15 Scary Movies That Prove Horror is Alive and Well (and Maybe Better Than Ever)
You can set your watch to it. Or at least, you could if you still wore a watch. Every few years, as trends come and go, and what the extremely casual moviegoing audience thinks of as “scary” changes a little, someone decides to publish an article that asks the age-old question “Is Horror Dead?”
The question, of course, is only age-old because horror hasn’t died yet, and because it never will. It’s not as though the fact that Blair Witch made less money than anticipated means that audiences all over the world have gotten tired of being frightened. Heck, it’s not even indicative that audiences are tired of reboots and sequels. The Conjuring 2 made over $320 million this summer. The franchises are doing fine.
What’s so very frustrating about this recurring idea, that horror can “die,” is the depths of ignorance to which one must sink in order to believe it in the first place. In order to believe in the death of the horror genre, if not in quantity then at least in quality, you have to ignore a vast wealth of exceptional horror movies that have been produced, and have been produced very recently. You pretty much have to know nothing about the horror genre in order to believe that horror is dying right now, because if you were actually paying attention you would probably see that it is experiencing an eye-opening renaissance.
(And if you care that little about the horror genre, and if you know so very little about it, then why would you care enough to declare the genre dead? And why would anybody in their right mind listen to you?)
While mainstream movies, horror and otherwise, aren’t necessarily a hotbed of intelligent discourse the world of independent horror cinema is exploding right now with quality motion pictures. Terrifying films that question the new status quo, and speak volumes about the anxieties that have plagued mankind for centuries (and even the fears that only popped up in the 21st century). Intelligent, distinctive horror movies are easy to find if you know where to look, or at least if you follow the right film critics who seek them out for you.
That last part means that the impetus, or at least part of it, is on me. So if you actually believe the horror genre is dead, I defy you to watch the following movies – all of which came out in the last two years – and tell me that we don’t currently live in exciting times, at least as far as nightmares are concerned. You may love all these movies, but even you don’t, you’ll be hard-pressed to say that the horror genre is as fresh and inventive as ever.
The perils of motherhood become overpowering in The Babadook, in which a single mom gradually turns into her child’s own boogeyman. Jennifer Kent takes conventional anxieties about childcare and mixes them up into a whirlpool of dread. She dares you to consider the possibility that the people who are supposed to love you, and the people you are supposed to inherently love, might be disappointments. And in the process she creates one of the creepier creatures in recent fiction, a shadow creature who beckons, “Babadook-dook-dook-dook…”
Alex Garland’s Oscar-winning sci-fi tale is more than a head trip of intellectual ideas. It’s a horrifying inquest into the male ego, in which a mad scientist and his judgmental test subject put their small minds to the task of figuring women out. They craft a beautiful robot whose personality is inscrutable, and which pits them against each other, either by her sinister design or as a byproduct of being placed in cruel captivity.
Fede Alvarez follows up his impressive Evil Dead remake with a film that plays, at least in part, like a riff on Wes Craven’s underrated thriller People Under The Stairs. Fortunately, Alvarez has plenty of his own ideas. A group of impoverished teens decide to break into a blind man’s house to steal his money, victims who turn to victimization in a society that has turned against all of them. What they discover is a fiendish maze, with a blind minotaur rampaging through the halls, ready to strike at the slightest noise. Disturbing thrills, brilliantly brought to life.
THE FINAL GIRLS
The audience for a midnight movie gets dragged inside a 1980s slasher in this inventive horror-comedy, one that gets a lot of mileage out the “meta” comedy concept but which eventually reveals itself to be an emotional and dramatic story about a daughter saying goodbye to her deceased mother. Taissa Farmiga stars as the child of an iconic scream queen, played by Malin Akerman, who gets to revisit her mother through a classic film in which, ironically enough, her mother dies. It’s a lot to process, and yet it’s also a laugh riot.
Joel Edgerton stars in, wrote and directed this insidious horror thriller about a wealthy couple, played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who accidentally stumble across an old “friend” from high school, played by Edgerton. This off-putting man may be well-intentioned or he may be stalking them, but either way the pressure this places on their marriage begins to reveal the cracks in their seemingly perfect relationship. The Gift goes to unexpected and horrifying places, and reveals a lot more about the ugliness of human nature than most people would probably be willing to admit.
THE GREEN ROOM
White supremacists take arms against a small group of outsiders who have information that could threaten their power in Jeremy Saulnier’s The Green Room, a film that plays like a violent siege thriller but feels increasingly relevant in this election cycle. The late Anton Yelchin plays the lead singer of a rebellious punk band who witness a murder, and get trapped backstage as a bar with a small army of Neo-Nazis ready to kill them the second they show their faces. Brutal and suspenseful.
Ben Wheatley takes a harsh look at society in this despicable microcosm, a complete community of haves and have nots who all dwell in the same high-rise building, and who eventually ignore the outside world in favor of a violent confined space where “us vs. them” is a daily, deadly reality. Tom Hiddleston stars as a doctor who moves into the high-rise and finds himself in the middle of the battle, which devolves into hedonism and insanity on both sides. A disturbing and exhilarating indictment of contemporary economics and politics.
A man accepts a dinner invitation at the home of his ex-wife and her new husband, and for some of us, that would be horrifying enough. But there’s something… off… about this particular gathering, and director Karyn Kusama revels in ratcheting the suspense up slowly and steadily until, whether something terrible is happening or not, the only thing we want to do is leave this party immediately. The Invitation takes social awkwardness and adds a horrible new angle, revealing the grief and casual madness that infects our personal relationships, and the lengths some people will go to just to deal with life’s most uncomfortable emotions.
An original idea in the horror genre? What are the odds! In the creepy thriller It Follows, a young woman picks up a deadly demon like a sexually-transmitted disease. Now it follows her, on foot, wherever she goes, and if it ever catches up it will destroy her and go back to chasing the person who passes the monster on in the first place. She can give the demon to somebody else by having sex again, or she can keep running forever. A chilling look at our sexual anxieties, and the way our decisions have a way of haunting house every day, directed with eery widescreen finesse by David Robert Mitchell.
Not every studio horror film is a carbon copy of another big hit, or a reboot or sequel to a pre-existing franchise. In Michael Daugherty’s mean-spirited horror comedy Krampus, a family of bickering jerks loses their Christmas spirit, which makes them fodder for an actual, evil Christmas spirit. The demonic toys are enough to give any kid nightmares, but at its heart Krampus is also an excellent Christmas movie about reminding ourselves what really matters amidst the hustle and the bustle of the holidays.
THE NEON DEMON
Is it possible for a film about the horrors of shallowness to feel too shallow? Nicholas Winding Refn, who previously directed the impossibly stylish neo-noir Drive, drapes lavish colors, costumes and photography on top of a simple story of a young woman (Elle Fanning) becoming a big, big star in the fashion world. Everyone wants what she has, and as she learns over the course of the shocking storyline, some people are willing to do literally anything to get it. As grotesque as it is beautiful, and The Neon Demon is incredibly beautiful indeed.
Another novel concept: a man discovers that the corpse of his dead girlfriend rises, bloody and broken, whenever he tries to have sex with another person. It’s a gruesome sight, made all the more fascinating by the fact that “Nina” doesn’t even do anything evil. She just sits there, judging him and his new girlfriend for trying to move on. A grim but insightful horror genre that whimsically, but honestly, tackles the harsh psychological process of coping with grief.
TALES OF HALLOWEEN
A consistently good horror anthology is nearly impossible to find, but Tales of Halloween comes impressively close. This collection of ten creepy stories – from directors like Lucky McKee (The Woman), Neil Marshall (The Descent) and Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider), to name a few – is full of fun, funny, frightening or at least really gross interlocking horror tales about killer Jack O’Lanterns, child-eating witches, alien trick ‘r treaters and Halloween decorations gone wrong. Only a couple of the shorts fall flat, and they’re short enough that they don’t ruin the momentum. Tales of Halloween is a rush of clever ideas from an incredible collective of filmmakers.
Ryan Reynolds is the nicest guy in the world, his pets tell him so, and when he starts dating for the first time they also tell him to kill. From director Marjane Satrapi comes this sweet and sad horror story about what it really feels like to be inside the head of a serial killer, full of peaceful delusions instead of terrifying realities. When they say that evil people don’t think they’re evil, The Voices is what they mean. It’s the best performance of Ryan Reynolds’ career, and one of the best horror movies in years.
Art house horror at its finest, Robert Eggers’ historical drama tells the story of an isolated colonial family that falls prey to suspicion and paranoia when their youngest child goes missing, and the other children playfully throw out accusations of witchcraft. Damning, powerful filmmaking, and proof positive that horror fans can still live deliciously… if they just know where to look for amazing scary movies like this.
Top Photos: Epic Pictures / Drafthouse Films
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.