If the 2000s in horror marked the birth of the extreme—the French especially on board—then the 2010s bore pretension for something more metaphysical. The term “elevated horror” felt coined to represent a move from the visceral to the existential. Of course, cosmic horror was never solely the domain of horror filmmakers who may prefer to not be called that; if the 2000s were about making way for incisive, fearless new voices in horror, then the 2010s have been about these new voices re-submerging into the timestream of the movies that made them, treating cinephilia and taste as one and the same. If you hadn’t heard: We take horror seriously now.
None of these dichotomies are all that easy to track anyway. “Elevated horror” could be applied to the majority of the picks in the following list; the same could be said of a list of 30 films from the decade before. We’ve followed suit, reveling in the breadth of what horror has become in the past 10 years. Bear witness to zombie movies and ghost stories and giallo homages and grotesque displays of unearthly imagination. Recoil at these tantalizing tales of emasculation! Shudder as you realize your favorite fairy tales have been perverted! Such an abundance of women directors compared to most other genres! I am screaming.
From vampiric zombies to vampiric white people, here are the 30 best horror movies of the decade:
30. Stake Land (2010)
Director: Jim Mickle
Jim Mickle is the best young horror director often left out of discussions of the best young horror directors: Starting with his debut work Mulberry Street, he’s become one of the leading auteurs of low-budget horror, still striving for ambitious ideas, and Stake Land is all about ambition rather than exploitation. Lord knows how many cheapo zombie movies have been made in the last decade, but Mickle essentially makes a post-apocalypse zombie film, except with vampires. Still, Stake Land’s greatest achievement is inarguably its wonderful design and evocative landscapes, easily standing up to more obviously expensive productions. It’s a genius work of minimalism, to be able to suggest such a fleshed-out universe, where small pockets of humanity survive in barricaded cities and barter for goods with the teeth of dead vampires. Our characters and story are extremely simple—a veteran hunter (Nick Damici) and young protege (Conor Paolo) travel across the wasteland looking for safe refuge—but it’s exactly what the film needs to be: a sober-minded film that accomplishes so much with so little. —Jim Vorel
29. Crimson Peak (2015)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Crimson Peak follows the traditions of gothic romance by design: “I made this movie to present and reverse some of the normal tropes, while following them, of the gothic romance,” del Toro says on the Arrow Blu-ray’s audio commentary track, a note made during the introduction between his protagonist, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), and her first of two love interests, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet come to the U.S. to win over her father, the magnate Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), and obtain financial backing for his very own clay-mining contraption. The exchange between Thomas and Edith in this scene is crucial to what the film’s trying to accomplish: “I’m sorry,” he says to her, the manuscript on her desk having caught his eye. “I don’t mean to pry, but this is a piece of fiction, is it not?”
It is. It’s her fiction, in fact, a piece she’s written for publication in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. With a glance, the story has ensnared him. “Ghosts,” he remarks, an inscrutable smile on his lips. Edith goes on defense, stammering, “Well, the ghosts are just a metaphor, really,” but Thomas isn’t finished: “They’ve always fascinated me. You see, where I come from, ghosts are not to be taken lightly.” Thomas means this as flattery and not admonition, and flattered is how Edith reacts, excitement spreading across her face at encountering a kindred spirit to accompany the actual spirits she’s yet to meet. Thomas gets it. When she speaks with him, Edith doesn’t need to compromise her fondness for ghost stories, as she must with her peers. She can openly appreciate them on their own terms.
And so can Crimson Peak. Del Toro adores the production components of the gothic romance; he’s enamored with the pomp, the circumstance, the costumes. They give him a veil of propriety, because Crimson Peak doesn’t pull its punches. The audience finds out what kind of film it is from the opening shot of Edith’s face, decorated by open wounds, and from the follow-up sequence, in which young Edith (Sofia Wells) is visited in dead of night by her late mother’s blackened osseous specter. Crimson Peak doesn’t care about catering to taste or achieving universality. It cares about freaking its viewers the hell out. After all, if “horror” as a genre acts as a massive umbrella sheltering all manner of aesthetics and approaches, the exercise should always be about sending an audience away with a powerful need to sleep with the lights on. —Andy Crump
28. It Comes at Night (2017)
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Within seconds, It Comes at Night haunts you. In the scene from which writer/director Trey Edward Shults says the rest of his script sprung, in the very first images of the film, an old man (David Pendleton) wheezes while covered, his skin festering, in boils. It’s clear: He isn’t long for this world. Shults and DP Drew Daniels hold his face in close-up as if they’re cradling him, trying to make his passing easier. Each successive detail is revealed with a carefulness that could only be described as some sort of deep, abiding empathy for the characters, any characters, Shults has on screen: first comes the man’s defeated face, his labored breathing, then the muffled voices of reassurance, telling him it’s OK to let go and that he’s loved. Then we see that the voices are muffled because they’re coming from gas masks. Then we watch as the people wearing gas masks roll the old man in a wheelbarrow out to the woods where they shoot him in the head and incinerate his corpse in a hole.
It Comes at Night is ostensibly a horror movie, moreso than Shults’s debut, Krisha, but even Krisha was more of a horror movie than most measured family dramas typically are. Perhaps knowing this, Shults calls It Comes at Night an atypical horror movie, but—it’s already obvious after only two of these—Shults makes horror movies to the extent that everything in them is laced with dread, and every situation suffocated with inevitability. For his sophomore film, adorned with a much larger budget than Krisha and cast with some real indie star power compared to his previous cast (of family members doing him a solid), Shults imagines a near future as could be expected from a somber flick like this. A “sickness” has ravaged the world and survival is all that matters for those still left. In order to keep their shit together enough to keep living, the small group of people in Shults’s film have to accept the same things the audience does: That important characters will die, tragedy will happen and the horror of life is about the pointlessness of resisting the tide of either. So it makes sense that It Comes at Night is such an open wound of a watch, pained with regret and loss and the mundane ache of simply existing: Throughout we feel as if we’re saying goodbye to these characters even as we’re just getting to know them. It’s trauma as tone poem, bittersweet down to its bones, a triumph of empathetic, soul-shaking movie-making. —Dom Sinacola
27. You’re Next (2011)
Director: Adam Wingard
Between A Horrible Way to Die, The Guest and You’re Next—and somehow despite the Blair Witch remake—it’s easy to understand why studios are still interested in Adam Wingard. His films have a verve, a sense of pacing that just crackles—they’re lean, mean and get to the point. You’re Next immediately sets up a premise that we’ve seen many times before, that of the “home invasion” thriller, before subverting the genre’s expectations when our Final Girl proves to be far more adept and capable than any of the audience members realized, a moment that transforms the film into full slasher. From there, the story grows more complex, as motivations and secret histories are revealed. Wingard and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shoot the action viscerally, imbuing each physical confrontation with real, concrete consequences. Hell, it’s even a little funny now and then. Given that The Guest is a bit more thriller than not, You’re Next remains Wingard’s purest horror work to date. —Jim Vorel
26. Prevenge (2017)
Director: Alice Lowe
Maybe getting close enough to gut a person when you’re blatantly with child is a cinch—no one likely expects an expecting mother to cut their throat—but all the positive encouragement Ruth’s unborn daughter gives her helps, too. The kid spends the film spurring her mother to slaughter seemingly innocent people from in utero, an invisible voice of incipient malevolence sporting a high-pitched giggle that’ll make your skin crawl. “Pregnant lady goes on a slashing spree at the behest of her gestating child” is, in practice, more somber than it is silly, but the bleak tone suits what writer, director and star Alice Lowe wants to achieve with her filmmaking debut. Another storyteller might have designed Prevenge as a more comically slanted effort, but Lowe has sculpted it to smash taboos and social norms.
Parenthood is a special experience, motherhood more so than fatherhood, but Prevenge imagines the bond between parent and child as something unnatural and even dreadful, without stepping clear over the line into poor taste. This is what pregnancy looks like when described by a woman through a genre lens, one of the best examples of its pedigree, moody and dreamlike with a blend of comic unpleasantry and homage that avoids navel-gazing. The best evidence of Lowe’s intentions is the film’s current of misanthropy. Prevenge hates human beings with a disturbing passion, even human beings who aren’t selfish, awful, creepy or worse. Ruth’s midwife (Jo Hartley) provides routine well-meaning encouragement and counsel, but through Lowe’s eyes her advice chafes more than it soothes. Another character, a kindly young fellow in a relationship with one of Ruth’s victims-to-be, is genuinely empathetic toward her in one of the movie’s gentler moments, but even he isn’t spared her insatiable wrath when his time comes. No one gets out unscathed, even the pure-hearted. They either fall to Ruth’s blade or Lowe’s merciless script. —Andy Crump
25. The Conjuring (2013)
Director: James Wan
James Wan, the progenitor of big money series such as Saw and Insidious, has a knack for crafting populist horror that still carries a streak of artistic identity, a Spielbergian gift for what speaks to the multiplex audience without entirely sacrificing characterization, and The Conjuring can’t be denied as Wan’s most representative title, far and away the scariest of all his feature films. Few haunted house/possession stories have half the stylishness that Wan imparts on an old, creaking farmstead in Rhode Island, all the while subverting when and where you expect the scares to arrive without resorting tostandard Hollywood jump scare build-ups, evoking classic golden age ghost stories such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting. The Conjuring’s intensity, effects work and unrelenting nature set it several tiers above the PG-13 horror against which it was primarily competing—though it actually did receive an “R” rating despite a lack of overt “violence,” gore or sexuality. It was simply too frightening to deny. —Jim Vorel
24. The Lure (2015)
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
In Filmmaker Magazine, director Agnieszka Smoczynska called The Lure a “coming-of-age story” born of her past as the child of a nightclub owner: “I grew up breathing this atmosphere.” What she means to say, I’m guessing, is that The Lure is an even more restlessly plotted Boyhood if the Texan movie rebooted The Little Mermaid as a murderous synth-rock opera. (OK, maybe it’s nothing like Boyhood.)
Smoczynska’s film resurrects prototypical fairy tale romance and fantasy without any of the false notes associated with Hollywood’s “gritty” reboot culture. Poland, the 1980s and the development of its leading young women provide a multi-genre milieu in which the film’s cannibalistic mermaids can sing their sultry, often violently funny siren songs to their dark hearts’re content. While Ariel the mermaid Disney princess finds empathy with young girls who watch her struggle with feelings of longing and entrapment, The Lure’s flesh-hungry, viscous, scaly fish-people are a gross, haptic and ultimately effective metaphor for the maturation of this same audience. In the water, the pair are innocent to the ways of humans (adults), but on land develop slimes and odors unfamiliar to themselves and odd (yet strangely attractive) to their new companions. Reckoning with bodily change, especially when shoved into the sex industry like many immigrants to Poland during the collapse of that country’s communist regime in the late ’80s, the film combines the politics of the music of the time with the sexual politics of a girl becoming a woman (and the musicals that exploit the same). And though The Lure may bite off more human neck than it can chew, especially during its music-less plot wanderings, it’s just so wonderfully consistent in its oddball vision you won’t be able to help but be drawn in by its mesmerizing thrall. —Jacob Oller
23. V/H/S; V/H/S/2 (2012; 2013)
Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence, Gareth Evans, Simon Barrett, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener, Eduardo Sánchez, Gregg Hale
Horror anthologies are, by nature, almost always uneven in terms of quality, but if there’s one constant, it’s that fewer is better than many. That’s one of the factors that helps the V/H/S films stand out apart from, say, the unrestrained insanity of The ABCs of Death. V/H/S also bears a more coherent framing narrative, featuring segments by some of the best young directors in horror, such as Adam Wingard and Ti West, but it’s ultimately David Bruckner, director of the genre-bending 2007 horror flick The Signal, who steals the show with “Amateur Night.” About a group of douchey guys who bring home a strange girl from the bar and get much more than they bargained for when she turns out to be a literal monster, the story eventually received a full-on feature film treatment under the title of Siren.
As for which of the first two V/H/S entries is strongest, though, your taste will likely depend on which has your personal favorite segment. At the very least, the second film contains what might be the standout in the entire series, Eduardo Sanchez’s “A Ride in the Park.” Without giving everything away: It involves bicyclists, zombies and helmet-mounted GoPro cameras, which help give us a perspective we’ve never really seen in horror while deftly avoiding the question of “Why would anyone be filming this?” There’s still some not-great segments—really the ideal V/H/S would be a compilation that takes only the best from each entry to create a really solid horror anthology. One has to wonder if Viral killed this series for good, or whether they’ll eventually act like it never happened and release a straight-up V/H/S/3 one of these days. —Jim Vorel
22. Starry Eyes (2014)
Director: Kevin Kölsch
Starry Eyes is a harrowing film experience, an ordeal, in the same way its protagonist’s journey is a major transformation. At the beginning, you think you have a pretty decent idea of the surface-level points Starry Eyes is trying to make; you get its “Hollywood against Hollywood” bitterness and cynicism about fame and the film industry’s pettiness. Then everything gets so much more destructive and subversive. Sarah (Alex Essoe) is a tragic figure, and this is a “horror tragedy,” if such a thing exists, made worse by the fact that she brings it all onto herself, fueled by deep-seated inadequacy and a crushing lack of self-identity. Her ambition turns her into a monster because she has nothing else: Her life is so devoid of meaning that doing the unthinkable has no downside. Hers, then, is a horrific self-destruction that leads into an abandonment of self and an orgy of truly grotesque violence, but there’s no joy or titillation in any of the ways it’s depicted. No one is going to describe Starry Eyes as light viewing, and no one is going to laugh at the deaths. You don’t show this thing at a party—you dwell on it in the depth of night while self-identifying with its horrors. —Jim Vorel
21. The Wailing (2016)
Director: Na Hong-jin
The U.S. title of Na Hong-jin’s new film, The Wailing, suggests tone more than it does sound. There is wailing to be heard here, yes, and plenty of it, but in two words Na coyly predicts his audience’s reaction to the movie’s grim tableaus of a county in spiritual strife. Na trades in doubt and especially despair more than in what we think of as “horror.” He isn’t out to terrify us. He’s out to corrode our souls, much in the same way that his protagonist’s faith is corroded after being subject to both divine and infernal tests over the course of the film.
The Wailing unfolds in Gokseong County, an agricultural community nestled among South Korea’s southern provinces. It’s a lovely, bucolic setting that Na and his cinematographer, the incredible Hong Kyung-pyo, take fullest advantage of aesthetically and thematically. The hushed serenity blanketing The Wailing’s opening images creates an atmosphere of peace that Na is all too happy to subvert (similar to how he subverts Bible verses). The film’s first full sequence shatters the calm as Sergeant Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won, turning in a knockout performance) is called to the scene of a savage multiple murder. When Jong-gu shows up, all is bedlam; people are screaming and crying, emergency workers litter the area like ants at a gory picnic, and the killer sits in a stupor, unaware of neither the mayhem nor the vicious boils coating their skin.
This is an incredibly creepy and oft-unsettling film, but Na finds the tug of disbelief far more upsetting than the sight of bodies cut apart and blood splattering the wall. What do you do when your holy authority figures fail you? What do you do when you can’t trust your perception? Na has made these ideas, though hardly new in the horror canon, his film’s full purpose, and his conclusions are devastatingly bleak. When The Wailing arrives at its final, spectacular half hour, you’ll vow never to ask these questions about your own life, ever. You may not leave the theater scared, but you will leave it scarred, which is by far a more substantive response than naked fear. —Andy Crump
20. We Are Still Here (2015)
Director: Ted Geoghegan
The film is a Lucio Fulci throwback, though that word does the Italian director’s work a slight disservice. We Are Still Here doesn’t bother covering up its roots, either. Like the specters that haunt Geoghegan’s protagonists, the presence of the Italian maestro can be felt in each of We Are Still Here’s frames. But there’s homage, and then there’s lazy homage, and Geoghegan has made the former—though in fairness his influences range from Fulci to Dan Curtis and Stuart Rosenberg. Geoghegan has even called on H.P. Lovecraft to supply his fictional setting. We Are Still Here does not lack for pedigree.
It’s traditional in the horror genre that running away from personal tragedy tends to beget more personal tragedy. So, when Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) Sacchetti move from “the city” to Aylesbury, Massachusetts after the death of their college-aged son, Bobby, they shack up in a century-old farmhouse so isolated that their new neighbors don’t notice anybody’s home for a whole two weeks. While Anne is wrapped up in the fantods, Paul tries stoically to assuage his wife’s grief (as well as his own) without tipping off his incredulity over her claims that she can “feel” Bobby in the house with them.
We Are Still Here’s first half feels like a slow burn in comparison to its second, where all hell is erumpent and cinematographer Karim Hussain frantically but steadily sprints from one room to the next, capturing as much peripheral carnage as possible. In a lesser film, Geoghegan’s climax would be a signal to the viewer to wake up. In We Are Still Here, it provides an unexpected burst of escalated, gory furor. But Geoghegan handles the transition smoothly, from the story of running away from tragedy We Are Still Here begins as to the bloodbath it becomes. There’s no sense of baiting or switching; the director flirts with danger confidently throughout. Plus, there’s that New England winter to add an extra layer of despair. The elements forebode and forbid in equal measure. The weather outside is frightful … and the carbonized wraiths in the basement even more so. In the end, this is one haunted house that won’t be denied. —Andy Crump
19. I Saw the Devil (2010)
Director: Kim Jee-woon
The elemental power of vengeance has powered innumerable thrillers and horror films to their bloody conclusions since the very beginning of cinema, but rarely has a film gone through such sadistic pains to communicate the ultimate futility of vengeance as I Saw the Devil. This film is nothing short of an exhortation of what can happen when the all-consuming need for personal satisfaction eclipses the more noble drive for justice—all parties come to ruin, and no one is spared from destruction, regardless of innocence. Especially regardless of innocence.
South Korea has a penchant for these vengeance-driven thrillers, with specialists such as Park Chan-wook using the genre to deliver some of the country’s most famous films, Oldboy perhaps the most prominent example. I Saw the Devil immediately evokes the former, starring the same actor, Choi Min-sik. Here he plays Jang Kyung-chul, a bus driver who harbors a dark compulsion to kill and dismember young women. After abducting and killing the fiance of an agent in the National Intelligence Service, he is hunted by agent Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), driven beyond the line of duty to avenge his would-be wife, both for himself and his commanding officer, the dead woman’s father. In most films of this type, the runtime would concern itself with the challenges of this hunt, but I Saw the Devil differs by making the finding of Jang Kyung-chul elementary. It’s not about whether Kim Soo-hyun will be able to find the killer; it’s about what he’ll choose to do to him once he’s located. Of course, this being a horror film about the destructive power of obsession, enough is never truly enough, leading to one of the great, empty victories of horror cinema in the 2010s. —Jim Vorel
18. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Director: Drew Goddard
The path taken by The Cabin in the Woods to multiplexes was by no means an easy one. Shot in 2009, it was originally intended for a 2010 release, before finding itself wrapped up in the legal fallout of MGM’s high-profile bankruptcy. Drew Goddard’s feature film debut then sat on the sidelines for several years, even as supporting star Chris Hemsworth’s Hollywood profile became much more visible thanks to 2011’s Thor, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe picking up steam. That sudden rise in bankability likely played into Lionsgate acquiring the movie for a 2012 release, but even then, no one seemed to know quite how to market it.
The gag here is that a group of young people—who loosely fall into a variety of slasher movie archetypes such as “the virgin,” “the fool” and “the athlete,”—are manipulated into a life-or-death scenario that also serves as a proxy battle for all of humanity. This “ritual,” we come to understand, is orchestrated from an underground bunker full of comically unsympathetic white collar workers who bend the rules of this contest as far as they possibly can, and for good reason: If the hapless protagonists “upstairs” manage to survive, the entire world will be devoured by ancient gods who will rise from below. Only the appeasement of horror film cliches will keep the ancient evil below slumbering for another year.
That framework is an excuse to pick apart the silliest (and most beloved) aspects of horror movie tropes. The monsters and antagonists likewise draw inspiration from countless horror franchises: Evil Dead, Hellraiser, It, Chopping Mall, The Wolf Man. It’s a loving assembly of sinister, familiar cinematic imagery that has been corralled and controlled in a way that paints mankind as the ultimate evil above all others, due for extinction. The Cabin in the Woods remains a high bar against which horror genre parodies are judged. —Jim Vorel
17. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
We Need To Talk About Kevin concerns the experience of a mother (Tilda Swinton) struggling with the aftermath of a school massacre carried out by her son (Ezra Miller). In its narrative construction, it draws upon two key tropes: that of the “whydunnit” thriller, in which the mystery of the perpetrator’s motivations are a driving factor, and that of the family horror, in which some dark element tears a traditional household apart. Indeed, the real horror is not that a teenager chose total negation over the banality of normative family life—it’s that these appeared to be the only two choices available.
Tilda Swinton is brilliant in the starring role as a mother who grapples with guilt about what her son has done and reflects on his childhood, wondering what, if anything, could possibly have been done differently when one gives birth to a “bad seed.” The heartbreaking nature of the film is perfectly encapsulated by the scene wherein Kevin as a child briefly drops his sociopathic tendencies while ill, giving Swinton’s character a brief chance to feel like a cherished mother, only to emotionally shut her out again as soon as his physical health returns, dashing her hopes that some kind of breakthrough had been made. —Donal Foreman
16. Us (2019)
Director: Jordan Peele
Us clarifies what Get Out implies. Even after only two films, Jordan Peele’s filmmaking seems preconfigured for precision, the Hitchcock comparisons just sitting there, waiting to be shoved between commas, while Peele openly speaks and acts in allusions. Us, like Get Out before it but moreso, wastes nothing: time, film stock, the equally precise capabilities of his actors and crew, real estate in the frame, chance for a gag. If his films are the sum of their influences, that means he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of ideas, someone who knows how to hone down those ideas into stories that never bloat, though he’s unafraid to confound his audience with exposition or take easy shots—like the film’s final twist—that swell and grow in the mind with meaning the longer one tries to insist, if one were inclined to do so, that what Peele’s doing is easy at all.
A family comedy studded with dread, then a home invasion thriller, then a head-on sci-fi horror flick, Us quickly acquaints us with the Wilson family: calming matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), gregarious dad Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter wise beyond her years Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and adorable epitome of the innocent younger brother, Jason (Evan Alex). Though far from shallow, the characters take on archetypal signifiers, whether it’s Zora’s penchant for running or that Gabe’s a big guy whose bulk betrays a softer heart, Peele never spoonfeeding cheap characterizations but just getting us on his wavelength with maximum efficiency. Us isn’t explicitly about race, but it is about humanity’s inherent knack for Othering, for boxing people into narrow perspectives and then holding them responsible for everyone vaguely falling within a Venn diagram.
Regardless of how sufficiently we’re able to parse what’s actually going on (and one’s inclined to see the film more than once to get a grip) the images remain, stark and hilarious and horrifying: a child’s burned face, a misfired flare gun, a cult-like spectacle of inhuman devotion, a Tim Heidecker bent over maniacally, walking as if he’s balanced on a thorax, his soul as good as creased. Divorced from context, these moments still speak of absurdity—of witty one-liners paired with mind-boggling horror—of a future in which we’ve so alienated ourselves from ourselves that we’re bound to cut that tether that keeps us together, sooner or later, and completely unravel. We are our undoing. So let the Hitchcock comparisons come. Peele deserves them well enough. Best not to think about it too hard, to not ruin a good thing, to demand that Us be anything more than sublimely entertaining and wonderfully thoughtful, endlessly disturbing genre filmmaking. —Dom Sinacola
15. Take Shelter (2011)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Take Shelter is the story of a man named Curtis, haunted by visions of the swiftly approaching apocalypse. In his dreams and hallucinations, a vast “storm” is en route, something totally outside of the natural order of the universe, where black, tar-like rain will fall from the sky and his entire family (wife and deaf daughter) will be wiped out. Everything he sees in his daily life seems to hint at the impending doom of The Storm—he looks at a flock of strangely behaving birds and is terrified by the holocaust they represent in his mind. And so, he seeks to protect his family in the only way he can think of, by constructing an elaborate backyard storm shelter, even as the audience learns of the history of schizophrenia and mental collapse that runs in his family. These revelations about the likely source of Curtis’s erratic behavior take the film in directions both frightening and tragic.
Key to the film is Michael Shannon, who plays Curtis with some of the most simultaneously sympathetic and genuinely frightening screen intensity that has ever been seen in this genre. Shannon is an intense actor, and his focus and latent aura of anger has been used to great effect in a number of films, but in Take Shelter they make him truly mesmerizing. And somehow, through it all, Curtis’ wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) is still there for him, trying with heartbreaking earnestness to bring him back down to Earth, even as he loses his job and depletes the family’s nest egg in the construction of his storm shelter. Eventually he erupts in a public place, scorning his neighbors for their lack of preparation, but Samantha is still there as his rock. It becomes clear that if Curtis has a chance, it will be because of the love of his family. The film builds this tension slowly and gradually over the course of a two-hour runtime, and when an actual storm does arrive, followed by Curtis gathering his family into the shelter, the viewer’s concern becomes nigh-unbearable. —Jim Vorel
14. In Fabric (2018)
Director: Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland makes decisively unsettling films, notably Berberian Sound Studio, by weaponizing familiarity: Rather than distance himself from his influences—Dario Argento movies and Euro-kink most of all—he leans into them so heavily that they metastatize into cinema that’s uniquely Strickland’s. Set in the world of high-end retail, In Fabric follows two characters (Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Leo Bill) as they come to possess a cursed dress purchased at Dentley and Soper’s, a department store revealed from the outset to be operated by a coven of witches and warlocks. In Fabric’s premise reads like either a Tales from the Crypt episode or one of those “award-winning” horror shorts clogging up YouTube. Ultimately, it’s a superior remake of Suspiria to Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 thudding attempt at taking Argento’s blend of lunatic genius and remodeling it for an audience unequipped to appreciate the stuff of the Italian maestro’s filmography. Bleeding mannequins, taboo erotica, an eerily floating dress, truly purple dialogue spoken by frequent Strickland collaborator Fatma Mohamed as one of the witches, trippy aesthetics and unexpectedly side-splitting humor make In Fabric a stand-out entry in contemporary horror at a time when the culture is catching on to what makes the genre function in the first place. —Andy Crump
13. The Invitation (2016)
Director: Karyn Kusama
The less you know about Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, the better. This is true of slow-burn cinema of any stripe, but Kusama slow-burns to perfection. In this case, that involves a tale of deep and intimate heartache, the kind that none of us hopes to ever have to endure in their own lives. The film taps into a nightmare vein of real-life dread, of loss so profound and pervasive that it fundamentally changes who you are as a human being. That’s where we begin: with an examination of grief. The film starts in earnest as Will (Logan Marshall-Green in top form) arrives at a dinner party his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), is throwing at what once was their house. He has brought his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), along with him. But something is undeniably off at Eden’s place, and because Will is the lens through which Kusama’s audience engages with the film, we cannot tell what that something is. Still, it is, in point of fact, frequently hard to root for Will, or to level with his perspective. He skulks around the hallways of Eden’s home, rooting around through her nightstand drawers, looking for something, anything, to assure himself of, well, what exactly? That she’s just as torn up inside as he is over the tragedy that split them up years prior? That she hasn’t actually moved on from him, from the life they once shared together?
We don’t know. Will probably doesn’t either. And that’s okay: Knowing isn’t part of what makes The Invitation so nerve-racking and pleasing as a sophisticated exercise in genre.
There is oh so much more to be said about The Invitation, especially its climax, where all is revealed and we see Will’s fears and Eden’s spiritual affirmations for what they are. Until then you’ll remain on tenterhooks, but to Kusama, jitters and thrills are sensations worth savoring. Where we end? The Invitation is remarkable neither for its ending nor for the direction we take to arrive at its ending. Instead, it is remarkable for its foundation, for all of the substantive storytelling infrastructure that Kusama builds the film upon in the first place. —Andy Crump
12. Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Directors: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
We begin by joining twin, tow-headed nine-year-old brothers Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz) as they explore the rural paradise of their new home, swimming in azure-pure lakes and casually spelunking through nearby caves ostensibly untouched for centuries. Though the twins seem to be perfectly content letting their Edenic nature occupy them, a near-ineffable pall of tragedy hangs over the film from the start. It’s unexplainable but slightly pungent, as if at any moment one of the boys will fall down a ravine or stumble into a hornet’s nest. Maybe it’s because they bow to seemingly no adult supervision—that is, until their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns to their ceaselessly modern home after going away for a surgery of some sort. Her face covered in bandages, her eyes red-rimmed and limned with a shadow of dread, “Mommy” greets her boys with reticence and anxiety. Gradually, of course, the boys suspect that something is up with their mommy, especially when, as a form of punishment for their suspicious behavior (as well as, we assume, behavior and transgressions we have yet to understand), she pretends that Lukas doesn’t exist.
Goodnight Mommy, for all of its familiar notions, isn’t exactly a traditional horror film, more in tune with the eerie, silent moral plays of Carl Theodor Dreyer than with the Grand Guignol schlock of an Eli Roth in heat. In fact, you may be able to figure out the “twist” by the end of the first act; while the filmmakers do nothing to bury the lede, they still take great pains to juggle their high-minded concept with an eye for burrowing certain notions about the very fabric of our human race within the subcutaneous folds of our most firmly held beliefs about how life—family, love, trust—should work. The true horror of Goodnight Mommy isn’t about who she is, but what happens to her—how easily we can set fire to the bedrock of even our basest notions of what it means to be human. And there really is nothing scarier than that. —Dom Sinacola
11. Evolution (2015)
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic
Hadžihalilovic’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, Lynchian homage, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a fatherless island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicolas’s boy-like curiosity begins to reveal a world of maturity he’s incapable of grasping, discovering one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep. From there, Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable, dreadful image after another. —Dom Sinacola
10. A Dark Song (2017)
Director: Liam Gavin
In Liam Gavin’s black magic genre oddity, Sophia (Catherine Walker), a grief-stricken mother, and the schlubby, no-nonsense occultist (Steve Oram) she hires devote themselves to a long, meticulous, painstaking ritual in order to (they hope) communicate with her dead son. Gavin lays out the ritual specifically and physically—over the course of months of isolation, Sophia undergoes tests of endurance and humiliation, never quite sure if she’s participating in an elaborate hoax or if she can take her spiritual guide seriously when he promises her he’s succeeded in the past. Paced to near perfection, A Dark Song is ostensibly a horror film but operates as a dread-laden procedural, mounting tension while translating the process of bereavement as patient, excruciating manual labor. In the end, something definitely happens, but its implications are so steeped in the blurry lines between Christianity and the occult that I still wonder what kind of alternate realms of existence Gavin is getting at. But A Dark Song thrives in that uncertainty, feeding off of monotony. Sophia may hear phantasmagorical noise coming from beneath the floorboards, but then substantial spans of time pass without anything else happening, and we begin to question, as she does, whether it was something she did wrong (maybe, when tasked with not moving from inside a small chalk circle for days at a time, she screwed up that portion of the ritual by allowing her urine to dribble outside of the boundary) or whether her grief has blinded her to an expensive con. Regardless, that “not knowing” is the scary stuff of everyday life, and by portraying Sophia’s profound emotional journey as a humdrum trial of physical mettle, Gavin reveals just how much pointless, even terrifying work it can be anymore to not only live the most ordinary of days, but to make it to the next. —Dom Sinacola
9. Hereditary (2018)
Director: Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s debut film begins in miniature. Later we learn of the trade Annie (Toni Collette), the film’s family’s matriarch, plies—meticulously designing doll-house-sized vignettes of the many domestic traumas she’s experienced, and still does, throughout her life, not for children but for art gallery spaces—though in the moment, in the beginning of Hereditary, the effect simply alludes to Aster’s ancestral preoccupations. From a tree house, pulling back through Annie’s workshop window, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera pans to a tiny recreation of the house we’re currently within, then pushes into the simulacrum of high school student Peter Graham’s (Alex Wolff) bedroom, which transforms into the room itself, perspectives already ruined so early in the film. Father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) enters to give his late-snoozing son the black suit needed to attend his late grandmother’s memorial. Aster’s intent, as is the case throughout Hereditary, is both blunt and oblique: worlds exist within worlds, shadows within that which casts them, or vice versa, reality represented like the rings of a tree or the spirals of DNA holding untold secrets within the cores of whoever we are. Colin Stetson’s brain-churning score rattles the frame’s edges. Menace looms—and menace soon unfolds, tragedies upon tragedies. The Graham family unravels over the course of Hereditary, which derives its power from testing the binds that force families together, teasing their strength as each family member must confront, kicking and screaming (or in Collette’s case: making the noise of one’s soul fleeing through every orifice), just how superficial those binds can be. In the absence of a reason for all of this happening, there is inevitability; in the absence of resolution there is only acceptance. —Dom Sinacola
8. The Witch (2015)
Director: Robert Eggers
From its first moments, The Witch strands us in a hostile land. We watch (because that’s all we can do, helplessly) as puritan patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) argues stubbornly with a small council, thereby causing his family’s banishment from their “New England” community. We watch, and writer-director Robert Eggers holds our gaze while a score of strings and assorted prickly detritus—much like the dialogue-less beginning to There Will be Blood —rise to a climax that never comes. It’s a long shot, breathing dread: The wagon lurches ever-on into the wilderness, piling the frontier of this New World upon the literal frontier of an unexplored forest. It’s 1620, and William claims, “We will conquer this wilderness.” Eggers’ “New England Folk Tale” is a horror film swollen with the allure of the unknown. To say that it’s reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, which take place 70 years after the events in the film, would be an understatement—the inevitable consequences of such historic mania looms heavily over The Witch. All of this Eggers frames with a subconscious knack for creating tension within each shot, rarely relying on jump scares or gore, instead mounting suspense through one masterful edit after another. The effect, then, is that of a building fever dream in which primeval forces—lust, defiance, hunger, greed—simmer at the edges of experience, avoided but never quite conquered. But what’s most convincing is the burden of puritanical spirituality which blankets the film’s every single moment, a pall through which every character—especially teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy)—struggles to be, simply, a regular person. There is no joy in their worship, there is only gravitas: prayers, fasting, penitence and fear. And it’s that fear which drives the film’s horror, which eventually makes even us viewers believe that, at the fringes of civilization, at the border of the unknown, God has surely abandoned these people. —Dom Sinacola
7. Raw (2016)
Director: Julia Ducournau
Julia Ducournau’s Raw is a “coming-of-age movie” in that the film’s protagonist, naive incoming college student Justine (Garance Marillier), comes of age over the course of its running time. She parties, she breaks out of her shell, she learns about who she really is as a person on the verge of adulthood. But most kids who come of age in the movies don’t realize that they’ve spent their lives unwittingly suppressing an innate, nigh-insatiable need to consume raw meat. “Hey,” you’re thinking, “that’s the name of the movie!” Allow Ducournau her cheekiness. More than a wink and nod to the picture’s visceral particulars, Raw is an open concession to the harrowing quality of Justine’s grim blossoming. Nasty as the film gets, and it does indeed get nasty, the harshest sensations Ducournau articulates here tend to be the ones we can’t detect by merely looking: Fear of feminine sexuality, family legacies, popularity politics and uncertainty of self govern Raw’s horrors as much as exposed and bloody flesh. It’s a gorefest that offers no apologies and plenty more to chew on than its effects. —Andy Crump
6. It Follows (2015)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
The specter of Old Detroit haunts It Follows. In a dilapidating ice cream stand on 12 Mile, in the ’60s-style ranch homes of Ferndale or Berkley, in a game of Parcheesi played by pale teenagers with nasally, nothing accents—if you’ve never been, you’d never recognize the stale, gray nostalgia creeping into every corner of David Robert Mitchell’s terrifying film. But it’s there, and it feels like SE Michigan. The music, the muted but strangely sumptuous color palette, the incessant anachronism: In style alone, Mitchell is an auteur seemingly emerged fully formed from the unhealthy womb of Metro Detroit. Cycles and circles concentrically fill out It Follows, from the particularly insular rules of the film’s horror plot, to the youthful, fleshy roundness of the faces and bodies of this small group of main characters, never letting the audience forget that, in so many ways, these people are still children. In other words, Mitchell is clear about his story: This has happened before, and it will happen again. All of which wouldn’t work were Mitchell less concerned with creating a genuinely unnerving film, but every aesthetic flourish, every fully circular pan is in thrall to breathing morbid life into a single image: someone, anyone slowly separating from the background, from one’s nightmares, and walking toward you, as if Death itself were to appear unannounced next to you in public, ready to steal your breath with little to no aplomb.
Initially, Mitchell’s whole conceit—passing on a haunting through intercourse—seems to bury conservative sexual politics under typical horror movie tropes, proclaiming to be a progressive genre pic when it functionally does nothing to further our ideas of slasher fare. You fornicate, you find punishment for your flagrant, loveless sinning, right? (The film has more in common with a Judd Apatow joint than you’d expect.) Instead, Mitchell never once judges his characters for doing what practically every teenager wants to do; he simply lays bare, through a complex allegory, the realities of teenage sex. There is no principled implication behind Mitchell’s intent; the cold conclusion of sexual intercourse is that, in some manner, you are sharing a certain degree of your physicality with everyone with whom your partner has shared the same. That he accompanies this admission with genuine respect and empathy for the kinds of characters who, in any other horror movie, would be little more than visceral fodder for a sadistic spirit, elevates It Follows from the realm of disguised moral play into a sickly scary coming-of-age tale. Likewise, Mitchell inherently understands that there is practically nothing more eerie than the slightly off-kilter ordinary, trusting the film’s true horror to the tricks our minds play when we forget to check our periphery. It Follows is a film that thrives in the borders, not so much about the horror that leaps out in front of you, but the deeper anxiety that waits at the verge of consciousness—until, one day soon, it’s there, reminding you that your time is limited, and that you will never be safe. Forget the risks of teenage sex, It Follows is a penetrating metaphor for growing up. —Dom Sinacola
5. Mandy (2018)
Director: Panos Cosmatos
More than an hour in, the film’s title appears, growing lichen-like, sinister and near-illegible, as all great metal album covers are. The name and title card—Mandy—immediately follows a scene in which our hero forges his own Excalibur, a glistening, deformed axe adorned with pointy and vaguely erotic edges and appurtenances, the stuff of H.R. Giger’s wettest dreams. Though Red (Nicolas Cage) could use, and pretty much does use, any weapon at hand to avenge the brutal murder of his titular love (Andrea Riseborough), he still crafts that beautiful abomination as ritual, infusing his quest for revenge with dark talismanic magic, compelled by Bakshi-esque visions of Mandy to do her bidding on the corporeal plane. He relishes the ceremony and succumbs to the rage that will push him to some intensely extreme ends. We know almost nothing about his past before he met Mandy, but we can tell he knows his way around a blunt, deadly object. So begins Red’s unhinged murder spree, phantasmagoric and gloriously violent. A giant bladed dildo, a ludicrously long chainsaw, a hilarious pile of cocaine, the aforementioned spiked LSD, the aforementioned oracular chemist, a tiger, more than one offer of sex—Red encounters each as if it’s the rubble of a waking nightmare, fighting or consuming all of it. Every shot of Mandy reeks of shocking beauty, stylized at times to within an inch of its intelligibility, but endlessly pregnant with creativity and control, euphoria and pain, clarity and honesty and the ineffable sense that director Panos Cosmatos knows exactly how and what he wants to subconsciously imprint into the viewer. Still, Mandy is a revenge movie, and a revenge movie has to satiate the audience’s bloodlust. Cosmatos bathes Red (natch) in gore, every kill hard won and subcutaneously rewarding. There is no other film this year that so effectively feeds off of the audience’s anger, then sublimates it, releasing it without allowing it to go dangerously further. We need this kind of retribution now; we’re all furious with the indifferent unfairness of a world and a life and a society, of a government, that does not care about us. That does not value our lives. Mandy is our revenge movie. Watch it big. Watch it loud. Watch yourself exorcised on screen. —Dom Sinacola
4. The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Kent has made a movie about childhood, about adulthood, and about the nagging fears that hound us from one period to the next. There’s a monster in the closet—and under the bed, and in the armoire, and in the basement—but the film’s human concerns are emotional in nature. And there’s a fundamental crack in the bond Amelia (Essie Davis) shares with her son Sam (Noah Wiseman), far more insidious than any ill-intentioned specter. The Babadook begins in a dream, where Amelia relives the evening she gave birth to Sam and lost her husband in a grisly car accident en route to the hospital. It’s a cruel twist of fate that has left her shell-shocked and struggling seven years on. She does the best she can to love her boy in the face of tragic circumstances, but Sam’s a handful and Amelia’s exhausted, so you might forgive her if she’s occasionally short on patience.
Then Sam finds a mysterious tome sitting on his shelf—with no explanation as to how it got there, and none needed—called Mister Babadook, a pop-up joint about a creature that menaces sleeping tots. This goes over poorly with Sam, who has an overactive imagination as is—he keeps anti-monster ordinances squirreled away throughout the house. At first Amelia writes off his anxieties as fantasy. But then she begins hearing phantom knocks on the door and bumps in the night; she starts to spot fleeting hints of the Babadook’s form in every glance she casts.
Or does she? The Babadook makes just enough room to breed ambiguity, but Kent isn’t coyly playing with twists and reveals. She’s made a monster movie through and through, filtered through expressionist lenses, its influences worn with pride. Kent takes no false steps, and her sense of self-possession is refreshing. There isn’t a single detail displayed here that isn’t essential to the story. We are very much involved with Amelia’s ordeal, and as things go from bad to worse to petrifying, the visuals envelope us in their impeccable simplicity. The film’s spartan approach to world-building works beautifully, buttressed by a depth of catharsis more than the volume of its frights. Make no mistake, The Babadook is utterly terrifying, but it’s also intimate, touching and, above all else, heartfelt. —Andy Crump
3. Annihilation (2018)
Director: Alex Garland
Annihilation is a movie that’s impossible to shake. Like the characters who find themselves both exploring the world of the film and inexplicably trapped by it, you’ll find yourself questioning yourself throughout, wondering whether what you’re watching can possibly be real, whether maybe you’re going a little insane yourself. The film is a near-impossible bank shot by Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland, a would-be science fiction actioner that slowly reveals itself to be a mindfuck in just about every possible way, a film that wants you to invest in its universe yet never gives you any terra firma on which to orient yourself, a film hoping you’re as confused and terrified as the characters you’re watching, these characters played by big stars (Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh) backed by a big movie studio, a film that becomes more confusing and disorienting as it goes along. In this, it is unquestionably successful. Garland mesmerizes with his visuals, but he wants you to be off-balance; like the alien (I think?) of his movie, Garland is not a malevolent presence, but simply an observer of this world, one who follows it to every possible permutation, logical or otherwise. It’s difficult to explain Annihilation, which is a large reason for its being. Loss, and regret, and the sensation that the world is constantly crumbling and rearranging all around you every possible second: The world of Annihilation feels familiar, but only at first. Reality is fluid, and ungraspable. A little like our current reality in that way. —Will Leitch
2. Under the Skin (2014)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Under the Skin is unified in purpose and in drive. It is a biting examination of sexual politics and a dissertation on the bodies we inhabit—how those bodies create a paradigm of ownership. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien avatar, the predator, the cipher whose weakness is her awakening humanity. When she looks in a mirror, lost in a gaze at her own body, it’s a reminder to us to find some remove from our weary familiarity with ourselves, to think, “Golly, what strange things we are.” The film’s tragic conclusion is an assertion that we achieve some positive ideal of what it is to be human when we accept a state of vulnerability, when we forsake the power position in our sexual communication. When we allow for the reality of our frailty, we can care for the frailty in all around us—and this is a very dangerous thing to do. Especially in a world riddled with corruption and malice that seeks to press its advantage.
Under the Skin shows us these truths with images that are impossibly beautiful, terrifying and ultimately haunting. There is no exposition, only voids in which suspended shells of victims float, only laser sharp lights piercing darkness, only menacingly stoic bikers, only snowflakes falling into lenses. There is a scene on a beach that plays out like a Bergman or Haneke set-piece and is just as heartbreaking as that would entail.
Under the Skin is a soul-crushing work and yet, somehow, the film reiterates that we must continue working towards finding our souls. An artful cascade of multiple exposures of random people, about midway through the film, would seem to symbolize the birth of empathy in Johansson’s femme fatale, and while this is the beginning of the end for her, it can’t help but resonate in Under the Skin with all the radiance of beatitude. These are scenes, statements, questions that are only possible within the framework that the film’s horror aspect provides, for these are not the thought processes bound by what is real, but what could be. —Chad Betz
1. Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele’s a natural behind the camera, but Get Out benefits most from its deceptively trim premise, a simplicity which belies rich thematic depth. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) go to spend a weekend with her folks in their lavish upstate New York mansion, where they’re throwing the annual Armitage bash with all their friends in attendance. Chris immediately feels out of place; events escalate from there, taking the narrative in a ghastly direction that ultimately ties back to the unsettling sensation of being the "other" in a room full of people who aren’t like you—and never let you forget it. Put indelicately, Get Out is about being black and surrounded by whites who squeeze your biceps without asking, who fetishize you to your face, who analyze your blackness as if it’s a fashion trend. At best Chris’s ordeal is bizarre and dizzying, the kind of thing he might bitterly chuckle about in retrospect. At worst it’s a setup for such macabre developments as are found in the domain of horror. That’s the finest of lines Peele and Get Out walk without stumbling. The film doles out scariness in intervals, treating fright as a supplement to the inexplicable or the downright creepy. It’s an exercise in tension, where we can presume what’s happening in the Armitage household without necessarily being on the money, and that’s the fun of the film: It spaces its revelations carefully, building on each to undercut any hint of a twist, while still catching us off our guard. When we’re exposed to the whole truth of Get Out’s race dynamic, it feels like a gut punch instead of a bombshell. —Andy Crump