually get scared in the theater, but somehow THE HALLOW managed to get under my skin. Perhaps it was the fact that that there were smart characters acting just as I would in their circumstances. Or maybe it was the pervasiveness of the fungus and inexorable banshees. Or the fact that folklore coming alive in modern times exposes one of the deeper fears we have in modernity today- our lack of control over the world. In any case, THE HALLOW scared me like no other film in 2015. It is quick moving and does not talk down to its audience, which means it demands and deserves all of your attention. Bojana Novakovic and Joseph Mawle’s performances are both haunting and do not offer you any sort of emotional distance from the ruthlessness of their situation. There are massive and permanent consequences at stake for the family at the heart of this film, and your heart will break for them as they are running and crawling for their lives.
We Are Still Here: One of the few retro-focused horror films on my list this year, WE ARE STILL HERE wears its inspiration on its sleeve but does not let homage ever get in the way of creative originality. As an older couple (Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton) moves to a rural town to start over after the loss of their son. Their hearts are broken, but they know that the fresh start away from their unhappy memories will help them heal. As they get to know the locals and settle in to their house it becomes very clear that their fresh start is being attempted in a house with a dark and deep history. Equal parts HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and THE WICKERMAN, WE ARE STILL HERE is deeply appreciative of the horrors of the past. Refreshingly, the film is not merely a valentine; it is brutal, bloody, and keeps you guessing as soon as the shit starts to go down. A brilliant counterpoint to slow burning hauntings where nothing happens WE ARE STILL HERE is an outstanding debut from a very promising director.
#Horror: Plot wise, #HORROR does not have much going on. It is the typical And Then There Were Noneslasher where a house full of girls get slowly picked off until there is a lone survivor and the killer. What #HORROR does differently is elevate the visuals and themes to that of an arthouse film, slow the action down to a crawl, and comment heavily on the role of youth, high art, bullying, and parenting. The girls here are much younger than the typical slasher, and watching them dance around in their school uniforms has such an unsettling effect it could be nothing but intentional. The house which serves as the scene for the massacre is more of a contemporary art gallery than a warm, hearth laden home, and its sterile lack of comfort is striking. As the girls are smoking cigarettes in the walk-in closet turned playroom, and one of them declares, “Fake is better,” after taking a drag on her e-cigarette, I knew I was in. #HORROR may not be for the fan who wants mayhem, but for the indie arthouse lover in me it was the perfect balance of art and viscera.
Cub: Now I’m not saying I want to watch children die. What I do want to watch are films that do not shy away from the darkness they are portraying on screen. When a group of cub scouts go camping in the woods for a week we know that it cannot possibly end well. The violence in CUB—and there is plenty of it—is not gratuitous or mean, but it does not spare any victims. Far from a cabin in the wood style slasher, CUB features a unique monster who creates more questions than it answers.
I absolutely love these four films, and had they been horror films these would likely have made it in to the list above. Knowing that horror fans love genre films and horror-adjacent films too, I’ve made it a point to recognize them here.
What We Do In The Shadows: A reality TV inspired vampire spoof, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS manages to take two tired genres and make fun of them so much that they become funny. The film features four vampires living together in a Wellington house (big year for New Zealand genre films, eh?) a la MTV’s Real World. They fight about doing the dishes, cleaning up after a kill, and what outfits they should wear when they go out clubbing together. Seeing the group bump up against the modern world and learn about YouTube could have easily been predictable but the comedic talent of the ensemble cast manages to save all of these gags from an unfunny fate.
The Tribe: Though THE TRIBE is horrifying and its acts of brutality make you question if humanity is completely screwed, I’ve come around to the fact that it is not necessarily a horror film. The film is tough to digest and gut wrenching, but not technically horror. The story follows the arrival and acclimation of a new student at a school for the deaf. It is not a silent film, but it is non-subtitled with all of the dialogue in Ukrainian sign language. Once you settle in to following the story without words, which was easier than I anticipated, you quickly learn that the lack of dialogue is not what makes this film hard to watch. It is a violent and unflinching look at prostitution, drug dealing, and the poverty in Ukraine, all told through school children. The film was the only film I saw all last year that actually made me sick to my stomach, and I strongly feel that everyone should see it. Though perhaps only watch it once.
Crimson Peak: Straight from del Toro’s lips- CRIMSON PEAK is not a horror film, it is a gothic romance. The film itself is haunting and beautiful, complete with ghosts and monstrous humanity, but it stops just short of being a horror film. Instead we are treated to a domed love story. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) falls head over heels for the visiting mystery man Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). He is beautiful, cultured, and above all he makes her feel like the most beautiful woman in the room. After an accident (or was it?) with Edith’s father she quickly weds Thomas and leaves to live in his British estate with his frigid sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The visuals of the film are ambitious and breathtaking. The set design alone, is immersive, which when added to the performances, storytelling, and costuming heighten CRIMSON PEAK to an impressive level of grandeur. This is the kind of film you want to get lost in, but the violence and brutality swiftly wake you from that fantasy.
Nina Forever: Another romance masquerading as a horror film, NINA FOREVER instead uses the resurrected dead to tap in to an all too familiar feeling. Holly (Abigail Hardingham), falls hard for her emo coworker Rob, (Cian Barry), partially due to—not in spite of—his recent suicide attempt. His previous girlfriend, Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), died in a motorcycle accident and he has been unable to pick up his life since that. Holly finds his commitment to foolishness and romance alluring and pursues him aggressively. All seems to be going well, that is, until Nina’s body materializes in bed as they have sex for the first time. Nina is still dead, but also happens to be bloodied, broken, and bitter. The film is a pitch-black romantic comedy, with utterly relatable characters in a thankfully unrelatable situation. I can honestly say that the film kept me guessing with every new scene, and is one of the more original ideas for a film that I have seen in years.
Turbo Kid: Mixing 1990s and 1980s nostalgia into a post-apocalyptic world, and then adding far more blood than you would think, TURBO KID is an absolutely delightful homage to our collective childhoods. The film watches our main character, The Kid (Munro Chambers), go from intentional loner to a vengeful leader and friend. Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), his aggressively perky sidekick is always teetering at the edge between precocious and insufferable, but her positivity eventually wins over both The Kid and the audience. Michael Ironside has far too much fun chewing up the wasteland scenery as Zeus, the comically over-the-top bad guy in this world. Anyone who has ever played with an action figure and dreamed big will get a kick out of TURBO KID.
To check out my list of the overall top 10 films of the year, behold my 2015 BOFCA ballot!