Sunday, January 8, 2017

Top 30 Horror Films of 2016

It’s fascinating how cinema goes through cycles. In recent years, the cycles seem to be getting shorter as a particular style, look, or genre becomes popular and quickly dies out to be replaced with the next trend. In the realm of 2015 horror, it was the horror comedy that finally took a hold and delivered some knock out films that blended the humor and the horror in some fun ways. For 2016, however, it was the atmospheric horror film. Granted, if you look back at the various lists I’ve crafted for respective years you may already know that I have a soft spot for atmospheric horror. That means that this year was one that delivered a lot of films that hit the sweet spot for me as a horror fanatic. The style is not for everyone, but this year there was more than likely one for each kind of horror fan that could fall under the umbrella of being an atmospheric horror film. It was just that kind of year. There is other kinds of films that made the list, but if you’re a fan of this kind of horror it was definitely your year too.

So, with that in mind as a brief overview, please take the time to jump into my Top 30 Horror movies of 2016. As a reminder, this is, of course, one person’s opinion and Blood Brothers does more than encourage discussion about this list. I was not able to see every horror film this year (priorities, man) and if there is one that I missed, feel free to comment below, send us an email, send us a FB message, or DM on Twitter because we are always willing to check out the next thing. Who knows? It might just be the next cult classic and we missed out on it.

*Note: some releases may have come out in years previous, but this list is crafted based on films that received their official North American debut in 2016 via theatrical screening, VOD, or home video. Thanks.*

30. SiREN

Instead of rehashing the segment from V/H/S, Bishop and team opt to go with the concept (guys out to party stumble upon this "girl" and shit goes awry) and fix the problems and wrap a fascinating world around it. The characters in the film are much more likable than the ones in the segment, thank God, and the place they stumble into our titular monster woman is not your normal party. In fact, it's the setting of this otherworldly bar and club, that might be the ace in the sleeve for SiREN. There is a whole world that can easily be franchised around the idea of this place where this demonic monster is being kept for other people's enjoyment and it makes for some quirky and strong visuals to place the film in. Bishop does his thing here as a director, proving that Dance of the Dead wasn't just a fluke, and ably pulls some great visuals and tense moments out of the film. In particular, a diner slaughter is shot in a particularly slick fashion that had me grinning from ear to ear. Partner his abilities to pull out great moments with some decent performances, again Hannah Fierman as the monstrous Lily steals the movie, but I was shocked at the quality in general.

29. High-Rise

While I appreciate the artistry that went into High-Rise, the film feels remarkably too artsy for its own good at times which muddles its overall narrative. For all of the layers, riveting performances, and shocking and occasionally surrealistic visuals, there is a sense that there is never a clear 'why' to all of the 'what.' I'm guessing that this, in its own essence, may be the entire tone that the director and writer were going for considering its parallels between modern society and the life within the high rise. However, I found myself feeling the film not quite connecting to a grounded sense of reality and that various smaller plot gaps seemed much larger due to its rather lofty concept. Still, the film was engaging to watch and littered with plenty of ideas to debate, mull, and analyze. Perhaps I just expected even more from it and it didn't make that connection with me.

28. Ava’s Possessions

This film came with a few recommendations from horror friends I have on social media and damn if they weren't right. This is definitely a gem of underground horror for the year. It's less of your traditional possession and exorcism film and more of a noir inspired dark comedy about the aftermath of a possession film. It has some cleverly executed ideas of how a young woman would try to make amends and put together her life after being possessed and it does it in some hilarious ways. The use of neon colors and design works well for its style and while some of the twists are a tad predictable, it was so much fun getting there that it never really bothered me.

27. Ouija: Origin of Evil

Mike Flanagan has salvaged a sinking ship. Not only is Ouija 2 better than the original, it's substantially better and uses a style and approach to benefit some of its generic plotting pieces. I enjoyed this film a lot more than even I expected and this franchise might just be deserving of more entries thanks to this one. It's fun and stylistic, especially with its use of its 60s setting and its Halloween-esque scares, and it just runs with many of the sillier pieces. Color me impressed and while Mike Flanagan was already on my list of best modern horror directors, this film solidifies his spot as a director how can lift even the worst franchises from the gutter. 

26. Estranged

What presents itself initially as a psychological thriller, Estranged takes a wicked dark, brutal, and disturbing turn at the end of the second act that really solidifies it as a horror film. The tone, atmosphere, and performances sell the rather odd gimmicks of the film and the film is not for the weak of heart with its themes and disturbing concepts. Perhaps my expectations were for the film to be more psychological (and I wish it had really played out its questions in the first half for a bit longer), but Estranged still shocked me with its high-quality executions and edgy idea.

25. Bite

While Bite is not nearly as gross as the hype made it out to be, it is still a rather effective body horror flick. One part Cronenberg's The Fly and one part Contracted, the film takes a modern spin on the idea of body horror representing the emotional decline of a young woman (with some slick subtle use of gender issues at the core of its character spiral) and layers it with some very impressive practical effects to add to its ooey-gooey nature. It's not a revolutionary film by any means, but it was a pretty impressive independent horror watch in the end. I'm always for a film that aims to be Cronenbergian and Bite does it with just enough flair to keep me hooked.

24. The Devil Lives Here

Considering how there were no expectations going into The Devil Lives Here, I’ll have to say that I’m still massively surprised at the quality of film on display. It’s occasionally a little underwritten, but the execution onscreen more than makes up for it. It’s stylish in its visuals (the use of the flashers on a car to craft atmosphere is perfect), the performances are all solid to impressive, and the genre bending of its concept makes for a film that never seems as predictable as it might have been on paper. The Devil Lives Here is another one of those horror gems that Artsploitation has unearthed for fans in the US and it comes with a hearty recommendation from us.

23. Hush

Mike Flanagan proves to be one of the more potent voices in horror film right now with his second film to make this list and Hush is the kind of film that proves it. Sure, it's a simple film, often formulaic even, and it doesn't even seem to really embrace an extreme sound design like I would have expected it to with having a deaf protagonist, but I'll be damned if this film didn't have me hooked for its brief hour and twenty-minute run time. It's expertly crafted and Flanagan does a lot with very little in this movie - which is why it's hard to knock it even if it rarely feels original as a home invasion flick.

22. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House

Haunting and poetic, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is not at all a film for most mainstream horror fans. Instead of a haunted house film that's full of tricks and things flying around, this is a film built on the nuance of character and an atmosphere so subtle in its crafting that often enough it never must show anything to get under the skin. It's driven by what amounts to 80% monologue from our lead actress and it hammers down on the simple horrors of its tale instead of the big jump scares the haunted house genre is known for. It's slow, but if one is willing to bite down, absorb the details, and let the artistic and poetic nature of its narrative swirl around, it's worth every second. Definitely a minimalist highlight of the year in horror.

21. Lights Out

Considering how much the concept of Lights Out relies on a gimmick, I have to admit that I was more than impressed with what this film is offering its audience. True, the film could have used a couple more drafts of a script to tighten the second act and its exposition of the back story which comes off as a bit clunky, but the film does a lot of smart things to keep the pacing and narrative moving including its short run time and adding in a nice subtext about mental illness that can be teased out in subtle ways. This may not be the instant classic one would hope it would be, but it's definitely one that I will be revisiting often enough in the future.

20. Darling

Mickey Keating further proves he's a director worth noting in this modern age not because his films are perfect, but because he takes chances with his films. Win, lose, or draw, his stuff doesn't try to take the easy way out when it comes to horror and that kind of approach is respectable more than anything else. For his film Darling, Keating takes huge cues from Repulsion and delivers a subtle, vague, and often suffocating film about one woman's decent into madness. It's rippling with artistic intent, blurring the lines of everything, and rarely feeding the audience exposition that might cloud the atmospheric and paranoid decent. This is what Darling does impressively well and for that I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed.

19. Der Bunker

In perhaps what will end up being the "WTF Movie of the Year," Der Bunker navigates a lot of very strange territory with nimble precision. It defies logistical genre tagging, it's horrifically pitch black comedy never necessarily invokes big laughs, and it refuses to follow convention even when it seems to be the best thing for it. In this sense, Der Bunker is perhaps one of the more daring films I've seen this year and it gets mad respect for that.

18. Carnage Park

Riding the line between artsy indie film and grindhouse horror, Carnage Park is the best film that Mickey Keating has done thus far and it delivers on some shockingly effective fronts that I did not expect. It's almost like an homage to the 70s era indie horror greats like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper with just enough of a modern throw back edge that keeps it feeling slightly fresh. Keating has always been on the edge of delivering a phenomenal film and with Carnage Park he does, but it's style and gritty approach may not be for everyone - mostly horror and fans of classic 70s grindhouse.

17. I Am Not a Serial Killer

Truly, 2016 has become the year of atmosphere and paranoia in horror films and I Am Not a Serial Killer fits right in there as one of the best that the year has to offer. It has a wonderfully dark and sadistic sense of humor, it takes plenty of shocking twists that I did not see coming, and it carries a remarkable amount of heart from its indie film use of subtle character and world building. It uses its wintry setting to strong benefit, it's a layered film in its stripped down cinematography, and the performances are top notch. At times the film can play it a little too vague with its plotting, including a faux romantic subplot that feels unfulfilling, but even then it adds enough to the main character that it only comes off as a minor issue. All in all, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a fantastic horror film find for the year and it comes highly recommended.

16. Over Your Dead Body

While comparisons are made to Audition, Over Your Dead Body is more akin to the bastard child of Audition and One Missed Call - as it takes J-Horror tropes and slides them into a super artsy, slow burning tale that starts off as a drama, but quickly swirls into nightmarish imagery and themes. It's not a film that's a horribly easy sell to most American audiences, but it's one that will definitely find it's die-hard cult fan base in a quick fashion.

15. Observance

Wow. Where did this film come from? This little indie horror thriller is not the most exciting of the horror films to come out this year nor is it going to cause controversy with its blend of arthouse and horror, but this is the kind of underappreciated film that makes reviewing so many mediocre and terrible horror films worth it. Observance is unnerving and atmospheric, sliding through its rather fresh spin on "spying out of the back window" thriller affair with an obviously meticulous touch and focus for details. It's a slow burn film that's all about the little things, so pay attention or you will easily miss putting together the small pieces that craft the actual plot. Observance will not explain it for you. If you do however, it's a very well executed and impressive little back door horror that rings true to the artistic nature of the genre and delivers an experience that's rare in the genre.

14. Green Room

Green Room is an impressively executed horror thriller worthy of fans of the darker genres. It’s brutal in its intensity and violence, but sparks enough of a smart writing style to give the film a strong artful embrace that lifts it above just being another modern grindhouse film. There are moments when it strikes a great balance between being smart, slick, and vicious that harkens back to the French extreme cinema movement just a decade or so ago. It’s just unfortunate that it will always end up being compared to Saulnier’s brilliant Blue Ruin as it doesn’t quite hit the emotional strides of that film. In the end though, Green Room snags it onto the top fifteen portion of this list. 

13. The Conjuring 2

I'm going to play devil's advocate for a second and say that I only liked Conjuring 2 a smidgen less than the first one. It's close enough that I'm going to give it the same score. It's pretty similar to the first one and occasionally suffers from the same issues - namely it runs a tad too long - but the structure of the film works as we are introduced to a new family and the Warrens, who at this point are more or less Ghostbusters, to investigate the big claims. The film could use a bit of trimming here and there to tighten things up, but it flows with a fairly strong sense of narrative that works. It also helps that every 15 minutes or so James Wan and company throw in a great memorable moment - although I have to admit the interview where the spirit is out of focus highlights the film. What are the chances we end up with a Crooked Man spin off movie? I'd fuckin' watch it.

12. Train to Busan

Just earlier this year, I was discussing with a friend that while Korean genre cinema is good - it lacks strong horror overall outside of a few films. I feel like perhaps I should take that comment back because SK has now dropped TWO of the best horror films of the year in 2016. Train to Busan is a fantastic modern zombie film, building on classic elements of isolation, paranoia, and effective zombie attack sequences to deliver a heart pounding and emotionally driven film. The performances are strong, even if the broad character choices seem predictable, and the film is paced to make its two-hour run time fly by. At times, I wanted the film to be slightly grittier than it was as it only touches on a few of the commentaries and visually speaking the film remains very slick and bright (in the normal high value SK production manner), but really those are minor to everything that the film does right.

11. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

While watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe, I could easily see why this film has received mixed reviews. It's not a complex movie. In fact, it probably shares a lot of similarities with the writing style of smaller scale horror enterprises and could have easily been an episode of The Outer Limits (if edited for content) or Masters of Horror (if directed by someone a bit more famous). However, it's simplicity works in its favor particularly when the tension and mystery of its plotting is so impressively executed. This is what Autopsy does and it does it in spades. It builds a such a fascinating concept that I was hooked from the first few minutes and I was eager to find out just what the hell was going on. Sure, the finale is a bit predictable once the cat is out of the bag on what is going on and I wish the film would have embraced the sly use of dark humor a bit more, but those are both nitpicky things to a film that had me by the balls for 99% of its run time. It’s a gem of the year and deserving for a look, even if it doesn't quite hook you like it did me.

10. They Look Like People

Say what you will about slow burn, atmospheric horror, but for the style 2016 has been spectacular. They Look Like People is one of those films that earns its stripes through sheer will power and focus, building a tense relationship between all the elements of the film - the simple plotting, the complex and realistic characters, the sound design, the sharp narrative spins, the humane performances, and the impending paranoia that seeps through all of the cracks. This is a horror film with an arthouse mentality and it deserves a much larger base of praise and fandom than it has. See it, share it.

09. Nina Forever

I love dark comedies. I love horror. I love atmospheric films. Nina Forever is all of those things and on top of that, it's a hypnotic love story that acts as a modern look at the baggage that people bring into relationships. Sure, the film is highly symbolic in many ways and it's smartly put together as a character study of sorts, but it's also remarkably (and awkwardly) funny at going about it. It's this blend of horror, humor, heartache, and hope that makes Nina Forever a sure fire arthouse horror winner this year. Bravo.

08. Don’t Breathe

There are three words that aptly describe why Don't Breathe is a success: amply efficient excess. This is a film that takes simplified plotting and gives it excessive atmosphere and tension to sell itself. It's not meant to be all that clever, but its relentless ability to navigate various kinds of tension and drag the audience along (kicking and screaming by the third act) makes it one of the potent genre films of the year. It also solidifies Fede Alvarez as one of the most effective horror film directors currently working. Let's see what he has up his sleeve next.

07. The Monster

After a handful of recommendations from horror friends, I decided to give The Monster a whirl. Man, oh, man am I glad I did. The film is simple – a running theme it seems this year, relying on the strength of the director's use of visuals and tension, the astounding performances from its two leads, and the old school approach to its mechanics to lay out a film that works on a variety of layers. On the surface, it's a slow burn character film that bounces back and forth between past occurrences between the mother and daughter and their current monster filled situation. It uses practical effects and a real grounded sense of time to keep the whole thing feeling 'real.' Beyond that surface, the film is layered. Most great monster movies require that the monster be symbolic in some way and with The Monster they do just that - powering the social commentary with the monster and a phenomenal performance from the little girl. With it's slow burn build and occasionally predictable narrative, The Monster is not going to light everyone's fire, but the execution was so spot on that I couldn't look away and it hit me much harder than expected.

06. The Eyes of My Mother

...and now I feel hollow inside. Thanks, The Eyes of My Mother. Like damn near three quarters of the films on this list, this is another slow burn horror film and it fits in perfectly with the pack - although there is an artistry to this one that does give it a bit of an edge with its black and white visuals and reluctance to give any kind of exposition than what’s being shown the audience. It's a bit too vague at times for casual horror fans, intended to build the tone and horrors of its tale, but the results are still devastating on the viewer. It's tone and visuals are a stark reminder of its messages (the sins of the father and what not) and it works in a very cohesive and shocking matter. Keep your mind open and experience the film as it is and it might just leave you feeling hollow inside too.

05. 10 Cloverfield Lane

While there are plenty of people that seem turned off by the third act plot twist, the shift in the film worked brilliantly for me - jack knifing the film from tense thriller into full overdrive and letting it roll with chaotic efficiency. The execution is in full power here too from the essential score to the effective performances, in particular, dibs to John Goodman who steals this movie in every frame. If they decide to make "spiritual sequels" to Cloverfield with this kind of quality as a loose theme - count me in for the next two dozen if they are even close to the execution and thoughtful character build that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane one of the top five films of the year. 

04. The Neon Demon

Refn remains one of the most enigmatic directors working in the industry today, but after an egotistical misfire like Only God Forgives it’s only fitting that he comes back with a vengeance for his follow up The Neon Demon. Once again, like so many films on this list, The Neon Demon is all about its atmospheric slow burn and paranoia infused character interactions and while it may only fringe on the horror elements at times, it embraces the tone fully and takes giallo inspired visuals to make it all feel artsy enough to land it in the top five of this list. 

03. The Witch

The Witch is one of those films that earned enough credit from non-horror fans that it will make quite a few year end lists that include all genres. For horror fans though, it was the initial water mark for the year on how horror films were going to be judged. It’s a vague film, powered by its own subtlety and layers of parallels for its characters, visuals, and religious themes, but it all works in a shockingly cohesive and oddly folkish manner. The icing on the cake though is not the actors or themes, but how director Eggers shoots the goat in the film. Seriously, it’s the best use of an animal in a film all year. 

02. The Invitation

This review seems irrelevant to the experience that The Invitation gives its audience. This is a film that is meant to be experienced and its slow burn abilities ensure that. The sense of unease bleeds into a paranoia that impeccably drives the narrative, punctuated by phenomenal performances and an atmosphere of complete engagement with the audience. The setting, the lighting, the score, the pacing - they are all lavishly simple and viciously effective in their execution. I was engrossed from the opening scene until the hollowing climax. The Invitation remains one of the best films to arrive in matter what genre.

01. The Wailing

At this point I feel like Na Hong-jin is just fucking with us. How can a director take his first three feature films and essentially drop three instant made classics? Well, he did. His latest, The Wailing, is the perfectly executed horror film, building up a heartfelt core of characters and then completely (and utterly) destroying them in front of the audience. The narrative is steeped in atmosphere. The performances are top notch. The plot had me reeling by the third act. This is THE horror film of 2016 and it easily ranks up there with the best horror films of the last two decades. This was ranked #1 automatically after I saw it and there is nothing that challenges it for the year. Not only recommended, but required viewing for horror fans.

1 comment:

  1. Way well-written (and edited) reviews on what looks like very excellent films, only two of which I've seen, "The Autopsy of Jane Doe" (recommended to me by a friend) and "Der Bunker" (which I watched today because of these reviews), of which I wrote the following (here []) ---

    Like your cinematic gems darkly comic, twisted and surreal?

    The student thought he would be finding a quiet sanctuary of peace and solitude whereat he could concentrate on his studies so as to advance his knowledge of the Higgs particle by way of connecting different fields when he arrives at the snowbound bunker home of the family that had advertised such a place, only to find himself inveigled into tutoring gangly Father and sultry Mother's young son Klaus, a bit of a slow learner, in their pursuit of Klaus becoming the president. "Der Bunker" is the mythic dreamstuff from which fairie tales emerge to frighten children like Klaus if they do not do their homework.