Make no mistake about it: this was a great year for horror fans. It was so good, in fact, that making a list of “favorites” is almost impossible because there’s just too much I want to talk about. The independent horror scene continues to crank out new classics and minor gems, but even studio horror was good this year: The Conjuring 2, Don’t Breathe, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Lights Out (not my bag, but a lot of people really enjoyed it), The Boy (not a lot of people’s bag, but I really enjoyed it), The Purge: Election Year, and so on. Even better? Pretty much every one of them was successful at the box office. As more and more horror moves are released with the limited release / VOD model, it’s nice to know that good movies still play to big audiences at the multiplex.
And what about horror on TV? Besides returning shows like The Walking Dead, Bates Motel, American Horror Story, and Ash vs Evil Dead (which showed great improvement in its second season), this year introduced both The Exorcist on Fox and my personal favorite, Syfy's Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which is the best “creepy kid” horror show in quite some time, creating a new horror icon in The Tooth Child. So many teeth. So many nightmares.
John Carpenter went on tour this year! Seeing him play all of his classic themes live as clips of his films were projected on giant screens behind him was one of the best concert-going experiences of my life. I even got the chance to see Fabio Frizzi and his band accompany The Beyond with a live score, and it was incredible. These are new and singular experiences, and the fact that fans are being given the opportunity to connect to the genre in such special ways really cements that we are living through one of the greatest periods ever to be a horror lover.
I could probably have made a list that includes nothing but the titles and events I already named above, and yet I have even more favorites I want to call out this year. Like I said, 2016 was a good one.
Beyond the Gates: In a year of great horror movies, this is my favorite. Co-writer Jackson Stewart managed to make a movie that draws on his influences (chief among them are Italian horror and ’80s VHS classics) without slavishly imitating them, capturing the spirit without just cashing in on cheap nostalgia.
The screenplay, by Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata, is rooted in real characters and real relationships, making us care a lot about the people involved before the guts start flying and the heads explode. And the cast! Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, and Sara Malakul Lane make up my favorite ensemble of the year.
2016 was rough for a lot of us in a lot of ways, and more than any other movie it has been Beyond the Gates that made me feel hopeful for the future. It is a horror movie about repairing what is broken and about the power of family and loved ones to get us through the tough times. It is beautiful and moving while still managing to be really fun and funny, all while showing us lots of cool shit. This will be the 2016 horror movie I return to the most, and I already can’t wait to watch it again and again.
I Am Not a Serial Killer: I knew hardly anything about this movie going in, making it one of the year’s best surprises. Based on Dan Wells’ novel of the same name, the movie stars Max Records (in a great performance) as a potentially sociopathic teenager who investigates a series of bizarre murders in his small town.
I love what the movie has to say about being human, and like Beyond the Gates, it reaffirms things about the human spirit where most horror movies try to tear it all down. Christopher Lloyd is as good as he’s ever been and the grainy 16mm photography makes this one of the best-looking movies of 2016, too.
Darling: Though he’s only in his mid-20s, Mickey Keating has already made five features… just in case you’re feeling like you’ve accomplished something today. This, his third, was the first of two movies he put out in 2016 (his second was Carnage Park). I understand why Darling might not be for everyone, as it owes more than a lot to ’60s horror, specifically Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. I get it. But Darling is such a perfectly contained experience, anchored by Lauren Ashley Carter giving one of the best performances of the year as a woman in the midst of a complete breakdown, that I can’t help but give myself over to it. I love the black and white photography (in case the comparisons weren’t clear enough), I love the editing, I love the sound design. This one, more than any of his films, makes me excited to see what Mickey Keating is going to do in the future.
Don’t Breathe: In a year for good studio horror, this was my favorite. Fede Alvarez’s follow-up to his Evil Dead reboot is a leap forward both in defining his original voice (this one isn’t a remake and Fede has a writing credit) and in craft, as this is one of the most well-constructed horror movies released in 2016. When people describe a horror movie as a “thrill ride,” this is the one they’re talking about.
The Witch: Look, I’ll admit that I do not connect to The Witch in the way that I connected to other movies on this list. But that does not change the fact that it is clearly a masterful horror film—gorgeously realized, brilliantly acted, layered with meaning and dread. This is a movie that’s still going to be watched and discussed in 20 or 30 years. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live deliciously?
Harvest Lake: The Indiana-based Bandit Motion Pictures—comprised of writer / director Scott Schirmer and writer / cinematographer / composer Brian K. Williams—released two films in 2016: Harvest Lake and Plank Face. Both are daring and interesting and unlike anything else that’s out there right now. Of the two movies, both of which I like, I give an edge to Harvest Lake for its gorgeously abstract qualities, its haunting visuals, and its kinky sexuality. It’s a backwoods David Lynch movie in which a group of beautiful people get it on with an underwater sex monster. Talk about a film that stands out.
Shock Waves: For the third year in a row, I have to include this podcast on my list of horror favorites. Formerly known as Killer POV (which ended its Rondo award-winning run after 140 episodes last April), the team of Rob Galluzzo, Rebekah McKendry, and Elric Kane—along with official fourth member Ryan Turek—moved over to Blumhouse.com and launched Shock Waves.
The show has continued to evolve since the changeover, moving to a twice-a-week format and introducing new guests and segments. As a rabid horror fan, I’m always looking to get my fix even when I can’t be watching movies; I’ve checked out a number of horror podcasts and none come close to Killer POV / Shock Waves in terms of knowledge, positivity, humor, likability, and sheer passion and love for the genre. I look forward to every new episode more than any other form of media each week. It’s like hanging out with friends talking about the genre I love and getting introduced to half a dozen new titles on every show.
Mike Flanagan: A lot of filmmakers—including some I’ve already mentioned—had a great 2016, but I’m not sure anyone had a better year than Mike Flanagan. Between the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Ouija: Origin of Evil and the downright terrific Hush (which premiered on Netflix after a brief festival run), Flanagan cemented his status as one of the best genre directors working right now. He’s a great technical director, but even better at getting us to care about the characters onscreen; we’ve had filmmakers who are good at one or the other, but rarely as good at both as Flanagan. It’s exciting that we’re getting to watch him become a household name right before our eyes. His adaptation of Gerald’s Game can’t come soon enough.
American Horror Project Vol. 1: I could make a separate list of just the great horror Blu-rays released this year, as we are living through the Golden Age of genre films in high-def. I could name Scream Factory’s release of The Thing or Grindhouse’s Pieces or Lionsgate’s new Vestron Video Collector's Series or Synapse’s Tenebrae Steelbook, and all of them could be in the running for my favorite disc of the year.
But I’m going to call out this boxed set from Arrow Video, which collects three lesser-known titles of the 1970s: The Witch Who Came From the Sea, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, and The Premonition. This collection shines a light on a type of movie that was more commonplace than we might realize in the ’70s, when independent horror films could be produced cheaply and then slowly tour the country (often under different titles), playing drive-ins and the like for months or even years at a time. I don’t think any of the films included are totally successful taken on their own, but the bonus features and comments from critic / historian / set curator Stephen Thrower help put the movies in context, painting a picture of the under-the-radar scene of that decade. I really hope Arrow does a volume 2 sometime soon.
Trash Fire: The third movie from writer / director Ricky Bates Jr. is a perfect mashup of his darkly weird debut, Excision, and his more comic follow-up, Suburban Gothic, in that it starts out as the latter and slowly devolves into the former. Adrian Grenier and The Final Girls’ secret weapon, Angela Trimbur, play a bickering couple who return to Grenier’s childhood home for a family visit that gets really, really dark.
What starts out as sick humor gradually becomes just plain sick. An unrecognizable AnnaLynne McCord creates one of the creepiest characters of the year and the movie’s title card provides 2016’s biggest laugh. This one might not be for everyone, but those who are on its wavelength will be greatly rewarded. It’s twisted in the best way.
Honorable mentions I want to recognize:
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