We can all agree that 2016 was a dumpster fire of a year. With the embarrassing and hazardous presidential election results, and the mass exodus of our globe’s greatest musicians to the afterlife, this constant parade of cosmic nut-punching has left many of us feeling beaten. Looking for the brighter side of 2016, I have decided to celebrate a wider swatch of this year’s best horror films.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t any stinkers for 2016 horror cinema. Though this year brought us the amazing films listed below, it also brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Other Side of the Door, The Forest, and 31. But let us not dwell on the negative.
In years past I have listed my top 10 horror films of the year, with additional shout-outs for honorable mentions in other genre film. But 2016 has given us such tremendous horror films, I’m instead expanding the list to a 21.
Presented in no particular order:
The Boy: At first glance, THE BOY looks like a typical crappy Hollywood horror film. The main difference here is that the film’s conceit actually works. We begin by following an American nanny who has come to a teeny English town to look after a young boy. Very quickly it becomes apparent that her new charge is a porcelain doll. Though it is clear that this is a potentially hilarious situation, the nanny must play along with the delusional parents to keep her job. Their lengthy rules are strict and the nanny only goes through the motions while the parents are around. But when they leave town for a bit, and the nanny stops keeping up their charade, strange things start happening around the house. Could it be that the doll is somehow a real boy? THE BOY has a lot of fun playing with the premise and messing with the nanny, but never seems to take itself too seriously. The film ends up being the fun kind of horror films that we rarely get, but I would love to see more of.
The Witch: Easily one of the best films of the year, regardless of genre, THE WITCH is an unmatched cinematic achievement. Using all era derived dialogue, natural light, and few special effects, the film instead builds a thick atmosphere upon an era of toxic religious fervor. Though the film’s source for horror derives mainly from the family’s beliefs and stubbornness in the face of natural elements, it never denies the dark forces that lurk just in the forest. In fact, the film essential justifies what the pious family fears, because they do indeed have plenty to fear.
Green Room: Jeremy Saulnier’s BLUE RUIN was like a swift kick to the nuts. It came out of nowhere and left audiences with their jaws hanging. The director’s next offering, GREEN ROOM, has a much bigger cast and takes on a much bigger issue. After their paycheck-to-paycheck has an unexpected gig cancelation, an indie punk band is left with little choice than to play a show for a group of skinheads. The gig gets sour very fast and the band is left fighting for their lives against these well-armed racist assholes. Expanding the cast to work with better known actors (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, and Sir Patrick Stewart) suits Saulnier just fine. The film avoids any larger political issues at play when dealing with white supremacy, and instead focuses on the microenvironment of the green room itself. Saulnier was hilarious (and quite tispy) at the Fantastic Fest screening, and dubbed GREEN ROOM the second in his “inadequate protagonist” series. I dub GREEN ROOM a masterpiece of cinema.
The Purge: Election Year: Soon to be considered a prophetic documentary, this third entry into the post-America franchise takes the personal and makes it political. Continuing to expand the universe of THE PURGE, we now get to see how the far-right purge and how they rationalize their murderous ways. The visuals are lush and indulgent and the kills just as inventive as you want them to be. I love how unapologetic the film is when it comes to its editorializing and its body count. Though most horror franchises peter out after the first three entries, I have a feeling the next four years of American politics will be the ultimate muse to creating more PURGES.
Neon Demon: Not a horror film in the strictest sense, I am including NEON DEMON here as it is one of the best genre films of the year. Shot as if it is a high fashion spread the film’s visuals are matched only by its emotionally barren characters. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a young beauty who moves to Los Angeles to make it as a model. She is living in a crummy motel in Pasadena, with a skeevy innkeeper (Keanu Reeves) keeping a close eye on her. After befriending a makeup artist (Jena Malone) at one shoot, she gets introduced to other models and taken into their competitive world of jealousy and backstabbing. Predictably, shit goes down. Stunningly beautiful and intentionally paced NEON DEMON satisfies.
10 Cloverfield Lane: Even as a huge fan of this film, I will admit that shoehorning the horror film’s plot into the already existing CLOVERFIELD universe was unnecessary. However this does not detract from the film’s tight writing and stellar performances. As Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is running out of the city and away from boyfriend drama, she gets into a gruesome car accident. When she is saved from the wreckage and nursed back to health by a helpful stranger (John Goodman) it seems like the perfect example of right time, right place. But being a horror film, everything is not that simple. Toying with the audience’s understanding of the situation and the characters’ understanding of what is happening beyond their bunker’s doors, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE blends the threat of what we do know with the threat of what we cannot possibly imagine.
Don’t Breathe: DON’T BREATHE is a home invasion film, with a twist. Three teenagers who dabble in small time home robbery learn of a possible windfall in a nearby house. A disabled veteran just won a whole load of money after losing his daughter in a car accident. Of course, nothing is as they expected when they get to the house. Though the veteran is blind and lives in an essentially abandoned neighborhood, nothing is as easy as it should be. Encountering each of the blind man’s traps is what makes this film a horror film. His house essentially becomes a deadly fun-house, with a new horror waiting around each corner. The beginning of the end for our group of larcenous teens is their underestimating the blind man, and their mistake is our entertainment. DON’T BREATHE does not break the mold for home invasion, but it does have fun playing around with it.
The Handmaiden: Park Chan-wook is as close to cinematic royalty as we get today. Though the director’s output is not as prolific as many of his contemporaries, the quality of each film is as high as it gets. Though I love OLDBOY and SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE as much as the next sicko, STOKER remains one of my favorite films of the last five years. His reputation continues to be upheld by THE HANDMAIDEN. Based on the novel Fingersmith, THE HANDMAIDEN tells the same story, from three different perspectives. Nudging it into horror’s territory is a healthy dose of violence, and sexual exploitation. The film’s quirky tone is a new enterprise for Park Chan-wook, but it goes to show exactly how talented he is, and that the venerable man has more surprises in store for us yet.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe: Squeaking in as the last great horror film of 2016, THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE kicks it old-school with some effective jump scares and good ole haunting. Taking place one night in a coroner’s office, a strange body is brought in as the last autopsy of the day. As the father and son duo get deeper (literally) into this specimen things unexpectedly start to go bump in the night. Directed by the man who brought us TROLLHUNTER (André Øvredal), the film’s smaller scale suits the story perfectly. (Pro-tip: eating cold peanut noodles during an autopsy film is a very bad choice; please learn from my mistakes).
Ouija: Origin of Evil: Few screenings have given me as much anxiety as OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL did. Mike Flanagan is arguably the best horror director working today. And the previous OUIJA film is inarguably a giant, steaming pile of shit. This marriage of my greatest cinematic enemy and my greatest cinematic idol left me with no choice but to hold my breath, hope for the best, and ask that I would not be disappointed. Thankfully, what we were given is a solid horror film that acknowledges the complexities of families, knows when to keep pushing the creepiness of the situation, and still brings out a few good jumps. If anything, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL shows us to keep an open mind to both big-budget horror and to franchise films that smartly change directors.
Southbound: Horror anthology films are tricky. It is rare to have the film be cohesive and consistent in quality across multiple plots and multiple directors. I thought that the unevenness was something that you just need to accept when seeing a new one, but SOUTHBOUND has proven that surrender to be completely false. The film is an anthology, but unlike one I have ever seen before. It has four separate tales of horror, but the transition between the films is so fluid you struggle to see exactly where one begins and the next ends. The characters, locations, and tone bleed in to one another. Rather than being confusing, the experience feels like a gentle ride from one terror to the next. Along the ride there is actual character development and inventive creature design. The tone and quality of each section is consistent to the extent that I did not realize I was watching an anthology film until the end credits rolled (I saw SOUTHBOUND at Fantastic Fest 2015, which accounts for my total lack of knowledge prior to the press screening; you blindly follow your schedule like a carnival ride for a week).
Hush: Two Mike Flanagan films in one year? How can we be so lucky? HUSH, along with DON’T BREATHE, showcases how disorienting and potentially terrifying dampened senses can be. But instead of fighting a bad guy who cannot see, here we are rooting for a woman who cannot hear. Maddie (Katie Siegel, who co-wrote the film with Flanagan) lives alone in the woods. While this is a perfect recipe for a typical home-invasion horror, Maddie’s inability to hear makes the situation much more complicated. The intruder is smart, quick, and creepy as hell, but Maddie is one tough cookie. Smarter than your average horror victim HUSH lets Maddie shine as a woman who refuses to be bested by her invader and gives him an excellent fight. The swiftly moving plot keeps the film from falling into the unfortunate rut that many cat-and-mouse films fall prey to.
Train to Busan: Zombie films are far from (un)dead. Just as SNAKES ON A PLANE put snakes on a plan, TRAIN TO BUSAN puts zombies on a train. The speeding train is just barely outpacing the zombie outbreak that is ripping its way across Korea, but the true supply of drama comes from our dwindling population of humans on the train. Adding to zombie mythology, TRAIN TO BUSAN rewrites its own monster rules, showing that these zombies hunt by sight and sound, and not scent like we often see. The inter-personal drama in the film occasional eclipses the zombie-action, but the film’s inventive set-pieces on the train rapidly make up for any momentary drags in action. A wonderful and speedy zombie film that shows there is some life left in the bloated expanse of zombie cinema.
Under the Shadow: Were UNDER THE SHADOW made in Hollywood, or from a less competent director, it would have been lost in the white noise of mass released horror films. A hysterical, stressed mother cannot control their child or child’s demon pet, and the family suffers. But like Babadook, UNDER THE SHADOW elevates itself through a sympathetic and flawed mother. Though I wish the film had extended its lightly nuanced approach throughout the film, and avoided obvious and occasionally predictable scares, there is no denying that the film is excellently crafted and politically relevant.
The Wailing: It can tough to psych yourself up for watching a 156 minute Japanese procedural film, but trust me when I say that THE WAILING is one of the best films of the year. Following a gruesome death in a small village the police are stumped. Could it be somehow attributed to the stranger up the road? Can the police solve the mystery before more people die? I can’t say if all of these questions are answered, but the process of getting closer to these answers make the police realize how deep the mystery is and how unprepared they are. Though the film is long, it does not feel tedious. And the ending is so shocking, I pressed “rewind” to watch the last 30 minutes all over again, and it was well worth my time.
The Eyes of My Mother: I feel like a broken record in saying this, but I want more horror films like The EYES OF MY MOTHER. I want horror films that are beautifully shot in crisp black and white. I want horror films that move slowly, and sink you in to life with the characters in their own homes. I want horror films that make you cozy-up with a monster, and closely examine what makes them tick. I want horror films where bodies are treated like meat, but terrifyingly still attached to real people who are too scared to scream. If you want intelligent and visceral horror films like this too, make sure to see The EYES OF MY MOTHER. It is as beautiful as it is unsettling.
Shelley: Sharing its roots with ROSEMARY’S BABY, and not FRANKENSTEIN as the title would suggest, Shelly pushes itself to find the real story within unnatural motherhood. After struggling with fertility, Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) asks her maid and confidant Elena (Cosmina Stratan) to carry her child. The women bond throughout the pregnancy, even as things start to take a turn for the worse. Strange things are happening around the remote lake house they both live in, and it is unclear if the electricity fluctuations are possibly related to the physical trials Elena is enduring. Unlike ROSEMARY’S BABY, SHELLEY does not end at the birth. It pushes on and explores themes that bring the true terror of the situation to light. The film’s focus on the complicated female friendship is one of its greatest strengths, and it puts SHELLEY ahead of many other horror films released this year.
Trash Fire: Director Richard Bates has a knack for weirdos. His first film (EXCISION) focused on the awkward adolescence of a very disturbed teenager. SUBURBAN GOTHIC took a turn toward quirky with an odd protagonist investigating the paranormal incidents at his parents’ house. Now we have been gifted the dysfunctional family at the center of TRASH FIRE. Focused initially on the narcissist Owen Adrian Grenier) we see enough of him to wonder how the hell an asshole like him could have been created in this world. Then we meet his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and his hatred for people and self-loathing suddenly makes perfect sense. While this interpersonal family drama would be enough to carry any film, Bates adds in his signature fuckery and makes the film pivot from a generalized family horror into an honest to goodness horrific incident. Angela Trimbur emotionally anchors the film as Owen’s girlfriend, and makes all of this mayhem and familial aggression feel as jarring as it should be. Seriously, I hope none of you know a family like this in real life.
They Look Like People: Micro-budgeted and in a single location, THE LOOK LIKE PEOPLE is this year’s testament to scrappy filmmaking. Big budgets can be fun, but ultimately it is character development and intriguing storytelling that make a film great. Playing on themes of paranoia and teasing a possibly unreliable narrator, THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE questions how much you can ever trust yourself. Quiet and methodical, the film takes place largely in the mind of one of our lead characters. Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) is convinced that people are turning into evil creatures that also happen to look just like people. His mental health is the big question mark here, but how can you ever truly know how sane you are? THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE demands your full attention, but rewards the audience handsomely.
The Invitation: When it comes to twisted dinner party films, COHERENCE will always be my favorite. A very close second is now THE INVITATION. These two films are at their core very different, but on the surface they appear to be quite similar. A group of old friends get together for a nice, congenial, dinner together, but something unexpected happens and entirely changes the night. Beyond those similarities, THE INVITATION is its own film. With a group of friends there are bound to be histories which bubble to the surface during festivities, and complicate the celebration. THE INVITATION does a great job of showing these relationships through the ensemble cast’s performances, rather than just blatantly telling us who used to sleep with whom. This superior storytelling makes the evening unfurl like a slow descent into hell. The less you know before seeing THE INVITATION, the better, so I will halt my gushing here. Just don’t miss it.
Alchemist’s Cookbook: Setting a film in the woods with a hermit does not lend itself to much dialogue. But Sean (Ty Hickson) has far more important work to do than talk to people. Hanging out in his trailer in the middle of nowhere Sean is clearly up to something. His days are busy with experiments and hanging out with his cat, but he is focused on his mission, whatever that is. Occasional visits from his cousin Cortez (Amari Cheatom) bring fresh supplies and distraction from his experiments. Maybe it is the fact that Sean is so darn relatable, but I found him charming and I was invested in both him and his alchemy. As he gets closer to his goal it becomes less clear if he is working for good or evil, and Sean’s powers begin to rear their head. Admittedly, the film’s ending does fall apart a bit, but the vast majority of the film is engaging and original, so I am willing to look past the ending to see the excellent filmmaking here.