In years to come, when we look back at horror cinema of the past decade, what will we think of?
Will we think of the box-office smashes – the likes of The Conjuring (2013), Insidious (2010) and the juggernaut that was It Chapters 1 and 2 (2017/19) that continue to prove the film-going public’s taste for the dark side?
Or perhaps we will recall the remarkable debuts that captured the hearts and chilled the bones of genre fans worldwide – films like Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016), Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother (2016) or Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), to name but a few.
Or will it be the critical successes – those films such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) or Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), which scooped both rave reviews and awards aplenty, and in doing so inadvertently led to the rise of that dreaded term ‘elevated genre’?
Of course it’s too soon to predict what the enduring legacy will be, but one thing we can be sure of is that over the last decade some truly remarkable horror films emerged. Here are 10 of them…
It Follows (2014)
Director David Robert Mitchell
Anyone who saw David Robert Mitchell’s charming coming-of-age debut The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) would have been unlikely to predict his next venture would be a horror movie, not least one so endlessly provocative and relentlessly unnerving. But with It Follows he did just that, delivering a stimulating meditation on sexual paranoia with enough subtext to keep your mind buzzing for days.
For 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe), an exploratory sexual encounter subsequently turns into a living nightmare when she begins to experience strange visions and the unfathomable sense that she is being followed. Terrified and helpless, Jay must find a way to pass on the curse that has seemingly befallen her. While the suburban milieu evokes John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween (1978), and the cyclical nature of the horror recalls Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), Mitchell’s remarkable shocker remains a defiantly original and innovative piece of work, neatly subverting the old ‘sex equals death’ trope we have seen countless times throughout horror history.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
The 2010s saw a smattering of effective horror rehashes in among the usual slew of unimaginative reimaginings. Jim Mickle’s thoughtful We Are What We Are (2013), Franck Khalfoun’s ambitious Maniac (2012) and Fede Alvarez’s riotous Evil Dead (2013) all succeeded on their own terms, but there was only one that surpassed the original film: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s wickedly clever The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Drawing inspiration from the down-and-dirty 1976 classic, Gomez-Rejon’s striking debut is not so much a remake as it is a shrewd reinvention, resulting in an inventive and unexpected meta-horror experience. Set in a world in which the original film exists and is very much part of popular consciousness, this update sees the quiet streets of Texarkana plagued by a maniac who bears striking resemblance to the same Phantom Killer who wreaked havoc on the town decades before. Is history repeating itself? Or has somebody just seen the original film too many times? Meticulously styled with a retro 70s genre vibe, this is that rare beast: a horror reboot that actually feels like it has been made with horror fans in mind.
The Invitation (2015)
Director Karyn Kusama
Two years after being driven apart by a family tragedy, former couple Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard) are reunited at a dinner party hosted by Eden and her current partner David (Michiel Huisman). Joined by his new girlfriend and half a dozen old friends, Will finds it hard to settle into the evening’s seemingly forced festivities, a feeling not helped by Eden’s erratic behaviour. As the strange soiree progresses, Will’s anxieties begin to grow, until he realises the real reason they have all been brought together.
At once a playful lesson in tension building and a quietly devastating portrait of grief and loss, Karyn Kusama’s teasing chamber piece is a perfectly pitched exercise in discomfort. Aided by uniformly excellent performances from the cast, Kusama maintains a vice-like grip on her material, cranking up the suspense with obvious glee, all the while keeping things grounded with an inescapable sense of sadness.
Under the Shadow (2016)
Director Babak Anvari
Arguably the most purely frightening film on this list, Babak Anvari’s socio-political drama-cum-out-and-out spookfest tells the story of Shideh, a woman living in 1988 Tehran. After her attempts to enrol in medical school are denied due to her previous political activism, and her husband is sent to serve in the Iran-Iraq War, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is left alone in her apartment with her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). As the threat of Iraqi air raids loom ever closer, Dorsa’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, and soon Shideh begins to fear that they have been targeted by an evil djinn intent on destroying them.
In its domestic setting Under the Shadow recalls the likes of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, both of which also depict a mother/child relationship against a backdrop of escalating horrors. But where Anvari’s film truly excels is in its depiction of a comparably terrifying world that exists outside of Shideh’s haunted apartment, offering a compelling portrait of a woman living under Sharia law.
Gerald’s Game (2017)
Director Mike Flanagan
While the last decade brought with it a handful of disappointing, perhaps even disastrous, Stephen King adaptations (Cell, The Dark Tower and Pet Sematary spring immediately to mind) there were two undeniable standouts among the misfires – Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep (2019). The fact that both came from Mike Flanagan is no coincidence, the director demonstrating his deep understanding and appreciation of King’s writing on both occasions. Either film could have appeared on this list, but Gerald’s Game is perhaps the more impressive work, if only for the fact that the source material was such a daunting proposition for the screen.
Keen to spice up their marriage, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) take a trip to their isolated holiday house to indulge in a spot of kink. But when Gerald dies from a sudden heart attack, leaving his wife handcuffed to the bed, Jessie must find a way to free herself from both her shackles and her own personal demons.
With much of the novel’s drama taking place inside its heroine’s head, this was never going to be a straightforward adaptation, but Flanagan’s thoughtful interpretation makes for riveting viewing. The box-office behemoth that was It Chapters 1 and 2 may have been the most widely seen King films of the 2010s, but Gerald’s Game was the most thrillingly accomplished. If only Flanagan could direct all King adaptations from now on…
Get Out (2017)
Director Jordan Peele
The horror genre has always been an effective social mirror for our times, and nowhere was that more apparent this decade than in Jordan Peele’s breakout smash, arguably the most culturally significant horror film of the 2010s. African American photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating his well-to-do white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a while now, and the time has finally come for him to meet the parents. Arriving at their upstate family home, Chris is met with a seemingly warm reception, although underlying racial tensions are exacerbated by the presence of the family’s black help. As his uneasiness continues to grow, Chris soon begins to understand the real reason for his visit.
A masterclass in creeping tension and perfectly realised scares, Get Out is a truly terrifying sign of the times. With both his fascinating follow up Us (2019) and forthcoming screenplay for the reimagining of Bernard Rose’s classic Candyman (1992), Peele is firmly establishing himself as the foremost filmmaker placing race at the centre of the horror genre.
Good Manners (2017)
Directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Quite possibly the greatest contemporary horror film you’ve never seen, Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s wickedly subversive, wildly imaginative adult fairy tale is one of the decade’s best kept secrets. Clara (Isabél Zuaa) is a care worker living on the outskirts of São Paulo. Struggling to make ends meet, she accepts the position of live-in nanny to the as-yet unborn child of a wealthy single woman named Ana (Marjorie Estiano). The two women immediately develop a strong bond, but Ana’s increasingly strange behaviour hints at a deep, dark secret. Then, one night, the shocking truth emerges.
To give away any more of the plot would be to deny newcomers the many surprises this delicious one of a kind has to offer, but suffice to say it is quite the ride. Sadly never picked up for UK distribution (despite screening in competition at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival), this one is a little hard to get hold of, but do whatever you can to track down a copy. See it, love it, spread the word.
One Cut of the Dead (2017)
Director Shinichiro Ueda
Proving there’s life in the undead yet, Shinichiro Ueda’s anarchic long-take zom-com is not just the funniest horror movie of the decade but arguably the funniest movie of the decade full stop. When the crew of a low-budget zombie movie find their set infiltrated with real-life cadavers, the film’s megalomaniacal director insists on keeping the cameras rolling in an effort to complete his masterpiece. But all is not quite what it seems, and when we flash back to a month before filming, the real story behind this preposterous production suddenly begins to unfold.
A box office smash in Japan, eventually grossing over a thousand times its humble budget worldwide, this is a film so smart (and so astonishing in its technical accomplishments) you’ll want to watch it again as soon as it’s over. Pom!
Director Ari Aster
Perhaps the most talked-about horror hit to emerge from Sundance since The Blair Witch Project terrified unsuspecting festival-goers almost 20 years previously, Ari Aster’s astonishing meditation on grief more than lived up to the early hype. After the death of her estranged mother, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is left to make sense of her conflicting emotions. But even in death, the overbearing presence of the late-matriarch looms heavy over Annie, her husband and their two children. As the family adjust, a series of unexplained events begin to occur, and soon Annie begins to uncover some disturbing truths about her ancestry, and the sinister fates her children may well have inherited.
Aster continued to explore the devastating impacts of loss in his equally wonderful (albeit markedly different) second feature Midsommar (2019), and in doing so has firmly established himself as one of contemporary horror cinema’s most innovative and insightful filmmakers.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Director Robert Eggers
Alongside the likes of Mike Flanagan, Ari Aster and Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers is another director who made more than one truly great horror film this decade. While his extraordinary debut The Witch (2015) signalled the arrival of a remarkable new talent, with his second feature, the claustrophobic maritime shocker The Lighthouse, he somehow managed to outdo himself.
Set in the unforgiving terrain of the New England coast, it begins as a young man (Robert Pattinson) reluctantly arrives at a begrimed lighthouse where he will work for the next four weeks. He’s greeted with gruff hostility by the veteran seafarer (Willem Dafoe) with whom he is obliged to share these uncomfortably close quarters, and the pair quickly establish a volatile dynamic. But when the newcomer learns of the mysterious fate which befell his master’s former assistant, a creeping sense of fear and paranoia is awoken within him. A wholly unconventional horror experience, trading in pungent atmosphere rather than traditional scares, Eggers’ hypnotic chamber piece is a work of bracing singularity, both beautiful and brutal in equal measures.
- The Lighthouse played at the Cannes and London Film Festivals in 2019 and is in cinemas on 31 January 2020