Horror films are often resistant to criticism, either because the genre as a whole isn’t particularly highly regarded by “serious” critics or because many horror films are low-budget, poorly produced shock films that look to deliver on their implicit promise of graphic violence rather than creating a quality movie.
And 2017 has been no different in this regard than most: plenty of terrible horror films have come out this year that barely meet the expectations of being a “movie” in general.
Horror films like The Bye Bye Man and Rings were not just disappointing but outright terrible. But these shouldn’t color the horror genre as a whole: horror films have a great potential to produce captivating fiction that keeps the audience riveted to the screen while also having the freedom to portray concepts that would otherwise seem out of place in most films.
Although many of the more anticipated horror movies are being held off until the fall (such as Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), there have been some good–even great–horror film released this year. Let’s take a look at five of the best horror movies of 2017 so far.
The crew of the International Space Station captures a probe returning from Mars that may hold proof of extraterrestrial life. However, they are shocked to find a cell taken from sample grows into a more complex living organism.
What’s worse, this new life form is hostile and quickly begins to grow in size and ferocity with every other organism it consumes–including the crew members. Trapped on the space station and now out of communication with Earth, the crew must defend themselves before this organism–named Calvin in an initially cutesy contest for school kids back on earth–destroys them all, and even worse finds its way to Earth.
A sort of space-age Blob, the alien organism is a good concept for a monster–especially since its entire existence is based on the thing keeping the crew alive, the oxygen supply in the space station.
Heightening the suspense by having the ISS begin to fall out of orbit and the crew being literally stuck in closed quarters, Life is a fine mix of The Thing and Aliens, with an unknown entity whose only goal is to survive while the crew soon realizes the only way to save Earth is to sacrifice themselves and push the station into deep space.
With a solid cast (including Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds) and a truly horrifying premise that’s pulled off with style and affecting suspense, Life is the kind of unnerving science fiction horror film that another certain sci-fi horror film this year (Alien: Covenant) should have been but wasn’t.
Justine goes off to veterinary school and finds something awaken inside of her. She’s initially nervous but tries to find her way in the new social scene on campus. First experimenting lightly, she eventually succumbs to her desires and dives into her dangerous new lust with abandon. We’re not talking about a sexual awakening here (or are we?) but cannibalism.
As Justine starts to unconsciously act upon her hunger for flesh and begins to slowly realize what she is, the gore begins to fill the screen and the audience is left wondering whether this is a horror film or a twisted coming-of-age story–and the answer may be both.
Raw is a unique horror film that doesn’t depend on supernatural elements or an easily explained cause for its more gruesome content. Justine (played by Garance Marillier) gives a strong performance as a young woman who’s frightened by, but unable to control, her urges. Depicting ravenous cannibalistic acts as erotic and using Justine’s horrifying predilection as symbolic of other emerging primal instincts, director Julia Ducournau creates an atmospheric and impactful horror film that’s truly unique.
While it delivers on the gore and violence that horror fans expect, Raw also delves a little deeper than most films in the genre tend to while also being a female-driven film in a genre that normally depicts women for the sole purpose of either walking dead meat or living T&A. For a cerebral horror film with more than a little bite, Raw’s one of the best of 2017 so far.
3. Tragedy Girls
Two high school girls do what typical teenagers do: they share selfies online, write posts detailing their day, and are wildly enthusiastic about their hobbies. But their selfies are with murderous psychopaths, their online updates stir up panic in their town about a string of murders, and their hobbies include cheerleading and taking the place of the serial killer they captured.
Gleefully going about their murderous business while also reporting on their crimes online, torturing the killer they captured, and galavanting around as best friends who share a sociopathic passion for murder, the two young leads (Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand) play their parts with energy and enthusiasm–which helps them not seem like the unrepentant killers they are.
Taking its tone from tongue-in-cheek postmodern horror films like Scream and its general shape from 80’s slasher films, Tragedy Girls is inventively directed by Tyler MacIntyre, while the editing jarringly cuts from shiny happy high school moments to gross gore and dismemberment and back again.
Darkly humorous, Tragedy Girls comes across like if Cher in Clueless was a homicidal maniac but the film still hummed along with the same upbeat tone as she strategizes her way through the rigors of high school in between murders.
More than a little clued-in is Tragedy Girl’s self-awareness of mixing the teen high school movie genre with horror, depicting our anti-heroines as more than a little schizoid but also remembering that it’s just a movie so the audience shouldn’t take their murderous ways too seriously. Clever, weird, and deliberately on-the-nose with its horror, Tragedy Girls is an indie horror comedy delight.
2. Get Out
Chris is a black photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s family for an extended weekend and quickly realizes that something’s very wrong with all of the other minorities he comes across in their neighborhood–particularly when a black guest at the family’s party has a seizure when Chris takes a picture of him and warns him to “get out.”
Although at first Chris tries to explain away the odd behaviors of the other black people present as him being self-conscious around this white family, he starts to suspect something much worse is going on–particularly from his girlfriend’s hypnotizing mother. Although he tries to escape, he’s captured and restrained while this family explains to him just what they’re doing with the black people they capture.
A social satire wrapped in a horror film, Get Out is written and directed by Jordan Peele and was a giant hit when it was released earlier this year, taking in $251 million on a $4.5 million budget. Smartly addressing the problematic issues between white liberalism and black culture in America, Peele creates a potent metaphor for appropriation and a cracking good horror film at the same time.
Race relations in America are often difficult to articulate on-screen, particularly if the creative team behind it aren’t of the race under discussion. But in Get Out, Peele addresses some uncomfortable truths simmering under the surface of polite American society between whites and blacks and does so with an appropriately healthy dose of horror.
1. It Comes At Night
Perhaps the scariest thing in the world is the unknown. Everyone fears an aspect of the unknown in their daily lives: of the future, the safety of their children, or just the everyday anxiety of not knowing what the next day may bring.
In It Comes At Night, the audience is aware that there is an ever-present danger out in the world–mainly, a plague that’s quickly decimating the world’s population–but the family the film centers on has already fled the world, finding some semblance of safety in the isolation of the woods. But this tentative sense of safety is shattered when an unknown person, and then his family, join them in their small cabin.
But this quiet peace is shattered when an unseen presence seems to be haunting them. As tensions rise between the members of the families and one family accuses the other of being ill with the plague. Its ending is savage and upsetting, revealing that fear of the unknown is often a way to deny the actual dangers of one’s own reality. It Comes By Night is an intense, claustrophobic film that plays on the palpable tensions and fears of its characters.
Well-shot and producing an eerie atmosphere, It Comes By Night oddly didn’t do as well as expected at the box office. Perhaps because it chose to play up unseen fears rather than showing on-screen graphic violence let down some horror fans, but this horror film is far more affecting and ultimately disturbing than most graphic murder-filled slasher films.
Instead, It Comes By Night is a slow burn of a long fuse, making the eventual final explosion that much more disturbing. It’s the best horror film so far in 2017–and if no better contenders show up at theaters by December, it may just be the best of the year.
Author’s bio: Mike Gray is a writer and academic. His work has appeared on Cracked and Funny or Die and he maintains a TV and film blog at mikegraymikegray.wordpress.com.