Posted on December 30, 2016

THE TOP 10 HORROR FILMS OF 2016

Dawn

2016 has been a bad year in so many ways (there’s even been a horror movie made about it!) but there were some fantastic horror films released this year—and here’s our top ten. These are all terrifying films, but thought provoking at the same time. So I don’t get repetitious, let me say from the beginning that all ten of these films are superbly acted and directed. And if there’s one of them you haven’t seen yet, make it a new year’s resolution!

-10. THE WAILING, directed by Na Hong-jin, is the first of two South Korean films on our top ten list, marking what a great year 2016 was for South Korean horror. The Wailing is a beautiful, lush, and thoroughly provocative film, featuring great performances by its four stars: Kwak Do Won as local police officer, Jong-Goo, besieged by sudden vicious murders in his peaceful mountain community; Kim Hwan-hee as his daughter, Hyo-jin; Chun Woo-hee as a mysterious (unnamed) woman who seems to have some knowledge of what is behind the violence; and Jun Kunimura as an (also unnamed) Japanese “stranger” to the village, who becomes the target of the villagers’ suspicions. Our review is here and it highlights the way in which The Wailing raises central questions about how humans tend to interpret violence—and how, as we seek always to find a cause, an origin, we tend to gravitate toward the “strangers” in our midst as convenient scapegoats.

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-9. THE NEIGHBOR, directed by Marcus Dunstan, was one of the year’s surprises for me. Given the plot summaries I’d read, I expected a version of the somewhat tired “torture-porn” narrative, but The Neighbor was much more interesting, much more humane, and much more thought-provoking. The film far exceeded every preconception I had of it not least because of Dunstan and co-writer Patrick Melton, but also because of tremendous performances by the three leads: Josh Stewart as John, Bill Engvall as Troy, and Alex Essoe (star of the under-appreciated 2014 horror film, Starry Eyes) as Rosie. Stewart’s John is a careworn, somewhat beaten-down thirty-something who lives in Cutter, Mississippi, and helps his uncle traffic drugs. What he really wants to do, though, is escape to the beach with his girlfriend Rosie—to get away from the town and the uncle that have stifled him, given him no choice about how he lived his life. His plans are derailed, though, by the suspicious activities of his neighbor—and what follows veers very close to a meditation on how, at bottom, we’re all trapped. Our review of The Neighbor is here.

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-8. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is a sequel of sorts to the 2008 film Cloverfield (Matt Reeves)—and it’s much better than the earlier film. It tells the story of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who jilts her fiancé, gets into a car accident, and wakes up chained to a wall. She is being held there by Howard (John Goodman) who claims to have brought her to his underground bunker in order to save her life. He also claims that a large-scale attack occurred shortly after her accident, thus making leaving the bunker impossible. His story is corroborated by Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who helped build the bunker and witnessed the attack. However, Michelle is rightfully skeptical, and as the narrative unwinds, the truth proves to be more sinister than originally imagined. Our guest post by Cayla McNally  argues that 10 Cloverfield Lane, aside from being a terrifying horror film, is also a surprising feminist meditation on the banal monstrosity of patriarchy.

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-7. UNDER THE SHADOW marks the directorial and writing debut of Iranian-born Babak Anvari. Having screened at film festivals in mid-2016, Under the Shadow has been acquired by Netflix, so it will soon be more widely available. And that’s a very good thing because Under the Shadow is one of the best independent horror films released in the last few years—in the company of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014), and The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015). Filmed in Jordan because of restrictions on film-making in Iran, Under the Shadow is set in Tehran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, a war Anvari was born into and experienced first-hand as a young child. With the exception of a handful of brief exterior scenes, the film is contained within one apartment building—and, indeed, the building almost becomes a character in itself as it reflects the escalating trauma and terror experienced by its residents. At the center of Under the Shadow are a mother, Shideh, and her daughter, Dorsa, brilliantly played by Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi. Relatively early in the film, Shideh’s husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is compelled to leave to fulfill his military service. It’s his departure, and the conditions under which he departs, that set in motion much of what happens. Check out our review here.

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-6. WITHOUT NAME, directed by Lorcan Finnegan, is an Irish production not widely available in the US yet, so make sure you look out for it next year. It stars Alan McKenna as Eric, a land-developer who travels from what is clearly a soulless life in Dublin to a beautiful natural wilderness where he is measuring and assessing land. He’s under contract with a man (Morgan C. Jones) who seems to be engaged in some shady land dealings. Eric soon learns from the locals that the land he’s surveying (which is called Gan Ainm, or Without Name) is private, but there’s also a growing sense in the film that this land belongs to no one. No one has ever been able to create a map of it; it persists in defying human efforts to contain it. Without Name might well be dubbed an eco-horror film but, at bottom, it’s a meditation on how nature defies our puny efforts to understand and control it. As director Finnegan argues in an interview, he wanted to convey the sense that nature is not “evil” but utterly powerful. He does. And yet the film shows how the power of nature, running against human need and desire as it inevitably does, can manifest as “evil.” Here’s our review, which includes the trailer and the interview with Finnegan.

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-5. THE BOY, directed by William Brent Bell. This film might not make everyone’s top 10 lists, but we’re convinced this is a great film—and not only because Lauren Cohan is brilliant as its star, Greta, a damaged young American who travels to England to care for Brahms—the son of the wealthy Heelshires. Brahms, of course, turns out not to be a boy but a doll, and Greta soon discovers that Brahms may not be quite as inanimate as a doll should be. As our review describes, The Boy is an intriguing horror film because it combines two sub-genres (ghost story and slasher) that I’m not sure have been combined before—and it does so in an utterly surprising way.  And as our guest post on the film by Peter Nagy argues, The Boy also taps into a current trend: the Failure-to-Launch tendency of boys who refuse to grow up.

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-4. DON’T BREATHE, directed by Fede Alvarez, is without a doubt one of the stand-out successes of 2016 and it combines two of what seem to be current trends in horror: the return of the home-invasion film and the disabled star. Neither trend is new, of course. (You just have to go back to the 1967 home invasion film, Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized by a violent criminal.) But with Don’t Breathe and Hush opening this year, disability is becoming an important preoccupation of current horror—and our guest post by Laura Kremmel on Don’t Breathe tackles the ways in which disability is represented. Of course, the blind man who is the victim of Don’t Breathe’s home invasion (played brilliantly by Stephen Lang) turns out to be a less-than-perfect victim, who has some secrets buried in his basement, and our other post on the film takes up the notions of justice and victimhood in the film.

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-3. TRAIN TO BUSAN, directed by Yeon Sang-ho, marks the stunning live-action debut of South Korean animator Yeon Sang-ho. It tells the story of a workaholic fund manager, Seok Woo (Gong Yoo), who tends, as his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) tells him, to think only of himself. When the film opens, Su-an is staying with her father in Seoul, but she demands he take her back to her mother in Busan—which sets off the eponymous high-speed train ride. As father and daughter board the train, evidence of strange, violent behavior starts appearing, and soon it’s clear that something is infecting the passengers on the train. What follows is a terrifying film about the struggle of the dwindling uninfected against the increasing hordes of infected. The film is also about so much more than that—it’s about what humans are capable of becoming, both good and bad. Train to Busan is a suspenseful, zombie-filled allegory about selfishness and heroism—akin to (but in my view much better than) Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013). Check our review here.

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-2. HUSH, directed by Mike Flanagan. Hush is less ambitious than some other horror films on this list, but it is pretty much a perfect horror film, as this review argues. It’s written by Flanagan and Kate Siegel, and Siegel also stars in the film, playing the heroine, Maddie, alongside villain John Gallagher, Jr. (from 10 Cloverfield Lane), who is identified in the credits only as “The Man.” Maddie is deaf and mute and lives alone in an isolated house in the woods. One night, she is terrorized by a masked man—and she (and we) never know why. I went into this film with virtually no expectations, watching it on the day it landed on Netflix. I was transfixed. It was terrifying from beginning to end, and the performances by Siegel and Gallagher were inspired. If you like this film, I strongly recommend an earlier home-invasion film that is equally as good, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008). Both films directly pose the possibility of the real, palpable presence of evil in the world.

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-1. THE WITCH, directed by Robert Eggers, is at the top of many top ten lists this year, and with good reason. It’s about a family banished from their small village to the New England wilderness in the 1630s—and, as they struggle to survive, we see how thin was the line between the visible and invisible worlds for early Puritan settlers. This film is about religious belief, superstition, fear, desire, sexuality, and, of course, witchcraft. Whether witchcraft is real or the product of faith, fear, desire, and envy is for you to decide. In a cast of superb actors, I have to mention Ralph Ineson as William, the father, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who is simply brilliant as the daughter, Thomasin—the heart of the film in every way. It’s interesting to consider this film alongside the film that began this list, The Wailing. Whereas The Wailing dramatizes how we scapegoat strangers, The Witch shows how it’s sometimes the most close, the most loved, who becomes the repository of fear and dread. Our review is here. Eggers is apparently now directing a remake of the classic 1922 silent film, Nosferatu—something to look forward to.

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