Updated December 20, 2017: 1 new entry and several misses added.
Updated October 13, 2017: 19 new entries added.
Updated March 13, 2017: While this story originally appeared in Unwinnable Weekly Issue Thirty-One, we have continued to add to it over time. In addition to new entries, this recent update included a full revision of the existing text, reorganization of the entries into chronological order and light reformatting to improve readability.
Being an enthusiast of the horror genre comes with a deep hunger for more horror. It doesn’t matter what form it takes so long as it is quality fare. A steady diet of crummy horror is the same as starvation. And so, we hunt. Through bookshelves and magazines and review sites, we scour, looking for our next meal.
That meal is seldom found at the local multiplex – most horror films that see national release suffer too much Hollywood tropes. It isn’t that they are bad but that, in trying to appeal to the mass market, they become diluted, or silly parodies of a Halloween haunted house (see the doll from The Conjuring, for example). The jagged edges of new ideas get smoothed out. The idiosyncrasies of directors vanish. While I can enjoy a movie like Insidious, something about it feels remote, perhaps even antiseptic; a formal and formulaic example of the broadest definition of frightening, complete with impeccably timed jump scares.
There are movies that embrace rawness, though. Films that feel immediate and vital and surprising. They may not be great movies in any conventional sense, but they push the boundaries of the genre. They are frightening, transgressive things. They mark a frontier.
Everyone talks about The Exorcist and John Carpenter. I love them, too, but they’re old. We can only watch The Thing so many times. This guide looks at current gems in order to glimpse the future of horror. Some are first-time directors showing their potential. Some are bigger budget movies that inexplicably dropped off the radar. Some are cousins of the genre, in the vein of True Detective, that play with the conventions of horror without being horror themselves. Many of them are rough, suffering from one flaw or another, usually in the form of the small budget. Don’t let that stop you, though – all of them are worthy of your time.
Left Bank – 2008 – Pieter Van Hees
Left Bank, or Linkeroever in its native Beligian, is a moody horror film that follows a young competition runner recovering from an injury as she embarks on a new romance and moves into her new boyfriend’s apartment. Unable to continue training thanks to her rehab, she focuses, obsessively, on the mysterious disappearance of the woman who used to live in the apartment, situated in a fancy new building on Antwerp’s previously rural left bank.
There are some obvious comparisons to be made with Rosemary’s Baby – a young woman manipulated into playing an unwitting part in a larger occult drama – but the film draws from other pools as well. The woman’s injury is the source of a great deal of body horror-inspired anxiety. Primarily, though, Left Bank is a folk horror movie, concerned with the fearful secrets the countryside might hold, and what must be done to maintain the status quo. The result, while horrific, is enigmatic and bordering on the surreal, making Left Bank an excellent bookend for 2008’s Sauna.
It is also a fantastic trap story (folk horror often focuses on occult traps as evidenced by Kill List, The Canal, Demon and the granddaddy of the sub-genre, The Wicker Man) that is, one in which a doomed character wanders into an supernatural snare specifically designed to exploit their weaknesses. The details of the web they are caught in matter less than watching them struggle against their fate. | Trailer (the trailer is pretty bad)
Pontypool – 2008 – Bruce McDonald
Pontypool is a small movie that plays with vast, strange implications. Set almost entirely in a radio station, our three characters – a DJ, a producer and an assistant – find themselves trying to survive a zombie plague. Except, instead of a comet, or fungus, or mysterious disease causing the outbreak, here it is the spoken word that infects.
It plays out a bit like Orson Wells’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast, with our heroes narrating a story happening largely off screen through news reports, until the language virus turns up in the studio. Then it gets weird (and bloody) as we try to wrap our heads, and tongues, around what’s going on. How can the spoken word be infectious?
Yet, in the real world, this is certainly possible. Propaganda, fake news, lies, communication breakdowns all spawn violence in their way. In Pontypool, the viral verbiage simply accelerates the process. In our current political climate, there is perhaps no darker warning. | Trailer
Sauna – 2008 – Antii-Jussi Annila
There couldn’t be a more unlikely plot for a horror movie: at the end of a war, in 1595, a group of soldiers travels the country side establishing a new border between Finland and Russia. They stumble across an uncharted village in the middle of a swamp on the outskirts of which is a sauna that supposedly can wash a man’s sins away. For soldiers steeped in bloody conflict, this proves to be an irresistible temptation.
Sauna (also known as Filth or, regrettably, Evil Rising) is an ambiguous movie. I’ve watched it three times and still am not entirely sure what is happening. This is no doubt by design, as one character speculates that they see a sauna only because its true nature is beyond comprehension. Solving the riddle of the movie is secondary to the beauty of its cold barrenness and the philosophical performances that give life to these soldiers so burdened by sin.
It’s a strange gem, but isn’t strangeness what we’re searching for? | Trailer
Cropsey – 2009 – Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio
Cropsey is a haunting documentary that starts as an examination of a boogey man that haunts the abandoned asylums and dark woods of Staten Island. That urban legend, of a deranged child-killer with a hook for a hand, takes on grim significance when the movie pivots into the very real story of disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl with Down Syndrome, in 1987.
Andre Rand, the suspected serial killer who was convicted of the crime, winds up being only a minor presence in the film. Instead, the strain of a community struggling to come to terms with his crimes takes center stage, from genuine grief to hysterical accusations of necrophilia and Satanism. Gradually, a strange Staten Island appears, one full of sinister ruins, abandoned tunnels and terrible child abuse. As ever, truth is scarier than fiction. | Trailer
House of the Devil – 2009 – Ti West
The 80s setting and the premise – college girl gets creepy babysitting job – would seem to indicate that we’re in typical slasher territory here, but what we get with Ti West’s House of the Devil is a brooding slow burn, long on dread and short on jump scares and other mainstream horror movie trickery. This is one of the essential horror movies of the new millennium and it lays the foundation for later indie horror films that eschew genre cliches and embrace dread, like It Follows and The Witch.
House of the Devil takes its time. There are only a few characters and one main location, with much of the action concerning the main character walking slowly down shadowy hallways. West trusts his audience to figure out what is going on without beating them over the head with exposition. Violence, when it comes, is short and brutal, but mostly the film is content to let you wonder at what hides in the shadows. There isn’t a lot of new material here – we’re in the same territory as Rosemary’s Baby – but its approach is what counts. At a moment in time when screens were cluttered with Paranormal Activity clones and remakes, House of the Devil was a lasting reminder that quiet, dark and isolated is still the scariest combination of all. | Trailer
REC 2 – 2009 – Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza
The follow up to 2007’s REC, REC 2 starts right where the first one left off, in an apartment that is ground zero for an apparent zombie outbreak. Instead of a journalist’s camera feeding us the footage, this time we have SWAT team body cams.
Taken together (and they should be), these films are the terrifying high water mark for Romero-like zombies to date. Found footage is often a liability, but here, it imbues the action with a frantic immediacy. And, for zombie haters like myself, the fact that the cause for the outbreak isn’t rooted in the natural world is a twist that gives the antagonists a refreshingly diabolical intellect. We’re used to zombies being mindless, the animalistic horde, an inexorable tide that washes over us. There’s something to be afraid of there, but it is a cousin of the fear you feel when a hurricane blows in or an earthquake happens. When zombies start displaying talents that make them distinct from natural phenomenon, that display guile and cunning, that is when zombies are at their most chilling.
Note: avoid the Spanish sequels beyond the second installment and, at all costs, the American remake Quarantine. | Trailer
Triangle – 2009 – Christopher Smith
Triangle is one of those rare movies that rewards viewers who go in knowing next to nothing about it. Puzzling out the mechanics of the movie, how its parts fit together and effect each other, is one of Triangle’s joys, so I won’t go into too much detail as to what it is about. Suffice to say, it takes place on an abandoned cruise ship and is very strange and clever in the style of Richard Mattheson.
There’s some terrible computer generated effects, but don’t let that hamper your enjoyment. What you’ve got is a character-driven psychodrama – anchored by Melissa George’s excellent performance – that goes literally nowhere you can guess. In many ways, it is a structurally tighter cousin to Coherence, later in this list. | Trailer (don’t watch it)
Beyond the Black Rainbow – 2010 – Panos Cosmatos
Beyond the Black Rainbow is a divisive cult movie from Panos Cosmatos (son of George P. Cosmatos, director Leviathan, a slightly underrated riff on Alien and The Thing). The film is a ponderous, hypnotic thing that charts the story of a powerfully psychic woman’s escape from the hippie science cult into which she was born.
Don’t go into this looking for answers. Just sit back and enjoy the surreal, almost antagonistic visuals, the sumptuous synth score by Sinoia Caves (the solo project of Black Mountain’s Jeremy Schmidt) and the weirdest villain in a horror movie I’ve seen in recent memory. Aside of a strange detour into body horror, the movie maintains an unsettling, psychedelic atmosphere. It ends abruptly, though, and unsatisfyingly so, ultimately souring the experience of the film’s methodically slow and mystifying pace, but the journey is the destination as they say. | Trailer
The Booth at the End – 2010 – Christopher Kubasik
The Booth at the End is a Canadian TV series. Each season (of which I only recommend you watch the first) consists of five episodes that clock in at about twenty minutes each. As the tag line, “How Far Would You Go?” indicates, it is largely a musing on morality.
Every scene takes place in the same booth of the same diner, where The Man (an extremely mysterious Xander Berkeley) hands out tasks and, seemingly, grants wishes. Each scene is a conversation with one of his clients in which they lay out their progress, their trials and their tribulations. It quickly becomes apparent that the stories are interlinked. When the first season takes its final twists and turns, well…that would be telling.
While not quite horror, the first season is a perfectly written and constructed gem on par with the very best Richard Matheson stories and Twilight Zone episodes. The second season, though, while still entertaining, explains too much. If you want to keep that delicious air of mystery intact, you’d do well to skip it. | Trailer
Lake Mungo – 2010 – Joel Anderson
Lake Mungo takes a classic ghost story – a spirit returned to address to unfinished business – and buries it in a faux-documentary about a family’s grief at the loss of a teenage daughter. Both threads of the story examine the idea of closure from two very different perspectives, one supernatural and one all too real.
For the most part, Alice’s ghost takes the back seat to the surviving family’s struggle to accept her loss. June, the mother, brings in a psychic. Alice’s brother Mathew, discovers photographic evidence of the haunting. All of the proceedings are sad and very human – it is easy to imagine a family reacting this way in the face of such tragedy.
Amidst this atmosphere of mourning, the disquieting influences of the supernatural plays very well. Though subtle, they leave deep impressions. And when the mystery is unraveled, it adds to the melancholy rather than alleviating it.
This isn’t a movie that will make you jump out of your seat. There are plenty of monsters and ax-wielding maniacs out there for that. Rather, Lake Mungo mines a deeper kind of dread, that in the real world, a life can end at any time, without reason or explanation. | Trailer
Outcast – 2010 – Colm McCarthy
Outcast is a movie about magic. Specifically, it is about a clash between two people versed in a stranger and powerful folk tradition – Cathal, the hunter on one side and Mary, the hunted, on the other (James Nesbitt and Kate Dickie, in delightfully unrestrained roles). The prize is Mary’s son, who may or may not be connected to the monster that just started killing the locals. Or maybe Cathal is the monster. Who can tell?
Outcast makes no apologies for what it is. To give you a sense of its breakneck pace, it only takes about five minutes before you’re witnessing an elaborate magical ritual, complete with blood, nudity and strange runes. As the battle between the two characters unfolds, the movie teaches us just enough of the magical rules to follow along, but never so much that the mystery disappears.
Absolutely bonkers. Watch it.
Note: thick Scottish and Irish accents abound, so I recommend captions if you’re not used to that sort of thing. Also, don’t confuse this is the Robert Kirkman possession comic, the Cinemax series adapted from the same, or the crummy Nicholas Cage movie. | Trailer
Yellowbrickroad – 2010 – Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton
In the 40s, after a viewing of The Wizard of Oz, the residents of the small town of Friar walked into the wilderness. Authorities found only 300 bodies. The rest of the townsfolk were never found. Enter documentarians Teddy and Melissa, who want to lead an expedition up the trail – the titular “road” – and try to solve the mystery of what actually happened.
What follows is a by the numbers lost in the woods horror yarn, with some deliciously cosmic flavoring. The party, low on supplies and debilitated my loud, old-fashioned music without a source, soon deteriorate psychologically. Murder and suicide follow in short order. The whole thing is uneven as hell, and the ending aggravatingly meta, but the good parts – the spooky supernaturalism, the quick flashes of violence and the terrible isolation – capture something elusive about our very American fear of the wilderness. | Trailer
Grave Encounters – 2011 – The Vicious Brothers
Found footage horror movies rarely do it for me. I don’t like shaky cameras and night vision. Building on the foundation of the Blair Witch Project, characters tend toward erratic, overblown behavior. The audience inevitably wonders why the cameras keep rolling. Grave Encounters does all these things, yet manages to be greater than the sum of its annoying parts.
What Grave Encounters does that is interesting is use cameras, both remote and handheld, as a kind of map-making device. The remote cameras serve as markers of absolute positions, while the handheld cameras chart the interior space. This allows the filmmakers to simultaneously educate us on the shape of the space while scaring us by subtly altering it.
While the rest of the movie – snake-jawed ghosts, rough-hewn characters – is fine, the star of Grave Encounters is the abandoned mental hospital, an ever-shifting hostile space that inspires an equal mix of fear and despair. | Trailer
The Innkeepers – 2011 – Ti West
You don’t see too many ghost films in the vein of M. R. James these days, but that is exactly what The Innkeepers is. James was an early 20th century writer who perfected a non-gothic ghost story formula: a naïve protagonist goes to a picturesque place and disturbs a book or other musty object that invokes the wrath of the supernatural force from beyond the grave. That’s just what we have in The Innkeepers: naïve young Claire (an adorable Sara Paxton) works at a historic hotel that is supposedly haunted and her awkward forays into ghost hunting stir up a supernatural threat.
The first half of the movie feels like a horror comedy, which will make the turn in the back half to straight horror either jarring or exhilarating, depending on your taste. The ending is a downer and seems perhaps anticlimactic, but the injustice of it has lingered on in my mind for years. While not as important a movie as West’s House of the Devil, The Innkeepers has serious staying power. | Trailer
Kill List – 2011 – Ben Wheatley
One of many contemporary movies to follow in the footsteps of The Wicker Man, Kill List is a delirious blend of occult horror, Arthurian legend and crime drama that culminates in a series of events so unsettling that thinking about it still makes me uncomfortable.
The movie follows a former soldier turned contract killer as he works his way through the titular list. In doing so, he is performing a series of ritual killings that…well, the movie is unclear on exactly what is going on, preferring to let the questions be covered over by the blood from all the unrelenting violence. They linger, though, almost maddeningly so, and will continue to do so long after the credits roll. | Trailer
Take Shelter – 2011 – Jeff Nichols
Perhaps the least obviously horror movie in this guide, Take Shelter is a psychological thriller focused on the apparent mental unravelling of construction worker Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) who has dreams of betrayal and apocalyptic storms. Under financial and emotional pressure, he withdraws from friends and family to work on expanding an older underground storm shelter.
Shannon’s performance is complex, portraying many different Curtis LaForches, often simultaneously: the stable father and husband, the good employee, the son of a schizophrenic woman, a man beset by vision who doubts and believes in turn, a man whose violent frustration at the world and his lot in it simmer just below the surface. Often, the difference between these Curtises is a look in Shannon’s eye, or a twitch in his lips. The changes are subtle, but all the dread in the movie flows from them. And there is an ocean of dread here.
Director Jeff Nichols does much to reform the is-he-crazy-or-not protagonist cliché. In fact, LaForche’s mental state is almost secondary. He believes the storm is coming and it terrifies him. In turn, everyone around him, including his family, is terrified of him. And we, the viewers, know that eventually, the LaForche family is going to have to climb down into that storm shelter with Curtis. Will something terrible happen in there or will something terrible happen if they refuse to go in? I defy you to say that isn’t horror. | Trailer
Wake Wood – 2011 – David Keating
Summarizing Wake Wood does it no justice: a couple loses their child and, through a strange ceremony, gets her back for three days. What will they do when they have to let her go again? Sounds like a tedious, sentimental tear-jerker, right?
Wrong. Another entry in The Wicker Man-inspired occult horror out of England, Wake Wood is a dark meditation on family, lies and the subversion of the natural order. It was agonizing to watch.
Bonus: Littlefinger playing neither Littlefinger nor a Baltimore politician. | Trailer
Berberian Sound Studio – 2012 – Peter Strickland
What a strange and wonderful movie, a masterpiece of atmosphere and a horrific ode to the craft of filmmaking. When English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives in Italy, he is expecting to work on a nature film only to find that he’s been hired by a studio doing post-production for a gory giallo. Like a meek, baby-faced Gulliver, Gilderoy is beset by a phantasmagoric cast and crew of Italians who range from sensual to monstrous. He quickly unravels into a mental breakdown.
Like a dream, or a giallo, the particulars of the plot are less important than the feelings they inspire. For Berberian Sound Studio, much of that comes from sound, through the work of Gilderoy. We witness his painstaking recording work and, through it, we come to understand a bit of the film he’s working on and the people he’s working with. Mostly, though, we discover layer upon layer of artifice, these slices of sound without context, examined, replayed, distorted. That’s not the sound of a skull splitting, that’s a watermelon. That’s not the actress in the scene speaking, that’s voice actor’s dub. What of Gilderoy, the unwitting magician in the center of the illusion? How real is he? | Trailer
Byzantium – 2012 – Neil Jordan
Vampires are always in danger of going out of style, but they never seem to sink entirely into stale irrelevance. Someone always picks them up, dusts them off with a new take and sends them on their way again. With Byzantium, Neil Jordan does that for the second time in his career.
Set in both the modern day and during the Napoleonic wars, the film centers on a mother and daughter, how they came to be vampires and how they’ve survived in the modern world.
In many ways, Byzantium continues to examine many of Interview with a Vampire’s themes – immortal children, the nature of family, the vampire’s role in the world’s larger ecosystem – with none of that earlier movie’s tortured foppery. It is also more beautiful: fields of cabbage and seaside villages and blood red waterfalls make for a visually arresting experience. | Trailer
The Devil’s Business – 2012 – Sean Hogan
Another occult horror/crime drama (I actually saw this the same night as Kill List), The Devil’s Business is a clever short film that is as literary as it is Tarantino-esque. Two hit men waiting for their victim to return home from the opera (Berlioz’s Faust, of course) tell stories about their scariest experiences. Of course, scarier things are in store as unexplainable occurrences and evidence of ritual magic begin to pile up. The climax is a deft mix of diabolism and noir moralism that would be right at home in an M.R. James story. | Trailer
Grabbers – 2012 – Jon Wright
A horror comedy in the vein of Tremors, finds an island off the coast of Ireland beset by blood-sucking tentacle aliens. The twist? They won’t attack a drunk. Many, many jokes about the Irish predilection for booze ensue.
Grabbers is a silly movie with a great monster, one of the best looking in recent memory. Sometimes, that’s all you need. | Trailer
John Dies at the End – 2012 – Don Coscarelli
A plot summary will do you no good. John Dies at the End is essentially a string of interconnected “What the fuck?” moments that range from silly to spooky to downright bizarre. In Coscarelli’s hands, though, such weirdness not only works, but seems plausible (compare this to the cold, calculated zaniness of 2013’s Odd Thomas).
John Dies at the End is further proof that Don Coscarelli is going to do what Don Coscarelli wants to do. That makes the Phantasm director a bit of an acquired taste, true, but it is nice to see a veteran horror director still putting out quality stuff that bears his indelible stamp. | Trailer
The Pact – 2012 – Nicholas McCarthy
The Pact turns the haunted house story on its head. McCarthy is relentless in subverting horror clichés. Scream taught us the rules for horror movies and as much as those rules drive the story, we also take comfort in them. We have an idea of who is going to die and when. We know how it is going to end. McCarthy gleefully destroys that machinery.
When I watched The Pact, I had no idea what was going on, and that made it one of the best horror flicks I’ve seen in years. You should do the same. | Trailer
The Shrine – 2012 – Jon Knautz
I checked out The Shrine because the titular idol, a beast-headed statue shrouded in mist, was a gorgeous visual, not because the tired plot of filmmakers travelling to Eastern Europe to investigate missing tourists promised any great thrills. I was so wrong.
The first third of the movie consists of nice stage-setting, needless character development and the wonderfully spooky scene in which the characters encounter the mysterious statue. The second third of the movie is a cult-themed riff on the Hostel movies. In the last third, following a masterful twist, the movie careens into the best Evil Dead homage ever filmed. Perhaps I simply had zero expectations, but The Shrine delivered more surprises than I ever would have guessed. | Trailer
A Field in England – 2013 – Ben Wheatley
Ben Wheatley might be the best horror director working today. I can think of no other movie in this guide that disturbed me so greatly and stuck with me as long as Kill List. A Field in England, while perhaps not being entirely a horror movie, is a close second. Giving a viewer that feeling of being haunted by a movie is perhaps Wheatley’s greatest skill as a filmmaker.
I don’t know exactly how to summarize the movie. Black and white, set during the time of the English Civil War, it follows a group of deserters ensorcelled by a black magician (the riveting Michael Smiley) into digging for treasure. Also hallucinogenic mushrooms.
It is a minimalist movie in many ways. Wheatley doesn’t have much to work with at all: the titular field, some wind, some trees, a hole in the ground. The most elaborate feature of the movie is the period costuming. All else – the psychedelica, the supernatural occurrences, the atmosphere of dread – are all achieved through deft camera work and the strength of the performances. The key scene, when Reece Shearsmith’s character is changed into a magically possessed bloodhound, amounts to a bunch of bearded men running through the grass, yet somehow it still manages to be disturbing. And my God, the screams… | Trailer
The ABCs of Death (1 & 2) – 2013, 2014 – Various directors, produced by Ant Timpson and Tim League
In a nutshell: two anthologies consisting of 26 short films, each devoted to a letter of the alphabet representing a manner of death, directed by an international collection of noteworthy horror directors. If this sounds like it should be a disaster, well, you’re kind of right.
It is a glorious disaster, though. While both collections are uneven, there are some brilliant moments. Ben Wheatley’s “U is for Unearthed” and Marcel Sarmiento’s “D is for Dogfight” stand out in the first volume while Kristina Buozyte’s “K is for Knell” and Rodney Ascher’s “Q is for Questionnaire” are prime cuts in the second (which, admittedly, is far more consistent in terms of quality).
Good or bad doesn’t really matter in this context, though. The ABCs of Death is a bit like horror speed dating. The short length of each segment creates a kind of exaggerated, machine gun rhythm that may not satisfy but is certainly never boring. And there is diversity on display here that illuminates interesting facets of what different cultures find horrific. It will be interesting in the coming years to see what new terrors spring from directors showcased here. | Trailer
Blood Glacier – 2013 – Marvin Kren
The premise of Blood Glacier (also known as The Station) – that climate change melts a glacier to reveal an ancient and deadly substance that mutates animals it comes in contact with – is damn terrifying and used to fantastic visual effect when the protagonists discover the titular claret-hued edifice.
The movie is one big homage, to Carpenter’s The Thing, to the mutant bear of Prophecy, to the over-the-top craziness of Evil Dead 2, to every movie that has confined its characters someplace they don’t want to be with something deadly outside keeping them there. Blood Glacier is not a great movie, but it does become a kind of patchwork monument to its influences.
The mutant animals are the highlight. When you first see them, you’re going to groan – they aren’t the product of the best special effects – but after a while, they become so bonkers they’re impossible not to love. And their weirdness drives the plot to ever more elaborate contortions. I can’t think of a movie in recent memory that made me so frequently ask “What the fuck?” I doubt it will scare you, but it is definitely a hoot. | Trailer
The Borderlands – 2013 – Elliot Goldner
A found footage film (ugh) about an investigation of a haunted English church. The poltergeist disturbances are fairly pedestrian, but what the movie lacks in outright scares, it makes up for in rural atmosphere. There is an unpleasant hostility lurking in nearly every outdoor shot. However, it is the ending, a frantic chase into the caves below the haunted church, that truly makes The Borderlands a memorable experience. To say anymore, though, would ruin the surprise. | Trailer
Coherence – 2013 – James Ward Byrkit
Coherence turned my brain inside out.
We have a dinner party during the passing of a comet. Well, that’s not entirely true. We have several parallel dinner parties during the passing of a comet…a cascade of dinner parties. And everyone is trying figure out what is going on and how to be the one remaining dinner party when this pocket multiverse collapses. Or, at least, to still be with the dinner party you started out with. Because, your spouse from a parallel reality isn’t really your spouse. Right?
As high concept and jam-packed with quantum physics as Coherence is, it is also a very tightly filmed, claustrophobic, character-driven movie. In fact, the cast, playing these eight longtime friends, is astoundingly good. They laugh off weirdness, they talk over each other, they freak out and calm down, they take refuge in knowledge gleaned from NPR. There is a plausibility in their actions and reactions that I have, frankly, never seen in a horror film.
And it is a horror film. Despite its science fiction elements, its Twilight Zone vibe, its lack of violence and outright scares, Coherence‘s grounding in character plumbs the depths not of psychological horror, but philosophical horror. | Trailer
Escape from Tomorrow – 2013 – Randy Moore
I don’t think Escape from Tomorrow, the sci-fi/horror movie about the evil secrets lurking in Disney World is very good on its own. The idea that the happiest place on earth has a sordid underbelly is nothing new, nor is the protagonist’s descent into madness and conspiracy theory.
What is worth the price of admission is the fact that the movie was shot, covertly, in Disney World and Epcot Center. It is rare that a gimmick like that can carry an entire movie, but that is the case with Escape from Tomorrow. It presents an untidy face to the theme park that is seldom, if ever, seen. And a quietly threatening one – the park, designed for huge crowds of people, seems hungry when you see it empty at night.
Were it not for the gimmick, Escape from Tomorrow would be fare for Mystery Science Theater. With it, it is a curious, horror-tinged artifact of pop culture. | Trailer\
Europa Report – 2013 – Sebastian Cordero
A faux documentary chronicling the doomed voyage of mankind’s first crewed mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa Report is a brilliant inversion of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Here, our space-faring characters are actively seeking extraterrestrial life on a hostile world.
Their mortal struggle, while claustrophobic and often terrifying, is not one of personal survival, but rather for the survival of their experience and the scientific proof of life on other planets. Their personal safety is secondary to broadcasting their research and their video footage back to earth (yes, this is another found footage film, but don’t let that get you down). It is the rare horror film that leaves the audience feeling uplifted. | Trailer
Jug Face – 2013 – Chad Crawford Kinkle
Jug Face is a bit of backwoods horror and the closest thing I’ve encountered in film to the literary work of Laird Barron.
Ada, a teen girl who is pregnant with her brother’s child, seeks to escape her isolated community. Unfortunately, that community worships a strange pit in the ground – whatever the pit is, it has the power to heal in exchange for periodic blood sacrifice and Ada is the next victim. Her attempt to avoid this fate lead to a series of gruesome supernatural reprisals.
Jug Face is a complicated movie, both in plot and subtext. The former is unfolded deftly, revealing an elaborate mythology without ever stooping to laborious exposition. The latter is a bleak commentary on duty, community and cruel destiny. All of it is supported by a fantastic set of performances, particularly by Sean Young and Sean Bridgers (whose turn as Dawai, a dim-witted potter, has stayed with me a very long time). | Trailer
Resolution – 2013 – Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead
Resolution sees a successful guy tracking down his junkie childhood friend to a remote cabin, where he proceeds to chain his friend up and force him to go cold turkey off the drugs. Then the mysterious packages start showing up – video tapes, filmstrips, photos – showing events that haven’t happened yet or would have been impossible to record. As the mystery deepens, it appears that some kind of supernatural entity is manipulating events.
Much of the success of the movie rests on the good buddy interactions of the two lead characters. As things get increasingly unnerving and reality begins to strain, they keep the movie grounded. Resolution is a heady slow burn that questions the relationship between the audience and the film they are viewing, and earns every bit of its chilling climax without jump scares, gore or any cheap tricks. | Trailer
Wer – 2013 – William Brent Bell
When a strange loner is accused of viciously murdering a vacationing family, his lawyer orders a series of medical tests that reveal he has a kind of porphyria that gives him superhuman strength and speed. Wer is not a werewolf movie in the Lon Chaney sense of a literal wolf-man, but rather it takes its inspiration from tales of men driven to lunacy, like Peter Stubbe, who was accused of tearing babies from the womb with his bare teeth in 1589.
The movie has its silly moments, but this fresh take coupled with the novel approach of telling portions of the story through news coverage, makes for one of the best takes on lycanthropy in recent memory. | Trailer
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – 2014 – Ana Lily Amirpour
Is it a horror movie? A film noir? A romance? Who cares? A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t concerned with playing to genre. Instead, it works ceaselessly to make you feel a spectrum of emotions associated with those genres. When the Girl flashes her fangs, we’re scared. When the pimp swaggers, we’re revolted. When Arash slides slowly across the screen to embrace the Girl, our hearts swell.
It is shot in lush black and white; it is quiet; it shows rather than tells; it has a hip soundtrack. Yet, unlike other recent indie vampire movies (ahem, Only Lovers Left Alive), there isn’t any bullshit in A Girl. She is still a vampire. She is still terrifying, in that specific way that vampires are, when she is hunting. And even when she isn’t. Even though you know she has some kind of feelings for Arash, you watch, tensed, every second they are together, wondering if the next moment is the one when her hunger overrides her more human emotions.
A fantastic debut. | Trailer
Afflicted – 2014 – Derek Lee and Clif Prowse
Afflicted is a found footage horror film (I know, found footage is awful, but trust me on this) that follows two friends who are documenting their round-the-world trip. After an encounter with a woman at a bar, Derek starts to change in surprising ways.
“Why are they still filming?” is the question that kills most found footage movies, but Afflicted’s cameras keep rolling because Derek’s changes demand it. Clif is a documentary filmmaker, so his compulsion falls in line with the audience’s voyeuristic desire to see more. And because of his skill, we’re treated to deft camera work instead of nausea-inducing shakes. If only all found footage was so well-crafted. | Trailer
At the Devil’s Door – 2014 – Nicholas McCarthy
McCarthy’s follow up to The Pact is an occult horror movie about diabolical bargains, ghosts and Rosemary-style babies. The movie takes place in two time frames: the 1980s, when a teenage girl has sold her soul; and the modern day, when two sisters struggle to piece together the circumstances of her suicide.
The movie is at its best in the 1980s, especially the scenes in the desert when the girl first brushes against the supernatural. While it is refreshing to have a horror movie focus solely on interesting women character, the rest of the movie feels prosaic in comparison.
Compared to his earlier movie, At the Devil’s Door is uneven, but his relentless extermination of horror movie clichés, twisting narrative and surprising creature effects still make this worth a watch, even as the movie runs out of steam at the end. | Trailer
The Babadook – 2014 – Jennifer Kent
I initially left The Babadook out of this guide because I felt that it got enough attention around its release to no longer qualify as lesser-known. And yet, I still see people asking about it or announcing that they only recently discovered it for the first time. It seems, perhaps, that even the bigger horror films are still lesser-known.
The Babadook is one of the best horror films to see release this decade. It follows a widow who is struggling to raise her son after the death of his father. The struggle with their lingering grief, and the psychological dysfunction that comes with it, becomes manifest in the titular Babadook, a sinister boogey-man intent on driving the pair to kill each other.
Like other great horror movies of the past, The Babadook works as a hair-raiser as well as a pure allegory. A musing on grief and loss, driven by powerful performances by Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, the film keeps the viewer in a perpetually off-balance state. Throughout, you are forced to question where your sympathies lie. | Trailer
Black Mountain Side – 2014 – Nick Szostakiwskyj
There’s a couple things you need to know about Black Mountain Side. First, it belongs to recently developing horror sub-genre that worships John Carpenter’s The Thing (Almost Human, Blood Glacier, The Void). Second, its central antagonist suffers from budget constraints in ways similar to Late Phases (below). If you can’t get past those two things, Black Mountain Side isn’t for you.
In the movie, we follow a team of archaeologists working on a snowy, isolated Canadian mountain. Their discovery of a stone structure that pre-dates the local native population leads to excitement that eventually gives way to paranoia and supernatural mayhem.
Black Mountain Side boast some excellent atmosphere and character development. Unlike The Thing, we get to spend more time with the team, which makes their fates all the more terrible. There’s also a great sense of ambiguity – is this all caused by an ancient bacteria? An forest spirit? Something else entirely? The answers are outside the scope of the movie, and that’s a good thing. | Trailer
The Canal – 2014 – Ivan Kavanaugh
I hesitate to call The Canal a good movie. Something about its handling of the jealous husband going off the rails into a supernatural phantasmagoria feels tired, or at least terribly familiar. And yet…the saturated colors, the horrific hallucinations, the disgusting public bathroom, the hand crank film camera and the vague hints of Satanic mayhem all add up to something memorable.
It seems the best horror coming out of the British Isles is preoccupied with anxieties derived from the tribulations of the family unit. The Canal is no exception: director Ivan Kavanaugh relishes picking at the emotional scabs of Rupert Evans’ haunted widower, much to the discomfort of the audience. | Trailer
Cub – 2014 – Jonas Govaerts
A Belgian film following a troop of boy scouts on a weekend camping trip. The boys are a mix of bullies and bullied, the worst of the former a boy named Sam with a traumatic past. Meanwhile, the scout masters are young, goofy, horny and probably only marginally qualified to care for a large group of boys in the wilderness. Naturally, they camp in the wrong place and run afoul of a poacher, his feral son and their numerous death traps.
Cub (alternately Welp) is a strange mix of humor, adventure and horror movie clichés, but it somehow pulls itself together into a decent enough flick, though it goes completely off the rails in the second half. Still, the characters are well-drawn and the direction is capable. Govaerts’ career is off to a good start. | Trailer
Don’t Blink – 2014 – Travis Oates
It took me a couple tries to get through Don’t Blink. It starts with all the eye-rolling clichés. A group of oh-so-pretty couples is on their way to a getaway at a secluded cabin. Amid all the light-hearted “character building” banter of the first 15 minutes, there are enough false alarm jump scares to justify even the most open-minded viewer turning it off. It also has a bit of that soap opera, shot-on-video look. Blech.
Stay the course. Once Don’t Blink settles into the plot, it is more than effective. People at the cabin are disappearing. Not just wandering off to get lost, but literally blinking out of existence, along with all evidence of their physical presence. Things quickly get violent and philosophical in turns. After all, if they’re going to cease to exist, there’s no real consequence to any of their actions, right?
While not the quality of Coherence, the result, especially in the final act, is nice bit of well-written, high concept horror. | Trailer
Enemy – 2014 – Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve’s doppelganger psychodrama is, like Take Shelter, not presented to audiences covered in clichéd horror signifiers, but I consider it a horror movie nonetheless. Struck from the mold of a Hitchcockian thriller, we meet Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a boring history teacher who seems to have unfulfilling relationships with the people around him. Through chance, he discovers the existence of an actor (also Jake Gyllenhaal, now mostly acting like a douche) who looks just like him. Adam immediately begins to obsess over the actor, contacting him, meeting him. Their two lives intertwine and lines between them blur until it all reaches an unbelievable climax. Literally: I had to play it back several times. I still can’t quite come to terms with how the film ends.
As you might imagine, the film is rife with the enigmas of identity. Gyllenhaal plays both rolls with distinct flavors of paranoia – there are no reliable narrators here – and the sense of unease lingers long after the credits roll. It reminds me quite a bit of Roland Topor’s The Tenant, but with more spiders. | Trailer
Honeymoon – 2014 – Leigh Janiak
Bea (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie) and Paul (Penny Dreadful’s Harry Treadaway) play a just-married couple spending their honeymoon in a cabin in the woods. Bea wanders off in the middle of the night and begins acting strangely. Horror movie hijinks ensue.
On paper, Honeymoon is everything I want from a horror movie these days – small cast, single location, character-driven conflict – but, it doesn’t entirely gel for me. The inter-personal drama quickly becomes too shrill, the mystery of what is actually going on is too vague and the elements of body horror too gross, verging on exploitative.
Janiak excels in atmosphere, however, and builds a surprising sense of place. And, while the performances grate on me, the quiet moments between the arguments are heavy with tension and psychological exhaustion. It is those moments that propel the movie to its effective and disturbing climax – one born of compassion rather than malice. Honeymoon is Janiak’s directorial debut, so I am keen to see what she does next. | Trailer
Housebound – 2014 – Gerard Johnstone
Housebound is a horror comedy about a woman sentenced to house arrest in her mother’s (potentially, maybe, probably?) haunted house. Kylie, our felon, is an unflappable tough girl, determined to remain unfazed by any creepy goings-on. This makes the majority of the movie feel lighthearted. That is, until Kylie’s cool exterior starts to crack – then the scares are as good as they come.
Like many horror movies in this guide, Housebound is interested in the dynamics of family, particularly the relationship between Kylie and her mother. Both are fully drawn characters rather than archetypes, and this elevates an otherwise silly-seeming story.
Despite this, the movie never loses a certain manic quality. And, while Johnstone’s love of early Peter Jackson movies like Bad Taste and Dead Alive on full display, Housebound refuses to go where you expect it to, right up to the very end. | Trailer
Late Phases – 2014 – Adrián García Bogliano
Let’s get one thing out of the way: if you want to see an awesome werewolf that doesn’t look like a guy in a bad Halloween costume, Late Phases is not for you. The werewolf costumes are terrible. There is no getting around it. Despite this, it is a novel werewolf movie. Weird, I know.
The film follows Nick Damici (Stake Land) as a blind Vietnam vet moving in to a new retirement community that just so happens to be plagued by a werewolf. Damici plays his blindness well and it makes for an effective way to ratchet up tension in scenes that might have otherwise felt cliche. The strength of Damici’s performance also allows the film to strikes emotional chords on aging, mortality and father/son relationships.
The transformation scenes are very well done and the story, clearly inspired by Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, introduces some satisfying twists in the age-old wolf-man story. If it wasn’t for those god-awful werewolf costumes, it would be easy to call Late Phases the best werewolf movie in recent memory. | Trailer
The Sacrament – 2014 – Ti West
I generally eschew stories about real world horrors of slashers and spree killers – supernatural horror is infinitely more appealing – but the strange case of Jim Jones has always been an exception. How could a charismatic religious leader incite so many otherwise reasonable people into committing mass suicide?
Ti West’s found footage film The Sacrament attempts to provide some insight into that question. A team of filmmakers (from Vice Media, of all places) gets access to a fictionalized version of Jonestown and their presence is the unwitting catalyst for the ensuing massacre. Any well-informed audience member should know what is coming and West exploits that to the fullest, ratcheting up the tension with every scene. When the film finally reaches the tipping point, the dread is almost unbearable. | Trailer
Starry Eyes – 2014 – Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
Starry Eyes turns the Hollywood casting couch into a literal deal with the devil.
Sarah is a struggling actor facing profound pressures, both internal and external. When presented with the diabolical offer, we understand her temptation, but we’re also disappointed when she gives in. She is immediately punished for her weakness with a rapid and horrific physical decline. The moral of the story: be a good little girl and bad things won’t happen to you.
Except, Sarah’s not being punished. She’s changing, coming into her power. At the end of the movie, she gets what she wanted and, despite the fact that something evil is going on, we’re happy for her.
It is a complicated movie. On the surface, it seems like Starry Eyes would have much in common with the occult Los Angeles of 2016’s Neon Demon. But it’s true sister is The Witch, whose story of an oppressed young women finding liberation and power in the diabolical (read: outside accepted social structures) could be Starry Eyes’ twin if not for the historical setting. | Trailer
Styria – 2014 – Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf
Based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal vampire tale Carmilla, Styria (also known as Angel of Darkness) gets its lore and atmosphere right, even if its characters and plotting fall short.
The movie focuses on Lara, a young girl who travels with her father to an abandoned hospital to find murals painted by an obscure artist before his death. While there, Lara meets Carmilla, the titular vampire, and the two embark on a tumultuous relationship. That relationship, romantic and mercurial, is the heart of the story, but alas, woefully underdeveloped in the film. Worse, unclear direction at the climax leaves the eventual plague of vampirism puzzling rather than frightening.
There are positives, however. The history of the vampire is only hinted at, which adds to the allure. The setting, with its decay and hidden hot springs and vast estate grounds, is delightfully gothic. And the murals, once discovered, are amazing.
A flawed entry into the ever-expanding world of vampires, but better than most – which says something about most vampire movies these days… | Trailer
The Taking of Deborah Logan – 2014 – Adam Robitel
Yet another found footage horror film, The Taking of Deborah Logan follows a team of students making an Alzheimer’s disease documentary with the titular Mrs. Logan as its subject.
Though what ails Logan isn’t truly Alzheimer’s disease, while the audience is under that impression, the filmmakers treat it with care and sympathy. When things take a turn for the supernatural, that character development falls to the wayside in favor of an occult mystery and the usual spooky tricks.
Taking suffers from all the usual found footage foibles (why the hell are they still filming?) but holds together in the end, mostly thanks to Jill Larson’s multifaceted work in the role of Logan. It also helps that the climactic scene includes a how-did-they-do-that visual that will burrow into your brain. | Trailer
The Blackcoat’s Daughter – 2015 – Oz Perkins
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (also known as February) is a steady drip of dread. By the end of the film, you’re drowning in it.
Set both in the recent past, where we follow the plight of two teenage girls stuck at their boarding school over a winter break and the present, which involves a hitchhiking girl picked up by a pair of grieving parents. The mystery of how those two plots connect is just one of many involving diabolism, murder and despair. Inch by inch, it builds to the climax, along with its sudden, subtle twist.
On some level, we often expect horror films to be abstractions and parables of social anxieties. It is unusual to find one rooted in personal traumas, let alone one where the wounds run so deep. These stories bypass our cynical armor, and it is devastating. Such is the case with The Blackcoat’s Daughter. | Trailer
Note: The trailer – filled with implied jump scares when the movie utterly lacks them – does not do the movie justice, so viewer beware.
Bone Tomahawk – 2015 – S. Craig Zahler
Bone Tomahawk – perhaps best described as The Searchers, but with cannibals – was the best horror movie I saw in 2015.
Much of this is down to the strength of the cast. Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox put in fine performances and it is a delight to have Kurt Russell (and his profound whiskers) back in a horror film, but Richard Jenkins’ Chicory steals the show with his good-natured deputy.
The foursome get plenty of time to reveal themselves and interact on the road – in this way, it is almost a buddy road trip movie. Which is the second great joy of Bone Tomahawk: it does what it pleases.
The movie doesn’t care that you want to see the cannibals. It takes its time, meandering around town, lingering by camp fires, introducing supporting characters that don’t do much other than make the world seem alive (including cameos by an improbably Sean Young and Zahn McClarnon, who had a brilliant turn in the second season of Fargo as Hanzee Dent). All this aimlessness makes the horrible confrontation of the movie’s climax all the more distressing.
Because you don’t actually want to see the cannibals. What you really want is to have these characters on a show like Bonanza, to visit them every week, to see them grow through their long and interesting lives. Instead, you get death and brutality that echoes long after you’ve finished watching. | Trailer
The Hallow – 2015 – Corin Hardy
Your standard isolated house under siege by supernatural forces, mixed with a liberal dose of Irish folk horror. The Hallow stands out for the break neck pace of its horror, and its continual willingness to up the ante. By the climax, which plays out in a vast cave complex, you can scarcely believe the how situation has escalated.
The movie draws heavily on fairy lore, remixing liberally with new ideas (They’re made out fungus! They can infect you!) that disguise classic elements of legends (They’re weak against iron! They make changelings!) until you’re right in the middle of them. This makes The Hallow feel fresh and familiar at the same time.
The way the film handles the folk horror elements is particularly interesting. Everyone who lives in town knows about the haunted woods. They (gruffly) give good advice the entire time (Stay out of the woods!), but they never say why. In most movies, this hides some sinister intent, but for the locals in The Hallow, it’s down to mix of fear and embarrassment. It’s a curious, and intriguing, motivation.
Bonus: a Michael Smiley cameo. | Trailer
It Follows – 2015 – David Robert Mitchell
I do not love It Follows. Whatever it has in atmosphere, in that terrifying notion of a figure walking toward you in the middle of the night, whatever psycho-sexual subtext the movie has, I can’t get past its gaps in logic and ridiculous set pieces.
I also can’t stop thinking about it. It is a beautiful film. The soundtrack, by Disasterpeace, is a perfect love letter to John Carpenter’s scores. It all seems important somehow. It just doesn’t speak to me. But while I get hung up on why the kids in the movie don’t just trap the Follower in a pit, or how daft that swimming pool scene is, I also recognize that just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. It is.
Perhaps it will speak to you. | Trailer
The Nightmare – 2015 – Rodney Ascher
Rodney Ascher’s career has been dedicated to collecting the stories of people who believe unusual things. Room 237 was less about theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining than it was about the people who came up with them. The same can be said of the people in The S From Hell who feared the Screen Gems logo. Ascher’s latest, The Nightmare, collects the stories of eight people suffering from sleep paralysis.
Since Ascher is most interested in the experience of sleep paralysis rather than the science, the documentary is largely devoted to recreating the waking nightmares of its subjects. Because sleep paralysis is rooted in how the human brain works – every human brain – the aliens and shadow people and succubi the film presents seem uniquely universal in their capacity to terrify. It is quite possibly the scariest documentary ever filmed. | Trailer
Portal to Hell!!! – 2015 – Vivieno Caldinelli
In his last role, the late Roddy Piper (They Live) is Jack, the custodian of a crummy apartment building filled with needy, and weird, tenants. Things get strange one night when the titular portal opens up in the basement and Jack has to deal with it.
A short horror comedy that covers a lot of ground and pulls no punches in its twenty-minute runtime, Portal to Hell is exactly the kind of note I wanted Piper to go out on. Highly recommended. | Trailer
Spring – 2015 – Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead
Spring is two movies. The horror portion culminates at around the 75 minute mark. Past that, all the mystery drains out and it becomes a fairly conventional romance (albeit one with a monster). Taken together, despite some chilling moments and nice creature effects, it is a bit of a mess.
What I find intriguing about Spring has little to do with the movie itself, but rather with how Benson and Moorhead attempt to push the boundaries of what can be accepted as horror. This is a film that avoids horror clichés and yet, at times, is still frightening. It manages to be Lovecraftian without being bleak or nihilistic – it is a love story, for Pete’s sake. It is an experiment that tries something new.
They don’t entirely succeed – I’d say their previous effort, Resolution, is a far more effective film – but I appreciate the attempt. And look forward to their next outing. | Trailer
They Look Like People – 2015 – Perry Blackshear
Either Wyatt is either schizophrenic or demons are taking over the people around him in preparation for the apocalypse. They Look Like People is the story of how he and his best friend sort out what’s really going on.
Historically, horror is a genre that has not treated mental illness well. They Look Like People is a rare exception, firmly positioning Wyatt as the subject of sympathy. The scary things that are happening are primarily happening to Wyatt. Even as things get progressively worse, we never lose sight of the fact that he is a regular, likeable person struggling with something outside his control, and that he is the most effected.
Admittedly, I can see They Look Like People being divisive, especially if you’re of the horror school that puts emphasis on dramatic twists. If you’re looking for a subdued, lo-fi character study, you’re in for a treat. | Trailer
We Are Still Here – 2015 – Ted Geoghegan
We Are Still Here is a refreshing sort of throwback, the kind of horror movie you’d expect to find in theaters in the late 70s or in a video store circa 1988, packaged in a box with an awesome, if not entirely accurate, painting on the front.
A middle-aged couple (refreshing!) moves into a new house. That house is haunted. Worse, it serves as a kind of ritual space – the ghosts kill to appease something living under the town. So long as the sacrifices are made ever thirty years or so, the town stays safe.
There aren’t many surprises here. In fact, in a lot of ways, I love the trailer more than the actual movie. But that is OK – like that VHS box from the video store, that’s part of the experience and it is one we don’t get much of anymore. | Trailer
The Autopsy of Jane Doe – 2016 – André Øvredal
André Øvredal’s follow-up to Trollhunter is full of potential. Its good parts merit a watch, but beware: there is plenty of bad.
The first half of the movie is amazing. A father and son mortician team receive the corpse of a young girl found half-buried at the scene of a bizarre homicide. Almost immediately, strange things being to happen in the morgue, centered on their charge. The pair begins the autopsy and discover a number of startling injuries – her tongue was removed, her bones smashed and her lungs blackened as if she’d been in a fire. Tension ratchets up as the first half of the movie culminates in the satisfying reveal of just what Jane Doe really is.
Up to this point, the movie is clever in presenting its central mystery and creative in providing supernatural scares – the autopsy procedural is a brilliant entryway into the supernatural. After the reveal, though, you can shut it off. It becomes rapidly apparent that the film has no idea what to do with the fantastic build-up of the first half and squanders all the potential by sinking into tired horror movie clichés (Zombies! It was all a dream!). It also ceases to make sense – the antagonist’s motivations and actions relative to her situation and history don’t line up at all. In the beginning, you have no idea where the trip will lead you, but by the halfway mark, you know exactly where it will end. | Trailer
Better Watch Out – 2016 – Chris Peckover
A short preamble. I am not going to say a lot about Better Watch Out because it is a genuinely surprising Christmas-themed horror film. The marketing campaign bills it as “What if Home Alone, but horror?” and while I find that to be an oversimplification, it isn’t entirely inaccurate. Finally, my taste in horror skews firmly toward the supernatural, I hope the fact that I am recommending a straight slasher picture carries some weight in terms of just how good it is.
The set-up in simple. It is Christmas. Luke, a 12-year-old, has a crush on his babysitter, Ashley, who is shortly leaving for college. This is Luke’s last chance to tell Ashley how he feels and he has a plan for how to do it, but troubles with Ashley’s boyfriend and other unexpected events soon turn a weird romantic comedy into a full-fledged siege movie. There’s much mayhem, but the film somehow manages to keep a comedic heart and at the end, I might have even cheered a bit in my living room. Highly recommended for the holidays. | Trailer (don’t watch it)
Demon – 2016 – Marcin Wrona
As an American viewer, I suspect there are depths of horror in Demon that I do not feel, that only resonate for those who were born and live in a Poland haunted by the ghosts of World War II. Yet, even across that cultural gulf, Demon satisfies.
Demon revolves around the wedding of Piotr and Zaneta (the worst wedding ever), as it plays out at Zaneta’s ancestral home. Piotr is an outsider, isolated by culture, tradition and language. That leaves him undefended when he falls prey to a local spirit.
What follows is a harrowing possession that examines the dynamics of family, social capital, mental illness and the shameful secrets of the past. Demon is chilling, but also funny, and manages to tap that special kind of horror family can evoke, especially when they insist of carrying on a happy occasion at all cost, even when the joy has long since disappeared. | Trailer
Green Room – 2016 – Jeremy Saulnier
I very much wanted to classify Saulnier’s previous movie, the violent revenge/crime film Blue Ruin, as a horror movie so I could include it in this guide, but that would bend the criteria too far for my conscience (go see it though!). Green Room, however, needs no such contortions.
A siege horror movie in the classic Carpenter fashion, Green Room sees a punk band playing a show at a remote neo-Nazi club. Things are tense – especially when, in true punk fashion, the band opens their set with a cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” – but they make it through unscathed. Until they witness a murder. Holed up in the titular room, the punks try to survive the skinheads and, well, it’s a horror movie. You know where this is going.
Patrick Stewart’s brusque, matter-of-fact monstrousness as the neo-Nazi leader and Anton Yelchin’s desperate, emotionally wounded turn as the band’s guitarist are noteworthy, as is the timing of the movie’s release. Green Room, like several other recent genre films (Arrival, High-Rise), benefits from a certain resonance with the current political climate. Already a great movie, this will likely ensure its place as a future classic. | Trailer
He Never Died – 2016 – Jason Krawczyk
He Never Died is a snappy horror/comedy featuring old punk Henry Rollins as Jack, a solitary man whose routines are upset first by a teenage daughter he didn’t know he had, then by local criminals he used to work for. He’s also a cannibal. Or maybe a vampire. Or the immortal first murderer. Anyway, bloody hijinx ensue.
Despite the action, He Never Died is essentially a character study and the movie’s success rests on Rollins’ shoulders. He rises to the challenge, using his frowning seriousness for both horrific and humorous effect. There’s also a sadness to Jack, whose rigid habits minimize his bloodlust, but also isolate him from the world. The movie wants to celebrate his restraint as heroic (sort of – Jack is actually coldly calculating about his self-exile), while asking, what’s the point of immortality if you don’t get to live? It’s an interesting question. | Trailer
Hell House LLC – 2016 – Stephen Cognetti
Another flawed gem, Hell House LLC is a found footage film (sigh, I know) that centers on a team of friends who build haunted house attractions for Halloween. This time, they rent an abandoned hotel with a sinister history and, well, there’s nothing surprising about what happens next. The hotel’s name is Abaddon, for Pete’s sake. Supernatural events play out on the cameras intended to monitor patrons as they move through the event. Tensions escalate among the group during the construction of the attraction and events culminate in a disaster similar to the deadly fire at the Six Flags Great Adventure in 1984 (as chronicled in the indie documentary Door to Hell).
Hell House LLC proves capable in a number of ways. There are solid scares that capitalize on the fixed cameras and the framing device – that a documentary crew is compiling this footage sometime after the disaster – provides a compelling anchor to the story, as well as an effective denouement. Perhaps most interesting is the film’s use of the silly stuff we use to scare ourselves with in fun houses and dark rides – demonic clowns and severed hands playing piano and other camp – to excellent effect. Despite being a beloved part of Halloween, these sorts of things don’t often turn up in horror films (I can really only put forward Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse and maybe Killer Klowns from Outer Space as additional examples) and it is nice to see Hell House LLC do them justice. | Trailer
High-Rise – 2016 – Ben Wheatley
High-Rise is perhaps Ben Wheatley’s most beautiful film to date, featuring a visual precision that verges on the occult. And while it is perhaps not quite a horror film by conventional standards, he has once again made a movie that instills a sense of dread that lingers long after it ends.
An able adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, the film depicts the residents of a futuristic apartment building and the ensuing class war that erupts among them. Eventually, murder and depravity run rampant as civilization collapses. The narrative is disorienting, favoring a sequence of dreamlike vignettes designed to elicit emotional reactions over a straightforward story.
I fear horror will not hold Wheatley long. If this is our last dose before he departs for other genres, it was a worthy one. | Trailer
I Am Not a Serial Killer – 2016 – Billy O’Brien
The unfortunately named John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is a teen boy diagnosed as a sociopath with homicidal tendencies. His mom owns a funeral home. And someone is killing drifters in town. Naturally, Cleaver has to investigate. I expected something of a coming of age story, but with serial killers, the same way Little Sister (which I, for some reason, feel like should be in the same cinematic universe as I Am Not a Serial Killer) was a homecoming drama, but with Gwar. What I didn’t see coming was the monster.
Christopher Lloyd gives a strong and disarming performance here – his friendly granddad is dialed up to eleven to great effect. Cleaver is the real star though. The movie constantly tries to veer him into the role of a kid adventure hero, to let us forget about his condition, to make him more conventional. Whenever this happens, he practically grabs the camera and says, “No.” He refuses to conform to expectations, either as a serial killer or kid hero. He threatens bullies with death. He is morbidly attracted to his mother’s funerary work. But when a monster starts killing people – a fairly obvious reflection of what Cleaver might become – Cleaver tries to stop him. He’s a decent detective, but a terrible hero, and that makes for some great character work. | Trailer
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House – 2016 – Oz Perkins
Another dreamy exercise in dread by Oz Perkins, Pretty Thing follows a young nurse, Iris (Ruth Wilson of Luther fame), who works as live-in care for a horror author suffering from dementia. It doesn’t take long before Iris begins to suspect that the house is haunted. Shortly after that, the audience should begin to suspect that this a ghost story being told by a ghost.
Pretty Thing reminds me of many things, all of them old: Shirley Jackson, De Maupassant’s ghost stories, Kubrick’s The Shining, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Strange. A bit ephemeral. Narcotic, perhaps. Well worth seeking out. | Trailer
The Invitation – 2016 – Karyn Kusama
When I saw The Invitation, I knew nothing about it. I was explicitly told to see it without having a trailer for reference. I am not usually a member of the cult of spoiler avoidance, but following that advice served The Invitation well. I’d suggest you go watch it before reading the following paragraphs.
The Invitation is another entry into a growing list of modern horror films that actively disregards what the audience wants. This is a horror film, but three quarters of it is devoted to a slow-burn character drama at a dinner party. We know the party is going to go south, that violence is for dinner, but the film waits until the very last moment to indulge our desire for carnage.
As dinner party horror goes, Coherence is probably the better film, but The Invitation nicely captures the uneasiness that can creep into these sorts of gatherings among friends, especially ones that used to be (or pretended to be) closer than they are now. How well do you know the people sitting across from you, really? And, perhaps more importantly, how much could they change without you realizing? | Trailer
The Love Witch – 2016 – Anna Biller
A horror comedy that follows Elaine (Samantha Robinson, delivering a delightfully campy performance), a beautiful witch who uses magic to make men fall in love with her, usually with deadly results. The movie seems lighthearted and over the top, but director Anna Biller includes a heavy dose of subtext on feminism, love, marriage, romance and gender roles. There’s a lot to unpack once you’re through.
Shot on 35mm, the film is stylized to match the look of Technicolor horror movies of the 1960s and, while some costuming seems vintage, the modern world with its cellphones and cars, is still there. The effect is disorienting, making Elaine seem like she exists out of time.
For my money, The Love Witch forms a loose sort of woman-fronted horror trilogy with Starry Eyes and Neon Demon. The latter are perhaps better horror movies, but the former is a better exploration of feminism in the genre. | Trailer
Neon Demon – 2016 – Nicolas Winding Refn
I’ve long suspected that Refn, whose love of gore is shockingly apparent in his previous films, has been on a crash course with horror. In Neon Demon, the two are joined in cannibalistic bliss.
We follow Jesse as she embarks on her dream to be a model. She has a certain something that people respond to, a power of influence over people that grows as the movie progresses. As that power consumes her, a coven of witches grows envious and moves to steal it, violently.
Saying it out loud makes it sound silly. Neon Demon is, first and foremost, a visual story. Its occult elements are left unsaid, implied through action or in waking dreams. I imagine for a certain viewer, it is a supremely frustrating film. For me, however, it sits nicely alongside other recent movies with strong female perspectives, like Starry Eyes, The Love Witch and The Witch. If you dig them, Neon Demon might be for you. | Trailer
Under the Shadow – 2016 – Babak Anvari
At first blush, Under the Shadow is a well-made, by the numbers horror film in which a supernatural force besets an isolated mother and daughter. That the supernatural force is a djinn adds a bit of mystique and charm – despite seemingly endless application for horror, the desert spirits have fared poorly in the genre (Tobe Hooper’s Djinn, for example, or the Wishmaster series). In Under the Shadow, the antagonistic djinn is freshly terrifying.
The setting – Tehran, Iran, during the War of the Cities in the 1980s – adds much to the movie, giving lead actor Narges Rashidi, who lived through the war as a girl, the raw material for a great performance. The Iraqi bombs and the diminished freedoms of women of the period provide unusual foils for horror clichés. What happens when you flee from an intruder in your house but forget your headscarf on your way out the door? Sure, djinn are scary, but are they scarier than a sadistic bureaucrat? | Trailer
The Wailing – 2016 – Na Hong-jin
I am not sure you’ll find another movie in this guide so immersive as The Wailing. It is also long and unapologetically complex – it is hard fathom how the filmmakers did it, but the movie bursts with detail, bringing life to characters, their world and the mythology that suffuses it.
The Wailing starts with an investigation into a strange disease spreading through the community that turns people into berserk murderers. Soon, though, we have exorcisms, zombies, elaborate rituals, a clash between Eastern and Western spirituality and more. Having watched the movie twice now, I can’t say I’ve entirely sorted out what happened, but that’s OK. The journey was well worth any confusion at the destination.
Note: Like Demon, I suspect there are cultural nuances in The Wailing (like attitudes toward the Japanese) that elude me because I am not Korean, nor deeply versed in their history. Similarly, Korean audiences seem to expect a mix of screwball comedy in their horror that Western audiences might find jarring (2006’s The Host has a similar issue). I don’t believe either of these things affect the overall quality of The Wailing, but your mileage may vary. | Trailer
We Go On – 2016 – Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton
How far would you go to find proof of the afterlife? That’s the core question of the Holland and Mitton’s subdued ghost story. It is a clear departure from their earlier effort, Yellowbrickroad, and probably works so well as a ghost story because the ghosts aren’t required – most of the story’s gloom emanates from Miles (Clark Freeman), a man haunted by depression and a host of phobias.
Miles takes an ad out offering a cash reward for proof of an afterlife. With help from his mother (Annette O’Toole in a spunky, if curiously peripheral role), he spends most of the movie talking to charlatans (both knowing and naïve) which elicit a mix of fear, sadness and, most of all, disappointment. A final candidate, naturally, provides a clear lesson in being careful what you ask for and things come to a very supernatural conclusion with some worthy scares.
Mostly, though, We Go On is a character-driven study examining grief and uncertainty. It is particularly poignant, I think, for people like me who would like to believe in something greater but can’t, because all reasonable signs point to nothing of the sort. There’s a great sadness in the burden of that knowledge, and We Go On paints it well. | Trailer
The Witch – 2016 – Robert Eggers
The most common claim made by detractors of The Witch is that it is boring: a grim slog through a predictable events witnessed by mumbling, heavily accented characters who rarely earn sympathy from the viewer.
I argue that The Witch is appealing not because it is predictable, but rather because it is terrifyingly inevitable. This is, after all, a story about a family of Puritans, whose belief in inescapable predestination is the most frightening thing in the movie. They did not move to the wilderness – to be harried by dark forces, to be driven insane, to be murdered, their fat rendered, their souls forfeited – by choice. They did so because it was God’s plan for them all along.
Eggers hammers on this theme, and others, with gorgeous visuals and strong performances throughout. His deep desire for period accuracy is also noteworthy for making the familiar seem foreign and disorienting.
The Witch is a watershed moment for horror, one of the best in decades. | Trailer
A Dark Song – 2017 – Liam Gavin
A powerful bit of character driven horror, A Dark Song follows the grieving Sophia (Catherine Walker) as she enlists an occultist, Solomon (Steve Oram), to lead her in a months-long magickal ritual in a remote house in Wales. Trapped in the house until the completion of the ritual, the two work through their personal demons, as well as dealing with some other entities drawn to the power of the working.
The process is grueling. It is rare to find any kind of movie, let alone a horror film, whose construction – the 90-minute depiction of the performance of a European-style Kabbalistic magick ritual – mirrors not only the substance of the movie (the transformation of the characters by that ritual) but also the effect it has on the viewer. We are running the psychological gauntlet along with these characters, purifying ourselves, supplicating, enduring it to the end.
While A Dark Song is creepy as all get out, it is also deeply transformative. Not a pleasant experience (little in life is) but one I am happy to have had (several times, nearly back to back, if I’m going to be completely honest). My favorite horror movie of 2017, it has lingered in my mind far longer than most movies and has colored my reactions to everything I’ve seen since. | Trailer
Another Evil – 2017 – Carson D. Mell
A very uncomfortable horror comedy, Another Evil finds Dan (Steve Zissis), a fine artist, in need of an exorcist when his vacation home turns out to be haunted. He hires Os (Mark Proksch, proving he’s king of the awkward nerds) who is trying so hard and failing so badly at everything. He’s such a nakedly desperate character, with his cowboy hat and leather jacket and faux mystique, but everything he tries in order to forge a friendship actually works against his goal. He’s ridiculous and painful. You’ve probably been friends with guy at some point because you felt sorry for him. At the very least, you’ve been cornered by him at a party. Over the course of Another Evil, Dan’s life gets cornered by Os. It’s like an excruciating What About Bob?, but with ghosts.
The movie is overlong, repeating a cycle of Os saying ridiculous things to ingratiate himself to Dan while revealing awkward truths about himself. Dan, a fairly vacant good vibes California guy, takes way more of Os’s crap than is reasonable to someone who has lived outside New York City his entire life, but your mileage may vary. The climax manages to be preposterous, chilling, sad, boring and predictable all at once.
I’m hard pressed to say I liked Another Evil, despite Proksch’s mesmerizing performance. But I sure did think about it a lot after it was over. | Trailer
The Devil’s Candy – 2017 – Sean Byrne
Finally, a heavy metal horror movie (OK, not the first, but Black Roses is a loooong time ago). Here we’ve got metal dad Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry; but also, what is with that last name?), a painter, struggling with supernatural forces after he and his family move into a house with – you guessed it – a sinister history. Much of the trouble comes from the house’s former resident, Pruitt Taylor Vince’s semi-sympathetic possessed man-child child-killer (kids are the titular treat for Satan), but the house itself exerts its influence on Hellman, inspiring him to paint admittedly awesome paintings that seem to be encouraging him to sacrifice his daughter to the devil. That daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco) is a kick-ass, capable kid who gives back as much as she takes, by way.
Considering how heavy metal has been accused of devil worship while wholeheartedly embracing the image of devil worship, The Devil’s Candy sits at a strange junction. The filmmakers obviously don’t think there is anything wrong with metal, but it also seems strange to have metal function as a talisman against evil (I mean, Stryper exists, sure, but still).
The plot beats are familiar, especially in the house siege portion at the end of the film, but Sean Byrne wrings every drop of tension out of them. A lot of it comes from the fact that the Hellman family is well drawn as a pleasant alterna-family, with dark aesthetics but bright personalities. I never wanted anything bad to happen to those folks. The result is something surprisingly earnest, which is also pretty true of heavy metal, come to think of it. | Trailer
The Girl With All the Gifts – 2017 – Colm McCarthy
The greatness of REC 2 and the badness of The Walking Dead conspired to make me avoid zombie-anything like the plague. Despite all sorts of bad attitudes on my part going into The Girl With All the Gifts, I left it raving.
Written by author and comic writer Mike Carey (The Unwritten), we’re introduced to a world struggling against a zombie plague caused by a fungal disease. Melanie (portrayed by Sennia Nanua in gobsmacking fashion) is one of many infected children the vaguely defined military state (headed by soldier Paddy Considine and scientist Glenn Close) is experimenting on in order to find a cure. She’s polite, whip smart, has a taste for human flesh and an abiding affection for her teacher (Gemma Arterton, and I mean, who doesn’t?). Melanie takes the promise of Bub the Zombie from Romero’s Day of the Dead and delivers something altogether more surprising and philosophical. Things inevitably go sideways at the base and our survivors hit the road looking for safety. In the wilds, surrounded by other zombies, the lines the human survivors drew between Melanie and themselves quickly begin to blur. The result is both thoughtful and horrible.
I don’t see much left to mine from the boring old zombie sub-genre. What little was left was hauled out by Melanie, and even then, most of film’s themes parallel the Planet of the Apes movies rather than those found in zombie films. So, if The Girl With All the Gifts is the last zombie movie I ever see, that’s fine by me. | Trailer
The Void – 2017 – Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie
You’ll find tentacles and body horror and crazed cultists and a hospital under siege and a multidimensional basement and a mad doctor and guys with shotguns and more in The Void. The results are a mixed bag, but one that is overflowing.
It is hard to say exactly what the film is about and, in all honesty, it seems more like a lengthy special effects reel than a coherent narrative. Things that resonate do so because they remind me of moments from Assault on Precinct 13 or The Thing or Prince of Darkness or Hellraiser. The effects are some of the best in recent memory, and the movie is worth the price for them alone, but overall, The Void smacks of missed opportunities. The villain is larger than life (I’ve written about him previously), the cult intriguing and the overall premise solid. There’s some nice mind-bending scares, too. But it tries to do so much, with so little narrative skill, that it winds up being about nothing at all, a series of loosely connected vignettes with little emotional impact.
The Void is fatally flawed, but I hope it is a foundation Kostanski and Gillespie build on, that this is the start of something long and worthwhile. After all, John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, was more a measure of future potential that a great movie in and of itself! | Trailer
All the Rest
I watch a lot of horror movies. Many of them are not good. While I try to celebrate the good while downplaying the bad, it occurs to me that this guide might benefit from a short list of the movies I cannot in good conscience recommend. They come in two flavors. First are the many films that just didn’t do it for me, or at least didn’t have enough good to outweigh the bad. Maybe they’ll scare the shit out of you, though. I hope they do. Second are the stinkers, the ones you should avoid at all costs.
+1 • A Cure for Wellness • Absentia • Almost Human • As Above, So Below • The Atticus Institute • Baskin • Before I Wake • The Burrowers • Citadel • The Color Out of Space • The Corridor • Creep • The Damned (also released as Gallows Hill) • Dark Was the Night • Der Nachtmahr • The Device • The Devil’s Rock • Digging Up the Marrow • Evolution • The Eyes of My Mother • Final Girls • Ghoul • Goodnight Mommy • Heartless • Hellions • It Comes at Night • The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Liegh • Life • Life After Beth • The Monster • Nightmare Code • Oculus • Odd Thomas • Preservation • The Poughkeepsie Tapes • The Quiet Ones • Raw • The Signal • Sisters of the Plague • Thanatomorphose • The Tunnel • Tucker and Dale vs. Evil • The Valdemar Legacy • Willow Creek
Anitbirth • Beyond the Gates • The Boy • The Bunny Game • Dark Skies • The Darkness (not to be confused with the excellent 2002 film) • The Dark Tapes • The Den • Deliver Us From Evil • The Disappointments Room • Don’t Breath • The Forest • Found • Galaxy of Horror • The Gallows • Haunt • Heartless • Horns • The House of Last Things • Hush • In Fear • Intruders • The Invoking • Jessabelle • Lights Out • Lord of Tears • Mama • Mr. Jones • Nothing Left to Fear • The Other Side of the Door • Ouija: Origin of Evil • The Pyramid • Rigor Mortis • Silent House • Siren • The Snare • Split • Twixt • The Visit • The Woman
Recommendations & Forthcoming Movies
Recommendations are welcome. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. The only criteria for this guide is that the release date is 2008 or later. For reference, my current to-watch list follows:
Be My Cat: A Film For Anne • The Belko Experiment • The Creep 2 • Darling • Demon’s Rook • Ezra • Hollow • The House at the End of Time • House of Him • The House on Pine Street • Holy Motors • Joshua • The Keeping Hours • The Loved Ones • Marebito • My Cousin Rachel • The Ruins • The Shape of Water • Shelley • Sightseers • The Sound of Insects • Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl • Tragedy Girls • Unkindness of Ravens • Whispers • Wolf House • XX
1922 • The Alchemist Cookbook • The Conspiracy • The Guest • Red Billabong • The Strangers • They Remain