Despite a certain article asking why the present year felt like such a come down from 2017, 2018 turned out to be another banner year for horror. From a box office perspective, audiences remained ravenous for genre fare, with eight films drawing over fifty million bucks in the US alone(A QUIET PLACE, HALLOWEEN, THE MEG, THE NUN, THE FIRST PURGE, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, and THE PREDATOR).
Both Netflix and horror-centric streaming service Shudder piped their games when it came to securing exclusive rights to horror fare. Shudder in particular continues to make its case that its essential for anyone that calls themselves a horror fan not only with a slew of fantastic programming, but also by bringing back beloved horror host and scholar Joe Bob Briggs for a trio of marathons. His first Last Drive In special was supposed to serve as a fond farewell and retrospective of his illustrious career. However, the event proved so popular that it literally crashed the service multiple times, and led to two more specials and an upcoming weekly show in 2019. Hulu and Blumhouse partnered for an ambitious 13 film project centered on a holiday every month.
With the wealth of stellar films available, this might be the best time in history to be a genre fan. Coming up with this year’s top 10 favorites was far and away harder than any other year. Any of these honorable mentions would be easy top five picks just about any other year. Before unveiling the top ten, here’s what just missed the cut: You Might Be the Killer, The Devil’s Doorway, The Ranger, Summer of ‘84, Mom and Dad, The Clovehitch Killer, Terrified, The Ritual and Lords of Chaos.
10. Revenge While rape-revenge thrillers have been tired for a long time now, Coralie Fargeat turns this subgenre on its ear in this Shudder exclusive. It’s a work of many strengths, not the least of which is its audacity to inject some Army of Darkness style weirdness into the proceedings at the midpoint. Revenge also flips the male gaze on its ear, unafraid to make its male audience more than a little uncomfortable and forcing them to call into question their own experiences and viewing habits when watching similar films of this oeuvre. Fargeat makes no apologies for being tired of the idea that women owe men their bodies in order to coexist with them. Marked by perhaps the most over the top bloody climax short of Suspiria, Revenge wraps with a wonderful bit of over the top insanity, with a cat and mouse chase that stretches the bounds of just how much blood and plasma one human body contain in its meat vessel. It’s rare that this type of film has its audience collectively fist pumping by the time the credits role, yet that was the experience I had when watching this at a packed screening during last spring’s Boston Underground Film Fest.
9. Upgrade Leigh Whannell makes great genre films. The writer of Saw and Insidious and the director of the underappreciated Cooties brought a slice of hard science fiction mixed with horror to theaters this summer with Upgrade. Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey, an analog guy stuck in a digital world whose life gets thrown into ruin and chaos after hired goons murder his girlfriend and leave him a paraplegic. He’s given a second chance at life through an A.I. implant that takes over his neurological system, and also allows him to perform superheroic feats of strength, and gives him fighting capabilities straight out of a video game stuck on cheat mode. Grey uses these newfound gifts as an opportunity to hunt down and exact revenge on the scum that stole his life and love from him.
There might not be a more joyous and comical scene this whole year than the first time the chip takes over and allows Grey to go into combat mode. Whannell’s camera work is frenetic and bursting with energy while Marshall-Green reveals new comic chops with facial expressions of a man both terrified and impressed with himself over what his new body allows him to do. In fact, Upgrade contains some of the best action sequences of any film this year this side of Fallout, period.
Upgrade also fires warning shots at its audience regarding our increasing dependence on technology, and how it is leading to subtle losses in our own humanity. It ends with one of the bleakest of possibilities, in the most soul crushing of ways. Even when Grey gets his new powers, it’s never in doubt that the machine controls the man, and not the other way around.
8. A Quiet Place If you told me that the hunky dude from The Office would direct and star in one of the best break out horror movies of the year I would have told you to eat my shorts. Yet that’s where we are at the end of 2018. A Quiet Place is a masterful genre work that stakes its claim five minutes in with an act of violence most would consider taboo.
More than that, John Krasinski nails the family dynamic so essential to making this film work. Maybe it’s in part the inspired casting of working with his real life spouse Emily Blunt, who makes any film watchable by her sheer presence alone. Krasinski forces the audience to care about every member of that family living on the farm, which elevates a simple monster movie into a nail-biting suspense thriller. It’s such a simple, wonderful premise and in lesser hands it may have bombed with spectacular aplomb. Yet A Quiet Place shines as the sort of film that both persons who both love and loathe horror movies could watch and appreciate together.
7. The Witch in the Window I like to call Andy Mutton’s little film life “dad horror.” It very much tackles the universal parental fear that comes with watch your child grow up and realizing you can no longer protect or shield them from the larger world around them. On the surface, it’s about a father and son rebuilding a house in rural New England, where the ghost of its ghastly former inhabitant still resides. Mitton leans into the potential for fright, with the titular witch lurking on the peripheral of the screen until she springs into action in one of the most heart pumping sequences of horror all year.
Witch succeeds in large part due to the way it paces out its scares. Don’t expect to jump out of your seat every few minutes. This isn’t The Conjuring, where stingers are thrown at the audience every five minutes. For the bulk of Witch, Lydia remains a background presence. She’s keen on observing the duo, and it takes an eagle-eyed viewer patience and diligence to spot her in the background. This stylistic decision makes her appearances all the more unnerving.
Don’t worry that Witch concerns itself only with the existential horror of finding purpose in a random and cruel world. Mitton also delivers a pitch-perfect, atmospheric haunted house film. He creates an environment where the viewer can almost smell the oil emanate from the hardwood floors, or feel the brittleness of aged wallpaper as it breaks apart at one’s touch.
6. Halloween It’s hard to argue there was a more anticipated horror film than Halloween this year. With Blumhouse securing John Carpenter to compose a new soundtrack, Jamie Lee Curtis stepping back into the time of Laurie Strode, and a promise to bring the Shape back to his terrifying roots, fans felt like the franchise was in good hands for the first time in decades. Director David Gordon Green and writer Danny McBride made curious choice to wipe out all the continuity post the first film and start anew. Gone was the Ill -conceived “reveal” that Michael and Laurie were siblings. The whole Thorne Cult weirdness of parts four through six were tossed into the dustbins of history. Busta Rhymes karate chopping Myers has been expunged from the collective memories of millions of fans.
The end result is a Shape that felt scary and real for the first time in forever. The first two thirds of the film belong to Michael Myers. There are moments where he feels like the lurking background figure of 1978, especially during a gas station sequence where you have to watch the background to know his first kill is going down.
When the film lets Myers loose in Haddonfield, all bets are off. Surrounded by hundreds of unwitting holiday celebrators, The Shape works double time in an attempt to rain down as much death as possible to make up for forty years of incarceration. The two minute plus single take that tracks Myers as he picks up a murder weapon and carves up a pair of households might be the most stand up and applaud sequences of horror cinema all year.
However the real strength of the Halloween series remains the indomitable Jaime Lee as Laurie. Much like H20, the new film examines a Strode suffering from PTSD from the that night forty years ago. Laurie has turned her home into a battleground, while spending decades preparing for one more confrontation with Michael. While she seems like a broken woman at the outset, once she learns Michael has escaped, she springs into action. The last act of the film is very much Jaime Lee Curtis’ movie and she absolutely nails the part of a woman who has waited a very long time to rid herself of all her demons.
5. Suspiria Fun fact: I’ve never made it past twenty minutes of Argento’s Susperia. I find it shrill and nonsensical, and since it opens with the iconic death through the stained glass ceiling, I figure it’s all downhill from there.
Yet somehow I found myself enthralled by Luca Guadagnino’s re-imagining of this giallo. It’s an extraordinary work that takes the basics of Argento’s tale-a young woman joins a dance school only to learn it’s run by a coven of witches- and re-contextualizes it into something that stands wholly on its own merit.
Yes, some of the decisions are head scratching, such as plastering Tilda Swinton in old man makeup and putting a bit too much emphasis on this character’s redemption arc. Yet there’s so much more thematically to chew on here, not the least of which is the in depth examination of how societal pressures force women to compete with one another in cut throat ways rather than form bonds of empathy and sisterhood. Suspiria explores just how strong women as a force can be when they do for both themselves and each other, until they’re an almost unstoppable force. There may not be a more cathartic moment in movies all year than one of the coven bellowing at Swinton’s doctor character “When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them. You tell them they have delusions!” Radiohead’s Thom Yorke delivers a breathy score that exudes menace and dread with each note. Both the climactic and dance recital set pieces over Grand Guignol delight and carnage. While there’s nothing that matches the perverse pleasure of Argento’s initial set piece, the torturous deformation Chloe Grace Moetz doomed dancer undergoes is absolutely hypnotic in its grotesqueness.
4. Tigers Are Not Afraid The fact that this Mexican import still has not found distribution despite winning rave reviews at every festival its graced is proof enough we are living in the worst timeline. This fantasy horror hybrid is very much in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth, and it more than holds its own if you compare the two. The film concerns a group of children living on the streets of Mexico City and trying to stay out of the view of cartel members that are kidnapping and murdering local residents.
Issa Lopez is absolutely unafraid to break the audience’s heart with her film. Working with child actors is never easy, yet she gives each member of the group vibrant characterization, and forces the audience to invest in the fates of each one of them. Tigers will leave you a blubbering mess by the time it wraps up. It walks the delicate balance with its blend of fairy tale and fantasy with real world horror that too many of us wish to close our eyes to and pretend does not happen.
Given that this year bore witness to our government locking refugee children in cages, there may not be a timelier or more important film at this moment. While Tigers is not an overt political film, it’s impossible to watch the plights of these children and not feel concern or empathy for them. Lopez provides context for why so many persons are willing to flee their homes, trek a thousand miles with nothing but what they can carry just for the opportunity at a better way of life. Coming out of this film, you should be asking yourself what you want to be as a community, and what you can do to help those who need it the most during these desperate times.
3. Satan’s Slaves As far as straight up horror movies that want to do nothing except scare you so much that you piss your pants, Satan’s Slaves earns top billing. This Indonesian import, exclusive to the Shudder streaming service, serves up 106 minutes of pure, unrelenting terror.
The film begins follows a family after the death of their mother. Before she’s even laid to rest, the eldest sister and her three younger brothers begin to notice things are not right. Supernatural forces seem to be deadset on pulling the youngest child out of the home. As the terror escalates with each passing night, the clan learns that their mother may have turned to nefarious means in order to bear a child after years of being barren.
Satan’s Slaves contains no less than three moments that nearly gave me a heart attack and made me pause the film to catch my breath. It contains far and away the best use of a bedsheet ghost I’ve ever seen in a horror film, and gives Hereditary a run for its money for best out of nowhere shocking death of the year. A smashing success in its home country, I have little doubt that the film will get an English language remake at some point. Do yourself a favor and watch the original as soon as you can, and do it with the lights down and the covers drawn.
2. The Endless Perhaps what I love most about the films of co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Morehead is unlike most genre creators, this pair are not afraid to instill their work with themes of hope and optimism. The Endless marks the third feature film collaboration of the duo, and it’s their most accomplished work to date. The Endless plays as a nifty mesh of science fiction, family drama and cosmic Lovecraftian terror. As an added bonus, the film works as a sideways sequel to the pair’s debut, Resolution while not requiring the audience to have seen that gem in order to enjoy The Endless.
The Endless concerns itself with a pair of brothers, played by the writer directors, that escaped what one calls a “UFO death cult.” The two have struggled to reintegrate into society in the decade that follows, working menial labor jobs to make ends meet while suffering from debilitating social isolation. After a strange video tape makes its way to their doorstep, the brothers decide to return to the compound for a visit.
What follows is a mind bender of a film that explores time loops, the fickle nature of an omniscient Creator and the lies we tell ourselves and one another to convince ourselves that we are in control of our own destiny. One admirable characteristic of Benson and Moorhead’s film making is their dedication to sampling varying genres within one work. A great chef can comb through the cupboards of a pantry and come up with the ingredients for an exquisite meal even if left only bare essentials. In a similar fashion, the duo blend elements of science fiction, horror, family drama, and comedy and bend these tropes to fulfill the dramatic arc of their story. They refuse to allow their films to be pigeonholed or easily characterized in order to appeal to specific niches.
1. Hereditary There might not be a more divisive film this year than director Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It came out of its Sundance premiere with the dreaded “This is the scariest movie since The Exorcism” label which is almost a surefire way to sink a film under the weight of bloated expectations. When A24 released the film in the spring, it got hit with what seemed like a thousand, “Is Hereditary even a horror movie?” think pieces by mainstream critics who believe appreciating a genre film will leave them covered in an uncleanable stink.
Well I’m here to say that Hereditary deserves every accolade its received over the course of the year, and will be dissected and discussed for years to come. Toni Collette deserves an Oscar nod for her portrayal of a reluctant mother haunted by forces decades in the making and suffering through unimaginable grief. Hereditary explores the effects of schizophrenia unlike any film I’ve ever seen, and it weaves the debilitating effects mental illness throughout the narrative in order to create moments of pure horror throughout the first two acts. There’s also a moment (and I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to watch the movie, because if you’ve seen this you know the exact moment I’m talking about) early on that had me gasping and wishing I could pause and rewind the movie because it came so far out of left field I refused to believe it happened.
The argument some have made against the film is the somewhat hard pivot the last act towards more tried and true horror fare. I’d argue the last portion of the film ties together all the dangling ends and hints that have taken place before it, all while offering up unfiltered nightmare fuel with some of the most disturbing on screen imagery seen in years.