6. The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)
The Babadook will come as no surprise on this list to any fan of horror cinema. Opening at the Sundance Film Festival, the film has lapped up critical appraisal, acquiring a quite stunning 98% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film has a quite typical premise, that of a mother and her son being threatened by a creature from beyond this world, a simple premise that is quickly eroded in the film’s opening act. Director Jennifer Kent hastily subverts the genre conventions that accompany these types of film in the opening act, in which the film explores themes typical of social realism, such as class and familial drama, or more precisely, motherhood.
Aside from a few sparing moments in which The Babadook enters true horror terrain, courtesy of the terrifying and possibly metaphoric Babadook creature, the film is more concerned with psychological drama.
The film’s protagonist, Amelia, played by Essie Davis in one of 2014’s most accomplished performances, resents her son. This is set up through the film’s opening, in which Amelia’s husband is killed in a car crash while the couple are rushing to the hospital to give birth to their son, Samuel. This creates a tension between mother and son, as the haunting memory of Amelia’s husband conflicts with the birth of Samuel, ostensibly positing Samuel as the embodiment of her inner suffering.
This is where the true horror of the film lies, as when Kent depicts this relationship of maternal anguish, she is able to realistically detail how a mother could feel a lack of love for her own son, a quite troubling notion.
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an odd beast, the debut effort of Iranian-American direction Ana Lily Amirpour, it is part vampire film, part spaghetti-western, part suburban drama and part self-indulgent art house film. As far as this author is concerned, it is the first of its kind.
The film is set in an imaginary suburban/industrial wasteland, a place named ‘Bad City’ that seems to subsist outside of the real world’s when and where, a sort of Lynchian recreation that only exists to give life to a series of wacky and bizarre characters.
While several narrative strands seem straight out of the independent drama’s handbook, the film generally forgets these in favour of atmosphere and romanticism. Heavily stylised, the film achieves an oneiric quality, courtesy of some quite stunning camerawork by cinematographer Lyle Vincent.
Vincent’s lustful camerawork underpins the entire movie, as the film’s overemphasis on visuals and refusal to provide narrative clarity could only work if the film is beautiful to look at, a question that is emphatically answered time and time again through a succession of artfully crafted scenes.
The film whimsically drifts through what sometimes feels like a series of vignettes, such is the jarring tonal change from scene to scene, but as this entry as attempted to convey, it just works. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night simply does not take a misstep, from the mesmerizing performance of the vampiric lead to the rock n’ roll soundtrack, the film flows by in the blink of an eye, and will leave you itching for a repeat viewing.
8. We Are Still Here (2015, Ted Geoghegan)
We Are Still Here opened at SXSW in March to critical acclaim, acclaim that continued alongside the film’s theatrical release, creating a stunning success for first time director, Ted Geoghegan.
The film comes with a standard haunted-house premise: A couple buy an old house that is home to more than four walls and a roof, scares ensue.
Generally speaking, the source of evil in horror films can usually be separated into two categories, either being a deranged serial killer or supernatural forces. The current trend, aside notable exceptions such as the wonderful The Town that Dreaded Sundown, is supernatural forces, be that the standard ghosts in The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity, or the original creatures created for Insidious and The Babadook. These films usually tend to be slow burners, constantly building up tension until the film’s (usually) deadly climax. What is so different about We Are Still Here is the immediacy of which the creatures and the scares arrive.
The pacing is so separate from the usual supernatural horror film that it actually quite jarring. Characters are introduced and dispatched with within five minutes, a trend usually confined to slashers.
We Are Still Here seems completely aware of the horror conventions and tropes that is sometimes pays homage to, yet it refuses to adhere to them, making sure the audience never knows what’s coming next.
9. The Innkeepers (2012, Ti West)
The Innkeepers marks Ti West’s 5th and possibly best film, eclipsing 2009’s The House of the Devil, a film which put West on the map of young horror directors to take note of.
Keeping in the tone of The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers has a delightfully but deft retro tone, using a grandiose and depilated hotel as the perfect setting for ghost story. Ti West has become known for his preference of building up tension rather than clear-cut scares, and The Innkeepers is no different.
A predictably slow beginning, the film’s first act is more playful than scary, as West’s two leads, hotel attendants Claire and Luke, awkwardly bounce off each other amidst stories of the hotel’s haunting past. It’s always refreshing to witness characters who are open to the idea of supernatural forces from the get-go, rather than the cynicism that usually accompanies such a film, in which the demonic forces aren’t revealed to the characters until the film’s final act, a realisation that was clear to the audience all along.
The Innkeepers cleverly flips this narrative norm on its head. The audience is obviously aware they are watching a film about ghosts, so for Ti West to gradually weave in the element of uncertainty regarding this very existence is quite brilliant, never answering the question of whether or not the ghosts that inhabit the hotel are real, or simply inside Claire’s head.
Much like The House of the Devil, the film is strictly for fans of the genre, others may find the trickling pace and lack of jump-scares make for a dull ride.
10. Resolution (2013, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
The final film on this list is the 2nd feature from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2013’s Resolution.
Drug addict Chris, played by Vinny Curran, is living alone in an abandoned cabin, seemingly lost to the world until his childhood friend Mike, Peter Cillela, shows up in a last-ditch effort to save him from a drug-addled descent. What begins as a story of friendship and addiction quickly delves into something far more sinister, as Chris and Mike begin to find strange artefacts around the cabin, artefacts that signal a deadly future for the two men.
The familiar narrative of an abandoned cabin is quickly forgotten however, as the two men search into the origins of the peculiarities surrounding them. The film gives several possibilities pertaining to the source of the artefacts, forcing the audience into an active role while also referencing the many films that have come before in the well-versed ‘cabin in the woods’ category. In this sense the film acts as a meta-horror, such is the overtly self-aware narrative.
Directors Benson and Moorhead are clearly having a lot of fun here, as in setting up these possibilities they are able to delve into the expectations that come with the conventions that surround these types of films, before seamlessly breaking them down, constantly subverting more mainstream storytelling in horror cinema.
The shining light of the film though, is the mysterious sense of dread that accompanies each frame, a sort of muted mumblecore energy that makes the film a must watch for any horror fan.
Author Bio: Ned is a recent graduate of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He completed his thesis in his final year of study, in which he focused on realism in Australian cinema, but he is also a massive horror buff and lover of independent cinema. Ned plans on undertaking a PhD in 2017.