Overall, we’ve enjoyed a pretty great year in horror so far. There are a number of indie breakouts to be excited about. On the wide release front, things have certainly been hit or miss. Even a couple standouts that I genuinely enjoyed suffered from serious issues. Thankfully, the release schedule for the remainder of 2017 is pretty stacked, and I’ve no doubt by year’s end this list will look drastically different. Not to mention, I simply haven’t seen everything yet. My “watchlist” is filled with titles such as It Comes at Night, We Are the Flesh, and The Bad Batch. As it stands now, this list is comprised of a healthy mix of mainstream fare, critical darlings, and a couple of under the radar treats.
A quick note on the selection: Inclusion on the list is based on a production’s US release date. Even if a film was made years prior, it has to have been released within the calendar year (in cinemas, on demand, or home video). Cheers!
#10. Lake Bodom
Lake Bodom is a Finnish film that attempts to breathe new life into the slasher genre. The setup is exactly what we’ve grown accustomed to; a group of teenagers escape for a weekend of camping and smoking weed, all while bubbling over with hormones. Naturally, their chosen campsite is also the real life location of an unsolved mass murder from 1960. As horror fans, this is a setup we’ve all seen time and time again, but Bodom is far from being a generic slasher. Writer/director Taneli Mustonen is dead-set on throwing as many twists and turns at the audience as the 85 minute runtime can withstand.
While, personally, I saw most of the big reveals coming a few knife slashes away, I still admired the film for “going there”. It’s refreshing to see a modern take on the old slasher conventions without the filmmakers falling back on a meta send up. As tightly paced as the film is, the beginning of the third act is where Bodom takes off. I won’t spoil the direction of the story for anyone, but a sequence of vehicular mayhem plays out like a horror version of The Fast and the Furious. It’s easily the highlight of the entire film and packs in enough suspense to warrant Lake Bodom a spot on this list.
#9. Alien: Covenant
Here’s the thing, I realize that the reaction to Alien: Covenant ranged from middling to “burn this movie!” A select few have fallen madly in love with it, and then there’s me. The truth of the matter is, while sitting in the cinema for the duration I was fully immersed in the experience. It really “worked” for me. In fact, I thought the film was far too short, only realizing after leaving the theater that the runtime clocked in at two hours. A number of the set-pieces were fist pumping, adrenaline boosts. The scenes between David and Walter were beautifully shot and acted. They were the standouts… the yummy icing on the cake.
Ultimately, though, it was all empty calories. The majority of the characters, as many have noted, are written (or perhaps, edited) with such paper thin material they become interchangeable. Apparently one of the couples was gay? Apparently “so and so” was sad because “other so and so” was their wife? I don’t know, and the film didn’t care to clarify. Fingers are crossed the home video edition will help flesh out some of the key players’ roles. Despite these flaws, the film succeeds at delivering on big budget spectacle. I found a number of the set-pieces to be breathlessly exciting, and despite moments of dodgy CGI, the effects were pleasantly repulsive. It’s just difficult to write off an entry in the most important sci-fi/horror franchise as merely a fun popcorn B-flick.
#8. 47 Meters Down
I have a strange, unexplainable soft spot for Mandy Moore. It’s not that I was ever into her music as a kid, and in terms of her acting resume, I can only think of her Saved role (which she is amazing in). Whatever the reason, seeing the trailer for 47 Meters Down, I knew I would be actively rooting for her survival in the film. It turns out, I was right. Despite my somewhat biased opinion on the matter, what I got was a genuinely suspenseful, fly out of your seat thriller that does exactly what it sets out to accomplish. You just have to wade through some of the absolute worst dialogue to get to your aquatic chills. Thankfully, this is the last film on the last that I had any serious issues with.
47 Meters Down held me tightly in its waterlogged clutches for the first half. Once the two leads are at the bottom of the ocean floor, trapped in a cage, and surrounded by hungry sharks, director Johannes Roberts (upcoming The Strangers 2) manages to build tension to suffocating degrees. Then…our tortured heroines open their mouths to constantly tell us how many “bars” of oxygen they have left. There’s even one “Oh, gosh,” at one crucial moment. Every line becomes truly on the nose, explaining things that have already been conveyed visually. It’s possible the problem was created by a combination of producers who felt the audience needed their hand held and an overzealous ADR session. Despite the overtime I clocked groaning, the film worked so well that it still managed to reel me back in by the final third. As the credits rolled, my heart was racing and I was a tense bundle of nerves.
#7. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl
Fashioned as a low-key 70’s style paranormal thriller in the vein of Burnt Offerings or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Sweet, Sweet, Lonely Girl isn’t an easy film to recommend. For one, it moves at a glacial pace and the “scares” are few and far between. Because of the deliberate narrative structure, when all the tension building is momentarily released, you will feel the chill, however. One particular jump scare mid-way through left me screaming like a banshee. Patient viewers will be rewarded by a final act that goes full blown spook-house. So, while the legit horror bits are scarce, they’re assuredly effective.
The film is more a rumination on loneliness and that desperate, unfounded hysteria known as “first love”. Our lead, Erin Wilhelmi (Adele), is perfectly cast as the “sweet”, wide eyed girl just trying to fit in…anywhere. Her love interest, Quinn Shephard as Beth, plays the perfect foil to such a naive young girl. Beth is cultured, edgy, sexy – everything Adele is not. For all the film’s pitch perfect vintage trappings, it comes out feeling more like a companion piece to Lucky McKee’s classic May (minus the comedy) rather than another faux-throwback like House of the Devil.
#6. The Devil’s Candy
After seeing The Loved Ones, I was prepared to follow director Sean Byrne wherever he may go. When news broke of his follow-up, The Devil’s Candy, I couldn’t wait to check it out. Add to that Shiri Appleby and Ethan Embry, both familiar faces from my adolescence, and this flick cemented itself on my radar. Once the film premiered as part of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, the buzz started building hot and heavy. Early word painted this as the next breakout indie-horror. Then I saw the film’s trailer…my anticipation was tempered. From where I was standing, it looked like another retread of the Amityville style “family moves into haunted house and dad starts going psycho” trope but with heavy metal! Sure, those films can still work. Insidious 2 plays in that ballpark and certainly has its wonky charms.
So, once The Devil’s Candy was finally released this past March through IFC Midnight, I didn’t rush to check it out. I’m glad that I finally did because it’s not at all the movie I was expecting. Yes, the family moves into a creepy house with a little something unnatural (whether “super” or otherwise) at play. There’s also a creepy serial killer (played with exceptional creep factor by Pruitt Taylor Vince) who is dead-set on returning to his family home. Byrne does wonders with his simple setup by slowly cranking up the tension like the knob on a guitar amp. Embry carries the film as a father who will do anything for his wife and daughter. Appleby is, regrettably, relegated to the stressed out wife role but manages to deliver it with charm. In the end, it all boils over in an explosive finale. Candy doesn’t reach the same heights as Loved Ones, but it’s a damn fine sophomore outing from a director we should all keep an eye on.
Raw is a tough film. It’s repulsive and shocking. There are long stretches where the narrative direction seems unfocused, and the actual “point” of all of the insanity isn’t crystal clear. As an audience member, you’re going to have to do some heavy lifting. Billed as a cannibalism shocker, this is far removed from the likes of Cannibal Holocaust. At it’s core, Raw is a coming of age tale. It’s a hard, unflinching look at a our relationships with our own bodies and how we allow blood relations to sometimes mold who we are, what we will become, or even, what we refuse to become.
I’ve read a few different analytical breakdowns of the film, and I haven’t wholly agreed with any of them. I also think that was writer/director Julia Ducournau’s intent. The subtext of this particular body horror is difficult to parse and justify, but that’s why it’s such a strong work. Each viewer can take something different from the proceedings and come to their own conclusion. In regard to entertainment value, it doesn’t hurt that Raw oscillates from grimly hilarious to gross out shock value from scene to scene either.
#4. Among the Living
Made in 2014, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Among the Living, became one of those films that seemed less and less likely to wind up with an official release here in the US (much like the duo’s other film, Livide). Thankfully, the fine folks over at Shudder rectified the issue a couple months ago when the film was finally released to streaming on the platform. Maury and Bustillo have proven yet again, they know what the hell they’re doing behind the camera. While the film is set in present day, it feels like the type of cinema from a bygone error. There are obvious comparisons to be made to the likes of Stranger Things, but it’s all in the aesthetic.
Shades of Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Stand by Me all get mixed in the genre blender and served up in a buffet of frights. While only the opening scene takes place at Halloween, the entire movie feels like a perfect addition to any autumnal viewing lineup. The directors juggle various tones and tropes exceptionally well. From coming of age tale, home invasion, a clan of backwoods murderers, to terrified babysitter – this is an old school horror fan’s playground. The emphasis is mostly on more light, goosebump-y thrills unlike the duo’s wickedly mean spirited Inside. Granted, shades of the former still creep in during a few particularly gruesome moments. Knowing these two were at the wheel for this October’s Leatherface, I couldn’t be more excited to check it out.
#3. The Void
Written/directed by Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie, part of the demented Astron-6 (The Editor and Father’s Day), The Void is far from what one would expect. This is not a comedy in the slightest. Yes, moments of situational humor are sprinkled throughout, but this is a film created with the intent to thrill its audience and not tickle their funny bones. A lot has been said on how the film riffs too heavily on the 80’s classics such as Hellraiser, The Thing…pretty much all of John Carpenter’s filmography with heavy Lovecraftian flavor. Part siege story, part creature feature, and part interdimensional journey to hell, The Void has it all. For fans who are always saying, “They don’t make em’ like they used to,” you need to check this film out ASAP.
Some critics soured on the flick for its familiar tropes, but I find that to be a lazy excuse. At the end of the day, most horror films (really, films) are retreads of something that has come before. Truly unique ideas are few and far between these days. It’s all comes down to execution in my book. Sometimes a film can go too far and lift ideas and scenes from another movie beat for beat. That’s far from what The Void does. What’s presented here is oftentimes an eerie, always engaging, throwback to the films of the 80’s. All the better because Kostanski and Gillespie never seem to be winking at their audience (except for maybe that final shot) as if to say, “Remember this?! If you do then you must think this is cool too, right?” The Void is a love letter to old school horror with its own identity. Not to mention, the effects work is genuinely jaw-dropping. I couldn’t believe some of the practical effects on display. They far exceed the film’s small budget and even the work seen in larger scale productions. This is an exciting entry into the modern horror canon, and I hope we get to journey deeper into this cosmic horror world with future installments.
#2. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the feature directorial effort of Oz Perkins (son of Anthony). Unfortunately, it set on the shelf for a while and was actually released after his follow up, the divisive Netflix film I Am the Pretty Ting that Lives in the House. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (originally titled February) is a cold dark film. From moment one, everything feels off kilter. Taking place at a nearly deserted Catholic boarding school, Perkins concocts an air of magic in each frame that will leave you feeling like the devil is scratching right at your door.
Ultimately, the story weaves two separate narratives that tie together in a very interesting way. I won’t dare spoil the turns the film takes, but this is a film you must actually pay attention to. No Twitter dives half way through! All the pieces of the story’s puzzle are presented to the viewer, some in brief flashes, so you’ve got to be on your toes. It’s appreciable that Perkins has made a movie that doesn’t feel watered down or simplified to appease a mass audience. The performances from both Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka are top notch, and this is one quiet flick that’s sure to creep up on you and linger in your mind long after the film has ended. Never before has a line so simple as “Don’t go” felt so subversive.
#1. Get Out
There’s little that can be said at this point in regards to Jordan Peele’s directorial debut. Get Out is a wild and suspenseful film that builds to the type of amazing climax we so rarely get within the genre these days. Using horror as a means to tell a socially relevant story is nothing new. The master George A. Romero did that all his career. Horror is the perfect vessel for delivering underlying commentary without losing sight on entertainment value. Peele, however, was the first to do it so successfully with a mainstream release in a very long time.
The only real drawback to Get Out is that mainstream critics started acting like social commentary buried underneath a fright flick was ground breaking. The term “social thriller” started getting bandied about, and flash forward to “post horror”. Groan. Despite that, Get Out is an amazing slice of cinema that manages to unnerve its audience only to turn around and have them cheering by the end. Get Out easily takes the top spot, and unless a real heavy hitter comes our way in the next several months, it’s likely not going anywhere!