Like Comics Editor Carol mentioned in her own year-end list, sometimes you don’t write about the awesome thing because you admire it so much, you don’t really have much to contribute beyond, “WOW, THAT KICKED ASS.” Two years on, this is why I’ve yet to write about Mandy. Or maybe it just isn’t something you want to talk about, or it’s too similar to something you’ve already spent a lot of time on. And yet I can’t let the year pass without hollering about these fine scary films.
This is not a comprehensive best-of list. I mean, I haven’t seen everything. I have a toddler and a day job. And I’m only covering movies I haven’t written about, which means one of my favorites this year, The Perfection, which I wrote about here, isn’t covered. This is how my bests will vary from other bests you might see. They are no less best for that though! We’re going through a Horror Golden Age, folks. If only it were confined to fiction.*
Knife+Heart, directed by Yann Gonzalez, written by Yann Gonzalez and Cristiano Mangione, starring Vanessa Paradis.
Knife+Heart is a ridiculously beautiful, Argento-influenced (but I repeat myself) story of blighted loves and serial murders on the set of a gay porno in late 70s Paris. Director Anne is the character we travel with, though her first appearance, hysterically begging girlfriend/editor Lois to take her back had me thinking we would be behind Lois’ eyes the most. Lois was rooted, sympathetic, relatable. Anne seemed off-puttingly stereotypical, just an unfaithful junkie ex. But this is a film best viewed from the personal cellar Anne has dug for herself. As the actors on Anne’s shoot are seduced and killed off by a masked murderer, Anne and Lois, who is also Anne’s editor, struggle with their love for each other, driving Anne to actions that our mystery killer might well sympathize with. I love how Yann Gonzalez juxtaposes the sordid and sublime throughout the movie, his depiction of almost familial bonds between the cast and crew of Homocidal and the sweetness of real, loving intimacy contrasted by the cheap silliness of Homocidal set pieces and the brutality of the masked killer. Blind blackbirds healing the sick, ridiculous money shots, a switchblade dildo, and a cast that looks as though they survive on cigarettes animate a prejudiced world littered with broken hearts and elevate it into an almost mythic place. It’s the most gorgeous sorrow of the year.
Haunt, written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, starring Katie Stevens and Will Brittain.
In my #31DaysofHorror challenge this year, I spent a not-insignificant portion of it watching the Hell House LLC films on Shudder. The Hell House series proposes that a haunted house attraction is, in fact, haunted, and similarly, Haunt proposes that a haunted house attraction is, in fact, staffed with serial killers. In it, demure, haunted Harper, possibly stalked by an abusive boyfriend, definitely suffering a PTSD hangover from her parents’ abusive relationship, joins her roomie and friends for a night out on Halloween, meets a cutie at a bar, and they all seek out a haunted house to end the night. And hoo boy, do they get a haunt to end the night. Everything starts fairly benign, but as the group is drawn deeper into the rooms of plastic sheeting, fog machines, and fake spiders, the pretense peels away, like a ghoulish mask falling to reveal something genuinely unspeakable. “Let’s see what’s under your mask,” becomes a leitmotif, and Harper finds herself in the position of many a Final Girl, forced to find out if she can kill rather than be killed.
The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers, written by Max Eggers and Robert Eggers, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The VVitch — yeah, I’m spelling it like that — is another study in hell being other people, the hell and the people in this case being a hard-drinking lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and his new helper (Robert Pattinson). While Pattinson’s character seems upright and industrious, before long, he’s betraying his own unsavoriness, and the relationship between him and the boss veers wildly from combative to grudging to bosom pals back to combative, all while a ferocious Nor’ester traps them in the lighthouse like murderous sardines in a can. Like Eggers’ previous outing, the supernatural elements are sensual and provocative, but fleeting and hard to separate from the madness encroaching on our two doomed souls. If Poe were alive, he’d be into it. Hell, if Samuel Beckett were alive, he’d be into it. Light on the gore, but I’ll tell you, it still ends with an image that’ll be tattooed on your eyelids. Bleurgh.
Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, starring Florence Pugh.
Midsommar was 2019’s Get Out, a big, bold splash that everyone saw and talked about, and they should have, because it was pretty much perfect. I preferred it a lot to Ari Aster’s previous entry, Hereditary, for entirely subjective reasons, because it was substantively quite similar: granular, obsessive attention to detail; unflinching gore in judiciously-chosen sequences; incessant foreshadowing; so much grief, so much struggling against grief, and so many different kinds of grief, too.
Midsommar follows poor Dani, a girl on the edge after her suicidal sister sends an ominous email. One heartbreaking tragedy later, Dani is leaning on her unsteady boyfriend Christian, a conflict-avoidant douchebro who’s been working up the nerve to break up for months. Instead, he keeps on being halfway there for her, eventually guiltily inviting her along when she discovers his plans to hit a midsummer festival in Sweden with his grad school buddies.
I don’t mean to be hard on Christian. We all know a Christian. We probably have all been a Christian. And therein is some of the genius of the piece. Incredibly believable people doing what the actual fuck things. It takes me back to a shocked, grieving young man in Hereditary going to bed and allowing his mother to wake to a parent’s worst nightmare parked in their driveway. The rest of the genius is finding a million ways to insinuate wrongness and dread into the golden, smiling folk festival of the Harga. Truly unmissable.
Don’t watch Midsommar alone. Not that it’s that scary; you’ll just want someone to rag on Christian to.
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, written and directed by Lukas Feigelfeld, starring Aleksandra Cwen.
Hagazussa (old High German for witch) shows us the story of lonely goatherd** Albrun, alienated and abused by villagers, who grows, as naturally as a bent twig grows, into witchcraft. There’s not much dialogue, no narration, and absolutely nothing else expository in the whole thing, which might bar entry to some, not to mention the glacial pace within its four parts. To me, it is a quieter, mostly one-woman version of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch, especially the stunning isolation and unlikely climb towards a powerful supernatural finish. And of course, Albrun also has significant goats.
The movie reminds me, too, of harsh, brief, lyrical lives from Angela Carter’s fabulist work. There’s not a lot of story here, but it’s like a fairytale in that way. It’s also like a fairytale by virtue of unfair calamities stalking Albrun, her property, and her independence in the shape of her pagan mother and suspicious villagers. When they come, Albrun’s murderous exploits feel inevitable. Her witchification is amplified by the taut, minimalist score closing in to make crucial moments almost claustrophobic. And of course, Aleksandra Cwen carries the film with the best performance I’ve seen on a screen since Essie Davis in The Babadook. Not enough people will see it. If I had gotten my PhD and taught a course on the history of witchcraft persecutions, supernatural ending or not, I’d open the course with this film. Albrun is absolutely the kind of woman Kramer and Sprenger warned you about.
Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex.
When Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) was a kid in the 80s, she went to a carnival on the boardwalk, visited the house of mirrors, and discovered among her many reflections a living double. She emerged from the house of mirrors traumatized and unable to speak. Decades later, as she prepares to visit the beach and the boardwalk with her husband and children, nightmares torment her about what visited her in the dark there. The double in the dark has been thinking a lot about her, too.
Us sits in this weird liminal space between satanic/corporate conspiracy thrillers that were so popular in the 1970s and early 80s (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Halloween III), straight-up slashers, and the tricky, conceptual twists of M. Night Shyamalan. As Peele’s follow-up to Get Out, another sinister conspiracy film, Us never approaches that film’s cohesiveness, although I don’t really think it wanted to. A story that examines the fallout of a society’s evil attempt to contain individuals probably should defy containment itself. When I couldn’t resist picking at the plot when we left the theater, my husband cried out, “Stop ruining the thing I love!” And that’s the thing. Even when it doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny, the emotional truth haunts you. I never really felt fear for Adelaide’s family, but even now, I can’t fail to feel horror for Adelaide and her double. It is all so unfair.
Crawl, directed by Alexandre Aja, written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, starring Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper.
If the downbeat horrors of Us, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, or Hagazussa leave you feeling mildly traumatized, may I suggest queuing up Crawl? Crawl purports to be a disaster flick about a Florida town buffeted by a hurricane and overrun with hungry gators, but it sneaks in there a feelgood film about a broken family with a grown-up daughter healing her fractious relationship with her dad. Do not worry; people do get eaten, and whether it’s horrifying or hilarious, it’s always clever. Kaya Scodelario is amazing as collegiate swimmer/dutiful daughter Hayley, who drives into a hurricane to check on her incommunicado daddy, all the while the radio is exhorting parents to think about their children and heed evacuation warnings. It’s a good thing she does, too, because Daddy has a dog, and we definitely don’t want that dog to die. Hayley eventually finds her dad bloody and unconscious in a crawlspace beneath their former family home, but they also have some scaly squatters in there, and it’s flooding quickly, too. The last 45 minutes of the movie begs to be riffed, but it’s not like that makes it any less of a good time, and Hayley and Dad are an impressive action duo that could totally survive any Resident Evil game.
Pet Sematary, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer, written by Jeff Buhler, starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.
This isn’t a remake; it’s a remix, and I love it. I love the setting. Man, that farmhouse was gawjuss and I’d take it, cursed graveyard or not. I love the creepy Pet Sematary and the creepier secret tribal lands beyond the Deadfall. I love the silent procession of kids with the animal masks that are way too good for actual kids to have created, and if actual kids didn’t create them, I have questions. I love the casting. All of the actors are perfect in their roles, even John Lithgow as a less audible Mainer than the late, great Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall, the lovable old coot who should have freaking known better. A simple update would have been easy, but this movie takes a better path. It’s a purposeful retelling of Stephen King’s classic riff on the Monkey’s Paw, in which a doctor tempts fate by burying his daughter’s beloved cat in an abandoned Native American burial ground, gets an evil zombie cat back, and refuses to learn the lesson when his baby son is struck and killed by a speeding tanker truck on their rural road. No one quite imperils kids like Stephen King, which is exactly what you expect from a great horror writer who really loves his children.
I love the decision to [Hi, I’m about to do a spoiler!] swap the Orinco truck’s victim from babbling baby Gage to Ellie. One, it helps the plot a little if a barely articulate toddler is the antenna for warnings from beyond, which was Ellie’s job in the book and the original movie. Kids say the darnedest things, and it’s easier to misunderstand if it’s not a more mature child, able to construct whole sentences. Two, while a demonic toddler is plenty disturbing, a conscious, deliberate, evil version of a sweet little ballerina, for my money, is much more intimidating. And it feels right, since the inciting event for all this misery was the burial of Ellie’s cat. And given that Ellie is the one asking uncomfortable questions about death at the beginning of the film, it’s more meaningful that she is the one lying in her bed, recently resurrected, her misshapen, blue-veined face betraying the work of morticians as well as the hand of death. As she realizes that she is dead, it opens up a heartbreaking window into her malice. The heart of this film, just like the book, is the absolute soul-wagering desperation grief reduces us to, and it turns out the things you can’t explain to your young daughter, you probably can’t admit to yourself.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by André Øvredal, written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, starring Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza.
This film gets included in my list of greatest horror hits I missed writing about in 2019, but I’m sure I’ll return to it. There’s just so much to love here: the winsome framing story of the (fictional) writing of the tales included in the classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, the incredible fidelity to the original, legendary Scary Stories illustrations by Stephen Gammell, and the gruesome relish of the scary stories themselves. What I love most though could easily be considered a liability in the mercenary light of marketing, and that’s its tonal tightrope between the innocence of childhood and onscreen neck snaps. While it might seem at the outset a Hocus Pocus-grade tween flick about blushing crushes, bullies, and ancient witches, the scary stories nestle throughout the film like perfect little horror landmines. Nor does it tidy anything up with a pleasing bromide by the end; unfair horrors await our heroes on the other side of childhood, a theme which makes its setting in the Vietnam era even more poignant.
In Fabric, written and directed by Peter Strickland, starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires, Leo Bill
I love this movie. This is a perfect example of the more I love, the less I say because I should be telling you the plot and I immediately get a faraway look, like JD on Scrubs, dreaming the exquisite visuals, deliberately bizarre dialogue, relentless dark humor. The perfect juxtaposition of relatable mundanity and absurd sensuality. The propensity of the movie to be inappropriate without ever being wrong. I start to type and just want to watch it again. The dress got me, too.
Because this is a movie about a haunted “artery red” dress. It’s sold to a lonely divorcee (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) with a frustrating job and a frustrating ex and a frustrating son with a frustrating older girlfriend. She’s looking for something special for a lonelyhearts date night, and what’s more special than a dress whose model died while wearing it? (To be fair, she doesn’t know that at first.) The shop where she bought the thing is one of the film’s greatest delights, with its awkward, hypnotic retro ads and chief saleslady speaking in odd, overwrought ESL riddles. It is like Dario Argento directed an old Amicus horror film, and the studio brought in Ken Russell to perv it up. But even that does not do it justice.
I know I said this isn’t a conventional best of list, but I’m still ending it with my favorite film of the year. Knife+Heart, Scary Stories, Midsommar, and The Perfection come close, and everything on this list is as well done, but this one is special among special to me. I hope you’ll find something new here that is special to you. too.
* Horror on the small screen is amazing, too. You need Creepshow on Shudder in your life, and Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot has proven itself the true inheritor of Rod Serling’s legacy series to me.
**Lay ee odl lay ee odl-oo
Angela would like to give an honorable mention to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who novel Scratchman, which is neither a film nor horror, but is surprisingly harrowing for a book where you know all the principals live. If Clive Barker’s vision of hell were as relentless and strange, she might have better enjoyed The Scarlet Gospels. Zombie scarecrows and some real Goya painting stuff in those pages. Get on it.