The Dirty Deacon’s Top 10 Horror Films of 2016

Disclaimer: Pinning down actual years on films is a tricky endeavor. Some films travel film […]

Blake I. Collier / 1.3.17

Disclaimer: Pinning down actual years on films is a tricky endeavor. Some films travel film festival circuits and have limited theater releases well before they’re actually “out”. However, my list below contains the top 10 horror films that had a wide release in 2016, whether it was in theaters or through video-on-demand services. So while films like The Love Witch might have been seen by some in the more metropolitan areas, I do not include them here, because if I can’t get my paws on it somehow in the Panhandle of Texas, then it’s not wide enough.

That being said, I saw 53 horror films that found wide release in 2016. I had 16 films that were 4 out of 5 stars or higher, and 10 other films that got a score of 3.5 out of 5. A selection of these usually show up on this list; however, 2016 has shown itself to be the beginning of what I hope is a mass horror renaissance. Quantity is steady every year, but it seems like the general quality has been increasing, and in my opinion this year was one of the best since 2008. So without further ado. Here are my top ten horror films of 2016.

10. The Autopsy of Jane Doe [dir. André Øvredal]

If you missed André Øvredal’s delightful 2010 Norwegian horror film, Trollhunter, then clear up that blind spot since it is currently on Netflix. It does a better job at bigfoot/Sasquatch horror (without actually having bigfoot or Sasquatch present) than any film I can think of off the top of my head. However, in The Autopsy of Jane Doe–his first American language film–Øvredal goes completely serious with his horror unlike the sly humor of Trollhunter, and it works to great effect. A father/son team of medical examiners receive the body of an unknown girl found in the basement at an active murder scene. As they go through each step of the examination, unusual evidence presents itself until they start to perceive that the body is not at all what it appears to be. While the film works surprisingly well on a body horror level, it is really the ratcheting up of suspense and mystery that makes this film so incredibly chilling and effective. The film is content with being a simple, un-showy horror production in which the villain never actually moves from the table. If that isn’t enough of a tease, then I’m not sure what is anymore.

9. Darling [dir. by Mickey Keating]

I wrote about this film back in August over at Reel World Theology and how it might have been the version of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion made during the horror renaissance of the 70s and 80s with heavier edits and a giallo-influenced aesthetic. While I don’t think it will stand the test of time like Repulsion has, I do think it will make a solid cult showing in the following years. Mickey Keating is a director who is giving a lot different looks in his horror films so far, to greater and lesser effect depending on the film. Darling seems to really love its clear influencer and yet, while some may disagree, I think it is able to overcome pastiche and find its unique vision within its short 78-minute runtime. Plus, I love the fact that the horror genre is finally searching out the subtexts of its misogynistic legacy, and Darling definitely has some interesting undertones to explore in that vein.

8. The Invitation [dir. Karyn Kusama]

Kusama is a director who caught my attention first with a subversive horror film in 2009 called Jennifer’s Body. She played off the tropes of most horror films by casting Megan Fox as the typical bombshell and yet undercuts the viewers’ expectations within the scope of the narrative–which was penned by Juno‘s Diablo Cody. In The Invitation, Kusama plays with the nature of human relationships and how grief and regret if not recognized and leaned into can veer into avoidance and corruption under the guise of self-improvement and self-help. A couple get invited to a dinner party by the man’s ex-wife and, though hesitant, he succumbs to the invitation. When it becomes clear that the dinner party was really a smokescreen for a cult recruitment, events and actions from the past begin to resurface and break down the relationships between the friends and lovers at the party. With excellent dialogue and a searing build up to the rather abrupt and violent climax, The Invitation becomes the slow burner that leaves you wondering what exactly just happened once the credits begin to roll.

7. Southbound [dir. by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence]

I am fan of anthology horror. The problem is that it is very difficult to do anthology horror well, to thread disparate stories together in a way that achieves some sort of cohesion. Most of the time anthology horror involves “wraparound” stories that showcase people telling the stories to each other. However, with the more recent V/H/S trilogy, and the greatest anthology horror film ever made, Trick ‘r’ Treat, anthology may be coming into a creative renaissance where the wraparound stories are becoming just as intriguing and important to the narrative as the short films are. Southbound is the most recent example that has been able to piece together separate stories into a cohesive tapestry. Like Trick ‘r’ Treat, there is a seamlessness to the connection of the stories and the occasional bleeding over from story to story; unlike Trick ‘r’ Treat (and maybe where it does one better) is that it creates a universe within the scope of its film that begs for more explanation and exploration. There is more to this world than just the few stories Southbound allows us to see and that, to me, is something a good anthology horror should do.

6. Under the Shadow [dir. by Babak Anvari]

This Persian-language horror film by the Iranian-born Anvari is deceptive in how it is capable of telling a truly intricate story about the relationship between a mother and daughter in war-torn Tehran during the War of the Cities in the 1980s. Much like 2014’s The BabadookUnder the Shadow deals with grief, resentment, and disappointment. Unlike The Babadook, it places the story within the context of a highly patriarchal society–a very specific historical context in which a woman is turned away from medical school because she is a woman and is left to care for her daughter amidst urban bombings after her husband is called up for military service. For the first half of the film, at least, one would not be able to distinguish it as anything more than a period piece about Tehran. But then a missile gets lodged in the apartment ceiling and fails to go off. Once this happens, strange events start to take place and the devout wife of the building’s owner is convinced that a Djinn (a demon-like entity found in Arabian and Islamic mythology) has attached itself to the family. From that point on, the films devolves into a horrific nightmare where the real world horror of war mixes with an ancient mythological evil.

5. The Witch [dir. by Robert Eggers]

This film will show up as the number one horror film of 2016 on most lists–and even on some top ten general film lists as well. There is much to love about this film. The acting, especially by Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw and Ralph Ineson, is probably the best acting I have ever scene in a period piece. To make old English sound natural and beautiful without falling into novelty was something to behold on many levels. I, contra some critics, found that the film’s treatment of Puritan culture was fair and did not fall into the usual cliché of “Puritans: bad,” “outcasts: good” rhetoric. I found the use of catechism and the seriousness given to the family’s faith to be striking and very moving. I also appreciated the very accurate depiction of where Puritan faith often faltered. This is less a horror film than an historical epic with supernatural elements thrown in. It is beautifully shot and has a multitude of subtexts running through it; however, it remains my #5 because it hasn’t stuck to my bones like the next four films have. I have nothing bad to say about this film, which shows just how difficult this 2016 list was to formulate.

4. Green Room [dir. by Jeremy Saulnier]

While there may be some objections to this film being on my list, I will concede that this is more a thriller than a horror film. However, I have always had a more fluid definition of horror than many, and Green Room fits snugly within my broad incorporation. There are enough moments of terror and graphic violence (though used sparingly which makes them even more effective) for this to be on any horror list. What makes this film edge out The Witch is its subject matter which surrounds a struggling punk band touring the Pacific Northwest and getting a gig at a dive in the middle of the Oregon woods. They come to find out that the venue is owned and frequented by white supremacist skinheads, and when they witness a murder by these people, they are trapped within the green room and have to fight their way out. I wrote about this film earlier this year and found its message to be profound in how it seems to call on the nature of systemic sin in that a largely white band has to fight white people to get out alive. They have to fight people who maintain a system from which they, being white, have profited. The acting is brilliant, the tension is palpable and the meaning seems very fitting within the cultural and political milieu we currently find ourselves in.

3. The Wailing (aka Goksung) [dir. by Hong-jin Na]

The Wailing has so many different genres flowing through its veins that it is difficult to pin down exactly which one Na really wanted to land on. My #10 film last year, Shyamalan’s The Visit, also found itself with many genres and tones vying for priority, but it never completely found its footing even though it left an impression on me. The Wailing, however, somehow blends the differing genres and tones into its own unique genre. There are moments that will make you laugh uproariously, others that will remind you of the darker forms of fairytales, and others still that explore the battle between religious belief and secular skepticism. Add to that a healthy dose of frenetic horror and a suffocating atmosphere and you are close to understanding the fullness of what watching The Wailing is like. Do-Wan Kwak is so entertaining as Jong-Goo channeling the bumbling fool, a childlike innocence, and a subtle grief-worn psyche. This two-and-a-half-hour film is so epic and creative that once the credits roll, I guarantee you will be changed by the experience.

2. The Neon Demon [dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn]

What do I even say about this film? Do I talk about Refn’s continued exploration of visuals and cinematic language? Do I gush about the understated and anxiety-producing performances by Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, and pretty much every other character within the film? Or do I try to pin down how the film falls in line with the tradition of giallo tone and aesthetic? Much like The WailingThe Neon Demon is an epic experience that will find you, on the other side, being moved toward utter hatred of the film or utter love for it. This film is probably the most divisive on my list of horror films. It is beautiful (though some say it’s all beauty with no substance) and there are a number of interpretations that one could read into the film (though some would say that most of them are balderdash). This film draws the viewer in, forces them to live in the world of Jesse and Ruby and the rest and reckon with how beauty can be used as a weapon internally and externally. Confusion and ambiguity between what is real and what is dream and what is hallucination is what drives my continual pondering on this film. And it just adds another film into the stable of Refn films that I love and respect.

1. 10 Cloverfield Lane [dir. by Dan Trachtenberg]

This film was a surprise to everybody. The promotion was low-key to nonexistent until one day it was released and it had the word “Cloverfield” in the title. This is brilliant marketing to be sure, and I’m thinking that this is actually where J.J. Abrams shines the most. However, marketing isn’t everything as was seen by Blair Witch this year. When I watched that film, it ultimately left me a little high and dry. Not the case with 10 Cloverfield Lane, which already had me in its paws when I saw it featured John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (FaultsThe Thing (2011)) and John Gallagher, Jr. (Short Term 12Hush). Talk about a cast for the ages. However, I, too, was also hesitant because the last 15 minutes of Cloverfield, the first film in the Cloverfield universe, were unsatisfying to me. I felt that what had maintained an effective and creative take on the found-footage style succumbed to a cheap Godzilla knockoff instead of leaving to the imagination the mystery of what exactly was going on. 10 Cloverfield Lane could fall under the same category; however, the ending works specifically, because it was a necessary conclusion to one of the characters’ arcs, and the final moment of decision right before the credits gave me such a rush of feeling and excitement for where this universe of films would go from here. I never could shake 1o Cloverfield Lane this year. It is the perfect intersection of mainstream entertainment and high-end filmmaking, and that is why it is my #1.

Honorable MentionsDon’t BreatheOuija: Origin of EvilThe Eyes of My MotherI Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, The MonsterHush