19. The Sacrament
Directed by: Ti West
Written by: Ti West
It's easy to feel weary of found footage horror: The success of the Paranormal Activity series ushered in a surplus of copycat films, most of which were — much like the majority of Paranormal Activity sequels — disappointing. But there are still a few worthwhile found footage tricks emerging, as evidenced by several entries on this list, starting with Ti West's Jonestown Massacre-inspired The Sacrament. Vice reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) follow Patrick (Kentucker Audley) to utopian community Eden Parish, where Patrick's sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has fallen under the sway of a Jim Jones-esque religious leader who simply goes by Father (Gene Jones). The story largely proceeds how you'd expect it to, but the found footage format gives The Sacrament an urgency that makes the devolution into violence almost unbearably stressful to watch.
18. The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
The original 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown was based on actual murders that occurred in Texarkana, a town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. The 2014 version, produced by American Horror Story's Ryan Murphy — and written and directed by his frequent collaborators — is equal parts sequel and remake. It's a more meta take on the slasher film: Final Girl (Addison Timlin) is first attacked by the Phantom at Texarkana's annual Halloween screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The success of Gomez-Rejon's pseudo-reboot is its ability to not get bogged down by its own cleverness. Central conceit aside, it's a low-budget, no-frills slasher that is more effective for its restraint — much like the Phantom's simple but terrifying disguise.
17. Willow Creek
Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait
Written by: Bobcat Goldthwait
Another found-footage horror film, Willow Creek owes more to 1999's The Blair Witch Project than to the more recent Paranormal Activity films. But really, it owes everything to the endlessly creative mind of Bobcat Goldthwait, whose career as a filmmaker has shown impressive range and a penchant for the darkest of dark comedy, including World's Greatest Dad (2009) and God Bless America (2011). While the focus of Willow Creek is unique — the film tracks enthusiastic Bigfoot believer Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) as they search for the elusive crypto-hominid — it's not as shocking as Goldthwait's past efforts. Still, it offers real terror and some surprising humor that reflect the writer-director's considerable skills.
16. Starry Eyes
Directed by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Written by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
The price of fame isn't a particularly original notion, but Starry Eyes takes it to a riveting (and stomach-turning) new place. Aspiring actor Sarah (Alex Essoe) is desperate for her big break, and when she's up for a part in the mysterious film The Silver Scream, she finds herself pushed to her limit: Her body deteriorates and she begins to transform into something unrecognizable. It's an apt metaphor for the strain of trying to survive as an actor, and the rigors actors put themselves through — a deal with the devil, as it were. More to the point, it leads to some truly inspired body-horror gross-outs: There is a shower scene in particular that leaves a lasting impression, whether you want it to or not. The sheer power of Starry Eyes' imagery is what elevates it past the somewhat familiar Faustian plot.
Directed by: Kevin Smith
Written by: Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith's last foray into horror, 2011's Red State, was a surprising (and largely successful) diversion from his past (largely comedic) work. Tusk is firmly planted in the horror genre, but it has all the features of a Kevin Smith comedy: sharp dialogue, offbeat characters, exceptional weirdness, and unexpected poignancy. In Tusk, podcaster — and typical Smithian asshole — Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is lured to Manitoba by eccentric retired seaman Howard Howe (Michael Parks). After being drugged and mutilated, Wallace realizes he's being held captive by a lunatic who will stop at nothing until he has transformed Wallace into something inhuman. The grotesquerie of Tusk's body-horror elements is grounded by strong performances from Long and Parks, as well as a script from Smith that isn't afraid to mine humor from unimaginable suffering.
14. Nurse 3D
Directed by: Doug Aarniokoski
Written by: Doug Aarniokoski and David Loughery
Nurse 3D is largely about aesthetics: Inspired by photographer (and Lionsgate chief marketing officer) Tim Palen's work, the film is basically a concept. But that concept — a homicidal nurse takes revenge on cheating men — gives the incomparable Paz de la Huerta free reign to be as freaky, naked, and bloody as she wants to be. The gruesome results don't reinvent the slasher genre, and the plot — which revolves around the psychosexual manipulation of Danni Rodgers (Katrina Bowden) at the hands of de la Huerta's Abby Russell — is very Single White Female, but de la Huerta thrives in the intersection of style and substance. Nurse 3D may not be high art — and with that title, that's probably to be expected — but it's still a relentlessly entertaining vehicle for its unique star.
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Written by: Keith Bunin
Joe Hill's 2010 novel Horns got a faithful adaptation in Alexandre Aja's movie, but it still left some critics baffled. And that's to be expected. It's an odd, dark little fable: Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe), falsely accused of the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), grows devil horns that bring out the basest urges in everyone around him, which he hopes will lead him to the true culprit. Radcliffe is great as Ig — not always likable, but thoroughly compelling as he begins to embrace his newfound powers. With a role that lets him delve into the darkness, Radcliffe continues to shed his Harry Potter past. For those unfamiliar with the source material, Horns may be a tougher sell, but giving oneself over to the film is a rich and satisfying experience.
Directed by: Derek Lee and Clif Prowse
Written by: Derek Lee and Clif Prowse
Afflicted gives the found-footage genre a thoroughly 2014 spin by making its protagonists YouTubers. Filmmakers Derek Lee and Clif Prowse play versions of themselves, ostensibly: two friends who embark on a European vacation while filming it all for their web series. The men seem so enmeshed in the world of YouTube — the affected personas and the desire for instant feedback — that Afflicted feels realer than so many forays into found footage. Even as Derek begins to exhibit signs of vampirism, the film remains grounded in reality. There's something astute about the observation that these millennials, faced with a supernatural disease and increasing brutality they can't understand, still can't bring themselves to put down the camera and stop filming. Everything must be documented and uploaded, no matter how horrible.
11. Late Phases
Directed by: Adrián García Bogliano
Written by: Eric Stolze
There are no teenagers in peril in Late Phases, a horror film that's as much about the fears of growing old and feeble as it is about werewolves. Nick Damici stars as Ambrose, a blind Vietnam veteran who moves into a retirement community and is almost immediately attacked by a werewolf. Ambrose is not your typical horror film protagonist, and that's what makes him so fascinating to watch: His age and disability, so rarely seen within the genre, give the audience so much more to invest in. Because Ambrose knows exactly what attacked him and when the creature is coming back, the story itself is simple; the thrill is in watching him prepare for the next full moon, all while convincing his son Will (Ethan Embry) that there's still a lot of fight left in him.
10. Big Bad Wolves
Directed by: Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
Written by: Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
The Israeli Big Bad Wolves is a more horrific (but somehow less bleak) look at how far a father will go to save his kidnapped child than 2013's Prisoners. Here, the girl's father Gidi (Tzahi Grad) and disgraced police officer Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) take turns torturing their suspect Dror (Rotem Keinan) in the hopes that he'll reveal the location of his most recent victim. The torture is nauseating in its brutality, but Big Bad Wolves places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with the perpetrators while simultaneously doubting Dror's guilt. It's a difficult watch, punctuated by moments of dark humor that alleviate some of the stress but also contribute to the queasy moral uncertainty that permeates the film.
Directed by: Gerard Johnstone
Written by: Gerard Johnstone
There's something about Kiwi filmmakers and their artful blend of comedy and horror. With Housebound, first-time director Gerard Johnstone follows in the proud tradition of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and The Frighteners, though Johnstone's vision stands out on its own. Morgana O'Reilly stars as Kylie Bucknell, a thwarted thief who's forced into house arrest alongside her overbearing mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata). Miriam is convinced that her house is haunted, but Kylie — who openly disdains her mother and resents her new living arrangements — refuses to give in to superstition... That is, until she experiences some unexplained disturbances. Housebound takes unexpected turns as Kylie uncovers the root of the haunting, but the film's true success is maintaining a consistent level of laughs and scares throughout.
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Perhaps the most mainstream release on this list, Oculus is a very pleasant surprise, a deeply unsettling horror film that takes terrifying and startling turns. Shifting back and forth between the past and the present, the film follows siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as adults, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as kids) in their attempts to destroy a haunted mirror that Kaylie believes to be responsible for the death of their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff). It might sound silly on the surface, but Oculus is adept at repeatedly subverting audience expectations, using the mirror's ability to warp reality to great effect. There are plenty of shocking moments throughout, but it's the gut-punch of an ending that leaves the most indelible impression.
7. Cheap Thrills
Directed by: E.L. Katz
Written by: Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo
Cheap Thrills is one of several horror films that explore how far desperate people will go for money, and it's easily one of the best. It helps that the script is very dark (and very funny), and that the top-notch cast is game for the curveballs that Cheap Thrills throws at them. Craig (Pat Healy) and his high school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) have a chance encounter with rich couple Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), who pay the men to perform increasingly dangerous stunts for Violet's sick entertainment. Cheap Thrills could easily be categorized as a thriller or dark comedy — it's certainly those things too — but there's real horror in what Craig and Vince are willing to do to themselves and to each other in the name of survival.
6. The Taking of Deborah Logan
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Written by: Gavin Heffernan and Adam Robitel
The Taking of Deborah Logan takes everything you think you know about found-footage horror and possession films and turns that on its head. For her thesis, Mia (Michelle Ang) leads a documentary team making a movie about Alzheimer's patient Deborah Logan (Jill Larson). As Deborah's symptoms become increasingly strange, her daughter Sarah (Anne Ramsay) suspects that there is something else at play. This is one of the most terrifying possession films in recent memory, preying on a very real fear of human illness and losing one's mind, while also delving into the supernatural. You may think you know where The Taking of Deborah Logan is going, but the film refuses to be constrained by its genre. Larson is thoroughly committed to her role, making Deborah a tragic but terrifying figure, and creating a harrowing viewing experience.
5. The Babadook
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Over the past several weeks, The Babadook has earned extensive critical acclaim and become one of the most buzzed-about horror films of the year. It's also one of two movies on this list that also made it onto BuzzFeed film critic Alison Willmore's list of the best films of 2014. And with good reason! The Babadook is a simple but truly frightening horror film, and the creepy boogeyman at its center isn't even the scariest thing about it. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow who can barely keep control of her hyperactive son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), whose rich imagination begins to get the better of her. While the Babadook itself is scary, Amelia's insomnia-inspired descent into madness, which manifests in the form of rage and ambiguous delusions, is worse. How much of the threat is real and how much is in the heads of Amelia and her son? It's terrifying either way.
Directed by: Stewart Thorndike
Written by: Stewart Thorndike
Lyle has been described as a "lesbian Rosemary's Baby," which is both entirely accurate and limiting. Yes, the plot — about a pregnant woman named Leah (Gaby Hoffmann) who is convinced there's a conspiracy around her unborn child — owes a lot to Rosemary's Baby, with a distinctly queer flavor. But Lyle is also a very different movie, exploring the loss Leah feels after the death of her first child (the titular Lyle) and her growing distance from her wife June (Ingrid Jungermann). Hoffmann is tremendous as always: Within the confines of a 65-minute micro-budget film, she manages to display varying degrees of grief, madness, and horror that — along with Stewart Thorndike's tight script and direction — elevate Lyle past its already intriguing logline.
3. Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer's bizarre arthouse film might not be considered horror by many, but its aims are deeply rooted in the genre. Under the Skin is a movie about the male gaze. As my colleague Alison Willmore puts it, "It confronts the very idea of what we do at the movies: watch." Scarlett Johansson's nameless alien creature lets the men she encounters look at her, but only so she can kill them — without touching them at all, it's worth noting. Horror is often criticized as misogynistic, but so many horror films traffic in the same subversion and turn a knowing eye back on the viewer. Under the Skin isn't a traditional horror or sci-fi film — but there's really nothing traditional about it. Thematically, however, it's about confronting the realities of the way men look at women and the destructiveness of sexual desire. What could be more horrifying than that?
2. The Guest
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Simon Barrett
Like Under the Skin, The Guest's designation as a horror film might furrow some brows, even if it is Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's follow-up feature to You're Next, my pick for the best horror film of 2013. Yes, The Guest is an action thriller, but the setup is pure horror: David Collins (Dan Stevens) claims to be a vet returning home to visit the family of his fallen fellow soldier, but turns out to be not what he seems. While the false identity narrative is familiar, Barrett's predictably sharp script takes the film to unexpected places. At the helm, Wingard has an eye for tense action set pieces, of which there are many. The Guest is a full-speed, anxiety-inducing ride that all comes down to the brilliant final sequence, set in an otherwise unremarkable high school haunted house.
1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour
Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour
Another genre-bender, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a stunning feature-length debut from Ana Lily Amirpour. Promoted as "the first Iranian vampire Western," the film doesn't falsely advertise. But beyond its inventive premise, it's gorgeously shot and scored, making it one of the most stylish and memorable films of the year. Sheila Vand stars as the Girl, a vampire who preys on the residents of Bad City and makes time for a romance with Arash (Arash Marandi). As one of several female-driven horror films on this list, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is searingly feminist. The Girl's righteous revenge against the evil men who rule Bad City is exceptional wish fulfillment, but she also demands a love story on her own terms, leaving Arash to accept her as she is. It's all so satisfying to watch, and even more so when you realize Amirpour has, one hopes, a long career of daring and effortlessly hip films ahead.