This has easily been the hardest time I’ve ever had whittling down my favorite genre offerings for the year. I was fortunate to watch so many great movies throughout the course of the last 12 months (over 150—new and old!), and considering the quality of projects from both the studio and independent sides of the business was exceedingly high, I probably could have featured 20 films on this list, and still would have at least a dozen more I could recommend to fellow fans. 2016 was definitely one of the best recent years in horror and that’s pretty rad.
Beyond the realm of movies, horror also had a strong showing on TV, as it seems almost every single network these days has something of interest if you’re looking to immerse yourself in horror on the small screen. I was also fortunate enough to attend several amazing genre events in 2016, making it one of the greatest years I’ve experienced as both a professional writer and a lifelong fan.
Here’s a look at many of the things that, for me, made 2016 a banner year for both horror and sci-fi. Oh, and I should mention that I sadly missed seeing Train to Busan this year, so I suspect that it’ll be making my list in 2017.
Green Room: I saw Green Room on three different occasions this year, and with each viewing, Jeremy Saulnier’s ferocious thriller pitting a punk rock band versus a gang of neo-Nazis only got better for me. By keeping his script steeped in a relatable sense of violent realism—meaning, no one here is fully prepared to deal with the consequences of what happens once the Ain’t Rights stumble upon a murder—Saulnier keeps viewers right in the mix of the chaos, making for a breathless and grueling experience featuring incredibly nuanced performances from the likes of Patrick Stewart, Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Macon Blair (who, to me, is one of Green Room’s bigger MVPs that most folks aren’t talking about nearly enough).
To call Green Room masterfully brilliant filmmaking still feels inadequate, and it’s a beautiful testament to the talent Yelchin brought to the big screen with every role he took on throughout his unfairly short career.
Don’t Breathe: Another film I had the pleasure of seeing several times last year, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is yet another example of how you can take a one-location story and completely defy expectations at every turn with a little effort and ingenuity. An unapologetically brutal game of cat and mouse, Alvarez goes for the jugular repeatedly with his surprising story, but it’s the work of both Jane Levy and Stephen Lang that makes Don’t Breathe so compelling to watch.
I spent most of the first time watching Don’t Breathe conflicted (in a good way) over just who exactly we’re supposed to “root for” as viewers, but upon my subsequent revisits, I realized that maybe we’re not supposed to root for anyone, because regardless of who lives and who dies, no one in Don’t Breathe comes out victorious—except for us, the viewers.
With Evil Dead and now Don’t Breathe under his proverbial directorial belt, you can be damned sure I’ll be in line opening day for anything that has Alvarez at the helm.
The Wailing: Do not let its two-and-a-half-hour running time deter you, folks, Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing absolutely makes every single moment count, ensuring that its entire harrowing cinematic journey is one worth taking, leading up to a “kick in the nuts” finale that brought tears to my eyes and has haunted me every single day since I watched it months ago.
The Wailing is part supernatural horror story / part parable on the dangers of xenophobia, and Hong-jin’s takes an excellent approach to weaving together all the elements of his ambitiously intricate story of a village in the throes of terror after a string of odd illnesses begin plaguing its residents, resulting in violently gruesome deaths. Hong-jin reveals various plot twists throughout The Wailing with such confident precision, that I immediately wanted to rewatch the entire movie again right after it was over.
“At Home with Monsters” Exhibit from Guillermo del Toro: I’m a huge nerd for all things Guillermo del Toro, so when the recent “At Home with Monsters” exhibition arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) here in southern California, I knew there was no way I was going to miss it. I finally had a chance to make my way out to see it in November, and I felt like for almost two hours, I was lost in horror nerd nirvana.
From the beginning to the end, you could just feel del Toro’s passion and enthusiasm for horror and fantasy oozing off of each display, and it was really cool to see him pay homage to the industry he started in (special effects) in some truly beautiful ways—the Son of Frankenstein display being one of my favorite things at the entire exhibition.
“At Home with Monsters” is going to make its way to Toronto and Minnesota this year, so if you happen to be in either of those areas, be sure to make visiting the exhibition a top priority in 2017.
Arrival: With Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve heads into the world of science fiction (a realm it looks like he’ll be spending a good chunk of time in over the next several years), and the results are outstanding. An intelligent and often emotionally-charged exploration of the power of communication and understanding—by way of an alien race’s appearance on Earth—Arrival is so precisely conceived and executed that it doesn’t feel hyperbolic at all to call Villeneuve’s efforts here some of the best science fiction cinema I’ve seen in decades.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t tip my hat to screenwriter Eric Heisserer too, as he’s a huge reason why Arrival works as well as it does (Heisserer is also behind the script for Lights Out, so now it’s really interesting to see the different exploration of parental heartbreak between the two projects).
I’m a big fan of sci-fi wrapped up in any kind of cinematic package—action / horror hybrids, summer tentpole films, you name it—but the science fiction that tends to resonate with me are the stories that have a far more nuanced and emotionally-driven approach that say more about the human condition than the film’s scientific aspects. So when you couple that with a story that has a very timely socio-political slant that couldn’t be more relevant as we head into the uncertainties of 2017, Arrival could end up being one of the more important movies coming out of last year and easily one of my favorites as well (it also wrecked me emotionally—but I do mean that as a positive).
Under the Shadow: Set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s, first-time director Babak Anvari confidently tackles the horrors of parental turmoil (and examines the suppression of women in the Middle East) in Under the Shadow, all while crafting a flawlessly haunting portrait of supernatural terror. When the spirit of a Jinn shows up on her doorstep, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) has two options: let the spirit consume her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), or fight like hell against the oppressive force of evil.
Shideh, who has already seen enough strife and heartbreak to last several lifetimes while living in Iran, decides to do the impossible with her attempts to foil the Jinn, which is nerve-shattering enough to watch all on its own. But having that all play out during the immediate threat of possible annihilation at any given moment is what elevates Under the Shadow into one of the best filmmaking debuts I’ve seen in years.
For those interested, Under the Shadow comes home to Blu-ray and DVD on January 10th and is absolutely worth a watch (it’s also currently available on digital platforms, too).
Tenebrae Limited Edition Steelbook from Synapse Films: As far as limited edition Blu-rays go, Synapse Films’ Steelbook release of Dario Argento’s Tenebrae ranks right up there with some of the very best horror home media releases fans have ever seen, and I applaud Synapse’s efforts with their expansive presentation. Their restored version of Tenebrae is breathtakingly beautiful and presented in its correct aspect ratio, which should no doubt make longtime fans happy. Viewers also get both language options (Italian and English) in this release and Synapse included some rare additional treats, including several insert shots, the original US end credits (when it was called Unsane), and the alternate opening title sequence, to name a few.
The inclusion of the Yellow Fever documentary is another nice facet to this release, and film critic Maitland McDonagh’s commentary track is both informative and entertaining to listen to. Synapse also included a liner notes booklet in the Steelbook that features several takes on Tenebrae (again, all great and really enlightening material), and the inclusion of Goblin’s synth-fueled score on its own CD is truly a wondrous gift that keeps on giving.
For anyone who loves Tenebrae, this limited edition Steelbook is pretty much everything you could possibly want and more. Kudos to Synapse for really going above and beyond, as it’s evident that a lot of love was put into this release.
The Witch: A stunning feature film debut from writer/director Robert Eggers, The Witch felt like absolutely nothing else that came along in the horror genre during 2016, which is only one of its many strengths. Taut, ripened with tension from start to finish, and anchored by a star-making performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, every single facet of The Witch made the film a legitimately transcendent cinematic experience.
And, of course, it also turned its goat co-star Black Phillip into something of an inhuman anti-hero—and let’s be honest, how cool is that? You can argue that The Witch isn’t horror all you want (it’s something I see mentioned on a daily basis on social media), but Eggers’ gut-punch third act is so brutal and bold in its execution, that to me, it is the earmark of truly great horror.
Horror on TV: As someone who cut the TV cord back in 2008 (it can be nearly impossible for me to try to keep up with movies alone throughout any given year), I’d honestly checked out on most of the genre-related shows over the last eight or so years (The Walking Dead being one of the few exceptions, and generally I’d only watch that so I’d know what everyone would be yammering on about on social media each Monday). Last year, Scream: The TV Series, Scream Queens, and Ash vs Evil Dead all did their damnedest to bring me back into the mix, and I decided it was time to embrace more of the genre offerings that the small screen had to offer.
I probably only had a chance to see about 50% of the horror and sci-fi series that aired during 2016, but all were exceptionally strong and made me fall in love again with long-form storytelling. Both Scream and Scream Queens had strong second seasons, but I’d say if any series out there really hit their stride in season 2, it was Ash vs Evil Dead (barring the season finale, which felt off to me). The Walking Dead came back with a vengeance and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed this latest season, even those dastardly “one-off” episodes everyone’s so keen to tear apart.
The biggest surprises for me, though, came from two brand new series: Stranger Things and The Exorcist. Around one million people out there have already written brilliant think pieces about why Stranger Things is so good (and it is), so all I can really add to the conversation is that I do think the show is better than the nostalgia that fuels it, so I’m hoping for less of that in season 2.
But in regards to The Exorcist, I owe everyone a big apology for my initial misgivings regarding the show, because it consistently surprised me week in and week out. I also believe it is quite possibly the best horror-related series we saw in the entirety of 2016. If you have been on the fence about watching The Exorcist (believe me, no one gets that more than me), I can only urge you to watch the first three episodes, and that’s when you’ll know if you’re hooked or not.
The Eyes of My Mother: Like an intoxicating fever dream, writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother feels akin to a waking nightmare you just can’t quite shake off. Breathtakingly shot in black and white, Pesce’s story is an unsettling character study of a young woman named Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) who longs for any kind of connection she can find while living tucked away on an isolated family farm. Watching the lengths Francisca will go to fill that void in her life is an unsettling cinematic journey that is as heartbreaking as it is depraved.
A hauntingly provocative slice of Gothic cinema that will stay with you long after it finishes, The Eyes of My Mother felt like nothing else I saw in all of 2016, and it rattled my psyche in ways I didn’t think were still possible.
The Invitation: I’ve been writing about The Invitation for almost a year and a half now, ever since it first premiered at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, so I’ll admit I don’t have much more to say that I haven’t already said before. So just to keep this short and sweet, let me say this: the themes of The Invitation scarily feel far more realistic (or maybe “relatable” is a better word) now than they did back in 2015, and Karyn Kusama did a brilliant job of crafting a modern classic that left me unnerved and devastated upon its conclusion.
Let me also take this opportunity to stick up for Kusama’s previous genre effort, Jennifer’s Body, which is also pretty damned fantastic and worth revisiting if you dismissed it upon its release years ago.
Baskin: Easily one of the more unforgettable foreign horror films I saw during 2016, co-writer/director Can Evrenol’s Baskin is a nightmarish shocker that feels like Lucio Fulci by way of Clive Barker. The story follows a group of Turkish police officers who respond to a distress call that will forever change their lives, leading them to an encounter with a hellish cult that has some gruesomely abhorrent plans for the unsuspecting lawkeepers.
I’m a big fan of horror that can push my cinematic sensibilities in unimaginable ways, and Baskin hit all the right notes of freakish surrealism for me. Gut-wrenching, horrific, and boundary pushing in every sense of the term, Baskin is great for those of you who like your horror tinged with grotesque beauty.
John Carpenter: Live Retrospective: Imagine the happiest day of your entire life, multiply that by ten, and you almost have an idea of how amazing of an experience it was for me to see John Carpenter perform live during 2016. It’s something I know a lot of fans out there had the chance to see for themselves when John took his tour on the road, and I love that we live in a day and age where THE Master of Horror gets to rock out in sunglasses, fist pumping in the air, while he plays the scores to so many of his brilliant films from over the years.
I also love that someone who is (and should be) considered the pinnacle of genre filmmaking has taken his passion for music and turned it into an equally impressive career (and if you consider his work in other mediums as well, frankly, there’s nothing John Carpenter CAN’T do). While pretty much every song was my favorite, two of the biggest highlights for me were hearing some of the music from Prince of Darkness and Christine that night, because I wasn’t really expecting them (and after Halloween and The Fog, those two are my favorite scores from Carpenter’s filmography).
To read all of the 2016 favorites lists from the Daily Dead team, check back daily here.