It seems like 2018 was the year when horror made some major progress in getting its long due respect from wider audiences. While I am allergic to terms like “high genre” and “elevated horror” this year has been a year of damn fine art house horror, in addition to some franchise revival (HALLOWEEN) and some good old fashioned bloodbaths (YOU MIGHT BE THE KILLER). Streaming platforms, no longer limited to Netflix, have been changing the output of all films. And newer platforms, specifically Shudder, have been subtly altering the game by focusing on quality instead of quantity. Though I have spent more time in 2018 drinking alone, I thankfully have never had to pause and wonder if there was anything good to watch.
This all made my top 10 horror list of 2018 incredibly painful to pare down. So many of my favorites did not make the cut, which is a brilliant problem to have, isn’t it? I’ve included links to any film I reviewed either here or elsewhere on the internet.
As usual, these appear in no particular order:
HEREDITARY. There is nothing about HEREDITARY that I did not love. Not just casually appreciate, I mean love. The themes of loss and maternity. The occult and supernatural forces. Heck, even the jump scares and unsettling imagery all came together to form the atmospheric experience of true cinematic terror. Starring the unraveled Toni Collette as Annie, a mother who has just lost her mother and is trying to raise two very different teenagers. Her son Peter (Alex Wolff) just wants to do regular dude stuff, like flirt with girls at parties, but Annie is not about to let him leave his sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) just sit at home. Quickly this family’s life goes from bad to worse, and then even more profoundly, irretrievably horrifying. The score haunts. The symbolism feels like a heavy blanket. But best of all, HEREDITARY does not let you leave the theater feeling an ounce of optimism.
SUSPIRIA. Though my colleague Mike here at Film Thrills is a well-known Argento shit-talker, I have always had a well-lit place in my heart for giallo cinema. The original, 1977 film is one of the great pillars upon which modern horror has been stacked. So color me shell shocked to see that Luca Guadagnino’s take on the Italian classic somehow redefines itself, without even a hint of nostaligia. Yes, this version too takes place in a dance school and it has plenty of witches, but that might be where the similarities end. This SUSPIRIA is more up front about its coven and their dealings, and shows just how powerful women can be when they are all working together. With not one but two torturous dance sequences, the film emphasizes the horrors within the human body on multiple levels. The at-times primal score and choreography actual elicited a physical response in me, and I had what felt close to a cinematic panic attack right in the Alamo Drafthouse. What a treat for someone who has a frozen heart, such as myself!
THE RANGER. You know how BIG BANG THEORY is not for nerds, but it is about nerds? Well, THE RANGER is the exact opposite of that exploitative bullshit. It is a film about punks, by punks. It is a film about horror, by horror fans. It has a clear affection for the genre and for the culture of punk it portrays, without any additional sneering or elitism. After a drug-dealing kerfuffle makes a van full of technicolor punks head out to the woods, they discover that it would have been good to heed the advice of the creepy ass ranger patrolling them there parts. The contrast between the ultra-urban punks and the deep woods makes for constant tension. Chelsea (Chloe Levine) takes her friends to her uncle’s cabin to lay low, but as they start getting killed off, we realize that they are all in store for a good old fashioned slasher bloodbath. Jeremy Holm kills (get it?) as the Ranger himself, as he goes above and beyond the call of duty to protect his mountain.
SUMMER OF 84. There is just something about the suburbs in the summer. Buncha kids. Absent parents. Plenty of time to run amok, imagine the most outlandish things, and still be home for dinner. SUMMER OF 84 gets what it was like to be a kid in the 1980s perfectly. No one is wearing neon. No kids are exclusively hanging out at the mall. And all of the kids are swearing up a storm. When this particular conclave of kids suspect that their neighbor might be up to no good, they launch into action and start investigating him on their own. Given the setting of the film and the BMXs aplenty, SUMMER OF 84 is destined to get compared to STRANGER THINGS. That isn’t unfair, but it does overlook this film’s realism and clear appreciation for true crime lore.
SATAN’S SLAVES. A remake a the 1982 film with the same title, SATAN’S SLAVES is a most excellent little haunting film. When the film begins, a family is having a rough go at it. Their mother has been bed ridden for years, leaving the oldest sister to care for her two younger bratty brothers and grandmother. The father is barely capable of supporting them all. When the mother’s health takes a rapid decline, what should be a time of mourning becomes one of terror. SATAN’S SLAVES kicks it old school with some of the best jump scares of the year and some creepy-ass cemeteries. It also gives us a glimpse into Indonesian nightmares, and what their mythology of undead and resurrection entails.
THE FIRST PURGE. It is no secret that I have been deep into a hot romance with the PURGE franchise. These films not only hit my sweet spot of political commentary and bloodlust, but the series as a whole has been progressing in the most satisfying trajectory. They have yet to recycle a plot, or do anything to resemble a sleepy slasher regurgitation. This year’s THE FIRST PURGE was no exception to this near-perfect track record of one film complementing the entire series. Taking us back to the beginning, we get to see where it all began and how this first night of mayhem played out. Importantly, the film also lets the essentially black story be told from their point of view. Issues of class, race, politics, and empathy once again surface as the purge itself never takes place in an apolitical bubble. This is the one series which has yet to disappoint me in the slightest.
CAM. As I sit here and contemplate whether or not to plug in a new Amazon Alexa I have been gifted, it is apparent that my unease with technology is deeper than I suspected. Add in a long standing fear of doppelgangers (thanks to a recurring childhood nightmare) and my yearning for more sex positivity in cinema, I must ask: Was CAM made specifically for me? The film centers around a “cam girl” (Madeline Brewer) whose competitive nature gets the better of her, and she loses herself in the process. Literally. While it would be easy to distill CAM into a contemplation of technology’s impact on separating online personas and real life, that would be doing a bit of injustice to the emotional impact of being completely helpless in the face of a rogue identity. If any of us were put in Alice’s position, what would we do? The fact that there is no answer is what makes CAM one of the most disturbing films this year.
PYEWACKET. As much as I love a high-stakes apocalypse, I also love when a film focuses on small horrors. In PYEWACKET the world is never going to end, and the sky will never rain down hellfire, but that does not make it feel any less important. Leah (Nicole Muñoz) and her mother (Laurie Holden) are struggling. After the death of her father, and your typical teenage preoccupation with witchcraft, she and her mother can barely stand to be in the room with each other, let alone thrive together. After mom moves Leah to a new town, away from her only friends, Leah can’t take any more of it. Muñoz brings to life this pained teen in such a way that made me have sympathy pains for an era I grew out of decades ago. Though the world as a whole was never threatened in PYEWACKET, Leah’s world is very much in danger, and that threat feels so real here.
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. Those averse to pretension and self-indulgence should avoid Lars von Trier’s latest film because it is absolutely dripping with both sticky substances. Framed as a tale of a serial killer in five acts THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT quickly shows its hand to the audience to concede that not only is Jack (Matt Dillon) a successful killer due to dumb luck and not mad skills, but he is a hysterically inaccurate narrator for his own life. Sure, there is plenty of gruesome violence against mostly women, but von Trier’s clear disdain for Jack and everything he does makes the film come across as mocking the very notion that men think they are superior to women in any single way. The film’s aggressive pop culture references and voice over contemplation on art (and von Trier’s own films) serve as a way for the director to show just exactly how silly he thinks pretension is, and the absurdity of toxic masculinity. I am the first one to admit that von Trier can sometimes be a difficult filmmaker to watch, but THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT might be his funniest and most transparent film to date.
ANNIHILATION. Just about an hour into the horror-scifi hybrid film I had a realization: This is a body horror film! While it is chock full of existential dread, fear of nature, feature of the unnatural, and personal trauma, there is also a strong streak of how horror itself can come from the pain and disgust the human body alone can create. What fun! The film is technically an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, but the two stories share little beyond the initial premise. (I chatted with director, Alex Garland, back in 2015 about adapting the book.) Lena (Natalie Portman) is joining a military mission to help rescue her missing husband from a mysterious zone called The Shimmer. In this zone all rules of biology and physics are mere suggestions, and the unnatural has over taken nature. There are some truly terrifying incidents in ANNIHILATION which stayed with me months after my first viewing. On subsequent watches, it is clear that there is far more going on within the plot than they first let on, and the terror reaches deeper than a jump scare or two.
Honorable mentions, because this was a helluva year for horror:
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE, THE RITUAL, OVERLORD, THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD, BLOOD FEST, AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS, RUIN ME, THE LITTLE STRANGER, SUPER DARK TIMES, and UPGRADE.