We said it in 2016. We said it in 2017. And now we get to say it again in 2018: It’s been a great year for horror! And year-over-year, we see the genre getting a little more queer, a little less white, and little less bound by patriarchal structures, as the subversion of old genre clichés — beloved as they are — becomes more the rule than the exception. An anniversary getaway for two married women goes deadly wrong in What Keeps You Alive. Luca Guadagnino made Suspiria into a bloody ballet. Annihilation turned the internal war of the self into a beautiful monster, and Halloween ended up being a studio-funded slasher about the long-term effects of abuse. And the women in front of the camera reigned supreme as impeccably styled witches, hard-boiled scientist explorers, cam girls, powerful mothers, monster killers, and more. On top of all of that, this was a year when the best sequels and remakes and adaptations made statements just as bold as the experimental indies, and below you’ll find them in Vulture’s ten best horror films of 2018.
10. A Quiet Place
When production started two years ago on the John Krasinksi–written and –directed scary movie A Quiet Place, none of us were predicting it would go on to be one of the highest earning and most critically praised horror films of the year. And yet! Krasinski and Emily Blunt star in this creature feature about a family of four (with one on the way) trying to survive in a new world overrun by sound-sensitive monsters. Recent films like Don’t Breathe and Hush have used sensory deprivation horror to great effect, but A Quiet Place brings that technique into a full-on monster movie. And little details like using large leaves to serve food and making board-game pieces out of soft materials to prevent noise made the world-building feel complete. Krasinski’s movie is the popcorn horror spectacle of the year, and for that we honor it.
9. The Endless
The directing duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have been two of the most exciting filmmakers in the genre space for years now, and their latest offering, The Endless, is both an outstanding original film and a nod to their previous work that will reward longtime fans. In Endless (written, as always, by Benson), the pair star as brothers who fled a death cult years ago, but who have had trouble assimilating into society since breaking free. After receiving a video message inviting them back to the compound, they decide to take a brief trip and finally get closure on that early chapter of their lives. Awaiting the brothers, however, is the realization that their cult friends might not have been so crazy after all, and the more time they spend on the compound, the less likely it is they’ll ever be able to leave it again. The Endless is an exciting puzzle film that is visually surprising and assumes an intelligent audience, and it also serves as proof to all aspiring filmmakers that big visions need not be stifled by limited resources.
What Keeps You Alive is an engrossing thriller about a married couple whose anniversary turns into a murderous game of cat and mouse, but the fact that a well-realized lesbian couple is the focus of the story lifts it to a higher level. One of them turns out to be a sociopath, but other than that, Jules and Jackie are just your average married folks in a rut, and writer-director Colin Minihan never lets their sexuality become a novelty for voyeuristic viewers. Little indies like What Keeps You live and die by the depth of your emotional investment in the characters, and lead actresses Brittany Allen (who also composed the score) and Hannah Emily Anderson both give gritty performances that pull you along with every step in their deadly dance. In scale and tone, What Keeps You Alive is a truly intimate horror experience, and while much attention is paid to stylized, high-concept features, Minihan reminds us that a well-crafted story and a few actors willing to get insane are all you need to make a top-shelf scary movie.
You know it’s a Red Letter year for horror when even the most stalwart slasher property can be retooled to fit modern cultural sensibilities and still feel fun as hell, all while avoiding the gigantic bear trap of coming off like a hollow cash grab. For this direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, the master himself returned with his son and godson to jack up the iconic horror score, and the script by Danny McBride and director David Gordon Green played up how inherited trauma can shape a family across generations. But most importantly of all, 2018 Halloween featured Jamie Lee Curtis as a battle-scarred Laurie Strode, who has spent the 40 years since the original Halloween massacre fortifying her life in anticipation of Michael Myers’s inevitable return. An untreated victim of abuse who leans a little on the bottle and has sacrificed all of her most personal relationships to her obsession with the Shape, Lee ferociously embodies a brand-new take on the character she’s played off and on for decades. In doing so, she makes Laurie an ideal heroine once again, but this time around it’s for an era in which abuse victims (especially women) are speaking out and fighting back against their powerful persecutors like never before. Horror has always been exciting lens through which to examine gender politics, but when the traditionally teen-powered slasher set can be raised to new heights by an angry, shotgun-toting 50-something woman whose real biggest villain is the PTSD she’s carrying around, you feel like you’re seeing something special.
The on-set mantra for writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s rape-revenge pulse pounder was, “More blood!” It’s what she told her VFX team when they were pouring the sticky synthetic substance all over the walls and floors during Revenge’s wild climax, and it’s what she told her composer Rob when he was making the film’s score. Because her movie isn’t one you just watch. It’s one you feel in your guts. When a woman named Jen (Matilda Lutz) is raped by one of her boyfriend’s buddies and left for dead by the men in the desert, she must find her way back to the posh vacation home and kill any of the bastards who try to finish her off. In turning Jen into a warrior, Fargeat intentionally left her scantily clad throughout the film, symbolically aligning her strength with her natural body instead of a suit of armor that would link Jen’s newfound power with a forced sense of modesty. Rape-revenge is a historically tricky subgenre, subjecting women to ultimate violations in the service of giving them ultimate power over the men who abuse them. But in Revenge, Fargeat delivers something empowering that avoids the exploitative traps of R/R films while still emphasizing the impact of sexual trauma on victims. It’s not for the sensitive souls, but Revenge shows how even the most problematic parts of horror can be reclaimed for the good.
If there is a signature of horror films in 2018, it is fearless, furious, screen-chewing performances from women, and the high bar was set this summer by Toni Collette in Hereditary. Writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature is a portrait of domesticity gone sour, revolving around a family that endures a series of tragedies, each of which sheds more light on a disturbing trail of secrets. Collette plays Annie Graham, a wife and mother of two who is dealing with the death of her own mom as she prepares an art show of elaborate miniatures. The extremely realistic replicas become a kind of parallel staging ground for the daisy chain of unfortunate events befalling the Grahams, and as Annie strays farther from reason, Collette unleashes a level of rage it feels like she’s been building up to for her entire career. Aster proves he has style to spare in this gorgeous original picture, which is made all the more discomfiting by a terrifying score that feels so organic it practically emanates from the walls. It also boasts the most body-shocking, horrific twist of the year.
There’s something so pure about Terrified, the Argentinian film from writer-director Demián Rugna that it won best horror feature at this year’s Fantastic Fest. It is, as the title suggests, extremely scary. The story revolves around a collection of houses that sits on a seam between our dimension and a dimension inhabited by demons. When a crack opens, they get through, and hideous figures start terrorizing some unsuspecting suburban homeowners. A team of paranormal specialists are brought in to resolve the problem — or at the very least figure out what the hell is going on — but their meddling only yields more danger than they’re capable of handling. Terrified shares DNA with Insidious and The Conjuring, except it feels meaner than both and has the best cold open of any horror movie this year. If you want a perfect haunted-house experience, Terrified is it.
Director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s stylish little number about a camgirl being persecuted by a mysterious online force came on late in the year, but it came on strong. This psycho-tripping body horror story was derived from Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam performer, and it’s anchored by Handmaid’s Tale star Madeline Brewer, who gives a massive performance over what amounts to three roles: Alice the heroine; Lola, her online persona; and imposter Lola, who overtakes her life. In a story that could easily slide into salacious pulp, Goldhaber and Mazzei collaborated closely to ensure that the sex worker — empowered by her chosen profession and not marred by trauma — is the core of the story instead of the titillating details of the sex work itself. Cam is sensual without being sleazy. It treats the cam professionals and the people who patronize them with respect, while also making a horror show out of the dangers performers face due to continued stigmatization. It’s also driven by the ubiquitous modern fear of our real lives being corrupted by our digital ones. When topical terrors blend with timeless fears and they look this good, you have horror at its best.
Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name is the most thematically dense and visually arresting horror film of the year. The movie’s alternate dimension, the Shimmer, is as beautiful as a sweet dream, which makes the nightmare fuel of eel intestines and bears with human screams all the more horrifying in comparison. But Annihilation, which focuses on an all-female team of scientists who go into the breach of an alien-like world, is so much more than mere shock and awe. As Vulture critic Emily Yoshida said, “It’s about self-defeat on a molecular level, an entropy of the self.” And our own Angelica Jade Bastién called the movie, “A masterwork I felt in my nerve endings, a brutal, gorgeous meditation on the rigors of depression and the human impulse toward self-destruction.” With the combined high execution of dramatic jump scares and existential terror all set in a kind of avant-garde Terrible Place with an already iconic score, Annihilation is a sci-fi horror fan’s dream.
With his remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic from 1977, about an American girl attending a dance academy run by witches in Berlin, Luca Guadagnino did not set out to flatter his predecessor with imitation. Instead, he muted the whole color palette, emphasized the historical context to make it overtly political, and delivered a 150-minute paean to feminine power. As Yoshida said in her review out of the Venice Film Festival, “Susie’s path is not a hero’s journey; she’s not there to do anything so patriarchal as conquer an enemy or ‘find herself.’ Guadagnino’s vision does not allow for anything so seductive or comforting as that. Suspiria is a gorgeous, hideous, uncompromising film, and while it seeks to do many things, settling our minds about the brutality of the past and human nature is not one of them.”Suspiria is beautiful, brutal, and at points can make you ache with sadness for love lost. And at a time when Hollywood’s interest in preexisting IPs has reached obsession levels, Guadagnino also proves that with the right touch, remakes can be even more vital than their predecessors.