Anybody who's browsed the web for more than two minutes at any point this year will know that 2016 has been a vessel of bad luck at best and a savage Death Machine at worst. There have been bombings, shootings, political assassinations, a slew of celebrity deaths, and a 5-year-old kid who died in Santa's arms. Needless to say, it has been an emotionally exhausting year. But I'm going to choose to do something I rarely ever do and look at the positives of 2016. For one thing, this was, without a doubt, the best year for horror movies in a long, long time. So let's maybe try to ignore the admittedly abundant horribleness of 2016 for a moment and instead take a gander at my personal favorite 13 horror movies of the past year.
What the hell can I possibly say about The Greasy Strangler? It’s right up there with The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, and Yellow Submarine as one of the weirdest yet strangely alluring films I have ever seen. It's three parts John Waters, one part Adult Swim, topped off with a little bit of Wes Anderson and garnished with Jared Hess - making it a cocktail that's just as intoxicating as it sounds. You'll need a crazy straw to drink this one.
I'm not exactly certain what this movie is about. I suppose on some level you can call it art, but also on that very same level it isn't remotely art at all. It's more of an experience, and one that will be etched into your brain for eternity, confusing you to your very core while breaking your ribs from laughter.
Writer and director Jim Hosking isn't entirely new to horror. In 2014 he directed a segment from The ABCs of Death 2, which wasn't a very good movie, but The Greasy Strangler is his first feature film. I kind of want to see more from him, but I also feel like he'll never be able to top the wicked, savage, wild, depraved, insane maybe-masterpiece that is The Greasy Strangler.
Okay. The movie stars Eric Wareheim-lookalike Sky Elobar as Big Brayden and his father, Big Ronnie, played by Michael St. Michaels, who was an odd duck even before this flick. When the father and son aren't running a low-grade tour guide that is basically a scam, they're calling each other "bullshit artist" and making strange, poorly-acted accusations. Also, Big Ronnie enjoys a great big glob of grease on everything he consumes, and at night he lathers himself in layers of the gunk then goes out to strangle innocent civilians as the Greasy Strangler. Why does he do this? Is it a metaphor for something poignant? Is there some deeper, hidden meaning?
No, probably not.
The Greasy Strangler is as strange as it is hilarious, and although it's not particularly scary it does employ some horror elements, most notably in every single facial expression Michael St. Michaels makes. So maybe it's not a 100% horror, but this movie honestly is not a 100% anything. It's just an utterly absurd helping of gooey grease that goes down nice and smooth - if you're into that, because you're either going to love it or you're going to hate it. Or you'll be scratching your head so hard you'll have destroyed the part of your brain that's capable of deciding how you feel about bizarre, surreal cinema.
Question: How do you make a good sequel to a really, really bad movie? Answer: You get Mike Flanagan to write and direct it. Currently the 2014 horror film, Ouija, holds a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes while its prequel, this year’s Ouija: Origin of Evil, is at 82% - nearly twelve times that of its predecessor. This is something we don't see too often in the horror genre, but I guess it's to be expected when Mike Flanagan's at the helm. The dude's got Absentia, Oculus, and Hush under his belt - three sheer winners - so despite this year's poorly received Before I Wake, it's safe to say that Flanagan is on fire, and Ouija: Origin of Evil only supports that claim.
But even with Mike Flanagan, there are still steps that must be taken to ensure your sequel is good. Step one is to distance yourself from the original as much as you can, and Flanagan does just that by setting the prequel in the 1960s and connecting it to its 2014 precursor with nothing more than one tiny thread. Step two is to up the legitimate scare factor - the kind of creepy, subtle, well-shot spooks that bypass hamfisted jump scares in favor of slow, chilling moments that crawl under your skin. Step three is the arrangement of a good script and characters you actually care about via the writing chops of Mike Flanagan and then the rest is cake.
In case I haven't made myself clear: Do yourself a favor and skip the 2014 travesty and go straight to the unsurprisingly superior Ouija: Origin of Evil.
Relying on James Wan to give us a good horror film is like relying on Donald Trump to post a minimum of twelve tweets a day: it's a pretty safe bet. Either you love him or you hate him (James Wan, I mean; not Trump), but either way you can't deny the dude's directing talent. Ever since Saw and Dead Silence, Wan has proven himself to be a welcoming master of jump scares, utilizing the often overused and poorly executed technique in a way that makes you appreciate the true, underestimated art of the jump scare. The key is the suspenseful buildup - bring your audience into the scene and to the edge of their seats and before they can blink, deliver the shock in a way that'll literally put the "jump" in jump scare.
The Conjuring 2 isn't littered with jump scares, but it does have quite a few good ones. While the anticipated sequel to Wan's successful 2013 hit was underwhelming for some, the rest of us were content with the satisfying albeit inferior sequel.
The Conjuring 2 starts off with Ed and Lorraine Warren's most popular case in Amityville, but quickly makes a right turn to a lesser known investigation in London, 1977, where a family is being tormented by a demonic entity. In what feels like a more serious and much more frightening version of Poltergeist, the Warrens get a bit too involved with the case to the point where they themselves become victims of the malicious spirit.
I won't beat around the bush: The Conjuring 2 has its fair share of schlock. Toward the end we are confronted with a stop-motion creature called The Crooked Man, and it's rather jarring compared with the darker and more hellish tone of the rest of the movie. But to be honest, a bit of schlock doesn't have to be a bad thing. Personally I thoroughly enjoyed the admittedly creepy but, yes, ultimately cheesy Crooked Man. And because the rest of the flick offers a symphony of terrifying characters - including a horrific pale nun and, of course, the lead demon - a bitter slice of cheese is easily dismissible.
Hollywood-centric horrors have always ruled the big screen - Mulholland Drive, The Neon Demon, Starry Eyes - the terror of Tinseltown is a perpetual motion machine for horror cinema. Covering the juxtaposition of the underlying ugliness of the rich and famous might seem like a pretty easy task, but it requires a devious mix of the right ingredients to really hit the mark. In 2016 the most anticipated of such films was The Neon Demon, but today let's talk about the similar yet highly understated Always Shine.
Psychological thriller Always Shine kicks off with two aspiring actresses and best friends spending the weekend at a cabin in Big Sur. One of the friends, Anna, is jealous of the success of Beth, who isn't exactly humble about it despite appearances. Anna's envy grows increasingly ominous as Beth's attempt at feigning modesty quickly becomes transparent. Those of us who are well-versed in horror can probably see what's coming, but just because you suspect a film's ending doesn't mean you can't enjoy the ride leading up to it.
One of the great things about Always Shine is the fact that both main characters aren't entirely likeable. There is no true antagonist nor protagonist. While Beth may initially seem like a modest girl who wants to be a better friend, on multiple occasions her behavior implies that she might not be as selfless as she appears. Anna, meanwhile, is outwardly envious, bitter, and even abusive. One doesn't doubt for a second her derisive and psychotic manner, and yet one can also see what drives her to be so crass - with a self-serving starlet masquerading as a timid damsel for a best friend, it can't be easy to stay completely sane.
Wired and weird from start to end, Always Shine is a fine addition to the Lynchian collection of the psychological commentary on Hollywood's seductive dark side.
At first Hush might seem like nothing more than a gimmicky home invasion flick - the gimmick being that the protagonist is deaf, but what could have easily been a boring, run-of-the-mill, cheap-tactic thriller ended up being one of the better films of the year. Hush is, at its core, The Strangers meets You're Next, in that while the antagonist is terrifying and the situation is unnerving, our leading lady kicks so much ass. For a while, the deaf Maddie is horrified and fragile as a masked assailant terrorizes her, but she quickly goes from Sarah Connor in Terminator 1 to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 and decides that she's not going to take her opponent's hostility any longer. Kate Siegel offers an exceptional and believable performance as our hearing-disabled hero. Siegel and husband Mike Flanagan penned the flick, and Flanagan directed Hush, which, naturally, proved to be yet another trophy in his increasing collection of fantastic horror films.
One of the creepiest films of the year was also one of the most undetected. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a supernatural thriller that slipped under the radar with its limited release and received next to no attention, despite starring household names Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch. In this mysterious chiller, Cox and Hirsch play father and son coroners working the late shift to perform an autopsy on an unidentified young woman. When they open up the body, things start to go awry as things always do as the father and son realize they're not dealing with any ordinary cadaver.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe might start off a tad slow, but when it picks up, it really picks up. The bone-chilling horror could easily be an X-Files episode (it isn't hard to picture Dana Scully performing the weird autopsy) with a touch of Supernatural, and wields the definitive creepy atmosphere of the former. The most spine-tingling "performance" comes from our titular corpse played by Olwen Catherine Kelly, who is as unnerving as she is silent and totally still for the entirety of the film. Despite the pleasant presence of the talented Cox and Hirsch, Kelly steals the show without so much as blinking.
It's been a while since I watched a movie that made me look over my shoulder a couple times and legitimately shiver at several points, and maybe it's just because I was severely underslept during my viewing, but regardless, The Autopsy of Jane Doe succeeded at accomplishing both. The flick may get a little cliché and even a bit predictable toward the end as the scares start to ease up, but the payoff is well worth it. If you want to watch one movie with the lights off this year, The Autopsy of Jane Doe should be that movie.
Though it's not the scariest film on this list, Billy O'Brien's I Am Not a Serial Killer is definitely one of the most memorable. Starring Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fisher, and the Culkin-esque Max Records, 2016's grim sleeper is a top contender for cult film status. Nobody talked about this movie, nobody really saw this movie, and I doubt many people even knew of its existence. But like almost every film deserving of cult ranking, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a movie that every horror, science fiction, and thriller fanatic should see. Hell, every cinephile should give this flick a shot.
Max Records plays the teenage sociopath John Wayne Cleaver, who, despite his killer-like name, is, as the title suggests, not a serial killer - even though there is an active serial killer in his small hometown. John quickly finds himself wrapped up in the surprisingly supernatural case as he attempts to hunt the killer and end the long string of killings for good.
Christopher Lloyd is astounding as per usual, although his aging appearance is a tad disheartening. However, it's newcomer Max Records who shines as he nails the detached and disturbed persona of John Wayne Cleaver. Despite its outwardly bleak appearance, I Am Not a Serial Killer excels at being darkly funny and endlessly entertaining. Simply put, it's just a really enjoyable movie.
Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has traversed the territory of the merciless thriller in the past: his bleak 2013 crime drama Blue Ruin, though unjustly understated, proved to be one of the most emotionally engaging films of the twenty-first century. Green Room has a similar vibe - especially with the bleak outlook - but is much more fast-paced and action-packed... not that that's a bad thing.
Our nihilistic leads - including Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and the tragically late Anton Yelchin - are miserable little fuckers with the agenda of bringing old school punk rock to a more modern age. They wield a dour perspective on social media and life in general, temporarily van-dwelling and living low-key while playing any gig they can get during their travels along the Pacific Northwest. This inevitably takes the rebellious and voluntarily disconnected lot to a remote club in Oregon that turns out to be owned and ran by neo-Nazi skinheads - led by the incomparable Patrick Stewart in his most frightening role yet. The bottle thriller packs a slew of violent punches and never even considers stepping on the brakes. While it might not hold much of a story as far as plotlines go, Green Room is a flick that could be watched solely for its dry yet wonderful characters and gripping, unrelenting roller coaster of a ride.
In a nutshell, Under the Shadow is one of the best white-knuckle slow-burns of the decade. This tense horror takes us to 1988 Tehran in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war, where the threat of destruction looming over the city acts as a perfect backdrop for a story about fear, paranoia, and underlying dread. I might be biased because I love myself a good Djinn story, and a good Djinn story is a rare thing to come by, but Under the Shadow is just that. Shideh and her daughter Dorsa eventually find themselves alone as all the tenants in their apartment building have left for safer ground. But soon Shideh wonders if they are truly alone as the presence of some malevolent force slowly makes itself known. This coupled with the constant fear of a missile strike is enough to intensify the stress and anxiety in Shideh and her daughter - and is sure to elicit the same sense of paranoia from the viewer. Under the Shadow manages to deal with the terrifying reality of wartime struggle and the fantastical element of the Djinn legend in a manner that never feels overwhelming or heavy-handed, giving us a professionally-crafted supernatural horror flick. This is the debut feature film of writer/director Babak Anvari, and I certainly hope to see more from the dude.
I already did a write-up on Don't Breathe, which you can check out here, so I'll keep this one brief. Basically, Don't Breathe is no masterpiece, but it does exactly what it sets out to do. The premise is pretty simple: three thieving morons decide to rob the house of a war veteran who's allegedly got $300,000 stashed in his dilapidated Detroit home. The three musketeers decide to break into the poor old fool's house and rob him, only to discover that this poor old fool is not only blind, but surprisingly good at kicking ass. Like an elderly Matt Murdock, the veteran relies on his other senses, especially hearing, to detect the sneaky robbers as they tiptoe through the house, and, being a veteran, is adept at beating the holy hell out of them. Don't Breathe is a fun white-knuckle romp that'll leave you with a sated albeit grossed-out grin from cheek to cheek.
The Invitation asks one of the most timeless questions of all: am I crazy or is it everybody else? Much like Fincher's The Game, The Invitation keeps you guessing all throughout - one minute buying into lead Logan Marshall-Green's paranoia and the next questioning his sanity. The party hosts (senders of the titular invitation) might be out of their minds, but they also might be good people. But there is no in between. The flick is riddled with reasons to support either party, and even if you think you've got it all figured out, the ultimate twist - that is, the thrilling denouement - will absolutely catch you off guard. Though initially screened in 2015, The Invitation saw a wider release this year, which technically qualifies it for a 2016 film. And it is definitely qualified to make this particular list.
Let's just get this out of the way: Train to Busan is a zombie movie. Yes, another one. But it's not your typical zombie movie. Much like Pontypool, Wyrmwood, and Shaun of the Dead, Train to Busan paves a different path. While the idea of zombies on a train might feel gimmicky at first, you can rest assured that the gimmick - if you can even call it that - actually gives the film a great deal of strength.
Train to Busan is a South Korean undead thriller written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho, who has spent the bulk of his film career in animation. In a lot of ways you can see the anime influence in Train to Busan; from the wicked, bone-crackling movement of the zombies to the brand of empathetic, fleshed-out characters that is so common in well-written amines. A father and daughter board a train to, you guessed it, Busan, and shit almost immediately hits the fan when a sickly passenger becomes a rabid cannibal - or, as we've come to call them, a zombie - and wreaks havoc on the moving train. Train to Busan is a horror film as well as an action-packed thriller that never lets off the gas pedal. Honestly, what's not to love?
I can watch John Carpenter's The Fog and manage to point out a few flaws. I can put on Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's Resolution and maybe spot some gaping holes. I can even give Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps a zillionth viewing and understand why somebody might not dig the flick. What do these movies have in common? They are three of my absolute favorite, dearly beloved, desert island, five-out-of-five horror films. And despite that fact, it isn't all that difficult for me to have a gripe or two with them. But when it comes to Robert Eggers' 17th century New England slow-burn The VVitch, I cannot for the life of me find a single flaw, hole, gripe, or issue. Not one.
I'm not saying flaws might not entirely exist within the film nor that everyone will love it - I am merely stating that if there are any flaws, I fail to see them, and that I love the damn movie to pieces. To me The VVitch may not be the most perfect horror film ever created, but it's certainly a contender for the best horror film of the twenty-first century: a title which proves that future horrors have some real big boots to fill.
The VVitch follows a family of exiled Puritans attempting to live on their own on the outskirts of a vast and dark forest. When infant child Samuel vanishes while under the care of his teenaged sister Thomasin, the family is slowly torn apart from the inside out. While Thomasin's mother believes her daughter to be a witch, we know that there is, in fact, an actual witch in the woods who was responsible for kidnapping Samuel and... uh, you've got to watch the movie yourself. This one's too good for me to start giving away any spoilers.
The VVitch is as disturbing as it is authentic. For his debut feature film, writer/director Robert Eggers made sure to research nearly every aspect of the 1600s, in which the film takes place: from characters' clothing to the antiquated dialect and vocabulary of seventeenth century Puritans. Eggers even went so far as to shoot the film in natural lighting and candlelight, making all ninety-three minutes feel like a legitimate time travel trip four hundred years into the past.
Along with its historical accuracy, The VVitch is genuinely terrifying. Much like Kubrick's The Shining, The VVitch takes its time to build up an ever-gloomy atmosphere while enveloping its audience in a bleak cloud of tense, discomforting dread. There is pure dread at every corner: the skies are constantly grey and overcast, clothing is muted, smiles are rare. Even if you can't completely understand the 1600s vernacular, you can decipher the raw emotions in every character simply from their cadence, inflection, and mannerisms. You can feel the terror in the father's voice as everything around him and his family grows increasingly dour. In this way, The VVitch certainly take a lot from The Shining - though not in a way that ever feels like plagiarism or even an homage. The tone of either film merely reflects the other.
Look, I'll be honest: The VVitch is brutally miserable to say the least. It's bleak, dismal, harrowing, sinister, and will leave you feeling cold and anxious. But it's also guaranteed to satisfy your morbid desire for pure, unadulterated, sugar-free horror. And that's what this flick is: a no-bullshit treasure that only takes you by the hand when it's leading you into the darkness. If you dig horror as much as so many of us do, you're a masochistic bastard who lives not for cheap jump scares, but for the stuff that meticulously creeps into your skin, chills you right down to the bone, and triggers some deep anxiety that's bound to stick with you for a while.
You'll find that in The VVitch.
Honorable Mentions: The Blackcoat's Daughter, Southbound, Baskin, The Neon Demon, and The Purge: Election Year