Directed by: Gil Kenan
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Remakes of classic horror can either completely reinvent the concept or hew too closely to the original and be deemed unnecessary. Poltergeist nearly falls into the latter category, but it’s saved by the serious talent involved. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Rabbit Hole — might seem like an odd choice, but his script captures the blend of horror, fantasy, and absurdity that made the original Poltergeist a success. As Eric and Amy Bowen, Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are far better than your standard genre parents: Their performances ground the film, which otherwise might collapse under all the evil clowns, homicidal plant life, and ghostly static. This Poltergeist remake isn’t all that frightening, but it’s a lot of fun — and while nostalgia may have warped our perception, that’s essentially what the original had to offer, too. If we’re going to get remakes over original horror, let’s hope they all put at least this much effort into the proceedings.
Directed by: Mickey Keating
Written by: Mickey Keating
The title Pod suggests something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an intentional connection, courtesy of writer-director Mickey Keating. His film isn’t a remake of the 1956 classic (or any subsequent version), but it does mine horror from paranoia, an effective technique that has the characters second-guessing each other — and the audience second-guessing the characters. It’s unclear if troubled veteran Martin (Brian Morvant) has actually captured a vicious creature, or if he’s merely suffering from a psychotic break. And Martin’s nervous tics and unhinged rants are terrifying enough on their own: He rails against mind control and government monitoring as his helpless siblings, Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter) and Ed (Dean Cates), struggle to reason with him. Whatever monster exists in the basement of the cabin, it’s secondary to the monsters in Martin’s head — that unsettling revelation, the basis of paranoid horror, is what elevates Pod past simple creature feature.
Directed by: Brian James O’Connell
Written by: Ryan Mitts and Dr. God
The joke at the center of the horror-comedy Bloodsucking Bastards isn’t all that subtle: Corporate jobs will suck the life out of you. In this case, Evan (Fran Kranz) slowly realizes that the new hire at his company, slick sales manager Max (Pedro Pascal), is turning the workforce into vampires. But while the setup might be obvious, the execution is what makes Bloodsucking Bastards so much fun to watch. The script, by Ryan Mitts and director Brian James O’Connell’s comedy group Dr. God, is consistently funny — it rests solely in the workplace comedy genre, approaching the encroaching vampire threat matter-of-factly. (The characters’ largely nonchalant reactions to the supernatural are some of the funniest moments in the film.) And kudos to True Blood for popularizing the grossest new facet of the vampire mythos — when vampires are staked, they explode like blood-filled water balloons — because Bloodsucking Bastards follows suit, ensuring that however satirical the film is, the violence is very real. Besides, let’s face it: Sometimes gore is hilarious.
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Written by: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, and Zach Shields
Krampus may be the most misunderstood horror film of 2015. It is, to be fair, an odd movie that starts off as a family holiday drama and transitions into something a lot darker than your standard Hallmark Channel fare. The fact that it occasionally veers into heartwarming territory might turn off those who expected more straightforward horror, but the success of Krampus is in its ability to tweak the Christmas movie genre. It’s a film about the importance of family and the true meaning of Christmas, wherein that lesson is taught by an ancient demon who drags his victims to hell. Krampus is at its best when it’s truly batshit, and that means homicidal gingerbread men, a vicious teddy bear, and the most frightening jack-in-the-box ever conceived. It’s bizarre in the way a movie about a Christmas demon should be. Of course, it helps that there are so many great actors doing battle against the forces of darkness: What’s not to love about a film in which Toni Collette and Allison Tolman play sisters?
Directed by: Rodney Ascher
Can a documentary also be a horror film? Evidently so, because Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare — his follow-up to the Shining conspiracy theory doc Room 237 — is one of the most terrifying movies of the year. Interestingly enough, it is weakest as a documentary, because while Ascher interviews several people who experience sleep paralysis (and the ensuing hallucinations), there is very little substance to the film as a whole. The discussion of the phenomenon is purely anecdotal, but the vagueness with which sleep paralysis is treated makes the movie that much more frightening: The scientific explanation is given about as much screen time as the theory that sleep paralysis is caused by demons. The gimmick of the documentary is Ascher’s re-creations of his subjects’ nightmares: They describe, in detail, their most jarring late-night visions. And while the re-creations themselves are simple and low-tech, they’re undeniably disturbing. It’s all made creepier by the incessant reminders that while monsters and aliens might not be real, nightmares certainly are.
Directed by: Leo Gabriadze
Written by: Nelson Greaves
Unfriended does not sound good on paper: It’s a horror film that takes place entirely on someone’s computer screen. But as silly (and limiting) as the concept might sound, Unfriended is actually a smart, thoroughly enjoyable modern take on the familiar story of ghostly revenge. In this case, someone claiming to be dead girl Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) is tempting Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and her friends to uncover who leaked the video that led to Laura’s suicide. Supernatural elements aside, it’s a relevant story for the social media age, and it’s explored with impressive depth. Calling a film “surprisingly good” is a backhanded compliment, but it’s hard not to acknowledge the potential failings here. And frankly, the fact that Unfriended manages to do so much with what sounds like a misguided idea makes it that much more impressive. The movie may not have made audiences afraid of their laptops, but it did give horror creators inspiration to continue experimenting with new formats.
Directed by: Jonas Alexander Arnby
Written by: Rasmus Birch
It’s nothing new to use becoming a werewolf as a metaphor for adolescent development — you can look to Teen Wolf or the 1957 original I Was a Teenage Werewolf if you need a refresher. But with a female lead, When Animals Dream is a more pointed and ultimately powerful exploration of that theme. Instead of male angst, we get Marie’s (Sonia Suhl) bodily insecurity (she begins to sprout rashes and hair), her contentious relationship with her father (Lars Mikkelsen) and mysteriously ill mother (Sonja Richter), and her burgeoning sexuality. It’s more interesting than a simple retread, which is essential when the monster at this film’s center is something we’ve seen so many times before. It’s subtler than the ultimate feminist werewolf film Ginger Snaps, but it’s similarly refreshing. Marie is sympathetic even when she’s behaving badly — whether that means neglecting her mother or giving into her more animalistic instincts. And as she continues to change into something inhuman, her humanity remains the most fascinating thing about her.
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Written by: S. Craig Zahler
Yes, Bone Tomahawk is a Western, but it’s less John Wayne and more The Hills Have Eyes. In this genre-bending curiosity, Arthur O’Dwyer’s (Patrick Wilson) wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons), is kidnapped by cannibal cave dweller Native Americans, and he embarks on a hunting party to rescue her. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) leads the way, and things proceed pretty much as expected — until the men encounter the so-called troglodytes. From that point on, Bone Tomahawk is relentlessly brutal, featuring one of the most graphic vivisections ever committed to film. Because the rest of the movie still feels like a traditional Western — and one that’s tinged with humor — the horror is extra shocking. Much credit is also due to the intensity of the performances, which include the always great Richard Jenkins as “backup deputy” Chicory and Lost’s Matthew Fox as the smarmy Brooder. It’s a satisfying, dynamic adventure story that pulls the rug out from under its audience with impressive ease, thanks to writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s distinctive vision.
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
The name “M. Night Shyamalan” doesn’t inspire much confidence these days. And the found footage genre, once largely responsible for horror’s resurgence, is now frequently derided. But that’s what makes The Visit another pleasant surprise: a mainstream horror film by a much maligned filmmaker that is actually smart, darkly funny, and seriously scary. (The scene of hide-and-seek under the house is one of this year’s most terrifying.) Once siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) meet up with their estranged grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), the twist is pretty damn obvious. But somehow, that doesn’t matter. While we’ve come to expect “OMG moments” from Shyamalan, The Visit thankfully doesn’t rest on any big revelations. You can greet the surprise with a gasp or a shrug, and the film doesn’t suffer for it. In fact, if you’ve already predicted what’s coming, there’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing more than the characters do as they hurtle toward a shockingly tense climax.
Directed by: Henry Hobson
Written by: John Scott III
There have been plenty of films and television series that explore life after the zombie outbreak, but focusing on the emotional trauma of a girl turning into the walking dead is something we haven’t seen before. Maggie is a poignant family drama that also happens to be a horror film. (Some might argue against that designation, but the rapid decay of the titular character’s body is body horror at its finest and most human.) Abigail Breslin plays the title character with the perfect blend of sympathy, teenage angst, and bloodlust. As her father, Wade, Arnold Schwarzenegger turns in a surprisingly subdued performance. His character struggles to accept that his daughter is quickly changing into something he doesn’t really understand — and will eventually have to leave behind. It’s all very sad. And scary, too, just not in the way we’re used to. We’ve all wondered how we’d survive the zombie outbreak, but how many of us have considered how we’d survive becoming a zombie? That’s another horror story entirely.
Directed by: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Written by: M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller
The Final Girls may be a send-up of ’80s slasher flicks, but Scary Movie this is not. The film — which pays homage to a number of classics, Friday the 13th in particular — is not a parody, but something entirely its own. Taissa Farmiga stars as Max Cartwright, whose late mother, Amanda (Malin Åkerman), was a scream queen. When Max and her friends are sucked into Amanda’s career highlight Camp Bloodbath, Max gets the chance to reconnect with her mom (albeit as her character Nancy) while trying to evade masked psychopath Billy Murphy (Dan B. Norris). What’s most impressive is the way The Final Girls manages to blend pitch-perfect satire with so much emotional truth. Screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller drew from their own life experiences, which accounts for the film’s honesty. And director Todd Strauss-Schulson does a remarkable job of balancing the comedy and the pathos, repeatedly defying audience expectations. What results is one of the most nuanced horror films of the year.
Directed by: Alex Ross Perry
Written by: Alex Ross Perry
Although it’s mostly been labeled a “psychological thriller,” Queen of Earth is certainly dark and frightening enough to qualify for inclusion here. It’s a small film, focusing on two childhood friends, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Ginny (Katherine Waterston), who retreat to the lake house of their youth and discover just how much they’ve drifted apart. But the real horror is even more contained, taking place entirely in Catherine’s head. Queen of Earth is a gripping look at a complete mental breakdown: There are moments of sweetness and humor, but for the most part, it’s just incredibly unsettling. Waterston is great in the less showy role, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off Moss. The actor best known as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson shows impeccable range playing a woman who’s losing control and her handle on reality. Alex Ross Perry’s film is enigmatic, to say the least. There are no monsters here — there’s not even an easy explanation for Catherine’s terrifying descent into madness. But Moss’s performance is so captivating that she easily overcomes the film’s opaqueness.
Directed by: Patrick Brice
Written by: Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass
Mark Duplass is not your standard horror film villain, but as Josef in Creep, he’s overwhelmingly scary. The movie itself, another found footage entry, offers far more visceral scares than its indie comedy cred might have you believe. (Director, writer, and star Patrick Brice also made this year’s delightful sex comedy The Overnight.) The conceit is simple: Aaron (Brice) is a videographer hired to make a film for Josef, who is dying of a terminal illness. Or so he says. As Aaron quickly realizes, Josef may not be entirely on the level — and his eccentricity soon transitions into truly distressing behavior. Unlike other found footage films, Creep feels too real to easily dismiss. There’s something so normal about it all, even as Josef gets weirder and weirder, whether donning a wolf mask to scare Aaron or calmly talking about a sex crime he may or may not have committed. At only 78 minutes, Creep could feel too slight, but with strong performances and such believable horror at its core, it’s a captivating nightmare that lingers long after its runtime has ended.
Directed by: Jason Lei Howden
Written by: Jason Lei Howden
Deathgasm has drawn its share of comparisons to Evil Dead, and with good reason. The sardonic tone, biting script, and gleefully violent abandon feel like something that would star Bruce Campbell. But New Zealand filmmaker Jason Lei Howden’s splatterfest also owes a debt to another New Zealand horror-comedy classic, Peter Jackson’s Braindead (or Dead Alive, as it’s known in the U.S.). Deathgasm centers on Brodie (Milo Cawthorne), who forms a heavy metal band and inadvertently summons a demon. Cawthorne has a lot of gangly charm, in and out of makeup, and he’s aided by great co-stars, including Kimberley Crossman as his crush, Medina, who proves she can more than hold her own against the demonic threat. Whether or not you’re a fan of heavy metal culture, there’s a ton of fun to be had here. And the demon-possessed townspeople (who share some similarities with Evil Dead’s Deadites) are effectively creepy — yes, even when they’re being held off with giant dildos. There’s at least one New Zealand horror-comedy on this list every year (there are two this year) because, well, New Zealand does it better.
Directed by: Corin Hardy
Written by: Corin Hardy and Felipe Marino
The Hallow is like nothing we’ve seen before. Irish director Corin Hardy’s film, previously titled The Woods, has the most in common with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth — both are very dark fables. But The Hallow is also a quiet family drama and a gross-out body horror film. Joseph Mawle stars as Adam Hitchens, a conservationist who moves into the forest with his family, despite warnings from the locals. The creatures that ultimately descend on Adam, his wife, Claire (Bojana Novakovic), and their infant son are hard to explain — and perhaps the less said, the better. Either way, The Hallow works best when the focus is on the Hitchens family. They are compelling and deeply sympathetic characters, and that’s what makes their horrific situation so tough to watch. It’s not simply that the film is graphic — although it’s that, too, particularly when one of the characters undergoes a disturbing transformation — it’s also that The Hallow centers on a loving, relatably flawed family unit. They just happened to get stuck in the wrong kind of fairy tale.
Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Written by: Justin Benson
Another genre-bender, Spring is a gorgeous and strange film that defies easy categorization. It’s a romance that’s also sci-fi horror; it’s hilarious and very touching. With its European locale and whirlwind courtship, it feels a little like Before Sunrise, if the woman in Before Sunrise occasionally transformed into an unspeakably bizarre creature. There’s no easy way to explain Nadia Hilker’s Louise, and again, it’s best to go into Spring with as little knowledge as possible. Suffice it to say, her American beau Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), who encounters Louise on a spontaneous trip to Italy after the death of his parents, comes to realize that there is a lot more to Louise than what’s on the surface. Spring gets really interesting when Evan finds out exactly what Louise’s secret is. Without giving away too much of the plot, the film eschews the expected path, transitioning away from horror and into a very human relationship drama. It really is a lot like Before Sunrise, except sometimes there are tentacles.
Directed by: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Written by: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
New Zealand mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows is so full of great jokes and gags that it merits repeat viewing: Luckily, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience every time. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi — who star as vampires Viago (age: 379) and Vladislav (age: 862) — have crafted a relentlessly funny comedy about creatures of darkness trying to live relatively normal lives. The shocking bursts of violence (sloppy kills abound) are hilarious, but so much of the comedy comes from all the well-crafted characters. There’s Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), the familiar to Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), quiet human pal Stu (Stu Rutherford), and, of course, the mellowest of the vampire roommates, 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), who has developed a distinctly Nosferatu-esque appearance over the millennia. What We Do in the Shadows isn’t just one of the best horror films of the year — it’s one of the best all around. (Just ask our critic Alison Willmore, who included it on her list.) It’s about time for horror, comedy, and New Zealand cinema to get their critical due.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
It’s perfectly OK to disagree with people’s opinions on a film: Some loved Crimson Peak, a lot hated it. But so many of the complaints about this gorgeous gothic horror drama are off base. 1) “It’s not scary.” No, it isn’t, really, despite some intense ghosts, a thrilling conclusion, and the occasional scene of graphic violence. (What is it about del Toro and people getting their faces smashed in? Yikes.) 2) “It’s predictable.” It’s true, there aren’t many surprises to the story about Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who moves to creepy Allerdale Hall to live with her new husband, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and his mysteriously withdrawn sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). But horror doesn’t need jump-scares and twist endings to be successful, and Crimson Peak is more impressive for what it does well: It’s a stunning film anchored by very strong performances (Chastain is particularly great, playing against type). Once again, del Toro proves he’s adept at ambience — this is such a lush, well-realized world that you don’t want to leave it, even if there are ghosts about.
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Written by: David Robert Mitchell
It Follows is one of the most terrifying movies ever made, period. There’s more to great horror movies than their ability to scare audiences, sure, but It Follows still deserves credit for how unbelievably frightening it is from start to finish. David Robert Mitchell’s stunning film earned a ton of buzz this year — it also made my colleague Alison’s list — and with good reason. It’s a deceptively simple story of a young woman, Jay (Maika Monroe), who is being pursued by a shape-shifting entity after a sexual encounter. The STD metaphor is apt, yes, but It Follows doesn’t waste time shaming Jay, as some have unfairly interpreted. Instead, it plays off a thematic horror staple — sex equals death — and finds a thrilling new approach to the genre. Despite the notably ’80s feel, It Follows shows a lot more restraint than its predecessors. And while some have groused about apparent plot holes, the film is at its best when it holds back: Never fully explaining the demonic creature trailing Jay feels like a deliberate (and wise) choice. Vagueness is scary, much like a stranger slowly approaching in the distance.