As I scrambled through (just in the past five days I’ve watched 15 flicks) some of the many, many horror films I’ve inexplicably missed over the past year (some critical darlings), and then began the lengthy hemming and hawing process of figuring out my top 15 Best Horror Movies of 2016 and eventually how they would be placed – I remembered a line of dialogue from an episode of Fox’s Family Guy. Lois and Peter are watching an episode of the classic sitcom Maude – and this particular episode had an extended version of Maude’s opening theme-song. It goes on and on and once it’s finally complete (and both Lois and Peter are sufficiently angry), Peter spews forth with venom, “Well, that was an ordeal.”
Sorry for that long anecdote, but in my quest to prep for this article and to finally arrive at this list before you – I probably put way too much time and thought into the entire process. Indeed, it was an ordeal, but I’m glad I did it the way I did. And I’ll certainly discuss with my therapist the anal-retentive or perhaps OCD behaviors this article has brought forth.
A quick disclaimer – several of the films on the list found placement which might not correspond with the original rating I offered when reviewed earlier in the year. Allow me to explain: I didn’t just take into account my ratings, but also the depth or length of time each film has stuck with me. In other words, what’s their longevity in my brain? So even a 4.5 star rating might be overtaken in placement by a 4-star rating. You dig?
So without further ado, here is my list of the:
Top 15 Best Horror Feature Films of 2016!
#15: Lights Out
No doubt this choice will get a whole heckuva lot of groans and eye rolls for its inclusion on this list. Release the internet trolls! But… I can’t deny that I simply loved this film. It’s a popcorn flick through and through, and it boasts some great performances (including Golden Globe nominee Maria Bello), surely a record-breaking number (and frequency) of “boo” moments (all of them effective) and a new horror villainess in the form of the mysterious and light-phobic Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey). Based on the viral short film of the same name (from David Sandberg – at the helm of Annabelle 2) this was a to-the-point scare-fest, which – imperfect as it may be – it delivered on the entertainment and fright factors. And the ending is surprisingly emotional. You want a fun fright flick which pushes all the right buttons and leaves you laughing at yourself after every big jump? Look no further! Check out my full review here!
The only 4-star review to make it into the top 15, this was – I believe I termed it in the review as a “mindfuck” – and it is. Josh (Cristobal Tapia Montt) and Isabel (Juanita Ringeling) are a young couple trying to get their lives back on track following the disappearance of their young child. His intense work research involves shortwave communication and these experiments reach something other-worldly. While slow to get going, the film’s payoff is mind-blowing and the piece is beautifully shot. Winning tons of awards at festivals all over the place (lots of technical kudos and wins for lead actress Ringeling), the film has a hypnotic quality and its intensity leading up to and including the climax is almost unbearable. Solid performances, more frightening images than you can throw a rock at – the story of Shortwave is also eventually headed to honest-to-God franchise territory (per writer/director Ryan Gregory Phillips). The most amazing thing about this film is that it’s genre-defying. Sci-fi, horror, drama, love story. It hits all of these and more, and succeeds in each of those categories. Read my full review right here!
#13: The House
A Norwegian horror flick from writer/director Reinert Kiil; which we screened at this year’s Screamfest, The House (also known by its original title Huset) is a creepy period piece, following two Nazi soldiers (terrific performances from Mats Reinhardt and Frederick von Luttichau) and their Norwegian prisoner as the threesome tramps through the wintry countryside of Norway during WWII. They happen upon a seemingly deserted house and immediately after they take shelter, things begin to go bump in the night. This film crazily plays with the timeline and makes its Nazi characters sympathetic. As if that’s not enough – the film has lovely echoes of The Exorcist and a recent favorite The House at the End of Time. Beautifully shot with a successful and detailed production design, it also comes complete with that quality in horror films which I so adore (a dripping and inescapable feeling of dread). The House is very deserving of a spot in the top 15. Check out my full review here and then check out the film!
#12: The Id
With a stunning performance from A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Amanda Wyss at the center of the indie film The Id… well, I’ve just named the biggest reason for you to take in the film. Wyss gives the performance of her career in Thommy Hutson’s domestic horror film and I truly hope it finds a very wide audience. Wyss’ shining moment (among so many) takes place in a bathroom, but I’ll say no more than that. Basically, the story follows Meridith (Wyss) as she realizes how her life has been wasted as she cared for her ailing and abusive father. There was a scene in this film which so upset me, that when I was proof-reading the review aloud to my husband, I instantly got re-choked up when remembering the scene and attempting to discuss it. If that doesn’t scream powerful, I don’t know what does. A striking example of giving quality actors the chance to expand and shine, The Id is worthy of praise; as well as that all important positive word-of-mouth. A strikingly depressing film about lost opportunities, familial obligations and crippling mental health issues, The Id touts a performance from Wyss which would likely come out on top if compared to any of the other lead performances from any of the other films on this entire list. It’s that devastating and that remarkable. Check out my full review here.
#11: The Monster
From Bryan Bertino (the writer/director behind The Strangers) comes another intense one-location beauty. A white-trash/alcoholic mother (Zoe Kazan) and her pre-teen daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) take a road-trip to return Lizzy to her father (mom and dad are divorced). It’s a very rural area and during a terrible rainstorm. They blow a tire and have to wait for help. In the meantime, they have to actually talk to one another. But that’s not easy, since their deteriorating and tepid relationship has come to an emotional head. There are plenty of flashbacks (they actually work well here) which help to cement the painful life they share together. But when danger strikes (in the form of a monstrous thing just off the road in the deep woods), they’ll have to put all problems aside and bond in a way they never could before. The performances from the two leads will have you (they did me) crying at least every other scene. There’s a strong emotional bond represented here and when the going gets rough, the actors give it their all. Both can cry at the drop of a hat (or a monster tooth in this case) and the dialogue/situations and performances conspire to make you care deeply for this broken little duo. The monster is almost incidental, until you realize that this mother/daughter needed this violent intrusion into their lives in order to make amends. The monster of the title has some similarities to HR Giger’s Alien. And it’s no wonder, as Alec Gillis (who worked on Aliens and Alien 3) is one of the special effects maestros behind the creature. Battlestar Galactica’s Aaron Douglas appears as the tow truck driver. Stay tuned for my forthcoming and detailed review!
Top 10 Horror Movies of 2016
#10: The Eyes of My Mother
A critical darling in 2016, and it’s easy to see why. A difficult piece to digest, it follows a young woman named Francisca who – because of a devastating childhood tragedy – begins to experiment with her sociopathic and homicidal tendencies in young adulthood. As the adult Francisca, Kika Magalhaes is absolutely terrifying. But despite the fear she instills in the viewer, we’re given ample opportunities to understand her actions and even sympathize with this broken woman. That is never an easy thing to do in a horror film with such atrocities. As Francisca tries to find herself, the viewer is treated to stunning black and white vistas and beautiful camerawork. The opening sequence of a woman alone in the middle of a long stretch of highway, will take your breath away. This is the debut film from writer/director Nicolas Pesce. And if this brilliant piece of filmmaking is any harbinger of things to come, you can bet we’re in for many more worthwhile and memorable films. I apologize for the lack of a lengthy description, but The Eyes of My Mother just needs to be experienced. Take a gander at my full review here.
#9: The Wailing
A Korean import with some scenes reminiscent of Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow – The Wailing has zombies, demons, possessions and even some Shaun of the Dead-style humor early on. A strange sickness (including horrific boils on the victim’s infected skin, as well as homicidal and suicidal actions by the infected) has overcome a small village. Authorities and superstitious townsfolk blame it on a newly-arrived Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura of the Kill Bill films). Bumbling police officer Jong-Goo (Do-wan Kwak) follows the clues and becomes personally involved when his daughter falls ill to the same sickness. This film is over 2 ½ hours long, but it needs all of this time to fit in all of the details and twists and turns inherent in the story. The Wailing has an ending which I’m still wrangling in my head – trying to completely understand the predicament in which Jong-Doo finds himself at the film’s climax. Performances are all very strong, with some terrific make-up effects and lush photography. Don’t let the long run-time dissuade you. This is a deeply thoughtful and brilliant film. My full review is forthcoming.
#8: Lake Bodom
A new take on the good old stalk-n-slash camping movie of the ‘80s, Lake Bodom received one of my few 5-star ratings throughout the year. We saw this one at October’s Screamfest, and it’s a high-octane ride, with plenty of tropes you’ll recognize from classic favorites. Four teenagers go camping at a place in Finland called Lake Bodom. Years earlier there were several deaths, which to this day remain unexplained (this history is true, folks). One of the kids wants to completely recreate the set-up of the earlier victims, in an effort to try and solve the mystery. As you can imagine, things go wrong and become violent. But what sets this scenario apart, are the multiple twists (which you will not see coming) and an epic car chase in the film’s climax, which left me breathlessly in awe of such a mind-blowing technical achievement. As I sat there, I wondered – are we watching a low budget indie, or a pre-cursor for Mad Max: Fury Road. With characters you’ll care about and an ever-unraveling of character’s secrets, Lake Bodom is a genuine treat of horror cinema and a worthy addition to the list. Actress Mimosa Willamo won Best Lead Actress at this year’s Screamfest. Check out my complete review here.
#7: Under the Shadow
Set against an uneven and terrifying backdrop of the ongoing Iran/Iraq conflict, Under the Shadow takes place in the late ‘80s. With more and more violence, many are fleeing the city of Tehran. Among those who have chosen to stay, medical student Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh’s doctor husband has been drafted and despite his request for Shideh to leave the city with Dorsa and go stay with his family, she remains. After a missile hits their apartment building and things in the city become more dire, the family’s neighbors begin to leave. The thing is, Dorsa’s favorite doll has gone missing and she now has a fever which simply won’t go away. Neighbors believe it is the work of a supernatural and mythical creature called the Djinn. Things in the house begin to get worse – both in the oncoming war and in the strange and dangerous supernatural events. Under the Shadow is an effective psuedo-ghost story through and through. It’ll have you on edge all the way throughout – and for so many reasons. One particular jump was more than your average “boo” moment for yours truly. It was a scare so powerful, my goosebumps lasted a good full minute following it. And that’s not easy to do to this old horror warhorse. But when something is that frightening, praise must be given where praise is due. Great characters, chilling atmosphere and HOLY CRAP! some fantastic scares. Simply, this film works. It was a possible contender from the UK – for the Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. My full review of the film is forthcoming.
#6: Stomping Ground
This indie Bigfoot flick is a mostly undiscovered gem. I had no idea what to expect when going in, but was met with intelligent and charismatic characters, strong performances from mostly unknown actors, smart dialogue and a true sense of atmospheric dread and effective horror movie chills. Young couple Ben and Annie return to her small North Carolina town to visit family. While there, they meet up with some of her old friends and head into the woods for a little Bigfoot hunting. Stomping Ground is something you can find on many VOD outlets. Sure, at first glance you might gloss over it, perhaps looking for name actors, but take my word for it – when this flashes by as you browse – stop and take notice. Writer/director Dan Riesser and writer Andrew Genser have brought us real people in a real situation, and made it downright scary. All of the feats they tackled and achieved are worthy of great praise. You see, they understand that any good film begins on the page. And that we need to care about these characters. If you get those things right, and add in the scares – you’ll succeed in terrifying an audience as well. It’s a simple method which far too many filmmakers don’t understand. These guys and their cast and crew – they get it. They really do. Stomping Ground is an enjoyable and intelligent film which you need to see. The Evil Dead’s Sarah York (here credited as Theresa Tilly) appears in a supporting role. Check out my glowing 4.5-star review here.
Top 5 Best Horror Movies 2016
#5: Trash Fire
Ricky Bates’ third feature film is a real barn-burner (ahem). We saw this at Screamfest where it opened the prestigious festival’s 16th year. Owen (Entourage’s Adrian Grenier) and his girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur) return to his childhood home, upon discovering that Isabel is pregnant. But there are lots of secrets and plenty of guilt back in that little town – not to mention Owen’s bitter and cuckoo grandmother Violet (The Others’ Fionnula Flanagan) and his shut-in and deformed sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord). I often lamented the fact that Ms. Flanagan was mostly unrecognized for her brilliant acting work in The Others. I’m assuming I’ll have to deal with the same grief and disappointment for her work in Trash Fire. Sigh. While the film as a whole is stellar and engaging and frightening, you’ll mostly find yourself enamored by Ms. Flanagan’s work. Her Violet is foul-mouthed and flimsily righteous and so much of what she does will disturb you, while making you laugh out loud at her hutzpah. But with all of this goofiness and tremendous character work (from the entire cast) there’s also a very dark heart to this film. It’s surprising, it hurts and it amazes. My full review can be read here.
#4: Train to Busan
This is some epic zombie movie goodness here. Taking a hint from the train-thriller Snowpiercer and making its zombie hordes akin to the creatures of World War Z (they move and cooperate like those monsters), Train to Busan is a terrifying, engaging and deeply emotional Korean import. The story follows the commuters on a train to nearby city Busan (hence the title) right at the beginning of an infectious and dangerous viral outbreak (read: zombies). There was quite a misstep in the final moments (an over-the-top flashback) but it can all be forgiven because of everything (and I do mean everything) which comes before it. The film is a visual treat – looking as though no expense was spared. Zombie make-up and gore are top-notch and the action/suspense will nearly destroy you (the first train stop as our passengers disembark – was nail-bitingly good). Word is there’s an English-language remake already in the works (color me surprised). Performances are all strong, but keep an eye on young Soo-an Kim (as Soo-an). Her acting work in this film (particularly during the climax) will have you standing up and cheering (when you’re done bawling your eyes out). Just wow! I look forward to completing my actual full review for the original Train to Busan, so stay tuned!
Abattoir has one of the best lead-ups to a film’s subsequent climactic reveals – ever. Darren Lyn Bousman (director of Saw II, III and IV) takes you on a mind-bending and very original horror journey. Someone is buying properties where horrible deaths/murders/tragedies have taken place. And they’re removing the rooms where these events took place – literally, removing the entire room and all of its contents – completely from the buildings. One of the film’s tagline sums it up: “How do you build a haunted house?” An investigative reporter (Jessica Lowndes) and a police officer (Joe Anderson) work together to get to the bottom of this grisly mystery. With powerful performances from a strong cast, you’ll find our beloved Lin Shaye in an important supporting role. Her performance as Allie – one of the townsfolk at the center of the mystery – finds Ms. Shaye at her very best. That “mirror scene” is just delicious. The aforementioned reveal is stunningly unbelievable. You’ll be nodding your head in awe-inspired appreciation when that final door is opened. What’s even better, is that the build-up of anticipation, knowing you’ll see this “haunted house” eventually – results in more than you could have wanted or expected. Abattoir is just a fantastic horror film! Take a look at my full review here.
#2: Green Room
Took me a while to get to this one, and I’m so glad that I did. After much inner debate, I realized that this film would have to take the #2 spot away from Abattoir (which had been sitting at the enviable #2 spot since I began comprising this list). Green Room is unflinching with a break-neck pace and a very original set-up. No time is wasted on exposition (and yet we still get enough) and bad character choices are nill (what would you do – the believable actions of the characters are desperately spot-on). This film shows film-goers what true (and truly great) ensemble performing is all about. And even with such praise for the ensemble as a whole, you can’t help but point out the amazing work of Patrick Stewart (such a terrifying villain) and that of the late Anton Yelchin. Both offer some of the best work of their careers. It’s something I’ve been complaining about a great deal over the past many films I have reviewed – the lack of reaction from actors or the less-than appropriate reactions of actors – in these frightening and surreal situations. Green Room is a shining example of gifted actors doing what they are supposed to be doing. The old saying is that “acting is reacting”. And it’s true – certainly here. Everything in Green Room is expertly done, and even days after my first viewing, I can’t think of one eensy-teensy misstep in the entire film. It’s destined to become a modern-day classic.
The Best Horror Movie of 2016!
#1: The Witch
Lots of naysayers for this film which finds itself at the top of my list. Perhaps as many haters as lovers and I simply don’t understand why. It’s not flashy or fast-paced, so perhaps that is the reason some folks didn’t like it. I for one adored the very intense and frightening slow burn. The set-up: an uber-religious family (two parents and five children) in the 1600’s moves to a remote part of the woods, where they experience paranoia, superstition, possession and you guessed it – witches. I saw this critical darling early in the year, and frankly, have been waiting impatiently for some other film to usurp its well-deserved throne. Not that I wanted that to happen – just that I was interested in some sort of a challenge, any challenge! Well, the year’s over and here is The Witch – still in my #1 spot. Terrific performances from the entire cast – specifically young Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter Thomasin. It’s all there; the stunning photography, the terrifying paranoia and the introduction of a special goat named Black Phillip. My fondest memory of the film comes right at the end, as Thomasin enters that creepy little shed where the goats hang their hats. With one phrase, you’ll know exactly what I’m referencing. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” And that almost birds-eye view shot of Thomasin and Black Phillip moving from the clearing into the woods – breathtaking. Although I wasn’t totally jazzed by the final moments in the woods, I can’t deny the power of this film. It’s rare these days that a horror film can terrify me, but indeed, this film chilled me to my very core. An instant classic. Long live Black Phillip! You can read my entire 5-star review right here.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): The Shallows, Demon (review), Shelley (review), Found Footage 3D (review), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (review forthcoming), Insomnium (review), The Lure (review), The Neon Demon (review), Beyond the Gates (review), The Love Witch (review)
Didn’t see your favorites on the list? Would you change things around a bit? Let us know your thoughts (gripes/compliments/alternate choices and placements) in the comments below!