Horror films are very hit or miss– especially those released in the last couple of decades. Cheap jump scares, vapid characters, and an abundance of boring tropes have become a trend in a lot of feature-length horror films recently. It’s just as well; there’ve been way too many remakes of horror classics that needed no updating. The lack of originality and good directing in the horror genre is definitely a bummer.
However, 2016 managed to transcend garbage horror filmmaking and give us some seriously scary and well-made movies. These films are scary, engaging, emotional, and well-written. All of the best traits of a grade A horror film.
Some were released in 2015 but didn’t become super accessible until 2016, and a couple others are up-and-coming films slated for a December 2016 release and have already gained critical acclaim at film festivals. There are spoilers are ahead, so tread carefully!
Check out the 15 Best Horror Films of 2016!
16. The Witch
Don’t you hate when your 17th-century colonist family blames you for your baby brother’s disappearance? It’s such a drag– especially when there are witches and Goat Satan trying to get you to join their coven.
This period/horror film was the directorial debut of Robert Eggers, and what a debut it was! With its beautiful cinematography and attention to historical detail reminiscent of a Lars Von Trier, The Witch deserves a spot on this list for its visual appeal at the very least. While very slow-burning and short on the genuine scares, the plot of The Witch is engaging and Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a great performance.
The Witch received mostly positive reviews and found international acclaim upon its release. Robert Eggers is also planning to direct a remake of F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu, and we’re really excited to see how Eggers can incorporate his talent for subtle, spooky storytelling into a new rendition of the horror classic.
15. The Conjuring 2
The Conjuring 2 was highly anticipated by fans of the first installment of The Conjuring film series from director James Wan. It didn’t disappoint– where many sequels tend to flop, The Conjuring 2 surprised audiences with how good it was.
Based on the real-life phenomenon that plagued the Hodgson family in 1970s England, The Conjuring 2 features the reprised roles of Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively. The film is fast-paced without being nauseating and definitely has James Wan’s signature visual style. There’s a lot of intention in this sequel– when we are supposed to be scared, we are. There are a few twists and turns in The Conjuring 2 that weren’t around in the first film, which make it refreshing yet still a proper sequel.
A spin-off movie called The Nun is in development. Hopefully, the next film can match the previous films’ spooky factor, rather than that of the weaker spin-off Annabelle.
14. They Look Like People
This independent psychological horror film from director Perry Blackshear (who took on the load of shooting, editing, writing, and producing the film as well) came out in 2015 but didn’t reach a massive audience until it was picked up by Netflix in 2016.
They Look Like People is an unassuming gem. For a directorial debut, Perry Blackshear instantly impressed. The film follows a disturbed man named Wyatt during his visit with his best friend in New York. Right up until the very end, the audience is left wondering if Wyatt is dealing with a dangerous mental illness or if he’s really a sane man tuned in to the onset of a demonic invasion. The film is surprisingly emotional and focuses on the powerful bond two friends can have in the face of adversity.
They Look Like People received overwhelmingly positive reviews and is currently still available on Netflix. Go watch it! But keep the lights on– the moments of eye-squinting darkness make certain things hard to see, but you’ll quickly discover the intent behind it.
13. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Don’t read the second paragraph of this entry if you haven’t seen this film yet. Watch it, then come back. ASAP! All we can tell you is that, believe it or not, man isn’t the only monster in this crazy good psychological horror-thriller directed by Dan Trachtenberg.
Many viewers of the film didn’t realize until after its release that 10 Cloverfield Lane is actually a spiritual sequel to the 2008 film Cloverfield. The name could have given it away, sure, but most of the film’s ad campaign kept the looming terror ambiguous until the film’s release. When you inevitably find out that it was aliens all along (for the most part) it’s only the icing on the horror movie cake. John Goodman is the real terror of the film, portraying the doomsday prepper Howard and serving as the main antagonist through most of the movie. Clearly deranged and militantly possessive of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s badass character, viewers become more invested in the terror of Howard than of the mystery taking place outside their bunker.
Home invasion slasher flicks can get pretty old pretty fast. It’s always a helpless girl running and tripping and screaming and getting stabbed. The great ones have their place in horror cinema history, of course, but attempting to make a rewatchable slasher film nowadays usually results in a flat movie that’s as predictable as it is filled with gratuitous shower scenes. Hush, however, absolutely killed it (pardon the pun).
We really don’t know what it is about Hush that makes it so refreshingly different. Perhaps it is the hearing-impaired main character’s obliviousness to the psychopath sneaking up behind her. Or maybe it’s the perfect amount of genius, genuine suspense. Who knows? It’s a great horror movie.
Hush received very positive reviews upon its release, with many audiences and movie critics praising the film for its ability to take a typical slasher plot and make it something modern, and even kind of relatable.
11. Lights Out
The 2016 feature-length supernatural horror film, however, can definitely stand on its own feet. While the “stay in the light!” trope is definitely an established thing in the supernatural horror movie realm, Lights Out somehow makes it something different– and incredibly unsettling.
While Lights Out is indeed a supernatural film, the metaphor of the ghost as a mentally ill woman makes us confront a very troubling idea– that sometimes people cling to abuse and trauma to the point that they believe it will not die until they do. In some very subversive (or perhaps totally unintentional) way, Lights Out makes us experience the very real terror of always looking over your shoulder, hoping that the darkness isn’t waiting to swallow us whole.
10. Don’t Breathe
Don’t Breathe has its share of issues, for sure. Finally, we get a decent movie with an elderly disabled (perceived) antihero lead who takes no crap when a bunch of punks decide to take advantage of his disability and rob him! Unfortunately, the “twist” of the film is a bit of a let-down, and our perceived antihero becomes a deranged psychopathic villain fairly quickly.
However, the suspense of this film is impeccably built and every scare it provides is genuine. Similar to Hush in various ways, Don’t Breathe takes the home invasion narrative and makes it something new. The unique use of visuals and cinematography in Don’t Breath are unexpectedly well-done too– traits you wouldn’t assume of a typical home invasion horror film. The ending is more than acceptable, too. Where other horror films end terribly and incite audible groans, Don’t Breathe ends with the right combination of closure and satisfaction.
9. Beyond The Gates
Beyond the Gates premiered recently at numerous film festivals and is slated for widespread release later this month. The buzz certainly earns this late-bloomer a spot on our list– according to many critics who saw it, Beyond the Gates is a refreshingly good horror movie.
Many of us remember the good ol’ VHS days and the plethora of horror movies based around VHS tapes. The popularity of Stranger Things has made it clear that we miss the ’80s– or at least appreciate the campy films and synth beats that they produced. Beyond the Gates is definitely a nod to ’80s cult films, in a horrifying Jumanji sort of medium.
In the film, two brothers reunite at their seven-months-missing father’s old video store to clean shop. The two discover a VHS board game that is much more insidious than it seems. Beyond the Gates has been praised for its fantastic acting and unnerving atmosphere.
8. Sadako vs. Kayako
If only for novelty, this mashup of our two favorite Japanese ghost girls deserves a spot on this list. This ridiculous crossover of Ju-On and Ringu is actually the twelfth film in both franchises and was originally teased as an April Fools’ joke in early 2015. Luckily, this joke ended up being a pretty great supernatural horror film.
In the film, a couple of girls find the cursed Sadako tape and one of them views it. A loophole keeps the viewer from simply copying the tape to escape the curse. Left with no other options, they follow the advice of a local psychic girl and decide to obliterate the spirit by forcing it to confront another evil spirit– in this case, Ju-On‘s death-rattling Kayako. Of course, this doesn’t work out, and we’re left with a ridiculous (although hilarious) ending.
Sadako vs Kayako may not be an Academy Award-winning masterpiece of cinema, but at the very least it perfectly nails campy Japanese horror and is definitely worth watching.
7. The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn is known for directing hate-it-or-love-it films. His 2013 psychological thriller Only God Forgives became well-known for getting angry boos as well as standing ovations after its release at Cannes. Similarly, The Neon Demon will either be one of the best films you’ve seen in a while or the worst– this polarizing effect earns it a spot on this list.
In The Neon Demon, a teenaged aspiring model moves to Los Angeles and is thrown into the dark world of modeling when she’s signed to a big agency. What ensues is a strange sort of horror– visually stunning, ambiguous, and a little hard to follow. You’ll spend most of the film questing the lead’s sanity as well as the film’s brand of reality. The film feels a little like a more glamorous Twin Peaks, but without the weird humor.
The Neon Demon combines the terror of beauty with impeccable attention to detail. If the visual beauty of this film doesn’t captivate you, Elle Fanning’s great performance will.
6. Green Room
Green Room, directed by Jeremy Saulnier and starring a surprisingly terrifying Patrick Steward, focuses on tangible horror rather than the supernatural. In this crime thriller-meets-horror film, a group of musicians in a punk band tour through Oregon. After performing a rendition of Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F*** Off”, the clearly racist skinhead bar is not amused. As if a bad show wasn’t bad enough, the group finds a recently stabbed dead girl in the club’s green room. What ensues is a desperate attempt to escape a gang of neo-Nazis bent on covering up the murder by killing the band off.
Green Room was well-received by critics upon its release. Fans of the film hail it for its unexpected intelligence and fantastic acting. It may be uncomfortable to see Captain Picard as a psychotic aged neo-Nazi ringleader, but what’s more uncomfortable is this deep dark look into the ugly underbelly of fascist gangs that are very much alive and well in America today.
5. The Wailing
South Korea is a truly underrated source of many great psychological thrillers and horror films and The Wailing is a perfect example of that. (This year’s masterful The Handmaiden is another.)
The film opens with a biblical narration, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:37-39) Things get supernatural and spiritual quickly. In The Wailing, we meet a policeman and follow him on his journey to investigate some bizarre murders and diseases with the help of a local shaman and strange woman.
Hong-jin Na’s The Wailing did great at the box office when it was released, with many reviews claiming that the film puts American horror cinema to shame with its incredibly imaginative plot and smooth pacing. Na won Best Director at South Korea’s prestigious Blue Dragon Film Awards for his masterful work.
4. Ouija: Origin of Evil
If you’ve seen the first Ouija film, you’re probably with the vast majority of viewers who weren’t into it. However, Ouija: Origin of Evil ended up being one of those rare prequels that proved to be better than the first film.
In the film, we meet a widow working in the ’60s as a bogus medium. She works out of the home that she shares with her two daughters. In an attempt to boost their income, the family adds a spooky new stunt– a ouija board– to their performance. What ensues is an unexpected and unwelcomed breaking-and-entering on behalf of an evil spit. After one of the daughters is possessed by the evil spirit, the family has to confront horrifying fears to save the girl and send the demon-like spirit back to where it came from.
Ouija: Origin of Evil had pretty good reviews after its release. Many fans of the newest installment praised it for surpassing its predecessor with genuine scares, drama, and decent plot.
3. The Monster
The Monster, a unexpectedly emotional horror film written and directed by Bryan Bertino, was originally supposed to star Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss. Despite the casting not working out as planned, The Monster ended up being a horror film worth watching with its relatively not-famous cast anyway.
In the film, we meet a young alcoholic divorced mother and her young headstrong daughter. Most of the film is spliced with flashbacks to their past, and these scenes are what make The Monster so memorable and, at some points, tear-jerking. The horror aspects are engaging, of course, but there’s something about a horror movie revealing the monster early on that kind of ruins the terror of it. Despite this, the tumultuous yet ultimately relatable relationship we’re confronted with between mother and daughter make this film agonizing to watch, yet somehow beautiful at the same time. This is a film that will stay with you long after you watch it.
2. The Invitation
The Invitation did the film festival circuit in 2015, but gained a much broader audience when it was picked up in 2016 by Netflix.
In Karyn Kusama’s thriller-horror film, we’re introduced to a pretty awkward situation right off the bat. A man and his new girlfriend arrive to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife (and mother of his dead son) and all of the guests are mutual friends who haven’t seen the two in over two years.
Of course, there’s lots of traumatic memories coming to the surface and incredibly awkward vibes throughout the party, but things get even worse (and more insidiously creepy) as the film progresses.
The Invitation gained an overwhelmingly positive approval rating across many review aggregator websites, with many fans applauding the film for its tension-rich premise and proper use of slow-burning progression. Others enjoyed The Invitation for its unique commentary on grief, depression, and how life-changing events affect people psychologically in our modern age.
1. The Eyes of My Mother
When it comes down to it, The Eyes Of My Mother is not for the faint of heart. This extremely graphic horror film by Nicolas Pesce (in his impressive directorial debut) is incredibly well-done, but many find the graphic nature of the film muddles the great storytelling the film offers.
In The Eyes Of My Mother, we meet a young girl named Francisca and her mother, who live on a farm. Her mother, a former Portuguese surgeon, teaches the young Francisca about the biological components of animals, namely what makes animals see and the components of the eye. If you have a strong stomach, we strongly suggest checking this film out instead of spoiling anything further. The Eyes Of My Mother is a unique dive into the realm of messed up childhoods and how significant trauma and bad parenting can lead a good person down a very terrible path.
The execution of the film was beautiful done, and despite being fully in black and white, The Eyes Of My Mother is strangely visually beautiful as well.
What was your favorite horror movie of 2016? Let us know in the comments!