Croon it with me: when I turned 33, it was a very good year. A very good year for small-scale horrors and things that bump in the night. Though we may have seen less all-time classics than the 70s, and fewer icons than the 80s, for me the last decade has been the greatest our genre has ever seen. With 2019 making for the blood-red icing on a very gory cake with many brilliant bakers. It could be selective memory writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever struggled to make a top ten this much.
Our most promising voices have kept delivering the goods. Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent and Andy Muschietti have all done something special. And even if I was a tad disappointed by Doctor Sleep, I recognise Mike Flanagan did something many would think impossible and did a decent follow up to The Shining. Robert Eggers too, though those of us will have to wait until January for The Lighthouse. Elsewhere, streaming services continued to draw attention from the big screen. Though with three Netflix films in my five least favourites, then it’d be generous to say the outputs were mixed. In The Tall Grass was also lucky not to make my hall of shame.
Note that this list is dedicated solely to films that have strong genre elements, so stuff like the super-gory Why Won’t You Just Die! aren’t included. Nothing Marvelous will be either. A couple of films which were out on general release this year also made last year’s cut(Climax, and The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot), so don’t expect them this time around.
10. Us. The tricky second movie for Jordan Peele. As per Get Out, this is a combo of scares and socio-commentary. Though unlike its predecessor, the horror sequences achieve an intensity rarely seen in mainstream cinema. The home invasion bits, in which people get hunted down by their doppelgangers, are expertly crafted and maybe the best I’ve seen this side of Hush. The comedy is also well-judged, making for welcome breaks in the tension rather than getting in the way of it. Despite issues with how Peele changed the nature of the threat from an allegory into something more literal, the third act problems don’t detract much from Peele’s achievement. I still believe we have yet to see his masterpiece, but I’d bet we will by this time next decade.
9. It Chapter 2. A superior sequel that’s at times bloated, but more often brilliant. This one replaces the more drawn out scares from the first with a character-driven follow up that better captures the magic of King’s magnum opus. It’s suspenseful, with exemplary scenes of supernatural horror, and also deeply moving. Adult and kid casts are on point, working well to bring to life the five damaged Losers, who find the strength in each other to deal with their shared trauma. The parallels between them as kids, and the adults they birth, is at times beautifully handled and it feels so much more substantial than the first. Bill Skarsgard is hypnotically watchable, playing Pennywise in a range of different disguises. He reminds us why the creepy clown is among the most iconic killers of this generation.
8. Child’s Play. You can’t keep a Good Guy down. The new Child’s Play will hopefully be remembered as the remake nobody wanted, then learned that they needed. For me, this was a much stronger, more heartfelt film than its source material. The supernatural elements of the original have been recalled, and our favourite killer has gotten a science fiction upgrade – he’s now AI: an anthropomorphic Alexa voiced by Luke Skywalker. But, following the loss of some safeguards, Chucky’s too literal, and prone to hurting the people or animals that he thinks are threatening Andy. The kills are often cover your eyes gory, with and there’s a gleefully wicked sense of humour running through it. Yet this version is at its best when it focuses on a lonely kid getting to welcome and then fear the unconditional love of his toy.
7. One Cut of the Dead. The boldest, and most original film on this list. It’s easy to say too much about this Japanese zombie comedy, about a team shooting a shoestring zombie comedy in an old WW2 facility with a history of human experiments. Though I can’t encourage you enough to stick with it past the slightly baffling first half hour. Yes, it’s a technical achievement – consisting of a single shot – but it’s cheap-looking, with awkward dialogue. However, press on, and you’ll find a film that dials down the scares to do something funny, life-affirming and utterly charming. It’s a completely fresh take that all builds up to a moment of pure joy and the feeling our main cast has achieved the impossible against all the odds. If you don’t shed a tear during the inspiring final shot, you must be dead inside.
6. The Nightingale. The Babadook was a spectacular supernatural shocker and a serious contender for the best horror of the decade. Writer/ director Jennifer Kent follows it up with something completely different: a period horror about the crimes of the British Empire in Tasmania. As one can guess from the pitch, it’s a tough watch, with the opening scenes, in particular, being among the most disturbing since Martyrs – even if it’s nothing like as graphic. It’s easy to see why this inspired walkouts during its premiere at The Sydney Film Festival. The Nightingale is ostensibly a rape-revenge about a young Irish convict, Clare, coming back from a terrible act of violence against her family. Yet it drops the typical quid pro quo approach, that sees audiences endure a rape scene in exchange for enjoyably big kills later. Instead, the approach to violence is far more matter of fact and the approach to trauma is far more confrontational. Clare’s relationship with her Aboriginal tracker is the story’s heart: a nuanced look at oppression across multiple planes. Bleak and upsetting with chinks of enchantment. It’s probably as difficult to enjoy this film as it is to not be affected by it.
5. Harpoon. Three horrible people on a boat with a harpoon gun – what could go wrong? Director Rob Grant handles difficult material well, as he combines delicious moments of dark comedy with an excellently crafted thriller in which loud, belly-laughs meet perfectly escalated tension. You rarely find something which stays laugh-a-minute while pitching its darker material with enough genuine peril for you to give a shit. Given Richard and “nice guy” sad sack Jonah are chad and virgin memes in the flesh, I was surprised how well this was achieved. Grant never dresses up the badness in his characters, though he gives them enough psychological depth and nuance that we care what happens to them even though we know they’re shits. The acting is also on-point, as it needs to be for what’s essentially a six-hander to work: these are not people you’d want to hang out with, but they’re great fun for 90 minutes. Horrific and hilarious.
4. Tigers Are Not Afraid. Horror has always provided a platform to communities who do not normally get one. In this case, it’s children orphaned by the Mexican drug wars: accidental adults who denied their chance to be kids. This theme that is emphasised at the start when a lesson on fairytales gets interrupted by stray bullets, and permeates every scene. What follows is a film about grief and revenge with a well-judged magical realist style. The ghosts that stand in for the fallen victims of the drug wars are unnerving, though the kid cast is the highlight. They do the most challenging scenes justice plus mutually provoking fear and empathy when waving their guns around. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film made with a clear love and passion that put its spell on me early. As supernatural horror and stark social commentary, it’s a phenomenal achievement. Prepare to be excited, frightened and potentially moved to tears for several different reasons at once.
3. The Guilty. A lot of the best films of the year have used just a few characters and locations. Both Harpoon and the two films above this one have minimalist approaches. However, they’ve got nothing on Danish writer/ director Gustav Möller who has created a high-octane suspense-thriller without hanging up the phone. It’s a real achievement and a reminder one need not have a big budget to do a great movie: just a solid story with a smart script. Asger, a cop who has been relegated to the call centre for reasons we find out gradually, takes a call from a woman claiming to have been abducted by her ex-husband. Speaking to her, and calling her kids, he builds up the plot piece by piece: it’s phenomenal but economic, world-building. Then, once you think you have it, it takes just one haunting sentence for everything to changes. Not in a cheap “they were dead all along” way. Heck, I genuinely gasped when The Guilty went from a riveting thriller into something more emotional. Furthermore, as alluded to above, we know from an early point that Asger done something wrong off-screen, and it is rewarding to discover why this caller carries so much significance. It is at once life-affirming and deeply disturbing, adding up to a moment of serendipity when all the strands come together in a gut-punching finale. It stays exciting ‘til the end, though it is the even more understated final act, in which Möller shows a sensitivity most writers go their whole career without capturing, that#s most rewarding. In other words, to end on a fitting phrase, less is more.
2. Ready or Not. A perfect marriage between bloody horror and black comedy that was so, so close to being my number one. Orphaned Grace ties the knot with her extremely wealthy fiancé Alex at the estate of his “moderately fucked up” family. They made their money through games, so at midnight it’s a tradition for a new member of their dynasty to draw a card and decide what they play: Chess, Old Maid etc. Grace gets the only bad: Hide and Seek, with a difference. In this version, the hunters are armed and need to maim her by midnight, then kill her in a blood sacrifice. A simple premise with a powerful feminist message about not being restricted by traditional/ patriarchal institutions. Grace in her ripped wedding dress and trainers, wielding a shotgun, may be the coolest image of the year (and I hope a future Halloween outfit). There’s also an almost Marxist look at the 1% gaining their wealth from the blood of the working classes. Each is organically worked into the character journies, countering the claims of it being too preachy. Most importantly, it’s bloody good fun. The body count and kills are impressive, with directorial duo Radio Silence constantly finding creative/ funny ways to off the cast and up the ante. The laughs are also pitch-perfect. Alex’s inept family would normally be the victims in this sort of film, and it is hilarious watching them struggle as would-be killers. At the centre is Samara Weaving, who consolidates her place as this generation’s scream queen by conveying both the situation’s life or death urgency and its absurdity. It all builds up to my favourite individual shot of the year: a punk-rock tour de force that reminds me why I love this genre. Catch it if you can.
1. Freaks. Picking between this and Ready or Not has been the hardest choice of two films I think I’ve ever had when making these lists. Though the sheer ambition of Freaks, coupled with a near-flawless execution, makes it the winner. Ready Or Not may epitomise what horror is. But with its genre-splicing approach, that sees it borrow heavily from another style of film I shan’t mention here, Freaks epitomises what horror can be. It starts with an intriguing puzzle: Chloe is hiding from the “bad” people with her father, in a run-down temporary home. Nobody visits aside from her friend across the road and an eccentric looking man in an ice cream van. Wondering why other kids don’t have to go through this, she sets about finding out what dad’s so frightened of and who the scary woman that shows up in her bedroom is. The first half takes its time building up its mysteries, with some exemplary character work, before the story does something completely unexpected to answer them all with a well-timed curveball, I won’t say anything more, as like One Cut Of The Dead it’s easy to spoil it. Suffice to say you should learn as little about it as you can. Don’t even watch the trailer if you can help it! An involving thriller, a morally ambiguous coming of age about not fitting in, and a sombre meditation on very contemporaneous issues. Freaks is all this and more. In other words, it’s unique. One of a kind.
Honourable mentions (in no specific order):
Midsommar (the joys of sects: a treat for the senses)
Extracurricular (a smart, amusing reverse-slasher flick)
Dave Made A Maze (poignant, quirky comedy-horror)
Brightburn (super gory and mean spirited villain origin story)
Pet Sematary (a pitch-black remake that’s genuinely scary)
Knives and Skin (a sweet, hypnotic, technicolour dreamscape)
Here Comes Hell (superb mix of Evil Dead meets Agatha Christie)
They Look Like People (a paranoid thriller with excellent characterisation)
Girl on the Third Floor (bodily fluids leaking from the walls, and creepy fun)
The Perfection (cunningly plotted with ace aesthetic – best Netflix of the year)
Velvet Buzzsaw (vicious and visually impressive – second best Netflix of the year)
Samara Weaving (Ready or Not)
Worst of the year:
Secret Obsession (dull wait for a reveal 99% of viewers will have guessed)
The Silence (an uninteresting apocalyptic movie with no third act)
Wounds (very, very boring breakdown movie)
Scooter (dull, unfunny road-trip gone wrong)
Glass (a slow, tension-free anti-climax)
Automata (awkward incest and iffy acting, but surprisingly enjoyable)
Films I didn’t see but wanted to: