6. The Girl with All the Gifts (Colm McCarthy, 2016)
Another British entry on this list as well as one of the most original zombie films to come out in years (and boy, that’s no small achievement), featuring a compelling narrative, strong visuals, and an immensely talented cast.
In the near future, the remnants of humanity are struggling against a fungal disease that is turning people into zombies (in the film called ‘hungries’). Very fast zombies. A large group of survivors are on an army base with a number of children who are infected and crave flesh, but who also retain their ability to talk and think. After the base is overrun, it’s up to a soldier (Paddy Considine), a scientist seeking a cure for the infection (Glenn Close), and a schoolteacher (Gemma Arterton) to try and survive accompanied by the last of these gifted children.
Adapted from the eponymous novel, this film provides a close character study framed around a horror setting that raises many questions about humanity’s future as well as its current state. Seeing an apocalyptic future through the eyes of a special young girl gives a unique approach to the tired zombie sub-genre and is carried amazingly captivatingly by the star Sennia Nanua. There are many moments of severe suspense throughout the film that Colm McCarthy handles with a deft hand, showcasing his directing abilities.
The narrative and writing courtesy of both original author and screenwriter Mike Carey keeps you guessing as it twists and turns with new reveals and revelations. This lends the film a strong pacing that breaks up the large amount of subtextual dialogue that permeates the film. Some people have criticised the film as boring, and if you’re expecting a zombie action film then maybe you will be bored as well. But if you’re looking for superb storytelling and characterisation sprinkled in with strong scares, then you’re in the right place.
Sadly, the film had a tiny release, meaning that many missed it on its original run, but it can now be found on Sky in the U.K.
7. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)
I’ve talked about slow burns a couple of times on this list already, but if there’s one film that this phrase almost literally applies, it’s this film. An ode to the 1970’s and 1980’s horror movies from writer, director and editor (I think at this point he’s an auteur) Ti West, “The House of the Devil” is a masterclass on building atmosphere and apprehension while paying off in all its glorious fashion.
Set in 1980, our protagonist is Samantha Hughes, a student who’s struggling financially (aren’t we all?) who decides to pick up a babysitting job from a creepy employer named Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). She soon discovers that it’s no child she will be babysitting, and uncovers bizarre secrets that the Ulman’s have been hiding. She’s in for a rough night.
Filmed in 16mm in order to achieve the retro look of the many films in which it pays homage, “The House of the Devil” knows how to handle the distillation of information gradually throughout the movie to take the intensity from 1 to 100 all in the space of the brisk 95-minute run time, and is a credit to West’s capability as a writer and director. The imagery in the film is profoundly disturbing as well, particularly in the final act, which quickly skyrockets into madness and mayhem as the intentions of the Ulman family are revealed in a crescendo of violence and sadism.
Massive credit also goes to the character of Samantha, who handles the situation in a far more realistic and inventive manner than many horror characters would. She remains resourceful, intelligent, and charismatic throughout, ensuring that by the end, the audience is firmly behind her.
Another low-budget offering ($900,000), it was also given a very limited theatrical release as well as straight to OnDemand, meaning it sadly didn’t get the exposure it deserves.
8. Southbound (Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, and Patrick Horvath, 2015)
Horror anthologies have made somewhat of a comeback in recent years, proving to be a brilliant way of showcasing up-and-coming talent in the genre through a number of low-budget short films. Popular examples of course include “V/H/S” (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence, 2012), from which most of the directors have gone on to their own features. “Southbound” follows this model.
There are too many plotlines occurring in this film for me to outline them all here, so I’ll go straight into telling you all why it’s great.
One of the elements that elevate this anthology above others is the interconnectivity that the framing device carries. Unlike “V/H/S” where each short is unconnected to the next, “Southbound” contains subtle but effective nods and connections between each short that encourages repeat viewings and builds an internal continuity that rewards eagle-eyed viewers.
I think what stands out a lot with this film (and indeed is a running theme throughout this article) is how good quality writing with a talented cast can make up for what’s lacking in budget. At the end of the day, we watch films in order to be told a story through visual narrative; even in horror, we aren’t going just to watch gore on our screens (well, some probably are), we want to feel like we’ve been on a journey that meant something with characters that matter.
“Southbound” nails this short after short, using a combination of highly emotional and high-stakes character stories combined with the horror conventions and visuals that we expect from the genre. These combine together to make narratives that are indeed scary, but also more meaningful than just blood and guts.
On release, “Southbound” made just $23,665 in box office returns. If you want to support up-and-coming horror filmmakers, pop online and order yourself a copy of this film.
9. You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011)
While he’s certainly had some missteps in recent years with “Death Note” (2017) and “Blair Witch” (2016), “You’re Next” turned some heads when it was released for its subversion of horror conventions and comedic undertones that made this a black comedy horror gem.
On the surface, a very simple premise: a woman named Erin joins her boyfriend’s family at their rural vacation home, only to find themselves under attack by masked assailants who’ll stop at nothing to kill everyone inside. Why are they doing it? The reveal is shocking.
The film manages to flip between darkly funny and brutally unsettling with apparent ease in an extremely commendable capacity, which keeps the audience even more on edge and just as you begin laughing, something else horrific and unexpectedly happens, taking you back into the seriousness of the moment. Wingard’s directorial talent is pretty indisputable throughout this film as well. He utilises some incredibly inventive shots throughout in order to sustain an atmosphere of suspense and horror. Some of the highlights include reflections of the assailants as they look through the windows voyeuristically on their prey.
The film is the antithesis of a slow burner in comparison to many entries on this list. We hardly get a chance to catch our breath as we move from one brutal killing to another as the death toll rises and rises. Erin follows the “Straw Dogs” (Sam Peckinpah, 1971) character arc of an ordinary person pushed into an extraordinary situation, one which she takes to a bit too easily, totally making for a very visceral and strong protagonist.
This film is one of the most profitable to appear on this list, but still is very underexposed within the genre and deserving of a larger fan base.
10. Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala, 2014)
The only foreign language film on this list, this Austrian movie is an incredibly thoughtful and low-key horror that utilises atmosphere and narrative over gore in order to weave a terrifying tale of distrust.
We follow two twin brothers, Lukas and Elias, whose mother has recently undergone cosmetic facial surgery following an accident, leaving her face bandaged and leaving only her mouth and eyes visible. The boys begin to notice a drastic change in their mother’s personality following her return home and soon suspect she isn’t really their mother at all.
There’s a distinct theme of light versus dark that permeates every frame of this film and is beautifully established by the opening shots of the film, where Elias follows Lukas into a tunnel shrouded in literal darkness until it obscures him completely. It’s a great visual metaphor for the subtext of the movie, which suggests that the border between light and dark within us all may be a lot closer than we’d like to think.
It’s a truly terrifying premise, that the person who should love and care for you the most might just be an imposter who wants to bring you harm and pain, something that no one wishes to experience at all. The actors for the twins are in fact so in real life, which is a spot of genius on behalf of the casting director. They respond to one another with so much naturality that we are enthralled by every discovery they make and act in which they partake.
Of course, being a foreign language film, many audiences didn’t get to see or didn’t want to go see this one, meaning it hasn’t been seen by that many. A shame considering the artistry on display in this thought-provoking, disturbing, and enthralling tale of two twins and the evil in their house.