Great horror films were not hard to find this year, but as is usually the case the best ones didn’t open wide in theaters nationwide. The studio efforts were once again the year’s lesser genre entries, and while I had some fun with the likes of Annabelle and As Above So Below the fourteen films below offer far more when it comes to chills, thrills and creative atmospheres.
And a quick note on some of the other titles you won’t find below… both Afflicted and Willow Creek were on last year’s list, and several movies – Black Mountain Side, Cooties, Creep, Cub, The Editor, It Follows, Spring, What We Do In the Shadows and Zombeavers – would have made this year’s, but they’ve only played festivals and have yet to see an official U.S. release.
14. The Sacrament
Ti West’s found footage-ish journey into the lair of a questionably sane cult leader has issues, but cults are inherently creepy enough to help make this an occasionally frightening affair. The final twenty minutes or so are unsettling and thrilling, but the darkest moments come during a danger-free public conversation between a news anchor (A.J. Bowen) and the cult’s leader who goes by the disturbing moniker of “Father” (Gene Jones). The overwhelming similarities to a real-world incident hurt the story, but when the shit hits the fan the mass madness creates an eerie atmosphere.
13. Don’t Blink
Okay, fine, yes, I put a movie starring Mena Suvari and Brian Austin Green on my year-end list of the best horror films of 2014, but dammit it’s a disquieting little thriller deserving of more eyeballs. A group of friends head to a remote lodge, but when they arrive they discover the staff and other guests are all missing. And then their own numbers start to dwindle. The premise leans a bit more sci-fi than horror, but there’s an air of mystery and menace throughout that keeps both characters and viewers on edge. It’s an engagingly atmospheric film despite its cast and Syfy channel feel.
12. Late Phases
Dark Sky Films
There have been some fun werewolf movies over the years, but the sub-genre seems to have hit its zenith in the early ’80s with the likes of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Adrian García Bogliano’s English-language debut doesn’t reach those heights, but its story – a blind war vet moves into a rural retirement community only to discover something has been feasting on the wrinkly residents once a month – introduces a crusty hero in Nick Damici and offers up some strong practical effects in the bloodletting and werewolf transformation.
11. The Houses October Built
The second of four found footage-ish films on this list – I know, I’m surprised too – is probably the most traditional as it features some folks taping their exploits up to and beyond the point where any rational person would stop recording. The film has other format-related problems too, but none of them get in the way of some genuine scares and highly unsettling sequences as the quartet of friends explore some intense haunted houses.
10. Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead
Well Go USA
There’s not a serious bone in this film’s body, but it’s a gory blast from beginning to end and easily surpasses the original in pure entertainment value. The only survivor of the Nazi zombie attack awakes in a hospital with a bad guy’s arm attached to his body, and he immediately heads back into the fray as the undead army rolls into town with reinforcements and a tank. But screw story – this is all about the splattery effects and belly laughs – and I’m a sucker for a horror film that doesn’t think twice about killing off some kids along the way.
A group of miners head down into the darkness, but when an accident leaves them stranded beneath the surface they discover that something else may be down there with them. It’s a basic premise suitable for any number of creature features, but director Ben Ketai does great work crafting and building an atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia.
8. Hide and Seek
This Korean chiller is the only foreign language film to make the cut, and it earns its place by preying on our fears of someone hiding in our home. A man’s brother goes missing, but his investigation into the disappearance leaves his own family open to terror. The plot is effectively twisty and twisted, there are action beats to keep the energy up and the payoff is highly satisfying.
7. The Taking of Deborah Logan
A documentary crew sets out to film the effects of Alzheimer’s on both its immediate victim and the woman’s daughter, but what they find is even more terrifying than they feared. The film manages some truly frightening sequences, but more than that (and like our #2 film below) its themes and realistic drama are intensely unsettling even without the introduction of supernatural elements. Unlike too many genre films it also features a fantastic lead performance (by Jill Larson) and a killer final few minutes.
6. Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut
Is this a bit of a cheat? Perhaps, but Clive Barker’s 1990 monster movie has finally gotten the director’s cut it deserves, and it’s in many ways a brand new film. It’s also a better film as character nuance and motivation are amped up which in turn adds to the drama and thrills. Barker’s affection for cheese is still on display, but the myriad of creatures, fantastically nightmarish production design and Danny Elfman’s lively score all help to create a world of dark imagination that I was happy to revisit again.
5. Starry Eyes
Dark Sky Films
The dream factory of Hollywood can also be a nightmare for some, usually the younger and more naive talents hoping to strike gold in the movies, and this is as terrifying an exploration of that idea as we’ve seen. Alex Essoe gives a heartbreaking and raw performance as a wannabe actress seduced into lowering her defenses in exchange for a shot at stardom, and the terror we feel for her increases exponentially as more is revealed. It’s fantastic stuff filled with pain, fear and an unexpected third act.
New Zealand delivered two brilliant horror comedies this year – although What We Do In the Shadows won’t get release in the States until 2015 – and it bodes well for the country that also birthed Peter Jackson onto the world a couple decades back. This is a haunted house tale, of sorts, that has loads of fun with the formula while balancing both laughs and thrills. The lead is highly unlikable at first – by design – but stick with it as she grows on you.
3. Under the Skin
Some of you might not view this stark tale of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) meandering her way across Scotland as horror, but I’d argue that the beach scene is one of the year’s most terrifying sequences. More than just that one tension-filled scene though the film posits an alien knocking off young men with a seductive siren call that leads them to an inky, nightmarish demise. Add in the isolation, fear and final ten minutes, and you have a film that exceeds the definition of horror distilled.
2. The Babadook
Much has already been written about this fantastic Australian horror film here and elsewhere online, and all of that praise is well deserved. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s film – about a recently widowed single mother forced to deal with her son’s fear of a monster in his closet – features a pair of strong performances from mother (Essie Davis) and son (Noah Wiseman) alongside a script that offers a sad look into grief, loss and loneliness that would be just as frightening even without the possible presence of a monster.
1. The Den
I’ve been yammering on about Zachary Donohue’s ridiculously scary thriller for much of the year, and it’s remained my favorite horror film of 2014 the entire time. The entirety of the film plays out on a laptop screen – a fact that should immediately sink the entire thing – but is produced so brilliantly and slickly that the format never feels cumbersome or dumb. More importantly, the damn thing is terrifying throughout as the story moves in surprising and intense directions. And the ending? So damn good.