2016 may have been a shit year for politics and the mortality of cultural icons, but it was a banner year for horror films and a few of the best ones are ultra-low-budget affairs that may have slipped under some folks’ radar.
What follows are, in my opinion, the five best horror movies of 2016. Note that a couple of these titles were completed in 2015, but did not receive wide distribution until 2016. Also, full disclosure: I have not yet seen The Shallows, Hush, Train to Busan, or The Love Witch—all of which have gotten great reviews from respected sources.
Night of Something Strange
This over-the-top splatter flick about an STD that turns its victims into raging zombie-like maniacs was shot by up-and-coming film maker Jonathan Straiton in Virginia for a mere $40,000. It looks like a million bucks. With top-notch gross-out effects and awkwardly comic sexual situations, Night of Something Strange delivers the sort of comic-book violence and black humor that will resonate with fans of the Evil Dead series or Street Trash. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a sick sense of humor may be required for full enjoyment, but there’s still moments that are shocking and brutal. Straiton is a director to keep an eye on. The film is rentable on Amazon with a DVD/BD forthcoming.
This quasi-art film may be the “weirdest” entry on the list, and I imagine some would find its premise a bit pretentious, but it’s one of the most refreshingly original horror films I’ve seen in at least a decade. Michael Medaglia’s Deep Dark follows a struggling, untalented artist working in the unappreciated medium of mobiles. The artist discovers a hole in the wall of his rented room which communicates with him, at first through a series of notes and then, as the hole gains strength, verbally, and eventually—when things start to get really weird—sexually. The hole in the wall provides the artist with the tools to achieve his dreams of success in the art world, getting him into a gallery and eventually into the gallery owner’s pants, which causes a (sometimes graphically) messy love triangle between the artist, patron, and muse. Fans of Lynch and Cronenberg take note of Deep Dark. Like Night of Something Strange, this is another highly effective film shot on a ridiculously low budget: reportedly $20,000.
This blood-soaked Turkish horror film is a feast of grotesque nightmare images. A group of police officers having drinks in a restaurant uncover a Hellraiser-ish netherworld when called to a nearby crime scene. Though the storyline is rather thin and some of the plot devices contrived, the imagery of the hellish dream-world created in Baskin is the selling point. First-time actor Mehmet Cerrahoglu, who suffers from a rare skin condition, gives a chilling performance as “The Father”—sort of the Turkish “Pinhead” and master of hellish ceremonies. Baskin is very much not for the squeamish.
Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up his revenge masterpiece Blue Ruin, one of my favorite films of the last decade; is Green Room, the story of a touring punk band trapped in the dressing room of a neo-nazi club they accidentally got booked to play. Though more of a “terror” film than an actual “horror” film, Green Room ratchets up the tension to a fever pitch, with Patrick Stewart as the leader of the neo-nazis delivering a performance as chilling as any screen serial killer. It’s obvious that Jeremy Saulnier has a legit background in punk rock. As someone who has personally toured extensively with punk bands in shitty, broken-down vans, I think a lot of the band tour stuff is nailed dead-on, though it’s rather implausible that any punk band would agree to play a gig with Nazi bands, nor would WP clubs allow bands outside their own circuit play their venue… but if you’re willing to suspend scenepolitik disbelief for the sake of the story, Green Room delivers and doesn’t let up.
My favorite horror/suspense/thriller of 2016 was Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez’ follow-up to his 2013 remake of Evil Dead (which wasn’t totally egregious to me, as far as remakes go). Don’t Breathe, like the aforementioned Green Room, ramps up the tension relentlessly and through the use of confined spaces creates a true sense of claustrophobia and helplessness. The character of The Blind Man is the most original horror villain of the last 20 years because he is as vulnerable as he is strong. The film plays at creating sympathy for this character before it goes full on batshit insane (no spoiler), but be sure that at a certain point in the film, things DO get batshit insane and we’re dealing with real horror that is psychological in addition to the merely physical horror of your typical splatterfest.
Honorable Mention: Neon Demon
Neon Demon receives an “honorable mention” because I halfway loved it. I only recently got around to seeing the film and I understand why the reviews were so mixed. On one hand, it’s one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve ever seen. Every frame is gorgeous. The music is perfect. Having said that, the tale of ugliness bubbling under the glamour of high-fashion didn’t really do anything for me. I go with my gut on stuff like this, and if I catch myself zoning out and losing interest, it’s a bad sign. I didn’t feel anything for any of the characters. About 3/4 of the way through I kept wishing for everyone to wrap it up and the thing just kept… on… going—but every new twist that was added didn’t really go anywhere towards solving the mysteries that the film had set up earlier. Neon Demon starts out as a puzzle that you eventually don’t feel like solving anymore.
My feelings towards Neon Demon were quite similar to my feelings towards every single Rob Zombie movie: “it looks really cool and it’s allllmoooost a good movie.”
One friend of mine described it as “Argento directing a Rhianna video, but Rhianna never shows up so it sucks.”
All-in-all, I loved the movie for the first 45 minutes, after which point I really wanted to like it... but ultimately it left me not caring and I thought it was as vapid as its characters. I guess we can argue that “style over substance” is a central theme to the film, so perhaps in that case, Neon Demon has a built in safety net: they meant to do that.