The horror movies of 2016 are a sick and disjointed crop, a muddled parade of murder-happy nationalists, loopy Jonestown cultists, mind-bending body swappers, body-bending matriarchs, gory modeling shoots, dumb teens picked off by vision-impaired badasses, masked slashers picking on hearing-impaired heroines—and then of course: Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan.
Maybe there’s something to unpack from the bizarre, consistent focus horror put on devilry this year, or maybe we’re just looking for signs in anything anymore. Here are our picks for the best horror of 2016.
Director: James DeMonaco
The horror film America needs right now, or perhaps the horror film it deserves. There’s nothing elegant about DeMonaco’s third chapter in the franchise he began back in 2013 with The Purge, but that’s OK: Elegance is overrated, and if The Purge: Election Year is a broad, sloppy film that hits with all the subtlety of a hammer to the crotch, then it’s the broad, sloppy, hammer-to-the-crotch all of us need in 2016. The movie doesn’t bother to hide its politics or disguise its social inclinations, taking equally to task America’s culture of narcissism, its ongoing struggle to relieve itself of white supremacy’s grasp, its obsession with “might makes right” ideologies, and its ever-increasing political instability and polarization. If shitty kids wearing shittier homemade masks aren’t busy busting into your store to steal your candy and kill you, then Murder Tourists, assholes from around the globe who fly to the U.S. of A. to partake in legalized murder, are hunting you down in packs to make a point about America’s patriotic disaster, and then also kill you. Feels about right.
But the scariest detail of The Purge: Election Year is its coda, in which we realize that once the genie is out of its bottle, it can’t be put back inside, whether the genie is a system that permits nationwide carnage on an annual basis or, speaking to our sad reality, a president-elect who doesn’t think he should have to waste his time on intelligence briefings. —Andy Crump
Director: Fede Álvarez
Stephen Lang is a man with whom you’d best not trifle. That’s the clear message received after an offhand glance at his filmography, which is liberally seasoned with tough guy military roles, from Generals to Colonels, plus outlaws and ruthless businessmen. Don’t Breathe, the new film from Fede Álvarez, capitalizes on Lang’s popular image for character development economy, casting him as the over-the-hill version of the roughneck soldier for which audiences best recognize him. But Álvarez is playing a trick on us, or maybe we’re playing a trick on ourselves: Lang isn’t the type to play helpless, and his blind, unnamed vet in Don’t Breathe is anything but. His story is part Zatoichi’s, part slasher flick. —A.C.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Hush is a simple, intimate film at heart, and one that takes more than a few cues from Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, among other home-invasion thrillers. Director Mike Flanagan, whose Oculus is one of the decade’s better, more underrated horror films, remains a promising voice in horror, although Hush plays things considerably safer than that ambitious haunted mirror tale did. Here, the gimmick is that the sole woman being menaced by a masked intruder outside her woodland home is in fact deaf and mute—i.e., she can’t hear him coming or call for help. At first, the film appears as if it will truly echo The Strangers and keep both the killer’s identity and motivations secretive, but those expectations are subverted surprisingly quickly. It all boils down into more or less exactly the type of cat-and-mouse game you would expect, but the film manages to elevate itself in a couple of ways. First is the performance of actress Kate Siegel as protagonist Maddie, who displays just the right level of both vulnerability and resolve, without making too many of the boneheaded slasher film character choices that encourage you to stand up and yell at the screen. Second is the tangible sense of physicality the film manages in its scenes of violence, which are satisfyingly visceral. Ultimately it’s the villain who may leave a little something to be desired at times, but Hush is at the very least a satisfying way to spend a night in with Netflix. —Jim Vorel
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
If Nicolas Winding Refn—anthropomorphic cologne bottle; asexual jaguar—is going to make a horror film, Nicolas Winding Refn will make a horror film about the things that scare Nicolas Winding Refn most: asymmetry, sex, fatherhood. In The Neon Demon, every character is either someone’s daughter or a deranged daddy figure, both thirsty for the kind of flesh only Los Angeles can provide, the roles of predator and prey in constant, unnerving flux. Part cannibal-slasher movie and part endlessly pretty car commercial, Refn’s film about a young model (Elle Fanning) making it in the fashion industry goes exactly where you think it’s going to go, even when it’s trying as hard as it can to be weird as fuck. But despite his best efforts, Refn sustains such an overarching, creeping atmosphere of despair—such a deeply ingrained sense of looming physical imperfection, of death—that it never really matters if The Neon Demon doesn’t add up to much of anything in the end. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Can Evrenol
It is telling that the single scariest image in Baskin emphasizes creeps over carnage. It’s a shot of a boy standing alone in his living room, illuminated only by the static glow of his family’s television set, which has inexplicably turned itself on in the middle of the night. Nothing about the scenario is overtly terrifying—at least until he shuts the TV off—but it is memorably real in a film where it’s difficult to distinguish what is and isn’t imagined. Grand guignol-level spectacle where every character in the frame is streaked with viscera? That’s one thing. Domestic peculiarities that invoke nocturnal aberrations, though, are another thing entirely. —A.C.
Director: Sophia Takal
Sophia Takal punctuates her film with horror movie grammar, whether in setting or in style. It’s always bad news when a movie compels its human beings to attend a cabin in the woods, especially when those humans know of their own accord that the surrounding area lacks cell coverage, so Anna and Beth get off to a shaky start that becomes downright wobbly with just a shift in setting. Also troubling are the flashes between the film’s present and what we presume to be its future. Takal occasionally slows down Anna and Beth’s dialogue and plays it in reverse, or flits from their chatter to the sights and sounds of struggle. These aggressive editing choices hint at where Always Shine ends up going, though nothing substantial enough to give away the big reveal. —A.C.
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic
Hadžihalilovic’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, Lynchian homage, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a fatherless island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicolas’s boy-like curiosity begins to reveal a world of maturity he’s incapable of grasping, discovering one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep. From there, Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable, dreadful image after another. —D.S.
Director: Babak Anvari
For most of the film, Babak Anvari is crafting a stifling period drama, a horror movie of a different sort that tangibly conveys the claustrophobia of Iran during its tumultuous post-revolution period. Anvari, himself of a family that eventually fled the Ayatollah’s rule, has made Under the Shadow as statement of rebellion and tribute to his own mother. It’s a distinctly feminist film: Shideh is cast as the tough heroine fighting back against greater hostile forces—a horror movie archetype that takes on even more potency in this setting. Seeing Shideh defy the Khomeini regime by watching a Jane Fonda workout video, banned by the state, is almost as stirring as seeing her overcome her personal demons by protecting her child from a more literal one. —Brogan Morris
Directors: Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath
Tricksters and demons, vengeful spirits and serial killers, the hope of salvation and the lingering presence of Satan: These are the things that anthology film Southbound is made of. The film has a single vision but is built on a wide variety of grim and ghoulish horror tropes, all the better to satisfy the hungers of even the most niche genre connoisseurs. Best of all, though, the wild variations from one section of the picture to the next enhances rather than dilutes the viewing experience. It helps that there are common themes that run across the film—loss, regret and guilt make up a repeated refrain—and that the sum of its parts adds up to an examination of how people unwittingly architect their own suffering. But Southbound is first and foremost a work of velocity, a joyride through Hell well worth buckling up for. —A.C.
Director: Karyn Kusama
The less you know about Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, the better. This is true of slow-burn cinema of any stripe, but Kusama slow-burns to perfection. The key, it seems, to successful slow-burning in narrative fiction is the narrative rather than the actual slow-burn. In the case of The Invitation, that involves a tale of deep and intimate heartache, the kind that none of us hopes to ever have to endure in our own lives. The film taps into a nightmare vein of real-life dread, of loss so profound and pervasive that it fundamentally changes who you are as a human being. That’s where we begin: with an examination of grief. Where we end is obviously best left unsaid, but The Invitation is remarkable neither for its ending nor for the direction we take to arrive at its ending. Instead, it is remarkable for its foundation, for all of the substantive storytelling infrastructure that Kusama builds the film upon in the first place. —A.C.
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Love them or hate them, zombies are still a constant of the horror genre in 2016, dependable enough to set your conductor’s watch by. And although I’ve probably seen enough indie zombie films at this point to eschew them from my viewing habits for the rest of my life, there is still usually at least one great zombie movie every other year. In 2016, that was Train to Busan, a film that I sadly hadn’t yet seen when I wrote the 50 Best Zombie Movies of All Time. There’s no need for speculation: Train to Busan would undoubtedly have made the list. This South Korean story of a career-minded father attempting to protect his young daughter on a train full of rampaging zombies is equal parts suspenseful popcorn entertainment and genuinely affecting family drama.
Detractors may label Train to Busan, a massive financial and popular success in Korea, as “Snowpiercer with zombies,” to which I respond, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” The environment of a long passenger train actually provides some very creative, novel encounters with the zombies as the survivors duck behind seats, hide in bathrooms and crawl along overhead luggage rack compartments to advance from car to car. It concludes with several action elements that I’ve never seen before, or even considered for a zombie film, and any time you can add something truly novel to the genre of the walking dead, then you’re definitely doing something right. With a few memorable, empathetic supporting characters and some top-notch makeup FX, you’ve got one of the best zombie movies of the past half-decade. —J.V.
Director: Na Hong-jin
The U.S. title of Na Hong-jin’s new film, The Wailing, suggests tone more than it does sound. There is wailing to be heard here, and plenty of it, but in two words Na coyly predicts his audience’s reaction to the movie’s grim tableaus of a county in spiritual strife. Though The Wailing ostensibly falls in the “horror” bin, Na trades in doubt and especially despair more than in what we think of as representing the genre. He isn’t out to terrify us—he’s out to corrode our souls, much in the same way that his protagonist’s faith is corroded after being subject to both divine and infernal tests over the course of the film. You may not leave the film scared, but you will leave it scarred, which is by far a more substantive response than naked fear. —A.C.
Director: Marcin Wrona
Demon’s action unfolds around the wedding of Piotr (Itay Tiran in an incredible leading performance) and Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), young, beautiful and madly in love despite a short relationship capped by an even shorter engagement. The brevity of their union concerns her dad (Andrzej Grabowski), but he does his best to warm up to Piotr despite his reservations. He gifts the couple with family property, an old farmhouse, too, though here “gift” is perhaps a term used loosely. Piotr flies to Poland from England to wed Zaneta, settle down, and gussy up the house and the land it rests upon, and so their troubles begin: with a skeleton Piotr uncovers while mucking around with an excavator.
Horror snobs may feel inclined to evict Demon from the genre for its absence of scares. Marcin Wrona doesn’t hide in cabinets and jump out at us while screaming “boo” and flailing his arms. He includes no unearned jump beats, nothing to startle us the way that horror cinema has taught us to anticipate throughout its annals. What he pulls off instead is a good deal trickier, thanks in large part to expectation and custom. Demon gets under the skin, distorting perception while corrupting bliss at the same time, and even with a plate that full the film finds room for pitch black humor and a slice of nationalism: Toward the narrative’s climax, one wedding guest, totally blotto, rants aloud about the good old days, when everyone was Polish and no one freaked out when strangers talked to ghosts. —A.C.
Director: André Øvredal
Men don’t understand women. It’s the oldest cliché in comedy, in psychology, in nearly every book Dave Barry has ever written, in men’s and women’s health magazines alike. In André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the cliché is no less clichéd, but he does appropriate it for use in a powerful metaphor for male blindness to female traumas: The film is about a woman’s invisible suffering, the kind experienced beneath her exterior and which men can neither see nor comprehend, even when they have the benefit of being able to literally peel back her layers. You can probably guess from the title exactly what layers are being peeled, which is to say that you’ll know right off the bat whether The Autopsy of Jane Doe is for you or not. What you won’t discover without watching the film is the source of Jane’s anguish, though by the time Øvredal is done with us, you may wish you’d never looked close enough to learn for yourself. —A.C.
Director: Robert Eggers
Though The Witch ends as it must—not, it should be noted, with a “twist,” because the stakes had already been set from the first moment we knew the titular monster to be real—it’s an ending which, while resting on a striking final image, tips almost too readily into the supernatural elements so much of the film tries for so much of its run-time to delicately avoid. There is a goat named Black Philip, there is blood, there is the line you will quote for weeks after seeing it. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” It’s a fair question—because of course thou wouldst. Because even if The Witch implies that the mortal fear to which its characters prescribe in the face of such real evil makes plenty sense, Eggers still doesn’t buy that the puritanical hysteria at the heart of America’s founding was anything reasonable. Why does this evil exist at all? When the alternative is so dehumanizing, why doesn’t it?” —D.S.