The Best Horror Movies of 2016

#2016Rewind

This has been a terrifying year, offscreen and on.

2016 has been an unsettling year, but while much of that has to do with our political and social realities at least part of it is due to an abundance of riches in the horror genre. While I struggled to reach thirteen titles on my Best Action list I could have easily included twenty horror films here. My definition of what counts as horror is pretty broad and comes down to intent ‐ if the movie wants to leave viewers frightened, disturbed, unsettled, terrified, and/or amped up on fear-fueled adrenaline then it counts as horror.

A quick note. Two of last-year’s picks ‐ The Interior and The Devil’s Candy ‐ remain undistributed against all common sense and are not included here again, but another of 2015’s fest-only titles actually saw release this year so it made the cut again.

16. The Conjuring 2

Studio horror films are rarely among the best of any given year, but director James Wan continues to grow as a filmmaker capable of crafting seriously fun scares with style. He’s as capable of raising the hair on our arms during daytime scenes as he is with the night, and audiences are never fully safe with his camera’s shenanigans ‐ look no further than the painting sequence here as evidence of Wan’s mastery over light and shadow. [Available on Blu-ray.]

15. The Shallows

In a perfect world every movie would turn out far better than expected, and with that in mind there was no bigger cinematic surprise this year than The Shallows. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has delivered fun, silly genre efforts before (Orphan, Non-Stop), but he tops them all here with an entertaining and suspenseful animal attack/survival flick. It’s an intense ride in a beautiful locale, and even Blake Lively is terrific! [Available on Blu-ray.]

14. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Pairing Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch is a guaranteed good time regardless of genre, but their presence in a horror movie automatically elevates it by giving viewers characters with depth who we quickly come to care about. Making the third person in the room a corpse is just icing on the cake. Director André Øvredal drops his small cast into (what amounts to) a single location and immerses them into a creepy and atmospheric experience. [Currently available on various streaming services.]

13. Under the Shadow

This Persian-language period chiller blends horror and social commentary allowing each to enhance the other. The supernatural element is executed with great restraint at first, only blossoming fully in the third act, and Anvari explores that terror in various ways. There are the typical jump scares here complete with loud noises, and some work better than others, but the far more effective sequences are terrifyingly revealing and beautifully composed. It’s easy to make viewers jump, but more than once this is a film that gives you serious chills. [Available on DVD.]

12. The Tag-Along

Director Cheng Wei-hao and writer Jian Shi-geng have taken a popular Taiwanese urban legend ‐ a small, spectral child dressed in red who follows forest visitors and steals their souls ‐ and shaped it into a chilling tale of grief and ghosts. Numerous jolts and effective emotional beats share the screen with a steadily building atmosphere as the characters descend deeper into the nightmare. This is effective, hair-raising filmmaking that will leave you worried about what’s behind you but too afraid to find out. [Currently unavailable in the US, but Eng-subbed DVD can be found at YesAsia.com]

11. Trash Fire

The synopsis for Richard Bates Jr’s latest has “tragic indie dramedy” written all over it, but while those three descriptors apply here individually the whole is another beast all together. It’s wickedly funny for the first act, but there’s a darkly emotional undercurrent to the laughs, and the rude hilarity slowly gives way to raw truths, murderous reveals, and the realization that a desire to be a better person isn’t enough to guarantee happiness. We quickly grow to like these characters, and as our concern increases the darkness bubbling beneath the relationships begins to seep out as guilt, rage, and madness push it all to the surface. This is one of the funniest films on the list, but it’s also the one that leaves the heaviest weight on your chest by the time the credits roll. [Available on DVD.]

10. Train to Busan

Forget snakes on a plane, there are undead flesh-eaters on a passenger express! This Korean horror/thriller is a blood-soaked bullet train that pairs zombie carnage with the rapid-fire pacing of an action film, and the result is an adrenaline-fueled nightmare. Being Korean it also moves effortlessly between making you laugh and making you tear up as characters we love approach their doom. [Available on Blu-ray.]

9. The Witch

It’s safe to say that writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature debut giveth no shites about your genre expectations. The film is a powerful slow burn dripping in period detail, dialogue authenticity, and atmospheric dread, and while it moves at its own pace the end result is like a Halloween-themed episode of Little House on the Prairie by way of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. Strong performances, terror-filled cinematography, and genuine chills await. [Available on Blu-ray.]

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

A young woman is abducted and held captive in an underground bunker by a man who’s either a psychopath or a savior, and things only get stranger from there. This tightly-wound thriller sees scenes of plausible serenity give way to suspense and terror, sometimes slowly, excruciatingly, and sometimes faster than we’re prepared for ‐ blame a deliriously wicked John Goodman for most of the latter instances ‐ and the entirety holds viewers in a grip that only continues to tighten. [Available on Blu-ray.]

7. They Look Like People

It’s not paranoia if the world really is being taken over by demons masquerading as humans. Unless it isn’t, is it? Movies featuring characters suffering from mental illness, especially ones of the thriller variety, usually do little beyond present a crazy person intent on harming those around him or her. It’s rare to find a genre film that takes the time to explore the human behind the madness while still providing thrills, but that’s just what writer/director (and editor, cinematographer, production designer) Perry Blackshear accomplishes here. Along the way he and his cast also manage some of the year’s most intense sequences. [Currently available on various streaming services.]

6. The Wailing

Na Hong-jin’s latest is every bit as dark, vicious, and spellbinding as The Chaser and The Yellow Sea even as much of the early violence occurs off-screen. We’re shown the aftermath of brutal and mysterious crimes rather than the acts themselves, but the weight of the scenes are visible on the screen and on our lead character’s face. He’s a bumbling cop unused to such carnage, and as the events bleed into his nightmares it becomes clear that he might not be the man to face these horrors. It’s big, earthy, nerve-shredding entertainment the likes of which we rarely see from American filmmakers, and it’s not soon forgotten. [Available on Blu-ray.]

5. “Happy Father’s Day” from Holidays

Is this a cheat? Maybe, but this segment from the mostly solid anthology film, Holidays, has stuck with me for eight months now in the best possible way. It follows a young woman who receives a mysterious tape from her father who she believed was long dead, and as his voice guides her towards a reunion in a deserted seaside town we’re led on an eerie journey that only grows more so with each step. Director Anthony Scott Burns creates and maintains an incredible degree of atmosphere and foreboding through the simplicity of a woman walking while her father speaks in her ears (via headphones). It helps that it’s a hauntingly photographed and beautifully scored walk too. Donahue does a lot with minimal dialogue, and Tremors’ Michael Gross shows concern, love, and something… else… as the father’s disembodied voice. Someone give Burns a feature film immediately. [Available on DVD.]

4. The Invitation

Director Karyn Kusama’s long overdue return to feature filmmaking is a serious slowburn that walks a carefully constructed line between suspicion and paranoia, and it mesmerizes through its frenzied conclusion. At the heart of the film is the idea of grief ‐ the effect it has on us, how we choose to exercise it ‐ and that theme imbues the growing terror with a humanity that in turn makes it all the more terrifying. [Available on Blu-ray.]

3. Safe Neighborhood

Here’s my second possible cheat as Chris Peckover’s (Undocumented) second feature hasn’t actually been released yet (and may even need a distributor), but having seen it at two festivals now I remain absolutely in love with it. Part home invasion, part babysitter in peril, this is guaranteed to be a new Christmas terror favorite. It’s a brightly-lit thriller that delivers big laughs, smart action, and characters we actually give a damn about, and it’s easily one of the year’s most entertaining movies, horror or otherwise. [Currently unavailable.]

2. Green Room

I’ve used the word intense a few times throughout this list, but Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature redefines the meaning of the word. The monsters here are human and all the more terrifying for it. Brutal acts of violence strike swiftly with intense, gruesome results. There’s gun play, but the bad guys are also using blades, attack dogs, and more with the wet and gory aftermath captured vividly before our eyes. We cringe and feel the pain of the onslaught in part because it’s captured so unflinchingly, but just as important is our affection for the characters. Green Room is a vicious, grisly, suspenseful roller-coaster ride with a razor-sharp safety bar, and you are going to get cut. And then you’re going to get right back in line again. [Available on Blu-ray.]

1. The Inerasable

The director of Fish Story and A Boy and His Samurai delivers a literate, beautifully-paced, and terrifying look at the ghosts that haunt us. It’s less interested in traditional scares and jumps than it is in crafting and building an overwhelming sense of terror and unease, and it manages that aim with tremendous success. Even better, the film’s interest in exploring the history behind the hauntings as well as the reasons why we want them to be real recalls the terrific Legend of Hell House, and it’s an approach that most modern films have neglected in favor of loud noises. [Currently unavailable in the US, but Eng-subbed DVD can be found at YesAsia.com]

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