Over the past few years, horror fans have been spoiled by a steady parade of outstanding studio films (Get Out, Annihilation, and A Quiet Place). We’re in the boom times! So far in 2019, however, the major-market releases haven’t been as fulfilling, save for Jordan Peele’s mega-successful Us. Instead, there have been a lot of smaller, more adventurous releases pushing the form in exciting directions: dance parties in hell, really disturbing drug trips, meditations on trauma, murderous works of art, alpine witches, and more. Here are Vulture’s picks for the top horror films of the year so far.
The feature debut of writer and director Mitzi Peirone is narrative in the form of a quick hallucinogenic trip. A pair of ne’er-do-well women in their 20s are being hunted by the law and decide that their childhood best friend’s grand country estate is the best place to hide out. Big mistake: Their friend, Daphne (Cam’s Madeline Brewer going all out once again), is an extremely troubled shut-in who conscripts her old friends into playing the most fucked up game of house ever: There’s upsetting sexual role-playing, violence, even adults in playpens. Braid is a flawed work, but Peirone commits to going big and weird and wild enough to make this an exciting debut.
A tight, terrifying film about what happens when a large group of dancers are unknowingly dosed with LSD during a party and then left to survive the waking nightmare unfolding around them. Provocateur Gaspar Noé wrote, directed, and shot the film himself, working from a five-page story treatment for a script. (He hadn’t even planned on using a choreographer until star Sophia Boutella talked him into hiring a professional.) With a cast made up almost entirely of dancers who had never acted before, Noé eschews rigid scene structure in favor of long, voyeuristic shots of the characters crumbling amid pounding dance beats. It’s intimate and beautiful and brutal and unique — and increasingly hard to watch.
Hagazussa: The Heathen’s Curse
Hagazussa has been making its way to audiences for a long time. (Vulture named it one of its most anticipated horror films of 2018.) The feature debut of Austrian filmmaker Lukas Feigelfeld centers on a woman named Albrun, who was orphaned after her mother’s death under disturbing circumstances and grows up in an alpine village where the residents (and local clergy) treat her terribly. Feigelfeld exercises extreme patience in creating an atmosphere of dread, letting his heroine’s battle with her true nature — and the society that persecutes her — unfold like a lucid dream. On its face, Hagazussa will remind some viewers of The Witch, but Feigelfeld’s film is working with a magic all its own.
The Hole in the Ground
Let’s hear it for melancholy Irish horror! Following in the path of recent sad-horror highlights like The Cured, The Devil’s Doorway, and the outstanding A Dark Song, Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground uses grief and trauma to envelop viewers in its portentous atmosphere. The story centers on a woman and her son who left a dangerous situation behind to start over. But there’s this massive hole in the ground in the woods behind their new home that’s giving off some seriously evil vibes. As her son starts changing for the worse, Sarah (Seana Kerslake) starts losing her grip and must figure out how to break the hold of that gaping, breathing crater — and whatever is inside it.
I Trapped the Devil
With all due respect to Jordan Peele’s revival, I Trapped the Devil is the best Twilight Zone episode you’ll see this year. Of course, it’s not literally an installment in that episodic series, but this surreal, nerve-twisting story of a man convinced he has Satan trapped in his basement would’ve made Rod Serling proud (see “The Howling Man” from the original series). Josh Lobo wrote and directed this haunting little number that combines an unwelcome family homecoming at Christmastime and the smallest-scale battle between good and evil.
The fact that writer and director Danishka Esterhazy is able to create such a complete-feeling world with just a few stark hallways and sleeping quarters is a testament to the richness of Level 16. Set in an ominous boarding school called the Vestalis Academy, which is presided over by a severe headmistress and a “kind” physician, the story revolves around a group of girls raised to embody purity and goodness so that they may one day be adopted by loving parents. Each one must be a pristine incarnation of feminine virtue, lest she be punished, but after a lifetime of being treated like a living-doll lab rat, one girl has had enough. When Vivien (Katie Douglas) realizes what “adoption” for Vestalis girls really means, she conspires with a fellow prisoner to break out. In the process, the girls learn the full extent of the horrors they’ve been subjected to without their consent, and that the prescribed definition of a “good girl” is total bullshit.
Writer and director Nicolas Pesce’s debut feature, the excellent The Eyes of My Mother, was black-and-white and felt troublingly real. His follow-up, an adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s novel Piercing, is just as intimate but much more surreal. Mia Wasikowska and Christopher Abbott star as a pair looking for some dark pleasure, but they’re on very different pages about what that means. She’s a prostitute, he’s a paying customer planning to elaborately kill her, but his plans get more complicated when Wasikowska’s character turns out to be even scarier than he is. It’s a sort of love story for people who like psychosexual foreplay and violence, and Pesce’s execution is thrilling.
It’s been a great year for narratively adventurous genre films. Filmmaker A. T. White has been writing, directing, and producing short films for years, but Starfish is his feature debut. Virginia Gardner stars as Aubrey, a girl attending the funeral of her best friend. Pretty soon, after an overnight invasion in which monsters tear through the landscape, she’s one of the last people on Earth. It’s not A Quiet Place, though. Most of the movie is of Aubrey staying in her dead bestie’s apartment, hanging out with a pet turtle, scraping by to survive, and trying to decode a series of messages her friend left behind that could possibly save the world if she cracks them. It’s haunting and visually arresting and occasionally has some scary-ass monsters. Think survival horror as a dream sequence.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out pushed his thematic ambitions even further: Us is an action thriller, a sci-fi horror film, and even a family comedy that comments on race, class, Generation X, and more. At the heart of it all is a gripping dual performance by Lupita Nyong’o that should vault her into the For Your Consideration race come awards season. With Us, Peele cements his status as a thrilling creative talent willing to go big.
Velvet Buzzsaw is exactly what Netflix is for: Get a fascinating director together with a great ensemble cast, throw a lot of money at the whole thing, and let it all be as weird as possible. Writer and director Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to the enthralling Nightcrawler sees him reuniting with Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal. She plays a high-end-gallery owner named Rhodora Haze and he plays an esteemed art critic named, yes, Morf Vanderwalt. There’s also Toni Collette as a bitchy art buyer, Natalia Dyer as a lowly executive assistant named Coco (who is hilariously referred to as Rococo), and Zawe Ashton as the ambitious climber Josephina. Together, they all end up in crisis when a cache of brilliant work is discovered in a dead man’s apartment and it literally starts killing people. The death scenes are fantastic. The narcissism is dialed up to the max. The bangs on Gyllenhaal are unforgettable. A wonderfully fun blend of camp and horror.
One thing that sort of gets left behind in movies about pioneers on the frontier is that the frontier was probably really scary. Homesteaders were out in the middle of nowhere, vulnerable to murderous passersby and/or malevolent spirits. The scope of The Wind, from director Emma Tammi and screenwriter Teresa Sutherland, is enjoyably narrow. A woman named Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard), who is often left alone by her husband — because everything is far away or hard when you’re a pioneer — starts getting haunted by either a ghost or her own mind or both. As the story slowly unfolds, we learn about the strange and sometimes tragic events that have shaped Lizzie’s isolated life on the prairie, and the combination of Gerard’s powerful performance and the ever-more-chilling setting makes the world itself start to feel like a constant threat.