The 19 Best Horror Films Of 2016

Director: Nicolas Pesce
Nicolas Pesce

It’s a blessing that The Eyes of My Mother is in black and white, because rendered in full color, its garish display of violence would be nearly impossible to endure. But as it stands, it’s all kind of beautiful in a stomach-turning sort of way. When her mother (Diana Agostini) is murdered, young Francisca’s (played by Olivia Bond as a child) precocious fixation on dissection and surgery turns into a dark obsession. By the time she reaches adulthood, Francisca (played by Kika Magalhaes as an adult) has let her urges fester and blossom into full-blown psychotic behavior. There is a method to Francisca’s madness, but The Eyes of My Mother isn’t all that interested in arriving at a satisfying conclusion. It’s more of an exploration of themes, an art house indie with plenty of eyeball removal. And frankly, it’s the allure of its stylistic gore that makes it worth wading through.

Director: Jim Hansen
Writers: Jim Hansen and Jeffery Self

In most cases, “you’re killing me” is just a euphemism for “you’re fucking hilarious.” That’s what makes the title of this horror-comedy so apt: It’s a slasher where the victims are so ironically detached that they can’t seem to realize an actual serial killer is picking them off one by one. The audience knows that Joe (Matthew McKelligon) is being completely serious when he confesses to murder after murder long before his new boyfriend George (Jeffery Self) even notices anything is wrong, which makes for good comedy, of course. But You’re Killing Me is also a darkly satirical skewering of self-involvement and insincerity, two qualities shared by every one of its characters except for the psychopath.

Director: Mickey Keating
Writer: Mickey Keating

Carnage Park begins as a fairly straightforward crime thriller: Vivian (Ashley Bell) finds herself taken hostage by two thieves on the run. Following some surprise intervention by a sniper — later revealed to be the gleefully homicidal Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy) — Vivian realizes she’s in a much more dire predicament, and the film slides into blood-splattered horror territory. Up-and-coming auteur Mickey Keating (who made last year’s list with Pod) is adept at genre-shifting, and his affection for pulling the rug out from under his audience keeps his films feeling fresh. On paper, Carnage Park — ultimately a cat-and-mouse game between a killer and his would-be victim — might sound familiar, but everything about the way it plays out is bold and distinctive. Keating, like his characters, remains hard to pin down.

Director: Ali Abbasi
Writers: Ali Abbasi and Maren Louise Käehne

Pregnancy is a subject horror returns to frequently, and with good reason — there’s something inherently terrifying about having another human being growing inside you. Shelley, from first-time Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, hits some familiar tropes in its exploration of the paranoid anxiety of pregnancy. Childless couple Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) seem to have the best intentions when they ask their Romanian housekeeper Elena (Cosmina Stratan) to be their surrogate in exchange for the money she needs to return home, but there’s an ominous undercurrent to the exchange. That only builds after Elena conceives and begins to display the body horror symptoms of a parasitic infection. Shelley offers few concrete answers when it comes to the root of the apparent possession, but its nasty conclusion is well-earned.

Director: Fede Alvarez
Writers: Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues

Part of what makes Don’t Breathe such a successful modern mainstream horror film — of which there are few — is the way it subverts some of the more popular tropes. Unlike in standard home invasion thrillers (think The Strangers or The Purge), the protagonists are the ones who do the home invading. When Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) break into the home of a blind man (Stephen Lang), they expect an easy heist. Instead, they discover that the man is not only far from helpless, but also completely deranged. He is another clever twist on the link between disability and victimhood — Hush, which also came out this year, does similar work with a deaf Final Girl. But the real measure of Don’t Breathe’s effectiveness is how unbearably tense it is. Fede Alvarez is a modern-day master of suspense.

Director: Na Hong-jin
Writer: Na Hong-jin

The Wailing is a strange, sprawling two-and-a-half-hour epic about a police officer, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), investigating a series of odd illnesses and deaths while trying to save his daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), from suffering a similar fate. The plot isn’t hard to follow — there’s a suspicious old man, a mysterious young woman, a shaman with questionable motives — but it borders on exhausting. That could easily be a mark against The Wailing, but this is the kind of film that works best when you give yourself over to it entirely. It’s that omnipresent chaos and uncertainty that ultimately makes The Wailing such a memorable horror film. Every step (or misstep) Jong-goo makes leads him further down the rabbit hole, and we’re along for the ride.

Directors: Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, and Patrick Horvath
Writers: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Roxanne Benjamin, Susan Burke, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Dallas Hallam

It feels a little unfair to call Southbound an anthology film. Yes, it’s essentially a series of short films with a wraparound story, each with its own set of writers and directors, but these tales are far more intertwined than that genre designation would suggest. (Contrast it, for example, with the V/H/S series, where the only link between the short films is that they’re found footage.) Southbound’s shared universe — each story begins as another ends — is what elevates it past the individual chapters, which are creepy but somewhat open-ended. Taken as a whole, the film builds on a powerful sense of dread, which is underlined by a final sequence that makes Southbound’s narrative conceit clear. These characters are doomed, bound in an endless cycle of guilt and violent retribution, and that sense of futility and uneasy déjà vu is scarier than any of its separate stories.

Director: Sophia Takal
Writer: Lawrence Michael Levine

Those who fell in love with Mackenzie Davis’s nerdy charm in the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror will be taken aback by her thrillingly unhinged performance in Always Shine. Her transformation from meek and put-upon to dominant and sexually aggressive is central to this psychological thriller about fractured identity. It all plays out in the not-so-friendly competition between two aspiring actors, Davis’s Anna and her more successful best friend, Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald). Always Shine shares some fairly obvious DNA with Single White Female and Mulholland Drive, but it stands on its own thanks to Sophia Takal’s confident direction and the strength of its two leads, whose rivalry seamlessly transitions from merely uncomfortable to life-and-death. Their showdown is one of the scariest moments committed to film this year.

Director: Perry Blackshear
Writer: Perry Blackshear

The question at the center of They Look Like People is simple: Is Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) losing his mind, or is everyone around him really turning into an evil creature bent on humanity’s destruction? But the answer isn’t really evasive, and beyond it lurks a more pressing question: Can Wyatt’s old friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel) save him from himself? It’s fascinating to watch this film shift from the standard paranoid horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers — everyone is a pod person! — to the more grounded, relatable horror of a troubled man losing touch with reality. The climax, in which Wyatt wrestles with his demons while Christian’s life hangs in the balance, is nearly unbearable. Without giving too much away, the monster in his own head proves way more frightening than any outside threats.

Director: Carles Torrens
Writer: Jeremy Slater

It’s hard to talk about Pet without talking about the major twist that completely undermines everything that came before it. It’s a brilliant conceit that transforms the movie you thought you were watching into something else entirely. Dominic Monaghan stars as Seth, a troubled loner who appears dangerously obsessed with a beautiful stranger named Holly (Ksenia Solo). Once he locks her up in a cage, you think you know how things are going to play out, which makes the gut-punch of what’s really going on hit you that much harder. Even before that, the dynamic between Monaghan and Solo makes for compelling viewing. Pet might be a tough sell to anyone who is tired of horror films about creepy men exerting control over innocent women. But if you stick with it, you’ll find a far more complex and rewarding narrative.

Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Writer: Park Joo-suk

Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is an absentee father whose plans to take his daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), to visit her mother are derailed when their titular train is overrun by zombies. No, we don’t really need another zombie movie, but if more within the genre were as deft as Train to Busan, there’d be no cause for complaints. The film does so much of what The Walking Dead wishes it could, balancing subtle character drama with bloody, zombie-heavy set pieces that propel the action along. It’s daring when it needs to be and somber when the moment calls for it; never does Train to Busan forget that at its center is the story of a father struggling to connect with his daughter (and, you know, protect her from hordes of the undead).

Director: Babak Anvari
Writer: Babak Anvari

Much like in The Babadook, the fractured relationship between a mother and a child is closely aligned with a demonic presence in Under the Shadow. In the war-torn Tehran of the ’80s, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is coming to terms with her thwarted medical ambitions while trying to understand the strange behavior of her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Under the Shadow offers a pointed look at the role of women in post-revolutionary Iran, and Shideh is an engaging, fully realized character at the heart of the story. It is also, again like The Babadook, thoroughly terrifying. The entity antagonizing the family here — which is identified as a Djinn, fitting with the setting — offers plenty of scares throughout. That’s extra impressive given that Shideh and Dorsa are also seeking shelter from falling bombs, a more realistic and understandable fear.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle

Yes, there is some sort of thematic link between this film and the 2008 movie Cloverfield. But even if 10 Cloverfield Lane is a spiritual sequel (whatever that means), it’s more of a restrained, claustrophobic horror film than the city-destroying chaos of the earlier movie. After getting in a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up and discovers that she’s being kept prisoner alongside Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Their captor, Howard (John Goodman), claims he’s just trying to protect them from the toxic air outside, the result of a chemical attack. But the longer Michelle is forced to stay put, the more she doubts Howard’s story. Goodman is the standout here, creating an imposing but still ambiguous villain.

Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino

The Monster has some surface-level similarities to The Babadook (and Under the Shadow, also on this list) in that it’s also about a mother and child fighting back against an evil outside force while trying to work through their own fraught relationship. But what distinguishes The Monster, among other things, is that calling the relationship between Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), “fraught” is a tremendous understatement. Kathy is a troubled addict who has little interest in her kid; in a flashback, she strikes Lizzy for apparently hiding her drugs. That makes for an even more interesting albeit painful dynamic when the two join forces against the beast that attacks their car late at night. Kathy’s desire to protect her daughter does not excuse her past misdeeds, but it does make for compelling viewing.

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier

Not everyone considers Green Room to be a horror film, but Jeremy Saulnier’s endlessly entertaining thriller feels tense, confined, and blood-splattered enough to qualify for inclusion here. Punk band the Ain’t Rights — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) — are in the wrong place at the wrong time when they witness the aftermath of a murder at a neo-Nazi club they’ve been inadvertently booked at. Trapped in the green room of the title, the band members have to figure out how to escape without getting hacked to death by a machete or shot in the head. It probably goes without saying that their exit route is not without bumps. What makes Green Room impressive is how it keeps its cool and sense of humor alongside some shocking bursts of violence. At times, it walks the line of horror-comedy.

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski

If the premise “Blake Lively versus a shark” doesn’t get you excited, The Shallows may not be the movie for you. Yes, there’s some backstory, and a few other characters who appear briefly for the sole purpose of becoming shark chum, but the majority of The Shallows is Lively’s Nancy, stranded on a rock in the middle of the water following a shark attack, trying to figure out how to stop herself from bleeding to death and return safely to shore. It feels silly to call The Shallows restrained — and if you’ve witnessed the over-the-top showdown in its conclusion, you understand why. But it is sharply focused, and that’s what makes it such a pleasure from start to finish: It’s Nancy, her shark adversary, and the occasional appearance of a bird named Steven Seagull. Not to mention a whole lot of will-she-make-it stress.

Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers

The mystery of The Witch could easily have been Is the witch real, or is she just the product of puritanical fears and anxiety about the unknown? But the film shows its hand early on by revealing that it’s the former: The first thing the witch (Bathsheba Garnett) does is murder a baby, so it’s clear the threat is very real. But for the family at the center of The Witch, the danger seems to be coming from inside. Oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is soon questioned for her apparent link to dark forces. It’s rare for a horror film to explore this time period, and to blend the larger thematic fears of the time with a more literal manifestation. Taylor-Joy gives an excellent performance as a young woman unfairly targeted by superstition, while also reckoning with the destructive power of a real supernatural force.

Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer: Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

Los Angeles will latch on to any new fad, whether that means a new form of yoga, some kind of smoothie infusion, or the latest death cult. At least, that’s the impression Will (Logan Marshall-Green) gets when he attends a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). Whether Will’s fears are rational or completely off the wall, there’s something undeniably off about the gathering from the get-go. Karyn Kusama does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension, creating the impression that very bad things are happening even when all the audience sees is a group of people sitting around a table and chatting. When The Invitation does take a turn, thoroughly embracing its horror identity, it’s the natural progression of an hour of escalation. The frenzied climax ends up feeling like a necessary release.

Director: Trey Edward Shults
Writer: Trey Edward Shults

Yes, really. Krisha is a family drama, but it’s also a stunning psychological horror film. On paper, it might not look that way. The eponymous Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a sixtysomething drug addict who tentatively tries to reconnect with her family at Thanksgiving — and then relapses. Hard. It’s the kind of subject matter that could, in theory, end up on Lifetime. Instead, Trey Edward Shults opted to shoot and edit his film like a monster movie. Even the score is pure horror. There isn’t an actual monster here, although you could make a case for either Krisha or her crippling addiction, both of which lurk in the shadows (Krisha quite literally) until they burst forth and terrorize everyone in their wake. There were scarier movies than Krisha this year, but when it comes to horror in its most basic terms, Krisha can’t be beat.

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