Three witch movies in the top 10? I didn’t even realize it was a trending subgenre until I went through all of the films released this year. But when you really think about it, there aren’t that many movies centered on witches, not to mention done in uniquely different ways… at least until now. There’s three in this list, three! I love that all of them are vastly different not only in story but in tone, aesthetics and in how it approaches scares. With the found-footage subgenre seemingly buried for good, will we see a rise in witch-themed horror stories in 2017?
James Wan also make a dent, again, proving why he’s one of the best in the genre, while there were quite a few surprises that include Train to Busan and the Cronenberg meets Lovecraft tale, Evolution.
While 2016 is considered one of the worst years in recent memory, us genre fans will remember it as being one of the best for horror. Whether it was an independent foreign film about the birth of a serial killer, or a studio-backed colorful haunter that breathes new life into the slasher genre, there was a bit of magic all over the horror spectrum. 2016 was pure fireworks.
Let’s give a hand to James Wan for taking a chance on David F. Sandberg, who took a short film with no story and turned it into one of the best new horror franchises. While the movie is exceedingly melodramatic, it’s also fucking scary. Stamped with the Wan-produced seal of quality, this spookfest is jam-packed with jump scares that aren’t just cheap shots but are well-developed jolts that pay off. It’s a fun gimmick that never takes itself too seriously, which is why the introduction of the new horror icon, Diane, works so well. Speaking of, Diane is the best new horror villain since Saw‘s Jigsaw, easily comparable to Freddy Krueger, that sets the stage for multiple sequels. This is one franchise where I expect the follow up to be even better than its predecessor.
South Korea delivered the goods this year with their social issues really connecting to the zombie subgenre. While The Wailing was more about aesthetics, Train to Busan went full Tom Cruise. Sang-ho Yeon’s film channeled Brad Pitt’s World War Z by delivering non-stop zombie action on a massive scale. In fact, Train to Busan may just be one of the best zombie films of all-time. By placing much of the action on a train it creates off-the-charts tension that runs between avoiding the hordes of the undead, but also coexisting with other survivors that are more concerned with avoiding their own extinction. George A. Romero would probably laud Train to Busan, which takes all of its cues from his Night of the Living Dead.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s French-language Evolution romanticizes David Cronenberg in a horrific fairytale of a boy investigating his bizarre life that becomes increasingly suspect. Evolution is the kind of film that gets under your skin with its horrific imagery and ideology that mixes in with Lovecraftian lore. It’s a terrifying folktale come to life, a sea version of The Witch, one that’s just as striking as it is unnerving.
I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen anything like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which is a horror film that quite literally peels back like a nesting doll. Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox star as son and father, respectively, who conduct an autopsy on a Jane Doe. The scares amplify as they continue to crack Jane Doe open, building up to a third act shocker that delivers one of the biggest sucker punches of the year. Claustrophobic and brooding, Øvredal never gives the audience a moment to breathe, suffocating them with skin-crawling sounds and images that should leave the audience shaken to their core.
Jeremy Saulnier continues to grow as a filmmaker, upping the ante with each and every film he delivers. Green Room is just about as perfect as this taught thriller can be, boasting a frightening performance by Patrick Stewart (who’s weirdly omitted from the front page of IMDb’s credits). Green Room follows the simple premise of a group of teens who witness a murder and become the targets of a madman. Green Room reminds me of the 90’s classic Judgment Night only as vicious and brutal as a hardcore horror slasher. Saulnier pulls no punches, hitting audiences with a visceral and traumatic cinematic experience that’s ironically beautiful to watch. The secret is out on Saulnier who is going to propel up the Hollywood ladder.
It’s hard to argue against James Wan being the modern king of horror. The filmmakers is behind more than a handful of monstrous franchises from Saw to Insidious, Conjuring, Anabelle and even Lights Out (with The Nun forthcoming). He’s a master of horror that delivers punch after punch of scares that connect with not just genre fans, but general audiences. The Conjuring 2 was his first attempt at a fish out of water tale, pulling audiences to London to watch a family tortured by a poltergeist. Having not watched the first film in quite some time, my gut tells me that I liked this follow up even more than its predecessor. The tear-jerker subplot between Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is the heart of Conjuring 2, which boasts more scares per minute than any other horror film this year. Wan has so many tricks up his sleeve as he sets up potent payoffs and mixes them with intense visuals (from the Nun to the Crooked Man). Conjuring 2 is an instant classic that comes from a director determined to deliver high quality horror to theaters everywhere.
The director of Evil Dead reteams with Jane Levy in this fun house of horror thriller that traps a trio of thieves in a house with a blind veteran who is more deadly that they could have ever imagined. While there’s some issues with character development (the kids are sort of the worst and hard to both sympathize and empathize with), Don’t Breathe is still one of the most tense films in years (Trace called it “Hitchcock on crack,” and he couldn’t be more right). The house acts as its own character, setting the stage for so many twists and turns that continually left my jaw agape. The turkey baster sequence is one those moments that will live in horror infamy, while Stephen Lang’s vicious and punishing performance as the blind man makes him a genre icon for the ages. The only real caveat is that it lacks replay value and loses most of its power on second viewing.
Any other year Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother could have took the honors of the best horror film of the year. Shit, it bumped Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe down a slot, a film I was convinced would take top honors in this year’s list (I’ve softened on it a bit). The Eyes of My Mother is a riveting, poignant, grim and realistic look at the birth of a serial killer (Kika Magalhaes). It’s a fresh perspective from a up and coming filmmaker that delivers one punch after another. The film’s power comes from the sympathetic framing of the killer that presents her in a way that makes it both brutal and tragic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like Eyes of My Mother and can’t recommend it enough. Pesce is a force to be reckoned with that’s delivered a genre classic that will be revered for years to come.
I’m still perplexed by the backlash this found-footage sequel took. Was it “over hyped”? Were viewers expecting something else? Are viewers sick of found footage? Or maybe the movie just sucks? Whatever the reason, I still loved it, and think it’s a game-changer (in the sense that this is what VR horror movies could look like in the next few years). While the hate is strong for the third film in the franchise, I did see a fair share of horror fans who agreed with my take. I thought Blair Witch was a sledgehammer of a horror film that punished audiences with abusive sound design and a third act that pulls the rug out from under those expecting a straight up remake. Yes, the first hour is a rehash of Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, but, from my perspective, this was to set up the final sequence that comes out of left field. Even many of those who don’t agree with my passion for the film have come out to acknowledge the power of the fun house rollercoaster ride finale that’s straight-up chaos. Maybe time will heal Blair Witch and it will eventually be embraced by horror fans, but for now its legacy is as twisted as any Shyamalan finale.
Blair Witch and The Witch couldn’t be more different from one another. While the former is more of a fun house theatrical experience, Eggers’ period horror is pure witchcraft. Anya Taylor-Joy breaks out in this gorgeous film that follows a family in 1630s New England that is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession. From the performances to the sound design, score and cinematography, The Witch is a cinematic revelation that comes from the same soul as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The authentic aesthetics give a tremendous amount of weight to the suspense, creating tension that never lets up. While The Witch won’t connect with every viewer, those who found themselves immersed in Eggers’ world will find joy in repeat viewings as this film will be remembered as an all-time great.