What a killer year 2018 has in horror been already! One mega-blockbuster, another big indie hit, loads of fun stuff big and small. Whether you think the great Annihilation and The Endless are horror, whether you believe unhinged Mom and Dad-style Nic Cage is the best kind of Nic Cage, and no matter where you stand on The Strangers: Prey at Night, we’re here to has it out.
It’s time we count down the best of the best so far this year, and we are thrilled to have Senior Filmmaker Correspondent Jason Tostevin join us, as is tradition, to argue over what is and is not horror, what is and is not great. Plus, we sing!
5. The Ritual
David Bruckner has entertained us with some of the best shorts in horror today, including work from V/H/S, Southbound, and one of our favorites, The Signal. Directing his feature debut in The Ritual, Bruckner takes what feels familiar, roots it in genuine human emotion, takes a wild left turn and delivers the scares.
Five friends decide to mourn a tragedy with a trip together into the woods. Grief is a tricky, personal, often ugly process and as they work through their feelings, their frustration quickly turns to fear as they lose themselves in a foreign forest where danger lurks.
The film works for a number of reasons, but its greatest triumph is in making the woods scary again. That environment has become such a profound cliché in horror that it is almost impossible to make it feel fresh, but there is an authenticity to the performances, the interaction among the characters, and the frustration and fear that grounds the horror. And then there is horror—intriguing, startling, genuinely frightening horror. Yay!
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy—brittle, unlikeable and amazing) is living your worst nightmare. After moving 400 miles to escape her stalker, she begins seeing him everywhere. She visits an insurance-approved therapist in a nearby clinic and quickly finds herself being held involuntarily for 24 hours.
After punching an orderly she mistakes for her stalker, that 24 hours turns into one week. And now she’s convinced that the new orderly George is, in fact, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard—cloying, terrifying perfection).
After laying bare some terrifying facts about our privatized mental health industry, Steven Soderbergh structures this critique with a somewhat traditional is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy storyline. Anyone who watches much horror will recognize that uneasy line: you may be here against your will, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be here.
And the seasoned director of misdirection knows how to toy with that notion, how to employ Sawyer’s very real damage, touch on her raw nerve of struggling to remain in control of her own life only to have another’s will forced upon her.
He relies on familiar tropes to say something relevant and in doing so creates a tidy, satisfying thriller.
The rape-revenge film is a tough one to pull off. Even in the cases where the victim rips bloody vengeance through the bodies of her betrayers, the films are too often titillating. Almost exclusively written and directed by men for a primarily male audience, the comeuppance angle can be so bent by the male gaze that the film feels more like an additional violation.
Well, friends, writer/director Coralie Fargeat changes all that with Revenge, a breathless, visually fascinating, bloody-as-hell vengeance flick that repays the viewer for her endurance. (His, too.)
Fargeat’s grasp of male entitlement and the elements of a rape culture are as sharp as her instincts for visual storytelling. Wildly off-kilter close-ups sandwich gorgeous vistas to create a dreamlike frame for the utterly brutal mess of a film unfolding.
Symbol-heavy but never pretentious or preachy, the film follows a traditional path—she is betrayed, she is underestimated, she repays her assailants for their toxic masculinity. But between Fargeat’s wild aesthetic, four very solid performances, and thoughtful yet visceral storytelling, the film feels break-neck, terrifying and entirely satisfying.
2. A Quiet Place
Damn. John Krasinski. That big, tall guy, kind of doughy-faced? Married to Emily Blunt? Dude can direct the shit out of a horror movie.
Krasinski plays the patriarch of a close-knit family trying to survive the post-alien-invasion apocalypse by staying really, really quiet. The beasts use sound to hunt, but the family is prepared. The cast, anchored by Krasinski’s on-and-off-screen wife Emily Blunt is amazing. That you may expect.
What you may not expect is Krasinski’s masterful direction: where and when the camera lingers or cuts away, how often and how much he shows the monsters, when he decides the silence will generate the most dread and when he chooses to let Marco Beltrami’s ominous score do that work for him.
It’s smart in the way it’s written, sly in its direction and spot-on in its ability to pile on the mayhem in the final reel without feeling gimmicky or silly.
Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.
With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.
Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.
Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.