It’s been a bloody good year for horror. The last 12 months have been a goldmine for fans of the genre, with big box-office successes for the likes of The Conjuring 2, Lights Out and Don’t Breathe, awards buzz for instant classics like The Witch and Under The Shadow, zombies, demons, ghosts, killers, Nazis, and a world of grease. (if you’ve seen The Greasy Strangler, you’re not forgetting The Greasy Strangler.)
So let’s celebrate this rich, wonderful array the old-fashioned way: with a list! But first, some awards for films that either didn’t make the list, or deserve to be flagged up for cautionary reasons.
We had several problems with The Boy, not least of which was the fact that we were promised creepy doll antics and they were not delivered. Honestly, do we have to wait for the next Chucky movie? Because we will. We can’t wait for the next Chucky movie.
WORST HANDLING OF A COMPLEX THEME IN A HORROR FILM – LIGHTS OUT
There were some fantastic scares in Lights Out and some good performances, but SPOILERS…
…if you’re going to link your boogeyman to mental illness you’d better find a way to conclude that gracefully. Lights Out did not.
Runner up – FRIEND REQUEST: This is just our opinion, but our interpretation of Friend Request was that it’s a film for popular kids about the dangers of befriending loners who need help. Which is not cool.
BEST MUSICAL MOMENT IN A HORROR FILM – THE CONJURING 2
We didn’t know that we needed to see Patrick Wilson crooning an Elvis song, but his lovely rendition of Can’t Help Falling In Love in James Wan’s sequel was beautiful, man. Sincerely.
WORST REMAKE – MARTYRS
Oof. Just no. Missed the point completely.
Runner up – Cabin Fever: …but why?
MOST UNFAIRLY SLATED HORROR FILM – BLAIR WITCH
We understand that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s approach to their Blair Witch Project sequel may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but we found it to be a genuinely scary and gripping horror film with some lovely nods to the original. Its box-office performance was a genuine surprise, and the critical reaction seemed a little harsh to us (as you can see from our review right here).
THE FILM WE PUT IT ON LAST YEAR’S LIST BUT IT MAYBE SHOULD HAVE BEEN ON THIS YEAR’S – NINA FOREVER
The Blaine brothers’ incredible debut feature has held up to repeat viewings and remains one of the best genre movies that we’ve seen in the last few years. Amazing performances, a brilliant blend of tones and just thrilling to watch. And we were fairly confident it came out last year, but we may have been wrong.
THE “ONLY SO MANY HOURS IN THE DAY” AWARD FOR THE FILM THIS WRITER DIDN’T GET TO SEE – TRAIN TO BUSAN
There is a lot of love for the train-bound Korean zombie film so we definitely wanted to include it in some way, but, sadly, this writer did not manage to catch it when it hit UK cinemas and has so far been unsuccessfully in his attempts to find a way to watch it since. It’s supposed to be great, though! See it!
You should also read our review by Katherine McLaughlin here.
THE BEST HORROR FILMS OF 2016
Just a note, the films included are the ones which received a UK release in 2016. That means that films we saw and loved at festivals that are out next year (Prevenge! Raw! The Love Witch! The Devil’s Candy! Beyond The Gates! The Eyes Of My Mother!) sadly can’t qualify. But here we go…
16. The Forgotten
Oliver Frampton’s debut is a mournful and atmospheric chiller about a young lad who is sent to live with his dad on a nearly-abandoned London estate. There shouldn’t be anyone in the next-door flat, so what are those noises? We first caught The Forgotten at FrightFest back in 2014 and we’re so glad it finally got a release from the much missed Metrodome (the UK distributors of some of our favourite genre films sadly went under this year, and we’re still very upset about it). Sensitively made with excellent performances from young stars Clem Tibber and Elarica Johnson, this low-budget British horror is a very well-crafted ghost story with real heart and we can’t wait to see what Frampton and co-writer James Hall do next.
15. Goodnight Mommy
This film’s a bit of a challenge, even for horror fans that don’t mind sitting through some fairly gruelling gore, but it is certainly worth it. The fiction feature debut from Austrian duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz pits two twin boys against the bandaged woman who may or not be their mother in the pristine confines of their isolated country house. There’s an intriguing blend of dark fairytale (the house at the edge of the forest, the wicked mother) and something a lot harsher, as the brothers inch closer and closer towards taking drastic action. The final act reveal is a little disappointing but the performances are great and there’s a savage power to this carefully crafted horror.
14. The Neon Demon
Having dabbled with genre movie elements in his last two movies, Drive and Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn pitched head-first into horror with this divisive fashion industry fable that winks at half of the audience while deliberately alienating the rest. The incredibly stylish cinematography and the brilliant soundtrack were basically a given, but the grim, brutal world that these characters move in is just as beguiling. Elle Fanning makes for a wonderfully unreadable protagonist, and there’s some prime supporting ham from Alessandro Nivola and Keanu Reeves, but Jena Malone’s fabulously mysterious stylist Ruby steals the entire film. We’d watch a follow-up that was just about her, to be honest.
13. Bone Tomahawk
It took years for Bone Tomahawk to finally get made and we’re very glad that writer-director S Craig Zahler and star Kurt Russell stuck with their brutal cannibal western. Watching Russell and his small band of good-ish men (Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox) race to rescue Lili Simmons’ Samantha before she’s killed by a tribe of troglodytic natives is slow going, and it’s walking a fine line between political commentary and exploitation, but there’s a weird sense of humour that rescues it from being overly dour and some excellent character work. While it takes a long time to get there, it’s also got one of the most gruesome finales we’ve seen for a long time. Damn.
12. The Greasy Strangler
What can we say about Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler? In our review, we wrote that “It’s weird, it’s disgusting, it’s…greasy. But it’s also quite unique.” It’s six months later and we’re still trying to find people to quote the film with. Hosking and his co-writer Toby Harvard create a complete world for their deeply odd characters to stalk through, frequently in pink jumpers, frequently with grotesque prosthetic penises hanging out, accompanied by bizarre gore effects and an amazing soundtrack. The father-son dynamic between the truly monstrous, grease-adoring Big Ronnie (Michael St Michaels) and the downtrodden Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) is stunning, and Elizabeth De Razzo completes the love triangle perfectly as Janet. Not enough people are talking about The Greasy Strangler and we call bullshit on that.
11. Don’t Breathe
In a summer of high-grossing horrors, we’d pick out Don’t Breathe as the leader of the pack. Fede Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues followed their Evil Dead remake with a claustrophobic, tense reverse-home invasion horror, with Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto finding more than they bargained for when they break into the home of a blind veteran. Don’t Breathe showed that Alvarez is great at taking us to the edge of our seat, and that he has a great gift for wrong-footing the audience, but it wouldn’t work without Stephen Lang’s towering, terrifying performance as the driven villain. You can read it as an allegory for the state of the world, you can argue about THAT THING that happens in the third act, but you will damn sure be entertained.
Anthology horror got another shot in the arm thanks to this collection of deeply creepy desert-set tales, which was one of our favourites at FrightFest Glasgow and which gave us one of the best “Oh god, that’s disgusting!” shocks of the year. There’s an overarching sense of weirdness that works wonders for the anthology formula, and the one-two punch of Roxanne Benjamin’s ‘Siren’ segment and David Bruckner’s ‘Emergency’ puts it firmly on our best of the year list, as Fabianne Therese’s terrified musician stumbles straight into the path of Mather Zickel’s distracted motorist. There’s always something terrifying bubbling away just out of sight in Southbound…and it’s got Larry Fessenden as the voice of the radio DJ, so of course we love it.
9. The Wailing
Na Hong-jin established himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today after only two films: The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. The Korean filmmaker’s third movie is a horror that combines elements of his previous work with a supernatural twist for a rich and fascinating small town mystery. A series of brutal murders has the police at a loss, but when Jong-Goo’s (Kwak Do-won) daughter begins acting strangely, the cop must decide whether to believe the mutterings about possession and a devil living in the woods. There’s a beautiful reality to all of this, as the very human and deeply flawed characters stumble into the midst of a potentially monstrous situation that they are absolutely unprepared for. It’s creepy, it’s sprawling, the cinematography is beautiful, and it’s got a stunning clumsy fight sequence. Seek this out.
8. The Girl With All The Gifts
We had high expectations and a lot of anxiety about the film version of MR Carey’s beautiful post-apocalyptic novel, but Carey and director Colm McCarthy delivered the story of Melanie and her journey through a new world with incredible skill. Helped by excellent performances by Gemma Arterton (as kindly teacher Ms Justineau), Paddy Considine (gruff Sgt Parks), Glenn Close (icy Dr Caldwell) and the brilliant young Sennia Nanua in the lead, The Girl With All The Gifts stands apart from the multitude of films in its genre. It’s genuinely affecting, tense and shocking when it needs to be, and the Wyndham-esque message about where our world could go feels incredibly timely. More films like this, please.
Yes, we put Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise on our horror list, so let’s not waste time arguing about what genre it’s in (horror). Instead, let’s talk about how Wheatley and writer Amy Jump delivered a ferocious and stylish adaptation of JG Ballard’s classic novel, with biting social commentary, inspired casting choices (Luke Evans as the brutish Richard Wilder, Dan Skinner as Jeremy Irons’ heavy, Elisabeth Moss as Wilder’s neglected wife Helen) and a welcome lack of nostalgia for the time period in which it’s set. There are some standout sequences (the endless parties, the slow-motion fall, the montage set to Portishead’s beautiful SOS cover), but it’s all about the build towards breaking point, as Tom Hiddleston’s disturbingly adaptable Dr Laing drifts through a powder keg.
6. I Am Not A Serial Killer
A young man who could turn into a serial killer stalks an old man who might already be one in Billy O’Brien’s excellent I Am Not A Serial Killer. Adapting the first book in Dan Wells’ series of novels, O’Brien and co-writer Christopher Hyde craft a thriller that’s dark, witty, moving and genuinely unpredictable. Max Records is superb as the sociopathic John Wayne Cleaver and he’s matched by a great turn from Christopher Lloyd as his enigmatic neighbour Crowley as they go about their cat and mouse game. There’s beautiful cinematography from Robbie Ryan, a great soundtrack by Adrian Johnston and a brilliantly chilly atmosphere that creates the perfect setting for John’s oddly moving small-town high-stakes struggle. This will definitely find an audience who are fiercely passionate about it. Actually, we’re sure that it already has.
Innocence writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic returned with her first film in over a decade, and we are all the richer for it. It’s impossible to neatly categorise Evolution. It’s a coming of age story, in a way. There are some fantasy elements, some science fiction, and a fair amount of body horror. We can definitely describe is as a beautiful mystery, in which a young boy (Max Brebant) begins to realise that something is not quite right on the island where he and other boys his age live to a strict routine with the women who look after them. The details of the plot are almost all left open to interpretation, and it’s the images that really strike an impact here, from the strange operations awaiting the boys at the hospital to the gorgeous underwater photography. There’s nothing quite like it.
4. The Invitation
Anyone who’s ever felt slightly out of place at a party will find their nerves shredded by The Invitation, which puts Logan Marshall-Green’s antsy Will in the middle of a gathering hosted by his ex-wife and her new partner. As the evening progresses, Will begins to feels that something is very, very wrong, but is he misreading the whole situation? Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Girlfight) does some of her best work, giving the film a hazy warm glow that lulls us into a sense of security and keeps potentially disturbing looks and gestures just slightly unclear. Marshall-Green is a brilliant volatile presence as Will, and the excellent supporting cast (including John Carroll Lynch, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman and Emayatzy Corinealdi) play the ambiguities of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script perfectly. This is fantastically gripping.
3. Green Room
Speaking of fantastically gripping, Jeremy Saulnier’s siege horror Green Room is a nail-biting, gut-wrenching piece of work that made us regret that we’d eaten a sandwich just before sitting down to watch it. The late Anton Yelchin gives an excellent performance as the leader of a punk band who barricade themselves in the back of a right-wing bar after they witness a murder. Patrick Stewart rightfully received a lot of praise for his softly spoken fascist small businessman/murderer, but it’s the chemistry between the younger actors playing the group (Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner, while Imogen Poots plays the ice-cold local who’s in the same boat) that sells the high stakes. We care about what happens to these guys, and Saulnier keeps finding ways to crank up the tension while adding frequent blasts of his trademark clumsy, brutal violence. It’s gruesome, it’s terrifying, and when it hurts its characters, it really makes it hurt. We should also single out Macon Blair’s performance as Stewart’s increasingly worried dogsbody, and note that Green Room feels depressingly relevant. But mostly we just want you to watch it.
2. Under The Shadow
This Sundance sensation didn’t get a particularly wide UK release, but it came very close to grabbing the number one spot on this list. Babak Anvari’s debut is a powerful and genuinely terrifying blend of real-world horrors and the supernatural. Set in missile-torn Tehran in the early 1980s, it stars Narges Rashidi as a woman whose daughter (Avin Manshadi) tells her that they are being haunted by a djinn. There are comparisons to make to The Devil’s Backbone (the wartime setting, the bombs) and The Babadook (the difficult relationship between a mother and child), and Under The Shadow earns them. There’s a real emotional honesty to this film that makes each bomb scare and each jump scare hit harder. These characters are complex, they are difficult at times, and they feel like real people in a terrifying situation. It’s definitely terrifying, too, and Anvari gave us some of the best chills and biggest scares of the year. This deserves all the awards buzz it’s getting and we hope it finds the biggest possible audience.
1. The Witch
Now that Black Phillip is a bona fide cultural icon, what’s left to say about Robert Eggers’ The Witch? Well, perhaps the most important thing is that it’s still, after repeat viewings, a truly chilling experience. It doesn’t get less powerful, it just gets more interesting. Eggers’ much-publicised attention to detail creates a film that really does immerse in you in the cold, uncaring wilderness with this broken family that’s wondering why God has decided to abandon them, and it is a very scary place to be. There’s nothing about the film that isn’t perfect, from the cinematography by Jarin Blaschke to the score by Mark Korven, and the cast is amazing, with Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson bringing a heartbreaking tragedy to their Puritan pilgrims and Anya Taylor-Joy providing a complex emotional anchor. There are moments when it definitely establishes itself as a genre film, but it’s the harsh reality of that life and the fear of God that really drive the horror of The Witch. It’s the horror film of the year and we can’t wait to watch it again.
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