This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
The 2010s have been full of intense psychological dramas that traipse over the dividing line between “thriller” and “horror,” with 2011 as a particular bumper crop. From Take Shelter and We Need to Talk about Kevin to The Skin I Live In and Kill List, there’s a surge here of critically acclaimed dramas with creepy, psychological horror undertones. The conversation about and use of the term “prestige horror” or “elevated horror” is a bit more recent, but these films are good illustrations of the fact that these kinds of films didn’t suddenly show up with the likes of Jordan Peele or Ari Aster. If anything, they’ve been one of the genre’s prevailing trends through the entire last decade.
Among the most harrowing films of the decade, especially from the perspective of a parent or would-be parent, is We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s unflinching portrait of a mother (Tilda Swinton) raising a little boy she gradually comes to understand is a high-functioning sociopath. This is a mentally taxing, enervating story, and Swinton gives an incredible performance as a mother who struggles against society’s expectations for how a parent should interact with their child. She’s cursed throughout to be the only one who can see Kevin on some level for what he is, something the boy frequently uses against her, taunting her with the knowledge that the world will never side with her if she accuses her own child of being a monster in disguise. Twisting the knife are a few truly fleeting moments of humanity that Kevin displays, such as when he falls ill as a child and looks to his mother for comfort, only to reject her again shortly thereafter. As the film hurtles toward an act of violence we know could be prevented, if only the people surrounding Kevin would drop their preconceptions and stop ignoring the danger growing under their noses, it develops an air of grand, thespian tragedy.
This is also a year of above-average releases in more multiplex-friendly horror, with Adam Wingard’s You’re Next delightfully flipping the script on your standard home invasion thriller, while the remake of Fright Night features two surprisingly strong turns from Anton Yelchin and a deliciously hammy Colin Farrell, who seems to be having the time of his life playing the charming vampire next door. Of all the 1980s horror remakes of recent years, this version of Fright Night may well be the most underrated today—for David Tennant’s coked out vampire hunter alone, it deserves another look.
Finally, 2011 has a slew of solid indie horror flicks to boot, including the sometimes maligned but frighteningly creative found footage gem Grave Encounters (you can skip the sequel), Ti West’s slow and moody ghost investigation story The Innkeepers, and Cuba’s first zombie movie, Juan of the Dead.
2011 Honorable Mentions:
We Need to Talk about Kevin, The Skin I Live In, You’re Next, Fright Night, Kill List, Grave Encounters, The Innkeepers, Juan of the Dead, The Woman, Red State, Scream 4
The Film: Take Shelter
Director: Jeff Nichols
The depraved behavior of your average horror movie psycho villain is understandably rooted in over-the-top readings of abnormal pop psychology. Michael Myers flipped out and murdered his sister after seeing her have sex with her boyfriend—how classically Freudian. Hannibal Lecter is a voracious narcissist, while Jason Voorhees has the genre’s premier mommy complex. These killers are created, on some level, by cribbing the Cliffs Notes versions of various disorder symptoms and bolting them onto the frames of physically intimidating or mentally cunning, evil men. At the same time, though, one might argue that the exaggerated nature of these films removes some of the true “horror” from their cursory elements of mental illness—it’s difficult to extrapolate any behavior of Michael Myers or Leatherface and see it within the parameters of a “normal” suburban existence. But the steady encroachment of schizophrenia that seems to be occurring in the heart of Take Shelter? That might happening next door at this very moment. It might even be happening to a loved one, or to yourself, and the thought is genuinely terrifying—a niggling doubt that gets under the skin and can’t be flushed out.
Take Shelter is the story of a man named Curtis, who is 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’ erratic behavior take the film in directions both frightening and dramatically 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. It’s the kind of portrayal where you might legitimately find yourself pausing in your breathing during key moments because Shannon has you so on edge. To be around him in person would be impossibly stressful—you’d always be tiptoeing around, afraid that any loud noise might cause him to erupt. 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, to the point that it eventually becomes nigh-unbearable. When an actual storm does arrive, and Curtis gathers his family into the shelter, the viewer is concerned for the safety of everyone involved. We fear for Curtis’ family, who seem to be in the hands of a deranged patriarch. And we fear for Curtis, and what he might do if his illusion of the apocalypse is challenged too deeply or directly. It all comes down to a true leap of faith moment that is executed masterfully, and we wouldn’t dare to spoil it. Suffice to say, Take Shelter is a psychological horror thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, featuring one of the best central performances of the last decade. That Shannon wasn’t nominated for any of the industry’s major awards was a true oversight, but that’s nothing new when it comes to horror.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.