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 their rough-toothed nature, though. Films that feel immediate and vital and genuinely surprising. They may not be great movies in an aesthetic sense, but they push the boundaries of the genre. They are genuinely 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, like 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.
A Field in England – 2013 – Ben Wheatley
Honestly, 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.
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. There are also hallucinogenic mushrooms involved.
It is a minimalist movie in many ways. In fact, 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 for me, when Reece Shearsmith’s character is changed into a magically possessed bloodhound, amounts to a bunch of bearded men running through the grass, yet still manages to be incredibly disturbing. And my God, the screams…
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 with anticipation.
True, this is very much what you think of when you hear the term indie movie. It is shot (beautifully, mind you) in black and white, it is quiet, it shows rather than tells, it has a hip soundtrack. Yet, unlike other recent indie vampire movies (looking at you, 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.
All told, it is an interesting approach to a horror film, particularly a sub-genre already so strip-mined as vampires. If Amirpour continues to make horror films (something I doubt), I will be very, very happy.
Afflicted – 2014 – Derek Lee and Clif Prowse
Afflicted is a found footage horror film (I know, found footage is usually 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, making Afflicted a welcome evolution to the sub-genre.
At the Devil’s Door – 2014 – Nicholas McCarthy
McCarthy’s follow up to The Pact (see below) 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. 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.
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 pretty 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 ridiculously 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.
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 dim but 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.
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 novel 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.
Coherence – 2013 – James Ward Byrkit
This movie 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. 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 grounding in character plumbs the depths not of psychological horror, but philosophical horror.
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.
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 deadly traps.
Cub 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.
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 spacefaring 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, therefore, 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). It is the rare horror film that leaves the audience feeling uplifted.
February (also known as The Blackcoat’s Daughter) – 2015 – Oz Perkins
February is made of pure dread. It’s a quiet movie that follows the plight of two teenage girls stuck at their boarding school over a winter break.
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.
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.
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.
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 a good deal 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.
It Follows – 2014 – David Robert Mitchell
In all honesty, 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 psychosexual 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 filmed beautifully. 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.
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.
Jug Face – 2013 – Chad Crawford Kinkle
Jug Face is a complicated 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 Bridgers and Sean Young.
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.
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, in a clever twist, takes to faking 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 influence 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.
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 some 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.
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 his 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 other cheap tricks
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 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?
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 (above), is a far more effective film – but I appreciate the attempt. And look forward to their next outing.
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.
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.
The Booth at the End – Christopher Kubasik – 2010
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.
The Borderlands – 2013 – Elliot Goldner
A found footage film 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.
The Canal – Ivan Kavanaugh – 2014
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.
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 film that is as literary as it is Tarantino-esque. Two hitmen 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 noir moralism and diabolism that would be right at home in an M.R. James story.
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.
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.
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 sense of dread is almost unbearable.
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 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.
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 an agonizing 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.
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 ghost 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.
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.
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.
Simply put, The Witch is an essential horror movie, one of the best in decades.
Upcoming films for this guide, both watched and unwatched.
13 Sins • Berberian Sound Studio • Baskin • The Belko Experminent • Be My Cat: A Film for Anne • Beyond the Black Rainbow • The Color Out of Space • Dead Birds • Demon • Demon’s Rook • Der Nachtmahr • Devil’s Candy • The Devil’s Rock • Enemy • Escape from Tomorrow • Evolution • Found • Frailty • Ghoul • Grave Encounters • The Hallow • Hellions • High-Rise • House of Him • The House of Last Things • The House on Pine Street • House of the Devil • I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House • The Innkeepers • Intruders • The Invitation • The Last Winter • The Left Bank • Life After Beth • Marble Hornets • Neon Demon • Nightmare Code • Noroi • Outcast • Pontypool • Portal to Hell!!! • Rigor Mortis • Sightseers • The Sound of My Voice • Southbound • Stakeland • Starry Eyes • Stoker • Styria • Take Shelter • The Taking of Deborah Logan • Thanatomorphose • They Look Like People • Turbokid • The Void • We Are What We Are • What We Do in the Shadows • Wolfcop
And 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. Not all of these are bad (though there are some serious stinkers). Many 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.
+1 • Absentia • As Above, So Below • The Atticus Institute • The Burrowers • Citadel • Creep • Dark Skies • The Damned (also released as Gallows Hill) • Dark Was the Night • The Den • Deliver Us From Evil • The Device • Digging Up the Marrow • Goodnight Mommy • Haunt • Heartless • Horns • The Invoking • Jessabelle • Mama • Mr. Jones • Nothing Left to Fear • Oculus • Odd Thomas • Preservation • The Poughkeepsie Tapes • The Pyramid • The Quiet Ones • The Signal • The Tunnel • Tucker and Dale vs. Evil • Twixt • The Valdemar Legacy • Willow Creek