In a year largely vilified because of its violence, upheaval and bitter social schisms, it makes sense that the genre to receive an abnormal boost in success would be horror. 2016 delivered a mini-renaissance for horror movies that hasn’t been seen in some time. As you’ll see in our list celebrating a dozen of our staff’s favorites, most of the monsters are human, but the fear is no less real.
10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg)
The second film in the now recently-formed Cloverfield franchise, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a horror film in the quieter sense. A woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is involved in a car crash, which knocks her unconscious. When she wakes up, she finds herself trapped in an underground bunker belonging to a conspiracy theorist named Howard (a formidable John Goodman). The bunker is also inhabited by another victim of Howard’s kindness named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.). Howard repeatedly claims that he’s saved Michelle’s life, but she rightly has a lot of reservations about this. His apocalyptic predictions may prove be true, however, as Michelle gets closer and closer to finding out what’s really happening outside. What’s captivating about a film like 10 Cloverfield Lane is its performances. John Goodman is absolutely fantastic as Howard. He keeps the audience engaged because of his character’s exceptionally compelling creepiness. It’s also quite easy as to root for Michelle, because she’s constantly left in the dark — a position shared with the audience. Overall, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid thriller. It’s not necessarily a horror film or a monster film in the same vein as the other titles on this list, but it sharply portrays significant elements from both genres.
— Haley Goetz
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (dir. André Øvredal)
Atmospheric tension is one of the most critical elements in creating a good horror movie. It makes the audience feel like something is up when the characters don’t and it’s crucial if a director wants to get a little bit of a reaction from the audience. Many modern horror movies in recent years seemingly forgot that this was a rule, opting for jump scares galore and terrible characters you want to have massacred by the killer in increasingly gruesome ways. But in 2016, Norwegian director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) brought us his first English language feature and showed how well this tension can be built through a narrative with great characters in The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Telling the story of a father-son team of coroners (played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) examining a mysterious corpse, the film is a masterwork in creating atmosphere through the most simple means. A crackling radio, silence punctuated by something strange, or even a simple close up on the titular body’s hypnotizing grey-blue eyes. These and other techniques are used to create an expertly crafted trapped-in-a-hole movie that absorbs you into its environment. Punctuated by excellent performances by Cox and Hirsch, this is a must watch for any horror geek.
— Elizabeth Esten
Baskin (dir. Can Evrenol)
Baskin is the closest thing to a waking nightmare that I saw in 2016. No film from this past year more potently approximated the spine-tingling sensation of waking up from a horrifying dream, only to realize that you’re still dreaming and the worst is yet to come. Hailing from Turkey, the film is about a small squad of police officers who are called to a mysterious, secluded location, where they encounter what may just be the gateway to Hell. An ominous, slow-burn first half gives way to a shockingly gory descent into ritualistic depravity in which eyeless hordes grope for new flesh and demonic blessings are given without consent. Director Dan Evrenol imbues this story with many surreal touches, giving the sense of a malleable timeline that intermingles the past, present and dreams. A queasy ambiguity hangs over the film and we’re never quite sure if the ground beneath our feet is stable or if it could drop out at any moment.
— Byron Bixler
Don’t Breathe (dir. Fede Álvarez)
After a hugely disappointing summer at the movies (see X-Men: Apocalypse, Jason Bourne, Suicide Squad), the last thing I was expecting was a solid horror movie from Fede Alvarez. He certainly had his skeptics after a lukewarm response to the Evil Dead reboot in 2013. However, with the release of Don’t Breathe in late August, he proved a lot of people wrong with a home invasion horror/thriller hybrid that totally kicked ass. The premise of thieves stealing money from a blind man might’ve seemed like a boring idea, but in execution, it’s 90 minutes of unparalleled edge-of-your-seat tension. With tight direction and a lean script, Alvarez plunges audiences into several truly suspenseful set pieces. The film also delivers what is likely to become one of the most iconic horror villains of the decade in Stephen Lang’s unnamed deadly character.
— Justin Madore
Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
This is a film that stays exciting from start to finish. Green Room follows a punk band called “The Ain’t Rights,” as they slum around the Pacific Northwest looking for gigs. When they get a shot at a gig located at a skinhead lodge in the middle of the woods, they take it. It’s a matineé show, and about five minutes into their set, the band is practically booed offstage. One of the members witnesses something violent as they leave the stage to pack up and it’s from that point on that the band becomes trapped in this place. Similar to films such as Alien, the cast of Green Room is slowly picked off one by one (in increasingly grisly ways) at the command of Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the club owner. It’s about survival in the most animalistic of ways and executing that theme is where the film succeeds. The late Anton Yelchin shines in the role of Pat, a member of the band. He’s quiet yet resilient, even when his arm is cut open by a boxcutter. Also terrific is Imogen Poots as Amber, a witness to the chilling event that got The Ain’t Rights into this mess in the first place. Green Room is a gruesome modern horror film, but it’s worth watching because of how realistic and character-driven it is.
— Haley Goetz
The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama)
If you were to look up The Invitation on IMDB and explore the filmmakers’ past credits, you might lose interest quickly. The director and writers’ most well known projects include Jennifer’s Body, the Ride Along movies and R.I.P.D. These films could not be more misrepresentative of the qualities defining The Invitation. The film follows Will and Kira, a couple invited to the a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills by Will’s former wife two years after their divorce. When they show up, they’re greeted by many old acquaintances, and the night grows more and more strange from that point on. Held down by a terrific ensemble, the dialogue heightens the tension like no other film I’ve seen, getting its strength from the uneasiness and tension between characters. There’s a line in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that goes, “It’s hard to believe that the fear of offending can be stronger than the fear of pain.” This movie is all about that idea. Playing with social norms and challenging them in new and unnerving ways, The Invitation succeeds due to smartly written dialogue rather than the cheap scares, gore, and booming soundtrack so typical of the genre.
— Justin Madore
Lights Out (dir. David F. Sandberg)
This summer may have been a mixed bag for movies, but one area that did surprisingly well was low-budget horror films. Lights Out was one of these surprise hits, and for good reason. The movie uses its central premise — a monster that can only attack when the lights are off — for highly effective horror. It’s a premise that feeds off everyone’s instinctual fear of the dark by making the darkness itself the enemy. It isn’t all jump scares (although there are some of those too), as there is also genuine suspense, creepiness and mystery. Included in the ensemble are many smart, likable characters brought to life by strong performances — not always a guarantee with this genre. Thanks to some great direction, the film is well-paced and visually inventive as well (the movie’s use of a black light and the muzzle flash of a gun are highlights). Overall, Lights Out is satisfyingly suspenseful horror that stands as one of the best of its kind from last year.
— Stephanie Aris
The Neon Demon (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
The Neon Demon is probably the most terrifying film on this list and its story isn’t even centered around a haunted house! This is the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), the young, wide-eyed antelope blinded by the bright neon headlights of the Los Angeles modeling industry. It isn’t long before Jesse becomes prey to the industry and its hungry predators. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) this film captures the elements that should be in every horror film. First of all, it features Keanu Reeves as a skeevy motel manager. Regardless of his character arc, the fact that Keanu Reeves is in a movie is frightening enough. But seriously, while most horror films take place in isolated neighborhoods or forests, this film takes place in L.A., where many dreams go to die. That fear is a lot more tangible than the fear of being attacked by monsters or aliens. Refn is really good at planting little seeds of horror, such as in one scene where Ruby (Jena Malone), an acquaintance of Jesse’s, takes off her rubber gloves before having sex with a corpse. How can you not use gloves? But the most chilling thing about this film isn’t the necrophilia or the cannibalism — it’s the dialogue. At the end, when a model named Sarah (Abbey Lee) delivers the film’s defining statement “I ate her,” another model responds by saying something even more revealing: “Ew, gross.” Such a doltish response showcases the callousness of the typical L.A. model; an insensitivity that is truly daunting.
— Ariella Ranz
The Purge: Election Year (dir. James DeMonaco)
An action-packed edition to the Purge franchise, Election Year is easily the most politically-charged film of the series. Centered around a collection of people from various walks of life, The Purge: Election Year really delves into the ethos of the Purge itself. Anarchy certainly did a good job of shedding light on the everyday citizens that the Purge directly affects, but this film goes behind the scenes, into the political workings of the event. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is an outspoken woman with a troubled past who wants to end the Purge for good. She has many detractors, chief among them Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor, who appears in a pivotal scene towards the end). During this particular Purge, all government officials — including the candidates running for office (Roan and Owens) — aren’t immune to being killed. When Roan’s bunker is attacked, it is up to her and her chief bodyguard Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo in a recurring role) to make it through the night alive. They are helped along the way by a group of underground resistance fighters. The action in is great and so are the visuals. In a year rife with so much election-fueled debate and turmoil, The Purge: Election Year is an interesting horror film with real-world tie-ins.
— Haley Goetz
They Look Like People (dir. Perry Blackshear)
By most definitions, They Look Like People would barely qualify as horror. Set in New York City, the film concerns a troubled 20-something who is convinced that the people around him are actually malevolent beings in disguise. As you can see, it’s an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style premise, but director Perry Blackshear’s approach is surprisingly subdued, primarily placing emphasis on the psychological aspects of the story. The film often feels more like a low-budget character drama than a straightforward paranoia piece. Horrific imagery is sparsely incorporated, showing up at unexpected times in unexpected places, and a tense atmosphere of dread-filled discomfort is maintained as a result. However, the most impressive thing about They Look Like People is its ability to use the concepts of faceless menace and fear of the unknown to comment on disenfranchisement and the very real fear of self-reinvention, losing old friendships and assimilating into a broader world of new responsibilities and murky challenges.
— Byron Bixler
The Wailing (dir. Na Hong-jin)
Despite its offbeat characters and idiosyncratic sense of humor, The Wailing is one of the bleakest films of 2016. Dressed as a police procedural in the vein of Memories of Murder, the film is about a bumbling policeman who must investigate a bizarre new sickness that begins sweeping through his small, rural village. The affliction appears to be the result of witchcraft and a reclusive foreigner living on the outskirts of town falls under suspicion. Two more outsiders — a shaman and a specter-like woman in white — soon enter the picture to complicate matters as the mystery intensifies. The film functions as a straightforward thriller through much of its 156-minute runtime, dropping hints at the supernatural here and there. However, it’s not until the last half-hour, when a series of wicked twists emerge, that the script cashes in on its horrifically tragic potential. A haunting film made all the more unsettling because of its slippery antagonist.
— Byron Bixler
The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)
To cope with the harsh realities of life in the 17th century, the early settlers of the New World turned to religion. A pillar of society, it was not to be rebuked or messed with, for the consequences would be severe. Robert Eggers’s directorial debut, The Witch, is a rich exploration of religious fanaticism and obsession. From the dialogue to the set design and lighting, Eggers shows off his incredible eye for detail, drawing from real puritanical settler accounts of hysteria and dread. Anya Taylor-Joy and the rest of the cast don’t miss a beat with incredible performances and devotion to the time period. While most horror films feel distinctly fake, The Witch feels all too real. Eggers surprised a lot of people with this film, delivering a commercial success and giving audiences the first great movie of 2016.
— Justin Madore