This is an interesting year, with a few entries near the top that are most comfortable in the realm of prestige drama or psychological thriller, and yet both the likes of Black Swan and Shutter Island also hang on the periphery of horror. Unlike some of the other cases in which I’ve argued that of course ____ or ____ movie obviously deserves the “horror” title, this strikes me as a year of more genuinely subjective choices. On some level, whether one deems each of these films horror is likely dependent upon the subjective interpretation of each.
Black Swan, one can certainly argue, has a certain strain of almost Cronenbergian body/identity horror running through it, seemingly drawing on some of the same loss of the self present in our 1997 selection, Perfect Blue. As experienced by poor Mima in that film, Natalie Portman’s Nina is a woman made to bend over backward to suit the needs of others in her life, until the point that her very essence seems to be eroding away, and she sees herself as stalked by another, better, more vivacious version of herself. At the same time, the film remains more easily accessible than Aronofsky’s biblically minded projects that followed it, Noah and mother!, existing on one side of a stylistic gulf but hinting at its director’s willingness to cross over that gulf in the near future.
Requiring far less thought, but bringing tremendous appeal to the table this year is Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, which hilariously turned Deliverance-esque tropes on their head by portraying the titular Tucker and Dale as kind-hearted but dim-witted protagonists who are misunderstood and unfairly maligned by a group of snooty college kids who believe the “good old boys” to be homicidal killers. And as the misunderstandings and rural prejudices pile up, so do the bodies, in a series of incredibly unlikely and spectacularly bloody mistakes. As strong as the concept and screenplay are, the film could easily have faltered without its two outstanding performances by Tyler Labine and especially Alan Tudyk, whose exasperation at a seemingly suicidal gang of college kids “killing themselves all over my property” make the pair an instantly iconic horror duo. Take it from me: There are still a lot of Tucker & Dale fans out there waiting for Craig’s long-delayed follow-up.
This is also a strong year for world-building in indie horror, as evidenced by Jim Mickle’s low-budget but wonderfully evocative Stake Land, which imagines an apocalyptic U.S. landscape where barricaded towns trade vampire fangs for goods and services, and Trollhunter, a faux documentary about a man dedicated to exterminating the giant (but surprisingly stealthy) trolls who live among us. Other notables include the American remake of Let the Right One In, which we previously noted is a far more faithful and compelling adaptation than anyone could reasonably have expected, and the big-budget, but sadly dispassionate remake of The Wolfman, which presaged many of the difficulties Universal would have at the end of the decade in re-launching their movie monster “Dark Universe.”
2010 Honorable Mentions: Black Swan, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Shutter Island, Let Me In, Trollhunter, Stake Land, Insidious, The Crazies, We Are What We Are, Wake Wood, Monsters, The Wolfman
Director: Jee-woon Kim
There’s arguably no more primal or instantly gratifying movie plot than the simple idea of “man seeks revenge.” The elemental power of vengeance as a motivator and story structure 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, in fact.
South Korea has a particular 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, with Oldboy as perhaps the most prominent example. I Saw the Devil immediately evokes the former, not because it’s directed by Chan-wook (rather, it’s A Tale of Two Sisters’ Kim Jee-woon), but because it stars the very same actor, Choi Min-sik. This time, however, you really can’t get away with simply labeling one character as “hero” and another as “villain.” Although one is ostensibly an agent of the law attempting to catch the other, a serial killer, I Saw the Devil examines what happens when those in the societal “hero” role falter in the purity of their motivation and aren’t able to put the needs of the many above their own need for satisfaction.
Min-sik is playing 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), who is 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.
Suffice to say, seeing the killer receive his day in court isn’t what Kim Soo-hyun has in mind, but neither is a quick death, delivered as harsh (but understandable) vigilante justice. Rather, our “protagonist” is intent on seeing Jang Kyung-chul suffer both mentally and physically, breaking him psychologically with an elaborate game of catch and release. After ambushing the killer, Kim Soo-hyun beats him unconscious and inserts a tracking transmitter into his body before letting him go free … only to return again and again in repeated ambushes, inflicting further abuse each time. Slowly, this serves to invert the audience’s perception of the two men, generating unexpected empathy for a character we watched dismember a woman in the film’s opening, even as the viewer is made to confront the satisfaction they experienced in watching the initial acts of revenge. Like a crowd turning against a public flogging halfway through, the mantra becomes “enough is enough.”
Of course, this being a horror film about the destructive power of obsession, enough is never truly enough. Kim Soo-hyun falls from grace via the strength of his need to punish the wicked, and by reveling in the personal enjoyment of seeing the roles of predator and prey reversed. Ultimately, as in any good parable, it costs him everything, as the film drives home the depths of his failure in a spectacular conclusion that is equal parts chilling and hollow, the triumph he likely expected to feel entirely absent. It’s one of the great, empty victories of horror cinema in the 2010s, and should be seen by a larger audience.
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
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.
This year certainly isn’t hurting for volume of indie horror releases, but you might say that the average quality level isn’t quite as high as its been in a few of the years that preceded it, perhaps owing to a lack of headliners at the top of the card, beyond The Cabin in the Woods. You can at least say it’s a year with more kid-friendly spooky stuff than usual, between ParaNorman and Frankenweenie.
2012 also feels like a year where some of the best indie horror films remain fairly under-seen to this day. Take, for instance, the minimalist zombie drama The Battery, which consists of a former minor league pitcher and catcher (in baseball, this duo is referred to as a “battery”) wandering the desolate American landscape, struggling to simply stay alive another day. It’s a remarkably patient, low-budget and self-contained little story that opts for simple character building rather than any kind of zombie spectacle, content to examine how a friendship might both grow and deteriorate under different aspects of being forced to constantly have one another’s backs. It’s hard not to admire The Battery for its frankness and down-to-Earth consideration of aspects of this scenario that most films don’t have the time to address, including the sexual repression of two cisgender, hetero guys who have been locked up together for far too long. It’s a film that plumbs the psychologically transformative aspects of scrabbling for survival far more than zombie films that are more concerned with action and gore, making it an outlier in the genre.
Also underseen is Antiviral, the feature film debut of Brandon Cronenberg, the son of David. As one might no doubt expect, it weaves a potent spell of body horror in the Cronenbergian style, but actually stands out most for its seriously messed-up (but wonderfully imaginative) setting. In this future dystopia, the idea of celebrity has evolved to such an unhealthy degree that the most devout display of dedication to your chosen celeb is to inject yourself with strains of a disease taken directly from that famous person’s body. Which is to say, you can hook yourself up with your favorite movie star’s genetically identical herpes, even as you cook up a steak that is made from a celebrity’s cloned, tank-grown flesh for dinner. It’s idol worship, taken to its most horrifying extremes.
Other notables for 2012 include Katharine Isabelle of Ginger Snaps as a rogue, black market plastic surgeon in American Mary, and the bizarre blend of sensuality and audiophile horror in-jokes found in the truly unique psychological horror film Berberian Sound Studio. You may have no idea what’s going on in the latter, but it’s nice to see foley artists finally get their due in this genre, at the very least.
2012 Honorable Mentions:
The Battery, Antiviral, Sinister, Berberian Sound Studio, John Dies at the End, American Mary, Byzantium, V/H/S, ParaNorman, The Woman in Black, Grabbers, Maniac
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 found itself sitting on the sideline for several years, even as supporting star Chris Hemsworth’s Hollywood profile had suddenly become much more visible thanks to 2011’s Thor, right as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was picking up steam. That sudden rise in bankability of one of the film’s stars likely played into Lionsgate acquiring the movie for a 2012 release, but even then, no one seemed to know quite how to market The Cabin in the Woods. As the film’s initial trailers seem to be struggling to decide, do you play up the meta elements of this story when trying to get people into the theater? Or do you let them arrive, thinking they’re seeing the very type of film that is actually being satirized?
As such, it’s not surprising that The Cabin in the Woods took a bit of time to develop its cultural cache, but this was a film destined to eventually find and delight its intended audience. It was simply too clever, too fun and too well executed to remain hidden forever. As broad and successful a parody as the horror genre has ever seen, it’s one of the most purely likable genre films of the 2010s.
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 being manipulated into a pitched, life-or-death battle 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 can possibly be bent, 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.
Suffice to say, that framework is an excuse to pick apart the silliest (and most beloved) aspects of horror movie tropes, from the tendency of powerful groups to “split up” into more vulnerable singles, to the things protagonists do to trespass where they clearly shouldn’t be, bringing justified doom upon themselves. All the little niceties must be observed—even the presence of a weird old kook to warn the group that they’re all going to die, ‘ala “Crazy Ralph” in the Friday the 13th series. The monsters and antagonists likewise draw inspiration on countless horror franchises, from Evil Dead or Hellraiser to It, Chopping Mall or 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.
Nor does the film disappoint in its array of human characters, particularly the final duo of Dana and Marty, who are ultimately faced with a choice to either participate in this ritual for the sake of humanity or to burn the whole thing down. Fran Kranz in particular shines as Marty, the stereotypical pothead whose very specific intoxication somehow allows him to mentally operate outside the confines of the trope-laden story he finds himself in. He’s one of the genre’s most likable audience proxies, displaying a dry wit as he fights to upend the system. Likewise, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford relish the opportunity to play off one another, humanizing the apathetic office workers whose sarcastic detachment serves to protect them against the horrific work they do to prevent the end of the world. Those who espouse a utilitarian worldview may well find themselves siding with the antagonists here.
In the end, The Cabin in the Woods benefits from its smart scripting, strong performances and stylish direction, even as it scores all the goodwill it can handle with requisite genre references and nostalgic callbacks. It will remain a high bar against which horror genre parodies are judged.
It’s likely that no one man has had a bigger impact on the shape and texture of horror in the last decade than James Wan, and 2013 is the year where this all comes into focus. The guy had already been labeled as a progenitor of the “torture porn” era because he had directed the original Saw in 2004, but time has distorted our memory of that initial offering to bring it in line with the more sadistic and straight-forward, gory series it inspired. Wan did indeed give us Saw, but it’s the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises that better reflect his sensibilities as a writer-producer-director. The films in his wheelhouse are stylish, colorful, people-pleasing popcorn munchers that touch on more complex, metaphysical themes, but never lose track of their top priorities, which are old-fashioned scares and dazzling visuals. And that’s exactly what you get in this year’s Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring.
2013 is a solid year both for moody, tragical horror dramas and pulse-raising bloodbaths in equal measure. The dramatic front includes such takes as Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as depressed vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive, troubled by modern society, the “diseased” human population and the recklessness of youth. Stoker, meanwhile, is a character portrait of a detached young sociopath, played with cold acuity by Mia Wasikowska, who is tempted toward a dark path by her more actively psychotic uncle.
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are falls into a similar tonal camp while exploring territory that is arguably even more disturbing, revolving around a rural family whose generations-old religious practice of yearly cannibalism arrives at a crossroads after the death of the family matriarch. It’s an obvious observation on religious fanaticism, but also probes the destructive side of rigid familial influence and the inability to adapt as society changes. Generational culture wars rarely play out in our society with “should we continue the practice of cannibalism” as a backdrop, but it makes for a horror film premise with quite a bit at stake. Featuring scintillating performances and more than its fair share of gore, We Are What We Are is another film that marks Stake Land director Mickle as one of the serious talents currently working in the genre.
Bloody popcorn entertainment also abounds in 2013, as Fede Álvarez’s remake of Evil Dead pushed the limits of blood and gore to Peter Jackson-esque heights, and Warm Bodies explored a surprisingly effective offshoot of the zombie-comedy into the realm of teen romance, complete with a paycheck-grubbing John Malkovich. Mama, meanwhile, hinted at the directorial talents that Andy Muschietti would eventually bring to the box office titan of It, while World War Z served up an adequate big-budget zombie film, while simultaneously disappointing countless fans of its stellar source material. We’re still hoping someone will tackle World War Z again some day, as the anthology movie or limited TV series that it always should have been.
2013 Honorable Mentions:
We Are What We Are, Only Lovers Left Alive, Evil Dead, Stoker, Warm Bodies, V/H/S/2, Mama, Insidious: Chapter 2, Frankenstein’s Army, Europa Report, World War Z
Director: James Wan
I’m not about to sit here and tell you that there’s a whole lot of originality within The Conjuring, because there isn’t. This story is classical all the way down to its roots, and nearly every element had appeared in numerous haunted house or demonic possession movies in the decades that preceded it. Where James Wan made his mark in 2010s horror wasn’t by overturning genre conventions, but by executing them with a style and scary verve that his competitors were lacking, and nowhere is that more true than in The Conjuring. This is simply a good old-fashioned haunted house movie, cranked up to 11; yet another exhibition of how the old tropes never really go out of fashion—they just need a fresh coat of paint, now and then.
The Conjuring, and the cinematic universe that this film launched of mostly lesser films, uses history as a jumping-off point for creative freedom. Its depiction of demonologist/paranormal researchers Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, emerging as an unlikely “scream king”) is fashioned from the whole cloth, having little if anything to do with a pair of hucksters who are widely reported to have been lifelong frauds, inserting themselves into famous “supernatural” cases to generate publicity and book sales. This cinematic version of the duo dispenses with the sad reality of real-life charlatanism to present the Warrens as what we’d prefer them to actually be—the stuff of great paranormal detective fiction. The film effectively evokes their history and effectiveness with their “museum” in particular; the collection of cursed, haunted or otherwise dangerous objects that the two have collected over the years. As for why they keep these items in their own home, where their child lives … well, it is a horror movie, after all.
The story revolves around a family who move into a creaky country farmhouse, which turns out to be stalked by the spectre of a former witch who cursed the property. And really, that’s all The Conjuring needs to be effective. It’s immediately clear that something isn’t right about this new home, with manifestations of the evil within that seem to take a special interest in the family’s mother and daughter, and we’re quickly off to the races. The film moves at a fast pace, never without a chilling moment for long, while seeming to reference a bevy of horror classics. The spiritual possession angle recalls the central conflict of The Innocents, while the startlingly effective “hide and clap” game is quite reminiscent of one of the biggest scares within J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, as well as a sequence in The Changeling. And of course, the influences of the climactic exorcism sequence speak for themselves.
One thing you may not realize about The Conjuring, however, even if you’ve seen the film, is that it carries an “R” rating. This may seem antithetical to the typical rules of thumb surrounding horror film ratings, as The Conjuring doesn’t really display any of the characteristics that typically net an “R.” It doesn’t have much in the way of “gore,” and the violence is more of an implied rather than literal nature. It contains no nudity or prominent sexuality. Rather, it managed the increasingly rare feat of simply scaring screeners at the MPAA so badly that they insisted on an “R” rating simply because they judged the film to be too frightening not to bear one. Suffice to say, quotes like that are catnip to horror fans—there was no way they could resist, and The Conjuring cashed in to the tune of a $320 million worldwide gross, on a mere $20 million budget.
And truly, beyond all the bluster and box office numbers, this is a genuinely frightening piece of cinema, displaying Wan’s talent for preying on frayed nerves and maximizing the potential of each “boo!” moment. In a way that is similar to the back half of the original Paranormal Activity, it manages to upend the typical structure of several jump scares, inserting them into moments when the audience is conditioned to feel more or less safe, or doesn’t have their guard raised, doubling their effectiveness in the process. Although the sequels and spin-offs that followed have been increasingly dubious in quality (particularly the likes of The Curse of La Llorona), the progenitor still deserves our respect as a polished piece of genre craftsmanship.
The pace of high-quality, frighteningly effective indie horror movies really seems to be accelerating here, and has rarely slowed for the rest of this decade. We are fortunate enough to still be in what has been more or less a golden era for the horror genre, largely driven by indie releases, and 2014 looks a bit like a template for many of the best films of the era. In particular, supernatural horror and psychological, mind-bending thrillers are thriving, with a steady undercurrent of top-notch horror comedy to leaven things up when the tone gets too dour.
At the top of the hierarchy, this year is headlined by a number of intense horror dramas, including #1 pick The Babadook. Goodnight Mommy is another such example, a film with a deceptively simple premise that allows psychologically scarring horror to play out in an intimate setting. The Austrian film is told from the perspective of two young boys, whose mother has recently returned from cosmetic surgery with her entire face hidden by bandages. Sensing that something in the familial dynamic has changed, the boys become convinced that the woman in their home is not their real mother, barreling forward onto a path toward hysteria and tragedy. With elements that seem to reference Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters in particular, Goodnight Mommy is just one reason this is a particularly rough year for depictions of motherhood in horror films.
Under the Skin, on the other hand, is likewise an intensely psychological (and objectively beautiful) cinematic experience, although its emotions are much more obtuse—only fitting, given that Scarlett Johansson is playing an alien intelligence who walks among us. To quote Paste contributor Chad Betz: “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.”
So too do Starry Eyes and Honeymoon make this a particularly harrowing year for horror—the former as a devastatingly bleak examination of how the Hollywood system abuses and breaks emerging talents, removing everything that was pure or good about them in the process, and the latter as a metaphorical warning for how we can never truly know another person, even when we’ve sworn to spend our lives with them.
With that said, 2014 isn’t entirely dire, as the year is also host to one of the decade’s best horror comedies in the form of Taika Waititi’s instant classic of a vampire parody What We Do in the Shadows, which presents a coven of prissy and ineffectual vampires living the slacker life in New Zealand. Likewise, it’s a strong year for more straightforwardly entertaining genre fare, including Mike Flanagan’s strongly written (and very twisty) haunted mirror movie Oculus and Adam Wingard’s rock-solid 1980s throwback The Guest, which gives Dan Stevens one of his very best roles.
All in all, this is a pretty spectacular year for horror, and one of the better arguments for why the 2010s have been such an excellent horror decade.
2014 Honorable Mentions:
Goodnight Mommy, Under the Skin, Oculus, Starry Eyes, What We Do in the Shadows, Honeymoon, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Guest, The Canal, Housebound, As Above, So Below
Director: Jennifer Kent
If you went polling audience members for an adjective they’d attach to an abstract concept such as “a mother’s love,” one can only imagine that the most universal reply might be “unconditional.” That would be thanks to the deeply ingrained, cross-cultural assumption that a mother must possess an innate, obstacle-trumping love for her children that can survive any catastrophe or challenge. The thought that the struggle to raise a child, especially a young child, could somehow challenge that foundational love is a taboo few filmmakers are willing to touch, which is one of the things that made Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook such an unnerving revelation in 2014. It’s the rare film that confronts the possibility of a mother coming to terms with the fact that she just might hate her own, supremely challenging son, and the intense anxiety and isolation she feels when confronted with the knowledge that no one in her life could ever be hoped to understand where she’s coming from. After all … she’s a mom! Moms are infallible sources of love and affection, right?
The Babadook, of course, is many other things as well; most notably an extremely effective metaphor on living with a mental disorder such as depression. It’s the story of Amelia, a thoroughly drained single mother who is raising precocious (and very irritating) son Sam, some handful of years after her husband was killed in an accident while taking Amelia to the hospital to give birth. Naturally, this has given rise to a deeply buried resentment against her troublesome son, which seems to manifest in the form of a mysterious picture book that shows up at the household called Mister Babadook. The book tells the story of the titular creature, which stalks victims of a household after they become aware of its presence, eventually driving the parents to murder. As the presence of The Babadook becomes more overt, Amelia begins to lose her grip on reality, suffering horrific visions that she will one day become a pawn of The Babadook and murder Sam. Her son, meanwhile, spends his time acting out at school, alienating extended family and gradually pushing his mother closer to the edge. He essentially has to be a uniquely challenging little boy, or the story wouldn’t work, as we need to feel the walls closing in around Amelia and her utter lack of recourse.
The Babadook himself, meanwhile, is essentially the stuff of fairy tales gone wrong, a cloaked and top-hatted, vaguely humanoid presence with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. There was something oddly familiar about the image from the get-go, tapping in as it did to some aspect of childhood urban legend long forgotten, even if the monster largely stands in as an outward manifestation of Amelia’s grief and depression. This makes him no less frightening; nor can we pigeonhole The Babadook solely into the realm of “psychological thriller” by saying that nothing supernatural actually happened in the household. It’s more a matter of crumbling mental faculties creating some kind of supernatural projection.
Ultimately, it’s also the way the story is concluded that makes The Babadook such an effective and true-to-life parable for parents. Like a genuine mental disorder, the antagonist is never truly “defeated” or in some way destroyed, allowing the protagonists to merrily move on into a carefree, idyllic existence. Rather, Amelia and Sam instead come to an understanding of sorts with the Babadook—an outcome that they can live with, even if it’s not perfect. Sam quotes the picture book, solemnly intoning that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” but the audience is meant to understand that this is not so much an outcome of tragedy as it is of maturation and acceptance of the realities of life. A mental disorder, depression or otherwise, isn’t a problem to be solved in a linear way, crushed and left behind—instead, it’s a struggle one engages in every day, acknowledging the way it makes you feel in the hope of improving things incrementally. The Babadook probes our deepest insecurities as parents and guardians over the most vulnerable among us, but it also illustrates the possibility of recovery and healing, if we’re brave enough to look our monsters in the eye.
2015 seems to experience a slight downturn in horror movie density, compared to the years on either side of it, given that 2014 and 2016 are two of the densest years for the genre that this decade has to offer. However, with so many avenues for horror movies to be seen in the streaming era, there’s almost never a shortage of high-quality films, and this is true of 2015 as well. The overall profile for the year strikes a balance between brutal realism (‘ala Bone Tomahawk and Creep), supernatural terrors, lively horror comedies and even a particularly frightening venture into documentary.
Even among the brutal, Bone Tomahawk certainly registers high on the “ick” scale, depicting some of the most wincing scenes of gore and violence seen in the 2010s. A Western horror story set during the dying days of the Old West, it lifts some of the “frontier days coming to an end” theming seen in so many later-era westerns while injecting it with the kind of terrorizing antagonistic force you might expect to see in Aliens. This time around, it’s no xenomorph, however—instead, it’s a tribe of troglodytic cannibals who beset Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson (this guy is in a LOT of 2010s horror movies) and Matthew Fox, forcing them to fight for their lives in a mission to rescue the kidnapped townsfolk. It’s a simple setup, but the grueling, slow-burn of buildup toward the climactic orgy of bloodletting ranks among the best of this decade.
Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, meanwhile, is a film I’d like to highlight for proving that documentaries can be not only actively frightening, but downright terrifying. The director of Room 237, which delved into the crazy conspiracy theories held by certain obsessed fans of The Shining, delivers here with a documentary on the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, as told through the perspectives of those who have regularly suffered from it. The descriptions of nightly horror experienced by these unlucky souls terrifies as only truth can, because for all you know, it could be you who experiences these unsettling visions next. The fact that one interviewee says his first experience with sleep paralysis came immediately after being told about sleep paralysis will likely make you want to shut The Nightmare off and forget you ever saw it. It’s like being told that reading about heart attacks can potentially cause heart attacks.
Supernatural horror likewise gets a few notable entries here in 2015, including Guillermo del Toro’s incredibly lush and sumptuous gothic romance/ghost story Crimson Peak, which largely prioritizes eye-popping grandeur over “boo!” material, and Ted Geoghegan’s comparatively stripped down We Are Still Here, which welcomes 1980s horror icon Barbara Crampton back to the screen as a woman grappling with the charred ghosts of a cursed domicile.
Finally, for the lovers of horror comedy, The Final Girls provides a particularly cheeky, lighthearted, meta slasher alternative to the more sober material above, telling a silly story about a young woman who is magically sucked into a cliche-laden 1980s slasher movie, wherein one of the characters is played by her deceased actor mother. It’s a premise that sounds ridiculous on paper, and is equally ridiculous on screen.
2015 Honorable Mentions:
Bone Tomahawk, The Nightmare, Creep, Crimson Peak, We Are Still Here, The Final Girls, Spring, The Visit, Deathgasm, Krampus, When Animals Dream
Director: David Robert Mitchell
There’s an urban legend quality to the premise of It Follows that seems both mysterious and familiar, like a campfire story you were told as a kid and are now struggling to remember in full. There’s a primal potency to it; a simplicity in how “it” operates that immediately makes this being a captivating force of evil. It’s not necessary for us to ever witness the “true form” of “it,” assuming that one exists, nor do we lose anything in not exploring the being’s origins. Like a true urban legend, we’re hearing this story not from its original source, but from someone who heard it from the friend of a friend of a friend. It’s morphed and changed along the way, with a genesis that has been completely forgotten. “It” may as well be entropy itself, for how inescapable and unknowable as it proves to be.
We only know what college student Jay (Maika Monroe) knows: She had sex for the first time with the mysterious young man she’s been seeing, and now there’s a malevolent force shadowing her every step. Film monsters are often made out to be inhumanly determined or unstoppable, but “it” takes these traits to the extreme, while also regulating them in strangely compelling ways. “It” can only be seen by the people it has stalked, who are all part of the same sexual chain of transmission. “It” never stops moving, and continually plods toward its future victim, albeit at a very slow rate. The being behaves as if beholden to some sort of magical rules system or code of conduct—with a few unfortunate lapses in internal logic, I will freely admit—and yet, there’s a strange intelligence to the entity as well. As the boy who passed on the curse describes the situation, “it’s slow, but it’s not stupid.” It’s an enthralling central conceit, and one that invites armchair speculation on how you would most efficiently handle the situation yourself: “Let’s see, if the East and West coasts are 2,600 miles apart, and I move from one to the other once a month, I can perpetually keep ‘it’ safely walking around in flyover country!” Or “If I move to Japan, will ‘it’ have to walk to me along the ocean floor? Can ‘it’ escape from the Mariana Trench?’”
All jokes aside, and despite some gripes from horror fans who slightly overstated the importance of the film’s occasional logical lapses, It Follows is both genuinely frightening and an impressive directorial achievement from David Robert Mitchell, whose use of beautifully composed wide-angle lens shots evokes a sense of enhanced peripheral vision—only sensible, when the audience is frantically scanning the horizon for “it” in almost every scene. Mitchell knows as much, and teases the viewer with several instances of a slow, 360 degree pan, which allows us to see action developing in several directions at once in real time, while adding tension generated by the steady advance of “it” every time the camera again shifts away. It’s a simple but extremely effective tool of suspense.
So too does It Follows stand out for its understated but fascinating production design, which seems meant to both evoke the director’s biggest inspirations (George Romero and John Carpenter, especially in the synthy, dreamy score) and create the impression of a story that has come unstuck from any sense of linear time. In this world, seemingly taking place in “the present day,” both old and new bits of technology appear alongside each other. Every television and car is ancient. Every film the teens watch is half a century old. Cellphones, with one exception, seem to be nonexistent. But simultaneously, one character carries around a peculiar E-reader that is unlike anything currently existing. The bombed-out urban grid of Detroit, meanwhile, suggests a post-apocalyptic landscape as imagined by Roger Corman in 1985. Every instance of design seems to suggest this setting takes place in a reality all its own.
In the end, It Follows is a film that, even as it entertains with a never-dull monster jaunt in crumbling metro Detroit, begs us to consider our ultimate, cosmic insignificance in the face of our own existential boogeymen, who can never be outrun. As Paste’s own Dom Sinacoloa put it, in our ranking of the 100 best horror films of all time: “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.”
This is, without a doubt, one of the deepest years of the decade for the horror genre, with a nigh-overwhelming number of quality films to choose from. Not only that, but there’s a great amount of variety to these features, with a notable influx of international titles to boot. Everything from big-budget studio horror (The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origin of Evil), to arthouse weirdness (The Witch), Netflix originals (Hush) and top-flight horror anthologies (Southbound) are present in the mix.
An immediate favorite and often overlooked selection is The Invitation, a taut, slow-burn thriller that will fray your nerves as it worms its way under your skin. Karyn Kusama shows an impressive grasp of cinematic suspense in this story, set at a dinner party, in which a grieving man slowly comes to suspect that the host (his ex-wife) has something sinister planned for her guests. This is one of those horror films that satirizes modern relationships as we operate within the bounds of “polite” society, with the result being that our protagonist often comes into conflict not with life-or-death struggles (at least not at first), but the hurdles created by tact and civility, even as he knows, deep down, that something is amiss. It creates an intense sensation of awkwardness that borders on horrific all on its own, only amplified by the arrival of some unexpected guests to the situation. Praise is deserved by veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch once again, who brings the same incredible, cerebral menace to his character that we previously saw in David Fincher’s Zodiac. Truly, this guy is one of the genre’s best and least-heralded performers.
This is also a very strong year for horror in South Korea, which contributes both the dread-inducing supernatural vibes of The Wailing and the phenomenally successful zombie film Train to Busan, which innovated not via style but setting, putting almost all of its action on a series of trains filled with the undead. Although derided by detractors as aping the train setting of 2013’s Snowpiercer, it’s easy to look past the basic similarities when Train to Busan is filled with such likable characters and satisfying action. Progressing like a videogame from car to car, but simultaneously ripe with pathos thanks to a few parallel storylines, the film features a handful of sights that had never been seen in the zombie genre to date, including a human chain of zombies, 50 deep, being dragged behind a moving train. It also can lay claim to one of the most genuinely aggravating asshole characters to ever factor into a zombie movie—a guy who is so terrible that you are desperate to see him finally get some comeuppance.
Strong performances also abound in the likes of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which would have been a well-earned Oscar nomination for John Goodman if it wasn’t too close to the horror genre for voters’ tastes, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which benefits from an engaged Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox at his salty best. And then there’s the pulse-raising, claustrophobic cat-and-mouse game of Don’t Breathe, in which a team of thieves invade the house of a particularly dangerous blind man and get far more than they bargained for. Truly, 2016 was a bumper crop—there’s no shortage of films here that every horror fan should check out.
2016 Honorable Mentions:
The Invitation, Don’t Breathe, Train to Busan, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Wailing, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Green Room, Southbound, Under the Shadow, Hush, The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origin of Evil, The Shallows, The Girl With All the Gifts
Director: Robert Eggers
Isolation and horror truly do make for natural bedfellows. The act of removing oneself from society promises a sort of freedom, but also an obvious state of naked vulnerability. To march into the wilderness is to give up the safety net of collective strength and the emotional support offered by civilization, relying entirely on one’s own prowess. And unfortunately, it’s all too easy to overestimate that strength, and never realize it until it’s already too late.
The events of The Witch can be perceived as a punishment for that sort of reckless pride. In 1630, patriarch William packs up his family into a wagon and rolls out into the country, following a confrontation with the town’s religious and cultural elite. In doing so, he’s stranding them in the wilderness, at the mercy of the elements, the backbreaking futility of subsistence farming, and the apparent threat of supernatural invasion, all thanks to his unwillingness to live under someone else’s doctrine. He’s proud, not just of himself but of the challenge he’s making his family take on, self-righteous in a way unique to a certain breed of asshole that it’s clearly impossible he could be making the wrong choice, unconcerned with how this will cause his wife and children to suffer. In the eyes of William, there’s only one imperative to live up to, and that’s the moral imperative that he himself defines. He is arrogant in the extreme, claiming that “we will conquer this wilderness,” as if the world is a tame animal ready to roll over and offer up its bounty to him, the man fated to exploit it. Suffice to say, he could scarcely be more wrong.
Soon, the family’s baby boy has gone missing, and talk of the unholy rears its ugly head. Most films in the mold of The Witch would likely make the presence of the titular creature a metaphorical one, or the object of psychological mystery—are supernatural events actually afoot, or at we simply witnessing a descent into finger-pointing and hysteria, of the sort famously associated with the Salem witch trials? The Witch, on the other hand, leaves no doubt—we see exactly what happened to that poor baby within minutes, and we know with certainty what kind of evil dwells in the woods surrounding the family’s farm. As Paste’s Dom Sinacola put it: “Eggers shows us the titular threat, taking a mortar and pestle to all Witch Trials allusions, grinding them to a pulp. The ‘unknown’ is no longer whether actual evil exists or not—the ‘unknown’ is why that evil should even exist at all.”
Thrust into this slowly building mania and accusatory hellhole is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, in a scintillating debut), a young teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood, about to fully enter a society where only rigid oppression seems to await. It’s clear from the start that there’s no future here for Thomasin, nor any of the other children, really—they’re just pieces of chattel who would presumably grow old on the makeshift farm, supporting dying parents until they themselves succumb to a strain of illness or particularly crushing winter. One can hardly blame Thomasin for lusting after some kind of escape, any kind of escape that would offer a reason to go on living. If you watch The Witch and think, at the end, that you’d make some other choice than to “live deliciously,” that would be delusion in action.
Faith, it is clearly pointed out, is no comfort here, in a land where even faith has been stripped of any comforting or redeeming qualities. Here, in the mania of religious extremism, the quest for faith and purity is so all consuming and reverent that there’s no room for tenderness or humanity in the experience. The God that Thomasin and her family pray to (constantly) in this film isn’t the merciful, all-loving, beneficent creator deity who wants nothing more than for you to be comfortable “being yourself.” This God, taking advantage of the presence of real, indisputable evil running wild in the wilderness, is one who demands strict obedience and utter humbleness before His omnipotence if you want His favor, and would surely punish (severely) any infractions. Hell, this God probably enjoys punishing those who aren’t sufficiently righteous, reasoning that getting His kicks is only His right. This is His universe, after all—He can do as he pleases with it, and who are you to say otherwise?
Another year with an incredible volume of horror releases, 2017 displays pretty much everything that has been great about the genre in the back half of the 2010s in particular. There’s just such a wealth of indie horror releases here, from ones that got a fair amount of attention (Raw, It Comes at Night), to notably weird, underseen movies like Prevenge that seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye. It’s a year of pretty serious, cerebral horror films (the words “prestige horror” and “elevated horror” were being thrown around a lot by this point), but there’s always the occasional Happy Death Day to lighten things up.
Obviously, you can’t discuss 2017 in horror cinema without acknowledging It, a film that kicked down the doors of the American box office and completely redefined the upper ceiling of how much an undeniable horror story could ever hope to gross. It was a perfect storm moment of accessible (and memorable) Stephen King source material, faithful adaptation, perfectly polished direction from Andy Muschietti and outstanding performances, particularly by an emergent Bill Skarsgård as the slavering Pennywise. It was, in short, exactly what it needed to be to kickstart a sensation and a Stephen King revival on both the big and small screens, which has seen a copious number of projects launched in the months that followed It taking in a global $700 million haul. Unfortunately, as it tradition in adaptations of this story, It: Chapter 2 couldn’t quite keep up the momentum, but that’s to be expected when practically all fans prefer the “Losers as kids” portion of the story to begin with.
A strong contender to possibly unseat Get Out this year is little-seen Irish chiller A Dark Song, a film that explores how much faith and effort a broken person may be willing to invest in the hopes of achieving what would otherwise be impossible. The film follows a grieving mother, who wishes to contact her murdered son from beyond the grave, as she commits herself into the hands of an occultist who says he can achieve this result, but only at the greatest of costs. In order to succeed, this woman will need to partake in a months-long ritual in an isolated cabin in the Welsh countryside, where both she and the audience must battle against the insidious, creeping doubt that this entire activity is a sham, and that the occultist must be insane. Steve Oram, also excellent in Ben Wheatley’s 2012 film Sightseers, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance here as the irascible spiritualist who may or may not know what he’s doing, as the film builds to a transcendent, highly satisfying conclusion.
Cerebral, intimately disturbing horror is really the flavor of the day here, present in the post-apocalyptic paranoia of It Comes at Night, the seemingly Martin-inspired vampire story The Transfiguration, the unconventional ghost plot of Personal Shopper and the stomach-churning collegiate cannibalism of Julia Ducournau’s stunning coming-of-age movie Raw, the latter of which might well have inspired a few new vegetarians. This is an era of emerging filmmakers making bold, unrestrained horror features, whether they’re getting into limited release or existing solely in the streaming sphere, like Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game.
This is also, to date, the high water mark for the horror genre, in terms of overall box office gross. Driven by It, and with big totals lumped on by Get Out and Split in particular, 2017 made a strong argument that even after a century, audiences are more ravenous for horror cinema than ever.
2017 Honorable Mentions:
A Dark Song, It, Raw, It Comes at Night, Split, Personal Shopper, Creep 2, Prevenge, The Transfiguration, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Void, mother!, XX, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Gerald’s Game, Happy Death Day, The Devil’s Candy, The Lure
Director: Jordan Peele
It’s amazing how quickly demonization can turn into envy; how easily hate can transform into the desire for possession. This is the most basic observation of Jordan Peele’s feature debut Get Out, the horror film we’ll remember ever after as the most singularly, undeniably relevant to American culture in the 2010s. It presents us not just with the specter of historical racism and classicism, but a frightening meditation on their evolution in society over the last few decades. It’s rooted in a truth that is likely immutable: The bourgeoisie will always find a new way to exploit the less fortunate segments of society, even if it means becoming them.
As one minor character puts it, not at all subtly, “black is in fashion” by the time 2017 rolls around, and the well-to-do white classes aren’t about to sit idly by and not claim any benefit that exists for themselves. They see the perceived beauty of others as their natural right; ripe for the taking. They see athletic prowess or artistic talent as qualities within their grasp, if they can effectively steal them away from someone else. Peele’s screenplay crackles with satirical energy, alternatingly horrific and darkly humorous.
So too does Peele demonstrate another strength here in the arena of casting. Daniel Kaluuya clearly shines as Chris, an everyman who grapples with deep-seated childhood feelings of guilt, even as his prospective in-laws grow steadily more creepy. But the strength of Get Out’s casting goes far beyond its star, whether it’s the incredible comic levity injected by Lil Rel Howery into every one of his scenes, or the faux progressivism of an unbearably snide Bradley Whitford. Perhaps most effective is Allison Williams, who nails the “fake ally” role so well, and appears so innocent through the film’s first half, that the actress says white audiences still have a hard time accepting that she’s a “bad guy,” even when the film has finished rolling. Straight from her own mouth:
“They’d say ‘she was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, no! She’s just evil! How hard is that to accept? She’s bad! We gave you so many ways to know that she’s bad! She has photos of people whose lives she ended behind her! The minute she can, she hangs them back up on the wall behind her. That’s so crazy! And they’re still like, ‘but maybe she’s also a victim?’ And I’m like, NO! No! And I will say, that is one hundred percent white people who say that to me.”
We should hardly be surprised by such a result, but the fact that audiences reacted to the film that way demonstrates exactly why Get Out needed to exist in the first place. It is a potent modern fable on how the privileged will always seek out new ways to exploit those they see as less than human, wrapped in a veneer of multiplex-friendly popcorn thriller entertainment, and it announced the arrival of Peele as a premiere social satirist.
On its own, 2018 is a pretty strong crop of horror titles, but within the context of the 2010s it seems to possess a bit less volume than absolutely huge years like 2014, 2016 and 2017. Still, this has been one of the steadiest decades ever for horror cinema, and it has remained a force at both the box office and the arthouse theaters, not to mention in the streaming sphere.
This was another big year for overall horror grosses, driven largely by franchise entries and remakes such as Halloween, The Nun, The First Purge and Insidious: The Last Key, but also by the year’s #1 earner, A Quiet Place—always nice to see an original story on top, rather than yet another adaptation. At the multiplex, John Krasinski’s film was one of the year’s biggest talking points, generating a robust $340 million and blowing away expectations in the process.
It’s also a solid piece of genre craftsmanship from an unexpected source in Krasinski, an actor-writer who had never ventured into the horror genre before. Much of the film’s vitality is derived from the strength and simplicity of its central premise: Earth has been invaded by aliens who wiped out the majority of the human race, relying on an extremely acute sense of hearing. Survival in this new world means living a life of silence, which gives writers a fun set of tools in crafting a family home designed to minimize any sort of noise. Thrust into this dangerous world is a family unit that is often seen through the eyes of deaf teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, in a strong debut), whose difficulty in knowing if she’s creating noise makes her especially vulnerable to the extra-sensitive creatures that live around them. The film thrives on the tension and suspense it generates by lining up future instances of “noise” in advance, even if some of the exposition regarding the creatures and their arrival is a bit on the clunky side. Many comparisons were drawn at the end of the year between the “soundless” aspect of A Quiet Place and the “sightless” aspect of Netflix’s Bird Box, but considering that the latter was an adaptation of a novel released in 2014, the similarities are likely simply coincidental.
This is another strong year on the arthouse side of the spectrum, as Annihilation tackles what had been regarded as a potentially un-adaptable novel by Jeff VanderMeer, infusing it with a sense of solemn majesty and cold beauty, while Luca Guadagnino chose to remake Suspiria not by aping the colorful style of Dario Argento but by maximizing the story’s sense of tactile physicality, ending in a bloodbath for the ages. So too does The Endless veer off the straight and narrow path, rewarding fans of directors Justin Benson and Aaaron Moorhead’s little seen 2012 thriller Resolution by unexpectedly tying the events of both films together into a sort of impenetrable Gordian knot.
This is a year not lacking for brutality, certainly—you also have Nicolas Cage’s descent into utter madness and depravity in Mandy, whose Cheddar Goblin will make you chuckle, right up until Cage is tearing apart a gang of LSD-drinking demonic bikers with his bare hands. Apostle, likewise, is just as hard-hitting a horror film as you would expect from Gareth Evans, the man who brought us The Raid and The Raid 2. All in all, one gets the sense that we were all working through some seriously violent emotions in 2018.
2018 Honorable Mentions:
Annihilation, Apostle, Suspiria, Mandy, The Endless, A Quiet Place, Revenge, The Ritual, The Clovehitch Killer, Halloween, Overlord, The House That Jack Built, Climax
Director: Ari Aster
Some of the most memorable horror films of recent years have all come as the feature debuts of their respective directors. The Witch had Robert Eggers. The Babadook had Jennifer Kent. And Hereditary had Ari Aster, a filmmaker who seemingly arrived fully formed, like one of the prescient children born with absolute consciousness in the Dune universe. Like the directors before him, Aster took advantage of the opportunity that the horror genre has always offered to give young talent exposure, while still retaining a modicum of auteur-like fingerprinting. His is a merciless debut; one that feels intended to roughly scoop out your sense of hope or optimism until one is left completely hollow.
In no uncertain terms, this is a film about grief, something it shares at least partially with 2019 Aster follow-up Midsommar. Although the visual identity of each film is obviously as different as different can be, they are united by their portraits of characters weathering crushing grief that is so profound, it threatens to entirely swallow them up, to inundate them in an impossibly vast and impenetrable ocean of emotional emptiness and constant aching. Here, the cruel hand of fate is targeting a family unit, the Grahams, where the secretive (and abusive) elder grandmother has recently passed away. Navigating these waters is Annie (Toni Collette, in the role of a lifetime), a miniature artist whose mastery of tiny crafting details is lost on the substantially more complex challenge of governing a family. Her husband, Steve, is aloof and distant. Her son, Peter, is experiencing his fair share of teenage resentment. And her youngest daughter, Charlie, is a special case—“touched,” as we might have said in a previous generation, with unnerving eccentricities that will no doubt make her life a lonely one. Neither, as we come to find out, is Annie free from buried traumas of her own. We begin to wonder: Which of these people should we be worried about most?
Hereditary thrives on dread; on the innate expectation it projects that terrible things are going to happen for unknown reasons. In its most horrifying sequence, an accident involving Charlie completely turns the story on its head, but the greatest horror isn’t derived simply from seeing with our eyes what happened to the little girl—it’s in the audience’s anticipation of what will happen once the events are discovered, and in hearing her family react as any family no doubt would. Collette is a force of nature here, completely letting go of any sense of embarrassment or reticence to commit every bit of her body and soul to the moment. The fact that she was snubbed in terms of Academy Award nominations was a crime, although something to be expected when it comes to the horror genre.
In making that choice in its midpoint, though, Hereditary feels like it has crossed some kind of sacred boundary. It’s the genie-out-of-the-bottle moment—once it passes, it becomes clear there’s no force on heaven or Earth that is going to save this family, because Aster is going to have their blood. Arguably, it also marks the point where the film makes a transition from “intense psychological drama” to legitimate “supernatural horror film.”
Unsurprisingly, Hereditary seemed to mystify multiplex audiences, unaccustomed to films relying so heavily on visual motifs and expert sound design to get their point across, but the film is also capable of being “actively” scary as hell, whenever it chooses to be. Devastating portrait of a grieving family? Pulse-raising haunted house thrill ride? Hereditary oddly manages to be both, establishing Aster as an auteur in the making.
If you’re looking for a pertinent theme in 2019 horror cinema, consider the prominence of high-profile “second acts” we witnessed this year. Robert Eggers followed up The Witch with the claustrophobic bleakness of The Lighthouse. Jordan Peele followed his Oscar-winning Get Out screenplay with Us. Ari Aster went from Hereditary to Midsommar. Jennifer Kent, after a bit of a long wait since The Babadook, delivered the horror-adjacent The Nightingale. Rarely has one year’s horror output so revolved around sophomore features, and most of them have lived up to the expectations set upon them.
In terms of pure volume, we’re closing out the decade on a high note. This has been another prolific frame for the genre, and the year isn’t even over yet—we still have films like Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep looming on the horizon. There shouldn’t really be any question: The 2010s have been one of the best decades ever for horror. If your friends claim otherwise, point them toward this project, because we have some films to recommend.
Us was now released long enough ago that it almost feels like a 2018 film, although perhaps that’s just the rigors of this 100-day series of essays talking. Jordan Peele’s doppelganger satire is a film that is ultimately about privilege and the American psyche, much as Get Out was before it, but where Get Out speaks more to cultural appropriation and the legacy of racism, Us feels more like a commentary on the utter lack of empathy so often present for those beneath us. Peele has described the film as an acknowledgement not just of the existence of privilege but the American expectation that we deserve good things, simply by virtue of existing, rather than acknowledging we have so many of them simply thanks to the circumstances of our birth. As he put it, “for us to have our privilege, someone suffers,” and Us brings its characters face to face with those who suffer.
Midsommar, meanwhile, curiously seemed to be described by some critics as a major departure for director Ari Aster, blinded as they may have been by its visual iconoclasm, but it is very much the sister film to his own Hereditary. Both are deeply focused around the intense, soul-eroding grief being experienced by their central characters, as those characters either crumble or come to embrace the insanity around them as a form of horrifying rebirth. To listen to Aster tell it in interviews, his next project is likely to leave horror behind entirely, lest the typecasting become inescapable, but the one-two punch of Hereditary and Midsommar have shown him to be one of the better visual artists working in the genre today at the very least. In particular, the maypole sequences of Midsommar have remained prominent in my mind in the months since.
The Lighthouse, meanwhile, feels like perhaps the most willfully esoteric of the major “sophomore” horror films of 2019, short on conventional plot and heavy on apocalyptic imagery. Robert Eggers’ second movie veers wildly from grim silence to genuinely laugh-out-loud humor at any given moment, dementedly careening from scene to scene like one of its two drunken lighthouse keepers. Some may be frustrated by its priority on evoking mood and sensation over narrative development, but the transcendent quality of its two central performances make it impossible to tear your eyes from the screen. Willem Dafoe in particular turns in as strong a performance as the genre has seen in recent memory, slipping from crusty, flatulent muttering into grand, cacophonous oration as the ocean continues its inexorable march to claim both men as its own.
But 2019 wasn’t only a year for second acts. Tigers are Not Afraid earned praise for director Issa López and very obvious allusions to the early career of Guillermo del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone in particular, as it told a fantasy tinged story that pitted Mexican street urchins against a vicious cartel. Ready or Not delivered visceral, popcorn-munching fun in a vicious hide-and-seek game that is considerably more brutal than even genre fans may be expecting. Little Monsters contributed a frequently hilarious zom-com starring none other than Lupita Nyong’o (two horror movies in one year!), fully usurping attention that otherwise would likely have been spent on the long-awaited, ultimately disappointing Zombieland sequel. And Alexandre Aja put himself back into the good graces of horror fans with an old-fashioned creature feature in the form of Crawl.
And then there’s the year’s highest-profile commercial horror release: It: Chapter 2, the sequel to 2017’s highest-grossing movie in horror history. It seems almost predestined at this point that any adaptation of the “Losers as adults” portion of Stephen King’s source material will suffer in comparison to the childhood portion of the story, and not even the high-profile casting of Chapter 2 can really ward off that feeling. Feeling both overlong and diminished, Andy Muschietti manages to recapture the vivacious spirit of the first film in fits and spurts, and Bill Skarsgård is as mesmerizing as ever, but Chapter 2 ultimately lacks some measure of the original’s potency.
Finally, allow me to pay homage to the delightful One Cut of the Dead, a film that could have been an unorthodox challenger for the #1 spot, if only one could primarily label it as “horror” in a more genuine sense. Instead, this film is something ultimately more satisfying than just another low-budget zombie flick—rather than an exercise in throwing blood and guts around, it’s a heartwarming dedication to the spirit of indie filmmaking itself. Following a Japanese crew of low-budget filmmakers as they attempt to bring together an indie zombie film shot in real time, it beautifully weaves each character’s arc into the behind-the-scenes chaos, packing every frame with storytelling. It very much feels like it has all the markings of a cult film in the making, where, a few years from now, a guy will ask his friend “Did you ever see that movie One Cut of the Dead?”, and the other guy will reply by enthusiastically thrusting his arms up in the air and going “POM!”
There are, of course, even more 2019 films of note that I didn’t get a chance to mention, but let’s get to the main course.
2019 Honorable Mentions:
One Cut of the Dead, Us, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, Tigers are Not Afraid, Little Monsters, Ready or Not, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, I Trapped the Devil, Crawl, It: Chapter 2, Nightmare Cinema, Knife + Heart, The Hole in the Ground, Child’s Play, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Head Count
Director: Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland is a cinematic aesthete; an artist who is both beguiled by and displays a mastery over the slightest and most ephemeral elements of production design, visuals, texture and sound in his films. In 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, he first applied this degree of hyper-attention toward the psychological horror genre, setting his story within the world of film industry foley itself to provoke audience reflection on sound and the nature of reality. In 2019’s In Fabric, meanwhile, he once again returns to core influences that range from Italian giallo to 1970s European erotic thrillers, but suffuses them with a gauzy style that is all his own. His films are sumptuous experiences that stimulate every sense one can use to appreciate cinema.
In Fabric is one of those films where the premise could just as easily be applied toward a five-minute horror short as it could a feature film. You can say it in a couple words: “A haunted dress ruins people’s lives.” That sounds like source material easy to envision within the context of a cheesy horror anthology, like something from England’s Amicus Productions in the 1970s, but in Strickland’s hands it becomes the basis for a phantasmagorical descent into a certain, lushly appointed style of madness. In Strickland’s world, you’d end up stark raving mad in a room with padded walls, but they’d feel amazing to the touch.
Into this topsy-turvy world, Strickland brings two central characters who seem to have originated from outside it, “regular” people who are frequently just as confounded as we would be by the bizarre behavior of those around them. One, single mother Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), just wants to get back out there into the dating game, only to find herself as seemingly the only sane individual in a world full of totally irrational people. Her supervisors chide her about utterly insignificant infractions like her style of waving hello, and probe deeply into her personal life, including even the content of her dreams. She reacts with flustered confusion that is perfectly natural, but still can’t turn down their bizarre requests, even as she begins to suspect that her beautiful new red dress (in a tiny catalog detail, we see its color listed as “artery”) contains a malignant presence. Perhaps she should have been more unnerved when buying it from the witchy, sinister store clerk Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed, spouting some of the craziest dialog of the year), a character who looks like she leapt straight out of the unconscious mind of Dario Argento.
Strickland conveys this story with the dreamy excesses and mood projection of Nicolas Winding Refn in the likes of Valhalla Rising, but somehow manages to dive even deeper into its aural aspects than he did in Berberian Sound Studio. This is some of the most vibrant sound design I’ve ever experienced, regardless of its aim in any given moment. It can be alluring, or soothing, or gratingly irritating in terms of texture, boring its way into your brain like some kind of parasite. When it desires to do so, the tones of In Fabric draw the audience in, enrapturing them with sensual, ASMR-like luxuriance, as in a sequence of a coat being zipped up with what has to be the most appealing zipper noise that has ever been captured on film. In other moments, the film pivots, bombarding the audience with sensation until you just can’t take it anymore. You have almost no choice but to submit to the howling, discordant static.
There’s a message buried in here as well of course; a commentary on consumerism that presents shopping and browsing for “life-improving” consumer goods as something like an ecclesiastical (or pagan, more likely) religious experience, but it’s the all-encompassing aura of In Fabric that makes it stick in the mind. It perfectly captures specific moods familiar to its audience; universal experiences that have been given supernatural portent. There’s the pain of shattered expectations on a terrible first date. The rote sexual congress of a long-time couple, long since reduced to a series of mechanical motions. The disorienting quality that a disturbing dream has on coloring a person’s experiences in the waking world. Strickland presents it all, and more, in 2019’s most deeply effective horror film.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.