It’s been argued that times of great hardship tend to generate great horror stories, because we are closer than ever to fears, and our anxieties become a way of life. So in a time of great social upheaval it’s only natural that we turned to the horror movie genre for a sense of ventilation, to let off the proverbial steam. And it was with exceptional happiness that we discovered that the horror filmmakers of 2016 were, for the most part, operating at the very top of their game.
Yes, 2016 was an unusually exceptional year for the horror genre. So much so that even classy, popular genre efforts like The Conjuring 2 and Ouija: Origin of Evil weren’t good enough to make our expanded Top 16 list. “Good” didn’t cut it this year. The best horror features ripped our souls out, gutted our souls out of our bodies, and made us wonder just how far we’d have to go to truly find ourselves in Hell. Maybe not far. Maybe not far at all.
The best horror movies of 2016 are an eclectic bunch, subtle and broad, political and intimate, supernatural and disturbingly plausible. They are a representation of all the ideas we have trouble admitting to ourselves, and for the most part, they make those shocking revelations about our inner selves seem palatable, maybe even fun. Or maybe the point is that we delve headfirst into our worst fears and emerge out the other side, stronger for the journey. That’s an attitude a lot of us can relate to, nowadays. (Gosh, 2016 was hard, wasn’t it?)
So here you go. Here are the best nightmares filmmakers had for us in 2016. Thank you, you terrible dreamers, for churning our stomachs. These are the best horror movies of 2016.
16. PHANTASM: RAVAGER
The final film in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series, and the only one not directed by Coscarelli himself, is a cheap production, and one that is obviously marred by production difficulties. But somehow Phantasm Ravager brings this whole bizarre series together in a satisfying, heart-wrenching conclusion that destroys the world, brings it back again, and suggests that maybe the whole esoteric nightmare has just been an extended metaphor for Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s not the best Phantasm, certainly, but it features the same sort of wild and challenging filmmaking that has, for over 30 years, made Phantasm one of the greatest franchises in horror history.
15. THE BOY
One of the first horror films of 2016 was also one of the year’s biggest surprises, a seemingly old-fashioned spook house yarn that turned out to have some real and shocking twists. Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead) stars as a woman hired to babysit a realistic doll, and she’s given a set of VERY specific rules to follow. Is the doll real? Is the house haunted? It doesn’t take long for our heroine to come to her own conclusions, which sends The Boy off into unexpected directions, and towards a genuinely shocking conclusion.
Oculus director Mike Flanagan is on a roll lately, and if his surprisingly spooky prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil hadn’t been hamstrung by its connection to the original, inferior Ouija it might have even made the list as well. Fortunately, there’s nothing hindering Hush. This lean, mean home invasion thriller stars Kate Siegel as a deaf author fending off the attacks of a masked murderer. Sure, it’s a riff on Wait Until Dark, but it’s a great riff on Wait Until Dark, with pulse-pounding suspense and great performances.
13. THE WAILING
You’d think that a 156-minute horror film might run out of steam after a while, but in the case of Hong-jin Na’s The Wailing, you’d be wrong. This ambitious and unusual supernatural thriller tells the story of a bumbling police officer who investigates a series of strange murders in his home town, which may be the result of a demon. Sometimes The Wailing plays like a realistic drama. Sometimes it plays like a slapstick comedy. Sometimes it’s frightening on the same vaunted level as The Exorcist. Maybe it’s too unfocused for its own good, or maybe that’s part of its appeal. Anyway, there was nothing else quite like it in 2016.
12. LIGHTS OUT
A masterful piece of crowd-pleasing monster movie filmmaking, based on the viral short film, that stars Maria Bello as a woman suffering from bipolar disorder, Teresa Palmer as a daughter trying to move on with her life, and Gabriel Bateman as the young boy caught in the middle. Meanwhile, the mother’s psychosis is manifesting as a monster that can only become “real” in total darkness. The jump scares are first rate, and that’s the selling point for most people, but it’s the film’s disturbing allegory for mental illness and its impact on a whole family that truly resonates. The ending of Lights Out is… difficult to accept, and not very healthy, but the fact that a sequel is coming – which means that this story isn’t really over – removes a lot of the troublesome subtext from that undeniably “iffy” conclusion.
11. I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE
You could scoop up the atmosphere in this haunted house drama with your bare hands and use it like molasses. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a dreary and depressing tale of death and dying and madness, about a hospice nurse (Ruth Wilson) who spends a year taking care of an ailing horror author, alone in a home that’s full of ghosts… perhaps real, perhaps fictional. There’s a poetry to the way writer/director Oz Perkins tells his story, as he allows his audience to feel the overwhelming ennui of his lonely protagonist. The film may be too “slow” for some audiences but for those of us who like to be immersed in unconventional nightmares, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is just right.
10. UNDER THE SHADOW
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) was going to be a doctor. Instead, she’s a housewife whose academic career has been permanently quashed by the oppressive Iranian regime, and her husband has been drafted into the military, and a missile just struck her apartment building but hasn’t gone off yet. That’s before the “horror” even begins in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, as potent a feminist commentary as we’ve had all year (and in 2016, that’s saying something), and a spooky haunted house story to boot. As Shideh and her daughter come to the realization that they are beset not by everyday frustration but by a demonic djinn, we start to wonder if there’s any real difference, and whether there’s any hope for our hero when even victory won’t be able save her from a misogynistic society.
9. THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
Here’s a clever idea: a whole horror movie that’s all about those coroner characters who usually just get one scene in the movie and are never seen again. This time they’re played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as a father-son team, who have to stay up late to determine the cause of death of a mysterious young woman whose corpse showed up at an unrelated crime scene. As they peel back each layer of flesh they find newer and scarier medical mysteries, and they gradually begin to realize that something has gone horribly wrong. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a morbid puzzle box, a novel new tale that plays devilishly with our collective anxieties about death, dead bodies and the mysteries of our own flesh and blood. It’s scary as hell, and it earns bonus points for originality.
8. THE GREEN ROOM
The late Anton Yelchin stars as part of a punk rock band that decides to play a Neo-Nazi bar, only to witness a murder and get stuck backstage, fending off an army of pissed off, murderous, racist assholes led by a calmly terrifying Sir Patrick Stewart. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, The Green Room is an angry razor of a movie, cutting the fat away from itself until all that’s left is pulse-pounding suspense and brutal violence. There’s not much too it other than anger and viscera, but in the skilled hands of Saulnier that’s more than enough.
7. DON’T BREATHE
Speaking of pulse-pounding suspense and brutal violence, Don’t Breathe was another one of the year’s more disturbing and unexpected treats, a claustrophobic thriller directed with cynical panache by Fede Alvarez. It’s the tale of three young thieves who decide to rob a blind man, played by Avatar‘s Stephen Lang, only to discover that he’s more dangerous than they are. Now they’re stuck in his house, unable to make a sound for fear he’ll discover where they are and murder them brutally. It’s not dissimilar to Wes Craven’s People Under the Stairs, but it’s just as vicious, and it has revelations that’ll make you squirm… and possibly even ruin your evening.
6. SHIN GODZILLA
Godzilla is back and he’s brought a tedious bureaucracy with him! And no, that’s not a criticism: Shin Godzilla is a reboot of the Japanese kaiju franchise, and it’s a fresh and realistic portrayal not just of the monster, but of how a government might actually respond to a giant reptile annihilating urban areas. It’s smart social satire, the sort of sharp commentary that the first Godzilla pulled off so beautifully. Shin Godzilla transforms what used to be an stand-in for the atomic bomb into a new and difficult conversation about how governments deal with natural disasters. But don’t worry, the iconic monster gets his time to shine too, tearing apart the city and revealing new aspects of his biology that will surprise and entertain even the most stalwart Godzilla fan.
5. THE NEON DEMON
Nicolas Winding Refn has been accused of making beautiful, but shallow movies. He seems to have responded by directing The Neon Demon, an amoral morality tale about beautiful, but shallow people. Elle Fanning stars as a naive young girl trying to make it as a supermodel, earning leers and eventually jealousy from everybody around her. It’s a profoundly beautiful film, photographed within an inch of its life, but when Refn finally unveils what The Neon Demon‘s loveliness is hiding, it’ll make you sick to your stomach. Maybe it’s brilliant, maybe it’s just a hollow shell, and maybe – either way – that would be exactly the point.
4. THE WITCH
Isolation and paranoia manifest in horrible ways in The Witch, Robert Eggers’ impeccably detailed period piece about a Puritan family, living on their own in Colonial America, falling prey to distrust and perhaps – just perhaps – a supernatural influence. The Witch doesn’t hide its realistic ambitions, thrusting you directly into a less enlightened time, in which desires were stifled as a matter of course and religion, in its best and worst forms, was accepted as a fact regardless of evidence. So when the family in The Witch begins to suspect that their goat is the devil himself, they’re not mad, they’re just as sane as anybody they know. Eggers understands the inherent horror of the era but he isn’t afraid to take the audience one step further than they’re expecting. The result is a film that is undeniably wicked, and disturbingly delicious.
3. NINA FOREVER
A ghoulish little fantasy that plunges deeply into the fleshy parts of our souls, Nina Forever is the story of a young man whose girlfriend dies in a car accident, and when he finally meets another nice woman and tries to move on, the corpse of his ex-girlfriend Hellraisers out of the bed and just lies there, judging them, every single time they have sex. Lots of people have to live with the ghosts of their past, but the corpse? That gets messy, just like our psychological baggage. Nina Forever isn’t terribly violent – Nina doesn’t kill anybody, she’s just gross – but it’s as confrontational about our anxieties as any great horror film, and it’s slick, skillful, beautifully performed, sexy and funny to boot. There were two better horror movies this year, at least by my estimation, but Nina Forever is still just about as remarkable as the genre ever gets.
2. THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR
The concept behind The Purge: Election Year is basically the same as all the others: it’s the near future, conservatives have taken over the country, and they appease all their voters by validating their hatred and giving them carte blanche one night a year to unleash all of their violent animosity, free from legal repercussions. What started out as an implausible dystopian cautionary tale was dragged, forcefully, into relevance this year by a sequel that framed these events against the backdrop of a presidential election between a right wing zealot and a liberal female candidate who’s having trouble convincing people not to despise each other. The Purge is on, and the conservatives invite their constituents to kill her, and oh god this was already topical but as of the last couple of months of the year it’s getting uncomfortable.
The Purge: Election Year is a rousing and violent tale, expertly filmed with an eye towards exciting action, and that would have been enough on its own. But as a vent for political anxieties it’s bound to go down in history as a significant and timely statement, cataloguing our most deplorable fantasies and warning us that indulging them doesn’t make us powerful, it just turns us into the villains from our horror movies.
1. THE INVITATION
Subtlety is a quality that some horror fans don’t appreciate enough, but one that others absolutely live for. The Invitation is rife with subtle terror, and perfectly evokes that very recognizable, very unsettling sensation that something is wrong around you, even though you can’t put your finger on it. Logan Marshall-Green plays a man who gets invited to his ex-wife’s house for a dinner party, and something just seems “off.” It’s hard to say what, exactly, and for the longest time Karyn Kusama’s terrifying drama could get away with saying our hero is simply paranoid. God knows he’s dealing with enough emotional trauma lately that he could be forgiven. So maybe The Invitation is a horror story about the way we look for unpleasantness outside of ourselves, unaware that we are the ones causing our own unhappiness.
Or maybe… something else really is going on. The beauty of The Invitation is that it never feels like a foregone conclusion. Karyn Kusama directs the hell out of this movie, so that it could function any way imaginable, so that every possible turn of events would not only make sense but also make for a damn good film. And when The Invitation finally picks a direction, and reveals exactly what it has been leading to this whole time, it’s so elegant and creepy that you accept where it’s going and you appreciate all the clever ways it tried to fake you out. And then that ending… oh boy, it’s a classic. The Invitation is the best horror movie of the year. Indeed, it’s one of the best horror movies of the decade.
Top Photo: Universal Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.