19. The Lords of Salem
Directed by: Rob Zombie
Written by: Rob Zombie
Rob Zombie’s unique style produces hit-or-miss results, even within the same series: 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses was a disaster, while its follow-up, 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects, is a modern-day horror classic. The Lords of Salem feels like something new entirely, following radio host and recovering drug addict Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) as she becomes possessed by a witches’ chant. In many ways, the film is subtler than Zombie’s past works, while still paying homage to classic horror. At times, it reads as Rob Zombie’s interpretation of Rosemary’s Baby, right down to the kooky neighbors who are actually witches.
Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead
Written by: Justin Benson
The central conceit for Resolution would be frightening enough without any supernatural elements: Michael (Peter Cilello) handcuffs his junkie friend Chris (Vinny Curran) to a pipe in a run-down house as a last-ditch attempt to get Chris sober. But the psychological horror soon spirals into something even worse, as Michael discovers film footage that foretells a dark future. It’s a tense film broken up with moments of genuine comedy, culminating in an ambiguous and truly unsettling conclusion. There are no cheap scares, just a relentless sense of dread that runs through every scene.
Directed by: Conor McMahon
Written by: Conor McMahon
It’s hard to do killer clowns right. Sure, clowns are inherently frightening, but they’re also absurd, and clown-centric horror films have a hard time striking the right balance between gruesome and funny. Stitches offers perhaps the perfect blend: Even at its goriest, it’s so over-the-top that it’s almost cartoonish. At the same time, Stitches (Ross Noble), a reanimated clown seeking revenge on the kids who accidentally offed him at a child’s birthday party, is appropriately menacing. He’s campy enough to delight you — he makes balloon animals with one victim’s intestines — but you’re still a little terrified.
16. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Written by: Jacob Forman
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is the oldest movie on this list: While it finally hit select theaters and DVD this year, it’s actually been lingering with a troubled distribution deal since 2006. What’s impressive is that, even seven years after the fact, the film still feels fresh. It’s a straightforward slasher — the titular Mandy (Amber Heard) is menaced by a psycho killer along with her attractive high school friends — with some genuinely subversive elements. Because the movie has been available (if not officially) for so long, you may have heard the twist by now. Knowing that doesn’t really diminish the effect, which is a gut-punch — or, more accurately, a gut-stab.
15. Berberian Sound Studio
Directed by: Peter Strickland
Written by: Peter Strickland
Berberian Sound Studio is about making a giallo, the kind of bizarre ’70s Italian horror popularized by Dario Argento, among others. And yet, there are none of the giallo’s trademark visuals or gore. That’s because the film-within-a-film is heard but not seen, as foley artist Gilderoy (Toby Jones) tries to create sound effects for an increasingly brutal movie. Sometimes hearing is worse, though: Berberian Sound Studio is punctuated by screams, not to mention the sounds of flesh boiled in oil and hair pulled from its roots. By the time the film takes a surreal turn in its final act, we’re already trying to shut our ears, a more daunting prospect than closing our eyes.
Directed by: Dennis Iliadis
Written by: Bill Gullo (screenplay) and Dennis Iliadis (story)
At the beginning, +1 feels like the kind of movie you’ve seen before: A group of college students try to repair relationships and get laid at the biggest party of the year. But things quickly go south thanks to some mysterious alien intervention, and before you can say “keg stand,” time is slipping out of control. As guests at the party come face to face with their exact doubles, the wonder quickly turns to horror — the existential questions are heavy enough, but on a purely practical level, what happens when there’s two of you in one place at the same time? +1 is adept at conveying the anxiety these young people feel as the party devolves into chaos.
Directed by: Franck Khalfoun
Written by: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, and C.A. Rosenberg
The original Maniac was controversial in 1980 for its extreme violence and perverse subject matter. The remake, of course, comes at a time of different standards. Yes, the gore is more explicit, but what Maniac does that’s far more interesting is put you in the mind of the killer, quite literally. For most of the film, the audience sees through the eyes of Frank Zito (Elijah Wood), a psychopath who scalps women to dress up his mannequins. The gimmick could wear thin, but Wood is so strong in this deeply twisted role — and the murders so brutal — that the overall experience is both satisfying and unbearable. By the end, you feel culpable. And filthy.
Directed by: Eric England
Written by: Eric England
The plot of Contracted is fairly straightforward: At a party, Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is drugged and raped by a stranger. The next day, she begins suffering from the symptoms of a strange STI. But Contracted isn’t merely interested in grossing out the audience. (It is, to be fair, really gross, showcasing the kind of body horror weirdness that will make fans of David Cronenberg squirm in appreciation.) There’s also a rather obvious allegory at play, as Samantha struggles to cover up the increasingly obvious signs of her sexual assault. That this was something done to her and not anything she asked for is lost on those around her.
11. Evil Dead
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Written by: Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues
Despite what some have claimed, 2013 wasn’t a great year for mainstream horror. The Conjuring and The Purge, for all their accolades, were weak and derivative overall. Surprisingly, it’s a remake that offered the year’s most original studio horror. Evil Dead doesn’t feel much like the original — gone is the humor, both intentional and otherwise — but it’s an interesting film in its own right. Jane Levy is great as Mia: She serves as both demon and Final Girl, culminating in a gloriously bloody final confrontation that rivals the original Evil Dead’s. And no, I’m not referring to Bruce Campbell’s split-second cameo.
Directed by: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sánchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, and Jason Eisener
Written by: Simon Barrett, Jamie Nash, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, and John Davies
Like V/H/S, the first anthology film in this series, V/H/S/2 isn’t all great. But in this case, the strong segments outweigh the weak ones, and the overall result is a disturbing and legitimately frightening set of found-footage shorts. Special attention is due to A Ride in the Park, which documents a zombie outbreak from the perspective of a camera on a cyclist’s helmet, and Safe Haven, an incredibly disturbing look into an Indonesian cult. The V/H/S series knows how to use found footage to its advantage, not wasting time on shaky-cam tricks so much as assaulting the audience with truly in-your-face horror.
9. We Are What We Are
Directed by: Jim Mickle
Written by: Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
The secret of the family at the center of We Are What We Are is teased out long after it’s obvious — but that doesn’t matter. The film is less about finding out what the Parker family is and more about the internal struggle within the family. When their mother dies, daughters Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers) try to break free from their violent traditions, while patriarch Frank (Bill Sage) refuses to budge. It’s a thoughtful, slow-moving film with the occasional jarring burst of violence that underlines the horror. Without giving too much away, the final scene in particular is gorgeous but difficult to stomach.
8. Bad Milo!
Directed by: Jacob Vaughan
Written by: Benjamin Hayes and Jacob Vaughan
While several of the films on this list employ humor, Bad Milo! is the most explicitly comedic of the bunch. And it is funny! Duncan (Ken Marino) learns there’s a demon living inside his ass — it emerges in the most uncomfortable way imaginable — bent on enacting Duncan’s hidden urges, especially when those involve murder. Milo’s rampage is violent and disgusting — I mentioned the part about him living in Duncan’s ass, right? — but it’s grounded in Duncan’s desire to be a good person without becoming a doormat. Even with blood and shit flying in various directions, Bad Milo! actually proves poignant in the end, a rare and impressive feat.
7. Curse of Chucky
Directed by: Don Mancini
Written by: Don Mancini
The trailer for the latest direct-to-DVD installment of the Child’s Play franchise didn’t exactly inspire confidence, which is why the joy of Curse of Chucky was such a pleasant surprise. It’s not the CGI-addled reboot fans incorrectly guessed it might be, but rather a true continuation of the story, returned to its sincere horror roots. At this point, the revelations we get about serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) don’t add much — but it’s refreshing to see a sequel so fully committed to its origins, while also bringing something new to the table. Leave it to Chucky’s creator Don Mancini to get things so right.
6. The Battery
Directed by: Jeremy Gardner
Written by: Jeremy Gardner
If The Walking Dead has taught us anything, it’s that the zombie story needn’t be about the zombies — the survivors are far more interesting. But The Battery proves more effective than AMC’s uneven series in fleshing out its characters Ben (Jeremy Gardner, who also wrote and directed the film) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim), two former baseball players doing their best to stick together and stay alive. There are some genuinely stressful moments, but most of the film presents horror on a different level, with a fantastic soundtrack doing all it can to drown out the ever-present zombie moans.
5. Dark Touch
Directed by: Marina de Van
Written by: Marina de Van
The story of a troubled girl who can move things with her mind has been told again and again — see Carrie, either the original or this year’s lesser remake. But Dark Touch is so much more than that. Missy Keating plays Niamh, a young girl whose parents and brother are killed when the furniture in her house literally turns against them. It’s clear pretty early on that Niamh is controlling the furniture — and her reasons for doing so, however subconscious, are heavily hinted at from the beginning. And yet, the awful revelations still get under your skin, as the telekinetic violence reveals a story about the cycle of abuse and its inevitably bleak conclusion.
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Written by: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, and Amy Jump
Sightseers is another comedy, albeit so dark and dry that it’s unclear when to laugh and when to shield your eyes. Tina and Chris (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who collaborated on the script) just want to go on a holiday in a caravan together, but that’s complicated when they keep killing people — first by accident and then for reasons only they understand. Their dysfunctional relationship and emotional problems would make for compelling viewing even without the occasional homicide. The joy in Sightseers, however, is seeing the plot elevate to something neither “serial killer” is equipped to handle — and watching them flail.
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Written by: Moira Buffini
From Neil Jordan, the man who brought us the film adaptation of Interview With a Vampire, comes another vampire tale that’s more supernatural drama than horror film. And yet, Byzantium has enough scenes of genuine terror to qualify for inclusion here — they’re just secondary to the deeper character moments. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is a sensitive vampire, killing only those who want to die, while her supposed sister Clara (Gemma Arterton) does whatever she can to keep Eleanor safe. The truth of their origins gets revealed in flashbacks throughout: It’s a new take on vampire mythology, rich with striking imagery and serious pathos.
2. Black Rock
Directed by: Katie Aselton
Written by: Mark Duplass
Feminist horror is hard to find, if only because so much of the genre is incorrectly labeled. Just because a female character is raped and then seeks revenge on her rapists doesn’t make the film a feminist statement — regardless of what other merits I Spit on Your Grave has. But Black Rock turns the rape-revenge genre on its head: It’s a true subversion of the tropes that actually has something to say, whether it’s that flirtation is not the same as consent, or that the strength to overcome their attackers lies in the bond these women share. Black Rock is also just plain scary, making it a strong horror debut overall from director and star Katie Aselton.
1. You’re Next
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Simon Barrett
You’re Next got unfairly lumped in with The Purge, because both are home invasion thrillers in which the attackers wear masks. The truth is, You’re Next is in a separate class entirely — it’s an invigorating and fresh addition to the genre, combining familiar slasher elements and more modern conventions to form a contemporary classic. Erin (Sharni Vinson), in particular, is one of the best Final Girls in recent memory: Her willingness to not only survive but also fight back, at any cost, makes her a worthy successor to Laurie Strode and Sidney Prescott, both of whom she could easily take in a fight. Seriously, she’s that good.
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