With Sundance Film Festival winding down and Panic Fest starting up, we thought we’d take a moment to look back at some of the biggest horror films of the last 5 years, that got their start on the festival circuit. Admittedly, if you are a horror fan, some of these films won’t be a surprise at all. That shouldn’t lessen things at all. It just means you have to find a friend to share these with. Every film that follows is worth a rent, if not an instant buy. So make sure there’s some room in your wallets.
As a point of pride, this list will be in descending order, starting with 2016, to throw a few curve balls your way. It wouldn’t be horror if everything went as expected.
Note: in keeping with the “festival” theme, these films are group by the year they made the rounds. Not necessarily when they were officially released.
This film is an absolute treat. Full stop. A figurative and literal doozy, it knocked most viewers on their ass last year. Telling the relatively simple story of a freshmen vegetarian veterinary student who undergoes a hazing ritual, that awakens a craving for meat inside her, with sinister consequences.
Julia Ducournau delivers one of the most assured debuts in years. Wielding a narrative that is as beautiful meditative, as it is menacingly stark it exemplifies how truly varied horror can be as a genre. Though some may be quick to say that it deals in the extreme, concerning sex or violence, to do so is to distract from a smart coming of age story.
While not out just yet, most won’t have to wait long, as this opens wide in March.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Here is a tight and sparse thriller from André Øvredal (Trollhunter). The film focuses on a family run coroner office, in small town America. They are called upon to perform an overnight autopsy on the body of an unidentified woman, whose untouched corpse was found at the scene of a bloody crime. As the hours tick away, the family starts to notice that things are not what they appear, concerning the Jane Doe. Father and son (Brain Cox & Emile Hirsch) not only have to contend with the daunting task at hand, but also have another body that looms over both their heads.
Surprises are doled out at steady pace, wringing much more than anyone could expected out of a few scant locations and small cast. Not only is this a chilling genre exercise, it also gains several points for building a strong relationship between the two leads.
The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
Stark, effecting, creepy and lavishly painted in black and white. It should come as no surprise this entry littered numerous top 10 lists.
A movie that is best experienced rather than spoiled, we witness a woman’s quiet country life disturbed after tragedy befalls her. Dealing with family, loss and how events shape or break one’s psyche, the events that transpire gradually seep under the viewers’s skin, leaving an emotional dent. All in under 80 minutes.
The Invitation (2015)
Karyn Kusama directs the epitome of a slow burn, as a man gathers with friends for a dinner party at his ex-wife’s house. A house that just so happens to harbor skeletons from his past. Adding to a sense of unease is the fact that his ex-wife and new beau have returned after several years away, during which time they had no contact with anyone gathered.
A possibly unreliable leading character makes sure to keep the audience on their toes. Kusama gleefully subverts conventions at times, peppering misdirects around every corner. It all culminates in an ending that is sure to leave many slack jawed.
The VVitch (2015)
Few films recently have burst onto the scene and left as much of an impact as that of The VVitch. Announcing both talents in front of (Anya Taylor Joy) and behind the camera (Director David Eggers), this look at 17th Century New England life, isn’t messing around. Meticulous attention to detail is but one of the strong aspects display, in a film that is almost perfect. From the immaculate costume and set designs, to an astonishingly simple, yet deceptive usage of sound, Eggers & company aim to impress, as well as unnerve.
What’s more, it gave us Black Phillip, which is nothing to scoff at.
Green Room (2015)
Some may argue about the above inclusion, as debates have spouted across the internet concerning if it is “truly” a horror film. It does so contain countless horrific acts, tension as thick as molasses, as well as a band of backwards villains attempting to cut through the “heroes”. That sounds as if it fits perfectly.
Patrick Stewart plays the head of group of skinheads, who happen to have a bar out in the middle of nowhere. When a punk band lead by Anton Yelchin plays a gig at their bar and witness a crime they shouldn’t have, it becomes a kill or be killed scenario. Insurmountable odds face the band at every turn. No one is safe, no one is truly innocent, everyone is expendable.
Make sure to watch this one with a few friends and see who squeals or squirms first.
What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
Essentially This Is Spinal Tap for the horror set, this uproarious comedy takes every ounce of ancient lore it can find on its subject and turns it on its head.
Calling upon the talents of some of New Zealand’s best comedians (or former Flight of The Conchords members), we get a look at one house inhabited by a group of vampires as they navigate the modern world. Whether it’s etiquette on doing dishes, “eating” out, or the qualms of turning a friend into an undead without asking, nothing is spared. Even the classic look of Nosferatu is played for laughs.
Partially due to the success of this film, co-director Taika Waititi was tapped to do Thor Ragnarok for Marvel. Even more exciting is the proposed sequel in the works, which would follow Rhys Darby and his merry band of Swearwolves, sorry Werewolves.
It Follows (2014)
Metaphors have been the fundamental backbone of the horror genre for as long as anyone can remember. Wielded correctly it can terrify on numerous levels. It Follows deals with a young woman as she is stalked by a powerful supernatural force that only she can see, after a sexual encounter. She is warned that no matter where she goes, “it” will know where she is.
Dripping with atmosphere David Robert Mitchell presents a picture that taps into the seething dread of living in a waking nightmare. As things become dire for our heroine she must decide, do you run from impending doom or do you face it head on?
The Babadook (2014)
When it comes to things to naturally be afraid of, there are 2 things you should never mess with – creepy children and grieving mothers. Unfortunately, this entry sees both of those things getting wound quite tightly, leading to a dire series of events. Furthering matters is the arrival of the one of the most disturbing children’s books imaginable.
As the mom’s mental state is called into question, the son stands resolute in confronting fears and grows ever more into a cunning mini-MacGuyver. All the while the sounds of the Baba-dook-dook-dook start to become deafening, threatening to destroy the family once and for all.
The Battery (2013)
Proving that you don’t have to have all the money in the world ($6000) to make an effective film, , The Battery surprised a lot of people. Essentially a 2 man-show for the majority of the run time, we see the day to day struggles of 2 former baseball players as they attempt to survive a zombie apocalypse. It doesn’t focus on the regular tropes you’d expect, often going out of it’s way to blaze it’s own languid and contemplative path. When carnage does erupt though, it ends up packing a sizable wallop.
Cheap Thrills (2013)
The age old question of “what would you do for a quick buck?” gets explored past the logical extreme here. Old friends (Pat and Ethan Embry) reunite after several years at a bar and wind up in a game of one-upmanship, orchestrated by a rich weirdo hoping to entertain his wife. As the dares and challenges grow and get bloodier, the 2 friends past issues bubble to the surface.
A dark, mean, but rather funny romp that’s sure to make you laugh, just as much as it will make feel queasy. Which is to say, a lot.
Ever since the release of The Blair Witch Project, every up and coming talent has tried to find a way to make found footage work. They’re inexpensive, often requiring little crew the or even the sparsest of plots. It’s rather easy to see the allure. Afflicted attempts to dive head first into the sub-genre, but manages smartly navigating the traps that usually befall the “pseudo-documentary” style.
While on the trip of a lifetime, Derek decides to partake in a one night stand (which horrorhounds know is a strict “no-no”). The following day he begins to display the effects of a weird affliction, including increased strength, reflexes and a hunger which may consume him.
Not afraid to wallow in extravagance, directors Derek Lee & Cliff Process go for the jugular, quite literally.
ABC’s Of Death & V/H/S (2012)
While technically a cheat, both of these film deserve a spot on the list. It only makes sense to group the two films together, that essentially helped to restoke the fires of the anthology train (it’s a thing, we’re sure of it).
If you aren’t aware of either, you truly owe it to yourself to seek them out. ABCs runs the gamut of gross-out insanity to well done satire and V/H/S spends its time seeing how far the found footage genre can go, in the hopes of breaking it. Equal parts hilarious, disgusting and often terrifying, there is something for everyone here. Plus, it should serve as a nice companion piece to other films on the list, seeing as how several of the directors here are featured.
American Mary (2012)
The one thing that threatens to undo any indie film, is often budgetary constraints. Nowhere is this felt more often than in horror. Usually the decision between great effects, great actors and great cinematography always present a challenge. A great concept can be dethroned by amateur acting. Or an intriguing (but under examined) subject matter paired with the right actor, can make something special. Thankfully, it’s the latter category that American Mary falls into, anchored by a sensational performance from Katherine Isabelle.
Mary is a medical student who is excelling in school, but also flat broke. Through chance, she falls into the world of underground surgeries & body modifications. As her savings start to grow, so does her confidence. As often happens, inevitably the blood starts to flow. It’s a weirdly enjoyable ride, that has all the makings of a future cult favorite.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
A “movie for those who love movies”, this film, staring Toby Jones, strives to be as weird & askew as possible and succeeds with great aplomb. A British sound designer films himself working for the titular movie studio. In the process of working on a film he begins to not only question his work, but his very grasp on reality.
Flowing with references to Kafka, numerous giallo films and old school filmmaking , Berberian Sound Studio is a love letter to cinema. Denser than most of the other entries on the list, it should nevertheless be sought out immediately.
While it may not be the most “complete” list (there’s at least 25 films that could be added on here), we think it’s more than a worthy start. As the year rolls on, with the likes of SXSW, TIFF, Cannes and Fantastic Fest yet to hit, there’s bound to be more than a few films that deserve spots. Just means we have to go out of our way to update next year. If you do feel there’s any omissions too glaring, be sure to let us know in the comments below.