Horror movies have been around since the creation of film.
They often lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly went 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 getting tiresome, many of the original films didn’t always garner enough success for 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, with a bit of everything else in between.
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, “Is this film a horror movie?” Creature features like The Shape of Water can win Best Picture, socially charged films like Get Out makes people talk, and blockbuster horror is back from the dead. Many of these films benefit from deeper (and more obvious) metaphorical messages where the antagonist stands for something else, but the return of practical terror instead of just gore has brought things to the next level. We have hundreds to talk about, but here are just ten notable entries in the past twelve years.
Friday Fright Fest 2022 presents…
Shark Night (2011). For a good run of the early 00s, we had a slew of creature features. Many of them felt like homages to the B-horror tracks of the 50s or 80s with a bigger focus on the quantity of the bodies rather than quality. That ideal is evident in Shark Night where a group of college students go out for a weekend of partying at the lake and instead find carnage in the form of sharks. Honestly, this movie is probably one of my guilty pleasures because it hasn’t aged that well and—as far as shark films go—it isn’t the best. Even so, the ridiculous plot twists and continuous deaths provide excellent entertainment. I would also argue this may be one of the few shark films that has multiple species and puts them to good use. The PG-13 rating does not do the film many favors and its release at the height of the 3D craze doesn’t help either. It’s obvious that certain shots are just meant to tease or hint, but they lack the suspense or pay-off other films can deliver. Unlike The Final Destination, the 3D effects aren’t put to much use and feel gimmicky. It does have some great stunt work, a hilarious moment of pyrotechnics, and your usual “the local rednecks are bad” trope but it’s one of those so bad it’s good films. If you’re looking for sharks in all the wrong places, then give this one a try.
Elfie Hopkins: Cannibal Hunter (2012). If you took the twee comforts of cozy mysteries set in quirky British villages and threw in a bit of Hannibal Lecter then this is what you get. Elfie, your average stoner who’s bored of her provincial life, investigates her newest neighbors, The Gammons, and discovers they may be hiding more than weird souvenirs. Look, I’m not going to say this is a ‘good’ film, but I’ve watched it at least three times and own a copy so there is something that keeps me coming back for a re-watch. The cinematography captures the natural scenery in beautiful fashion and several of the scenes (particularly one that involves some violence) have been seared into my brain for almost a decade now. A lot of the shots are tight on characters’ faces, which is an odd choice for such a long feature—versus a short—but it’s not too distracting once you get used to it. Jaime Winstone, as Elfie, delivers most of her lines in the same vocal patter which either works for you or it doesn’t. The costumes are like early Tumblr posts, and I love the combination of knitwear and thrift and layers against the cool sophistication of The Gammons. The twist, if it were, isn’t that surprising; a lot of the elements in this film work, but not as successfully as they could. Honestly, this is one of those films viewers will either hate or have a somewhat decent B-flick time with but it works well enough for me.
Horns (2013). Based on the novel by Joe Hill, this moralistic dark fantasy asks the question: “What if you could confess your sins without any real consequences?” After the love of his life Merrin (Juno Temple) is murdered and he’s blamed, Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) mysteriously grows horns on his head that tempt those around him into confessing their darkest desires. Hopefully, what seems like a curse might help him find the person who killed Merrin. First, if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the novel then the film does take some liberties and loosens a few of the themes. Second, adjusting to Radcliffe’s American accent will take a moment or two. Director Alexandre Aja brings a softer hand to the material than one would expect compared to the rest of his filmography at the time. Fredrick Elmes’ cinematography portrays the harsh bleakness of a world without Merrin compared to the ethereal heaven of her love. Watching it almost ten years later, however, I’m a bit unsatisfied with how Merrin feels sidelined in her own murder and powerless even in the end. The cast has lots of fun with the material and the surreal nature is blended well with reality. In the early part of Radcliffe’s post-Potter career, this film gets a little lost among his later experimentation but it’s worth at least one watch. With the modern revival in religious horror, Horns might scratch that desire for something sinful.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Few horror films of the 21st century have spawned franchises like the movies of yesteryear. In the time since Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s vampire mockumentary was released, it has spawned additional short films and two TV shows. Surprisingly, re-watching this tale of vampire housemates in Wellington, New Zealand as they live their undead lives, encounter werewolves, and prepare for an Unholy Masquerade creates a solid foundation and lore for the franchise to build-off of. In the vampire genre, especially, it can be hard to be original, but Waititi and Clements bring their humor and a bold vision to the screen and create something heartwarming, funny, and—somehow—human. So many lines are quotable, and this is a film that has aged well because it acknowledges immortality (faults and all) in a way others like to ignore. The performances are naturalistic and each vampire is a product of their time instead of perfectly blending. While the film uses so much of the vampire mythos as its core, it takes itself seriously in a way that becomes funny. How do modern vampires style without a reflection? What is an age gap relationship really like when you have all the time in the world? If you haven’t already, this is a modern horror classic—a must-see film.
The Gallows (2015). Although it never truly died, found footage certainly had a resurgence after Paranormal Activity. With greater technological advantages and new ways to capture footage, the creativity and new-ish attempts at telling some of the same tropes always felt at least a little fresh. Directors Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff attempt to spin multiple tropes into something cohesive, but with limited success. A group of teenagers are trapped in their high school when they break in to stop opening night of The Gallows, a play some say is cursed because twenty years ago a student died onstage. The movie hits some of the same notes as High School Musical toward the beginning: an athletic ‘jock’ stereotype who’s playing lead against a girl he wouldn’t normally be seen with, and he’s teased by his friends. The justification for filming (the found footage aspect) is pretty thin—with exception for the opening, which works well—and Ryan, the class clown kind of bully, is tiring. To its credit, in perhaps a throwback to The Blair Witch Project, the characters are all the same as their actors; this heightens that “true story” effect the film is trying for. Most of the jumps and scares aren’t quite effective and many of them are predictable. However, a scene with Cassidy crying in the hall while something approaches from behind was delightfully creepy. The climax builds decently toward what seems like a definitive ending—until we get about five minutes more than we need. If you’re a fan of found footage then it’s worth checking out, but—like most high school productions—this may be something you can skip.
Lights Out (2016). I’ve owned a copy of this film since 2018; I didn’t watch it till 2022. I’m going to blame the initial hype and advertising for the weight because, to be honest, it was scarier in my mind. Based on a short film, this feature, directed by Brandon F. Sandberg, produced by James Wan, and written by Eric Heisserer, should have been amazing. The simplest summary would be a family tries to survive various attacks from a vengeful supernatural entity that comes out in the dark. However, there are additional plotlines that revolve around generational trauma, mental illness, and creating trust within relationships. The film seems to have a heavy hand from Wan since much of the set-up and atmosphere is highly reminiscent of Insidious or The Conjuring. Likewise, most of the beats are similar in how scares are timed or the structure of the plot. The first fifteen minutes are the most effective and create a good sense of fright about this dark entity. However, Lights Out starts to fall apart when it gives too much backstory (a la the investigation trope) that takes away a good amount of the fear. Most of the performances are decent and the cast works together well. As other critics have pointed out, the resolution to the climax is problematic if we are to view this monster as a metaphor. This is one of the rare instances where I thought I would be more scared than I was (especially as someone who hates the dark), and it did let me down. I would still recommend it as a good example of 2010s horror motifs or if you want to see how a short film can be adapted into a feature.
Verónica (2017). When it was initially released on Netflix, this Spanish film was hyped as one of the scariest films on the platform and, perhaps, of its year. With that kind of reputation to follow, this tale of possession and family drama “based on a true story” had a lot to live up to. In 1991, Verónica (Sandra Escacena), the oldest of four, begins to notice strange happenings shortly after participating in a séance with a witch board. With some cryptic advice from a blind nun and her mother’s inattention, it’s up to Vero to protect her siblings from the danger she’s conjured. While the basic story of paranormal activity and the danger it poses isn’t that new here, what I liked most about the film was its focus on Vero’s duties as the eldest and how—on top of puberty, friend drama, and the supernatural—it only adds more stress. Sure, it also gives us a “plausible” reason for why these events could have happened, but leaning into the supernatural is more fun. Escacena does well in her role, portraying a kind of strength that Vero has ultimately been forced into but allowing for vulnerability. The climax, built to with excellent sound design and good suspense, tips its hat to many other occult films, but, nonetheless, makes an impact. None of the scares ultimately feel that original, but the execution is still satisfying and it’s the relationships between the siblings that make us fear for their safety. While it may not have been as terrifying as I had hoped, Verónica is an enthusiastic effort and I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye.
Hereditary (2018). Almost consistently rated as the scariest film of its release year and awarded a whopping six Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, Ari Aster’s debut film delivers on many levels. After the death of her estranged and strange mother, Annie tries to move on with her life by continuing her work with miniatures, looking after her family, and even attending counseling. This is ripped away by another sudden loss and unforeseen plots that leave the family spiraling in their vulnerable states. Not only is it one of the more original films of the last few years, but the entire cast deliver consistent performances—with a head-spinning turn by Toni Colette who hits just about every emotional high and low a person is capable of. The set design (both full size and miniature) deserves a nod because each room not only gives us an idea of the person’s personality, but also is replicated to perfect detail by the character of Annie. While the scares are not your average type, there’s enough here—and certainly not the kind you see every Friday—to entertain and maybe make you look away. They’re few but they are intense. Additionally, the film has some great things to say about grief. Maybe not as subtle as The Babadook in terms of material, but, hey, sometimes grief is not subtle and things are broken and words are screamed at the dinner table. If you’re curious about whether or not it is the ‘best’ of 2018, I’m not here to make that judgement call for you—check it out yourself.
The Other Lamb (2019). Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska, this film encapsulates a quiet kind of horror that touches on coming of age, religious zealotry, and isolation. Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is among the oldest of the Sisters and, along with her younger sisters and the older Wives, she takes care of life in their compound and listens to sermons from the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). On their journey to find a new Eden, Selah’s faith in the Shepherd begins to erode, even as his interest in her grows. From the first ten minutes, the film not only establishes the everyday life of this cult and its hierarchies, but Selah’s position within it. The color-coding of the Sisters and Wives is not only visually stunning, but serves as a reminder of certain privileges and duties women are forced to bear within these gendered evangelical practices. Selah’s fear of being “unclean” not only stems from menstruation’s association with sin, but also how it signals the growth of her body and its potential to be controlled in new ways. The cinematography of this film is gorgeous in how it captures various forests, hills, and valleys of Ireland. In an early scene, Raffey Cassidy’s face perfectly portrays the ecstasy of worship in the same way many of our classical statues of saints do. It is a different horror, then, to watch that expression fall as she begins to question her faith in what she’s been told and taught about the world. Huisman is a quiet kind of enthralling as the Shepherd; you can see why these women would follow him but sense a danger that lurks underneath. The film builds to a climax that infers more than it directly shows, and while I understand the choice, I do feel it’s a bit of a cathartic loss. While the film is gorgeous, it does fall victim to a lot of suspense-staring, where the camera zooms in on someone’s expression (often over a fire) to build tension instead of using dialogue or direct action. Still, if you love a slow burn and have some religious trauma, spend a few hours worshipping The Other Lamb.
Choose or Die (2022). One of my favorite tropes in horror, though not often used, is choice-based suspense and trauma. Popularized by the Saw franchise and continued in films such as 13 Sins or Would You Rather, scenarios where a character must choose—with results often ending in suffering or trauma—often lead to interesting character scenarios and an engaging plot. This year’s Choose or Die, with its incredibly straight-forward title, is a good addition to the trope with a video game and nostalgia-based twist. (I will note, however, I am in the minority who seemed to like this). Kayla (Iola Evans) borrows an old video game, CURS>R, from her friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield), only to discover the decisions she makes in virtual reality affect the world around her. Can she beat the game without losing everything? The ‘rules’ of the game are simple and explained in a sequence that ties into the later plot, but what makes it fun is how each level increases the personal difficulty on the player. Evans and Butterfield play well off of each other, but I do wish their relationship had a little more time to build. The cheat code sequence and penalty uses great effects which I haven’t largely seen in horror and, as an homage to 80s nostalgia, works perfectly. While a lot of the earlier dialogue was a bit wooden, the scene leading up to the Boss Battle really hit on why this movie is timely in 2022, made it feel modern and fresh, and increased the atmosphere for a violent and creative fight sequence. Perhaps the ending won’t work for everyone, but the build to it has plenty of suspense and frights to satisfy. If you’re looking for game-based horror this October, choose this film…or die.
The Renaissance doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and may last for another decade yet. Streaming has made the distribution of horror films easier than ever, and theaters are back in brutal business. Slashers seem to be in fashion again. In the future, we have a new film from André Øvredal, Nicolas Cage’s return to the vampire genre in Renfield, and AI-gone-wrong M3gan. Until then, we have decades of films past to enjoy. Still, I can’t wait to see what’s going to jump out and scare audiences next.
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Did I miss a film? Check the OcTerror Master List for more reviews!