2016 may be a big year for comic book movies and big summer tentpole releases, but it also just so happens to be something of a revelation for the horror genre.
While we’ve already outlined which scary tales we’re the most excited about, there’s a whole subset of this year’s films that are not only hotly anticipated or backed by a prestigious filmmaking pedigree, but which also stand out from the crowd thanks to their emphasis on originality. Whether in their premises, their storytelling execution, or in their promises of a bigger emotional or thematic payoff, these are the more ambitious movies, the ones that are willing to take a slightly bigger chance in their narrative inventiveness.
Call them the 12 Most Unusual Upcoming Horror Movies. Once you peruse their ranks, you’ll never look at the standard horror fare quite the same way again.
Director: Rob Zombie
Release date: 01.23.16
On the one hand, 31 is a fairly standard Rob Zombie-helmed horror film (of which he’s done seven already): it’s inspired by 1970s frightfests and will, unsurprisingly, feature bucketloads of violence and gore – in fact, many (including the musician-turned-director himself) have compared it to his now-cult-classic The Devil’s Rejects in tenor, style, and content.
On the other hand, however, there are a few slight wrinkles on the now-institutionalized Zombie formula, which help to give this the potential to be more than just the average horror experience. In addition to being a crowdfunded project – which opens the possibility for greater creative control by Rob Zombie and, therefore, a bigger opportunity to experiment – 31 follows a group of five carnival workers who are kidnapped by clown-mask-wearing psychopaths in the five days leading up to Halloween 1975. Placed as prisoners in a mysterious location known as Murder World, they are forced to play – and survive – “the most violent game known to man,” which is called (you guessed it!) 31.
11. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Director: Burr Steers
Release date: 02.05.16
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a “novel of manners” originally published in 1813, is one of the most beloved and widely imitated books in the history of the English language. It’s not surprising, then, that a zombie-infused parody was released in 2009, and that a filmic adaptation is on its way next month.
Somewhat invoking the spirit of Joss Whedon’s own adored Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies follows Elizabeth Bennet’s (Lily James) struggles with social customs and marriage prospects, but throws in a heaping helping of martial arts, undead warfare, and an independent, feminist spirit. Intermixed throughout the proceedings, of course, is a dose of comedy – both in satirical and straightforward varieties – and action; the film’s trailer crescendos with a now-obligatory shot of an explosion, this time of a bridge as our heroine races her horse across it.
10. A Man in the Dark
Director: Fede Alvarez
Release date: 08.26.16
Little is known about A Man in the Dark, and, we have to admit, that only adds to our excitement for the film.
Here’s what we do know: three teenage burglars (portrayed by Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Sergej Onopko), who have a penchant for “perfectly-planned home robberies,” have one final, incredibly large heist planned for themselves. The target is a reclusive blind man (Stephen Lang) who purportedly has millions of dollars stashed away in his house. The twist is that the Blind Man has also been hiding several secrets, one of which is that he’s a “psychopath”; rather than being the helpless prey, he becomes the deadly hunter, and he begins picking the intruders off one by one.
Behind the scenes, director Fede Alvarez is reuniting with producer Sam Raimi, and given what kind of reception their last collaboration – the Evil Dead remake – received, we’re eager to see what they can make of A Man in the Dark.
9. The Other Side of the Door
Director: Johannes Roberts
Release date: 03.11.16
After the accidental death of her son, Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies, from The Walking Dead) seeks out an Indian ritual that will summon his spirit to an ancient temple for one final goodbye. Unable to let him go again, however, Maria opens the titular door that stands as a barrier between the realms of life and death, upturning their balance and allowing menacing spirits to flood the land of the living.
This intriguing set-up – and, yes, even its rather predictable after-effects – allow director Johannes Roberts to infuse familiar scares with imagery that is rather unique for most American horror releases (the foreign setting and the tribal get-ups all throb with a color and vibrancy that immediately make The Other Side of the Door jump out from its box office competition) and with an emotional core that may possibly deliver a real story along with the supernatural jumps.
8. Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Release date: Summer 2016
With a slogan that promises “The wicked die young,” Neon Demon looks to marshal the fairly standard horror elements of beautiful femme fatales that ooze just as much menace as they do sensuality. What helps to perhaps make director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film transcendent of its genre clichés is the potential otherworldly creepiness that its premise hints at:
“Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model, moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will go to any lengths to get what she has.”
“Devoured,” it turns out, looks to have dual meanings: both figurative and literal, cannibalistic and supernatural. It’s been revealed that the film has found its inspirations in the stories of Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed, a 16th century Hungarian aristocrat who killed several hundred people, supposedly to bath in their blood to retain her youth. While vampiricism isn’t guaranteed in Neon Demon, there have been suggestions that either cannibalism or voodoo – or both – will, indeed, show up.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Release date: 03.11.16
10 Cloverfield Lane is the only film in this list to be part of a series, and rather than having that work against its potential for originality, it actually heightens it: this “blood relative,” as producer J.J. Abrams has called it, to the original Cloverfield uses some sort of chemical attack as the entry point to its post-apocalyptic landscape rather than a rampaging giant monster, which may very well suggest that the Cloverfield franchise might be an anthologized collection of thematically similar tales instead of sequential continuations.
Whatever its exact connection to the previous movie, this new installment isn’t a member of the found-footage sub-genre – another permutation on viewers’ expectations – and it has a premise that can go nearly anywhere: a young woman awakens from a car accident to find herself locked in an underground cellar, which a mysterious “survivalist” claims is one of the last safe places in the country. She, of course, feels compelled to escape and find out the truth of the situation for herself… and, who knows – it just may include Godzilla-esque creatures, after all.
6. Black Lung
Director: Chase Palmer
Release date: TBA 2016
Black Lung’s story sounds as if it starts off as a current-events-focused drama that suddenly takes a turn into supernatural territory. The wife of a Utah coal miner (hence the title) has a premonition of an accident at his work, which ends up preventing him from being on the wrong side of an explosion that traps all his colleagues in the mountain where the mine is located.
The fallout is immediate: state officials overseeing the miners’ rescue look at her as a suspect in the crime, all the other women in the small town start to revile her, and her marriage starts to disintegrate rather than be saved. The visions continue, however, and the wife quickly comes to the belief that something evil resides in the mountain, a darkness which has now been freed and will come to consume the entire town.
When combined with the talent announced thus far – which includes actors Amanda Seyfried and Theo James and executive producer Cary Fukunaga, who served as the director of all of True Detective’s first season episodes – one has the recipe for a refreshingly different kind of horror experience.
5. Patient Zero
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Release date: 09.02.16
Patient Zero’s main mission, it would seem, is to take the now-ubiquitous zombie subgenre of horror cinema and turn it on its head. The first twist is the transformation of humanity not into hordes of slow, mindless undead, but, rather, into evolved, highly intelligent predators – think more 28 Days Later or Wayward Pines than either Resident Evil or The Walking Dead. The real innovation, however, comes in the form of Morgan (Matt Smith, of Doctor Who fame), one of the few human survivors and an individual who possesses the ability to communicate with the new lifeforms. His quest is to locate “patient zero” and to use this individual’s genetic sample to manufacture a cure to the mutated strain of rabies that has managed to “evolve” mankind.
Although a trailer has yet to hit to give us a clue as to the film’s tone or ambience, the premise alone is enough to guarantee the potential for some unusual story beats, character moments, and – one can only hope – dramatic climax.
4. The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers
Release date: 02.19.16
The Witch’s premise is simple: a 17th century Puritan family leaves New England behind for a solitary, God-faring life out in the American wilderness. Upon establishing their settlement, however, their infant son goes missing, their daughter is suspected of witchcraft, mysterious events – including a goat that produces blood instead of milk – start occurring on an ever-more-frequent basis, and the family seems destined for some kind of apocalyptic reckoning.
But the execution of that plot seems anything but ordinary. In addition to some wonderful cinematography, the film seems to ooze atmosphere, trading in quick or cheap scares for a slow-burn creepiness that threatens to create a deeper-seated, psychologically-based terror in the audience – think along the lines of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It not only makes for a refreshing change of pace from the likes of Rob Zombie’s 31, it also promises to be one of the scariest films of the year – no small feat, given the rest of this list’s lineup.
3. The Boy
Director: William Brent Bell
Release date: 01.22.16
Having already released this weekend, The Boy is a strong start to this year’s horror slate, featuring a solid cast (headed up by Lauren Cohan, also from The Walking Dead) and an even stronger concept: an American nanny arrives to care for a young boy in a remote English village, only to discover that it’s a life-size porcelain doll that its “parents” have installed as a surrogate for their deceased son.
With a premise replete with a comprehensive list of rules and a doll that’s capable of crying when it’s neglected, the film feels like something from the heyday of M. Night Shyamalan – and with a strong sense of atmosphere, gorgeous production design, and its overall sense of foreboding, perhaps comparing this to The Sixth Sense isn’t entirely uncalled for.
Director: Oz Perkins
Release date: TBA 2016
Having premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, a number of words have been used to describe the supernatural slasher February, ranging from “deliberately paced” to “wholly original” to “bloody.” It seems the main narrative device of the film is to intercut at least two different storylines separated by both geography and time that end up, by the film’s climax, intersecting in a rather inventive – and bloodily intense – manner.
Here’s the story: at a religious boarding school that is closed for the winter break, students Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Joan (Emma Roberts) are forced to become something resembling companions when the former’s parents never arrive to pick her up. A haunting, seemingly disjointed story starts to unspool, revealing that Kat’s parents are Satanists who sent their daughter away to an insane asylum once she caught them in the act before the film quickly delves into demonic possession.
Release date: TBA 2016
This is easily the vaguest entry on this list, but it’s also one of the most exciting, given its conceit: an anthology film comprised of seven different shorts based on seven different holidays, with each one labeled as being “subversive” in nature.
Here’s what little we know: Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Samhain (the Gaelic festival that is the predecessor of Halloween), and, of course, Christmas will all be included. The directors involved range from Gary Shore (Dracula Untold), Matt Johnson (The Dirties), Scott Stewart (Dark Skies), and Kevin Smith (Red State) to Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch (Starry Eyes).
While there are no known details about any of the various shorts’ narratives, the premise is strong, the caliber of the talent is solid, and the potential for an unusual, surprising finished product is nearly infinite.
Did we miss any other highly unusual upcoming releases? Do you think other horror pics are channeling originality in a far more, well, original way? Sound off in the comments below.