The genre spoiled us in 2019. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the sheer wealth of horror content available in the heyday of VHS, when it was always worth sitting through the most boring cheapo slasher movie (TERROR AT TENKILLER, hang your head in shame!) to root out the treasures that modestly lurked in the same category on the video shelves (take a bow, INTRUDER!). The bewildering, ever-growing array of choice for movie-watching ensured that, if they didn’t enjoy a nationwide cinema release, many impressive horror films made their bow via Shudder, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu…and even good old fashioned DVD and Blu-Ray (remember them?).
As a result, choosing ten “best” was a virtually impossible task, resulting in (just for starters) a pair of unusually thoughtful remakes (CHILD’S PLAY, PET SEMATARY) not making the final chart, while Jonas Akerlund’s brilliant, shockingly violent account of the Mayhem controversy (LORDS OF CHAOS) somehow got left out in the cold. Also hovering on the outskirts of this top ten are David Yarevesky’s wonderfully mean-spirited subversion of superhero origin stories BRIGHBURN, Ant Timpson’s darkly hilarious COME TO DADDY, the deliciously old-school monster movie CRAWL, the highly original mental illness parable DEAD DICKS (one of many outstanding Canadian horror films of last year), Adam Robitel’s surprisingly fabulous ESCAPE ROOM, Abner Pastoll’s riveting horror-tinged thriller A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND, the uncommonly witty sequel HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U, Lee Cronin’s low key, genuinely chilling THE HOLE IN THE GROUND, Josh Lobo’s creepy TWILIGHT ZONE-ish I TRAPPED THE DEVIL, Fernando Alle’s hugely inventive MUTANT BLAST, the clever and poignant Brit sort-of-anthology TALES FROM THE LODGE, Emma Tammi’s highly atmospheric THE WIND and the superbly acted character study A YOUNG MAN WITH HIGH POTENTIAL. And breathe.
Special attention should also be afforded to the best horror anthology in years, NIGHTMARE CINEMA and the Trump-era MOST DANGEROUS GAME-infused splatter of the fabulous READY OR NOT. Additionally, Assaf Bernstein’s LOOK AWAY was an uncommonly perceptive take on the alienated-teen revenge horror movie with terrific performances from India Eisley and Mira Sorvino. But, as no one ever said, there can only be ten…and, once you’ve exhausted this list (if you haven’t already), rest assured that, just from 2019’s output alone, your ever-growing Watch List is guaranteed to outlive even the most optimistic estimation of your own lifespan. If you can, watch them all before you’re dead.
10: DOCTOR SLEEP (USA Dir: Mike Flanagan)
It was a strong year for Stephen King adaptations, with IT: CHAPTER TWO cashing in at the box office and PET SEMATARY outclassing an earlier adaptation and CASTLE ROCK and MR MERCEDES on the small screen. Writer-director Mike Flanagan earned deserved kudos for his wonderful Netflix interpretation of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, itself as informed by King as it was by Shirley Jackson. The challenge of adapting King’s novel “Doctor Sleep” while also acting as a cinematic sequel to the very different book and film of “The Shining” was met by Flanagan with typical intelligence and filmmaking craft. A long but rewarding story of adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) joining forces with an adolescent who also “shines” to combat a cult that feeds on their “gift”, it succeeded as a stand-alone, character-driven thriller while also offering a remarkable recreation of The Overlook and its occupants. It also had one of the grimmest scenes of 2019 Hollywood horror violence, involving ROOM’s young Jacob Tremblay.
9: CAM (USA Dir: Daniel Goldhaber)
Former cam girl Isa Mazzei wrote this intelligent Blumhouse production about a sinister algorithm that takes the form of a glitchy, murderous facsimile of Truegirls.live camgirl Madeline Brewer (in a superb performance). Locked out of her account by a doppelganger named Lola, Brewer’s Alice suffers professional and personal humiliation as her life and work is invaded by a genuinely scary antagonist. Exploiting universal paranoia about the fragility of our online identities, this is also a subversive, powerful character study of a smart, ambitious young woman whose determination to be the best at what she does leads her to a showdown with an unconventional arch-rival, where the outcome is by no means clear-cut. This was last year’s stand-out slice of technophobic horror.
A spirited subversion of slasher movie tropes, as likeable student Airlie Dodds wakes up in a box labelled “Beauty” in a historic gold-mining town where other girls face the same predicament, and something stirs from a box marked “Beast”. The midway narrative reveal positions this movie in a mini cycle of horror movies in which characters are at the mercy of the thrill-seeking 1%, alongside a 21st century trend for multiple “final girls”. In addition to a heroine truly worth rooting for, writer-director D’Aquino’s confident, eager-to-please take on an ageing subgenre also delivers some of the greatest practically orchestrated kills of the past decade.
7: HAUNT (USA Dir: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods)
On Halloween, a group of thrill-seeking friends search for a decent haunted house attraction and find an allegedly “extreme” experience in the middle of nowhere where the proceeds go to the Red Cross. Writer / director duo Beck and Woods enjoyed a mainstream smash as creators of A QUIET PLACE and here rejuvenate an over-familiar horror scenario with sustained intensity, genuinely startling violence and smart, sparse use of jump scares. Katie Stevens is an engaging final girl, there’s a great suspense set piece in a rigged “Escape Room” and the pulse-pounding score by the seemingly inexhaustible Tomandandy lends it further momentum.
Having turned his hand to vampirism with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, Jim Jarmusch here presents a deliciously sardonic portrait of a zombie apocalypse for a world facing the take-over of the far right and imminent ecological collapse. The Earth has shifted off its axis thanks to polar fracking, characters wear “Keep America White Again” hats and, in an affectionate nod to Romero, the walking dead townsfolk of “Centreville” resume the meaningless pursuits that dominated their living days, in endless search of coffee and wi-fi (or, in the memorable case of the great Carol Kane, Chardonnay). At the centre is a wonderfully deadpan double act between Adam Driver and Bill Murray, though a climactic meta turn addresses the film’s creator directly and the end note is surprisingly poignant. The perfect zombie movie for our times.
Opening with a harrowing portrait of a personal tragedy for heroine Florence Pugh (terrific, as always), Ari Aster’s follow-up to HEREDITARY constructs its blackly humorous folk-horror fairy-tale from her painfully raw wails of grief. As with his debut feature, Aster creates an uneasy ambience from the very start and sustains it to the point of discomfort as Pugh (and mostly annoying representations of crass / disaffected young American men) find themselves out of their depth in a culture they cannot comprehend in the nine-day Summer Solstice festival of the title. The style nods to Kubrick while the narrative and individual images echo the work of Ken Russell, Tobe Hooper…and of course THE WICKER MAN. It’s a distinctive and striking work in its own right, with a marvellously gruesome mid-point sequence throwing the audience a curveball while the suffocating broad-daylight sense of impending doom takes us down a disorientating (though deliberately telegraphed) dark path.
4: SWALLOW (USA / France 2019 Dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
Married into money and bored out of her mind, Haley Bennett convincingly becomes enslaved to her own condition (the compulsion to swallow random, increasingly dangerous objects) in this beautifully shot and brilliantly acted portrait of a young woman seeking any kind of solace from her oppressive domestic existence. Writer-director Mirabella-Davis was inspired by his own mother’s illness and his fight to stop her from being institutionalised; his film also recalls Todd Haynes’ [SAFE] and the work of David Cronenberg. It finds its most visceral horrors in routine medical procedures and its most upsetting moments in the routine emotional cruelty suffered by its enormously empathetic protagonist. Galvanised by Bennett’s extraordinary performance, it balances bleak observational humour with voyeuristic insights into her everyday life en route to a shattering climactic confrontation between the heroine and a hitherto unseen character who (literally) started it all.
“There are no wishes, not even tigers…we’re all there is…” The harsh realities of Mexico’s drug wars and homelessness mesh with fantasy and the eternal need for escapism in Issa Lopez’s beautiful genre-melding story of childhood. A remarkable cast of inexperienced young actors is led by Paola Lara as a young girl whose mother has vanished – presumably taken, like so many, by the cartels – and whose burgeoning friendship with a gang of young orphans leads to an overwhelming threat from El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), the imposing face of a human trafficking outfit. The grimly authentic backdrop is leavened with a tender, funny portrait of credible kids finding unity and escape in makeshift talent shows, games and backstories for their own cuddly toys. Lopez doesn’t flinch from sudden death and tough narrative turns in a movie with no fat, no missteps, vivid doses of MONKEY’S PAW-influenced horror and, against all the odds, a final sense of hope and defiance.
2: THE NIGHTINGALE (Australia Dir: Jennifer Kent)
The most horrifying 2019 cinematic moments came from the second feature by THE BABADOOK’s Jennifer Kent. Shot in Academy ratio and set in early 19th century colonial Tasmania, it has a haunting Aisling Franciosi as an Irish convict whose life is ripped apart by a savage assault on her family courtesy of despicable lieutenant Sam Claflin. Her mission to achieve some form of justice and closure brings her in an unlikely partnership with native tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) and positions this film as a rape-revenge piece. The vengeance, however, is as gruelling and depressing as the (suitably) harrowing act that instigated her journey. Franciosi’s fearless performance – and her double act with the delightful Ganambarr – provides the heart and soul of this tough, disturbing picture that evokes a truly horrific period of history while finding moments of disarming tenderness, humour and, ultimately, defiance : “I belong to me and no one else…”
Lupita Nyong’o heads off to the summer beach house with husband Winston Duke and their two kids, where they encounter their doppelgangers on the driveway at night, mirroring an episode in Nyong’o’s childhood. Jordan Peele’s follow up to the much-admired GET OUT again captures key paranoias of our time (government distrust, terrorism, perverts) alongside the prevailing sense of general apathy : “Nobody cares about the end of the world”. Peele is a naturally funny guy, and US is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious: a massacre involving an Alexa-style speaker and “Fuck the Police” follows a brilliantly intense home invasion set piece. Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance is astonishing – bringing a mirthless laugh and unearthly cadence to her “other” self that’s the stuff of nightmares. Pop culture references, a credible and likeable family-in-peril and witty attention to detail are all crucial to the film’s success. The core TWILIGHT ZONE-ish concept gives way to Peele’s wider allegory of a divided America and of the savagery that lurks within us all, regardless of the enduring class / race divide. Peele is visually and thematically influenced by Carpenter and Romero, though US bows out with a truly iconic, apocalyptic image that will ensure his movie takes its place with the genre’s milestones : a perversion of the controversial “Hands Across America” stunt referenced at the start – ushering in a new world at a point where humanity simply cannot sustain itself in its current form. There wasn’t a more subversive or immediately rewatchable mainstream Hollywood film in 2019.
Article written by Steven West
See my list of ‘Top Ten Movies Of 2018‘ HERE