Before the calendar turns over one more time, let’s take a final look back at the year that was. I have to say, there has been an embarrassment of riches in 2016. From arthouse wonders to surprise box office smashes to straight-to-video gems, I can’t recall a more exciting time to be a fan of horror films. There are so many ways for creators to get their vision on the screen, the horror genre as a whole has become a wonderfully diverse realm. So, enough jibber-jawing, let’s talk movies!
I’m a sucker for a good anthology. Southbound is uneven, and I think the framing story is the weakest of the lot, but that doesn’t diminish the unsettling weirdness of this movie. The whole thing has a somber, dischordant tone that breeds anxiety. The centerpiece tales of a girl band being seduced by a nice, wholesome family is like mental fingernails on a chalkboard (in a good way!), an indictment of “family values” and rural homogeneity I really like. The adjacent story is all about a man trying to follow the instructions of a sadistic doctor over the phone as he treats a girl struck by his car. The rest is fine, but these stories are winners. Dana Gould makes a cameo, too, which is always nice to see.
If you follow me on the site or the shows I do, you’ve heard me a say a hundred times that horror is like a sense of humor. Everyone has one, but all of them are slightly different. I see the argument against Darling clearly. It’s slow-moving, it’s confusing, it’s black-and-white (but, c’mon, you’re closing the door on some treasures)… And, despite all that, this claustrophobic story of a woman unraveling rivals Polanski’s Repulsion, to which it clearly owes a debt, for its building dread and tantalizingly oblique storytelling. What is the role of Sean Young’s character exactly? Is she an agent of this place? Is she the cause? I’m not entirely sure, and that’s what I love about it. The central performance by Lauren Ashley Carter is a stunner, too.
8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Let’s get this out of the way, I’m not crazy about the ending. It works thematically, but there’s something unearned about it. or perhaps I was just so disappointed to be the shifting away from the movie I loved, which is the first hour and twenty minutes of the movie. Only tangentially connected to Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a taut story of a woman waking to find herself in the grips of a man who may or may not be completely batshit crazy. He tells her there’s a war going on, and outside his doomsday shelter, only death awaits. Along for the ride is a local handyman who helps convince our heroine of the veracity of the situation, but suspicion builds until the inevitable explosion breaks the movie wide open. John Goodman as the paranoid Howard and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle are phenomenal, and big ups to John Gallagher Jr. for adding some nice texture to his character. I’ll talk about him more, later.
7. They Look Like People
Written and directed by Perry Blackshear, this movie is my diamond in the rough for the year. By no means perfect, but Blackshear channels a little John Carpenter in his story of a man, Wyatt, haunted by voices telling him that a war is about to go down, and that some of the people he encounters… well, maybe they’re not so much people as horrifying monsters bent on mankind’s annihilation. The central question of the film is whether Wyatt is out of his mind or not, and what danger he may pose no matter the truth. I won’t spoil the answer to that question, but the last scene of this film is an emotionally wrenching and spine-chilling scene that has been hard for me to shake this year. This is Blackshear’s first feature, and I don’t envy the bar he has set for himself.
6. Don’t Breathe
I was late to the party on Don’t Breathe, and I regret not seeing this with an audience. Fede Alvarez took on the unenviable task of rebooting Evil Dead and managed to make something wonderfully enjoyable, if imperfect. With Don’t Breathe, he proves that he is no one-trick pony. Quick, lean and mean, this movie grabs you by the lapels and hurtles you into something approaching Hitchcockian levels of suspense, while still being a grindhouse movie at heart. Not for nothing, maybe my favorite headshot in recent film history. And did you notice the subtle grace of that one-shot through the house, laying out the geography of the home and even a few tools that will inevitably come into play later? Not since following the dog in Poltergeist has a movie been so economical with that information, critical as it is for the audience’s understanding. The final scene feels tacked-on and unnecessary, but that’s a small quibble with a movie that delivers this big.
5. Green Room
Similar in story to the above Don’t Breathe, Green Room is everything I want in a movie. It’s got a punk rock sensibility, perfect direction from Jeremy Saulnier, a great score, mood, Patrick Stewart as a right-wing crazyperson, savage dog attacks, mauled hands, Anton Yelchin, Macon Blair, plot twists, dark themes about the true nature of the self, jokes about Creedence, siege scenarios, escape plans… Why am I doing this list? I should be watching Green Room. I talked a bunch about it here.
4. The Wailing
Look, you know it’s a special year when a movie as good, as fundamentally terrific, as The Wailing is lands at number four. Na Hong-jin lays down a deceptively simple story of a small town in Korea beset by an outbreak of violence. Kwak Do-won is Jong-Goo, a hapless and sometimes cowardly member of the local police, investigating these unthinkable murders among his friends and neighbors. The Wailing winds and grows like a novel, and by the time you come to realize what’s really going on, so late it was like a magic trick, it has become nothing less than a battle of good versus evil on the grandest of human scales. It is gorgeously shot, often funny, and even touches on ideas of xenophobia and familial duty in a way that doesn’t ever become didactic. If you have seen it, you know how tremendous Kim Hwan-hee is as Hyo-jin, another in a litany of scarily effective performances from young girls from Korea. The less you know about The Wailing before you see it, the better. And for Hero Hero Ghost Show fans, you’ll spot Jun Kunimura from Audition!
Not only the best Deep Purple song, Hush was a true surprise. Sneaking onto Netflix with little fanfare, Oculus director Mike Flanagan puts together something amazing here. At its core, it’s a home invasion film, pure and simple. But what sets Hush apart is the twist. A masked killer comes calling at the door of a woman in the middle of nowhere. She also happens to be deaf. Hush evokes the classic Wait Until Dark, and, like that movie, is elevated by the lead performance. Star and co-writer Kate Siegel is a marvel as Maddie, and the film never allows Maddie to become a victim, even as she is terrorized. She is smart and creative, and the cat-and-mouse interplay between her and her assailant is what sets this film apart. Remember when I said we were going to talk about John Gallagher Jr.? He’s our villain, and he is perfect in Hush. Menacing without losing his humanity, oddly appreciative of Maddie’s intense fight for survival… It’s a great performance in a movie with a lead who is killing it. This is the perfect example of a movie with the simplest of premises, using that simplicity to focus on the beats and rhythm of the tension. Hey, Jaws is really just a movie about three guys killing a shark.
2. Train to Busan
The second Korean import to make the list, Train to Busan is pure cinematic joy for me. Two of my least favorite things in modern horror for me are zombies and fast zombies, and this movie has ’em both. It also boasts some occasionally obvious CGI. And you might say some of the story beats are predictable. But, oh my god you guys have you seen Train to Busan?! Another simple premise: A neglectful, if loving, father takes his daughter to Busan to visit her mother on his daughter’s birthday, unaware that the train will be one of the few safe havens when a fast-acting outbreak of Crazy Zombie Disease (CZD) hits the country. Of course, one of these infected monsters gets aboard the train at the last minute, leading to the outbreak spreading through the train, forcing survivors into tight pockets of safety. Sure, that’s the story, but it says nothing of the rich character work, some of my favorite this year. Or the fact that the fast-moving, almost World War Z-esque villains actually work and feel threatening. The rapid onset of the contagion makes for some great tension, and when we inevitable lose characters we care about, it’s all the more impactful. Train to Busan is a rocket-propelled piece of entertainment, thrilling and scary and heartfelt and wonderful. This movie, like The Battery, reminded me that you can, in fact, make a zombie movie worth seeing, but Busan is the Hollywood-style, popcorn horror I wish we saw more of – you know, the kind with actual scares and heart.
1. The Witch
The Witch is not just the best horror movie this year, I think it’s the best movie this year, period. You may know by now that writer-director Robert Eggers spent years researching the dialect to get the details of this movie right, and it pays off in spades. His documentary-style approach to capturing this story of a family moving to the edge of the unknown in Puritan America is pitch-perfect. The performances are phenomenal across the board, and Anya Taylor-Joy anchors the film in the central role of Thomasin. It’s a wicked indictment of religious intolerance and hubris, with scenes of casual horror stacking atop one another until the brilliant and brutal culmination of the film. Those last images are haunting and elegiac, adding a surreal touch and punch that is as unexpected as it is fulfilling. With little in the way of effects to prop it up, The Witch trades on its atmosphere and characters, both of which are top notch. I am also very pleased to have Black Phillip in our catalog of horror icons, now. I honestly believe, years from now, this will be mentioned in the same breath as The Exorcist. So, there.
Look, I’m only one man, and there are glaring omissions on this list. The Handmaiden is close, but I’m not sure it’s quite horror, but begs to be seen. The Neon Demon, The Love Witch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe… I’ll get to them. If they’re good enough to take the hits of 2017’s horror offerings, I’ll put ’em on the list next year.
Thanks to everyone for making 2016 a great year here at Legion Podcasts! What were your favorite horror movies of 2016?