The past couple of years have been absolutely outstanding for horror fans. From the artful It Follows and The VVitch to popcorn crowd-pleasers like the recent It, there have been reasons to get excited about the state of horror in the 2010s. Perhaps it’s an effect of the tumultuous nature of national and global events, or merely that the pendulum has swung back toward horror in terms of public interest, but horror hit the mainstream big in 2017. Enough crowing, let’s get to the best!
10. Capture Kill Release
None of this should work. A found footage movie about a couple planning their first murder feels leaden, an idea too schlocky to be effective. And yet… Jennifer Fraser (playing the character ‘Jennifer’) is a revelation as a woman who has too-long fantasized about murder, set free to pursue her dark passions by a milquetoast boyfriend (Farhang Ghajar) who is content to play along. At least until Jennifer is drowning cats in the sink and inviting homeless guys over for poison pies. The central premise illuminates both characters and their uneasy alliance, as well as drives the film toward a rote, if violent, conclusion. While not perfect by any means, the effects are convincing and Jennifer Fraser gives as compelling, dark and sexy a performance as I’ve seen all year.
The French horror scene has been largely quiet since the French influx of the early to mid 2000s, but if Raw is a sign of things to come, sign me up. The horror elements only serve to emphasize this coming-of-age story of a young woman, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a veterinary school, forced during a hazing ritual to eat meat for the first time in her life, having lived with her vegetarian family all her life. But Big Sis Alexia (Ella Rumpf) isn’t shy about her own carnivorous habits, and Justine finds that this quick taste of flesh has awoken something dark inside her. The relationship between the sisters, and the horrifying reveals in the final act, suggest a greater mythology that I would be eager to explore.
8. We Go On
I love a good ghost movie (see below for more on that front), and coupled with the idea of treading into forbidden realms for knowledge not meant for humankind… well, I get all kinds of excited at the premise. Give me some ghost hunters or librarians seeking eldritch tomes and I’m a happy guy. And so, when I caught up to We Go On, my expectations were low, but the notion of a man offering reward for proof of the afterlife… I was in. Turns out, the movie is about far more than that. In many ways, it is less about fear of death than fear of life, and Clark Freeman as the main character, Miles, brings a wounded demeanor to the role that anchors his motivation. Also, Annette O’Toole shows up to be great in the movie. A wonderful and spooky gem.
7. A Dark Song
You get points in my book for showing me something I’ve never seen, and A Dark Song manages that in a couple of ways. This tale of occultist, Joseph (Steve Oram), and the broken mother, Sophia (Catherine Walker), of a dead child captures a sense of the supernatural that is awe-inspiring and frightening in equal measure. While I didn’t love every turn the movie makes, it ends in such a bold manner I couldn’t help but respect the movie for its adherence to its own mythology. And, like We Go On, A Dark Song scratches the itch for ghostly investigations and questioning what lies beyond the common place.
6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos is a challenging director, which cuts both ways. On the one hand, this story of a successful couple stalked by a young man with a sinister purpose is intriguing, dense and frequently unsettling, BUT… It’s also occasionally obtuse, filled with moments that suggest a larger theme without explicitly paying off those themes in a way that is traditionally satisfying. Despite my misgivings about the relative artfulness of execution, there is no question that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a film worthy of discussion. Sure, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman turn in good performances, but it’s newcomer Barry Keoghan that steals the show as the preternaturally serene Martin. There are hints of patriarchal guilt, the subversion of the natural order of life and death and oh so much more to pick apart in this one, and, despite the frustration inherent in a lack of easy answers, this is a movie that hangs with you long after the credits roll.
The top five begins with a prime example of what I mean when I say a good ghost story is worth its weight in gold. While it is not a movie bereft of depth, 1922 is far more concerned with spinning a yarn, and it’s a doozy. Thomas Jane plays the corn-fed Wilfred James, a farmer beholden to his wife for her ownership of the land he works. When Arlette (a terrific Molly Parker) suggests they sell the land and move to the city with their son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), Wilfred hatches a plan to keep he and his son rooted (hehe) to the farm and Arlette gets her own sort of freedom, namely a gruesome death and a quick deposit in the dry well out back. What follows is a ghost story of the first order and maybe the finest example of a curse ever put to film. Frightening, haunting and thoroughly depressing, 1922 makes sure the guilty are punished in a way befitting novella author Stephen King’s rather grim taste. A near-classic of the traditional ghost narrative.
4. Happy Death Day
Another film that sounds like garbage on paper, Happy Death Day takes the Groundhog Day formula, i.e., being cursed to repeat the same day, and places a wicked spin on it. Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes on her birthday, lives through the day of college life and sorority mixers, only to be murdered by a stalker wearing a baby-faced mask. To heighten the tension, Tree realizes that these return trips are not infinite, and time is running out to find her killer with the aid of her one-night-stand-turned-confidante Carter (Israel Broussard). Happy Death Day may not be terrifying but it is unrelentingly entertaining. Jessica Rothe shoulders the weight of the film with aplomb, and does so with such charm that I would be truly surprised if she doesn’t translate the success of this film into a very good career. One of the few films on this list I look forward to watching again for the pure pleasure of it.
3. The Lure
I have frequently mentioned this movie on various podcasts, describing it as a Polish killer mermaid musical set in Michael Mann’s 1980s. I think that’s pretty close to capturing this film, but, truthfully, I’ve never seen anything quite like The Lure. Like Raw, the movie addresses the fascinating relationship between sisters, but within the context of two mermaids hanging out in a seedy burlesque to get their fill of human delights. When one falls in love, you know things are headed for disaster, but the journey is a whirlwind of terrific music, engaging visuals and a sense of magical realism only emphasized by the fact that the dialogue and music are all in Polish. It feels like a movie from another planet that somehow made its way to Earth, and we are all the better for it.
2. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The first time I watched the film, I made it twenty minutes before shutting it off, bemoaning yet another Oz Perkins film that takes its sweet damn time to reveal itself, similar to the leisurely-paced (yet still very good) I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Yes, yes, I’m an idiot. The second attempt, I settled in expecting another Henry James-esque tale of subtle horror. That is not the film I saw. As layers peeled back from the narrative, I found myself stunned by the surety with which Perkins guides his characters toward an inevitable and hideous conclusion. When Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is left alone with fellow student Rose (Lucy Boynton) at a girls’ school over Christmas break, along with the most skeletal of crews to oversee them, Rose’s concern over her unexpected companion’s eerie habits grows until the movie explodes with its true meaning. Emma Roberts is along for the ride as a mysterious girl making her way back to the school for some unknown purpose, shepherded by a sinister James Remar. To give away too much would be a crime, as the way the narrative folds together, and its harrowing denoument, make The Blackcoat’s Daughter a movie worth savoring.
1. Get Out
Some movies are important, some movies are frightening and some movies are immensely entertaining, but it is a truly special film to nail all three points of the horror movie pyramid from a first-time director. Jordan Peele’s interest in genre was evident in his time on Key & Peele, but who knew his freshman effort would be this good? The story of an African-American man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), joining his WASP-y girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), for a trip to her affluent parents’ home manages to turn into a terrifying and compelling story of manners, 50s sci-fi schlockiness and a modern view of racism in America. While the subtext is a necessary and frequently shocking look at the state of race relations in America, it remains in the subtext for analysis when one chooses. Peele never loses sight of the story he’s telling, and the conclusion is one of the greatest moments of release in a movie this year. While some prefer the bleaker original ending of the film, I believe that such an ending would have been needlessly grim in an already dark story. People will be talking about this movie for years for a variety of reasons, all of them substantial. And, let’s not forget the hilarious scene set in a police station where Chris’s friend, Rod (LilRel Howery), tries to convince the police of the danger posed to his friend. Or the drip-drip-drip of predator/prey imagery. Or the uncomfortable dinner scene with Caleb Landry Jones. Or… I could go on. Get Out is, quite simply, a landmark in modern horror and no other movie this year can stretch beyond its shadow.
A few honorable mentions: It, for making all of the money. The Girl with All the Gifts, for reminding me that the world belongs to the young. Split, for making me believe M. Night Shyamalan can still make me enjoy his movies. The Devil’s Candy, for rocking. Hounds of Love, for making me feel terrible about humanity. Creep 2, for keeping the dream of great found footage alive. Gerald’s Game, for the hand. And, finally, Tag, for Sion Sono doing a weirdly feminist film.
I can’t wait to see what’s next for 2018! Happy New Year everyone!