Human beings who spent more than three days in a conscious state during 2016 would have realised what a steaming, rancid pile of Nigel Farage-style shite it truly was. It’s the kind of year that cheerfully and prematurely killed off seemingly super-human talents Alan Rickman and David Bowie in the same January week, before subsequently bumping off Prince and Carrie Fisher (among many others) to be fucking spiteful.
The UK’s most twat-witted racists crawled out of the rotten woodwork in a wholly misguided bid to “Make Britain Great Again”, before the much larger U.S. equivalent did the same for their country, thus sealing their own doom and that of anyone sharing the planet with them. Over the course of 12 months, things became so bleak, even the final ten minutes of THE MIST (still the best horror film of the 21st century, fact fans) started to seem like reassuring escapism.
In the field of horror cinema, our constant friend through good times and end-of-times, things were looking much brighter. Despite the unrelenting moaning you’ll find on horror forums and the nerdier end of Facebook, it was a great year for horror, with boldly original films sharing deserved shelf space with clever hymns to nostalgia and witty riffs on very familiar themes. It seems a shame to whittle down a strong two-dozen or so worthy candidates to just ten…but it wouldn’t be a top ten if we didn’t…
A marvellously eerie and inventive 21st century incarnation of old-school Amicus horror anthologies, in which the indiscretions of a small ensemble are gruesomely punished. Five stories are inextricably linked by an unidentifiable stretch of highway and by Larry Fessenden’s Rod Serling-esque D.J, unleashing the uniquely sinister “Collectors”, a grim slice of 50’s-style Americana and some queasy D.I.Y. surgery. Effectively combining subtly deployed CGI and practical FX, this smart, creepy picture succeeds where the V/H/S movies largely failed.
9: BEYOND THE GATES (Jackson Stewart, USA)
Siblings unleash a gateway to Hell via an 80’s VHS board game in this unusually affectionate and unselfconscious tribute to that decade’s Italian and American horror. Jesse Marlin – channelling Roddy McDowall and Christopher Lee – steals it as an arch, creepy antique dealer but director Stewart beautifully captures the ambience of the best 80’s horror, crafting a heartfelt pastiche with lovely performances and an earned affinity with PHANTASM and THE GATE.
8: BONE TOMAHAWK (S Craig Zahler, UK / USA)
An intense western-horror hybrid in which a tribe of cannibalistic savages vow revenge, following the desecration of their land. Blessed with a superb, diverse cast (Kurt Russell, Sid Haig, a very touching Richard Jenkins), this subtly infuses its guys-on-a-mission first half with dread before paying off with a terrifying, visceral detour into TEXAS CHAINSAW / HILLS HAVE EYES territory. Once we’re in the cannibal’s lair, the movie delivers one of the most brutal and uncomfortable scenes of violence in a mainstream American film for years.
7: DON’T BREATHE (Fede Alvarez, USA)
One of the breakout box office hits of 2016, Alvarez’s follow-up to his triumphant EVIL DEAD remake is a suspenseful reversal of the old Hollywood thriller trope in which a lone blind woman is stalked by (but manages to outwit) macho thugs. Stephen Lang, veering from terrifying to pitiful, is superb as the blind Gulf War veteran whose physical capabilities startle the three young thieves who have invaded his labyrinthine home. Claustrophobic and pared down to a flab-free 85 minutes, the movie makes great use of sound and fluid camerawork, while boldly venturing into genuinely unpleasant exploitation movie territory for a final-act twist.
6: PET (Carlos Torrens, Spain / USA)
Meek but dangerous loner Dominic Monaghan painstakingly fashions a human-size cage at his workplace, in which to store the object of his stalkery affections in this blackly comic, unpredictable psychological horror flick. Starting out in territory familiar from ONE HOUR PHOTO and the post-HOSTEL torture cycle, PET ends up in a different place entirely, pulling off a subversive rug-pull that works brilliantly thanks to the multi-layered performances of Ksenia Solo as the abductee and Monaghan as the loser with delusions of power.
5: UNDER THE SHADOW (Babak Anvari, Iran / Qatar / Jordan / UK)
Set in Tehran during the protracted Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, this beautifully acted movie balances the immediate physical threat from missile attacks with the behavioral shifts of a young girl, apparently caused by the evil presence of a Djinn summoned to her war-torn apartment building. Superbly evoking the time and place of its unusual backdrop, it builds to scenes of genuine alarm, and one startling DARK WATER-inspired shock. Unerringly creepy ambience aside, at the core is the emotionally wrenching performance by Narges Rashidi as the mother.
4: THE WITCH (Robert Eggers, Canada / USA / UK)
A smart, beguiling feature debut for writer-director Robert Eggers in which devout Christian Ralph Ineson’s banished family are terrorised by an encroaching evil. There was none more evocative horror score last year than Mark Korven’s marvelously discordant soundtrack – employing contemporary instruments and female vocals – and it offers the perfect accompaniment to one of the most visually striking horror films of recent years. Bathed in autumnal hues and employing authentic dialect of the period, it’s an unfashionable slow-burn mood piece punctuated by dark fairytale imagery and sustaining an almost overwhelming sense of dread from start to finish.
3: WHITE COFFIN (Daniel de la Vega, Argentina)
The bleak mantra of this balls-to-the-wall occult horror revision of DUEL is “Sometimes it’s better to be dead…” Lone mother Julieta Cardinali has eight hours to rescue her abducted daughter from ritual sacrifice and the film offers a harsh, unrelenting portrait of her plight – inclusive of circular saw bisections and conveniently tattooed severed heads. It’s a sensory assault that bows out with a suitably nightmarish climax and a nihilistic closing scene.
2: IN THE DEEP Aka: 47 Metres Down (Johannes Roberts, UK)
Brit filmmaker Johannes Roberts is quietly carving out an impressive C.V., and delivered the outstanding survivalist horror movie of 2016. Oxygen depletion, the Bends, crash injuries and hungry sharks are among the perils facing two sisters when their Mexican shark-cage thrill experience goes horribly wrong. An almost unbearably intense feature length expansion of the JAWS sequence in which Hooper is assaulted in his shark cage, this claustrophobically traps us with the women in the depths of the unforgiving ocean. The shark scenes are exceptional, and a marvellously cruel faux-rescue reinforces the sense that anything can happen. THE SHALLOWS, operating in similar stripped-down shark-peril territory, was huge fun, but this was in a league of its own.
1: TRAIN TO BUSAN (Yeon Sang-Ho, South Korea)
In a vastly over-crowded sub-genre, one movie restored faith by minimising the reliance on gore gags, crafting sympathetic characters and staging the unfolding chaos of a zombie outbreak as a smart latter-day disaster movie that doesn’t come up for air. Workaholic Seok-Woo travels from Seoul to Busan with his estranged daughter just as a mysterious infection spreads like wildfire across the country. Avoiding clichés and balancing the moving, underplayed father-daughter dynamic with witty secondary characters, Sang-Ho made the movie WORLD WAR Z wishes it could have been. The sense of escalating chaos is terrifying to behold, and the set pieces in, on top of and around the moving train, are breathlessly executed. At a time when both entertainment and real-life have desensitised us almost to the point of no return, TRAIN TO BUSAN moves and exhilarates, paying off with a truly heart-stopping climax that’s both traumatising and touching without copping out. The greatest zombie movie in decades.
Some fine work didn’t quite make the top ten. THE WINDMILL MASSACRE, RED CHRISTMAS and GIRL HOUSE were all clever, suspenseful and stylish contemporary riffs on the 80’s American slasher movie cycle, and all three deserved to be better known. Can Evrenol’s BASKIN was a nightmarish cinematic experience, and a major calling card for its prodigiously gifted director, while Jeremy Saulnier followed the distinctive MURDER PARTY and BLUE RUIN with the pithy, vicious GREEN ROOM, boasting a scene-stealing yet understated turn from Patrick Stewart and an early Carpenter vibe. No performance in 2016 was as astonishing as Lynn Lowry’s jaw-dropping turn in Debbie Rochon’s excellent MODEL HUNGER and Nicholas Winding Refn’s hugely divisive NEON DEMON arguably had the best of the many retro-80’s electronic music scores that accompanied the year’s genre releases.
As usual, the shelves of your local Asda were groaning with endless horrible found-footage chillers and endlessly retitled CGI shark movies with nifty covers luring you into buying what turned out to be home movies utilising monsters apparently generated by a 1987 home computer. FRESHWATER was the dullest of the year’s creature features, VAMPYRES was the limpest of the many remakes (worse than the embarrassingly goofy BLOOD FEAST regeneration!) and the obnoxious AMBULANCE 37 the most irritating waste of both our time and that of genre veterans Kane Hodder and Bill Moseley.