Halloween is Starting Early: Great Horror of the Last Decade, Part 1
As it seems Halloween is going to be happening under social distancing and quarantine, those of us who love the holiday could use a way to celebrate which can doesn’t put people at risk. I’m going to do my part by posting a good deal of content related to the holiday, various other topics often associated with Halloween, horror film and other horror content. I’m getting started with this list for people, like myself, who are going to try and extend the Halloween season a bit since there will certainly be many fewer events, parties and the like to go to. At some point, I’ll do a list of films specifically that are what I consider to be the best films for Halloween more specifically, but for now, maybe this will help all of us Halloween lovers still have some excitement for the holiday by leading up to it with some of the best horror films of the last decade.
I’m going to do something a little bit different with this list than the way most of these kinds of lists are done. With the possible exception of the first film on the list, I’m not going to rank these in terms of quality or even my own enjoyment of them. Instead, I’m going to put them in four groups, and do it in two parts. In thinking about this, it makes most sense to me to break this up into prospective audience. None of these groups are for someone who just “doesn’t like horror movies.” There has to be at least some degree of openness to the content.
I’ll also try to give some general idea of whether or not a film is particularly gory or whether there are scenes of explicit sexual violence, a general idea of what kind of violence there may be etc. The tolerance for violence of different kinds has a spectrum, and I’ll try to speak to it.
The first group is going to be “Must See.” A great example of the person who is probably going to get the most from this list is someone who loves film, but because of say a particular career or maybe being a parent with small children hasn’t been able to keep up with what’s been happening in the world of film for a while. They are who love film, are open to horror films, and are looking for some good films for the Halloween season or for whom their love of film is just beginning to blossom, and they’re looking to get a quick primer on the films which are emblematic of, set the tone for or are poised to be the more influential of the decade. They are the films which best embody the type of horror film they are or are most successful at eliciting the kind of emotional response they’re attempting to from the audience. That might be plain fear, it can also just be laughter or fun, but it can also mean an emotional connection to the characters etc.
The second group is going to be called, “Can’t Fail.” This means a more broad audience. A great example is someone who generally watches a fair amount of films, but for whom horror isn’t necessarily the first choice. The chances are pretty good they’ve already seen all or most of the films on the “Must See” list. These are films which are succeed in their goals very well, be it straight scares, horror comedy, being emotionally/psychologically unsettling, being a bit more like silly escapist fun, being excellent at generating conversation about their subject and/or content or even eliciting the more fun variety of “WTF?” which can be one of the most fun experiences the genre has to offer. These are good options for watch parties too, as they’re more likely to really land with the widest audience. They’re all pretty accessible.
These first two groups will be this entry, the first part of this list. The second two groups will consist of a second entry, and they will be grouped as follows.
The third group is called “Deep Cuts.” Like the classification of music it’s taken from, it’s a list of films which (for the most part) are for the people who are looking for something a bit deeper. They’ve probably seen most of the films in the “Must See” and “Can’t Fail” groups. Some of them are thematically heavy, some of them are symbolically rich. This is for people who love film, are interested in material a bit more on the challenging side and are not going to be angry with a film that is going to take a hard charge at trying to dig up some disturbing emotions. For the most part, an apt description of these films would be that they are good representations of where arthouse and mainstream horror meet. They’re less accessible than the “Can’t Fail” films, but are great cinematic experiences. These tend to be from film makers who have something on their minds, and are using genre as the springboard to discuss it. For the most part, these are layered films which invite analysis, interpretation and a slightly more expanded cinematic vocabulary. The more open one is to all the possible experiences film can deliver, the more likely they are to get something from these films.
The last group is called “The Bold and The Brave.” This is the much more unusual variety of film exists and the crossroads of grindhouse and arthouse. These are films with content which is most likely to be disturbing to the largest population of audiences. They may really just be films specifically for people who not only have a larger appreciation for film, but whose journey toward being cinephiles began or took a very long detour specifically through horror and horror adjacent films. These aren’t films I’d generally suggest are for the casual film watcher or the casual horror fan. Either a deep, abiding love of film or horror is most likely to provide enjoyment for these. That or being basically 100% completely open to anything you might watch, which is the most extremely rare of audiences, and very little experience with film more generally. Once the cultural vocabulary of American popular cinema has set in, these films are probably going to disturb the majority of audiences. In relation to this, I no longer go to lengths to find out just how much of the most extreme horror cinema I can subject myself to. For instance, I’ve never sought out A Serbian Film, because of its reputation. There has to be more of a reason to see a film than just the pure shock value, and I do think the films on this list do have more than that to offer. They may also have some level of shock value or disturbing content, but they have more than that on their minds, so don’t worry, I wouldn’t suggest anything just for its shock value alone.
All of that being said, onto the list to help you start planning your Halloween movie season.
Get Out — Chris, a young Black photographer is going to meet his girlfriend Rose’s family for the first time while staying at their house for a long weekend. Imagine what the most awkward version of that scenario you’ve ever lived or seen is, then add a commentary on systemic/socially accepted racism, long with a mastery of dread, and you still aren’t even close to what this is. This is the first film on this list for a reason and the only film to be in its specific position purposely. It’s the only film on this list which I can call capitol “I” important. It’s among the most multi-layered, profoundly nuanced commentaries on race in film history. It’s also seriously entertaining. It’s very funny, very witty and propulsively paced. Daniel Kaluuya is excellent as Chris, Allison Williams is excellent as Rose, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener bring the kind of outstanding performance we’ve come to expect from them. Jordan Peele announced himself as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation with his first feature. Many of us knew him from the Key and Peele sketch comedy show which had been on Comedy Central, and when buzz first started about this amazing new horror film from him, it was puzzling. He delivered the most intelligent horror film of the decade, while succeeding in making it one of the most entertaining. This is one of those films which should be part of everyone’s understanding of what American cinema is capable of, but also what more generally cinema and horror are capable of in a great storytellers hands. Some violence, and very little gore.
The Witch — In 1630’s New England, a religious zealot decides the township of Puritans in his colony aren’t quite Christian enough, and takes his family to make it on their own on a patch of land, just outside a forest. There are two films from this decade I would call cinematic masterpieces. The first is Get Out, for the reasons stated above. This is the second. This is another film which generated a groundswell of interest long before it hit the theaters for release because of the word of mouth coming out of festivals. There are so many pieces of this film which are meticulously handled and placed to make it turn out to be the film it is, and be so effective. The casting is perfect. All four of the leads, Anna Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw are perfect, in roles with some difficult language. The language is authentic in a completely obsessive way, as are the costumes and sets and locations. It is so perfectly constructed, the feeling of being in the time and place of the film is all encompassing. I don’t know I’ve ever had a theater experience with a period piece which enveloped me in the time period and setting so completely. It’s also a film which wrestles with a number of different subtexts. Family, gender roles, religion all play parts in this story, and the family drama which comes from those conflicts is enthralling, as well as a constantly growing sense of dread as each minute passes. That sense of dread, along with the supernatural aspects of the film are firmly in the territory of being a horror film, but it reaches the level of being a masterpiece in my mind because of how thoroughly the obsession with detail caused my complete surrender to the film, and how emotionally affecting the family relationships are, on top of being in my favorite genre of film. Black Phillip for President, from here until eternity. A slight bit of gore, no real violence to speak of.
Hereditary — When the family matriarch dies, her daughter begins a journey of unravelling and discovery which no one would want to ever have to take. Ari Aster came out of nowhere. The buzz around his debut feature when it hit the festival circuit was like a small earthquake running through the entire horror community. The praise was nearly universal, as was the sentiment that Hereditary was genuinely scary and disturbing. When it hit theaters, the praise to that effect continued. It is without doubt, one of the most anxiety producing, truly unsettling cinema experiences I’ve ever had. It’s not just the more stereotypical horror content which elicits these reactions either. There’s a family drama at the center of the film which is incredibly effective by itself, and which is part of what drags audiences into a genuine emotional connection to the film. Like Jordan Peele, Aster announced himself as a new master of horror with his first feature. Toni Collette as Annie, the daughter who’s just lost her mother at the beginning of the film is without hyperbole, amazing in this film. She has been around doing some great work for a 20 years now, but this… The level of dedication she puts into this role is awe inspiring. There are a few instances of gore in this film, one particularly disturbing depiction of violence, but overall level of intensity of the film is not something to go into lightly.
The Cabin in the Woods — A group of friends are headed to a cabin in the woods for a vacation. Absolutely nothing is what it seems. Also, a few guys are going about their work as usual, trying to get through another day. Scream made meta horror one of the predominant subgenres of horror. Cabin in the Woods closed the subgenre out, by so exhaustively cataloging and subverting the tropes of horror while adding a commentary which was funny, touching and terrifying in turns. This is one of the most entertaining films of the decade. It’s very funny, very smart, scary in moments and insanely inventive throughout. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard crafted a truly brilliant examination of the horror film as cultural artifact, stuffed it full of goodies for horror fanatics, and made it a rowsing crowd pleaser as well. Bradley Whitford may be the only actor to make into two of the “Must See” movies on this list. There is some violence and gore in this film, but consistent with the overall tone, it’s something more akin to comic book intensity than it is disturbing.
A Quiet Place — A family faces the task of trying to survive in a world which has been overcome by murderous creatures who can’t see, but can hear incredibly well. This sci-fi/horror thriller is a tense, emotionally engaging ride from the frightening, gut wrenching opening scene, all the way through to the well thought out and well constructed ending. When word hit that John Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt were working on a horror film together, the horror world again wondered if a funny man from television, this time The Office, could pull off putting together a decent horror film. Once again, it’s clear he could. Krasinski obviously knows the genre well. He employs its tropes and markers, while also bringing new elements to the story and the execution. What this film succeeds in is creating such an ever growing sense of tension, and anchoring it’s characters with real emotion. Not a lot of onscreen violence, at least toward human beings. What violence there is does come with some level of intensity though.
Ready Or Not — A young bride is brought to the estate built on an empire of games that is her groom’s family home for their wedding, only to learn on the night of their wedding that some of family traditions are truly hellish. This is much less scary or frightening than it is just downright fun. Samara Weaving has spent the latter half of the 2010’s building a solid resumé as her generations most deserving recipient of the crown which comes with being the decades best Scream Queen. This is one of her best roles and one of her best performances. When the rest of cinema realizes how great she is, they’re going to steal her away from horror, but we should be grateful she keeps coming back to the genre until then. There’s also a more nuanced than it seems dissection of class politics happening too, which shows again, it takes brains to make a film this much fun. The directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett put this film together so admirably, they’ve been given directing duties on the upcoming Scream 5, which probably doesn’t mean much to most non-horror fans, but as the Scream franchise was originated by one of the genres most celebrated directors and is one of its most successful franchises, it shows they are being recognized for their abilities. Like Cabin in the Woods, this has a fair amount of violence, and some gore, but again, it’s more along the lines of comic book violence.
The Invisible Man — A woman tries to leave her tech giant, billionaire, abusive asshole boyfriend. Within days, she’s informed he’s committed suicide and left his fortune to her. She doesn’t see this as something he’d do, and she can’t see how he pulled it off. Leigh Whannell is one half of the creative team that brought the Saw franchise to life. His creative partner in that endeavor was James Wan, whose developed a successful career as a director, outside of the Saw series. Leigh Whannell has directed far fewer films, but this one puts him at the top of the field. His writing updates the original ideas from H.G. Wells to fully modernize them in a number of ways. It’s not just the inclusion of a more modern time period, and including the world we live in where tech billionaires are often treated like gods, but also really making this a film which deals pretty directly with domestic/intimate partner abuse, the kind of emotional and psychological abuse which accompanies it and the toll those take on the rest of someone’s life. It’s harrowing, all the way through. It certainly helps that Whannell has Elizabeth Moss in the lead role, without doubt one of the best actresses of her generation, giving a heart wrenching performance. The writing is so very, very good as well. Again, this draws so much of its strength from the depth of emotion its able to draw from the audience. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking, while also being frightening. There is some violence in this film. It’s not particularly graphic on the level of being gory, but it does have a level of intensity in keeping with the films subject matter.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. When the description “Iranian vampire spaghetti western” was used, my interest was piqued. It may not sound like a sublime description to you, but the results are sublime. This is a truly beautiful film, and not only in its black and white cinematography. but in the giant, vulnerable, loving heart director Ana Lily Amirpour makes the perspective the film takes on its characters and story. This is definitely the most sentimental film in the “Must See” section of this list, and maybe the most sentimental movie on the entire list, and it’s the commitment to that sentiment, as well as what is very obviously Aminpour’s love of the genre that make it a uniquely affecting film. It’s a film which is visually beautiful, thematically beautiful and there’s no other way to really describe it than to say it has a beautiful, somewhat bruised, bittersweet soul, which comes from Aminpour herself. I’m fairly sure you could go through every review or piece of film criticism or discussion I’ve ever written and never find that I’ve described a film as delightful. This is, to me, a film that genuinely deserves the description. It’s brought me delight each time I’ve seen it, and I genuinely don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.
What We Do in the Shadows — Vampire housemates try to cope with the complexities of modern life and show a newly turned hipster some of the perks of being undead. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and is right up there with Young Frankenstein in taking classic horror content and turning into a classic comedy. Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement are the creative team behind this film. Clement having been one half of the comedy duo which brought us Flight of the Conchords, also hysterical in it’s own right. Waititi was the director of big hearted, indie faves Eagle Vs. Shark and Hunt for the Wildepeople. This Kiwi duo kills, in their writing, their directing and the performances they give as stars, on top of everything else. This is a howler. It’s hilarious, from start to finish, and there is a quotable line every three minutes. Do yourself a favor and sit down to watch this as soon as possible, if you haven’t seen it yet. With life and the world being what it is, this is the kind of film which provides a great antidote to the uncertainty and the insanity. There’s some gore here, but this is nothing but jokes, from beginning to end.
I Saw the Devil — Never flinching during its descent into depravity, I Saw the Devil is a pulverizing thriller that will give bloody satisfaction to audiences who like their revenge served with fiery rage. South Korea has no shortage of revenge narratives in its cinema. I haven’t seen any others be so masterfully woven. Like so much of Korean cinema, there is an ability to tone shift which American cinema hasn’t ever mastered. This is a violent film. It’s disturbing at points. It’s also very funny at points, and as it asks questions about the results of seeking revenge, as so many revenge films do. The difference here being they feel like they have emotional weight, instead of feeling like they are there for the film maker to cover for their desire to make an otherwise violent revenge fantasy. Of all the films in the “Must See” section of this list, this one revels in it’s violence most, which is something audiences should be aware of. This is a very violent film with gore to match.
Attack the Block — A teen gang in a grim South London housing estate must team up with the other residents to protect their neighbourhood from a terrifying alien invasion. Stars Jodi Whitaker and John Boyega went on to become Dr. Who and a lead in the latest Star Wars trilogy. This is a big hearted, extremely fun, action, science fiction, horror film. It’s extremely well done, on a quarter of the budget much worse science fiction films are often made, and the performances are great. Director Joe Cornish does a great job with what is basically a redemption story, wrapped up in an alien invasion package. It’s well paced, smart, warm, funny and has some really cool creature design. There is some violence, the whole “fighting an alien invasion” calls for it, but the intensity level is low, and again, on the level of comic book violence.
Train to Busan — As a zombie outbreak sweeps the country, a dad and his daughter take a harrowing train journey in an attempt to reach the only city that’s still safe. Zombies have had a really good run over the last decade or two. They’re also starting to become rote. This entry shows there are still some excellent zombie films to be made. Again, South Korean cinema has a tradition of wide swings in tone, which American films generally wouldn’t even try, and once again, the ability to turn from the character driven moments which help engender investments in character to moments of zombie madness and then to comedic moments as well gives the entire film a wide emotional bandwidth which helps make it an extremely satisfying watch. This is much more fun than it is frightening, but the zombie invasion aspect makes for both a good amount of violence and no small amount of gore. There are some moments where the violence is fairly intense.
Host — Six friends hire a medium to hold a séance via Zoom during lockdown — but they get far more than they bargained for as things quickly go wrong. This popped up on the video streaming service for horror fans, Shudder. It immediately started getting considerable buzz all over social media. Honestly, in looking at the summary and description, I had very low expectations and was kind of thinking the hype machine had gotten the best of people. But, my interest was piqued because of how positively people were talking about it, so one night recently, as I was looking for something to watch before bed, I figured this sixty minute, low budget found footage thriller was a good choice. That wasn’t the best idea. This is an incredibly successful and potent film. It sets up excellent atmosphere, some serious jump scares, and an ever increasing sense of tension. This is one of the most fun films I’ve seen in 2020. My memory of the violence in this film is off screen. I don’t remember any graphic violence, but to be honest, I’ve only seen it once, and it was so effective at scaring me silly, I don’t completely trust my memory.
Mayhem — A virus spreads through an office complex causing white collar workers to act out their worst impulses. Steven Yeun became a fan favorite on The Walking Dead, for good reason. He’s a very good, charismatic young actor. Samara Weaving makes her second appearance on this list, and again, she’s great. This is a very fun, wild, bloody comedy/action/horror. It’s done very well, and Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving have great chemistry. It’s just a very, very fun movie, beginning to end. This is really violent and gory. It is comedic, so the intensity isn’t really there for the violence, but it’s part of the story, and part of many of the jokes on the way through.
The Girl with All the Gifts — In the future, a strange fungus has changed nearly everyone into a thoughtless, flesh-eating monster. When a scientist and a teacher find a girl who seems to be immune to the fungus, they all begin a journey to save humanity. I don’t know how this didn’t receive nationwide theatrical release with this cast. Newcomer Sennia Nanua does a great job as the title character. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine. This is something different, and even as it has a few intense moments of scares, this is as much the kind of morality tale good science fiction can be, as it is a traditional horror film. This is a very well done film, and a great conversation starter, so perfect for a zoom watch party. This has some intense violence, and the gore to go along with it.
As Above So Below — When a team of explorers ventures into the catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, they uncover the dark secret that lies within this city of the dead. This found footage gem is one of the biggest surprises of the last few years for me. It had been out for a few years before I realized it was from John and Drew Dowdle, the team behind The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a faux documentary which initially generated a lot of interest on the festival circuit and then disappeared when the studio who bought it couldn’t decide what to do with it. I really enjoyed The Poughkeepsie Tapes. This film is extremely fun. The story is very good, it’s something different for the found footage subgenre, and it succeeds in creating great atmosphere and some very good scares. This one has a pretty good amount of gore, and some pretty intense violence in one or two scenes. Overall, it’s much more a creepfest, but the violence has an intense impact when it happens.
Halloween (2018) — Michael Meyers and Laurie Strode have a long awaited reunion, with indy darling David Gordon Green behind the camera and a script that scrubs all of the other sequels in the franchise, and treats this as if this were the second film, behind the original Halloween. This is one of only two sequels on the entire list, and it’s here because it’s a fun, non-meta slasher flick, and Jamie Lee Curtis is just excellent in it. The story of the Halloween franchise should always have been about Michael and Laurie, because Laurie is the character that’s interesting in the series. As Halloween nears, sit down, watch the 1978 original, then give this one a shot. Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie is one of the iconic protagonists in horror history, and she proves why yet again. This is also a pretty violent film. It doesn’t quite revel in it the way many slashers do, but it’s also not avoiding giving the slasher fans a bit of what they would be looking for.
Us — Husband and wife Gabe and Adelaide Wilson take their kids to a beach house expecting to unplug and unwind with friends. But as night descends, their serenity turns to tension and chaos when some shocking visitors arrive uninvited. Jordan Peele’s sophomore film is in some ways less controlled than Get Out and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The slightly more anarchic feel fits the story and the overall atmosphere of the film. Peele brings us another brilliant story, taking ideas which have been part of the genre for decades, and twisting them together in new and unusual ways. The characters are well drawn as well. The basic premise is creepy all by itself, and the performances brought to these characters by this cast makes it something beyond the standard barrage of horror films. Lupita Nyong’o is particularly amazing. She creates characters who have depth and resonance. This film has a few particularly intense and somewhat explicit instances of violence and gore.
The Invitation — Will and his new girlfriend Kira are invited to a dinner with old friends at the house of Will’s ex Eden and her new partner David. This is another one of the great surprises over the last few years. I hadn’t seen any trailers. I’d read one or two pieces which were positive, and when it hit Netflix, I realized it was directed by Karyn Kusama (whose previous work in Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body is also excellent), so figured it was worth a shot. It was one of the most satisfying movie experiences in a long time. Will’s sense of unease as he’s attempting to navigate this dinner party is a kind of emotional space most any adult will understand. It’s palpable and disconcerting as we watch it. Many people have had experiences like it and gone through the entire cycle of wondering whether or not it’s crazy to feel so uncomfortable or it’s really that deeply strange. Logan Marshall-Green and Tammy Blanchard are excellent. John Caroll Lynch is also great, as usual. This is another film which would be great for a watch party, because it’s going to invite all kinds of reactions. There are a few instances of violence, one of which is on the explicit side, but for the most part, there’s not much violence in the movie, but it is intense overall.
Annihilation — A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don’t apply. One of the best casts of the decade, giving great performances all around, in one of the most interesting and thought provoking films of the decade. This sci-fi/horror from Alex Garland goes to some extremely interesting places and it has some great design. The atmosphere is excellently developed, the characters are strong and it all comes together in one of the more wild endings of the decade as well. This is an ambitious film, it goes all out and deserves some recognition for being so dedicated, so earnest, and very courageous in bringing something in the realm of big idea sci-fi that isn’t high concept single sentence explanation to a mass audience. There is some violence, but very little, and not enough to have made an impact on my thoughts about whom it might be disturbing for.
Oculus — A woman tries to exonerate her brother’s murder conviction by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon. Mike Flanagan made some noise on the indie circuit with Absentia. Two years later, Oculus came out and turned him into one of the new generation of horror creators to keep track of. This is a very well done, very well thought through, unsettling film. The principle cast of Karen Gillan, Brandon Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are all great. There are a number of scare sequences in the film which are so well thought through and so well designed they bring on the maximum creep factor. Flanagan has made a name for himself by creating horror films which don’t skimp on character and story content at all. He’s at his best when he is dealing with family, and here, he is firing on all cylinders. This is a deeply satisfying watch and I have a deep respect for how well it succeeds in what it’s trying to do. The violence here isn’t over the top, though there is a fair amount of gore, but again, even as the on screen violence is relatively little, it is intense.
Creep + Creep 2 — Part 1: When a cash-strapped videographer takes a job in a remote mountain town, he finds that the client has some unsettling ideas in mind. Part 2: A video artist finds the perfect character for a sensational piece, but the subject of her dreams soon reveals his insidious side. This is the only pair of films on the list, and only the second sequel. The reason for this is that both films are deeply unsettling, downright frightening, and the sequel manages to build on and do something new with the premise established in the first in an interesting, new and unusual way. These are also films I suggest to people because they are excellent counter examples to many of the more common, but unfounded criticisms found footage films get. My first viewing of Creep stuck with me for a while. There is a plausibility to the scenario and to Mark Duplass’s character which were just hard to shake. There is only one instance of violence in each of these films, and it’s only mildly graphic in the second film.
Happy Death Day — Caught in a bizarre and terrifying time warp, college student Tree finds herself repeatedly reliving the day of her murder, ultimately realizing that she must identify the killer and the reason for her death before her chances of survival run out. This slasher Groundhog Day is one of the best horror comedies of the decade. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and Jessica Rothe is great as protagonist Tree Gelbman. It’s smart, funny, something a little different, and is a great watch party option. The sequel, Happy Death Day 2 U is also very good, but less a horror film and more science fiction, so it didn’t make it to the list. This has the pretty standard level of violence and gore for a slasher film, but as it is a horror comedy, basically, the intensity is low.
It Follows — After carefree teenager Jay sleeps with her new boyfriend, Hugh, for the first time, she learns that she is the latest recipient of a fatal curse that is passed from victim to victim via sexual intercourse. Death, Jay learns, will creep inexorably toward her as either a friend or a stranger. This is another film which is near perfect at turning up the sense of dread with each passing minute, and at a few points, has some absolutely frightening images to imprint on you. The creeping terror as a metaphor for the terrors of coming adulthood makes for a pretty singular viewing experience. There’s very little violence in the film.
The Babadook — A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her. There are a few films in the 2010 to 2020 decade which are absolutely frightening and also emotionally wrenching. The Babadook is one. Essie Davis portrayal of a single mother coming to her wits end with the many responsibilities and stresses of being a single mother, and then The Babadook, is heartbreaking. This is another intensely creepy film, with some top shelf scares along the way. Jennifer Kent announced herself as one of her generations most promising voices, and proved this wasn’t a fluke with her second film, The Nightingale, which isn’t a horror film, but might be even more intense and disturbing than The Babadook. Little to no violence in this one.
The Perfection — When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte seeks out Elizabeth, the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences. Allison Williams makes her second appearance on the list, this performance as good as the one she gave in Get Out. Her costar Logan Browning gives an equally good performance. This is a jaw dropper. Anyone who tells you they saw where this was going, is lying to you. It’s also visually stunning, from start to finish. The script is concise, and meticulously constructed. This is the kind of shocker which never would have been given a wide national release, but was able to find an immediate audience when it debuted on Netflix. Digital distribution has been great for horror over the last decade, and this is one of those examples. There is some shocking violence in this movie, and it is gory. There are also intimations of sexual violence.
Crawl — When a huge hurricane hits her hometown in Florida, Haley ignores evacuation orders to look for her father. After finding him badly wounded, both are trapped by the flood. With virtually no time to escape the storm, they discover that rising water levels are the least of their problems. This is a really fun movie. It has some good tension, a few good jump scares, a couple of good laughs, and manages to be the kind of creature feature which is super fun from start to finish. Alexandre Aja shows he still has the chops he brought to High Tension in crafting a film which would very easily could have veered into territory too silly to also hold the tension. Again, this is a very good group watch. This is less a horror film than an action/thriller. With that in mind, it does have some violence and some gore, akin to what you would find in an action film which is slightly on the gorier side, but it’s not a gorefest, by any means.
Green Room — A punk rock band becomes trapped in a secluded venue after finding a scene of violence. For what they saw, the band themselves become targets of violence from a gang of white power skinheads, who want to eliminate all evidence of the crime. This is a great band film, as in, if you’ve ever been in a band or had close friends whose bands you followed and supported, it so realistically portrays so much of the experience. It’s also a superb thriller, with some really nail biting, jaw clenching sequences. Patrick Stewart is horrifying at playing the menacing, unyielding leader of the white supremacists. It’s possibly Anton Yelchin’s best role too, and a fitting film to remember a talented young actor gone too soon. Imogen Poots is also excellent. The violence in this movie is on the more graphic and intense side. It’s bloody, and the audience is meant to feel every bit of it in our own bellies and bones. This is a great film, which pulls together shifting tones very well, because there are some good laughs along the way too.
Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil — Two hillbillies are suspected of being killers by a group of paranoid college kids camping near the duo’s West Virginian cabin. As the body count climbs, so does the fear and confusion as the college kids try to seek revenge against the pair. This is always a fun watch. Spinning the “murderous hillbilly” trope around on its head, this finds a way to have some real fun with many of the tropes of horror cinema, and is still a fun conglomeration of heartfelt comedy, inventive script and amazing performances. Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, and Katrina Bowden all give memorable performances, are perfect to take the characters in this script, who would be one note, one dimensional in every other horror film, and give them enough depth for the movie to have a warm heart, in the middle of this ridiculous, bloody comedy.
The Taking of Deborah Logan — What starts as a poignant medical documentary about Deborah Logan’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and her daughter’s struggles as caregiver degenerates into a maddening portrayal of dementia at its most frightening, as hair-raising events begin to plague the family and crew and an unspeakable malevolence threatens to tear the very fabric of sanity from them all. One of the cool things about the 2010 to 2020 period in horror has been that filmmakers have proven found footage isn’t some kind of gimmick or trick. Like the others on the list, Deborah Logan is an excellent example of found footage being used as a way to effectively tell the story, and this is very effective. This is properly chilling at different points, and again, as I’ve said about a number of other films on this list, it is cemented in story and character, so there’s an element to the film which isn’t just the scares, it’s also touching and a bit on the sad side. There’s very little violence or gore in the film. There are a few intense scares, and a few genuinely nightmarish images.
10 Cloverfield Lane — After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack. Hitchcock’s Rope is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s as close to a perfect script as can be found. Everything takes place in one apartment, with just a few characters. The film itself is just one set. 10 Cloverfield Lane is very much of that lineage. It’s not quite as simple as Rope, as it’s definitely a bit more complicated visually and thematically. It’s an excellent example of the same variety of claustrophobic, tense mystery between very few characters in essentially a single, relatively small space. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman are great together, and John Gallagher Jr. is also doing great work. The sense of menace running through this film is stark, and the shifting perspective of “Is he or isn’t he?” is handled extremely well. Dan Trachtenberg comes through to deliver a tight, austere, gripping example of the single location thriller. There’s some disagreement in the horror community about the ending, but there’s a consensus that no matter how one feels about the ending, the journey to it is completely worth taking. It’s been a bit since the last time I saw this, so I’m not completely clear on the level of violence in the film. I don’t remember any scenes of graphic violence, but I could absolutely be wrong, you may want to consult with another source for a more confident description of the variety of violence.
V/H/S 2 — This is the only anthology on the list. When the first V/H/S anthology hit the circuit of film festivals, it generated a lot of buzz in the horror community. Following the embrace Trick ‘R Treat was given in the horror community and the resulting pile of money it made in DVD and digital sales, anthologies started gaining some traction again after a number of years of being out of favor. The difference between V/H/S and other anthologies is that all of the segments are found footage. The first V/H/S anthology has a wider variation in quality from segment to segment. Both films have a “wrap around” story, the explanation for the anthology format, concerning someone sitting down to watch video tapes which are somehow taboo. The second film in the series keeps the quality level up in all of its segments, and reaches heights the first couldn’t quite get to. There are two specific pieces in this one which are among my favorite segments from any horror anthology, and a third which is just really gonzo, Halloween haunted house variety of scary fun. “A Ride in the Park,” and “Safe Haven” are excellent. One is a funny, wild, frightening new way to bring found footage into a well worn horror genre. The other is among the most genuinely disturbing and scary short films I’ve ever seen. It was something that for a few weeks after would slip into my thoughts during the day, and I’d get a chill down my spine. Something about it managed to be frightening in the moment, as I was watching it, but also just off kilter and unusual enough to have really stuck with me. There are segments of this film which are both graphically violent and gory. The audience this was intended for is the person who loves horror films. I’m putting it on this part of the list though because if you aren’t completely turned off by the kind of over the top, gore loving violence of many 80’s horror films, this is definitely worth the watch.
It (Chapter 1) — A freaky monster that often takes the shape of a clown, but can take the shape of any of your worst fears, terrorizes a group of children in a small New England town, as they try to figure out how to destroy It. Growing up in the 90’s, and being a horror fanatic, Tim Curry was an icon. Between Rocky Horror Picture Show and the television mini-series version of Stephen King’s It, the man was afforded the reverence of a god. His version of Pennywise the Clown terrified millions of kids across the world, and became something of a cultural touchstone. When it was announced there was going to be a feature film version, reaction was mixed. The mini-series never landed the ending, because let’s face it, if you haven’t already read over a 1,000 pages of Stephen King’s set up, the ending is ridiculous and basically impossible to land as it’s written in the novel. In attempting to adapt King’s epic novel, it was broken up into two chapters. As was alluded to, the novel is long. It also encompasses two different time periods. One is with our main characters as adults, and the other is with them as children. This feature version has decided to split them up as chapters, according to the timeline, instead of trying to manage a lot of jumping around in time as the film progresses. This first chapter is very good. The kids in the cast are outstanding. We love them, and care about them, and their well being means something. There are some very good scares in here, and some deeply unnerving, gutpunch sequences. The sense of threat is significant, and the journey of discovery the kids are going on pulls the audience in. Luckily, Bill Skarsgård does a great job as Pennywise in this new feature version of It. This is a very different Pennywise than the mini-series version of the character, between what CGI affords the filmmakers now, Skarsgård’s performance and the more graphic nature of the film, it’s already very different and part of what makes all this work. The other part is the deeply psychological way Pennywise works, which is really the essence of the character, and is the thread from the novel coming through both cinematic adaptations. This is just a well crafted, psychologically driven creature feature, which also has a little bit of a throwback feel, as we’re following a group of kids on a dangerous adventure akin to many of the films from the 80’s. It is on the more graphic side though. It doesn’t fetishize the violence, but it’s also not trying to glamorize it by softening it either, and the blood is plentiful. There’s more blood than there is actual violence.
The Last Exorcism — A preacher who has been head of his church and performing exorcisms for years, has lost his faith and hooks up with a documentary team to show the nature of the con he’s been running on unwitting believers, as his form of penance. He chooses a final case to document as his last exorcism, and things don’t go at all as planned. Another in the faux documentary genre, The Last Exorcism has a very well written script, great direction and cinematography, with some stellar performances driving it home. The early scenes with Patrick Fabian as Reverend Cotton Marcus (no doubt a reference to the real life minister, Cotton Mather, who is infamous for his part in the Salem witch trials) are fantastic. Watching Fabian perform the sermons in his church is extremely fun. He is genuinely charismatic, and it sells the idea that he has been able to spend years committing what amounts to a con on true believers. Ashley Bell plays Nell Sweetzer, the girl whose father has written to Marcus, and who is going to be the subject of Cotton’s “last exorcism.” Bell is possibly too good. With no practical makeup effects and no CG, she turns in a performance which goes from naive, sheltered, hopelessly sweet and earnest young girl we as the audience completely fall in love with, to absolutely ice in your veins chilling. There are some great scares along the way, a well written story containing some interesting twists, and a great finale. Louis Herthum and Caleb Landry Jones (also great in Get Out) also turn in memorable performances as Nell’s very loving, dedicated, confused and frightened father and her extremely protective brother. The cinematographer, Simon Denis, finds a perfect balance between the found footage realism, also capturing some memorably gorgeous images, and understanding how to use the camera to construct great scares. This one comes in at PG-13, so there’s not much in the way of violence or blood on screen. It still manages to be an extremely fun ride, even for dedicated horror fans.
The Conjuring — Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives. This is a strange entry for me. I have to confess, I have a deep dislike for this film. I also recognize it’s a well made supernatural chiller, with well thought through scares, which is why it’s making it onto the list. My issue with this film is the “Based on the true case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren” bit. The Warren’s were charlatans and con artists, and attaching anything related to the definition of “true” to their legacy or how popular culture sees them is kind of irresponsible in my mind. I know, I know, plenty of horror films attach “based on a true story” to their marketing or their opening to help heighten the effect the film has on the audience. There’s a difference here though… In the cases of those other films, one ever went around collecting money from people in what were obviously the worst periods of their lives, promising them solutions to problems they didn’t have, while compounding the problems they did have. There’s no Sally, going around the country telling of the ways to find out if your community has a family of cannibals living on its outskirts, like the Sawyer family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc. Anyway, I recognize the level of skill which went into constructing the film, and it’s scares, and it’s obviously very well liked among most of the horror community, and I figure if you, unlike me, don’t have such a strong aversion to the Warren’s, you’ll find this one pretty entertaining. There’s some violence, and some blood, but it’s not very graphic at all.
Insidious — A family discovers that dark spirits have invaded their home after their son inexplicably falls into an endless sleep. When they reach out to a professional for help, they learn things are a lot more personal than they thought. This is from the same team as The Conjuring, but it’s narratively and cinematically much more imaginative, even as it does lean on the genre tropes unashamedly. This skewed take on the haunted house tale is very fun, has some seriously spooky atmosphere and a few genuinely great scares. It’s the perfect variety of paranormal spookfest to get into the Halloween season. Again, some violence, not very graphic and not much blood at all.
Cropsey — Realizing the urban legend of their youth has actually come true, two filmmakers delve into the mystery surrounding five missing children and the real-life boogeyman linked to their disappearances. This is the first of three documentaries on this list, because what is more frightening than that which is either real or believed to be real by the people relating the information. This is a very good documentary, and not so much scary as it is creepy, but also a very cool way into looking at the kind of urban legend which kids across the country come to lean on in the Halloween season. If you didn’t have the abandoned house or the hermit’s lair that you and your friends used to scare each other around Halloween, I feel for you. Here, they go the roots of the urban legend from their childhood, and it’s a well crafted, interesting, creepy documentary. No violence on screen. Some descriptions of disturbing violence though.
The Nightmare — Eight people experience sleep paralysis, a condition which leaves them unable to move, speak or react. Sleep paralysis… I had no idea a documentary could be quite this scary, creepy and unsettling in the way a horror film can be. Not only is this a very good documentary in terms of what it has to teach audiences about the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, it has some sequences whose imagery is likely to stick with audiences for a while after. As someone who has some experience with chronic nightmares, the thought of experiencing sleep paralysis in the context of one of those nightmares is terrifying all by itself, and then add in the imagery which seems to be so common for people who experience it, and the whole thing just becomes frightening. Great documentary, very good Halloween topic, very unsettling imagery. Highly recommend.
Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix Reboot): Berkshires UFO episode — Residents of Berkshire County, Massachusetts, recall their baffling, terrifying experiences with a UFO on the night of September 1, 1969. Being a horror fanatic can sometimes mean also being acquainted with the weird and unusual, if for no other reason than horror filmmakers and writers often take their inspiration from subject matter that in the rest of the world is considered the weird and unusual or fringe etc. Through the years I’ve read, seen documentaries, heard podcasts or seen narrative fiction about many of the most well known instances of proposed paranormal events in modern American history, I didn’t think there weren’t any major supposed events I wasn’t somewhat familiar with. As a kid, part of developing the fascination with horror was reading books, magazine articles or watching documentaries about all of the big ones, out of curiosity. As an adult, they’ve just become part of the general horror or science fiction content I enjoy. Somehow, I’d never heard of the Berkshire UFO incident though, and this one is a doozy. The sheer number of people claiming to have seen something or had some kind of experience, and how closely the timing and the descriptions all match up is downright creepy. Fun, creepy content, whether you believe it really happened or not.
Kill List — Nearly a year after a botched job, a hitman takes a new assignment with the promise of a big payoff for three killings. What starts off as an easy task soon unravels, sending the killer into the heart of darkness. This genre bending gem took the horror community by surprise back in 2011. No one was familiar with Ben Wheatley, the writer/director. Along with his writing partner Amy Jump, Wheatley crafted a twisting, unsettling, genre mash up which left a significant impression on audiences. In one way, this film is pretty dour, because the content is. The protagonist is a hit man, and nothing good is happening here. In another way, it’s an extremely fun film, because it’s such an inventive take on genre film making. It starts out as a kind of gritty action/drama, and then it becomes something else. I can’t quite think of anything else on this list like it. It is pretty violent and pretty bloody though, so be warned if those things can turn your stomach.
The Guest — A soldier introduces himself to the Peterson family, claiming to be a friend of their son who died in action. After the young man is welcomed into their home, a series of accidental deaths seem to be connected to his presence. This movie feels in some ways like a love letter to Hitchcock or DePalma. It’s a well written suspense thriller with great performances and some fun twists. Dan Stevens is spectacular as the guest in the title. He’s on his way to becoming a kind of genre Jimmy Stewart. He has great on screen charisma, great range, and is just somehow inherently likeable. [Side note, check him out in Legion, the FX television series. It’s excellent, and mind bendingly different television] It ends up being pretty conventional, but everything is so well done and so well stitched together it’s just a fun, fun flick with a great nail biting final 20 minutes. It does have some shocking violence that isn’t light on the gore. Director Adam Wingard has made his career doing lots of straight horror, and those inclinations are also on display here.
Lords of Salem — The City of Salem, Massachusetts is visited by a coven of ancient witches. This might be the most controversial pick, at least as the general horror community would see it. Rob Zombie is probably the most controversial director in horror today. His love for horror has been clear since he came onto the scene with his band, White Zombie, in the early 90’s. His music videos have been full of horror imagery and nods to horror fans. When he announced his first film, the horror community was all in. The result, House of 1,000 Corpses isn’t a bad first feature, at all. It is very derivative, and feels unfocused, but it’s a respectable attempt at an homage to a certain kind of horror film. His second film, a sequel to House of 1,000 Corpses was The Devil’s Rejects. Although it is a graphic, violent film, definitely an homage to some of the horror films from the 70’s which pushed the envelope of taste and acceptable content, it’s a much more accomplished, well written and well directed film. Then came the most controversial films of is career, when he was given the chance to reboot the Halloween franchise, and then direct a sequel. They were radical departures from the original, even as they held onto the skeleton of the original’s story. Those two films drove a wedge through the center of the horror community. There are those who love them, and then there’s everyone else. When Lord’s of Salem hit theaters a few years later, the controversy over the Halloween films was still raging on websites and social media, and unfortunately, box office for Lord’s of Salem reflected this, as did the reviews. However, I’m of the opinion that not only is this the best of Rob Zombie’s films, it’s a very good take on the slow burn supernatural films of the past. It owes a debt to films like Rosemary’s Baby, Dementia 13, Repulsion, Carnival of Souls and the like and Zombie’s personal spin on this variety of supernatural/psychological horror is a fun contribution. The finale is bonkers, visually stunning, thematically over the top, and a section of 15 minutes or so I can watch over and over and over. There is regular criticism of Sheri Moon, because her husband tends to put her in starring roles in all of his films. She’s very good in this though, and when compared to her performance as Baby in The Devil’s Rejects, it’s clear she can act and has range, so the criticism of Rob Zombie for casting her in all his films has some merit, but be more shallow than it initially seems because she can act. Also, there’s a supporting cast of horror royalty here. Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, and Patricia Quinn are very fun as the three sisters who have designs for Sheri Moon’s protagonist. Ken Foree is fun as the straight man on the radio show Sheri’s character brings the feminine presence to. There’s some great imagery at different points throughout the film, as well as the WTF ending, and I genuinely think Zombie tells this story compellingly. It’s without a doubt his most disciplined film, and unfortunately, after this, he’s seemed to go back to more or less the same material he’s already covered, resulting in films that feel stale, forced and boring. It seems like he’s just making movies for the fanboys who worship him on the internet, and that’s unfortunate for everyone else. I was genuinely hoping to see him take another step into a different narrative style or to expand on what he shows a talent for here. There’s a fair amount of gore here, but only one or two quick instances of on screen violence. There are points where blood is basically set dressing though too.
Evil Dead (2013) — Mia, a young woman struggling with sobriety, heads to a remote cabin with a group of friends where the discovery of a Book of the Dead unwittingly summon up dormant demons which possess the youngsters one-by-one. This is one of two remakes/reboots on this list. The original Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell is one of the films in the canon of modern horror. It started the Evil Dead franchise, which is close to the hearts of genre fanatics across a number of different genres, and Ash, the protagonist of that series is among fan cultures favorites. Watching the first two Evil Dead films back to back was a formative experience for me, cinematically. The first film, that this is remaking or rebooting, was intense in a horrific way. At points, it was a grueling experience in horror, as the marketing suggested. It was obviously a labor of love, because it was clearly made on the cheap, but it was also disturbing, intense, frightening and mind boggling. All I’ll say here about watching the second of the series is that it changed what I understood to be possible in genre, and in film more generally. It was the most gleeful explosion of creative ecstasy I’d ever seen. I say all of this because it should be known that I went into my screening of this 2013 remake really believing there was no way I was going to like it. I was wrong. After many years of the world of the Evil Dead being slapstick, comedic and played for absurdity (as the sequels and much later a television show too the franchise in this direction), I didn’t know how ready I was to see it go back to Evil Dead being scary and intense. Fede Alvarez and lead Jane Levy killed it, as far as I’m concerned. A few twists and additions on the original story give this more weight, and it knew exactly how to pay homage to the original in ways fans might recognize, but weren’t trying so hard they took me out of the experience of this film. It’s also very clear one doesn’t have to be a fan of the original to enjoy this one. The younger members of the horror community ate this up. What it ends up being is a blood splattered, often frightening, bruising ride. This is a pure horror film, there are moments of the bleakest, blackest humor, but really, this film is just trying to be being an experience in horror you won’t soon forget. Everything in it is in service of setting the audience up for the horror of what is going to happen to the characters, and getting the audience to feel the impact and intensely as possible. This is violent, gorey and unapologetic about all of it. It is trying to make you feel every bit of violence and flinch at all the gore. I loved it.
Suspiria (2018) — A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the troupe’s artistic director, an ambitious young dancer and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare, others will finally wake up. I thoroughly enjoy and respect the original Suspiria from 1978. It’s visually beautiful, the music is excellent, and this combination succeeds in creating one of the most unique atmosphere’s and experiences in horror history. Like most giallos, the sub genre it belongs to, it’s less interested in narrative substance than it is in evoking an atmosphere and a general vibe. This new remake version, finds much more balance between style and substance, and also doesn’t take on enough of the original’s touchstones to be trampling that films legacy in some way. It walks an impossible and nearly perfect line, in that sense. It’s absolutely it’s own film, based on the same rough narrative sketch as the original. This is a thematically thick film though. It takes place in East Germany, during the years of the “German Autumn” of the 1970’s, as political unrest was shaking the society and culture. This backdrop, Germany as it attempted to work out it’s post WWII identity, echoes some of the themes in the rest of the film. Questions about identity, the motives of the people you make community with, the way we see our pasts and how that shapes our identities, are all part of what’s happening in this film. Dakota Johnson is great as Susie, the Ohio resident who puts everything behind her to come audition for this world renowned dance studio in East Germany. Tilda Swinton is jaw droppingly amazing, as usual, in three roles of Madame Blanc who is the head mistress of the school, a psychiatrist, and another surprise character. The dance scenes are amazing. It’s not a perfect film, and may be thematically overstuffed, but it’s still hypotic, interesting, and creates a rising feeling of dread and tension while making the audience care about the characters. This is not for everyone necessarily, but I unabashedly love it. There a two particular scenes of violence in this film. One of them isn’t violence in the sense of one person committing violence against another, but it is intense and upsetting. The ending is a symphony of gore, with a little bit of violence. That may sound like the two are at odds, but it makes sense once you’ve seen the film.
That is the end of the first part of this list of great horror from 2010 to 2020. Hopefully, you’ll get some titles off of this for your Halloween viewing needs, to help get you in the mood as we move closer. I’ll be working on the last two sections of the list, “Deep Cuts” and “The Bold and The Brave” over the next few weeks. Between now and then, let me know what you think of the list so far.