Maybe it was just because it provided a respite from the year’s most terrifying drama, “American Horror Story: The 2016 Presidential Election,” but the past 12 months have been unusually good for the horror movie. In a year where franchise after franchise underperformed, horror films remained a consistent draw in multiplexes, and for the most part with new original movies rather than the umpteenth sequel or reboot of “Friday The 13th,” “Saw” or “Paranormal Activity.”
Away from mainstream theaters, there was great stuff too, whether it was Netflix getting into the scary game with a pair of excellent low-key chillers, A24 having their biggest hit ever with a Sundance fave, a couple of inventive Korean pics, or arthouse crossovers drawing on fears from Iran and Portugal. To mark what’s been an unforgettable year for fans of the genre, we’ve picked out the 15 best horrors of 2016 below.
Enjoy the list and be sure to make sure you leave us a note about what your favorite horror films of the year were in the comments.
15. “The Conjuring 2”
He might have taken a detour into the “Fast and Furious“-verse, but filmmaker James Wan knows what butters his bread, and that’s scaring the shit out of people. So, after some deliberation, he returned to the “Conjuring” franchise, this time sending based-on-real-life ghost busters Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to jolly old England to investigate a haunting. Wan doubles down on what made the first film so effective — the swirling camerawork, period specificity, and narrative details (including highlighting the relationship between the two paranormal investigators and throwing in the Amityville Horror as a subplot). But this is also a bigger, bolder movie than the first. Not only does it have some substantial scares (the dog turning into the long-limbed shadow man is one of the single best horror moments of the year) and technical derring-do (those shots that track in between the houses towards the end are spellbinding), but it also gets far more political, which adds an additional layer of complexity to the scariness. In “The Conjuring 2,” being a working-class single mother in conservative England is ultimately just as terrifying as being tormented by an otherworldly menace.
14. “The Love Witch”
Who says a horror movie has to be technically scary? Anna Biller’s campy pastiche thriller/horror “The Love Witch” is rather hilarious and sly. A throwback erotica “horror” in the vein of “Vampyros Lesbos,” softcore porn, ’70s sexploitation films and the comical side of Mario Bava, “The Love Witch” centers on a sultry, modern-day witch (a delectable Samantha Robinson) who uses spells and magic to entrance men to fall in love with her, with devilish results. Deliciously goofy, lush and wry, Biller’s ability to recreate the tone, look and feel of these specifically slinky eras is done with scary perfection (tell a rube this film was made in 1973 and they’d easily believe you). A subversive feminist take on control and desire, “The Love Witch” deconstructs “I need a bae so bad” female tropes and turns them on their head with knowing winks and arch, purposefully flat acting to make for the most crafty horrors of 2016.
13. “The Monster”
Bryan Bertino was poised to be the next golden boy of cinematic horror — he had a studio hit on his hands with “The Strangers” and developed a sequel while filming a smaller film for Blumhouse Productions. The sequel went nowhere and the smaller film,”Mockingbird” (which was based on a story by future “Mr. Robot” mastermind Sam Esmail), was fucked around with endlessly in the post-production process and unceremoniously dumped onto on-demand channels with little fanfare or promotion (it’s actually pretty good). But this year, Bertino made the comeback we’d all been rooting for thanks to “The Monster,” his ingenious little creature feature. The set-up is deceptively simple — a single mother (Zoe Kazan), who, in the midst of an intense battle with addiction, decides to take her young daughter to her father’s house. On the way, they hit something and for the rest of the movie are trying to figure out how to get out of the car and back to safety. That’s it. Interspersed are flashbacks to the daughter and mother’s life together that are just as horrifying as the snarling beast outside (which is, by the way, a practical effect and looks surprisingly lifelike for what is essentially a slime-covered rubber suit). Seek out “The Monster” and then go to bed with the lights on.
Director Mike Flanagan was a horror powerhouse in 2016. Not only did he helm the surprisingly solid studio movie “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (seriously — it’s good), but he was also responsible for “Hush,” a South by Southwest standout that quickly made its way to Netflix and works just as well in your living room as it did on a big screen in front of bloodthirsty genre fanatics. That’s largely because the movie is so intimate: It follows a deaf-mute (Kate Siegel, who also co-wrote the script) over a single night as a masked intruder (an against-type John Gallagher, Jr.) terrorizes her. Anyone who has ever been in a house alone, visited the country, or thought there was something “off” about the guy from “Short Term 12” will have something to get freaked out about. It’s a testament to Flanagan’s prowess as a filmmaker, and Siegel’s commitment to her character, that a tried-and-true genre like the home-invasion thriller (exemplified recently by films like the aforementioned “The Strangers” and “You’re Next“) can, in “Hush,” feel so fresh, exciting, and new. Flanagan is a future horror favorite, mark our words.
11. “I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House”
Weirdly overlooked (and just plain weird), “I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House” earned a degree of pedigreed film-festival buzz before being snapped up by Netflix and unceremoniously dumped on the streaming service the weekend before Halloween. This svelte Gothic chiller, about a young nurse (Ruth Wilson) who is set to attend to an ailing horror novelist (Paula Prentiss) in the author’s rambling estate, oozes atmosphere in its gauzy voiceover and in the contemplative way that the story unfolds (as if each next step is unsure of the one that came before it). It’s reinforced by the quietly perfect performances by Wilson, Bob Balaban (as the author’s manager), and Lucy Boynton as the young girl who came before Wilson and whose life came to a very, very violent end. Of course, the ghosts in the movie are both literal and figurative; there is an air of longing, of unfinished business, of loneliness and heartache that rests just below the surface of this beautifully told tale. As written and directed with grace by Oz Perkins, the son of horror icon Anthony Perkins, “I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House” is arguably the greatest horror movie of 2016 that nobody saw.