The 2010's was the best decade in horror since the 1980's. These last ten years have produced a veritable library of creative, terrifying, and visionary movies that will influence future filmmakers for years to come. Furthermore, just like the 80's, a tumultuous political environment has opened the door for horror to explore the world in new depth, using the genre to probe into a broad array of social and cultural themes: war, misogyny, drug abuse, environmental destruction, disability, racism, sexuality, religion, immigration, extremism, and more. What has changed, however, is that horror is now also taking a deep look at itself, questioning its own approaches and traditions in unpredictable and exciting ways. In the 2010's, horror took a serious artistic and creative position in film in a way unseen in quite some time.
Readers who know me personally know that I’m worryingly obsessed with weird horror movies, and am also compulsively prone to list-making. So naturally, I made a list, and it turns out that I’ve seen something in the range of 215 horror movies from last decade so far. For the benefit of both other horror fans and the curious who are not yet very invested in the genre, I’ve compiled a list of my 25 favorite horror movies from the 2010’s, including everything from popular hits to obscure oddities.
There are no major spoilers here. However, I would like to apply a strong content warning to the list. Though the severity of the content in these films vary widely, they’re all horror movies with some level of disturbing content in them (ranging from violence and gore to sexual content and highly taboo themes). Obviously, a horror movie’s placement on this list is not an endorsement of what the movie portrays.
Watch at your own discretion, but the “Parents Guide” section of a film’s IMDb page often has a more detailed look at the content in each film. For the convenience of readers, the following entries contain something notably more disturbing than what you would see at an average horror movie in theaters: 25, 22, 19, 18, 17, 15, 12, 7, especially 6, and 1.
#25: Toad Road (2012)
In September 2012, just weeks after Toad Road’s first festival premiere, the film’s co-star Sara Anne Jones died in her New York apartment of a heroin overdose at the age of 24. I first heard about Toad Road through this incredible article by Mike Spies about her life and her passing. The drama-horror follows a group of young junkies and scenesters in rural Pennsylvania aimlessly filling their days with drugs, until the group’s newest member, played by Jones, decides to take her trip further. She drops acid and explores a local legend: Toad Road, a trail in the woods which slowly disorients hikers until they arrive in Hell.
The film is replete with excessive amounts of real nudity and drug use, as many actors are not too distant from the characters they’re depicting (young actors with a “brand of drug-addled nihilism” were cast through an ad in Vice magazine; all play characters that share their real first names). So while the film itself carries a layered message cautioning against drug abuse, the actors here are in some sense actual victims of the cautionary tale they’re portraying. The film is rough around its edges, but is often visually beautiful and at times even sincerely profound. A claustrophobic shakycam gives it a natural, almost documentarian flair. Though eerie throughout, there are perhaps only three scenes in the entire film which can actually be qualified as scary, but their scarcity makes them all the scarier when they come out of nowhere.
Even beyond its quality as a film, Toad Road is truly haunting. In the five years following Sarah Anne Jones’ death, more than 176,000 people in the US died because of opioids. The star of this film about the destruction that drug abuse can cause was herself a victim of it, a casualty of one of greatest public health crises in modern American history. She remains after her death — through her acting, her poetry, and her abandoned blog — as one of countless thousands of what Spies calls an “American ghost story.”
#24: Suspiria (2018)
Suspiria (2018) is as far from Suspiria (1977) as a remake can possibly be, and which one someone prefers says a lot about their taste in film. The original is a classic of the Italian giallo subgenre, a psychedelic slasher from the mind of famed genre director Dario Argento. But while I loved the things that Suspiria (77) is known for— visuals, color, and score — it lacked much else. It was brilliant style, devoid of substance.
This new take on the movie follows a radically different approach. Suspiria (18) puts its effort into telling a compelling story of a dance school run by a coven of witches directly under the shadow of the Berlin Wall while tensions surrounding the RAF terrorist organization were at their peak. It’s a cautious movie, but brutally disturbing when it wants to be. This more cerebral approach is made possible by an excellent cast led by Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton. But while visually and tonally far more restrained than its predecessor (for most of the film, at least), it’s never drab: unorthodox editing and Thom Yorke’s haunting score succeed in giving it a unique feeling of discordance throughout that only adds to its macabre style. For me at least, this is the clearly superior Suspiria.
#23: Get Out (2017)
Few directorial debuts of the last decade received as much attention as Jordan Peele’s, who has proved his talent not only as a comedian, but a clever horror writer as well. Get Out is a unique approach to conceptualizing modern racism, and in a few short years since its release it has already proven to be influential. The premise (eventually revealed in a twist) is brilliant, and when combined with Peele’s attention to detail allows for a surprisingly complex look at the continued dominance of anti-black racism in America even as the cultural face it now wears has changed.
Without spoiling anything, my largest complaint with the movie when first seeing it was the ending, which struck me as rushed if not anti-climactic. But in an interview in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), Peele hinted that the choice to end the movie the way he did was in part a response to the treatment of black people in the horror genre, seeking to subvert the expectations set by the shocking ending to the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Every time you watch this movie, you can catch something new and substantive. In the end, it’s this dedication to the execution of such an fresh idea that cements the movie’s place on my list.
#22: The First Purge (2018)
The Purge is the only movie franchise I’m aware of in which each new entry is better than the last one. While the original was rather disappointing, this fourth entry into the series easily surpasses all three of its predecessors. The series’ original writer-director stuck to writing the script this time, giving the director’s seat to Gerard McMurray, a young black filmmaker with only one other full-length movie under his belt. It was pretty widely panned because it couldn’t find an audience: critics and mainstream audiences were too bored of the premise by now to give this entry a fresh look in its own right, while some fans of the series were likely displeased with the shake-up of the series’ formula. This poor response is entirely undeserved.
The First Purge serves as prequel to the rest of the series, retaining its interest in exploring the implications of a world where crime is temporarily legalized as a mechanism of social cleansing; this entry, however, also reinvents the approach that all previous films took, coming from a much stronger and more explicitly political position. It’s not subtle or clever; indeed, it has moments of cultural reference where it clearly crosses the line into poor taste. Nonetheless, it stands as both a pulse-pounding action-horror film and an incendiary sledgehammer to the face of American politics.
Throughout the series, the concept of the Purge is justified in-universe with the Hobbesian premise that mankind is naturally violent and prone to cut-throat competition. Attempts to suppress this nature are at the root of social problems, and so a temporary “Purge” of repressed criminality is believed to lead to a more peaceful society at all other times. Some of the sequels began poking holes in this presupposition, but The First Purge flips it entirely. This justification, we learn, has always been a flimsy cover for the Purge’s true purpose: a white supremacist austerity measure meant to kill off the poor and minorities. As we watch the first ever Purge unfold on Staten Island, it at first fails, with few people instinctively resorting to violence against one another as planned. In response, government paramilitaries have to step in to force the violence while oppressed communities must organize their defense.
Making the film a prequel allows for the series to question its own underlying politics across the prior entries, reframing the Purge as an imposition from above to eliminate the vulnerable. Its style is brash, in-your-face, and a much welcomed (if perhaps excessive) corrective to public hand-wringing and false moral equivocations in the face of injustice.
#21: Rubber (2010)
Of the more than 8,100 full-length horror movies from this decade with an entry on the movie database Letterboxd, Rubber has the unique honor of being the 59th most controversial according to its distribution of user ratings. It is hated for the same reason it is loved: Rubber is a movie that holds disdain towards you for watching it.
A junk tire laying off the side of a road suddenly develops both sentience and telekinesis. Naturally, it goes on a killing spree in the desert for the enjoyment of the audience — the literal audience, who is represented by a group of characters in the story. As a self-described “homage to the ‘no reason,’ that most powerful element of style,” it is completely different from any other movie I’ve seen in that it essentially serves as a stab at the concept of movie storytelling itself. The fourth wall isn’t broken here, it’s transparent. Rubber is a bafflingly entertaining experiment in meta film which is sure to frustrate just as many viewers as it enthralls.
#20: Insidious (2010)
James Wan, originally of Saw (2004) fame, has sadly spent much of his horror career in the late 2010's working on an endless stream of sequels and knock-offs of his own earlier works. But when he kicked the decade off with Insidious, it was an instant phenomenon and reminded audiences about the talent that made him famous in the first place.
The premise of paranormal possession is far from original, but Insidious goes out of its way to break the mold with what can only be referred to as a mastery of the mechanics of modern horror, revitalizing once-stale tropes into heart-stopping moments. While it loses its way a bit near the end, its dark stylings feature a number of the most memorable and flat-out scary movie moments in recent memory. It makes highly effective use of jump scares without ever relying on them to prop up the film, giving care to make each feel as deserved as they are disturbing. Just as importantly, its financial success served as a reminder to studios that, if you take time to create a quality, original horror movie, audiences will you reward for it. Insidious 2 - 4, however, can be skipped.
#19: Raw (2016)
Raw is a movie in a league of its own. When a French student leaves home to attend college at the same Dutch university as her sister, she faces all of a regular freshman’s problems, compounded by the fact that it’s now rather difficult for her to continue the vegetarian lifestyle that her family religiously adheres to. In French director Julia Ducournau’s feature film, consequences spin out of control fast in an unpredictable barrage of nightmarish occurrences which blur the ethical lines between animal and human life. As always, the French can be relied on to let their movies explore territory that others might shy away from.
But Raw isn’t a film about vegetarianism, at least not really. Drawing on a rich vein of horror from Carrie (1976) to Ginger Snaps (2000), it uses the coming-of-age of a young woman as a metaphor for far more. In this case, the anthropocentric divide between human and animal is used to cast entirely new light on questions of young womanhood by contrasting natural behavior with the carefully constructed requirements of femininity, thus calling into question the idea that the feral compulsions innate in humans are fundamentally any different from those of the animal kingdom. It’s bold, original, and relentlessly unsettling.
#18: Stoker (2013)
Acclaimed and controversial Korean director Park Chan-wook (maker of Oldboy (2003)) also directed a horror-drama about young womanhood this decade, but one which takes dramatic turns in entirely different directions. Stoker is a poetic and almost Lynchian Southern gothic thriller that continues Park’s habit of weaving highly taboo themes into unusual tales. As a wife and daughter mourn the death of their family’s patriarch, a previously-unknown brother of his stays with the surviving family. But as his stay goes on, the enigmatic and alluring uncle begins to make romantic overtures to the widow while also keeping a strange, cryptic fixation on his niece.
On a technical level, the movie is a masterpiece. The sound design is sensory and immersive, innovative camerawork seamlessly meshes scenes into one another, and the setting feels straight from a good novel. Stoker follows a principle of “show, don’t tell”: not much is directly explained to the audience, but it’s absolutely rich in subtext and suggestion which leave audiences to understand the story in their own way, free to either ignore or interpret all of its little oddities. This is particularly rewarding when addressing the subjects that Stoker does, for while the literal content shown on screen here is no worse than anything else on this list, the film’s implications leave it as one of the more discomforting entries here.
#17: Midsommar (2019)
Midsommar is the sophomore effort of visionary director Ari Aster, easily one of the genre’s best breakout directors this decade. In keeping with his other work, the movie has an intimate focus on trauma and abuse.
Different cultures have always developed social mechanisms through which personal pain can be processed without rupturing the social fabric. Aster gives his dark and unexpected twist on this fact through the story of a young woman joining her emotionally distant boyfriend on a boys’ trip to a Swedish religious festival, following the tragic death of her family. It’s a spellbinding trip into the same kind of communal folk horror that The Wicker Man (1973) famously drew on, but made all the more spectacular through a great lead performance by Florence Pugh and Aster’s directorial excellence, which turns a bright pastoral celebration into a relentless unwinding of reality packed with sharp and unexpected shocks.
#16: A Quiet Place (2018)
A gimmick isn’t always a bad thing. The Office’s John Krasinski chose a plot for his first movie that could easily have been made into B-movie schlock: when blind aliens arrive and hunt down most humans using their exceptional sense of hearing, a family must survive by adapting to a mute world.
What makes A Quiet Place memorable is its ambitious decision to execute this idea as an almost-silent film. With only 90 lines of dialogue across its entire 90-minute runtime, huge portions of the movie unfold in near total silence without ever once getting boring. By limiting itself in this way, the movie was forced to excel in other places: in the same way that a loss of one sense heightens the others, A Quiet Place manages deep and impactful storytelling almost entirely through scenery, body language, and various other visual cues. This approach produced one of the most tense movie theaters audiences I’ve ever sat in, as the consequences of making a sound amidst the dangerous quiet turns every snap of a twig a collective gasp.
A Quiet Place also joins many films of this decade in questioning reactionary genre tropes. Horror has long portrayed disability as something which is itself fear-inducing, with villains who are frequently either disfigured or mentally ill. Here, disability becomes both a weakness and a strength. Implicit in the story — and so much of the story is implicit — is that the deaf daughter of the family (played by Millicent Simmonds, who is herself deaf) is not just disadvantaged at times, but that she is also the only reason the family has survived at all: if not for her, they wouldn’t have known sign language, rendering them entirely unable to communicate in most contexts. Casting the disabled to play disabled characters in complex and subversive roles is as bold a move today as it was when Freaks (1932) did it nearly a century ago.
#15: Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin is stylistically brilliant, technically flawless, intentionally provocative, and absolutely horrifying. There is zero exposition and very little dialogue, leaving audiences to figure out even the basics of the story as it first unfolds. In short: Scarlett Johansson plays a predatory alien mimicking a beautiful human woman in order to harvest the flesh of single men without jobs or families — men who won’t be reported missing. Much of the shooting was done with hidden cameras and non-actors in actual Scottish public settings, giving the movie a visceral melancholy when combined with its visuals and magical score. It is such an exceedingly strange film that it’s incredible Johansson agreed to be in it, not to mention to star in it or have it as the first and only movie she acts fully nude in across her entire quarter-century career.
The thematic elements of the story are controversial and demanding. An extremely dark movie without ever being too explicitly graphic, many of its most devastating sequences comment heavily on the alienating effects of gender, which produce both a tragic and inescapable paradox of femininity for women and the disposability of men who deviate from traditional masculinity. Unreal visuals, limited dialogue, and incredibly heavy themes all helped make Under the Skin a box office failure. But it is nonetheless challenging, unique, and executed with a precision that one rarely sees outside of Spielberg or Kubrick. It will be controversial for any audience, but those willing to go into it with an open mind and analytical eye will find it stunning.
#14: The Lighthouse (2019)
In The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ black-and-white follow-up to the critically-acclaimed The Witch (2015), Robert Pattinson arrives at a solitary seaside lighthouse for a job maintaining it alongside the aged and experienced Willem Dafoe. These two are effectively the entire cast. As Pattinson begins to learn more about the sailor he’s living with and the lighthouse he’s living in, a manic isolation begins to set in, leading down a path of claustrophobic insanity which the audience feels just as strongly as Pattinson. The odd casting choices here turn out to have been genius, and the relationship that develops between these two actors is something I doubt any other pair could have pulled off in quite the same way.
The Lighthouse is, literally, hard to describe to others: a unique setting, intense lighting, great editing, and the haunting sound of the wind-whipped ocean are all hypnotic, sucking you right into the heart of its world. Its final moments bring a story charged throughout with Greek mythology, repressed sexuality, and paranoia to a brilliant crescendo; some might hate it, but I can’t imagine it ending any other way.
#13: Savageland (2017)
Savageland is one of the defining horror movies of the Trump era. An obscure found footage mockumentary, it tells the story of a small Arizona border town, population 57, which is completely massacred in a single night. The only survivor is an undocumented Mexican immigrant living there, who is immediately tried and convicted as the mass killer responsible by both a xenophobic public and an all-white jury. However, as a hobbyist photographer, the small rolls of film he had shot from that night come to light during his appeals process, providing a few decontextualized images of what actually happened. These images serve as the only non-circumstantial evidence upon which to reconstruct the night’s events. With a serious and inquisitive style, it presents this creatively blood-chilling story like a true-crime documentary. Savageland’s sharp writing is deeply cognizant of the scapegoating logic of modern anti-immigration politics, how outsiders are used as excuses to avoid recognizing other issues that run far larger and deeper than most are willing to acknowledge. While we hammer immigrants for our problems, those problems only grow. Smart, thoughtful, and haunting.
#12: Green Room (2015)
Deep in the forests of Northern Oregon, a desperate punk band winds up getting scheduled to play a show at an isolated neo-Nazi hangout, only to accidentally come across a dead body backstage after the show. Trapped in the venue’s green room by Nazis trying to prevent them from escaping and reporting the murder, Green Room is a relentlessly brutal story that grabs the audience by the neck and doesn’t let go.
Patrick Stewart’s surprise performance as the cold, ruthless leader of the fascist gang sets the tone of the film perfectly, remaining grounded and realistic even as intense violence breaks out between them and the bandmates who are simply trying to make it out alive. It isn’t for the faint of heart, but Green Room is an powerful horror-thriller that will keep you on the edge of whatever it is you might be sitting on.
#11: You’re Next (2011)
The slasher and home invasion subgenres have gotten rather stale in recent years, with so many thousands of entries over time that almost anything which could be done with them seemingly already has been. Almost.
You’re Next starts traditionally, with a man bringing his girlfriend to a family reunion in a secluded old house in the middle of nowhere, Missouri. But when a group of masked killers begin to systematically kill off the attendees without warning, we slowly realize that the characters aren’t who we thought they were. The movie bends, twists, and inverts every trope it could get its hands on, starting with a protagonist who uses extensive survival skills learned during her childhood to mount a serious resistance to the killers, rebalancing a slaughter into a competitive but menacingly deadly game of cat-and-mouse. By constantly making you guess what happens next, it’s a perfect example of how horror can take tradition and completely reinvent it.
#10: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Though he has received less mainstream attention than some others on this list, Panos Cosmatos is one of my favorite new contenders in the horror genre this decade. The son of director George Cosmatos, Panos used the residual payments from DVD sales of his father’s Western movie Tombstone (1993) to finance his own, very different movie.
Vividly stylized in a colorful and psychedelic retrofuturism, Beyond the Black Rainbow is about an experimental, new age psychological research center where a young woman has her extraordinary abilities tested against her will. The storytelling is sparse, with much being communicated by the subtle rage of the antagonistic lead researcher, but the movie has a broad thematic reach that elevates its splendid atmosphere. If the word “trippy” describes anything at all, it describes Cosmatos’ visionary and uncompromisingly bold approach to filmmaking, creating a mind-melting gestalt that must be seen to be believed.
#9: Butterfly Kisses (2018)
On a list with plenty of obscure films on it, Butterfly Kisses is perhaps the least-known; I’d be surprised if it has had 0.1% of the audience that Get Out or Insidious did. But the found footage subgenre has certainly never relied on budget or reputation, and Butterfly Kisses is exemplary entry into the genre which innovates on the narrative structures that the medium makes possible.
Butterfly Kisses tells three concentric stories. An aspiring filmmaker discovers old tapes hidden away in a basement which contain raw footage from a never-finished student film about a local urban legend. The filmmaker then hires a film team to make a documentary about his quest to get to the bottom of the footage and determine whether it’s real or a hoax. Thus, we follow 1.) the narrative of the student film, 2.) the trials of the aspiring filmmaker seeking to verify the student film, and 3.) the thoughts of the documentary crew filming the filmmaker. These three narratives interact with one another in complex, but surprisingly never confusing, ways.
Here’s the catch: found footage horror movies have been “done before,” so neither the students nor the filmmaker himself are ever able to convince anyone that the paranormal events they captured on film are real, and their attempts to do so only drive them down an extremely dark path. A substantial portion of the film is dedicated to people — including real-world film experts! — explaining how the footage could have been potentially been faked or shot as part of a fictional movie. Butterfly Kisses acknowledges the genre it is operating within, and then acknowledges how its existence as a genre of fiction that feigns authenticity would complicate the verification of an actual instance of found footage.
The movie casts layers of doubt and skepticism across itself even while hinting that there may be more than anyone is willing to acknowledge, leading the audience to suspend their own disbelief in the footage in question. In this way it is structurally disarming, appearing not as a mockumentary, but rather as a real documentary about determining where the line between the two lies. It uses this to its full advantage, with a third act that is easily one of the scariest I’ve encountered all decade. The near-zero budget means that there are certainly some problems — some noticeably weak performances in particular draw you back out of the film — but the brilliantly creative premise and execution here make it an exceptional effort worthy of praise.
#8: The Tunnel (2011)
The last found footage entry on this list, I swear. Rumors of an underground homeless population living in the abandoned tunnel systems beneath Sydney, Australia begin to circulate after the droughted city suddenly and without explanation cancels its plans to recycle water from an underground lake that had pooled there. When a local team of investigative reporters breaks in to explore deep inside the tunnels hoping to find a story, they begin to realize that there’s a different story which has found them.
The Tunnel is a claustrophobic nightmare, capturing the sensation of being stalked as prey by a horrific unknown in a first-person perspective. Like other mockumentary-style films on here, it has the excellent quality of engrossing audiences in what feels like an actual documentation of events. The movie also gets creative in how it seeks to mimic the experiences of an actual camera crew in this situation: when a microphone attached to a camera is unexpectedly yanked out of the room that the camera’s in, the film’s sound follows the mic into a hallway even while the camera’s visuals remain in the room. That level of technical immersion is one thing when you feel all alone, buried in a pitch-black maze of tunnels without any way of calling for outside help. The feeling is something else entirely when you discover that you aren’t alone.
#7: Mandy (2018)
Mandy is Panos Cosmatos’ second film, and while it may fall behind Beyond the Black Rainbow in restraint, it more than makes for it in sheer aesthetic. The movie begins slow and cosmically surreal, unfolding the romantic relationship between the titular Mandy and her boyfriend. When tragedy ensues near the middle of the movie, it triggers a complete shift in both the substance and the direction of the film. Meditative moments of intimacy give way to gorgeous, terrifying brutality and über-violence. There really aren’t words to prepare someone for Mandy, but I’ll say that it involves Nicolas Cage getting into a chainsaw fight.
The film features some of the most beautiful color and lighting work I’ve seen in any movie, period. Its beauty is complimented by a great score, one of the last haunting ambient soundtracks ever to be composed by the recently-deceased genius Jóhann Jóhannsson (along with this list’s next entry). After years of being horribly miscast, this film serves as an entry in something of a Nicolas Cage renaissance in which he now finally seems to be landing roles suitable to his oddities. Finally, the remote setting in California’s Shadow Mountains captures a lot of the mysticism in mountain life: the way that the woods and hills can hide things, simultaneously enabling the escapist solace sought by our protagonists and the evil machinations of their antagonists. Groundbreaking on all fronts.
#6: Mother! (2017)
Remember how I mentioned that Rubber is the 59th most controversial horror movie of the last decade? Mother! is 46th. I first heard of the film when conservative film critic Kyle Smith described it as “Deliberately grotesque and nauseating, and seemingly engineered to outrage Christians, especially Catholics… It may be the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios.” Darren Aronofsky (of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan fame) has always been a controversial filmmaker, but he truly reached for the stars here.
Watching Mother! feels like you’re having a panic attack. Our leads are a married couple who go unnamed throughout the film, referred to as Him (Javier Bardem) and Her (Jennifer Lawrence). As He struggles with writer’s block, She lovingly attempts to fix up the old house the two have just moved into. But, slowly at first, people begin coming into the home without invitation and treating it as their own, all to see Him. Her control over the situation inside the house melts away as it is unceasingly flooded with more and more unexplained strangers.
Underlying the story is a rich web of allegory that explores three themes — a criticism of Christianity, environmentalism, and the subjugation of women — in a dense and intricate fashion. I demur from films that only seek to shock audiences for the sake of it, but the extremely shocking content of Mother! is thoughtfully provocative. I’ve seen well-argued reactions to this film range from wildly positive to angrily critical. In my book, that’s high praise.
#5: Black Mountain Side (2014)
Black Mountain Side takes heavy inspiration from John Carpenter’s classic The Thing (1982), but has a much smaller budget and a totally different idea about where to go with it. When a group of scientists in Northern Canada uncover an ancient structure whose origins seem archeologically impossible, something begins to change in their camp, and things take a turn for the worst in mysterious and increasingly gruesome ways.
As a movie, its greatest strength is in how it choses what to tell viewers and what not to tell them. Black Mountain Side forces viewers into a confrontation with a Lovecraftian absurdity by providing them with enough facts and story to keep them interested and aware, but then withholding the information necessary to complete the story. Countless mysteries throughout go unanswered, precisely because they are mysteries. Audiences can theorize answers and speculate causes, but they can only ever derive a partial hypothesis from doing so. In fact, the story is set up so that several different mutually exclusive explanations are plausible simultaneously.
Observant viewers will notice recurring of concepts and themes which appear to hold explanatory power for the central mystery (an animal? bacteria? God?), along with unfilled gaps in the narrative which feel less like an accidental result of poor writing than an incongruence internal to the narrative itself, suggesting something has gone unexplained to the audience. They’ll even notice minor details seemingly unconnected to anything else which simply make no sense.
There’s a sinister Kubrickianism running just under the surface throughout the film, letting the viewer know that there’s something they are missing, but never telling them what. This sense of frustration and paranoia is mirrored by the same sense developing among the isolated crew members, leaving them desperate for answers they will never receive. As events grow more disturbing, the audience has nothing to hold on to to comfort them: they too are helpless in the face of this unknown. As the film itself reminds us near the end, it is not for us to understand. Whether one finds this approach intriguing or frustrating, it is undeniably terrifying.
#4: Hereditary (2018)
Before he made Midsommar, director Ari Aster made Hereditary, a masterpiece which in just a few short years has already established itself as a part of the horror canon.
Shortly after the death of her mother, Toni Collette and her family are beset by yet another tragedy, raising tensions between them to a boiling point as she desperately seeks an outlet for her anger and despair. Taken together with Midsommar, it’s clear that Aster’s motivating interest is in exploring emotional maladaptation to trauma, the ways that pain and suffering can be amplified through our connections to one another, and in this case, passed along from generation to generation.
Hereditary has one of the most compelling stories of any genre over the last ten years. On the one hand, it’s completely unpredictable, and a few particular moments in the movie feel like a gut punch without any way to expect it. By the end of the film, the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife. On the hand, Aster’s meticulously subliminal writing means that there are hints, bits of symbolism, and moments of foreshadowing from the very opening scene which point towards where things are headed (hint: look for things in threes). The results are devastating, and the movie hits you like a brick even when you rewatch it to see what you missed the first time around.
On top of this, the cinematography is immaculate and the performances are stellar. Toni Collette delivers one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen, and the snub of denying her a Best Actress nomination for it is all the more evidence that the Oscars are garbage. Every single piece comes together to create a slow time bomb that leaves your jaw on the floor, all while providing layers of depth for audiences to explore. The full meaning of the story, especially near the end, will go over the heads of most viewers, but those paying close enough attention will find themselves plentifully rewarded.
#3: The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Cabin in the Woods is a perfect love-hate letter to horror movies. Directed by Drew Goddard (writer of the best film ever made, Cloverfield (2008)) and written with the help of Joss Whedon, it serves both as an exciting and entertaining horror film in its own right and as a well-constructed self-referential commentary on the genre as a whole. Beginning with the cliché set-up of a group of teenagers going to vacation in a rustic cabin, it slowly becomes clear that the movie is skewering the role audiences play in demanding formulaic repetition and adherence to predictable tropes in horror, blocking the types of creative development represented by the movie itself. The wildly inventive horror-comedy plot and writing are enough alone to make it an instant classic. But even more important, the movie is clever in a way that’s increasingly rare, using allegory to examine itself and its traditions.
#2: The Invitation (2015)
Karyn Kusama, misunderstood auteur. Her Jennifer’s Body (2009), a tongue-in-cheek accomplishment in feminist horror, was marketed to audiences as a basic, Megan Fox-led sexy slasher by its studio, and the mismatch has blocked it from receiving the critical attention it deserves ever since. The immediate reception for The Invitation was far better, but it was still clear that critics and audiences alike simply didn’t know what to do with what is, by any standards, a watershed moment in psychological horror.
Will and his girlfriend, Kira, are invited to the Hollywood Hills for a dinner party held by his ex-wife and her new husband, both of whom initially seem to be hiding something from their guests. Even as old friends reunite at the event, Will is emotionally isolated from the others. Stuck in his own head, he contends with the emotions produced by his messy and painful past with his ex, while also unsure whether his deep paranoia about the night is justified or simply the stress of the situation.
The Invitation is a very, very slow-burn thriller which uniquely captures the loneliness and self-doubt caused by being the only one around you who feels as though something is deeply wrong. With a cast of well-fleshed out characters and a surprising level of depth, the movie leaves you with a unique and unmatched sense of solipsistic anxiety. If this sounds interesting to you, it’s best to go into it blind without reading anything else about the story; you’ll thank me later.
#1: It Follows (2014)
It Follows is my favorite horror movie of the 2010's, and I would go so far as to argue that it is one of the best films of all time.
The premise is deceptively simple: there is an entity who is visible only to its future victims, and this entity’s single mission is to find Its target and kill them. The only way to rid yourself of It is through having sex with someone, thereby passing It to them. If It kills one person, It moves on to the person that victim got the sexually-transmitted curse from, going “straight down the line to whoever started it.” There are a clear set of rules It plays by, but all that’s known about these rules is the surviving knowledge passed down from person-to-person in the chain, like an urban legend of unknown origin. It is “very slow, but It’s not dumb.” It has no form of its own, and can appear as people you know or as a stranger. No one knows if It can be killed. It doesn’t speak or sleep. Wherever you are, It’s moving towards you with the sole living aim of ending your life, and unless you pass It to someone else, It will.
From a technical point of view, It Follows is simply flawless. The visionary cinematography makes creative use of centering, rotating, and tracking shots against a beautiful visual color palette. The intense, synthy score by electronic artist Disasterpeace is among the best in horror history. So many brilliant scenes and set pieces are brought to life through a well-executed plot with its own internal logic system. Though it has no form of its own, “It” is monstrous in ways you had not even considered a movie could represent. Finally, the closing shot may be my favorite ending to any movie, period.
All of that praise is before we get into what the movie has to say. Let’s start with the setting: It Follows deliberately scrubs itself of much surrounding context, especially when it comes to when the movie takes place. As M.J. Pack points out: “The time period it’s set in doesn’t exist.” Streets are littered with brand-new looking car models ranging from the 1950’s to the 2000’s; interior decoration seems to be from the 70’s; one character watches a 50’s monster movie on TV while another studies a handheld e-reader; and a movie theater is now showing Charade (1963). Indeed, even the season the film takes place in is obscured, with the protagonist going from swimming outdoors to wearing warm clothing in the same day.
The film is set in an odd state of confused nostalgia, a world which never existed but which holds odd cultural signifiers of worlds that did. This obfuscation of the temporal setting draws attention to the physical setting, explicitly acknowledged as a declining Detroit riddled with urban decay. The choice is intentional: while the temporal setting places us in a nostalgic past which never truly existed, the physical setting is Detroit, a symbol of mid-century American prosperity that has since fallen apart. The setting is a simulcra, a United States which never existed, that constantly draws attention to inconsistencies suggesting that the idyllic past we project onto our own nation is exactly the same: an idealized version of the real.
It Follows engages in a great deal of play with dark undertones of our culture which we collectively agree to ignore, especially when it comes to women, family, and sexuality. Throughout the entire film, we are constantly exposed to the juxtaposition of commonly accepted narratives of romance, traditional family life, and love with the suggestion that there’s something wrong with all of them. Two protagonists walk by a suburban home, definitively “American Dream” in appearance, only to faintly hear a couple arguing inside. Our young protagonist is chloroformed by a partner only after consensual sex, while she’s discussing her romantic fantasies of men. The parents of the characters are often referenced, but are almost totally absent: the closest we ever come to seeing them in person is a mother sitting at a kitchen table in the corner of a shot, her back turned to the characters, never acknowledging them in any way.
It, to a large degree, serves as a representation of the tension that exists between the seeming normality of our sexual and romantic lives and the lingering sense that this normality is an unhealthy one. In two scenes early in the movie, we learn that the protagonist, Jay, is spied on by some young boys in the neighborhood whenever she’s swimming or in the bathroom in her underwear; to this, she expresses only minor annoyance, and perhaps even a hint of bemusement at these adolescent shenanigans. Later, Jay comes to experience intense paranoia from having It stalking her. At one point, she makes a turn to stare out of her bathroom window, looking to the exact same place behind a fence where the young boys were spying on her and expecting to see It there. Jay is cognizant that she exists to the boys as an object of sexual desire, only for the weight of that recognition to be distorted by a culture where women are expected to shape their lives around catering to these desires. She expects the embodiment of the violently-enforced sexual norms now placed upon her by It to be standing in the same spot she experiences casual sexualization every day.
But It doesn’t just represent a distortion of our sexual norms; rather, It is the physical manifestation of these norms’ inherent violence. It is the enforcer of a compulsive sexuality, in which sex is not just a free and individual choice, but is in some cases expected. In traditional horror movies, sexual promiscuity is a progenitor of death, and it is the virgins who survive. The gradual liberalization of attitudes about sexuality has moved us away from this puritanism, but has only partially freed us, as it also allowed for the commodification of sexual availability, making real the idea that sex is something which can be owed or obligated.
It represents the way that this new cultural landscape still restricts our sexuality. When directly under Its threat, sex is not a desirable erotic activity, but a cold necessity. This sex is not an act of pleasure or empowerment, but a form of obedience to an ironclad set of rules imposed upon you by people you will never know for reasons you will never understand. Like a norm, It is invisible and intangible to all except those who refuse Its authority, those under threat of sanction for deviancy. The fact that it goes unnoticed by most doesn’t make the sanctioning any less severe. It Follows inverts the myth of virgin purity present in so much horror, serving as a corrective to certain variants of sex positivity which fail to acknowledge the cultural and material realities that deprive us of full autonomy. It isn’t a distortion of our norms so much as a demonstration of how our sexual norms are distorted.
It exists exclusively to deliver an unavoidable fate. There is no way to stop it, no spell to recite or artifact to find to defeat it. It exists only to enforce a set of rules, and to punish you if you don’t comply. You can slow it down, you can try to escape it, but it’s only a matter of time. There comes a point in the film when characters are deeply concerned with the uncertainty of whether It can actually be killed. Even when we reject norms, even when making a deliberate individual choice to break from them, we never know if we actually stop following them, if it is possible to escape from our internalization of the rules and truly act independently from them.
Still in a state of uncertainty about Its status, one character reads a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, providing the film’s last spoken words:
But the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant — your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain; the worst thing is that it is certain.
True horror is in the fear that, someday, somehow, no matter what you do, It will get you. Happy Halloween.
Honorary Mentions: the works of Alan Resnick, The Banshee Chapter (2013), Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (2015), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), Black Swan (2010), The Borderlands (2013), Coherence (2013), Creep (2014), The Devil’s Candy (2015), The Girl With All The Gifts (2016), Honeymoon (2014), It (2017), Phoenix Forgotten (2017), Shin Godzilla (2016), Take Shelter (2011), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), Terrified (2017), They Look Like People (2015), They Remain (2018), Train to Busan (2018), One Cut of the Dead (2017), The Witch (2015), and countless many more.