2018 has been a great year for horror fans. Sure there were a few sequels nobody asked for, though a few of those were actually rather well done (the following list sidesteps Johannes Roberts’s The Strangers: Prey at Night and Colin Hardy’s The Nun, but both films reward a late night watch), and there’s a few franchises we weren’t all that keen on revisiting (apologies to The Purge movies and the latest Insidious film, but we’ve outgrown you), but everything from the ubiquitous zombie chase film, artsy period pieces, pastiche chillers, and exceedingly excellent foreign imports had us howling with devilish delight and rejoicing the quality fright fare unspooling before us.
Set in the wintry landscape of 19th century Estonia, director Rainer Sarnet’s pagan-fuelled, black-and-white fantasy horror film is a loose adaptation of Andrus Kivirähk’s 2000 novel “Rehepapp ehk November” (Old Barny aka November). It’s a bizarre and beautiful world of werewolves, spirits (including a personification of the Black Death), Christ, and “kratts” –– mythological “helpers”, scarecrow-like in appearance, made of bones and rusting farm tools that assist the peasantry in a myriad of ways.
And in this icy snowscape a farmer girl named Liina (Rea Lest) has eyes for a local lad named Hans (Jörgen Liik), who himself is besmitten with the unattainable aristocratic daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of the resident Baron. As the two evoke dangerous and double-edged mythical powers to quell their heart’s desires, only tragedy can result.
Sarnet’s monochromatic visuals, expertly lensed by cinematographer Mart Taniel, are frequently breathtaking, deeply strange, wholly outlandish, and all told, rather wonderful to behold. Equal parts funny and fucked up, November is a very singular cinematic expression of folkloric fantasy. It’s not for everyone, but the best kinds of strange, saga-like sojourns seldom ever are.
“Blunt, bloody and stylish almost in spite of itself, Revenge is a synthesis of exploitation and feminism,” writes New York Times critic A.O. Scott of Coralie Fargeat’s impressive, uncompromising and ultra-chic feature-directing debut.
Like many of the films on this list, Revenge is an acquired taste, the rape-revenge scenario presented here is over-the-top in its nastiness and viscera spray, detailing gruesomely so much of what fans of the French horror brand of extremity have come to admire.
Fargeat takes pains to imbue her blood-specked, tense, and almost too riveting cat-and-mouse narrative with sly tracking shots and some truly dizzying camera work as our unlucky lead Jen (Matilda Lutz) takes off on a romantic getaway with her sketchy but wealthy boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens). Everything is peachy creamy and rather steamy and carefree until Richard’s sleazy pals (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède) show up as third and fourth wheels for an unannounced and heavily armed hunting trip.
Tensions rise amongst the new arrivals and Jen, culminating in a shocking assault that leaves a brutalised Jen left for dead, but as the tables turn it’s Jen, fuelled by a heroic dose of peyote, on a relentless quest for some seriously bloody revenge.
At the crossroads of exploitation and feminism is this alternately offensive, fist-pumping, and effed-up tale of comeuppance and swagger. Revenge, in this instance, is a dish best served with am artful flourish.
13. The Ritual
Based off of Adam Nevill’s frightening 2011 novel of the same name, director David Bruckner’s The Ritual is a sinister and stylish doom-addled psychological fright fest, that also succeeds as a smart creature feature, and a compelling study of confused masculinity as young men try to come to terms with grief and guilt.
Leading the impressive ensemble is Rafe Spall as Luke, one of four college pals who’ve reunited several months after the tragic death of their friend, Robert (Paul Reid). The group have decided to take Robert’s ashes with them on a trek through the Scandinavian wilderness, not just as an act of catharsis and tribute, but also for their own healing. But soon the men find themselves in a deep, dark forest where an ancient evil known as a Jötunn is following them.
Joe Barton’s screenplay is largely faithful to Nevill’s stylish prose, though he does eschew a bleakly comical side-story about a Scandinavian death metal band –– if the film has a weakness it might just be that it lacks any comic relief from all the mental anguish and emotional strain –– and the effectively creepy sound design, inspired production design, and brilliant creature design (kudos to Keith Thompson for his creature conception) all add up to one of the year’s most cult-worthy horror films.
The Ritual did well on the fantastic film festival circuit last year, so well that Netflix eagerly snatched it up so that the rest of us could experience this nightmare-fueled fever dream in the relative safety of our own livingrooms. That said, if you watch The Ritual before taking a camping trip, you might be cancelling said plans, and that may just be for the best.
Gareth Evans proved his mettle in the action genre with The Raid (2011), and The Raid 2 (2014) and hinted at a gift for horror with his segment in V/H/S/2 (2013), and with the nerve-jangling nightmare Apostle he cements it, he can direct the scary stuff with the best of them.
Set around the turn of the last century in 1905, Apostle finds a desperate Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens, excellent) in search of his missing sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys), believed kidnapped by cultists after a ransom. Thomas’s investigation brings him to a remote Welsh island where adherents worship a dark goddess.
Evans, who also wrote the film, takes his time letting this dark and enveloping tale set a sinister tone and a detailed cosmology, and by the time a hand-cranked skull drill is deployed on one of the film’s most sympathetic characters, you’ll be lost in the carefully constructed and deeply mysterious world on screen.
In fact, the only real stinger for fright fans here is that Apostle only did a few festival screenings before landing on Netflix (Matt Flannery’s lovely lensing and Tom Pearce’s peerless production design beg for the big screen), but this absorbing, harrowing, and intense occult fable is of fine pedigree. Don’t miss it.
Unsane is Steven Soderbergh’s first true foray into horror and it moves nimbly through some rather well-trodden territory. The familiar premise, itself an echo of Robert Wiene’s 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is that of an innocent confined against their will inside of an icy institution, and who tragically is met with condescension and dismissal when trying to prove their sanity.
Starring a dazzling Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini, a thirtysomething urban professional who has had to go to great lengths to avoid her persistent stalker, David Strine (a creepy Joshua Leonard). Sawyer had hoped that, having relocated from Boston to a more tranquil and mundane Pennsylvania would vanquish Strine from her thoughts and improve her mental health. Oh, but if it were true! Sawyer seems to see Strine everywhere, and it’s getting in the way of her life.
In an attempt to gain better focus of her fears, Sawyer sees a counsellor at the Highland Creek Behavioural Center, but before you can say “a better bottom line for the insurance companies” Sawyer is being incarcerated over some suggestive (and innocuous) comments.
Things go from bad to worse as the mixed ward Sawyer is stuck in contains the verbally abusive Violet (Juno Temple), a secretive yeet potential ally in Nate (Jay Pharoah), and a few Nurse Ratched-level healthcare “professionals”, and worst of all, a suspicious orderly named George Shaw, who is a goddamn deadringer for Strine.
Soderbergh, who not only directed but shot and edited the film from a script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, is at his experimental best. Unsane, amazingly, was shot entirely on the iPhone 7 Plus, and with the stunning 4K transfer, it’s stunning to behold (particularly a nighttime chase through the woods that will send your heart racing).
10. The Endless
Having already established themselves as impressive innovators in the low-budget but high-concept realm of mumblecore sci-fi/horror films (2013’s Resolution and 2014’s Spring are must-see movies for genre junkies), the writer-director duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson present their most ambitious and riskiest move yet with The Endless.
The filmmaking pair behind the lens also take the two lead roles for this refreshingly unconventional trip through the twilight zone, as protective and skeptical older brother Justin (Benson) and younger, more unaffected Aaron (Moorhead) find themselves in a bit of a rut.
There’s a delicious irony that the two men find their present idle––a professedly endless loop of shit jobs, junk food, and borderline bankruptcy––plagued with a yearning to return once more to Arcadia. Jokingly but with a grain of truth referred to as “a UFO death cult” and one that, a decade prior the pair barely escaped, the arrival of a videotape tempting the brothers to return one last time, has them motivated once more. Will they journey back to the ashram out in the arid desert? Do you even have to ask?
There’s no one making films quite like Benson and Moorhead, who seem so well-suited to the manufacture of the juicy setup, the buddy-buddy banter, the allure of the forbidden, the draw of the dark, and the suggestion of what just might be beyond. This is, of course, what horror fans really want, with no skimping of the fun stuff, and that’s exactly what The Endless delivers.
The latest iteration of Halloween “pays loving and respectful homage to the 1978 original while making a very bold and decisive claim for its own existence,” writes Dread Central scribe Jonathan Barkan in his glowing review.
40 years on and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, excellent) still wrestles with PTSD and survivor’s guilt from her vicious confrontation with psycho killer qu’est-ce que c’est Michael Myers on Halloween night, 1978. In this new film from director David Gordon Green (who co-wrote along with Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride).
It’s just a matter of time before Myers, locked up in the fortress-like Grove Sanitarium is at large after a curiously botched bus transfer. Bound for Haddonfield, Illinois, Myers has murder in his heart for Strode and her family, and the promise of a showdown is assured.
Without a doubt the most satisfying sequel in the Halloween franchise (and second only to the John Carpenter original), this alternately grisly, garish, and ghoulishly fun slasher picture is buttressed by Curtis’s knockout performance and also from Green’s directorial flourish.
Calculated, creepy, and fist-pumpingly satisfying, Green and company have rebooted and refreshed the languishing franchise into something both sinister and slyly spectacular. We’re on board for the next entry, too, as a follow-up film is unavoidable (and excitedly anticipated).