The 13 Best Horror Movies of 2016

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Here’s a bright spot for 2016: This was a fantastic year for horror films. At home and abroad, on the festival circuit and in multiplexes, audiences had a bounty of high-quality horror films available to them. These weren’t just decent entries in an oft-underestimated genre — they were flat-out good, and they brought us unique takes on some of the most staid tropes in horror cinema, like witches, home invasions, and even zombies. Perhaps most exciting, the women reigned supreme onscreen, with complex heroines and even more complex villains that continued to define female characters past the rote archetypes of victims, objects, and damsels in distress. Here’s our painstakingly curated list of the year’s 13 best horror films. May 2017 raise the bar even higher.

13. The Love Witch

The Love Witch is in a tough position, because it defies easy categorization. But as a movie about a lovesick witch trying to find her dream lover and who ends up killing a handful of suitors along the way — while battling her patriarchal oppressors — we’re making the case for it as the best horror-comedy of the year. Anna Biller’s sophomore feature is one of the most lush and meticulously art-directed movies of any genre this year, providing a fantastically kitschy stage on which to play out this ultrafeminist love story/revenge drama. Biller’s heroine is Elaine, who has survived physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of the men closest to her, leaving her desperate to be loved and trying to fill the void of her self-worth with external validation. She’s also handy with witchcraft, which gives her the tools to ruin plenty of lives in pursuit of her ultimate goals. The high pulp of Biller’s out-of-time period piece helps the pill go down smooth, but be clear: The Love Witch is about a woman versus the world, and the men who stand in the way of her fulfillment. Watch now on: Vimeo

12. 10 Cloverfield Lane

The follow-up/spinoff to J.J. Abrams’s 2008 monster mystery, Cloverfield, has the lowest barrier of entry on this list, and we mean that in the best way. This is populist horror, a scary movie for people who might typically shy away from scary movies. It’s a combination creature feature and isolation story that features excellent performances by a trio of actors hiding out from doomsday in a prepper shelter. John Goodman fills the frame with an ominous paternalism while Mary Elizabeth Winstead works her best-in-the-biz distressed face to maximum effect as his favorite captive. This is exactly the kind of horror movie we need more of here in the United States, a middle-class entry that outdoes its budget by delivering excellent, efficient character development, and favors tension-based fear over special effects and cheap scares (well, to a point). For all those virtues we will even forgive 10 Cloverfield for getting a little too wonky in the final frames. Watch it now on: iTunes

11. Hush

One of the great challenges of horror films is taking well-worn genre tropes and spinning them into something fresh. Director Mike Flanagan managed to make surprise sequel gold out of Ouija: Origin of Evil this year, but his real home run was Hush. Co-written with star Kate Siegel, Hush is your standard house-in-the-woods home-invasion movie, but with one big twist: The woman who lives in the house is deaf. Take all the stress you experience watching a typical home-invasion story, then multiply it by ten as you imagine yourself being stalked by a masked killer you can’t hear coming, even if he’s just inches away. Horror is often at its best when done simply, and Hush excels at maximum impact while paring the story down to its essentials. Watch now on: Netflix

10. The Wailing

This is one of two Korean films to make the best-of list, and each brings an entirely different emotional energy. Director Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing incorporates elements of contagion horror, demonic possession, and even the zombie genre over the course of two and a half hours to explore the deterioration of a rural village beset by a rash of heinous murders. Why are seemingly normal people killing their entire families? Who is the Japanese man living deep in the woods? Can the wave of death be stopped? The Wailing gives you plenty of time to connect with the family at the center of the story, which puts you in a great position to share in their anguish when tragedy strikes. This one is a marathon, not a sprint, but it will keep you rapt the entire time. Watch now on: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon

9. Evolution

This eerie, sci-fi-tinged slice of life pulls off a difficult two-pronged assault: French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic expertly deploys just enough twisted visuals in sparse, cold environments to keep you constantly on edge, but also leaves enough off the screen to kick your imagination into high gear. The setting is a remote island inhabited only by preteen boys and their presumptive mothers, all of whom bear a strange resemblance to one another with their wan complexions, red hair, and dark, nearly dead eyes. The boys are subject to strange medical treatments, and when one develops a dangerous desire to learn about the true nature of his guardian, he must also decide if he’s willing to do what’s necessary to survive. Evolution gets major points for an uncompromising commitment to its concise vision, opting for uniqueness of execution over more conventionally satisfying narrative development. Watch now on: Amazon

8. The Neon Demon

The latest effort from auteur Nicolas Winding Refn is the most polarizing entry on this list. As a movie it can be slow, pretentious, and confusing. But as a horror experience it is ambitious, disturbing, and — no matter what — truly stunning. Demon follows a teenage girl named Jesse who has just shown up in Los Angeles hoping to make it big as a model. She’s a perfect, pure specimen bringing light to those who meet her in a jaded, savage industry. This helps Jesse book jobs right out of the gate, but it also sets her at odds with her industry competitors. As one of Refn’s characters says, “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” and the director commits his film to exploring how we as humans commoditize and consume beauty, how that commoditization reflects our values, and what the consequences of those values are. Refn isn’t here to tell you what to think. He’s here to present you with a question that you must then attempt to answer on your own terms. It’s more of a painting than a narrative feature at times, but even if you hate it, The Neon Demon sure is pretty. Some would say that’s the only thing that matters. Watch now on: Amazon

7. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Despite how naturally morgues fit within the horror genre, shockingly few scary movies make sufficient use of the setting. That, of course, makes them a kind of special occasion, and Autopsy is a special movie. It’s the third feature from Norwegian director André Øvredal, whose last movie was the fun 2010 creature feature Trollhunter, and the entire thing takes place in the basement of a family-owned mortuary on a very stormy night. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play father and son co-workers tasked with performing an ASAP autopsy on a mysterious body exhumed at a bloody crime scene, but the further they get in the procedure, the more things start falling apart around them in very disturbing ways. Cox and Hirsch have great familial chemistry, but it’s the surprisingly effective stone-still performance from Olwen Catherine Kelly as the lifeless Jane Doe that manages to steal the show. You’ll never feel the same way about jingling bells ever again. Out December 21

6. Don’t Breathe

Director Fede Álvarez proved his mettle in 2013 by taking on the formidable legacy of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and completely crushing it. For his sophomore feature, the Uruguayan filmmaker turned out an equally strong effort with this inverted home-invasion picture that sees the intruders being terrorized by a monstrous homeowner who’s not about to let his assets be snatched by petty thieves. Jane Levy shines once again as Álvarez’s endurance-tested Final Girl, and Stephen Lang as her nemesis, the Blind Man, makes a strong case for villain of the year. Don’t Breathe also serves up one of the best marquee shock scenes in a long time, and whether or not it agrees with your personal constitution, you certainly won’t forget it. Watch now on: Amazon, iTunes

5. The Invitation

The last time we got a feature-length effort from Karyn Kusama, it was 2009 and she was bringing Diablo Cody’s quirky succubus horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body to life. Now we’re all seven years older, and she’s returned with one of 2016’s top scary movies. The trick Kusama pulls of with The Invitation is that she doesn’t go full dark until a considerable distance into the narrative, giving the audience time to marinate in their own doubts and suspicions before getting smacked in the face by the film’s primary conflict. The central tension is housed within the movie’s protagonist, a man with some serious PTSD revisiting the site of his trauma, and you have to sort out what’s real versus what’s happening in his broken mind. This is the worst dinner with your ex ever. Watch now on: Netflix, Amazon

4. Under the Shadow

Shadow is one of the richest horror films of the year, thanks in large part to director Babak Anvari convincing his U.K. financial backers to let him shoot in Farsi and film in the Middle East. The story follows an Iranian family living in Tehran (filming took place in Jordan) in 1988, when the city is being shelled during the Iran–Iraq War. The father, a doctor, is called to treat patients on the front lines, leaving his wife alone to care for their daughter. As the threat of being annihilated by bombs increases, the apartment building empties and Shideh must care for young Dorsa alone. On top of the wartime stress, Dorsa’s health is declining fast, and it may or may not be the result of a malevolent spirit known as a djinn. Anvari’s drive to make Under the Shadow stems from his own fear of djinn legends growing up, and he masterfully communicates his intimate, personal terror into a universally relatable paranoia-fueled nightmare. Watch now on: Amazon

3. The Eyes of My Mother

This half-Portuguese/half-English chiller is presented in muted black-and-white, and at under 90 minutes it’s the most efficient and most discomfiting tone study of the year. The directorial debut from Nicolas Pesce is both brutal and reserved: It trafficks in pure, eerie tension, and never really affords you the mercy of hitting the release valve. Actress Kika Magalhaes gives one of the most frightening horror performances of the year as Francisca, the girl who grows up living in rural isolation with her father after a maniac drifter kills her loving mother. Following such a traumatic loss, Francisca must come of age without any socialization beyond her despondent father, and as such forms a very problematic bond with her mother’s killer, who, by the way, lives as a chained-up prisoner in the barn. If there is an artful, understated way to present torture onscreen, this movie has found it. Watch now on: Amazon

2. Train to Busan

There are no wasted minutes in Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie thriller, and as we learned from Snowpiercer, trains actually work really well as microcosms for the collapse of civilization. You’re not so disconnected from the world as you would be in a plane. You can fit more people than in a car, and you’re moving faster than you would be if you were all just trapped in a house together. You can literally watch the world burning out your window at high speeds while you fight for your life inside a narrow coach. But what makes Busan work best are the movie’s rich central relationships. Out of necessity this film moves fast, but it doesn’t sacrifice the depth of connection between its characters for the sake of shock scares, and that makes the impact all the more intense when people are ripped away from each other. Oddly enough, it’s a movie best watched at home so you have plenty of room to scream, cry, and stress-pace your living room. Watch now on: iTunes

1. The Witch

Witch director Robert Eggers so thoroughly researched the particulars of life in 1630s Massachusetts — the time period in which his film is set — that he could tell you the accurate measurements of home window frames from the era, talk to you about the legality of boned corsets, and explain how the use of a three-wick candle was necessary to produce enough light during night shoots, even if it is not a historically accurate artifact. All of this would have amounted to no more than back-patting fodder if Eggers, who won the Best Director prize for this movie at Sundance in 2015, didn’t then execute the best horror film of the year. But he did. The Witch transports you to a time when femininity and witchcraft meant the same thing, and when the threat of a girl approaching womanhood represented a terror tantamount to the evils lurking beyond the edge of an ominous wood. The gorgeous staging doesn’t distract from the performances, instead providing the perfect canvas for each actor to paint a mad, excruciatingly tense performance. This is horror living deliciously. Watch now on: iTunes, Amazon