A year in horror is a curious thing now that trends have become so ephemeral. It used to be you could rely on a half-dozen torture porn films, at least as many found footage movies and/or a slew of remakes of Japanese ghost stories with vacant, semi-nude blonde teenagers.
These days it’s anyone’s guess what'll turn up, which is both thrilling and a little worrying. After all, you can rely on a trend for good or ill. An unpredictable slate means you don’t know what on earth horror directors have dreamt up for you. This year had its share of misfires, but also some of the most relentless, weird, unsettling, gory and haunting movies of the last five years. Some of these aren’t necessarily traditional horror, but they’re bound to creep into your nightmares one way or another.
Here are the 15 Best Horror Movies of 2015.
Unnatural is a campy little movie with a few tantalizing elements and a steady directorial hand. It stars a truly mouth-watering ensemble - Sherilyn Fenn and Ray Wise from Twin Peaks, character actors Graham Greene & James Remar and, strangest of all, Q’Orianka Kilcher from The New World - and a wonderfully silly monster, a cross between a polar bear and a wolf (as if one wasn’t scary enough, science brought them together).
The monsters interrupt a grotesque photo shoot in the Alaskan wilds, just down the road from a gene splicing facility. Almost none of that matters when the bear wolves begin attacking. Sure it’s paper thin, but it’s better than 90% of the direct-to-Redbox efforts out there. It’s fun, broad and ridiculous but without losing its cold-blooded mean streak.
15 We Are Still Here
The few bum notes in We Are Still Here are forgiven by its most important elements: great, lived-in, oppressive New England atmosphere, a healthy amount of blood and guts, and a killer fiend. The monster, a ghost who’s haunted a lovely home for dozens of years, is a cross between the pirate ghosts of John Carpenter’s The Fog and the zombies of Lucio Fulci’s movies.
When a married couple moves into the house to spend time together after the death of their son, their rest and recuperation are interrupted by a series of appalling dismemberments. We Are Still Here has the uncanny logic of the best '80s nightmare movies, which means that a few issues melt away like charred flesh.
14 The Vatican Tapes
Mark Neveldine’s angular punk exorcism film The Vatican Tapes was basically thrown at audiences while distributors hoped for the best. Which is a shame because it’s got amazing cinematography and a host of excellently underplayed performances, especially from Michael Peña, who was also MVP in The Martian and Ant-Man.
He plays a priest close to a young woman (Olivia Taylor Dudley) who shows signs of possession. He stays close to her as she’s transferred from hospital to psych ward, less and less human all the time. Neveldine’s boffo set pieces, including a nocturnal tour of the ward and a garage exorcism that explodes like a metal band rehearsal with poorly wired pyrotechnics, serves as a reminder that no one has a better sense of how to conduct grinding, awesome action than Neveldine/Taylor, or at least one half of the duo.
13 Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Americans were lucky enough to get two gonzo Spike Lee joints this year. The blistering Chi-Raq, Spike’s best film in years, is tearing up arthouses now and if there’s any justice it’ll go wide and be seen by everyone. In the meantime audiences can check out his sexy vampire odyssey Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
When an anthropologist antiquities enthusiast runs afoul of an ancient dagger, he develops a thirst for human blood. His new life as a bloodsucker comes with both perks and desperate lows. Lee films his decline spectacularly, one brightly colored and harrowing fantasy after another, like throwing paint at a canvas and by some miracle keeping every color intact. There are few experiments as vital, sexy and watchable this year.
12 The Gift
Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is maybe more thriller than horror, but it’s twice as perverse and bold than most American thrillers. Edgerton plays Gordo, a socially awkward veteran, who encounters a figure from his past, Jason Bateman’s type-A corporate yuppie. Bateman and wife Rebecca Hall buy a new house with talk of starting a family but the memories dredged up by Edgerton’s Gordo threaten to strangle their marriage to death.
The Gift is about trying to mask both pain and the urge to do harm, and how pride brings both out in the worst ways imaginable. The depths the two men sink to when they refuse to acknowledge their past are ugly and heated, but the movie remains cool as ice.
11 Bone Tomahawk
Though perhaps more western than horror, Bone Tomahawk is a grim, gory gut-punch of frontier ethics and a lesson in knowing when you’re beat. When a woman is kidnapped - by what might be considered a Native American allegory of ISIS or al Qaeda - an extremist group that the other tribes fear - a posse of allies (Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox) go after her.
The tribe doesn’t play by their rules and, when they meet, buckets of blood and guts are spilled. The way director S. Craig Zahler leads us into what looks to be a conventional western, only to turn it into a savage survival horror is a nifty metaphor for the film’s politics. The white man thinks he understands other cultures until confronted with conviction he can’t fathom.
10 The Nightmare
Rodney Ascher’s follow-up to his maddening and utterly mad Room 237 (the one where a half-dozen crackpots deconstruct Stanley Kubrick's The Shining) is a much more straight-forward experience, and more poignant than pointedly upsetting. The Nightmare is a documentary about the waking nightmares that result from a condition called sleep paralysis (something this writer has occasionally fallen victim to). The dreamer is still awake enough to recognize their surroundings, but cannot move or escape the things happening around them.
Typically these take the form of an intrusion by a figure referred to as the Shadow Man, a dark figure with indeterminate features who terrifyingly enters the sanctity of one’s bedroom. Sometimes the figures look like traditional aliens from popular culture, leading many to wonder if so many of the abduction narratives in modern culture aren’t just the result of sleep paralysis. The film explores many different scenarios from many different dreamers and discovers just how similar our worst fears can be.
9 Queen of Earth
In many ways - its picturesque location, its themes of desperation, isolation and deterioration, and its atmosphere - Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth could be viewed as a remake of Robert Altman’s great horror film Images. In execution, it’s a much more claustrophobic experience.
Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston play estranged friends who meet up after Moss has a catastrophic break-up. Haunted by her past and antagonized by Waterston, Moss loses her grip on what’s real. Perry turns every piece of the environment against her, letting us see how even the most benign things look like treason when you feel betrayed. An excellently judged study of the fragility of the human mind, and how there’s no escaping your past.
8 The Hallow
The Hallow is a wonderful low-budget horror dripping with imagination, like The Wicker Man, but rewritten by Clive Barker. Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovic play a married couple who move their baby son to an Irish cottage while Mawle surveys the trees nearby as part of his job. The locals do not take kindly to their presence. They believe in an evil force that lives in the woods who must be fed infants to remain appeased. See where this is going?
The monsters in The Hallow are perfectly gnarly works of practical effects, the kind of critter that used to populate horror movies in the '80s, and Hardy films them for maximum menace. They’re drooling, toothy and awful, which should be music to the ears of classic monster fans. We don’t get many creature features these days, so when we do we should treasure them. Especially when they’re this good.
Spring isn’t a film with something under the bed or in the closet. It's got a pretty sensitive, rosy view of its villain, because she’s also the romantic foil. When Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) loses his mother, who was the lynchpin of his existence after dropping out of school to take care of her, he takes a vacation to try and rediscover himself. There he meets the alluring Louise (Nadia Hilker) who seems slightly reluctant to give into their flirting. She harbors a dark secret involving the regular injections she takes to keep some kind of disease at bay. Evan discovers there’s more to Louise than meets the eye.
Spring isn’t interested in portraying Louise as a monster in the traditional sense, just someone who, like Evan, has a past that co-opts their present without warning. The film is almost more a sun-dappled unlikely romance than a fright film, but its horrific elements are handled so beautifully that it would be wrong to think of it without considering the careful work directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead did in re-imagining the genre.
6 The Visit
M. Night Shyamalan has made a lot of enemies since The Village. Over ten years in the wilderness has led people to wonder if the man who made Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense was now forever the man behind Lady In The Water, Devil, The Happening and The Last Airbender. Fans knew, however, that one simply doesn’t wake up incapable of great work. Lo and behold, The Visit, a delirious found footage romp that goes to every uncomfortable place it can.
Two kids (Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge) decide to give their mom (Kathryn Hahn) a break by sending her on a cruise with her new boyfriend while they visit their estranged grandparents (Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie). There’s something a little off about Nana and Pop Pop. They sleepwalk, can’t answer questions with straight answers, and are prone to playing just a little too excitedly with the kids. It’s almost like they don’t anything about children…
Shyamalan puts his teenaged duo through the ringer in their week from hell with untrustworthy seniors and in the process reclaims his title as savvy, smart and engaging filmmaker from all those years as a public joke. Welcome back, M. We missed you.
The story of the Lonely Hearts killers has been told in a few different movies, most famously and expressively in Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers. Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire, Vinyan) took a crack at the story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck with his Black Metal filmmaking style.
Lola Dueñas plays Gloria, a lonely mortician raising a kid with the help of her sister. She meets Michel (Laurent Lucas) and it looks like love at first sight, but after their first date, he vanishes. Gloria sees Michel with another woman and makes him confess. He’s a swindler, but maybe with Gloria on his side, he won’t have to do it alone. Their career as husband and wife con artists doesn’t last long before Gloria’s jealousy leads to murder.
Welz gives us bizarre windows into their crazed psychologies, and Gloria’s spells of insanity are equally as disturbing as her crimes. If a story must be told again, it should always be this spellbinding.
Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended took critics by surprise by admirably and astonishingly sticking to its formal conceit. The film takes place entirely on the computer monitor of one of its lead characters during a Skype call. The catch is they’re being stalked by a phantom caller named after a girl at their high school who killed herself. Is it a ghost? Is it someone acting on the girl’s behalf? Is it the girl herself, not dead after all? As the seventh caller gets personal, demanding accountability for the death of Laura Barnes, the kids start disappearing from the call, victims of apparent suicides and murders.
The film captures not only the believability of teenagers talking to each other, but the readiness with which they sell each other out over their shameful shared history. Unfriended is a dark, sick movie, peak found footage ingenuity and nasty fun.
3 Crimson Peak
Guillermo Del Toro’s extravagant ghost story Crimson Peak, like his previous historical fiction gems The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, isn’t out to scare you so much as seep into your unconscious with its burst of colors and disturbing images. It wants to place the audience in the troubled mind of its hero, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who has her life changed with the appearance of her handsome suitor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Edith loses everything and comes with Thomas to his ghastly, crumbling estate in a sad English county where men seldom travel. There she learns that her husband and his sister (a marvelously outsized Jessica Chastain) have secrets in the form of ghosts roaming the halls of their haunted old house.
Del Toro ladles on the artistry, creating a kind of tapestry of horrors that doubles as a blanket in the unforgiving cold that envelopes Crimson Peak. Who needs a jump or a jolt when there’s this much towering beauty to take in?
2 It Follows
Swimming in the nostalgic waters of hazy '70s horror imagery and synthy '80s horror music, It Follows starts like a suburban coming of age story and turns into a crazily intense chase that refuses to let up. Transpiring in a laconic, dust-covered Detroit, a first date becomes a rabbit hole that heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) can’t climb out of.
Jay decides to lose her virginity to a cute, troubled boy (Jake Weary), which ends up becoming the gravest mistake of her youth. The boy is cursed by some malevolent spirit that walks towards you, slowly but steadily, until it finds and kills you. Jay could sleep with someone else and It would follow them instead, but if that person is killed the curse reverts back to Jay.
Her friends try to help her solve the deadly conundrum before it gets its hands on Jay. Director David Robert Mitchell’s vision of crumbling, overgrown Detroit infrastructure is the perfect setting for this tale of forcefully taken innocence.
What horror films from 2015 scared you to death? What do you think signals a new direction for the genre? How many more found footage movies can we expect before they run their course entirely?