Note: There are a number of horror films I didn’t get to last year (like Train to Busan), and some which I skipped based on poor reviews (hello Shut In), so this list is perforce limited. If a film left me with a sour taste (as did Afterbirth), you also won’t find it here, no matter how compelling I may have found its start.
That said, here are my five favorite horror flicks from 2016, with five runners-up, three bonus picks, and four noteworthy disappointments!
1. The Witch (Dir: Robert Eggers)
Technically a 2015 release, but it opened in wide distribution in 2016, which arguably makes it a 2016 film. This may not be a perfect movie, but it offers a thoroughly engrossing, utterly unique viewing experience. Within ten minutes I was mesmerized by the film’s atmosphere, and impressed by the soberness of its historical approach: a real commitment to use the language and the clothes of the period, with no contemporary nudges or mannerisms thrown in. Some viewers may dislike the fact that the film quickly comes down on one side of the “is it real or not” question, but I was fine with that, as it allowed me to concentrate on the aesthetic and to confront the horror being depicted without the distraction of second-guessing the proceedings. Another valid objection may be Thomasin’s character arc, which some may find underdeveloped or too oblique, but again, this didn’t bother me at all.
2. The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist (Dir: James Wan)
The key to the Conjuring movies is the chemistry and rapport between Ed and Lorraine Warren, as portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga respectively. Once we become invested in their journey, we can’t help but be affected by the things they experience. The Conjuring 2 knows this and uses it to great effect, expertly pushing Lorraine’s sanity to its limits while the couple investigates a unique haunting in London, 1977. The characters being haunted are also given enough screen time to breathe and to become relatable to the Lorraines, rather than remaining mere “case studies.” An excellent sense of storytelling, first class film-making execution and high production values result in thrills and chills galore.
3. Ouija: Origin of Evil
After the bland, formulaic original to which this serves as a prequel, I was surprised by the initial tide of positive reviews, but I’m glad I allowed myself to be steered to the movie theater. Flanagan manages to turn the usual burden of prequels—we know in advance how certain major plot points need to play out—into a strength, emphasizing the journey rather than the destination, and the film’s period setting (like that of The Conjuring 2) proves inspired. But my favorite aspect of the movie is its deliberate pacing and the gradually escalating terrors, which include some fantastic, old-fashioned set-pieces and a memorable last scene.
4. The Wailing (Dir: Na Hong-jin)
The Wailing is not subtle, and it is leisurely paced. The bumbling, buffoonish behavior of our protagonist, Officer Jong-goo, can be initially trying, and some of the lapses in logic—let alone, presumably, police protocol—occasionally grate, but the film amply makes up for this with its brooding, fatalistic ambiance and plot twists. It also features some of the most intense on-screen hexing I’ve ever seen. If you don’t mind a film that’s over-the-top (so much rain! so much blood! so much mud!) you’ll likely find this creepy in the best possible way.
5. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dir: Dan Trachtenberg)
Not having seen this film’s full trailer definitely aided my viewing experience, as I had little idea what to expect going in. Arguably a blend of genres rather than pure horror, I feel like the film’s bulk is sufficiently psychologically warped to qualify inclusion on this list. One of my favorite aspects of 10 Cloverfield Lane, besides the intrigue generated by trying to guess how it would even vaguely tie in to Cloverfield (2008), was the female lead: Michelle’s well-written character is mostly one step ahead of the audience, rather than several steps behind, as is often the case in horror movies. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does an excellent job, and this is one John Goodman performance you won’t want to miss. As for the ending? I’m not sure I completely buy it, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker.
6. & 7. Don't Breathe (Dir: Fede Alvarez) & Hush (Dir: Mike Flanagan)
Home invasion movies with a twist (or three). I found Don’t Breathe to be technically proficient, and I enjoyed the way revelations about the characters’ pasts and motivations muddied the morality, or at least made it less clear with whom our sympathies should lie (if anyone!). The performances are compelling, the sound design is intense, and the action beats excellent. Kudos also for making a film with long dark stretches that always remains visually interesting. Beyond that, the whole thing does feel a little empty, more of an exercise in bravura style than a meaningful story.
Hush is even more pared-down in terms of its characters, quickly reducing itself to a prolonged one-on-one, and also relies on the practical logistics and mechanics of fear more than the desire to explore psychological depths. Speaking of which: the antagonist is a significant letdown. I relished the last couple of seconds, though, which suggest at least two different interpretations of what’s come immediately before.
8. Southbound (Dir: Various)
Technically another 2015 release, but again widely available in 2016, so here it is. I have a fondness for anthology films that dovetail each story smoothly and are tonally cohesive: Southbound definitely fits the bill, and makes a strong case for this underappreciated form. Its twisty narrative connections are enough to keep one constantly anticipating the next pivot, and the whole retro-vibe works well. If you can imagine yourself enjoying a gory version of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) as penned by Flannery O’Connor and Jim Thompson, you may dig this. Favorite chapters: “Jailbreak” and “The Accident.”
9. Friend Request (Dir: Simon Verhoeven)
A few words of context. For me there’s something particularly disquieting about the notion of an otherworldly force taking control of the “cyberspace” in which we spend so much of our lives. Our dependence on technology for everyday communication and for the managing of long distance relationships, which increasingly sustain us emotionally in this age of de-globalization and frequent travel, provides a natural vulnerability. The Japanese film Kairo (2001) was one of the first successful takes on this theme, though it had notable precursors that anticipated the uncertain fusion of human and machine. I remember enjoying its critically-panned American remake, Pulse (2006) (though the sequels are best forgotten), because despite its formulaic construction and glossy veneer it successfully tapped into that same modern-day fear. 2015 saw the release of a technically innovative but formally conservative take on the same subject, the first feature film that played out entirely on the central character’s desktop: Unfriended (2015). Though its jerkiness and screens-within-screens gave me a bit of a headache, I was still entertained.
The latest in this line of cyber-horror films is Friend Request (2016), which starts off firing on all cylinders but sputters to its climax. The performances throughout are credible, as is the sense of setting. My favorite element is the creative, immersive rendering of a virtual fantasy-land as depicted through social media. The themes of alienation and the fragility of a damaged individual are also effectively handled. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that one of the secondary characters takes an unlikely turn, and the weak third act, with the overly predictable final scene, really blunt what could have been a horror gem.
10. The Monster (Dir: Bryan Bertino)
Here’s my full review of this movie. Suffice it to say, it starts off very strongly, with excellent, unflinching character development, but becomes somewhat unhinged during its second half.
11. The Eyes of My Mother (Dir: Nicolas Pesce)
Extremely slow-moving, brutal, cruel, and majorly frustrating, this may appeal to someone looking for the mutant offspring of The White Ribbon (2009) and Somos Lo Que Hay (2010), with a splash of Nell (1994) thrown in for good measure. I say “frustrating” because the viewer is left to piece together why characters act the way they do, and having as our protagonist a damaged (demented?) woman who hardly speaks makes it hard to care. Your mileage may vary.
12. Nocturnal Animals (Dir: Tom Ford)
This is not a horror film, but its unique aesthetic and dark storyline involving angst and imagined tortured and loss earn it a place on the list. Viewers of A Single Man (2009) will be familiar with Ford’s absurd elegance, sumptuous attention to detail and over-beautiful compositions, but this film adds a truly innovative narrative structure. The idea of one character communicating to another character via a novel--which we then get to see as imagined by the second character--is clever and well-done. The performances are solid, though Michael Shannon kind of steals the show. An admirable final scene.
13. Emelie (Dir: Michael Thelin)
Same release date caveat as before. This has to be one of the best takes on the babysitter-goes-wrong trope. Sarah Bolger furnishes Emelie with an arresting performance, and the children are all very good as well. The story doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny, but it nevertheless creates a sinister, menacing character study, with some genuinely repellent scenes along the way, and a pulsing electronic score that lingers after viewing.
14. The Shallows (Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra)
This survivalist thriller was critically well-received, and Blake Lively’s central (read: almost exclusive) performance does a respectable job of shouldering the script’s dramatic heft. But the gratuitous, lingering close-ups of her body irked me, as did the overall slickness of the direction, which suggested voyeurism rather than emotional investment. And (spoiler) this was one place I wasn’t expecting CGI flames. Ugh.
15. Lights Out (Dir: David F. Sandberg)
My detailed take can be found here. In short: brilliant premise, poorly illuminated.
16. The Neon Demon (Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)
Nicolas Winding Refn is starting to lose me. I found Only God Forgives (2013) precious and self-involved, and the one thought that kept going through my head as I struggled to watch The Neon Demon was: “Why do I need to sit through this, when we already have 8½, Mulholland Drive and Maps to the Stars?” In fact, the character of Sarah aptly summarized my sense of tedium when she uttered the line, “Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?”
Based on the strength of Bronson (2008), Valhalla Rising (2009) and Drive (2011), I’ll likely give Refn another shot or two, but if I don’t like the looks of his next project, I’ll be going back to check out his episode of Miss Marple instead.
17. Blair Witch (Dir: Adam Wingard)
When the lights darkened in the movie theater, I felt nothing but good will towards this movie, despite reviews that warned me this was unwise. The picture, succubus-like, managed to drain away most my good will during its repetitive first hour, but did genuinely terrify during its last half hour or so. This may be the most uneven scary movie of the year.