We're finally here. Going into 2019, I expected a good year for horror, but I never could've imagined how good it ended up being. Putting together a top 10 list of horror films this year wasn't easy, but after much deliberation, aka, smashing my head against the wall, I've done it...
...I mean really, where do I even begin with describing the genre in 2019? The fight for inclusion of more voices in film will continue in 2020, as we still have a long way to go, but 2019 was a great step forward. 2019 saw a diverse group of voices telling a variety of stories that proved over and over again why more voices in the genre is always a good thing, as the year was full of unique films that made the below list so difficult to put together. We saw everything from intimate portrayals of loss and anger, to terrifying views into the very real issues facing the world today, to remakes of classics and rollercoaster rides of terror. Horror has always been about challenging society and the way we look at the world, and 2019 was the year of overlooked voices screaming to be heard, making it one of the most powerful years of the genre I have experienced in my lifetime.
Because of that, there were a lot of great films that didn't make this list. Some honorable mentions I'd like to include: Hagazussa, a captivating fairytale that contained some of the most beautifully macabre imagery of the year...Crawl, which brought the creature feature back to the silver screen in a wild ride with tension as strong as the jaws of an alligator...Child's Play, which was a fun, solid remake of a classic which captured the slick slasher stylings of the 90s...Knife+Heart, a colorful homage to Giallo films set in a world of gay porn and featuring some much-needed representation for the LGBTQ community with characters that feel real and relatable and aren't there to simply be the "gay friend" stereotype...and finally Bliss, a pulse-pounding descent into madness presented in a hypnotic blur of trippy imagery and gallons of blood.
With that, here's my list of my personal top ten favorite horror films. I'll preface with I saw most horror films this year, but missed out on The Lighthouse, which might have made my list based on what I've heard. Keep in mind, this is just my list, and in a year like this, all of our lists are going to be pretty different, so if you're favorite film didn't make the cut, sorry not sorry.
10. Culture Shock
Directed by Gigi Saul Guererro
Written by Guererro, James Benson and Efren Hernandez
"A young Mexican woman (Martha Higareda) in pursuit of the American Dream crosses illegally into the United States, only to find herself in an American nightmare."
Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock may be an episode of Into the Dark, but to me, it still counts as a feature film. It’s also one of the most important films of the year. Much has been made about politics in horror lately, but Gigi’s film demonstrates why those sorts of themes are necessary to the genre. In telling the story of what has been happening to immigrants at the Mexican border, and warping it into a living nightmare that any viewer can grasp and understand, it’s the sort of film that has the power to influence perspectives by dropping others directly into the shoes of people going through real-world horrors. Film is one of the greatest tools in helping us to understand each other, and Gigi wields it masterfully with this horrific story. As a bonus, it also feature the legendary Barbara Crampton in one of if not her creepiest performances to date.
(Streaming on Hulu. Read our review here)
09. Daniel Isn't Real
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
Written by Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw, based on DeLeeuw's novel.
"A troubled college freshman, Luke (Miles Robins), suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) to help him cope."
Daniel Isn’t Real is one of those films that released late this year, and because of that, it may have been overlooked by some fans. If you’re one of them, I strongly encourage you to seek it out. Mental illness and toxic masculinity are two things we're talking about a lot in horror lately, and Adam Egypt Mortimer does so through what is ultimately a well-crafted, tragic creature feature that surprises again and again. The more this eerie film unfolds, the more terrifying it becomes. Featuring some phenomenal effects that you can’t un-see, and a gleefully villainous performance from Patrick Schwarzenegger, Daniel Isn’t Real is one you have to see to believe.
(Read our review here)
Written/Directed by A.T. White
"A unique, intimate portrayal of a girl (Virginia Gardner) grieving for the loss of her best friend, which just so happens to take place on the day the world ends."
Some that have seen this film may wonder why it’s on a top ten horror list, and I get it. The film can’t be defined simply as a “horror” film. What it is, though, is a mixtape of genre full of emotional power that unnerves as much as it pulls at heart strings. I spoke with White a while back about the film, and so I know it comes from a personal place for him, and it shows all throughout Starfish. Helping to convey the heartbreaking nature of the film is Virginia Gardner, who is utterly captivating and carries Starfish with ease. A Lovecraftian-style fantasy (though White admits he had never read Lovecraft) told from a deeply personal perspective with awe-inspiring cinematography and a moving soundtrack, Starfish is by far one of the most beautiful films of 2019.
(Streaming on Prime and Hulu)
07. Tigers Are Not Afraid
Written/Directed by Issa Lopez
"A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war."
Another film which is a smooth blend of genre and not a straight up “horror film”, Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is one of the best all around films of the year. Taking elements of real-world horror and expressing them as fantasy through the lens of children who have no other way to cope, Tigers is an emotional journey that absolutely devastated me, on multiple occasions. Back when I reviewed the film, I referred to it as feeling like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth but without the fantasy-world creatures, and I stand by that. Lopez's film is a magnificent wonder.
(Streaming on Shudder. Read our review here)
06. The Head Hunter
Directed by Jordan Downey
Written by Downey and Kevin Stewart
"A medieval warrior's (Christopher Rygh) gruesome collection of heads is missing only one - the monster that killed his daughter years ago."
Look, plain and simple, The Head Hunter deserves more attention. Technically speaking, it’s one of the most impressive films of the year, in taking around twenty grand and creating a believable medieval world full of monsters. And it just so happens to be a poetic, sometimes chilling horror flick, as well. I've long been a fan of Downey since his work on the Thankskilling films, and have always admired his ability to do so much with so little. No film has wowed me this year as much as The Head Hunter in the way it seamlessly crafts an awe-inspiring world with a smaller budget than some student film shorts. If Downey isn't getting offers left and right for bigger projects after this, something is wrong in the world of filmmaking.
(Streaming on Shudder. Read our review here, and check out my interview with director Jordan Downey here).
Directed by Rob Grant
Written by Grant and Mike Kovac
"Rivalries, dark secrets, and sexual tension emerge when three best friends find themselves stranded on a yacht in the middle of the ocean desperate for survival."
Oh my, is Harpoon a good time. Playing out like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Dead Calm, this tense, twisty tale is the sort of oddball horror comedy that shouldn’t work, but does. That’s a credit to all three performers and Grant, in particular, actor Munro Chambers, who establishes himself as a still unknown gem by many that deserves mass recognition. This film made me laugh. It made me gag. And it consistently got my heart beating faster as we dug deeper and deeper into the personal relationships of these three unhinged “friends”, and the hatred dwelling underneath the surface of their friendship. A nasty film that’s impossible to predict, Harpoon packs a punch delivered with a sharp, tongue in cheek humor that makes it one of the more entertaining watches of the year.
(Read our review here, and check out my interview with director Rob Grant here)
04. Ready or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy
"A bride's (Samara Weaving) wedding night takes a sinister turn when her eccentric new in-laws force her to take part in a terrifying game."
I bet if you asked around, at least half of horror fans would say that Ready or Not was the most fun they had at a horror film in theaters this year. Funny, bloody as hell, and featuring an entertaining ensemble cast led by the always excellent Samara Weaving, who is quickly becoming one of horror’s best, Ready or Not is a total blast from the opening kill to the final spattering of blood. I loved every second of this wild ride, and couldn’t have felt more satisfied leaving the theater. While I’m not complaining about it since it’s allowed for so many incredible films, horror is experiencing a period similar to the 70s, with relentlessly dark tales that leave little room for laughter, so Ready or Not was a tasty treat that I’d kill to see more of.
(Read our review here)
03. Doctor Sleep
Written/directed by Mike Flanagan, based on the novel by Stephen King
"Years following the events of 'The Shining', a now-adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) must protect a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) with similar powers from a cult known as The True Knot, who prey on children with powers to remain immortal."
Flanagan’s film has made the #1 spot on a lot of “best of” lists this year, and for good reason. Doctor Sleep isn’t your average sequel. From beginning to end, this film is a horror epic told with a sweeping sense of adventure, in a time when films like this are rarer than ever. Flanagan manages to connect Doctor Sleep to The Shining, while veering off in a different direction, taking us from the chilling, stark terror of Kubrick’s film to something which, while horrifying at times, especially in dealing with the deaths of children, is a warm embrace for King fans that welcomes us into the mind of Danny Torrence, and his heartbreaking battle to overcome the abuses of his father. The characters are rich and engaging, especially Rebecca Ferguson as the malevolent Rose the Hat, and I'm just praying we get even more of her in the director's cut coming our way. The one element keeping this from being higher on my list is the awkward mishandling of the third act, which by no means ruined the film, though it’s not quite as perfect as the next two on my list. Still, I have no doubt that Doctor Sleep will ultimately go down as one of the best King adaptations to hit the silver screen.
(Read our review here)
Written/directed by Jordan Peele
"A family's serene beach vacation turns to chaos when their doppelgängers appear and begin to terrorize them."
To be honest, I’m surprised I don’t see this one higher on most lists. Did it have the same power as Get Out? No, but the problem is, I think too many of us expected it to. Despite that, I’d argue we saw a growth in Peele’s skills as a director with Us. He manages to tell a unique horror story that almost perfectly balances comedy and stark terror, with a masterful sense for building tension. The atmosphere in this one is so rich you can practically taste it, and Lupita Nyong'o delivers what I consider to be the best performance in a horror film this year. The twists and turns left many confused and scratching their heads, but that's Peele's intent. Us isn't meant to deliver answers on a silver platter. For me, the best horror films are the ones that leave audiences discussing and analyzing them with a curious wonder long after their release, and Us is one we'll still be talking about years from now.
(Streaming on HBO Now/Go. Read our review here)
Written/directed by Ari Aster
"A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown's fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult."
I don’t know that any film had the same hold over me this year that Midsommar did. Ari Aster’s sophomore film isn’t just a horror film, it’s an experience, one full of grief, anger, discomfort, sadness, terror, and strange beauty. It takes a true master to strike such horror into the hearts of viewers when done without the cover of night and under the harsh sun, and Aster nails it. Florence Pugh’s performance as a woman struggling to stand up for herself amidst an emotionally abusive relationship is one that is absolutely devastating. To me, she’s right up there with Lupita as having delivered one of the best performances not just in the genre this year, but in film altogether. Some complained about the extensive runtime of the film, and I get it, but I didn’t feel the length. Instead, I saw it as Aster sucking us into a world of ritual and myth that feels as real as the church down the street from me. I don't like to throw the word masterpiece around too often, but Midsommar is a masterpiece that I haven't been able to stop thinking about.
(Read our review here)
Like I mentioned earlier, 2019 was an incredibly diverse year for horror, with so many unique voices and stories that made it a year impossible to forget. Therefore, all of our lists are quite different, so let us know below, what were some of your favorites this year?
By Matt Konopka