2016 was a year primarily known for breaking tradition. The status quo was broken many times during this year, mostly to troubling affect. This brazen lack of regard for normalcy seeped into many of the cinematic highlights of the year. Horror is about challenging the perceived norms, so it’s only normal to expect that horror would go pretty damn zany in a year as off the deep end as 2016. The genre did not disappoint this year. It was full of morbid, disturbing and unflinching looks into the abyss that is our world. The heroes/anti-heroes came at that abyss like a giant boulder crashing through a house at peak ramming speed. The splinters of that house left behind eventually arranged themselves as the gory contents of the year’s best horror films, a series of structures unlike many we’d seen before.
The emotional core of a father/son relationship between Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox in the atmospherically creepy The Autopsy of Jane Doe nearly got it a spot here. Mike Flanagan had a near double hitter with the taut thriller Hush and the extremely refreshing surprise of Ouija: Origin of Evil. Foreign titles like The Similars and Under The Shadow were very close to the mark for their individual perspectives on Mexican and Iranian culture during their respective time periods. Some notable examples of art horror like The Eyes of My Mother and The Neon Demon deserve mention just for their immaculate cinematography and intriguing satiric looks into feminism.
10. Trash Fire – Directed By Richard Bates Jr.
Trash Fire is an appropriate way to describe 2016 as a whole. It’s also an extremely appropriate way to describe Adrian Grenier’s situation here. Grenier’s ability to play an asshole comes in appropriate hand here. It gives believable strain to his relationship with his girlfriend and her family. Yet, it also presents insight into his past. The dramedy style conflicts between Grenier and Angela Trimbur and the occasional demented visions prepares us for the conflict of the two of them being with Grenier’s family. Yet, they don’t prepare us for the sheer cringey insanity of Fionnula Flanagan as his awful grandmother. One consumed by inner hatred that unleashes in the form of these stinging insults. Plus, there’s Grenier’s sister character who is one of the more engaging examples of tragic horror characters from this year. It’s a slice of home fried weird that goes from modern conflicts to a crazy Tracy Letts-style of insanity.
9. Demon – Directed by Marcin Wrona
Of all the films on this list, Demon is the greatest example of 2016. We have the story of a young man getting married into a traditionally Jewish Polish family who wrecks every notion of normal tradition in their lives. His outbursts that stop the wedding dead are implied to be a result of possession, but the family knows so little about him and cares far more about the traditional wedding they’re trying to pull off. The darkly comedic genius of the late Marcin Wrona’s film is that people are too concerned with their bubble to consider the main source of dysfunction in their lives. That the supernatural force is treated as more of a nuance to ignore as they celebrate what they feel is right, even when the signs are all over the place. If Demon doesn’t sound like our relationship with 2016 in a nutshell, I’m not sure what else does.
8. The Invitation – Directed by Karyn Kusama
The Invitation looks longingly into the eyes of adulthood as it sinks a knife into its belly. The dinner party all of our characters attend involves all of them trying to escape the troubles of aging. Some are divorced. Others are depressed. Our main character Logan Marshall Green is both, with the additional factor of still nursing the death of his child. All while awkwardly attending his ex-wife’s dinner party with his new wife. Clearly, he would be a likely candidate to be entangled within the cult influence that his ex preaches at that meeting. His inability to do so is initially a character focused struggle with letting go, but instead reflects his emotional maturity as an adult for realizing that letting go isn’t that easy. It’s a story of wills told through gore, mayhem and John Carroll Lynch being terrifying. So, the best kind of story of wills.
7. Don’t Breathe – Directed by Fede Alvarez
Don’t Breathe isn’t the most consistent film stylistically. It weaves between perspectives and showing us everything in favor of surprise. While it may be guilty of a few cinematic sins, the tension is palpable. Every sequence of Stephen Lang roaming the house sensing traces of our anti-heroes is masterfully handled. Lang has this silent determination that speaks volumes, even more so than his actual dialogue. Each new twist and turn breathes life as our characters are unable to. Even if they aren’t the most sympathetic characters, one can’t help but find empathy in these people being at the mercy of this killing machine. Especially when things get nasty during the climax.
6. I Am Not A Serial Killer – Directed by Billy O’Brien
Contemplative character studies rarely intersect with supernatural horror. It’s a shame they don’t, because we’d probably get more wonderful films like I Am Not A Serial Killer. A film where our hero (Max Records) contemplates his inner demons while finding a more literal example in one of his few intimate connections. Records dealing with his sociopathy diagnosis and an actual monster at the same time is a wonderful juxtaposition. It allows the supernatural stuff to have a grounding in true emotional turmoil. Even worse when that monster is someone you trust. Someone who has been an oasis of joy in a bleak existence, wonderfully played by Christopher Lloyd in his underrated understated mode. And it serves as a heartbreaking parallel to Records worrying about his own potential.
5. 10 Cloverfield Lane – Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Tension is another common thread on this list. It’s pretty common for horror, thriller & suspense to be intertwined pretty close together as genres, all of them heavily relying on tension. The best knife for the butter content of tension is someone like John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Goodman has the right mixture of good intention and extreme reaction to put Mary Elizabeth Winstead on edge. As well as the audience. There’s plenty of horror in simple human interaction, particularly as Goodman tries to put Winstead and John Gallagher Jr into his creepy little game of house. The most intriguing aspects of Goodman’s character are revealed through his facial tics and the various knick knacks in his bunker. 10 Cloverfield Lane sets up the forced attempts at returning the status quo in a time of madness and crumbles them with the realization that it can’t be maintained. Evolve or die. Dwelling on the past just leads to acid baths.
4. The Witch – Directed by Robert Eggers
In terms of tradition, The Witch (or The VVitch if you’re so inclined) is about as old school as it could get. Set in 17th century New England, the horror here comes from tradition being destroyed from within. This family has already been thrown out of their community for ultra puritanical views. Views that end up slowly breaking them apart, particularly with Anya Taylor Joy in the lead role. Joy was truly one of the best finds in 2016, with her slightly alien wide eyes being more expressive than some of her harsh ancient New England accented dialogue. Robert Eggers knows just how to shoot her expressive moments of terror and elation. The latter is especially true during the nightmarish finale, allowing this wash of relief to come over her face in the most unsettling circumstance. Finding solace in something as ridiculous as a goat with potential satanic influence is out of the norm… but not too uncommon for a year like 2016.
3. The Conjuring 2 – Directed by James Wan
James Wan is a rarity in the current studio horror movie system: an auteur. An artist with a distinctive vision and talent that can’t be duplicated. Just look at Annabelle. Now, he returns to the film universe of The Warrens with The Conjuring 2, a masterclass in producing horror with a large budget. Wan took the groundwork laid by his 2013 film and soared to new heights here. There’s a near Scorsese level dedication to establishing every knook and cranny of this house before the gorgeous variety of spooky crawlers come out to play. Yet, Wan also puts time and effort into making The Warrens more developed as characters. A couple worried about the sanity of their family and work to keep that together as things crumble around them. The fact that a mainstream horror movie chooses to have quiet character moments that recall Sound of Music is proof enough that it deserves recognition.
2. Green Room – Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Green Room is the most terrified I’ve been in a film all year. Every single gory moment of detached limbs is so matter of fact and realistic that it shook me to my core. The type of gore that’s remarkable for someone as desensitized to the image of blood as the average horror fan. Jeremy Saulnier chose to shoot every violent action with a stark realistic edge that is sold more by the performances and the direct view rather than the music or editing. Green Room is this anarchistic punk rock version of a siege film. Where the brutality shocks after very small yet powerful character moments that keep us aligned to these kids who are far more relatable than they let on. It’s especially heartbreaking considering Anton Yelchin’s death shortly after the film’s release. The passion and energy he put into this role directly assaults you and leaves you staggering, like a machete to the arm.
1. Train to Busan – Directed by Sang-ho Yeon
Compact places are rough. The universal experience of travel is one that transcends cultures, only being complicated further when zombies are introduced into the equation. Train to Busan is my personal favorite film of the year – horror or otherwise – because of just how universal all the characters and conflicts are. This could have easily been a simple “Zombies on a Train” story, but manages to turn into a story of family, class conflicts and the endurance of the human spirit. Train to Busan takes these characters and throws them into disaster/zombie movie scenarios to see how they are handled. Given Sang-ho Yeon’s previous work as a South Korean animator, his style is about as kinetic and unhinged. The zombies contort themselves in ways humans couldn’t conceivably do. It lends to the surreality of these events as our character grasp at straws trying to conflict with this threat that impedes them at every pass. Threatening their way of life and status quo. Just like 2016 in general.