As December comes to a close, it is time to reflect upon the past twelve months, time to select the top ten horror films that delighted, horrified, frightened, and scared audiences craving their thrills and chills. For what is otherwise an incredibly crappy year, 2016 does have its fair share of terrific horror films. So many so that it becomes difficult to select just ten for a list of the best of the year. Typically it is easy to select the top five or so while deciding which land in the final spots grows increasingly difficult, this year’s task seems harder than most. The honorable mentions are almost as long as the list itself. Films like The Witch, The Monster, The Green Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Don’t Breathe circling for a seat. All worthy of being included. Foreign films like The Similars, White Coffin and The Windmill prowling about ready to pounce for placement. Any of these and a few more could easily jump into most any horror fan’s list of favorites for the year.
While the summer of 2016 was full of discontent in the theaters for mainstream films, horror movies ruled supreme with The Conjuring 2 and Lights Out thrilling audiences to box office gold. Regardless of how they are regarded at Rotten Tomatoes or at Gruesome Magazine, releases from Blumhouse Productions scored big month after month from January through the Halloween season with The Purge: Election Year ($118M) and Ouija: Origin of Evil ($81M) scoring big. Some of the best horror came to light via VOD and Blu-ray with films that deserved large theatrical releases like The Monster and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. For those who attend horror film festivals, the selections were fierce this year with outrageous gore-fests (Night of Something Strange), excessive exploitation (Frankenstein Created Bikers), foreign gems (The Wailing), and intelligent independent fare (The Eyes of My Mother). Here is the list that had the most memorable impact on the past year. Enjoy.
10: THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (d. Andre Ovredal / UK)
A late addition to the year and the list, The Autopsy of Jane Doe landed on VOD in December after gaining some positive buzz in film festivals throughout the year. The follow-up feature for director Andre Ovredal is a decidedly different film from his previous feature, Trollhunter (2010). The film steals the final spot on the list knocking back the long list of contenders with its 90 minutes of intense atmosphere, intelligent script, fascinating leads, and superior cinematography. The film is unnerving at times, graphic in its depiction without being pure exploitation. The dark tone permeates the beats of the film, creating a spine-tingling anticipation of what the film will reveal. On top of that, Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox deliver terrific performances. The film has one problem, however, that prevents it from placing higher in the list. It fails to squarely land its ending – yet the journey is so fantastic, it must be included … and it must be seen.
09: SADAKO VS KAYAKO (d. Koji Shiraishi / JPN)
Catching the film at the Knoxville Horror Film Festival, Sadako vs Kayako quickly became the guilty pleasure of the year. It is basically a horror mash-up of two beloved/feared J-Horror characters: Sadako from Ringu (The Ring) and Kayako from Ju-On (The Grudge). Think the fun of Freddy vs Jason or King Kong vs Godzilla, but taken slightly more seriously. What will likely win you over from the onset is how simply and convincingly director Koji Shirashi weaves these two modern horror darlings together in a single film without it feeling forced. By introducing a professor who studies urban legends and is hellbent on locating the “cursed tape,” the film establishes the two franchises now reside in the same shared cinematic universe. The film makers waste no time getting the two monsters riled up and haunting new teens. Toss in a dash of mysticism, two fantastic new characters, and a strong sense that no character is safe, and the film cooks up a spooky concoction for the sensational confrontation that seems plausible and is incredibly exciting. The best thing the film gets right is “having a great time!”
08: THE SHALLOWS (d. Jaume Collet-Serra / USA)
One of the best horror films of all time is Jaws (1975), a film that has seen its fair share of usurpers of its throne. There simply has never been a killer shark movie as powerful as the Stephen Spielberg classic, but film makers continue to try and film goers continue to crave its watery frights and toothy scares. The Shallows from Jaume Collet-Serra comes mighty close to those lofty goals, closer than many other shark films. It does so by treating the shark as a real threat, by having it prey upon its victims to protect its home and food supply. It does so by having a terrific actress in the lead with Blake Lively holding much of the film on her own. Most of all, the film steers clear of many of the tropes “shark” films end up diving into as they often replicate Jaws by its plot instead of its tone and effect…and fear.
07: LIGHTS OUT (d. David F. Sandberg / USA)
A remarkable film in a number of way, Lights Out was a huge hit with audiences this past summer. The film successfully expands on a viral short produced by the director in 2013. It creates a mean streak of spirited jump scares throughout its running time, earning each scream along the way. Director David F. Sandberg achieves a great deal of tone and atmosphere far beyond the short weaving in a tale of a dysfunctional family uniting to defeat a supernatural threat. While the ingredients for Lights Out seem simple, not many directors have been able to be as successful as Sandberg in maintaining the thrills throughout the film. It may be due to the guiding hand of the film’s producer, James Wan. But it is the director’s talent (as seen in his short films) and the film’s pacing that keeps its audience on its toes for the entirety of the film’s run time. Lights Out is a great thrill ride and the first feature film of a director horror fans will likely be discussing for years to come. His next feature is Annabelle 2.
06: OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (d. Mike Flanagan / USA)
Most likely the biggest surprise hit of the year is Ouija: Origin of Evil, the sequel that no one wanted to an awful horror film that no one liked. But, Ouija (2014) was a financial success bringing in a cool $50M on its modest $5M budget. So, horror fans are treated to a sequel regardless. It is the formula on which Blumhouse Productions thrives. This go around, the sequel far exceeds the original producing one of the more scary films to hit the mainstream with a huge thanks to its director Mike Flanagan. And, perhaps, due to leaving much of the first film behind. Set up as a prequel of sorts, the film follows a new family dealing with the grief of losing their father and turning to a Ouija board to communicate with the departed. From there, the story weaves in clever uses of established tropes and the intriguing setting of the mother being a “seance” trickster – a deceptively smart decision. By having the supernatural authority in the film be a professional skeptic, it makes her eventual turn to believing in the entities haunting her family that much more convincing to the audience. Combine that with fantastic performances from the younger cast – Annalise Basso as Lina and Lulu Wilson as Doris – and the film succeeds in frightening its audience in unexpected and breathtaking ways.
05: NIGHT OF SOMETHING STRANGE (d. Jonathan Straiton / USA)
Pushing every boundary imaginable, Night of Something Strange is the most uncomfortable, hilarious and gruesome time to be had in the theater or on VOD. But, regardless of how it is seen, the more the merrier with this unapologetic accomplishment in the vile and despicable. Above all, the film is highly entertaining and a must see for many fans – but definitely not all. It will offend you in some manner. And with that – and a great cast – the film is a great success. Director Jonathan Straiton manages to get far more on the screen than his budget would suggest with gory special effects aplenty, a large cast, and a number of complex set pieces. He also manages to handle the sensitive and potentially distasteful material in a way that remains lofty and engaging. While Night of Something Strange won many film festival audiences throughout the year and saw a VOD release in November, the film is set to have a DVD/Blu-ray release in 2017.
04: DRY BLOOD (d. Kelton Jones / USA)
Racking up a number of “best film”, “best screenplay” and “best actor” awards at a number of film festivals in the latter half of 2016, Dry Blood is a film that deserves to be discovered. A modest first feature from the creative team of Kelton Jones, director, and Clint Carney, writer/actor, the film presents a character driven glimpse behind the unhinged mind of an addict facing the mysteries of a killer’s murderous rampage. The film is creatively subtle, shockingly graphic, and highly engaging with a final act that pulls the rug out from under its audience with violent glee. Clint Carney is impressive as the film’s lead, Brian Barnes, giving the film a fascinating unreliable narrator that drives the film’s descent into madness. The direction is equally impressive, reminiscent of Absentia from Mike Flanagan. Look for Dry Blood in 2017.
03: THE WAILING (d. Hong-jin Na / South Korea)
Perfectly blending a number of sub-genres together combining them with character driven aesthetics typical of South Korean cinematic dramas, The Wailing is a mesmerizing journey into the supernatural, strange and unusual. It is also hauntingly character driven and highly emotional with a heartbreaking conclusion. Along the way, however, the film from director Hong-jin Na keeps you guessing right up until the very end. The cinematography is exquisite, beautifully presenting the beauty of the small village and the nearby forest along with embellishing the rains that shower the film with dread and doom. The acting from Don-won Kwak is phenomenal as the bumbling detective that needs to “man-up” in order to save not only his fellow villagers but his daughter who appears to be singled out by the unseen forces descending upon the village. The stakes are high, the mystery is captivating, and the shocks are often horrifying. A great film.
02: TRAIN TO BUSAN (d. Sang-ho Yeon / South Korea)
The second South Korean horror film on the list, Train to Busan is an extraordinary film regardless of its genre. Part horror film, part zombie epic, part disaster film, part drama, the film from director Sang-ho Yeon proves that life remains in the zombie film genre when paired with the right script and a unique approach. It also proves that the heart of the film is its most important attribute. The relationship between Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) and his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) is heartbreaking and emotionally engaging to great effect. The film also dives into class differences and the meaning of selflessness and heroism. All this while Train to Busan delivers some of the most exciting and astonishing undead attack scenes in a zombie film in years as the characters race through a speeding train full of hungry ghouls. Not only does the film belong on a must-see list, it also deserves to be included on any must-buy list.
01: THE CONJURING 2 (d. James Wan / USA)
With his sequel to the hit 2013 supernatural sensation, The Conjuring 2 proves that James Wan not only has a few more tricks up his sleeve but that he also understands the craft and construction of a horror film better than anyone. Technically, The Conjuring 2 exceeds all other films this year as it manipulates audible, visual and emotional cues to deliver a frightening roller coaster thrill ride. The films delivers on every level, from the heartfelt story behind its leads Ed and Lorraine Warren (as played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) and the family they hope to save from a ghostly threat, to the supernatural creatures designed to scar your soul: the demonic nun, the frightening old-man ghost, and the disturbing crooked-man. The cinematography is thorough, from the cool lighting giving the house a dreary foreboding nature, to the contrast of colors illustrating the haunted world of Lorraine’s astral travels against the warm view of her sitting safely at the seance table. The set design is beyond convincing and the story is full of just the right amount of twists and turns. The film will make you jump and scream…and smile with delight. The Conjuring 2 is a masterclass in creating a horror film and James Wan is the head of the class.