19. The Eyes of My Mother
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Writer: Nicolas Pesce
It’s a blessing that The Eyes of My Mother is in black and white, because rendered in full color, its garish display of violence would be nearly impossible to endure. But as it stands, it’s all kind of beautiful in a stomach-turning sort of way. When her mother (Diana Agostini) is murdered, young Francisca’s (played by Olivia Bond as a child) precocious fixation on dissection and surgery turns into a dark obsession. By the time she reaches adulthood, Francisca (played by Kika Magalhaes as an adult) has let her urges fester and blossom into full-blown psychotic behavior. There is a method to Francisca’s madness, but The Eyes of My Mother isn’t all that interested in arriving at a satisfying conclusion. It’s more of an exploration of themes, an art house indie with plenty of eyeball removal. And frankly, it’s the allure of its stylistic gore that makes it worth wading through.
18. You’re Killing Me
Director: Jim Hansen
Writers: Jim Hansen and Jeffery Self
In most cases, “you’re killing me” is just a euphemism for “you’re fucking hilarious.” That’s what makes the title of this horror-comedy so apt: It’s a slasher where the victims are so ironically detached that they can’t seem to realize an actual serial killer is picking them off one by one. The audience knows that Joe (Matthew McKelligon) is being completely serious when he confesses to murder after murder long before his new boyfriend George (Jeffery Self) even notices anything is wrong, which makes for good comedy, of course. But You’re Killing Me is also a darkly satirical skewering of self-involvement and insincerity, two qualities shared by every one of its characters except for the psychopath.
17. Carnage Park
Director: Mickey Keating
Writer: Mickey Keating
Carnage Park begins as a fairly straightforward crime thriller: Vivian (Ashley Bell) finds herself taken hostage by two thieves on the run. Following some surprise intervention by a sniper — later revealed to be the gleefully homicidal Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy) — Vivian realizes she’s in a much more dire predicament, and the film slides into blood-splattered horror territory. Up-and-coming auteur Mickey Keating (who made last year’s list with Pod) is adept at genre-shifting, and his affection for pulling the rug out from under his audience keeps his films feeling fresh. On paper, Carnage Park — ultimately a cat-and-mouse game between a killer and his would-be victim — might sound familiar, but everything about the way it plays out is bold and distinctive. Keating, like his characters, remains hard to pin down.
Director: Ali Abbasi
Writers: Ali Abbasi and Maren Louise Käehne
Pregnancy is a subject horror returns to frequently, and with good reason — there’s something inherently terrifying about having another human being growing inside you. Shelley, from first-time Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, hits some familiar tropes in its exploration of the paranoid anxiety of pregnancy. Childless couple Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) seem to have the best intentions when they ask their Romanian housekeeper Elena (Cosmina Stratan) to be their surrogate in exchange for the money she needs to return home, but there’s an ominous undercurrent to the exchange. That only builds after Elena conceives and begins to display the body horror symptoms of a parasitic infection. Shelley offers few concrete answers when it comes to the root of the apparent possession, but its nasty conclusion is well-earned.
15. Don’t Breathe
Director: Fede Alvarez
Writers: Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues
Part of what makes Don’t Breathe such a successful modern mainstream horror film — of which there are few — is the way it subverts some of the more popular tropes. Unlike in standard home invasion thrillers (think The Strangers or The Purge), the protagonists are the ones who do the home invading. When Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) break into the home of a blind man (Stephen Lang), they expect an easy heist. Instead, they discover that the man is not only far from helpless, but also completely deranged. He is another clever twist on the link between disability and victimhood — Hush, which also came out this year, does similar work with a deaf Final Girl. But the real measure of Don’t Breathe‘s effectiveness is how unbearably tense it is. Fede Alvarez is a modern-day master of suspense.
14. The Wailing
20th Century Fox Korea
Director: Na Hong-jin
Writer: Na Hong-jin
The Wailing is a strange, sprawling two-and-a-half-hour epic about a police officer, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), investigating a series of odd illnesses and deaths while trying to save his daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), from suffering a similar fate. The plot isn’t hard to follow — there’s a suspicious old man, a mysterious young woman, a shaman with questionable motives — but it borders on exhausting. That could easily be a mark against The Wailing, but this is the kind of film that works best when you give yourself over to it entirely. It’s that omnipresent chaos and uncertainty that ultimately makes The Wailing such a memorable horror film. Every step (or misstep) Jong-goo makes leads him further down the rabbit hole, and we’re along for the ride.
Directors: Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, and Patrick Horvath
Writers: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Roxanne Benjamin, Susan Burke, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Dallas Hallam
It feels a little unfair to call Southbound an anthology film. Yes, it’s essentially a series of short films with a wraparound story, each with its own set of writers and directors, but these tales are far more intertwined than that genre designation would suggest. (Contrast it, for example, with the V/H/S series, where the only link between the short films is that they’re found footage.) Southbound‘s shared universe — each story begins as another ends — is what elevates it past the individual chapters, which are creepy but somewhat open-ended. Taken as a whole, the film builds on a powerful sense of dread, which is underlined by a final sequence that makes Southbound‘s narrative conceit clear. These characters are doomed, bound in an endless cycle of guilt and violent retribution, and that sense of futility and uneasy déjà vu is scarier than any of its separate stories.
12. Always Shine
Director: Sophia Takal
Writer: Lawrence Michael Levine
Those who fell in love with Mackenzie Davis’s nerdy charm in the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror will be taken aback by her thrillingly unhinged performance in Always Shine. Her transformation from meek and put-upon to dominant and sexually aggressive is central to this psychological thriller about fractured identity. It all plays out in the not-so-friendly competition between two aspiring actors, Davis’s Anna and her more successful best friend, Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald). Always Shine shares some fairly obvious DNA with Single White Female and Mulholland Drive, but it stands on its own thanks to Sophia Takal’s confident direction and the strength of its two leads, whose rivalry seamlessly transitions from merely uncomfortable to life-and-death. Their showdown is one of the scariest moments committed to film this year.
11. They Look Like People
Director: Perry Blackshear
Writer: Perry Blackshear
The question at the center of They Look Like People is simple: Is Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) losing his mind, or is everyone around him really turning into an evil creature bent on humanity’s destruction? But the answer isn’t really evasive, and beyond it lurks a more pressing question: Can Wyatt’s old friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel) save him from himself? It’s fascinating to watch this film shift from the standard paranoid horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers — everyone is a pod person! — to the more grounded, relatable horror of a troubled man losing touch with reality. The climax, in which Wyatt wrestles with his demons while Christian’s life hangs in the balance, is nearly unbearable. Without giving too much away, the monster in his own head proves way more frightening than any outside threats.
Director: Carles Torrens
Writer: Jeremy Slater
It’s hard to talk about Pet without talking about the major twist that completely undermines everything that came before it. It’s a brilliant conceit that transforms the movie you thought you were watching into something else entirely. Dominic Monaghan stars as Seth, a troubled loner who appears dangerously obsessed with a beautiful stranger named Holly (Ksenia Solo). Once he locks her up in a cage, you think you know how things are going to play out, which makes the gut-punch of what’s really going on hit you that much harder. Even before that, the dynamic between Monaghan and Solo makes for compelling viewing. Pet might be a tough sell to anyone who is tired of horror films about creepy men exerting control over innocent women. But if you stick with it, you’ll find a far more complex and rewarding narrative.
9. Train to Busan
Next Entertainment World
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Writer: Park Joo-suk
Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is an absentee father whose plans to take his daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), to visit her mother are derailed when their titular train is overrun by zombies. No, we don’t really need another zombie movie, but if more within the genre were as deft as Train to Busan, there’d be no cause for complaints. The film does so much of what The Walking Dead wishes it could, balancing subtle character drama with bloody, zombie-heavy set pieces that propel the action along. It’s daring when it needs to be and somber when the moment calls for it; never does Train to Busan forget that at its center is the story of a father struggling to connect with his daughter (and, you know, protect her from hordes of the undead).
8. Under the Shadow
Director: Babak Anvari
Writer: Babak Anvari
Much like in The Babadook, the fractured relationship between a mother and a child is closely aligned with a demonic presence in Under the Shadow. In the war-torn Tehran of the ’80s, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is coming to terms with her thwarted medical ambitions while trying to understand the strange behavior of her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Under the Shadow offers a pointed look at the role of women in post-revolutionary Iran, and Shideh is an engaging, fully realized character at the heart of the story. It is also, again like The Babadook, thoroughly terrifying. The entity antagonizing the family here — which is identified as a Djinn, fitting with the setting — offers plenty of scares throughout. That’s extra impressive given that Shideh and Dorsa are also seeking shelter from falling bombs, a more realistic and understandable fear.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Yes, there is some sort of thematic link between this film and the 2008 movie Cloverfield. But even if 10 Cloverfield Lane is a spiritual sequel (whatever that means), it’s more of a restrained, claustrophobic horror film than the city-destroying chaos of the earlier movie. After getting in a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up and discovers that she’s being kept prisoner alongside Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Their captor, Howard (John Goodman), claims he’s just trying to protect them from the toxic air outside, the result of a chemical attack. But the longer Michelle is forced to stay put, the more she doubts Howard’s story. Goodman is the standout here, creating an imposing but still ambiguous villain.
6. The Monster
Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
The Monster has some surface-level similarities to The Babadook (and Under the Shadow, also on this list) in that it’s also about a mother and child fighting back against an evil outside force while trying to work through their own fraught relationship. But what distinguishes The Monster, among other things, is that calling the relationship between Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), “fraught” is a tremendous understatement. Kathy is a troubled addict who has little interest in her kid; in a flashback, she strikes Lizzy for apparently hiding her drugs. That makes for an even more interesting albeit painful dynamic when the two join forces against the beast that attacks their car late at night. Kathy’s desire to protect her daughter does not excuse her past misdeeds, but it does make for compelling viewing.
5. Green Room
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Not everyone considers Green Room to be a horror film, but Jeremy Saulnier’s endlessly entertaining thriller feels tense, confined, and blood-splattered enough to qualify for inclusion here. Punk band the Ain’t Rights — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) — are in the wrong place at the wrong time when they witness the aftermath of a murder at a neo-Nazi club they’ve been inadvertently booked at. Trapped in the green room of the title, the band members have to figure out how to escape without getting hacked to death by a machete or shot in the head. It probably goes without saying that their exit route is not without bumps. What makes Green Room impressive is how it keeps its cool and sense of humor alongside some shocking bursts of violence. At times, it walks the line of horror-comedy.
4. The Shallows