When we spoke with filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, they were insistent toward their apathy regarding strict genre classification. This general non-philosophy is highly evident in Spring, a genre-defying mish mash of romance and monstrosity. Here, Benson and Moorhead use horror as a tool for investigating the philosophical fabric of love and the biological and existential value of life. That isn’t to say that the horror aspects are treated with any disregard. Louise’s various manifestations offer at least some of the most interesting (if not horrific) monster work this side of peak-John Carpenter.
9. Lake Mungo
Told through a series of interviews, recordings, and photos, Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo explores grief and how technology can be used as a way to cope but also shatter faith. The impact of technology on the ghost story is nuanced and effective. Using the lore of the doppelganger alongside our ability to record events, the film delivers a heartbreaking examination of death and loneliness, artifice and nature, while delivering a single jump scare that is bound to haunt your memories for weeks to come.
Leigh Janiak’s debut film thrives on awkward tension created by a couple’s realization that the familiar is actually unfamiliar. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadway exhibit both charm and uncompromising spite as a couple who love one another but don’t understand each other. Using a remote cabin to heighten both the meaningless affection between the two and anxiety of true nakedness, Janiak finds complex horror in simple interactions, and that’s before the Cronenbergian body horror even begins. But none of this slowly escalating sense of wrongness compares to the Twilight Zone-esque ending that has troubling implications about how relationships differ in the eyes of men compared to women.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s Resolution may have flown slightly under the radar, but it is a better cabin in the woods film than any other horror film to use that particular setting in the past 15 years. Funny, heartfelt, and ultimately frightening, the film’s central mystery hinges on our familiarity with the genre, and uses a series of red-herrings to suggest that the ancient force at the heart of the film could stem from demonology, ghosts, tribal rituals, or UFO landings. Benson and Moorehead create their own modern mythology that circles around not only our love of horror but our love of stories in general. While the 21st century has unleashed dozens of meta horror takes, Resolution manages to be meta without catering to our desire to feel smarter than the characters onscreen.
Oculus is that rare movie which, once it gets started, doesn’t allow a second of comfortable viewing, and yet, when it is all over, there’s a desire to shake Director Mike Flanagan’s hand for being so thoroughly good at what he aims to do: make things unpleasant for the viewer. Flanagan’s film is start-to-finish stress in its every form: concern, fear, confusion, self-doubt, and borrowed insanity. Oculus takes the concept of unreliable narration and stacks it upon itself in layers. The viewer can not trust the film’s characters, the film’s camerawork, the film’s story, or the cameras used by the characters. The confusion is by design, an instrument of fear too seldom used with any grace in film, which is why, in its commitment to technique, Oculus lands its way at the near-top of our list.
5. Get Out
Jordan Peele announced himself as a new and essential voice in horror with a film that feels dangerous by way of an unflinching look at modern race relations that inextricably ties to the historical race relations that make up much of America’s past. Daniel Kaluuya and Alison Williams give performances that provide fascinating character insights that not only aid the exploration of the issues bi-racial couples face in our once so-called “post-racial America,” but also create a layered look at racism and prejudice. Peele never opts for the easy or expected road, even if that means potentially alienating or finger-pointing to what surely makes up a large population of his audience. Where so much of racism in America is seemingly overt, Peele takes time to expose the hidden layers, the racism that exists behind smiling eyes and firm handshakes. In Get Out, cultural appropriation becomes a form of body horror and the black experience a commodity that creates a horrific new form of slavery.
4. It Follows
While many readings of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows lean heavily on the STD comparisons, the film is moreso about the anxiety of impending adulthood than the actual act of sex. While sex plays heavily into the film, it never becomes an exploitative point (there’s a complete lack of nudity in the act) and it’s instead used as a means to explore maturity. The film uses the adolescent notion of becoming a man or a woman after sex to examine the anxiety that follows in the questions of what comes next. The “It” in the film is that feeling of being haunted by something older and younger that oneself, making it impossible to retreat to childhood while knowing that going forward will inevitably bring death. It Follows is a pure anxiety attack that smartly avoids providing clear answers and backstory, instead letting “It” reside in the unknown. Throw in a set of fantastic performances and a killer soundtrack and It Follows quickly earns its place as a horror that isn’t just watched but experienced.
When Martyrs opens with a kidnapping scenario, there’s a brief assumption that it’s going to unfold as one very specific kind of horror movie. Then it moves very quickly into the realm of hyper-violent revenge flick. For a short time, it teases becoming both a schizophrenia film and a J-Horror style ghost story. It is ultimately none of these things. Rather, the movie eventually spirals into perhaps the most upsetting scenario to anchor any film in any genre of the current century. Pascal Laugier’s film is a reminder that all of the singular fears from those other types of horror films are just precisely carved samples of a much larger and ever-present fear that we all bury within our psyches every moment of our existence. If the most simple ambition of horror is to seek truth in fear, no matter how uncomfortable, then some might say Martyrs hyper-extends itself in its groundbreaking effort, but, the sucker punch of the film’s final dialogue exchange echoes within the hollowness of the viewer’s mortal awareness for a long time after the credits roll, establishing a horrific experience and effect incomparable to any movie before or after it.
2. The Witch
Robert Eggers’ The Witch was a chilling screech sounding unexpectedly from the back of the woods to announce the arrival of an undeniable and perhaps incomparable horror talent. Somewhere in the opening act, the film grabs your heart with bony, frigidly cold hands and holds its grip for long after its credits. A period piece that is steadfastly true to its setting and a script that is acrobatically limber as it walks the line of history and horror, nature and the supernatural, The Witch is an exercise unlike anything else in the current millennium. A breakout turn from young Anya Taylor-Joy spearheads the terror into a narrative of sexual awakening and feminist liberation and somehow, a talking and ungraceful black goat becomes one of the most dreadful manifestations of evil cinema has ever seen. All of this mixed with a gut-wrenching intermission that sees a delirious dying young boy puke an apple adds up to an all time, capital-G Great horror film destined to be remembered as a canonical and career milestone.
1. The Descent
Early English viewers were given no indication that Neil Marshall’s The Descent was anything more than a basic survival film about six friends trapped in a cave during an expedition. The film’s most famous image and its twist into creature horror was completely unforeseen by its initial audiences, in what must have been one of the most shocking and terrifying experiences in the history of cinema. Because that horrific turn punctuates a set-up that is already traumatically unnerving. By the time the first crawler appears over the shoulder of one of the film’s doomed characters, audiences have already suffered through a violent and unexpected onscreen death of a child, some of the most claustrophobic scenes in the history of movies, and the apparent indicators of a downward spiral into vengeful psychosis. There’s a very accessible metaphor built from the reflection between the film’s psychic setting and its physical one, but this accessibility only strengthens the effectiveness of each element. In very real horror terms, The Descent has everything. Just about any praise extended to any previous film on our list could also be offered to this film—from the strength of its Final Girl to its precisely applied first-person perspective; from its trope self-awareness to earned jump scares; from the nightmare accuracy in the design of its subhuman creatures to its measured sense of dread. Of all the calculation and negotiation required to choose and rank the best horror films of the current century, The Descent was the easiest film for us to place, timelessly exceptional in its perfection.
Featured Image: A24