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The Year in Horror, 2016: Elijah’s Top 10 Horror Films!

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There’s somewhat of a catharsis associated with creating (and digesting) year-end lists. Distilling twelve months of experiences to a handful of bite-sized high notes, it’s got an easy appeal. I spent most of my 2016 traveling. I had the amazing privilege to attend some of the greatest genre film festivals on earth, to meet some incredible and incredibly talented people, and to live in places I’d dreamt of seeing since I was a kid. Most of my 2016 was phenomenal. And I’ll tell you, there were only so many “2016 is the worst year of my life” posts I could see from friends on social media before I started to feel just a bit guilty. Until very recently, my 2016 was adventure and new friends and new experiences.

Eventually, the dust settled, and it was time to come home. Time to return to a country where hate crimes are skyrocketing following a nightmare of an election where no matter who you voted for, you’re angry about something. Time to return, without much money left, without much of a plan, to a place where the adventure has to end and maybe some of what everyone else was feeling all year starts to creep in. A nagging sense of self-doubt tells me my year was a fluke. A voice in my head tells me I’m not cool enough, not successful enough, not qualified enough to belong in any of the places I’ve spent most of the last year. All the friends I’ve made are scattered on the wind, and who knows when we’ll be in the same place again (and if they’ll remember me, when we are).

The (2016?) depression starts to hit. An existential dread. Fear of the future, unease for the present, regret for the past. It becomes difficult to self-motivate. Every morning, I have a checklist of things I need to write, and instead I flip on the TV and fixate on passive escapism until it’s “Too late to get anything done today, maybe tomorrow.” This cycle repeats for days, maybe weeks.

Then, a message from my (patient, understanding) Editor-In-Chief: “Hey, do you want to do a Top Ten?” I respond enthusiastically, while mentally assessing the length of the ever-growing checklist of responsibilities amassing. The voice inside tears at the optimistic prospect of actually accomplishing something. But somehow, this feels more approachable. It’s just a list. A list of ten things. How hard can that be?

So I force myself to fixate on those bite-sized moments. The things that can’t be tainted by a retroactive feeling of self-doubt. Those beautiful hours spent in cinema seats, getting lost in works of art. And I realize, not only were there easily enough such works to fill out this list… It’s contentious. Something clicks. 2016 was such a great year for genre film, for this fan, that it’s difficult to narrow down the ten best.

A small burst of motivation becomes a hand-written list of titles crossed off, added, rearranged. It grows, as I remember every great story I got to experience this year, and every great story I got to be a part of, that I got to tell. Suddenly, even if just for a moment, the concerns about the future feel less dire. So much of my 2016 was spent watching amazing films with amazing people. I’m reminded, looking back on my favorite films of the year, that it was worthwhile.

10. SOUTHBOUND
This last spot was probably the most difficult to nail down. Another hour of internal debate and TRASH FIRE could easily take it. FRANKENSTEIN was great, and under-the-radar. Either of those films, I may well end up rewatching more than SOUTHBOUND, in the future. But despite my mixed feelings towards the anthology overall, the strength of “The Accident,” wherein a man tries to save a woman’s life by following the instructions of an EMT via telephone, clinched it. This segment was tremendously, sincerely harrowing to me. Full-disclosure, having had a somewhat traumatic emergency tracheotomy, this short was affecting to me in a way that is likely not universal. But I couldn’t, in good conscience, omit the only horror film of the year that caused me to hyperventilate.

 

9. BASKIN (dir. Can Evrenol)
A film that burrowed into my head in an unexpected way. I’d had an idea what to expect, and much of what felt like it should have been shocking wasn’t, quite. The visuals are gorgeous and of course, at times, gorgeously unsettling. But when I remember BASKIN, it’s not the spectacle that I remember. It’s the quiet moments. The negative space between the sensory onslaught. Those moments of uncertainty and heartbeat and heavy breathing where you tense up for what might come next. That I can still call those moments to mind, months after the fact, earns BASKIN an easy spot on the list.

 

8. THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (dir. Perry Blackshear)
There is this very specific sub-genre of films that I can, off-hand, name very few of, but each I can name is a personal favorite. The low-budget, dialogue-driven genre film that focuses on the camaraderie of two male friends. PRIMER, RESOLUTION, THE BATTERY, and most recently, THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE. There is something in the relatable, natural feeling of these friendships that makes the horror so effective and universal. THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE manages to keep up an electric sense of tension and mystery through to the final moments. It’s quiet, understated, and horrifying.

 

7. THE WITCH (dir. Robert Eggers)
Given the recent years of PG-13 cookie-cutter hauntings, seeing a singular vision of horror like THE WITCH find success in a wide theatrical release is incredibly refreshing to me. It pulls no punches. It is meticulously bleak, and fully committed to every detail. It’s haunting, it’s tense, it’s beautiful.

 

6. THE GREASY STRANGLER (dir. Jim Hosking)
I don’t know what it says about me that THE GREASY STRANGLER has been my most-quoted film of 2016, but I sure as hell can’t shake it. My first viewing, a screener that I watched on my laptop with Fangoria illustrator Joe Oliver after getting home from a midnight movie, the two of us trying not to wake our Air BnB host with bouts of seriously-I-can’t-breathe laughter was one of my favorite film-viewing experiences of the year. And, really, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve proclaimed “I’m the Spider-Man of Cock Town” since then.

 

5. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (dir. Nicolas Pesce)
Another slow-burn, for me. I knew I liked it, immediately after watching. But it took days, maybe weeks, to realize I loved it. Lead actress Kika Magalhaes’ performance is captivating, and lingers in your brain long after the credits. I love that I can remember these intense, squirming scenes of horrific violence, despite knowing that almost all of the violence is implied, and takes place off-screen. The cinematography and aesthetic ensure that when it shows, it’s beautiful, and when it suggests, it’s hideous.

 

4. DEAREST SISTER (dir. Mattie Do)
The second horror film to come from the country of Laos. The first, released in 2013, was CHANTHALY, also directed by Mattie Do. It’s a testament to the frustrating need for greater diversity in the medium that one of the most unique, freshest supernatural horrors in years comes from a female filmmaker in a country with an essentially nonexistent film industry. DEAREST SISTER is a stunning, slow-burn ghost story and simultaneously an accessible social commentary of a society much of the audience may be unfamiliar with. What’s more, Do makes it look effortless. Here’s hoping she has the opportunity to make more.

 

3. THE SIMILARS (dir. Isaac Ezban)
Some years back, I caught a trailer for THE SIMILARS, played before a screening of director Isaac Ezban’s first feature, THE INCIDENT. I adored THE INCIDENT, and the aesthetic on display in that brief tease set THE SIMILARS up as one of my most-anticipated films on the horizon. Finally seeing it, the film exceeded every expectation. It wears the heavy TWILIGHT ZONE influence proudly on its sleeve. But by the end of the film, THE SIMILARS manages to own, reinvigorate, and often transcend all of its influences. It’s fun, scary, and intelligent. It’s sci-fi homage done right.

 

2. I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (dir. Billy O’Brien)
Shot on 16mm film, this story of a young sociopath becoming fascinated with a string of brutal murders happening in his small town evoked a potent mix of discovery and nostalgia. I couldn’t help feeling like I was borrowing a favorite from the VHS collection of a younger me from some alternate dimension. Also, a monologue delivered to the school bully got the cinema audience I saw it with standing and cheering, and damned if it didn’t give me chills.

 

1. GREEN ROOM (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier has directed three features and each has, quickly after viewing, become one of my favorite films. GREEN ROOM builds on the best elements of each of Saulnier’s preceding films. The splatter and bombastic recklessness of MURDER PARTY, with the subtle down notes and tension of BLUE RUIN. It’s a film that’s already proven compulsively watchable, for me. It draws you in, holds you–suffocating–at the edge of your seat, and then sprays you in the face with a blood cannon before letting you finally exhale.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
It’s unfortunate that some of my favorite viewings this year are films that haven’t actually played in the U.S. outside of film festivals yet, and thus are not technically 2016 films. If RAW (dir. Julia Ducournau) had been distributed in 2016, it would absolutely be my number one pick. THE VOID (dir. Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski) would be similarly high on the list were it a 2016 release. It’s one that’s had me craving a rewatch. And PLAYGROUND (dir. Bartosz M. Kowalski) gets a special nod for having one of the most legitimately upsetting scenes I saw all year. My stomach twisted into a knot, and then never really untied itself.

About the author
Elijah Taylor
Elijah Taylor used to own a chain of video game stores in Denver, Colorado. Now he works with Laser Party, a poster printing collective, and travels the world, eating, fighting, and attending film festivals.
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