It was a dark and stormy year on a variety of fronts, but something inarguable about 2016 was the strength of its genre outings. In a manner that precluded the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election, horror films seemed intent on steeling us against an all-too-human menace waiting on the other side of a locked door (the enemy, more often than not, was us). There were also abstract takes on familiar themes, ranging from the psychological effects of PTSD, the cutthroat nature of the modeling industry, and even the old standby of spirits rooted in their favorite chair, refusing to budge. 2016 was stellar in terms of filmmakers offering fresh, innovative takes on well-worn themes and characters. Since my Top 5 can be heard on the December 19 episode of THE LAST KNOCK podcast (available at crashpalaceproductions.com), I’m expanding this list to a Top 10, as there were at least that many – and more – worthy of mention this year.
I have several books that list the 1984 film (and its lesser 1989 sequel) as horror, so I don’t think the inclusion of Paul Feig’s preemptively (and unjustly) lambasted reboot is out of place here. While not particularly scary to my 35-year-old self, this creative new spin captured the spirit (ha, ha) of the original, introducing a just-as-eclectic cast with great chemistry. The result? A synthesis of irreverent humor, incredible special effects, and a sense of exhilaration sorely lacking in our cynical postmodern horrors and comedies.
9) The Witch
Much has been written on Robert Eggers’ exemplary period piece, so I’ll keep it brief: The Witch is a quiet horror film of subtle plot machinations and subtler characterization. It takes its themes of religion, belief, and family very seriously. It’s also beautiful to look at and listen to, full of visual and aural foreboding.
8) 10 Cloverfield Lane
Dan Trachtenberg’s film is more an in-name-only spiritual successor to Cloverfield than a proper sequel, and that’s fine by me. Establishing a premise that would do Rod Serling proud, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself in the underground bunker of a mysterious, imposing man (John Goodman), while the outside world allegedly falls victim to a catastrophic incident. The feelings of confinement and paranoia are palpable, and the characterization is strong; but the storytelling is a model of fluid efficiency, never letting the audience get ahead of the characters. Would someone throw Goodman an Oscar already?
7) The Neon Demon
One of the most divisive films of 2016 is a purposeful provocation from the always-provocative Nicolas Winding Refn. While some may see it as a shallow indulgence of the surface-level attributes of the modeling industry, it’s in these very attributes (the wallpaper in a bathroom or hotel; the angled reflections of faces in mirrors) that hint at something deeper. I’m not claiming that it’s a meticulously assembled puzzle on par with Mulholland Drive, but Demon‘s coldly fragmented nature – from its abrupt shifts in action, character, and setting – serves as a corollary to its beautiful yet eerily somnambulant protagonist, Jesse (Elle Fanning), a cipher coasting on the bent logic of her own waking nightmare.
6) Don’t Breathe
As a stylistic calling card, 2013’s Evil Dead was as impressive as they come (the narrative, on the other hand…). Director Fede Alvarez advances to a stunning degree with Don’t Breathe, a straightforwardly plotted, yet twisty-as-hell reverse-home-invasion-flick, in which our junior criminals (including the stellar Jane Levy) find themselves outmatched by a blind Army veteran (Stephen Lang) with a cache of cash. Would make an excellent triple feature alongside Mike Flanagan’s Hush and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room.
By now, the setup is kind of tired: off-duty cops get called in for some mysterious and/or suicidal mission, and chaos ensues in earnest (we’ve seen it in The Horde and the non-horror The Raid, in addition to countless American cop thrillers). It’s a good thing Can Evrenol’s Baskin is smart about it, using its Tarantino-esque aesthetic of guys talking in an ominous restaurant as a chance to establish character detail and backstory, giving the viewer a feeling of familiarity and camaraderie before these blue-collar policemen descend into a literal hell that would do Clive Barker proud. Baskin builds its scenario beautifully, establishing a sense of control in the early going that gradually gives way to unbridled, “what-the-fuck” madness, with macabre imagery to burn.
4) Sun Choke
A tale of psychological scars, unhealthy obsessions, and the fine line between cruelty and caring, Sun Choke is the twisted sister to Zack Parker’s similarly unsettling Proxy, exhibiting a grasp of character and plot that’s masterful, affecting, and bizarrely tragic. Writer-director Ben Cresciman expertly draws the viewer in with unassuming events and alluded-to bits of character background before trapping us within the headspace of Janie (Sarah Hagan) and her caretaker, Irma (Barbara Crampton, in one of the year’s best performances).
Frisco Kid TX and I have written about it here, so there’s plenty of reading material for you to explore. But to summarize: Mickey Keating’s pastiche of Repulsion, Eraserhead, and Carnival of Souls is art-horror at its finest. More Lauren Ashley Carter, please!
2) Diary of a Deadbeat
Renegade director Jim VanBebber doesn’t consider himself a horror filmmaker, but as someone who depicted the acts of the Manson Family in unflinching stylized detail, he probably deserves a chair at the genre roundtable all the same. This decades-spanning documentary explores the origins of the filmmaker and his unorthodox methods, intercut with candid interviews with a revolving-door collective of collaborators, musicians, and fans. The furthest thing from a Hollywood puff piece, director Victor Bonacore has assembled a compelling, mature depiction of an unconventional life, from rebellious youth to reflective, middle-aged man.
1) Green Room
I’ll let the amount of digital ink spilled on this one speak for itself. An intense and brilliantly conceived siege film that may very well be the new king of the subgenre (even surpassing John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13). Wherever writer-director Jeremy Saulnier goes from here, his legacy is assured with this film.