Any seasoned horror fan knows exactly what to expect from a horror movie. From the run and stumble to the bathroom cabinet mirror gag to the suddenly malfunctioning flashlight when descending into the basement. Been there, done that. It's so refreshing when horror movies come along that eschew the standard tropes. We are in a horror renaissance, and 2016 brought a slew of movies that feature unique voices, distinct visions, and new cultures to explore.
1. The Witch
Nothing this year comes close to the raw, diabolical experience of this film. From the period details to the undecipherable English to the slow, bleak tone, the director makes some seriously bold choices. And just when you think the film has reached a crescendo, there is one of the most chilling and deeply disturbing finales I've seen.
2. Train to Busan
The overdone zombie genre gets a shot in the heart from South Korea. An estranged father and daughter trip is suddenly thrown into chaos when a zombie plague erupts inside a high-speed train. The action is impeccably orchestrated, the characters are fully realized, and most surprising of all, the core of the film is unapologetically and deeply emotional.
3. Under The Shadow
This Iranian film starts like a family drama in a war-torn Tehran but subtly turns a corner into full blow horror. For American audiences the foreign setting and culture will be unfamiliar and fascinating. The dread mounts steadily as the ghostly shenanigans increasingly torment a doubting mother and daughter. The film is bolstered by an intense performance by Narges Rashidi.
4. The Conjuring 2
James Wan revisits familiar creepy territory, nifty camera work, impeccable direction, and the genres most beloved couple, The Warrens (the very charismatic Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). As mainstream films go, Wan continues to forge his own path and delivers nightmare-inducing visuals including an evil nun and what appears to be a retro stop-motion Crooked Man. Most interesting is a break right in the middle with a spot-on Elvis Presley sing-a-long.
5. Don’t Breathe
From the director of the Evil Dead reboot comes this masterful work in suspense, dread and terror with a home invasion gone terribly awry. The twists are surprising (as long as you haven’t seen the previews), performances are spot on, and turkey basters once again reclaim infamous notoriety.
6. 10 Cloverfield Lane
The follow-up the the monster-on-the-loose film reveals a much different monster-in-confinement. John Goodman is so terrific in this you almost don’t mind that most of the running time is spent in an underground bunker. The end does not disappoint and leaves the story open to more installments. Yes, please.
7. Green Room
As one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, this ode to punk rock and skinheads boils with angst, sweat and the cruelty. With intelligent, brisk, and solid writing one wonders why this didn’t get a wider release. Patrick Stewart in ruthless role makes the proceedings even more wicked.
8. Eyes of My Mother
Out in the quiet, remote country lies a depraved beauty. This is a mesmerizing film shot entirely in black and white with artfully framed shots. It lulls you with a muted, unrelenting dread that you almost don’t notice the horror happening out in the barn. The effect is hypnotic and doleful, and yet it's one of the most elegant horror films.
9. The Monster
There are bad mothers and there are monsters. In this story a young girl must learn the difference and face a grueling night of survival. Soaked in rain and enshrouded in darkness, the film succeeds in atmosphere and harrowing action, but at the core is a story of sorrow and loss. It also features one of the best performances by a young actress, Ella Ballentine.
10. Lights Out
What began as a frightening internet short has expanded to feature-length film under the mentorship of James Wan. The result is a thrilling concept film that is equally scary and dare I say it, original.
11. The Neon Demon
Obtuse and undecipherable but always dazzling, this film from the director of Drive pits a naive girl against narcissists in the fashion world. It’s incredibly divisive but if you give yourself over to the pulsing rhythms and color soaked imagery, the ultimate horror of a dog-eat-dog world becomes clear.
Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) has created a nauseating documentary about rodents, edited to feel, sound and look like a horror movie. It’s a brilliant concept and no matter how squeamish, you just can’t turn away. Documentaries are supposed to educate the viewer about a subject and I have now been overeducated about rats. Success!
The most surprising thing about Rob Zombie's latest film is how much I didn't completely hate it. It's one of his most accessible and entertaining films (with nods to The Running Man and Hunger Games) albeit super grisly and bloody. The cast makes this far better than it should be, including a breakout performance by Richard Brake as a great new villain called Doom-Head. Although there's no argument that Zombie should stop casting his wife in lead roles.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe - A visceral spin on a dead girl with a great reveal.
Baskin - A French fever dream that ends in hell – literally.
Ghostbusters - These ladies are funny and deserved better from fans.
Hush - A clever home invasion yarn pitting assailant versus a deaf woman.
The Invitation - Is it just a weird dinner party or is it a cult?
Midnight Special - This is like a long-lost Stephen King and John Carpenter collaboration.
Ouija: Origin of Evil - It improves upon the original with spooky visuals and solid performances.
The Shallows - The best shark movie since Jaws? Sure.
They Look Like People - A disturbing head trip into psychosis – or alien abduction.
The Wailing - A very long but interesting South Korean ghost fable.