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2016 was an exceptionally good year for horror. You might call that a subjective point of view but I assure you: I arrived at my results the same way that any good statistician might…I analyzed an awful lot of data. As of this writing, I’ve seen 179 of the released 2016 horror offerings or roughly 68% of every witch, zombie, possession, alien, slasher and monster flick that came out this calendar year.

Each film I screened this year went into one of five categories based on my completely biased (although rarely arbitrary) impression: Excellent, Very Good, Decent, Pretty Bad/Better Than It Should Have Been (a bit of a catch-all) and Terrible. As of this very moment, 70 out of the 179 films sit comfortably in the Excellent/Very Good end of the spectrum.

We’ll look at my 20 favorite horror films of 2016, along with some more than honorable mentions, in a future post. Until then, however, I thought I might share a few thoughts on the movies that made it into the “Very Good” column of my little spreadsheet. Since time in this tumultuous year grows slim, I’ll play Lightning Round with this part of the proceedings and try to limit my observations to a few lines. Trust me when I say, however, that any of these little gems are more than worthy of greater focus. In no order whatsoever, then, here are the “Very Good Horror Films of 2016.”

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When Black Birds Fly – Dizzying, gonzo, insane and probably apt to cause seizures in certain folks, Jimmy Screamerclauz’s truly outsider epic doesn’t look like any animated film currently out there…and that’s a good thing. Despite being rough around the edges, this “Adam and Eve meet Hellraiser” parable is absolutely unique and one of the most interesting films I screened all year.

Antibirth – With a bit more focus, this could’ve been one column over but I still thoroughly enjoyed this nutty tale of the worst morning after ever: the ending, alone, is easily worth the price of admission, as are the charmingly scuzzy performances by Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigne.

The Hoarder – Surprisingly smart and genuinely unsettling, this plays upon the innate creepiness of big, empty storage facilities and manages to work in some good twists and lots of cringe-inducing, if restrained, violence.

Where the Devil Dwells – On the outside, this looked cheap as hell but patience revealed a smart, well-made and surprisingly kickass interior. I’m also going to nominate David O’Hara for a Best Actor Tomby (we’ll get to those later) for his performance as silver-tongued serial killer Oren, easily one of the scariest constructs of the entire year.

Stalkher – This literal battle of the sexes is front-loaded with some of the meanest, most cutting observations on gender that I’ve ever (uncomfortably) sat through but it tempers that with a genuine eye for character and sense of mischief that makes the acid easier to swallow. This is, at heart, a two-person show and when the two performers are this damn good…well…that’s when magic happens.

Evil Souls – Another cheapie that ended up being surprisingly good, this is a grungy, nasty throwback to old-school Italian grindhouse flicks and it does the niche genre proud. While decidedly an acquired taste, this is comfort food to those who can stomach it.

The Interior – Quiet, unsettling character study that takes the familiar tale of a loner going crazy and throws some genuine curveballs into the formula. Although a little too unfocused and slight to be considered essential, this will reward viewers who appreciate mood and thought-provoking puzzles over jump-scares and gore.

Jack Goes Home – Rory Culkin does a helluva job as a truly damaged young man returning home to make peace with his awful past but this is really too unpleasant and nasty for me to truly love. Still, you have to respect any film that so honestly lays bare physical and emotional abuse and this is exceptional filmmaking for anyone who can sit through it.

Fear, Inc. – Lots of smart twists and turns in this horror-comedy about a smartass horror nerd who gets the best/worst gift of his entire life. The meta-ness of the whole thing can get a bit heavy-handed, at times, which separates this from something like Behind the Mask or Tucker & Dale vs Evil but it’s a really fun ride, full of great gore and engaging performances.

The Shallows – Call it “Blake and the Seagull vs Jaws,” if you will, but I thoroughly enjoyed this decidedly cheesy, silly tale of an injured surfer battling a ravenous shark mere yards from the safety of the shore. Lively does a great job in what’s basically a one-woman show and there are plenty of memorable setpieces and thrilling getaways.

The Triangle – For a while, this is actually a pretty sub-par, stereotypical tale (1st-person-POV, no less) about a group of friends trying to save their buddy from another one of those mysterious cults that are so de rigeur in modern, indie genre films. Then, out of nowhere, a twist comes along so goddamn good that it actually vaults the whole film into another stratosphere entirely, placing it somewhere closer to 2001 than The Sacrament and making it one of the most unforgettable films I saw all year.

Night of the Living Deb – There’s a lot to love in this charming zom-rom-com about the ultimate manic pixie dream girl who actually turns out to be anything but. The performances are exceptionally strong and if nothing ever hits the giddy heights of the best horror-comedies, the whole experience is so gosh-darn sweet that you probably won’t care.

Viral – One of the better “infection/possession/zombie” films I’ve seen recently, Viral vaults over the rest of the crowd by virtue of the pitch-perfect focus on the relationship between the two sisters, a relationship that makes the inherently tragic aspects of the story so much sharper and more painful.

Nerve – Like several films that I screened this year, Nerve is only marginally a horror film but I’ve included it because the “game that kills” aspect gives it a slight leg up on the competition. The film zips along at a manic pace and only betrays its young adult roots by virtue of one of those super-positive resolutions that always strike me as a bit cornball. This was a consistently gorgeous ride, however, and I’m not ashamed to show my love.

The Curse of Sleeping Beauty – Despite a handful of shoddy moments, this was a surprisingly cool, ridiculously imaginative take on the traditional story of Sleeping Beauty that featured truly lush visuals, a gonzo take on fairy tales and a modern update that didn’t make me want to chew glass. Another classic example of not judging a film by its outward appearance.

Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite – This Russian take on late ’90s-early ’00s Western teen slashers is derivative, for sure, but it’s also got enough natural energy to power a small city. Polished, fast-paced and lots of fun, this is the kind of film that should be clogging multiplexes.

Clash of the Dead – I’ve seen lots of “undead soldiers harass the living” films but this UK export still managed to get under my skin. Chalk it up to the cool concept, the super-eerie location or the solid performances and effects but this one left a mark on me that earned it a place on this list.

Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse – I expected this to be a dumb romp but was actually met with a sly, subversive and rather remarkable little zombie film that features a clutch of great performances (Jim Jeffries is perfect) and unexpected moments of genuinely emotional heft. Think of this as a more subdued, small-scale version of Shaun of the Dead and you’re in the general area.

Beyond the Gates – I loved the concept of this “horror Jumanji,” especially since I owned several of the VCR-based board games that the film is based on (the horror one I owned was, of course, my very favorite) but the actual execution let me down a bit. Still, this is lots of fun and manages to nail the retro look and feel to a tee: throw in Barbara Crampton and I have no problem recommending this whatsoever.

Don’t Look in the Basement 2 – Coming 40 years after the original and directed by the original filmmaker’s son, this is a true labor of love and it shows. This return to the madhouse features many of the same characters and provides a truly organic, smart conclusion to the original narrative, no easy feat four decades after the fact.

Shelley – This seems like it’s going to be another indie take on Rosemary’s Baby but the actual destination is quite a bit thornier and much stranger.Strong performances and an oppressive sense of encroaching dread kept this one high in my list but the overall familiarity kept it from grabbing the brass ring.

Never Open the Door – Like The Similars, this mind-bending tale about a group of friends encountering the unexplained at an isolated cabin is filmed in gorgeous black-and-white and features so many twists and turns that you’d be forgiven for filing a whiplash claim. It’s a consistently smart film that offers no easy answers (or any answers, really) but should give you something to ponder for days later.

Thirst – This tale about wayward teens at a desert survival camp under siege by a monster that drains their vital juices reminds me of the films I used to grab off video store shelves based purely on their box-art…and that’s a very good thing. Although it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Thirst is the perfect film for a rowdy group of buddies and a case of cheap beer.

Accidental Exorcist – Despite being more than a little rough around the edges, Daniel Falicki’s Accidental Exorcist was actually one of my biggest surprises of the year. The filmmaking is so strong, in fact, with a style that perfectly toes the line between pitch-black, deadpan humor and actual horror, that I was more than a little surprised and disappointed when the credits rolled: I lost all track of time. The future of horror films lies with genuine geniuses like Falicki (who also fearlessly plays the titular character) and Joel Potrykus (who reprises his essential Derek character here)

Demon – When Polish director Marcin Wrona died last year, at the age of 42, he left behind one last testament to his filmmaking prowess: the incredibly odd, unsettling and smart Jewish possession “fairy tale,” Demon. The dreamlike, strange atmosphere recalls the best work of Roman Polanski (an obvious influence) and if the ultimate resolution is decidedly vague and a bit frustrating, it takes nothing whatsoever away from the journey. The world will mourn his loss but his final statement will, I think, prove timeless.

Goddess of Love – With a little more polish and focus, this magical-realist fable about a seriously damaged young woman losing her last grasp on sanity could have been a companion to Marjane Satrapi’s astounding The Voices. As it stands, however, it’s still a pretty remarkable film, featuring an absolutely fearless performance from lead Alexis Kendra (an easy nomination for a Best Actress Tomby) and marking a major step forward for filmmaker Jon Knautz, formerly known for silly horror-comedies like Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer.

 

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