In more ways than one, 2016 was a startling year for horror.
But with real-life events far outstripping any terrors or unexpected shocks on the screen, it’s a wonder how any of us could bring ourselves to watch anything that wasn’t a Will Ferrell knee-slapper or a warm hug from Disney.
Yet nonetheless we still made that journey into the darkness.
Personally anything ‘feel good’ just seems too much like a slap in the face right now. Despite the true-life origins of A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that we’ve STILL LEARNT NOTHING and the world is just as divided and unfair as it’s ever been. So it seems far more appropriate to watch something where teenagers are murdered by a neo-nazi Captain Picard or your own close friends are plotting your demise or the whole world is falling into the abyss of Cthulu’s maw, then something where society learns tolerance through the actions of a sly fox and an enthusiastic bunny.
It will be fascinating to see how the events of 2016 will shape the horror cinema of the short-term future. Horror often reflects the fears of contemporary society in an almost parable-like manner. Perhaps in 2017 we’ll see horror films taking their cues from Trump’s victory, the Brexit clusterfuck and how an entire generation repeatedly felt the cold grip of mortality through daily celebrity deaths.
But then maybe now isn’t the time for subtlety. Maybe someone will just make a film about a serial killer president who goes around murdering your favourite Star Wars actors while saying racist things about Mexicans and lusting after his own daughter.
Perhaps 2017’s most close-to-the-bone horror film will be Jordan Peele’s Get Out, in which a young African American man travels with his white girlfriend to meet her parents, only to discover a terrifying secret about missing black men on their estate.
Some of the best horror films I saw in 2016 were at festival screenings, and therefore not technically out till 2017. I haven’t included these in the list, as it’s fairer to include movies already on general release. However prepare yourself for the cosmic carnage of The Void and the body horror of The Autopsy of Jane Doe in the next few months as they are both sublime.
If you wanted to pick out trends from the movies below, you could attempt to divide the list in two. On one side: low-budget, single location thrillers full of impeccable characterisation and impending dread. On the other side: high-budget studio sequels and reboots that put surprisingly imaginative twists on the originals. (With breathing room for a couple of utterly bonkers yet deeply compelling Korean horror films.)
Mainstream horror had a couple of major hits, with Lights Out and Don’t Breathe, both of which contain enough clever conceits and jump-scares to make for perfect Friday night fun – but neither were as interesting or as affecting as the two Blumhouse sequels featured below (Ouija: Origin of Evil and The Conjuring 2). Sadly despite my own initial enthusiasm, Blair Witch didn’t really live up to its initial promise.
But ultimately it’s the chamber horrors that won me over this year. The claustrophobic pot-boilers featuring captive groups of friends or family enduring extreme situations (The Invitation, Green Room, The Ones Below.) Although some of these may only stray briefly into ‘proper’ horror, they contain as much white-knuckle dread as any Japanese film featuring a spirit crawling out of a television and willing you to die.
So with that we wave goodbye to the horrors of 2016 and say “thanks for the scares” while trying not to think too long about what’s to come next year.
13) The Shallows
I enjoyed the shit out of The Shallows, which can be distilled down to the plot description: Blake Lively vs. Shark. Does that sound like a thin premise for a movie? Oh for sure! Does that sound like a bad premise for a movie? No of course not, it’s fucking brilliant. Also prepare to feel deep affection for a seagull.
12) Train to Busan
South Korean horror Train to Busan’s brilliant high-concept plot is basically ‘zombies on a speeding train’. Or Narrow Margin with more face-eating. But to the film’s enormous credit, this is only a minor detail compared to a strong focus on characterisation, themes of class division, and a certain tenderness missing from other zombie horrors. It’s also fucking brutal and the zombies are terrifying, so don’t worry about it becoming too humane.
11) Under the Shadow
Set in 1980s Tehran, Babak Anvari’s masterful ghost story explores a beautifully nuanced mother and daughter relationship while they experience multiple levels of terror in the form of war, an unexplored missile lodged in their apartment’s roof and a malevolent spirit. Beautifully acted and expertly plotted.
10) Dearest Sister
The 13th ever film produced by Laos, Dearest Sister is a terrific and chilling morality tale, full of quiet terror and black humour. Don’t go in expecting major scares, but do expect to learn a lesson about ripping off a family member.
9) The Ones Below
The Ones Below is a calculatedly cruel puzzle-box that more people should definitely watch. The London-set thriller has the grimly black-comic slant of a Roald Dahl short story or a Ruth Rendell novel, while tapping into genuine fears about the chilling randomness of life. Gripping, terrifying stuff.
8) The Conjuring 2
Hey, this unlikely Ed and Lorraine Warren franchise is turning out to be pretty damn good, huh? Here James Wan returns to direct and this time the real-life paranormal experts travel to North London to investigate real-life spookery in a case better known as the ’Enfield Haunting’. Scares are solid, Vera Farmiga is as good as ever and it’s refreshing to watch a scary movie where nobody actually dies or has their eyeballs eaten out of their face. A horror movie to watch with your grandparents.
7) Shin Godzilla
Finally, the modern Godzilla film you’ve been crying out for. Toho’s 29th Godzilla movie is a reboot, but unlike other retreads of old ground, Shin Godzilla brings fresh exuberance, whip-smart editing, wit, intelligence and some quite astonishing special effects to the wrinkly old tale. The AV Club decried its eschewing of the ‘lone hero’ trope in favour of a solid plan that’s executed with solid communication and good teamwork. But for me, it’s the most deeply satisfying thing about it.
6) Ouija: Origin of Evil
No fooling. Out of all the films in this list, the prequel to one of the more mediocre mainstream horrors of recent years contains THE most heart-stoppingly terrifying moments of 2016 horror movies. Especially in the final shot *shudder* You can blame director/editor Mike Flanagan, who made the equally sinister Oculus and Hush. And thankfully you don’t have to watch the original to make sense of this, in fact it’s better if you don’t as any twists will remain unspoilt.
5) The Witch
To put things into perspective, life was much shitter for puritanicals in the 1600s, particularly if you were a young woman whose baby brother had been snatched before your eyes and dragged off into the woods by an elderly nude hag to be pestled into body lotion. The Witch isn’t just a film that dares you to live deliciously, but also to be thankful for the popular acceptance of atheism and cheap airfares.
4) The Wailing
A film much easier to watch than to explain. The Chaser director Na Hong-jin’s third film is an epic horror fantasy, mixed with police procedural, set in a small South Korean village that has been subject to a rash of mysterious killings and illnesses. It’s occasionally funny, often terrifying, and surprisingly gripping for its entire 156 minute run-time. Just bear in mind you may have to hit pause every so often to do a mental recap of WHAT THE FUCK HAS JUST HAPPENED. It’s bloody wonderful.
3) The Neon Demon
A precocious 16 year old model is swallowed up by the fashion industry in Nicolas Winding Refn’s garish, glorious showpiece, The Neon Demon. It strikes an incredible balance between lurid exploitation and abstract beauty, forcing you to question the male gaze, while luxuriating in superficiality. It’s hard to watch, but I loved every wildly pretentious, baffling, beautiful frame of it. 2016’s most contrary film.
2) Green Room
A terrifying, heartbreaking film from Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) which pits Anton Yelchin and his hardcore punk band against Patrick Stewart and his gang of vicious neo-nazis. If you’ve seen Blue Ruin, then expect a similar vein of shocking brutality and odd moments of absurdist comedy. Also prepare to bite down on something fairly durable to get through its many tense moments.
1) The Invitation
Despite its almost exclusively house based setting, The Invitation manages to be the most nerve-wracking, suffocatingly tense thriller made in recent memory. The plot is simple – a young couple are invited by their estranged friends house for a dinner party, shit goes south – but the emotional connections and tensions between these friends are realistically complex, which makes the terrifying ulterior motive for the dinner party all the more grounded in reality. My favourite film of 2016.