At long last, after an entire year of watching the best (and the rest) that horror cinema had to offer, it’s now time for me to offer my picks for the very best of the year. In the interest of giving each film its proper due, I’ve opted to split my Top 20 choices right down the middle: the final ten films will be coming up in a future post.
As with most of my lists this year, I present these films in no particular order: if choosing the 20 best films out of a field that featured 44 possibilities was difficult, ranking one of those over the other might prove to be impossible. Truth be told, any of those 20 films might flop places with any of the others, based on my mood or the current weather: the only thing I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that these were the twenty 2016 horror films that made the biggest impression on me. These were the films that didn’t just get it right: they showed everyone else how it’s supposed to be done in the first place.
Longtime readers will probably be able to figure a few of these out ahead of time (my intense love of Wheatley, Potrykus and Bogliano makes any of their current films a usual suspect) but I’m sure there will be a few that might surprise or confound: as always, the only thing I care about is how good the actual film is. Budget, subject-matter, quality…none of these mean a damn thing if the final product punches me in the gut and makes me think. Any and every 2016 horror film had a chance to make it onto this list, from trad multiplex fare to no-budget indies: I watched them all with the same open, accepting eyes and mind.
With no further ado, then, I present the first half of my Top 20 Horror Films of 2016. Stay tuned for the second half, along with some of the honorable mentions that almost found their way onto this list. My advice? Seek all of these out and thank me later.
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The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The concept is pure simplicity: a father and son team of coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hersch) are tasked by the local sheriff with determining the cause of death on a seemingly unmarked body recovered from a grisly crime scene. This is an overnight, rush job, since the beleaguered lawman needs some sort of explanation to feed to the hungry press in the morning. Ready to do the magic they do, the coroners bunker down with the Jane Doe and prepare to spend the evening on a very thorough autopsy of a very strange body. And then, of course, all hell breaks loose.
André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe is probably going to come off as a bit of a tough sell and that’s a real shame: get past the idea that you’re about to watch the equivalent of an hour-long, graphic (if tasteful) autopsy and you actually get to the heart of the story, so to speak, and realize that you’ve actually been watching one of the very best supernatural horror films to come down the pike in years.
Nuanced, perfectly atmospheric, top-lined by a pair of performances that would gain much more acclaim in a non-horror film and genuinely scary, this is the kind of film, like Let the Right On In, that expands the reach of the genre and allows for a perfect synthesis of horror and prestige, in-your-face-grue and tender emotions. I watched an awful lot of horror films in 2016 but this, without a doubt, was one of the very finest: to anyone impressed by The Conjuring 2, I gladly point them in this direction and request that they see how it’s actually supposed to be done.
It’s easy to discount Robert Eggers’ chilling tale of witchcraft and black magic in pre-Salem Witch-trials New England when it comes to compiling year-end lists. After all: the film received extensive festival release in 2015, received wide theatrical release in February 2016 and had all but secured itself a slot on any critical best-of before most critics had even started their lists. Why add another assenting voice to the crowd?
The truth, of course, is that Eggers’ perfectly measured creeper deserves all of the acclaim that it has received by virtue of actually being that good. Many non-critics have complained that The Witch is not actually scary, that it’s a classic case of style over substance, metaphor and subtext over blood-letting and endorphin rush. This is not only reductive but flat-out wrong: in a darkened room, with a good sound system and none of the external forces that are so good at wrecking internal peace, The Witch is a virtual masterclass in sustaining an oppressive level of tension and dread for the entirety of a film.
There is no release to be found from a silly stoner cracking wise, a musical packing montage or a hot and heavy sex scene: this is the ultimate, existential dread of knowing that you are a tiny speck of dirt in a gigantic cosmos of infinite, terrifying possibility…a tasty bit of food floating in a bottomless ocean, fearfully waiting for an unseen leviathan to gobble you up. I would wager to say that if you didn’t find The Witch frightening on a very primal level, you might actually be a little too afraid to take the good, long look into the darkness that this requires.
One of the biggest conflicts I had when compiling this list (indeed, when embarking on my original plan to screen every 2016 horror release) was the question of what, exactly, constitutes a horror film. Does it have to be explicitly “horror”, filled with zombies, ghosts, monsters, insane slashers or any combination of the above? What about films where characters devolve into frightening fits of insanity and commit terrible acts? Wouldn’t something like that be considered as “horrible” as something like Dracula? After all, almost all horror fans can agree that Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho is a horror film and what is that but the tale of an individual going mad and committing horrific acts?
In that spirit, I handily nominate masterful auteur Ben Wheatley’s stunning adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise as one of the very best horror films of 2016. This icy-cold, Kubrickian tale about the breakdown of humanity and moral constraints among the trapped residents of a futuristic, 1970s high-rise begins with our humble protagonist chowing down on leg of dog and proceeds to work backwards to show us that there are much, much worse things than this.
Gorgeously filmed (longtime Wheatley cinematographer Laurie Rose deserves a legit award nod but I’m more than happy to nominate for a Tomby), masterfully acted (the entire cast is simply splendid), faithful to the classic source-material and as fundamentally disturbing as Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, High-Rise is nothing short of a modern masterpiece and further proof that Wheatley is one of the very best filmmakers working today.
The Alchemist Cookbook
A good film can entertain you, provide you with a couple of hours of stress-fire time away from the real world and give you the opportunity to just zone out. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and there never will be. The thing is…a bad film can do that, too. After all, where would the drinking game industry be without “so bad they’re good” films like Megalodon or anything bearing the name Asylum?
A truly great film, however, doesn’t just entertain you (although it should also be doing plenty of that, obviously): it makes you think. A truly great film isn’t content to merely tick the boxes off that get the job done and provoke the most immediate response: a truly great film will tick off every damn box on the sheet, if it feels like it, in service of whatever point it wants to make, viewer safety, comfort and ultimate entertainment level be damned. Writer/director/genius Joel Potrykus is a truly great filmmaker and his newest mind-blower, The Alchemist Cookbook, is a truly great film for the exact reasons outline above.
This is a film with no easy answers or even a particularly easy narrative reference: you could say that’s it’s about a mentally disturbed chemist trying to find the secret of life while holed-up in dingy RV in the middle of the woods but that would be like describing 2001 as “that ape movie.” It’s about insanity, paranoia and possibly schizophrenia, sure, but it’s also about medieval alchemy, friendship, love, greed, demons, monstrous felines and the need to prove your value to the world at large. Like Potrykus’ previous masterpiece, Buzzard, The Alchemist Cookbook doesn’t just look at fringe individuals: it IS a fringe individual, a completely insane, messy, confusing, fucked up and thoroughly awe-inspiring piece of outsider art.
Prior to Trash Fire, I knew writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. as the mastermind behind coming-of-age headfuck Excision (The Breakfast Club meets American Mary) and Suburban Gothic (The Frighteners by way of American Beauty), so I assumed that his newest would be more of the same: supremely arch and clever, full of smart, likable characters and some rather intense, if artful, explosions of violence. Turns out Trash Fire is nothing like Bates’ previous films save for one important aspect: it’s just as damn good, if not exponentially better.
The clever set-up takes a while to get to full-blown terror territory. For the first half of the film, we’re basically stuck with the single worst couple in the history of romantic attachments: Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) aren’t so much in love as ruthlessly dedicated to making each other as miserable as possible. Just when it seems that the couple might actually achieve the impossible and draw physical blood with their virulently poisonous verbal abuse, Isabel drops the bomb that she’s pregnant and they decide, against all odds to try to make their shitty relationship work. Part of this involves Owen getting back in touch with his estranged mother, played by the irrepressible Fionnula Flanagan, a woman who makes their mutual hatred look like childs’ play. There’s also, of course, the little issue of Owen’s long-unseen and hidden sister, a frightened (and frightening) figure who might just hold the key to the entire family’s destruction.
Trash Fire is the kind of film where the verbal barbs are so constant, amazing and genuinely painful that you’ll find yourself watching through clenched fingers for the first half, out of sheer discomfort, only to keep your hands in place once things hit a whole new level of uncomfortable. Never predictable, always fresh and intensely nasty, Trash Fire is the kind of delirious descent into other people’s’ hells that cinema was practically invented for, ending in the kind of Southern Gothic apocalypse that would make Flannery O’Connor proud. Unlike anything else this year, Trash Fire will stick with you long after it’s over.
I won’t go into the origins of Jon Watts and Christopher Ford’s exceptional creature-feature Clown here, mostly because I’ve discussed them extensively in the past, but the short version is that this is the fake Eli Roth trailer turned actual, third-party movie, with Roth as executive producer. The story is pretty fascinating, as these things go, but decidedly secondary to the real reason we’re here: this thing rocks harder than an uneven washing machine on a cobblestone floor.
Decidedly old-school in construction and intent, Clown looks to ’80s-’90s-era creature features for inspiration (think Pumpkinhead and The Fly, for a basic frame of reference) but vaults over its inspiration by virtue of a genuinely original, slam-bang concept, some ridiculously cool, well-made gore effects/set-pieces and tragic characters that you not only root for but empathize with. Lead Andy Powers brings a tremendous amount of pathos to his performance as the doomed father/titular monster, recalling nothing so less as Jeff Goldblum’s unforgettable descent into the hell of Brundle Fly.
When it came time to salute the best horror films of the year, there was no way in hell I was going to leave off Clown, one of the best, genuine, full-throttle horror films I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting on the edge of my seat through. There might have been more poetic, measured, artistic and “high-falutin'” horror films released in 2016 but if you were looking for the real deal, old-school style, there wasn’t much better than Clown.
At first glance, Alberto Martini’s Summer Camp didn’t seem like much to get exited about: a group of camp counselors fall afoul of something evil at a summer camp in Spain, people die, lather, rinse, repeat. I figured this would be just another 2016 film to check off the list, something that probably already had a spot reserved for itself in the “Decent” section of my roster. Boy, was I wrong.
Turns out Martini’s Summer Camp (co-scripted with Danielle Schleif) is non-stop, whiplash-inducing insanity with not one but at least FIVE of the best twists I’ve seen in ANY film, genre or otherwise. I’m not talking about “so-and-so is a double-crosser” bullshit: I’m talking full-blown, jaw-dropped, yell-at-the-screen in delight twists, the kind that show the filmmakers are not only paying attention to their own film but all the ones that came before it.
Summer Camp is the kind of film that indie genre filmmakers need to make more of: simple in construction and execution, yet mind-blowing in concept and intention, Summer Camp obviously didn’t cost a fortune but it didn’t need to. Martini and company have put a premium on an intelligent script, ably executed by a talented cast, and the results speak for themselves. For best results, see this with a group of like-minded souls who are going in blind and then kick back and watch the fun.
Right off the bat, writer/director Isaac Ezban’s The Similars should live up to its name: we begin in a desolate, rainy and nearly abandoned railroad station, shot in moody, color-infused black-and-white, as a solemn narrator calmly explains that we’re about to see some very strange sights, indeed. From this direct nod to the glory of Rod Steiger’s immortal Twilight Zone, we leap into a simmering stew of paranoia, fear and suspicion, as the various people waiting for a train to Mexico City all begin, one by look, to look exactly like the same person. As tensions rise, the shocked passengers demand answers: as always, however, they might not like the ones they get.
Endlessly inventive, darkly whimsical and possessed of some of the most casually shocking images I saw all year (a bit involving a dog will haunt me until the very last day I draw breath), this uses The Twilight Zone as a frame but fills the canvas with influences as far-ranging as Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, all while managing to maintain a tone that splits the difference between dead-pan gallows humor and full-blown horror.
While this might not fit the strictest definition of a “horror film,” to some, this is another perfect example of the deeper, more intense and existential fears that the best fright films latch onto. There’s something genuinely scary about a machete-wielding maniac, don’t get me wrong: I just happen to find the idea of involuntarily losing your very identity and sense of self to be equally horrifying.
Working his way through the color spectrum, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier follows up his bleak revenge tale Blue Ruin with the equally bleak siege film Green Room: at this rate, we should get a film with a name like Red Doom some time in 2017 and it’ll probably make Cormac McCarthy look like Mr. Rogers.
This time around, Saulnier’s patented “hopeless individuals at the end of their rope” are an idealistic straight-edge band who get trapped in the titular location by ravenous neo-Nazis after witnessing a murder in a backwoods, Oregon club. The skinheads outnumber our heroes ten-to-one, are heavily armed, have vicious attack dogs, no qualms about killing people and are led by Patrick frickin’ Stewart, fer chrissakes: this ain’t no rock n’ roll…this is homicide!
Featuring one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, a rare serious turn from Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat and a truly memorable, chilling performance from Stewart as the most genteel, reserved and polite monster since Hannibal Lecter sipped chianti, Green Room is non-stop tension and redlined danger, only taking a breather before slamming home the next horrifying development. As with the best that 2016 had to offer, however, Green Room gives so much more than sick thrills, mind-searing violence and an adrenaline overdose: it provides real characters that you actually come to care an awful lot about. When the violence happens (and it happens quite often), you aren’t laughing at stupid stereotypes and cheering on the aggressors: you’re watching people who look and sound a whole lot like people you know get brutally violated and slaughtered. Call it a thriller, if you want, but I think that’s just about as horrifying as it comes.
For some reason, writer/director Bryan Bertino seems to get an awful lot of shit from the horror community and I’m not quite sure why. Sure, his breakout debut, The Strangers, was a slick home-invasion flick that struck a chord with the masses but it was also tightly plotted and fairly effective, even if it looks overly familiar these days. His follow-up, Mockingbird, was even better but seemed to be almost universally reviled. For my money, though, that creepy little bit of weirdness about disparate strangers connected via a mysterious “game” was one of the best films of its year, revealing a filmmaker who had no problem deviating from the straight-and-narrow in order to grab his audience by the throat and give them a good shake.
This time around, Bertino presents us with The Monster, a veritable prestige piece about an estranged mother and daughter who find that their own poisonous relationship is the least of their worries when they’re stuck in the woods with an honest-to-god monster. Essentially a two-person film, everything rides solely on the shoulders of Zoe Kazan and young Ella Ballentine: good thing they’re both extraordinary, giving the kinds of performances that normally feature in Oscar clip segments. Although the film moves slowly and deliberately, in the first half, it does anything but spin its wheels: these foundational scenes pay off amazing dividends once the stakes are raised and it becomes life-or-death.
Full of genuine emotional heft and bolstered by two of the strongest performances of the year, The Monster sounds like a Hallmark film, right up until the time the creature (who looks fantastic) pops up and starts laying waste to everything, switching tracks onto a rail that leads straight to Predator land. As someone who foolishly demands that horror films serve both the head and the heart, The Monster is my kind of film: if you’re into quality, I’m guessing it’ll be your kind of film, too.
Stay tuned for the second half of this list, along with the honorable mentions that almost (but not quite) clawed their way into the top honors.