While critics’ Top 10 lists tend to focus on the year’s great dramas, documentaries, and comedies, we shouldn’t ignore what a great year 2016 was for horror movies. Chilling and gruesome thrillers almost never factor into awards-season hoopla, but our favorites from the past 12 months prove the genre remains strong, buoyed by risk-taking filmmakers intent on pushing audiences to their absolute breaking points. Not for the faint of heart, here are our picks.
Director Jeremy Saulnier’s vicious blast of punk-rock terror tracks a struggling touring band (led by the late Anton Yelchin) that plays a gig at an out-of-the-way rural music club frequented by neo-Nazis. After the show, the musicians accidentally witness a murder, and they become prisoners of the area’s skinhead gang — led by Patrick Stewart’s unnervingly ruthless leader — and are forced to fight their way to safety. Rarely has Slayer’s “War Ensemble” been a more fitting soundtrack cut. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Mike Flanagan is arguably the best horror director working in the American mainstream today, and although his early 2016 release went straight to Netflix, it remains one of the year’s most effective thrillers. The story of a deaf and mute woman who’s terrorized at her remote cabin home by a masked killer, it’s a lean, mean genre exercise that is less interested in reinventing the wheel than in expertly executing its basic premise, which it does to fearsome effect. (Available on Netflix)
For her long-overdue follow-up to 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, Karyn Kusama staged this sinister dinner party, attended by a young man (Logan Marshall-Green) at the house of his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) — and mother of his deceased child — and her new, cult-ish boyfriend (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman). While it’s clear from the outset that things aren’t as normal as they initially appear, the slow-burn madness that soon ensues remains startling, thanks in large part to Kusama’s pinpoint direction. (Available on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Director Fede Alvarez’s inventively assured aesthetics elevate a rather routine story about three destitute Detroit youths who decide to rob a local blind man of his loot so they can escape their urban-nightmare circumstances, only to learn that their target is anything but a helpless victim-in-waiting. There’s not a wasted gesture or moment in Alvarez’s brutal follow-up to his Evil Dead remake, and in Stephen Lang’s Blind Man, he creates an unforgettable sympathetic-yet-psychotic villain. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Hush director Mike Flanagan’s second feature of 2016 was this horror sequel, which in every way bested its 2014 predecessor. Setting its action in the 1960s — which allows it to channel classics from that era while ignoring most everything that took place in the original film — Flanagan’s supernatural period-piece fixates on a mother (Elizabeth Reaser) who works as a phony spiritual medium, and the chaos that results from her two daughters playing with a Ouija board. Even while operating in PG-13 terms, it’s an assured throwback that generates consistent dread.
For sheer what-in-the-name-of-all-that-is-holy insanity, nothing in 2016 quite matched the last act of Baskin, a Turkish horror film that devolves into an impressive sort of mind-boggling craziness. Can Evrenol’s import tracks five police officers as they respond to a distress call coming from a notoriously haunted town. What they find is bewildering ritualistic madness that defies easy explanation, but is chockablock with more inventively bonkers imagery than 10 likeminded mainstream American efforts combined. (Available on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
A man comes to Poland to marry his bride at her family’s dilapidated rural estate, only to become possessed by an evil spirit known as a dybbuk (a Jewish demon), in this uniquely unsettling import from director Marcin Wrona (who committed suicide shortly after the film’s completion). Given its focus on long-buried secrets coming to terrifying light (in a country with a troubled history involving murdered Jews), the film resounds with historical and mythological weight, even as its bacchanalian action — its every character soaked by rain and drenched in vodka — comes across as akin to a malevolent matrimonial carnival. (Available on Digital HD)
The Eyes of My Mother
While it can’t fully match Baskin in the things-you-can’t-unsee department, The Eyes of My Mother is another example of boundary-pushing indie horror done right. The story of a young girl whose response to a drifter’s murder of her mother (an eye surgeon) is to keep the man as her mutilated pet/best friend, Nicolas Pesce’s black-and-white directorial debut strikes a deranged tone that’s amplified by his precise imagery and laconic pacing. It’s akin to a gorgeous waking nightmare. (Available on Digital HD and in theaters)
Robert Eggers’ first big-screen feature is most notable for its eerie evocation of a bygone era — in this case, 17th century New England — and the atmosphere of religious fervor and superstitious mania that consumes its inhabitants and, in particular, a clan banished from their Puritan plantation. Left to resettle nearby, the family soon comes to suspect that their baby has been snatched by a witch living in the adjacent forest, leading to a descent into hellish turmoil that’s led by a malevolent goat known as Black Phillip. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
10 Cloverfield Lane
Even without its connection to 2008’s Cloverfield, Dan Trachtenberg’s pseudo-sequel would register as an effective small-scale thriller, one that benefits from its action’s consuming claustrophobia. Set largely in an underground bunker where Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s single woman awakens to hear — from John Goodman’s survivalist — that an undefined catastrophe has made the planet uninhabitable, the film is a menacing mystery led by a sterling Goodman performance of is-he-sane-or-not ambiguity. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
The Neon Demon