To say the second decade of the 21st century has been good to the world of horror would be a rather gross understatement. I’ll avoid the divisive declaration that some have been making recently, claiming that horror has become “elevated” in the last few years as I believe horror has always been, or at least always had the opportunity, to be elevated...
...What seems to have happened of late is a fundamental shift in the way we regard horror and genre as a whole. As the generations have aged a decade there’s been a changing of the guard, and a younger group, nursed on heavy doses of the supernatural and fantastical, have found a voice. With that voice they’ve called for a critical overhaul in the way we talk about these works of genre, regarding them with the respect and gravitas they deserve.
Here I’ve curated a list of films that I believe serve as touchstones of the last decade. Beacon examples for us to look back to to galvanize us as we move forward and give us hope for the stories we might tell in the decades to come. This list was rather difficult to cull and is by no means exhaustive or the final word on quality where horror in the ‘10s is concerned. It is simply a handful of films that to me, represent the best and broadest of what we had to offer these past ten years.
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
Get Out (2017)
With the topics of racism and violence against black lives being one of the biggest and most important conversations to be at the forefront of American consciousness it was only a matter of time and platform before the conversation made its way into the theatre of horror. In 2017, comedian extraordinaire turned writer/director Jordan Peele cemented himself as an auteur and voice for the conversation of social commentary through art with Get Out.
Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young photographer who accompanies his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) upstate to her parents’ home where people of color have a habit of going missing and or, on occasion, turning up not quite the same.
The layers and nuance in the film are both astounding and utterly unsettling both in how outlandish the events are but also in how plausible they seem. It’s a terrifying and warranted indictment of white society whose real life action and inaction finds searing parallels in every beat of the film. It cuts so broad a path, narratively, that despite its razor-sharp timeliness, it’s still so gripping a tale as to render it timeless.
It is in equal turns funny, sad, terrifying, sobering, and ultimately the creative and cultural slap in the face that American audiences need. It is a darkest of mirrors and one of the most impressive debuts from a filmmaker we’re likely to see for some time.
The Invitation (2015)
I’m always impressed in some indefinable masochistic way when a film can make me feel uncomfortable for an unnaturally long period of time. With The Invitation, director Karyn Kusama, at length, pries loose the viewers skin and replaces it with that of an ice-cold goose. The tension is plied so thickly unto the scripting, performance, and camera work that it’s almost a wonder when we realize we’re not actually a part of it.
The Invitation follows Will (Logan Marshall-Green) as he brings his new girlfriend to a dinner party being hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband. Unspoken anger and sadness lurk beneath every moment of the party and strange vibrations from mysterious guests plunge Will into an increasingly tumultuous state of mistrust.
Kusama keeps us solidly in Will’s headspace. We only know as much as he does, with the occasional space to drift. The straps just loose enough for us to peel back one small corner of the curtain and glimpse something unsettling. And always something that raises more questions, never answering them.
It’s a slow-burn, beyond any doubt, but the final act is so shocking and explosive you’re bound to feel rewarded for your patience. And the patience is well-earned. There isn’t a dull moment. Even when shots linger and the destination isn’t clear, everything is soaked in that tension we mentioned.
As of writing this, The Invitation is still available to stream on Netflix. Pour yourself a bottle or two of wine, put on a red light, prep a humorous post-Invitation palate cleanser, and then do yourself a favor by watching the movie.
The Conjuring (2013)
In what was either late summer of 2012 or mid-spring of 2013 I was invited to screen a horror film with an undisclosed title being distributed by Warner Bros. The moment that phantasmal grey WB logo appeared and I was assaulted by that discordant blast of brass from composer Joseph Bishara, my skin ERUPTED in goosebumps. Goosebumps that seldom departed during the following 112 minutes.
I had heard next to nothing about this film other than it was being directed by 2000s horror darling James Wan, a name inescapable in the field of wide-release horror since he and writer/director Leigh Whannell dropped the 2004 gem Saw. I also knew very little of the Warrens at the time. Frankly, knowing as little as possible lent itself to the experience. I had zero expectations and it left me open to be utterly throttled by what followed.
The Conjuring is a straightforward story about a couple with seven daughters who buy a large farm house in Rhode Island that comes complete with haunts. When the hooks and spooks reach a fever pitch, terrorizing mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and her daughters, she reaches out to renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga respectively) to help rid their home of bad spirits.
Here again Wan has made good work of his material and spawned a universe of films. While subsequent Conjuring-universe entries have been solid in their own right, none has achieved the heart or horror of the first. Wan pulls us in slowly without sacrificing any punches, parsing out scares and relying on sound in addition to the power of the unseen vs the seen. These old-school sensibilities paired with excellent performances and period design makes this one of the most classically effective horror movies of the last 20 years, let alone the last decade.
There’s a lot to be said for a director coming off of the heels of success with a gay coming-of-age drama and critical darling (Call Me By Your Name) and jumping straight into a remake of Dario Argento’s beloved horror classic Suspiria. Luca Guadagnino pulled off the gig in sensational fashion.
I’m willing to admit, inspiring much scorn from my contemporaries, that I have not always spoken favorably of Argento and the giallo sub-genre as a whole. Despite touting witches, cut-throat competitive dancing dynamics in an academic setting, and what is perhaps one of the most ostentatious color palates I’ve ever seen in a film (I like loud colors, sue me) it took me a full three attempts to get from one end of the 1977 original to the other. The assaultive score did NOTHING to assist, ahem. Eventually it grew on me. But given my rocky past with it, the news of a remake alone was not quite enough to get me on board. Sure there were still going to be witches and dance schools, but was that going to be enough?
Suffice it to say by the time the cast was revealed, most notably Tilda Swinton, and the trailer dropped, I was positively rhapsodic. High aesthetic paired with haunting and gruesome imagery? Who do I make the check out to?
Guadagnino’s iteration of Suspiria is hard to qualify. It’s a black hole of a film. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, and what it is about the film that works, but I can tell you how it affects everything around it. Because the truth is, there are things that don’t work about this film. Things that seem clunky or out of place. But the mood and aesthetic and intrigue are so rich as to render one a lotus-eater, the sumptuous and vile exercise of consuming this film intoxicates. And might I mention it contains one of the most gruesome and elaborate death scenes I’ve ever seen.
Ready or Not (2019)
One thing that Suspiria is NOT, is fun. But you know what is fun? Ready or Not, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. The duo, having worked together on anthologies V/H/S and Southbound, are teamed up again to tackle a feature-length horror comedy.
Grace, played by a delightfully disarming Samara Weaving, is a bride who finds herself caught in a deadly game of hide and seek with Alex (Mark O’Brien), her new husband’s, rich dynastic family. The family’s wealth, amassed from a gaming empire built by a great great grandfather or some such person, is attributed to a capricious Faustian figure named Mr. Le Bail, who requires a game be played when a new member is added to the family and on rare occasion, a sacrifice.
Ready or Not is a pitch black comedy that does everything right. There’s humor to be mined from nearly every familial dynamic and the filmmakers and actors don’t miss a beat. Andie MacDowell is the other true stand-out in the delightful character line-up. She plays mother, Becky, with a wit and perverse sensibility we don’t often see from her. What a treat.
Olpin and Gillett have a broad sandbox with which to play and a universe of inspiration on which to draw and they do so with aplomb. Subversion of expectation is a hot ticket and Ready has it in spades. You’ll be laughing just as often as you’re shielding your eyes and you’ll love every second of it. Of the entries on this list, Ready is easily the most fun I had of the bunch.
Director Ari Aster is the only filmmaker that has the privilege (listen to me huh, grandiose much?) of making it onto my list twice. You’re welcome. But it’s not difficult to understand why when you see the craft at play in his films.
Like his 2018 breakout Hereditary, Midsommar uses the framework of horror as a lens through which to tell a story of loss and grief. Dani, played as a force of nature by Florence Pugh, suffers a bizarre and terrifying loss that sees her turning to the arms of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), a spineless grad student who hours before was planning to end the relationship. Continuing his spineless ways he invites Dani along on a trip to Sweden with him and several grad school buddies. Naturally, things devolve into a technicolor pagan horror show in the land of the midnight sun. We’re offered a front-row view of Dani’s descent into her grief and terror.
While thinner on plot and drawing side-eyed obvious comparisons to The Wicker Man, Midsommar works its blinding black magic nonetheless and proves, at least for this viewer, to be the superior iteration. Smart scripting is anchored by solid performances all round, especially Pugh hitting it out of the park. It was also a pleasure to see William Jackson Harper, whose work on The Good Place I’m a big fan of. The film works in a similar way to The Invitation really cementing the majority of the audience’s perspective to Dani’s and the few moments of alternate view point are weighted and crucial.
Ari Aster is two for two in the theatrical horror arena and I think I can safely speak for most of us when I say I’m excited to see what’s next.
The Wailing (2016)
Rolling with the foreign-set horror theme, let’s bring South Korea into the fold. While living in Los Angeles a short blurb about an upcoming Korean horror film in LA Weekly came across my desk that was part paranoia horror and part black comedy. I decided to give it a shot at the NoHo Laemmle and haven’t regretted it since.
Directed by Hong-jin Na, The Wailing is a story of small town cop Jong-goo (Do-wan Kwak) whose family and community is plagued by mysterious illness, violence, and death. Racism and paranoia rear their head when the townsfolk suspect a reclusive Japanese immigrant of working dark magic on the town and its people.
Attempting to explain the story any further on paper would likely leave you baffled and would ultimately do the film a disservice. But I can assure you that committing to the hefty 156-minute run time won’t be in vain. You’re sure to be satisfied.
It’s in turns hilarious, sad, and deeply frightening. Na uses the charming bumblesome antics of his everyman hero as a stark contrast to the violence and creeping madness of the proceedings. The supernatural aspects of the film are steeped in the spirit of old lore, blending Eastern Asian superstitions with the Christian influences of South Korea. The result is something arresting and altogether unique. Part western possession tale, part ghost story, and the best parts of both make this a hit for the decade.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Giving Ari Aster a run for his money in terms of heavy-hitting debuts, Dan Trachtenberg took the reins on the Cloverfield franchise with 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. Trachtenberg took a simple claustrophobic premise and spun it into gold with the help of a tremendous cast.
Now, if you’d seen the trailer you’d have been pardoned, at the time, for asking yourself, “How in the hell is this related to the last one? What is this?” But stick around for the last act and everything will start to come together. But even independent of the Cloverfield universe tie-ins, it’s a lean nasty work of suspense and terror.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a woman fleeing her marriage only to have her world upended, literally, by a car accident. She wakes up in the basement of doomsday daddy Howard (John Goodman) along with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and from the jump we’re never quite sure if Michelle and Emmett are refugees or prisoners. Howard claims an attack has occurred and that the air is now unbreathable.
The film works by keeping us in a constant state of worry and uncertainty with Goodman serving as our dread host. Michelle and Emmett serve up the heart of the story, making good use of their brief time to lend some history and camaraderie to the tension.
10 Cloverfield Lane gave me hope for the future of a shared universe where different filmmakers tell new stories with the backdrop of the events from the original serving as the thread that binds them. Unfortunately Netflix and The Cloverfield Paradox dashed those hopes. But not even botched sequels can diminish the triumph of 10 Cloverfield Lane.
It Follows (2014)
With only one feature under his belt, director David Robert Mitchell wowed audiences with his dread-heavy urban legend It Follows. After premiering at Cannes, the indie became a critical darling garnering dozens of apt comparisons, most commonly those to the works of John Carpenter. Though personally I found some of the most consistent parallels to be made against the 1984 classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street. To each their interpretation.
The story, like the rules of the legend are simple. And in this round, simple is effective. Teenager Jay’s (Maika Monroe) first sexual encounter turns into a personal nightmare when she awakens from having been drugged to find herself tied to a wheelchair. Her paramour-turned-captor informs her that she’s now the target of a relentless shape shifting entity and the only way she can rid herself of it is to seek out another sexual partner in order to pass along the curse. Jay’s friends attempt to help her unravel the mystery and stave off the spectral assailant.
It Follows is awash with soft diffusion and a pulsing synth score that evokes the 1980s with a vengeance. Children are left to their own devices to the point of neglect, another trope of bygone decades, resurrected to splendid effect. The whole thing works to create a world in which the youthful heroes exist apart, they and they alone stand on that precipice between adolescence and adulthood with age and death ever on their heels.
It’s a true touchstone of the decade and one of my personal favorites. A home collection essential.
*Check out the soundtrack from Disasterpeace, truly an accomplishment in mood*
It feels impossible that anyone could make a list such as this and not include Ari Aster’s much talked-about feature debut. If you were tuned into outlets regarding film news, be it radio, print, or video, you didn’t escape 2018 without hearing a solid stream of commentary and dissertation regarding Hereditary. People were, in a word, shook. Aster took the seeds of what could easily have been a family drama about loss and mental illness and the devastating generational effects of both, and turned them into something altogether more sinister.
Hereditary centers on Annie (Toni Collette) and her family as she comes to grips with the death of her mother and, shortly thereafter, her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). As more about Annie’s family history comes to light, events begin to take on a more sinister hue. Grief and unspoken resentment bubble just beneath the family’s surface, ratcheting up the tension and leaving everyone vulnerable in their emotional isolation.
Hands down some of the best performances you’re likely to ever see in a horror film. Collette steals the show at every opportunity with actor Alex Wolff, playing her character’s son Peter, keeping pace with her. The scripting and camerawork only serve to increase the effect. With Aster’s follow-up Midsommar having dropped only a year later and to similar praise, the landscape appears to be wide open for the director’s further success. Hereditary stands as a truly remarkable achievement and is undisputedly one of the standouts of the ‘10s, likely to top most everyone’s list.
What were your favorite horror films of the last decade? Let us know below!
By Paul Bauer