Well, it’s that time of year again. As we say goodbye to 2016, we’re looking back at all the horror movies that dropped over the course of the last 12 months and putting them together as recommendations for those that want to seek out the best this year had to offer!
I follow a few simple rules when it comes to composing my lists. For starters, the following had to be titles that have actually come out between January of 2016 through December of 2016. I want to make sure anyone reading this can access any one of these films right now!
Second, this isn’t necessarily the “best” of 2016, but merely my personal favorites. And that runs the gamut of big studio fare to little indie art house features and everything in between. Basically, I picked things that entertained me the most; the films that stood out for one reason or another, or were among the most memorable experiences I had this year with an audience. There was a lot of good stuff, so without further ado, here’s my 10 favorite horror films of 2016!
10 – LIGHT’S OUT
LIGHTS OUT, the directorial debut from David Sanberg was one of the more curious things to come out this year, primarily because after viewing the terrifying, original short film that it’s based on, you wonder how it could be expanded to a full length feature! What would that be? The gimmick of the short was simple. Whenever you flick the lights off, you see a figure standing in the darkness, until you flip them back on. With the help of screenwriter Eric Heisserer, they managed to create a new legend based on a girl named Diana, who died under mysterious circumstances and appears whenever our characters hit the lights. At a brisk 81 minutes (including credits!), LIGHTS OUT is a pretty fast paced roller coaster ride. It has great characters and performances with Teresa Palmer as Rebecca, Gabriel Bateman (the little kid from that awesome Wolfie’s Just Fine FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 5 tribute video!) as her little brother Martin and Maria Bello as their troubled mother. Alexander DiPersia steals the show for me as the rocker boyfriend Bret; a guy you initially look at and think “ugh, this freakin’ guy.” But then he manages to defy expectations by consistently doing the right thing and prove himself to be a pretty great dude. The scares, and there are many, are super effective, even on repeat viewings and while some people complained about the explanation for Diana’s backstory, I simply equate it to being no different than Mrs. Thomson explaining what happened to Freddy Krueger during the 3rd act of the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. This wasn’t the best horror film of this year, but it was certainly one of the most satisfying movie going experiences I had in 2016!
9 – THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
Here’s a movie I knew nothing about, but consistently heard nothing but praise over. It’s best if you know nothing about it going in. It’ll only make some of the latter half’s twists and turns all the more satisfying, but basically, it’s about the corpse of a young girl showing up late one night at a coroner’s office run by a father and son team played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch. As they begin the autopsy of their mysterious Jane Doe, slowly speculating and hypothesizing on the cause of her death, many of the facts just don’t add up, and suddenly some creepy, inexplicable things start happening around their place. To say more would be a disservice, so just see it. Don’t even watch the trailer! Cox, as always, is a pure joy to watch, and the general dread created by this film will stick with you long after the credits finish.
8 – THE INVITATION
Here’s another, well-crafted and brilliantly executed tense-filled slow burn that rewards its viewers that are patient enough to let this story wash over them. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) attends a dinner party with his girlfriend hosted by his ex-wife. It’s a small affair with a group of their closest friends, but Will and his ex have been estranged since the death of their son. Things get suspicious when a few strangers at the party start leading the evening’s activities and conversations into awkward territory. From there, the paranoia sets in, and along with Will, you start to wonder if the purpose of this dinner party was for ulterior motives. To say anymore would spoil the fun, but rest assured, the dread this movie creates will creep up on you during the whole duration of the picture and stick with you long after the closing shot. This is a welcome return to form for director Karyn Kasama, and count me excited for whatever she does next.
7 – 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Yet again, a movie that came out of nowhere that I managed to avoid any spoilers for. All I saw was the initial teaser trailer, which gave away next to nothing. And somehow, I got all the way to the Blu-Ray release without anyone telling me anything about it! What unfolded before me was great small ensemble character piece with three great actors, volleying off of each other in a compact, tense filled unpredictable story. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a horrible car accident and awakens in the underground bunker of Howard (John Goodman), a mourning father who claims that the outside world has been infected by a chemical attack. The only other person that can confirm this is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), another resident of this bunker. But is this true? Who are these people that Michelle is stuck with? Half the fun is watching the details unfold and realizing who these people really are before the narrative takes a sharp left turn into unexpected territory. Above all else, the acting across the board is terrific, but this could be the best role of John Goodman’s career. He’s that good in this.
6 – HUSH
I had already enjoyed Mike Flanagan’s work as a writer/director on his previous features OCULUS and ABSENTIA, but within the first 10 minutes of HUSH, I was convinced I was watching the craft of one of our modern masters of horror. This contained thriller finds Maddie, a deaf author living in a secluded house in the woods suddenly faced with a relentless masked killer that just happens to have found a victim in the property next door, and sets his sights on this new target. The cat and mouse nature of the film is what makes it as exciting as it is, and delivers a unique “slasher” quite unlike anything we’ve seen before. The killer is played by John Gallagher Jr, who is unrecognizable here compared to his role in my previous pick 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE. He meets his match, both character-wise and acting-wise in Katie Siegel’s Maddie. Also, this was one of the ambitious and interesting horror releases of the year. HUSH premiered exclusively on Netflix Instant, and was one of those rare movies that premiered to high praise at a film festival and then days later appeared on the popular streaming service. It was pretty cool to see my entire Twitter feed simultaneously talking about “this new horror movie on Netflix” the day of its premiere.
5 – THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
The writing and directorial debut of Nicolas Pesce is an arthouse masterpiece. Plain and simple. Shot in black and white, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is a restrained, but beautiful depiction of the formation and life of a serial killer. Francesca is a young girl whose mother is a surgeon. A strange man arrives at their door one day and brutally murders Francesca’s mother in front of her. From there, she lives a secluded life with only her father and shows a misunderstanding of basic social skills. I don’t want to give away the why’s for her lack of human attachment, because as usual, its best to go in blind for a film like this. But at a very brisk 76 minutes, you’ll be treated to a film in the vein of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.
4 – THE WITCH
My second viewing of this is what solidified it as one of the most striking and original genre pictures of the year. I hit the lights all off, cranked the sound, turned on the subtitles so I could catch every line of Robert Eggers brilliant script and went along for the ride in this creepy period piece that gives us the most realistic depiction of both a “witch” and a “cursed” family falling apart at the seams. You probably won’t find a film that’s more authentic or real feeling as this one, let alone one as beautifully looking with performances this great across the board, in particular from new comer Anya Taylor-Joy. It’s features probably my favorite closing moments of any horror movie this year.
3 – TRASH FIRE
The films of Ricky Bates are an acquired taste, but after his strong debut with EXCISION, followed by his comedic follow-up SUBURBAN GOTHIC, and now his latest film TRASH FIRE, there’s no denying that he’s a unique soul telling brutally honest stories. TRASH FIRE is more in line with his first feature EXCISION, which is one of my personal favorites. In both cases, they start as dramatic pieces that suddenly veer and end up in horror territory. Owen (Adrian Grenier) is kind of a mess. The only consistent in his life is his long term girlfriend Isabel (an amazing performance from Angela Trimbur). But as we see their relationship unfold on screen, we wonder why the hell these two are even together? The harsh reality is that most relationships end up this way. When Isabel confesses that she’s pregnant, Owen decides he owes it to her to do the right thing, so he brings her to meet his grandmother and little sister, who was horribly burned in a fire that not only killed their parents, but was caused by Owen in the first place. From there, Owen and Isabel’s relationship will be put to the test but even they don’t know what horrors await them at his childhood home. Hilarious at points, jaw dropping at others, and one hell of a gut punch by the conclusion, TRASH FIRE is fiercely original and that’s why I love it as much as I do.
2 – THE CONJURING 2
When it comes to studio scares, no one does it better than James Wan. And while I love both CONJURING movies, I think I may prefer the first one just a tiny hair more than it’s sequel. That doesn’t mean I didn’t absolutely love this follow-up. For one, Wan directs the shit out of this movie with elaborate tracking shots and long takes. The scares are all there, as well as the great family dynamic, this time focusing on the true story of the Enfield Poltergeist. This time around, the spooky secondary demon that steals the show is the disturbing “nun,” along with the “crooked man.” What really stands out is the evolving relationship between Ed and Lorraine Warren, perfectly played once again by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. Whereas we’re just getting to know them in the first feature, here, we’re already invested in these two and knowing them in context, we really get to appreciate what we see on screen between them in this entry of the franchise. My favorite scene of any horror movie this year has nothing to do with horror. It’s when Ed pulls out the guitar and sings some Elvis Presley for the Hodgson family. It’s the one moment of laughter this family has had in months and it’s one of those scenes that reminds me why I love the movies so much. It was also fun to see hints of The Amityville Horror from the opening. As far as studio fare goes, the work of Wan remains the best in the biz.
1 – TRAIN TO BUSAN
I’m a huge, huge fan of South Korean cinema. And quite frankly, when it comes to horror, if I hear something is a zombie film, I’m extremely apprehensive, because just about everything that can conceivably be done with this sub-genre of horror has already been done. But once in a blue moon, a filmmaker can surprise you. And this time, hats off to director Sang-ho Yeon, who makes his live-action feature debut here in a story that’s meant to act as a sequel to his animated movie SEOUL STATION. A father and his daughter are on a train from Seoul to Busan when suddenly a zombie outbreak takes place. As passengers aboard this train, we, the audience, get to see how this would all play out in real time. The few survivors that do group together are a great, electric ensemble with one goal in mind – making it to Busan where hopefully this threat hasn’t spread to yet. Along the way, we get an emotional real story between a father and daughter, two sisters, a couple expecting their first child and a group of young baseball players. Part of the film’s success is that you genuinely get to know and care for all these people. And regarding the zombies, there’s a few new tricks and rules established that we haven’t seen before, and if you can at least give us one new thing when it comes to the zombie genre, then I chalk that up to a success. I saw this at the Korean theater here in Los Angeles with a general Korean audience, (they were there just to see a movie and not in particular a horror movie), and it turned out to be one of the most responsive, enthusiastic crowds I’d ever gotten to share a movie with. The little old man sitting next to us was freaking out and kept covering his eyes and ears during various scary scenes in the flick. We were worried, so we asked him how he was after the movie and he said he had a great time. It’s because of this experience that TRAIN TO BUSAN was, by far, my favorite horror film of the year.
Other films that came close to making my top 10 that deserve a mention: I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER based on the book series of the same name; Fede Alvarez’s great cat and mouse thriller DON’T BREATHE; the Polish horror film DEMON from late writer/director Marcin Wrona; and Perry Blackshear’s very small indie feature THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE, which was a huge Netflix Instant word-of-mouth hit at the beginning of this year. While these all just missed out for a top spot in my favorites this year, they all warrant a look. Here’s to 2017!
Be sure to listen to us count down all of our favorite horror movies from 2016 on the year end episode of the Shock Waves podcast, embedded below!
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