The Best Horror Films of 2016

Independently of Crossfader’s Best of 2016 list, we decided it would be important to highlight the 15 best horror films of the past year. While the following ranking may not be in line with these films’ placements on the year-end list, it’s because we tried to judge them solely on their qualities as a horror film. So if you’re looking for a definitive ranking of “spookiness,” look no further.

Before we begin, here are five honorable mentions that just missed the cut:

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE

I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

THE GREASY STRANGLER

THE SHALLOWS

THE LOVE WITCH

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15. THE INVITATION

Director: Karyn Kusama

Trauma has always been front and center in horror films, whether it’s Ripley coming to terms with her time in cryostasis in ALIENS, or Rob Zombie discussing notions of PTSD in HALLOWEEN II. With THE INVITATION, director Karyn Kusama delved into the psychology of two divorced, mourning parents. Needless to say, one of the two has completely lost their marbles. But what Kusama does so expertly is frame her narrative. Through a heavy red color palette and tight framing, THE INVITATION is a sweltering mystery, one that asphyxiates you as you try to solve its riddles. The strict subjective filmmaking only helps exacerbate the presumptions we might have about which character is losing their mind, forcing viewers to consistently seesaw on the situation at hand. It’s tense slow-burn, but never forgets the humanity at its center. [Sergio Zaciu]

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14. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

One can argue for hours about the pros and cons of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE’s final ten minutes, but whenever I think back to Dan Trachtenberg’s 2016 thriller, I am constantly reminded of how inventive of a subversion it is for franchising. In a year that lauded a Star Wars film for being an edgy war movie, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE was the dark horse of tentpoles, criminally overlooked and feverishly thrilling. Here we had a film that delivered a confined, disturbing thrill-ride that relied on the success of its predecessor to put butts in seats. Frankly, this inversion is one of the smartest marketing ploys of the year, and inadvertently made for one of the year’s best horror films as well. [Sergio Zaciu]

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13. 31

Director: Rob Zombie

The most enjoyable Rob Zombie project since THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, 31 feels like a movie based on a Universal Halloween Horror Nights maze, and not the other way around. Wasting no time in throwing its wayward band of travellers into an ultraviolent survival contest, 31 is light on narrative (like you came here for that, anyway) but heavy on gleefully perverse fun. The film was made in less than a year, was almost entirely crowdfunded, and managed to skirt distribution outlets that would have turned their nose up at its NC-17 rating by jumping right to Redbox and the like; in short, this is as much of an auteur as Zombie is ever going to be. And in true Zombie fashion, that auterism amounts to a staggering and endless orgy of blood and viscera. However, what also jumps out about 31 is the hefty doses of humor employed, keeping things from becoming unnecessarily bleak. Topped off with a commendably deranged performance from Richard Brake, 31 is the year’s premiere outing of the extreme. Watch with friends and a six pack. [Thomas Seraydarian]

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12. THE MONSTER

Director: Bryan Bertino

This year featured a lot of “art house” horror that stretched, bloated, and otherwise wreaked havoc on traditional genre convention, for better or for worse. As such, sometimes it’s nice to just kick back and have it given to you straight. Easily the most efficient entry on this list, THE MONSTER makes use of a straightforward narrative involving a mother and daughter trying to survive a road trip while being assaulted by the titular antagonist. One of the few instances where I wasn’t disappointed by a creature reveal, the gore effects are impressive, and the tension continually grows and shifts as both parties gradually compromise the abilities and well-being of the other. However, what’s perhaps most impressive is the fact that the film portrays the neglectful and emotionally abusive mother as an alcoholic, without making the monster be a metaphorical representation of her vice. As such, the subplot involving the mother and daughter attempting to patch up their relationship in the face of their impending doom is much more powerful than the typical fare of a character facing their addiction. If you like ‘em lean and mean, look no further. [Thomas Seraydarian]

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11. DEMON

Director: Marcin Wrona

A priest telling a doctor that there must be a solid medical reasoning for a possessed man’s behavior may just be one of the most entertaining genre subversions we’ve seen in years. Poland’s latest horror export, DEMON is a beautifully ethereal film, one that boasts a stellar performance from its lead actor and utilizes the conceit of a wedding-gone-wrong as a fantastic source for comic relief. As this wacky ensemble attempts to figure out what illness has befallen the groom, domestic intrigue and personal gains begin to show the ugliest sides of each family member. It’s a brilliant setup for a complex ensemble piece, but also presents some of the most polished production value we’ve seen in 2016 horror. From its thick fog bank to its gorgeous locations, DEMON is a visual firecracker, and one that is sure to take your breath away through it’s peculiar, Kubrickian climax. [Sergio Zaciu]

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10. BASKIN

Director: Can Evrenol

What a debut! All aside from the fact that Evrenol made a horror genre piece in Turkey, a country historically primed to hate such fare, with a relatively amateurish crew and illegally utilized locations, BASKIN features more vision and style than many pieces from established directors working today. Involving a group of policemen that unwittingly stumble into a hallucinogenic Hell, BASKIN also demonstrates a loose, improvisatory nature to its dialogue that simultaneously posits Evrenol as someone with a lot of indie potential. But that’s not worth the price of admission alone; although endearingly referencing several classic aspects and moments of Hollywood horror (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, most notably), BASKIN manages to create its own convincing and unsettling version of a gritty, industrial afterlife. Already showcasing a mature belief that less is more in terms of what is shown, there are several harrowing segments of the film where you’ll be hoping that you didn’t see what you think you saw. All culminating in an extended third act that possesses what has to be one of the most memorable silver screen debuts in Mehmet Cerrahoglu, BASKIN may not have the ending that you’d like, but is a whole lot of fun getting there. [Thomas Seraydarian]

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9. TRAIN TO BUSAN

Director:  Yeon Sang-ho

I absolutely despise zombies and all they’ve done to dilute horror, so I went into TRAIN TO BUSAN fully expecting to get my grump on. Little did I know I would find one of my favorite genre films of the year! While there are a multitude of lazy comparisons to SNOWPIERCER simply because both are set on moving trains, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an entirely separate entity. An uneasy father-daughter duo travel to Busan to drop the girl off with her mother, but find themselves in a fight for survival when a passenger infected with a viciously efficient viral agent begins turning everyone into the living dead. While it certainly resides more on the thriller spectrum, the effects portraying the infected are impressive, and there’s plenty of gore and dismemberment to keep the more hardened horror crowd happy. But better than all that is the fact that TRAIN TO BUSAN is some of the most fun you’ll have with 2016 cinema, regardless of genre. The stylized action is a treat to watch (I’ll allow some comparisons to THE RAID), and the film does a great job of continually upping the stakes while also giving the characters more information on how to beat the hordes. Topped off with some moral ambiguity revolving around what it takes to survive, this is my favorite Korean export of the year. [Thomas Seraydarian]

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8. OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL

Director: Mike Flanagan

The little horror prequel that could, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL managed to shut up virtually all of the detractors of its predecessor. A genuinely creepy and dramatically sound horror film, one of the strongest PG-13 frightfests since THE CONJURING and its sequel, and in easy competition for the cream of the Blumhouse crop, Flanagan’s film values atmosphere over cheap thrills, features entirely sympathetic characters, and relies on surprising ways to get under our skin. Making use of camera movements and overall blocking that hearkens back to the classic horror films of the ‘70s, in addition to a full grasp on the understanding of the importance of depth of frame, O:OOE is one of the year’s most technically sound genre outings. But, perhaps most shockingly of all, this film is the rare horror cut that convinces you to care about its protagonists, using a family reeling over the death of the father figure to incorporate internal conflict into outward horror aesthetics. I know it’s hard to forget the horror Stiles White inflicted upon the world in 2014, but I promise, if this were under any different name you’d have absolutely no idea that it was related to one of the biggest Blumhouse stinkers. [Thomas Seraydarian]

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7. THE NEON DEMON

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

As a pupil of Alejandro Jodorowsky, one must accept Nicolas Winding Refn as the provocateur that he is. THE NEON DEMON is not a film that will satisfy most, and is by all accounts not a film that is built to be transparent. But what THE NEON DEMON never shies away from is eliciting emotion through aesthetic, a visual trademark that Refn has really honed in on in his last three outings. Regardless of your individual opinions on DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES, one must approach THE NEON DEMON as the work of extremist auteurism that it is. A film that forces you to brace for impact and collides headfirst with a complex, often contradictory, study of artifice, femininity, and exploitation. To me, THE NEON DEMON will always read more like an autobiography than anything else, a film that showcases Refn’s own inherent egocentrism, but that is exactly what makes it so exciting. [Sergio Zaciu]

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6. GREEN ROOM

Director:  Jeremy Saulnier

Gritty, grisly, and even more grimly relevant now than when it released, GREEN ROOM’s plausibility might just be the scariest thing about it. Five punks are trapped in a backwoods bar by neo-Nazis after witnessing a murder, counting the seconds until their captors figure out a way to dispose of them. In keeping with the themes he sowed in BLUE RUIN, Saulnier’s bloodbath between the two counter-culture movements is defined by the ineptitude of participants on each side. Unlike the absurdly crafty heroines of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE and DON’T BREATHE, the characters in GREEN ROOM are susceptible to the rash decisions, bouts of cowardice, and general lack of foresight that pretty much anyone faced with an immediate and violent end would demonstrate. It would almost make for the darkest of comedies, if the consequences of theses mistakes weren’t so horrific. GREEN ROOM reminds us that the only thing more gruesome than being slaughtered by a seasoned killer is to be sloppily finished off by someone who has no clue what they’re doing. [Ed Dutcher]

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5. THE WAILING

Director: Na Hong-jin

When talking about genre conventions, few films feel as cascading as Na Hong-Jin’s THE WAILING, a quote-unquote horror epic. Few films manage to warrant the running time of 156 minutes, but through a complex tapestry of investigative drama, demonic possession, slasher tropes, and slapstick comedy, THE WAILING expands the notion of high-concept horror like an origami, unfolding piecemeal and ultimately highlighting just how much the genre has in store when it is correctly manipulated. It is certainly one of 2016’s most beautiful horror films, boasting an operatic scale and gorgeous aesthetic flourishes, but it is the humanity at the heart of its conflict that helps round out its drama. [Sergio Zaciu]

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4. THE CONJURING 2

Director: James Wan

As a horror fan, one should feel obliged to champion James Wan. In a genre so dominated by cash grabs and throwaway genre fare, Wan has made a mark for himself as someone who has avoided gimmickry. With SAW he ushered in an entire subgenre that completely missed the point of his brilliant original, and with THE CONJURING, he reminded us just how potent a polished haunted house film can be. So when I heard that Wan was taking on a sequel, I was more than curious. If ANNABELLE was anything to go by, THE CONJURING 2 would be complete waste of time. But James Wan expanded the emotional arc of his two fantastic leads, played with two disparate narratives in a surprisingly subversive way, and brought us one of the most horrifying demons of the 2010s. THE CONJURING 2 is somewhat of a horror epic, not quite to the degree that THE WAILING is, but its expansive narrative and clever puzzle-solving made for some of the best ghost hunting in years. [Sergio Zaciu]

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3. THE WITCH

Director: Robert Eggers

Attention to detail is often what makes or breaks your average horror film, but when it’s treated like gospel, it can elevate it well beyond sheer entertainment. For years, horror naysayers have spent their time arguing against the genre’s recognition during awards season, but THE WITCH has proven that a horror film can be so much more than just popcorn-riddled fun. When people tell me that Robert Egger’s New England folk tale isn’t a horror film, I calmly (read: furiously) reply that it is only considered a psychological thriller because of how brilliantly it positions its characters front-and-center within its narrative. We have become so conditioned to believe that horror films need to deliver cheap thrills that we’ve forgotten the genre’s ability to harbor deeply empathetic protagonists. The reason we never allow horror films to rank alongside other genres is because as soon as one is truly great, we no longer consider it a horror film. THE WITCH is where I draw the line. [Sergio Zaciu]

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2. DON’T BREATHE

Director: Fede Alvarez

We were lucky this past year to receive two excellent, single-location murder-thrillers, and the debate between GREEN ROOM and Fede Alvarez’s burglary heist movie has been contentious. Ultimately, however, Alvarez’s supreme command of geographical space, plotting, and dramatic irony is so rich that there is no contest. DON’T BREATHE revels in campy dialogue and broad character development in its first act, not as a directorial oversight, but as an intentional device. As we watch three Detroit burglars break into a blind man’s house, we understand their motivations, but see none of them as purely sympathetic. This allows Alvarez to toy with his audience perfectly; we’re so conflicted as we watch this trio of ne’er-do-wells face off against a broken man driven to wild sadism that it’s impossible to know who to root for. He furthers this by always giving the audience just a little more information than the characters have in any given moment, perfectly priming us to fear what is just about to come. Finally, by astounding leaps of imagination, Alvarez is able to continually keep his narrative spinning long after most directors would have decided to call it a day. This was easily one of the most satisfying theater going experiences of this year, and in combination with his superb EVIL DEAD remake, Alvarez has firmly solidified himself as one of the genre’s new masters. [Carter Moon]

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1. UNDER THE SHADOW

Director: Babak Anvari

As I brought up in our overlooked gems podcast, for the life of me, I can’t understand why UNDER THE SHADOW didn’t get the same hype treatment experienced by other high-profile horrors such as THE BABADOOK, IT FOLLOWS, and THE WITCH. I’m a horror veteran, and apart from some knee-jerk shocks every once in awhile from jump scares, I can say that I never really get scared anymore. Little did I know when I saw Babak Anvari’s debut at Sundance that I would be in for the most frightening theater-going experience of my life. A masterclass in tension and dread, UNDER THE SHADOW deals with a mother and daughter who are terrorized by malicious spirits known as djinn, after they’re drudged up by the violence of the Iran-Iraq War. Well-acted, with a great underlying conflict of the struggles of an independent, intellectual woman trying to survive in one of the world’s most patriarchal societies, the film deftly juggles its terrestrial and paranormal conflicts, yielding something that’s as dramatically and thematically sound as it is piss-your-pants terrifying. Now available on Netflix, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t make UNDER THE SHADOW a viewing experience of the highest priority. [Thomas Seraydarian]

Crossfader Staff

The good people of Crossfader Magazine.

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