Horror fans had plenty of reason to rejoice throughout the year of 2015, although most major Hollywood studios continued their recent trend in largely ignoring or misunderstanding the genre. Even while the year saw plenty of uninspired remakes (Poltergeist) and equally uninspired sequels (Insidious, Chapter 3), those with the willingness to seek out good horror had plenty to discover. To celebrate the year end, we’ve compiled a list of six of the year’s best horror films that you might have missed if you weren’t paying attention.
6. Tales of Halloween
By its very nature, an anthology film must have a different criteria from a standard feature-length story. That means the October-centric horror anthology film Tales of Halloween varies in quality from short to short, as different mostly-unknown directors take on the spookiest of all holidays using their own blend of horror and comedy. While the first half of the movie takes some time to finds its groove, suffering a few shorts like “Trick” and “Ding Dong” that don’t quite work as intended, it pays off by the film’s end. A slasher killer dukes it out with an alien invader in “Friday the 31st,” two kidnappers get more than they bargained for in “The Ransom of Rusty Rex,” and a jack-o-lantern runs amok in “Bad Seed.” In this final stretch, three shorts in a row find the perfect mix of zany creativity and genuine horror to live up to the atmosphere of the holiday for which Tales of Halloween is named.
5. Bone Tomahawk
Despite a cast of familiar faces from the past (Kurt Russell) and the present (Patrick Wilson), Bone Tomahawk could never have been a mainstream success. The film appeals too narrowly to the rare class of viewers who can enjoy a leisurely paced Western and a bone-splitting cannibalistic horror film rolled casually into one. Padding out most of its two-hour-plus runtime with the alternately funny and profound banter between four distinct men sent out to rescue a few locals from a barbaric tribe of native savages, director S. Craig Zahler really lays on the horror in the climactic final 20 minutes, which contain a death scene likely more disturbing and graphic than any other onscreen death in film this year — hell, maybe in any year. Despite the cinematic whiplash the transition may induce, Bone Tomahawk is one of the most surprising and unique film experiences this year.
4. Crimson Peak
Half-horror film and half-Victorian era novel, Crimson Peak must have been almost impossible to market accurately. While audiences went into the theater expecting a straightforward ghost story from director Guillermo del Toro’s latest, they instead got a “story with ghosts in it” that might seem disappointing in the theater but fascinating in retrospect. While mostly bereft of typical jump scares, Crimson Peak is heavy on mysterious family tragedies and especially on striking imagery. Visually, it may be the best film of the year, as del Toro packs every frame with as much exquisite detail and horrific imagery as possible to reflect the story’s content as well as the 19th century time period. Bolstered by strong, suitably gothic performances from Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, this is a film both literary and cinematic, beautiful and horrifying, and absolutely worth watching, even if it’s not precisely what the advertisements would lead you to expect.
Unfriended is built around a gimmick, but it’s a good gimmick — shot completely in one take, focused solely on a laptop screen as a teenage girl clicks through Skype windows and Facebook messages in real time, the film explores the potential horrors of the digital age with surprising clarity. Around the anniversary of a classmates’ suicide inspired by cyber-bullying, a group of routinely terrible teenagers log into Skype to talk about routine teenager concerns — an upcoming prom, annoying friends, procuring alcohol — before noticing an unidentified presence in their chat room, one that becomes increasingly malevolent and even all-knowing, threatening to kill anyone who refuses to play along with their demands. The characters make their fair share of dumb decisions, but it doesn’t matter much when the script and the direction both mine tension using little more than Facebook messages and a seemingly straightforward game of “Never Have I Ever” for 83 thrilling minutes.
2. The Nightmare
Most moviegoers imagine documentaries to be dry affairs filled with talking heads reciting historical facts. Eschewing typical fact-based reporting, Room 237 director Rodney Ascher again uses documentary to explore something completely subjective — sleep paralysis. Compiling interviews from several subjects who have long suffered from the inexplicable psychological phenomenon in which one wakes up in the night unable to move, often plagued by terrifying hallucinations, Ascher then recreates those hallucinations in order to put viewers into that same claustrophobic headspace. Without ever bothering to offer any real explanations for sleep paralysis, The Nightmare simply paints a portrait of a condition that will terrify both those who suffer from it and those totally unfamiliar with it.
1. It Follows
David Robert Mitchell began his directorial career with the subdued, dreamy vision of a suburban summer among high school students with The Myth of the American Sleepover before turning around and applying his talents to horror with the much-talked about It Follows. Playing out like an urban legend, untethered from a specific time period and featuring an unexplainable villainous force, the film concerns a sexually-transmitted curse that follows the cursed, ambling slowly but relentlessly like a supernatural Michael Myers, until it kills them or they transmit the curse to another sexual partner. Mitchell follows identifiable characters through an otherworldly, nightmarish scenario that spawns multiple sublimely terrifying set-pieces and new incarnations of its shape-shifting monster, but his greatest accomplishment as a director is in imbuing every frame with a paranoia that suggests the true terror of this curse — one that, like death, can never really be escaped.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jrindskopf