It was easy to predict that Lars von Trier would approach his horror project Anti-Christ with some non-standard twist, but it’s hard to imagine anyone could expect the indescribable experience of watching this film. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are two of the most powerful screen performers of this or any time, and that is measurable in their commitment to their performances as a mourning couple seeking healing in the woods, under the influence of some darkly destructive forces. Von Trier’s horror, like his sadness, is a thing of power, Biblical, unnerving, and unshakable.
49. We Are What We Are
Jim Mickle’s remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican film, Somos lo que hay, is one of those horror films that’s more effective the less the viewer knows about its plot beforehand. Moody and unhurried, the film paints a sad portrait of this particular family’s values. With quietly intense performances by its lead actors, and a stunning finish, We Are What We Are finds the subtlety in shock value.
48. The Taking of Deborah Logan
The most innovative thing about Adam Robitel’s as-yet underseen 2014 film is its insistence upon doing things by the book. But it isn’t so much just how strictly how it adheres to proven standards, but in how many of those standards it employs. The Taking of Deborah Logan manages a dozen different forms of fear, without ever feeling imbalanced. At any given time, viewers might find themselves shocked or creeped out or even psychologically shaken.
47. Trick ‘R Treat
Traditional monsters, serial killers, ghosts of local lore—Trick ‘R Treat is a movie built from the best of the Halloween season. There’s a lot of orneriness in Michael Dougherty’s compilation film, a sense of smirking delight that holds through each of the film’s chapters. There’s a spiritedness to this seasonal film that is slowly taking hold of the horror community and, for a growing cult following, the film is deservedly supplanting the films that carry the holiday’s name as the singular best Halloween movie.
46. We Are Still Here
Ted Geogehan enlisted Horror Royalty when he assigned Re-Animator star Barbara Crampton to the role of mourning mother Anne Sacchetti. He proceeded to construct a haunted house film that directly recalled the work of legendary Lucio Fulci. Crampton turned in an astonishingly emotional performance of quiet weight, and the film itself earns its inspirational company through the sort of pacing uncanny for a first time director. The ghost work here is unsettling in its basic-ness, and the score stands with the best in the horror business.
45. Dog Soldiers
Neil Marshall’s first feature doesn’t explore quite the same depths as his later and more confidently horrific film, but Dog Soldiers is a blast of a creature feature. Despite its B-movie aim, Marshall’s werewolf vs soldiers film is given dramatic weight by the gravitas of its lead actors. Marshall’s ability to stage memorable battles makes the film a worthwhile addition to the ‘siege horror’ that’s most often populated by vampires and zombies. But it’s the complexity of the characters, and the distinct personalities of each, that makes Dog Soldiers such a gripping and rewarding experience.
44. Be My Cat: A Film for Anne
Both our review of Be My Cat: A Film for Anne and our interview with Director Adrian Tofei touch on the danger of the project and its auteur. While the film is currently premiering at a number of horror festivals, gaining traction and buzz, it is very likely that early audiences are going to be bothered by the realness of the screen. Some have already confusedly perceived the dark events as having actually happened. But even beyond that, the dangerous precedent set by Be My Cat and the director’s approach to film is more pointedly aimed at the cinematic form. Tofei is aiming for an entire new film language and philosophy, a way to approach stories while eliminating the disconnect of our mind’s recognition of typical narrative tells. Perhaps this is why the closing exchange between the movie’s last intended victim and her would-be killer offers an exploration of the Final Girl stereotype that is as fresh as either of the films named for the trope that were released the same year.
43. Starry Eyes
Taking a page from Rosemary’s Baby, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes explores the cost of fame. But what starts as a psychological slow-build that creates kinship between the audience and the lead quickly moves into body horror and copious amounts of blood. The film incorporates elements of ’70s, ’80s, and modern horror to not only pay homage but create a contemporary exploration of the parallel evils found in both the Old-Hollywood studio system and the independent film circuit.
42. Kairo (Pulse)
Many will remember the Kristen Bell-led American remake as yet another goofy attempt at stealing the cult success of J-horror through English-language remake, but the original film is at once a deliberate look at technology enhanced loneliness, a modernized take on the traditional ghost story, and a haunting, convincing vision of an abrupt apocalypse. Singular scenes are unnerving in the mournful vision of spiritual revisitation, but it’s the collective vision that does the frightful damage here. This is a film tied deliberately to a specific instant in technological history, the horror movie that touched all the right nerves of a very precise moment.
Park Chan-wook’s 2013 psychological near-masterpiece is wholly atmospheric. Chan-wook is a student of the art form who unleashes his learning as an expression of rebellion. He recalls Hitchcock, only to obliterate the obvious comparison in the second act. He constructs a vampire movie then obfuscates it in narrative shadows. And Mia Wasikowska’s performance as young, menacing India is predictive of an undeniable rising star.
40. Session 9
Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is proof that the right setting, set, pieces can carry a story a very long way. That isn’t to take anything away from the movie’s intense ensemble cast, as each performer carries the material a long way. In the end, Session 9 takes a turn that would be ruinous for a standard movie, but there, the twist sits atop an already strong narrative and reinforces rather than erases what we know and feel for established characters.
Bears are terrifying and they will tear you apart. Okay, so while this isn’t always true, Adam MacDonald makes a convincing argument otherwise in his survival horror film, Backcountry. With standout performances from both leads that quickly dismiss survival man machoism, the use of a real bear (!), a mounting sense of doom, and perhaps the most grisly animal attack scene ever put on film, Backcountry captures the full ferocity of nature. Even if it doesn’t haunt your dreams, it will make you think twice, and then again, about venturing off the trail.
38. American Psycho
While Mary Haron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel is more often viewed as a black comedy than a horror film, there’s a convincing argument to be made that there are few things more frightening than a total lack of empathy and conscience found in those who handle our financial well-being. Like another film of its era (Fight Club), American Psycho is often celebrated for questionable reasons by those who consider it a way of life. While there are certainly aspects of the film that are humorous and quotable, American Psycho’s cold disinterest in humanity make it a film that shows only a cursory interest in its impenetrable characters who cast the illusion of being a human beings. These empty things dressed up in human form, Patrick Bateman and his kind are entrusted with the security of what our nation holds in highest esteem, which raises the question of whether they created America or if America created them. Holding more in common with Frankenstein than Hitchcock’s Psycho, American Psycho’s horror lies in its larger creation of monsters both on and off-screen.
37. Dark Water
After the success of Ringu, Hideo Nakata returned to deliver another exceptional example of J-horror. While J-horror films are frequently criticized for their rather muddled plots and dull set designs, Dark Water is not only accessible and emotionally powerful, but its set becomes a character in its own right. Nakata delivers a film that is more depressing than frightening by opting to make the ghostly antagonist relatable in her dependency and need for a mother. In the halls of a run-down apartment building, Dark Water presents a frightening custody battle where natural ownership pales in comparison to supernatural power.
Neil Jordan’s underrated vampire gothic delivers a mother-daughter story that uses familiar vampire tropes to explore the horrors of feminism and class in two European eras. Where sex, romance, and misogyny are integral elements to vampire lore, here they are given a weight and outcome that asks viewers to question why these elements are so important to the genre. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan make for convincingly troubled vampires, but Sean Bobbit’s German Romantic-inspired cinematography is the true star.
35. The Nightmare
Rodney Ascher’s 2015 documentary has real-life subjects speaking toward what the rational viewer recognizes to be a medical condition (sleep paralysis). But, because Ascher simply illustrates the testimonies and never disrupts with expert medical explanation or narrative counter-balance of any sort, the psychological trauma of the condition’s sufferers becomes almost contagious for the viewer. The disrepair of the patients is measurable and terrifying. For the viewer, the human mind’s potential for betrayal is just as frightening as the material of more supernatural films. But for those suffering through the betrayal, it is indistinguishable. So, when The Nightmare makes the offhanded suggestion that thinking about and knowing of sleep paralysis may enhance one’s chances of experiencing it, the fear is as intense and obsessive as any offered by more traditional horror.
34. Ginger Snaps
Before Ginger Snaps, werewolf movies just didn’t work. Really, they have succeeded rather infrequently since. Ginger Snaps earns its anomalous status as a fun, entertaining, and intelligent werewolf film by way of its feminist embrace of the lunar cycle metaphor and by allowing a rather exceptional character struggle to unfold within the boundaries of the legend.
33. The Visit
Fitting that M. Night Shyamalan used the most maligned format in all of film to catch his second breath this year. Even at his worst, Shyamalan is both a magician and scientist in cinematic form. Though recently weighted down by his narrative shortcomings and the internet’s meme-ification of his reputation and name, the still-young director’s precision in camerawork-as-storytelling-language has never really suffered. So it’s of no surprise that The Visit managed to cover all of the questions that most found footage films gloss over (Who is filming? Why do they keep filming? Who edited the footage and why?) to put forth the most airtight found footage horror film since The Blair Witch Project. And The Visit is praise-worthy for more than the accomplishment within its form. Immediately empathetic characters, Shyamalan’s trademark thematic sentimentality, and a visual horrorscape built of a remote domestic location all combine for a high-stress horror experience.
32. Stake Land
What makes Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic movie fascinating isn’t the horror that diminishes the population, but the subsequent culture built by the survivors. Mickle takes creative liberty with his vampire story (in Stake Land, vampirism is a pandemic), distancing itself from the fantasy foundation of the standard lore. As a result, his movie is earthy, gritty, and, at times, brutal. Which helps comfortably contextualize the film’s initial rough and calloused hero, simply named Mister, a horror hero to stand alongside all-time greats.
31. Eden Lake
Kelly Reilly is, on her own, a striking screen presence, so seeing her limp, scratch, and crawl through the dirt for survival is, on its own, a challenging film experience. Writer/Director James Watkins seems to recognize this, as he places Reilly’s character (and, for a shorter period of time, Michael Fassbender’s character) at the mercy of her attackers and an antagonistic landscape and then he gets out of her way. As much as any hopeful horror hero, the devastation when things turn bad for Jenny is devastatingly real.