Since the creation of film, there have been horror movies.
They have lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly going unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The second decade of the 21st century brought with it a new self-awareness to the horror genre. Remakes and reboots were tiresome, many of the original films didn’t garner quite enough success to get sequels, and the Final Destination and Saw franchises were coming to a close (or so we thought). It was time for horror movies to be reborn. Starting in 2010, the new tone of scary films varied from intense and psychological to satirical takes on done-to-death tropes.
We’re in the so-called renaissance of horror. The attitudes and opinions about the genre are changing as art houses create films that mystify audiences and critics alike and make them ask if “X film is a horror movie?” Creature features like The Shape of Water can win Best Picture, socially charged horror like Get Out gets people talking, and the blockbuster horror is back from the dead. Many of these films benefit from a deeper metaphorical message where the monster stands in for something else like back in the classics period, but the return of practical terror instead of just gore has brought things to the next level. There are hundreds to talk about, but here are just five notable entries in the past nine years.
- Insidious (2010). Director James Wan, writer Leigh Whannell, and composer Joseph Bishara are like some kind of horror dream team. They’ve paired up before and after this film in different combinations—Wan and Whannell co-created Saw and Wan and Bishara have worked together on The Conjuring franchise—but the trio shine in this much-hyped film that spawned its own franchise. The movie follows the Lambert family as, shortly after moving into a new home, their son falls into an unexplainable coma and odd phenomena begin to occur. Despite moving houses, nothing changes and the truth may lie further beyond the reality that they’ve known. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne do nice work as the concerned parents of Dalton, struggling to figure out what’s wrong with their son and their home. Lin Shaye shines as Elise, a medium hired by the couple, and it’s easy to tell why that character was later chosen to become the face of the franchise. The jump scares always pay off, and Joseph Bishara’s score unsettles with every taut string. Other than Elise, many of the characters are a little underdeveloped and a couple even disappear halfway through the film, but the universe that surrounds them is rich with detail and begs to be explored. Wan’s visuals and Whannell’s script work well together to create a moody and frightful film that may find its way into your dreams.
- The Innkeepers (2011). Ti West is a relatively under-recognized director of the horror genre when compared to household names like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, or James Wan. However, most of his films have excellent visuals, satisfying storylines, and pay nice homages to staples of the horror genre. The Innkeepers toes the line between being an arguably good ghost story and a poorly paced bore at times, but it’s not bad to look at in any of its scenes. The film takes place over the closing weekend at the Yankee Pedlar Inn as its two employees deal with guests and try to document and make contact with the hotel’s resident ghost, Madeline O’Malley. The majority of the film is hotel business and relationship building between Claire and Luke; it’s a quiet, casual sort of creep toward a frantic climax that will leave you breathless in all the best ways. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy have nice chemistry as Claire and Luke, and do their best to carry the slow pacing of the film. The inclusion of a character with asthma in a horror film is something that I wish we had more of, and it twists the ending in possibly delightful ways. The film, overall, doesn’t try to do anything new with the paranormal investigation or haunting subgenres, but its hushed atmosphere lends itself to the jump scares that are both usual and surprising.
- Krampus (2015). Are you looking for a horror film with a side of Christmas magic? Then look no further than this holiday romp. For the Engel family, the holidays are already a horror story—packed stores, lots to do, and eccentric and hard to deal with relatives to contend with for a few days. But when Max loses his Christmas spirit, the night will not be so silent. While some might argue that this film is limited by its PG-13 rating, I think it’s appropriate for the multiple genres—Christmas, wish fulfillment, a touch of horror, and dark fantasy. The performances from several of the cast were great, and I had no trouble believing—especially in the beginning—that this was a dysfunctional family obligated to spend time together for Christmas. Major kudos go out to the practical effects and puppeteering crews for their work; if you weren’t creeped out by Jack in the Boxes before this then you will look twice at them after this film. There’s also a fantastic animated sequence within the film (how often do you see that?). This is definitely a Christmas film, right up there with It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone, and by the end I felt all the things I want to out of a holiday film (sentimental, reminded of the Christmas spirit) and out of a horror film (scared, anxious, spooked). While there are other perhaps more notable Christmas horror films to watch that lean harder into the violence and less into what the background holiday means behind the pageantry, this seems like a notable exception—one that’s worth making and watching.
- Split (2016). The public put many expectations on M. Night Shyamalan’s shoulders after the success of The Sixth Sense. And then he delivered a lot of crazy, out there, almost laughable films that predictably had a twist at the end that might not make sense but, dammit, he delivered something new every time with signature Shyamalan style. So, come 2016, the public’s expectations for his newest venture were relatively low. And, for the most part, audiences were pleasantly surprised by this taut tale of three girls kidnapped by a man with twenty-three distinct personalities. That is mostly due to the astounding performance given by James McAvoy as he cycles through each of these personalities, changing his voice and physicality in minute detail. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers another great horror performance as Casey Cooke, one of the victims who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. The cinematography is crisp, particularly in the forest scenes, although the script does fall prey to Shyamalan’s occasional clunky sentences and awkward sounding speech patterns. The twist builds a cinematic universe without weakening the film itself (we’ll leave that to the sequel). However, there may be some issues in the subtext with how the film represents Dissociate Identity Disorder and handles sexual abuse. That said it’s a welcome return for a director who hasn’t given up on experimenting within the genre.
- Midsommar (2019). How does the director of the ‘scariest’ film of 2018 follow up his debut? With another original idea, meshed with familiar concepts, and a lot of emotions. Many believe that Ari Aster is composing a ‘grief trilogy’ and, with this possible second entry, it could be happening. Dani, reeling after tragic losses and engaged in an unhappy relationship, joins her boyfriend, Christian, and his friends on their trip to an isolated commune in Sweden for its Midsommar festival. A lot of the odd happenings are written off as “it’s a different culture”, but, come on, we all know weird stuff when we see it. The film is notable for its use of bright ass day rather than nighttime for scaring, and chooses to go for more of a pastel and flower power palette instead of your usual Gothic affairs. Florence Pugh delivers an outstanding performance from beginning to end as Dani; she’s relatable in a way that can be desperately needed for this material. I particularly liked the use of subtitles at times to include or exclude the audience when information was given or not in Swedish, and all of the rituals within the film are highly detailed and defined—nothing is happening here for kicks. Personally, I agree that this is a break-up film; I cried from beginning to end as Dani’s relationship mirrored my own in uncomfortable and horrifying ways. And that, more so than the gore or cult beliefs, is what makes this one of my new favorites. Midsommar takes the mundane horrors and surrounds them with a lush landscape to elevate the drama to the next level, and it’s all the better for it.
We’re living in a new age of horror and I’m sure that no one can predict where we’re going to next. There are some exciting projects on the horizon—a “spiritual sequel” to Candyman, the release of New Mutants from purgatory, The Mortuary Collection—and I can’t wait to see what’s going to jump out and scare audiences next.