2017 was a horrific year, but it was also a great year for horror cinema. 2016 gave us some instant classics, but I would argue that this year’s offerings were more diverse, fascinating, and forward-thinking. There were mainstream films—IT, Annabelle: Creation, and Happy Death Day, to name a few—that I didn’t personally love, but their success has paved the way for more genre cinema overall. We’re finally seeing stories that reflect our times. I had the honor of witnessing this upsurge of conversation and success at Sitges’ 50th anniversary event, which was my cinematic and personal highlight of the year.
While Hammer achieved international fame (and notoriety) for their colorful and bloody adaptation of Gothic classics, their first foray into the horror genre was not The Curse of Frankenstein. Just a few months before that, the studio released another kind of monster flick—also starring Peter Cushing—called The Abominable Snowman. It sounds cheesy, without doubt, but what could have been a silly man-in-rubber-suit schlock picture becomes something just as chilling as its location. It affects something of the atmosphere that Algernon Blackwood employs in his cosmic horror stories.
The Victorian era, which saw a surge in literary realism, also witnessed a growing fascination—maybe obsession—with spiritualism. Ghost stories and accounts of hauntings were hugely popular, especially around a Christmas fire. Several authors, including M.R. James, F. Marion Crawford, and Edith Wharton, contributed to its popularity. Most of these tales revolve around some anonymous narrator encountering the supernatural—good for nothing but a nice chill and moment of fear. Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu sets himself apart by summoning his spirits through psychology, even if his version of it is often backwards.
Now that Halloween season is over, it feels a little empty playing eerie soundtracks and revisiting favorite nightmares. The atmosphere just isn't quite there. But that's easily fixed, and few things build atmosphere more deftly than music. I've spent improper amounts of time trying to find artists who evoke the spirit of horror and Gothic fiction, but since music isn't a narrative genre by definition, it can be a nebulous process. Some musicians just go perfectly with certain storytellers, though. Here are five performers who complement a few of my favorite authors scarily well:
Art reflects the period in which it is created, and maybe that’s why the awards race is full of extremely dark comedies. From Get Out to The Square, angry, amusing and bleak visions are coming to claim their Oscars. In spite of its A-list cast and crew, one film feels a bit too strange to join the awards conversation, yet it manages to be one of the year’s most uniquely devastating works. Part body horror, part social satire, all spine-chilling dread, singular auteur Yorgos Lanthimos brings his vision to America for The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Hollywood is in a state of semi-suspended upheaval at the moment. The patriarchal cycle of aggression, shame, and silence has been exposed, at least on the surface. The process has thrown crucial light onto depictions of brutality against women in film, which often seem exploitational or punishing for no reason simply due to the characters’ gender. Stories involving these elements are now being told through the lens of female filmmakers, however, and this year has seen a number of powerful trope inversions. Mouly Surya brings us what might be the most singular example of this from Indonesia, in the form of Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts.
Homage has dominated (some may argue, plagued) the horror market in recent years, from the retro ’80s to the luxurious ’60s, we’ve seen several eras recreated on screen to varying degrees of success. Rather than simply imitate, some filmmakers have inverted, distorted, and modernized these beloved styles into something entirely new. Giallo masters Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani provide the perfect example. This year, the duo returns for their third full-length feature, this time focusing their talents on a sun-baked heist thriller. While its story is rather incomprehensible (even for admirers of their previous work), the force of their filmmaking remains astoundingly immersive.
Literature in the 18th and 19th centuries was overwhelmed by Gothic and romantic tales of the strange; but even the most unusual proprietors can be hard to find in today’s market. Penguin Classics continually surprises with its releases of old, weird fiction, and its Tales of Hoffman collection presents a fascinating array of narratives and tones. Hoffmann's work ranges from melodramatic and fantastical to psychologically horrifying, but all of it exposes the reader to a strange, sometimes wondrous, always dangerous world.
Horror fans don’t need a time-sensitive excuse to indulge in uncanny and unnatural literature, but there’s nothing quite like steeping oneself in a novel of the strange as the October winds blow, bringing half-imagined whispers of phantoms from the pages. Some books evoke this sense more effortlessly—and frighteningly—than others. Here are seven chilly, liminal examples of literature’s power to bring us across the veil.
There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned ghost story. In cinema, however, their traditional format has become familiar to the point of boredom. When a fresh take on supernatural, atmospheric horror comes around, it’s a rare gift, usually coming to us from the festival circuit. A gem crafted in this spirit recently premiered at TIFF and screened at the Sitges Film Festival. While its recourses are slim, the Halifax-based production The Crescent uses them to create one of the most chilling films I’ve seen this year.
Within a spate of gritty and retro horror films, it’s thrilling to see cinema return to the weird lushness of Gothic traditions. Oozing atmosphere, phantasmal storylines, and grotesque characters populate our screens again, though sometimes the melodrama of this category gets in the way of its art. A fascinating example has begun its creep through the festival circuit, however, as production designer Elizabeth Schuch makes her feature-length cinematic directorial debut with The Book of Birdie, a contained psychological fantasy that uses the confines of genre to spin a genuine character study.
“’Tis the night, the night of the grave’s delight.” So begins Nicholas Verso’s latest feature film, a phantasmal, surreal poem set during one youth’s Halloween night. Viewers who recall his remarkable short film The Last Time I Saw Richard will anticipate the dreamlike atmosphere and dark fantasy at play here, but this story goes beyond fable. Verso evokes an immersive spirit realm through which emerges a tale of lost youth, lost hope, and a boy seeking to reclaim his soul.
One of the decade’s most surprising, uncomfortable genre films is Creep, in which Mark Duplass proves that his mumblecore charm has a very, very dark side. Helmed by and co-starring Patrick Brice, the no-budget film created dread and unease through simple character development—what easily could have been a melancholic comedy becomes a horror film in just the last few moments. It’s easy to understand why Blumhouse wanted to capitalize on that magic through a few more installments; but how do you follow up a film that is entirely based on the element of uncertainty? Brice and Duplass have answered that question, delivering a hilarious, disturbing sequel which improves on everything that made the first film fascinating.
The possibilities for experimentation within the bounds of horror cinema are endless. For every commercially accessible masterpiece, there’s also a bizarre, unorthodox experience waiting to confound viewers. At a festival where there are dozens of films that fall into both categories, this writer has found one of the most unusual offerings to be Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, a slow-paced, profoundly atmospheric plunge into the nightmare of seclusion.
Fans of horror literature have likely encountered Adam Nevill’s work. His novel The Ritual, a combination of occult fantasy and survival horror, has been ripe for adaptation since its release the better part of a decade ago. Few modern directors are better suited for the job than David Bruckner, the man behind the infamous surgery segment in Southbound. When it premiered in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section, early reactions gave no indication that Bruckner had returned to the feature scene with a debut of mythical power, but his faithful adaptation of Nevill’s novel revives the folk horror sub-genre to give us one of the year’s most terrifying films.