- BlacKkKlansman (Dir. Spike Lee)
- Cold Hell (Dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky)
- You Might Be The Killer (Dir. Brett Simmons)
10. Satan’s Slaves
The term “creeping dread film” is going to come up again on this list. It’s one of my favorite types of horror movies. We’re talking about films such as Carnival of Souls, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Messiah of Evil, Sole Survivor, Kill List, and It Follows. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to define this genre before, but I’ll happily take a stab. A Creeping Dread Film should have at least two, if not all of the following three elements:
1) A slow, “creeping” pace. All the films I listed above are barely horror movies for their first half. Most function basically as serious dramas, with many involving weighty ruminations on grief and loss. It’s not usually until the third act when the deep sense of dread that pervades the film transitions into outright horror.
2) A malevolent conspiracy against the main protagonist(s). The feeling of paranoia runs deep in the Creeping Dread Film—and it’s justified! While not always supernatural, the external threat on the characters typically materializes as a local community or cult.
3) An inescapable fate. Carnival of Souls and Sole Survivor are great examples of this. In these types of films, the horror comes from the knowledge that your death is unavoidable and you can only outrun it for so long.
Satan’s Slaves is an Indonesian entry into the Creeping Dread Film genre, directed by Joko Anwar. Though the genre is relatively small by default, this film is top tier Creeping Dread. It’s actually pretty similar to this year’s Hereditary in terms of theme and plot, as both focus on families tackling the loss of a loved one. And if you thought Hereditary had some effective scares, buckle up for this one, buddy. I’m fairly jaded when it comes to watching horror films after all these years, but I found my heart in my throat several times during the course of Satan’s Slaves. . .in the middle of a sunny, Sunday afternoon.
9. The Clovehitch Killer
Outside of my number one on this list, The Clovehitch Killer was the biggest surprise for me this year. I’m generally not a fan of serial killer movies (slashers are a different story!). The common misperception of people who love horror films is that we’re dark and twisted people, but in my experience, we’re usually the most well-adjusted people out there. On the flip side, all these “normal” people who are into serial killer movies and shows, like The Fall, Dexter, etc. freak me out. The horror in those stories is real, and to be really into it is. . .weird to me.
Thus I digress. I really loved The Clovehitch Killer. Its slow pacing isn’t going to be for everyone, and I would really categorize this movie more as drama than horror. But the emotional journey here is deep and affecting, and it’s all because of Dylan McDermott's transformative performance.
8. Ghost Stories
Ghost Stories catches a lot of flak for its ending, and I’ll never understand why. You people be cray. This film is fantastic. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s strange, it’s an homage to the great Amicus anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror—and it’s very adult and meaningful in its conclusion. A perfect movie for the Halloween season.
Coralie Fargeat’s film pulls off a nifty trick: it delivers a powerful rape revenge movie that you can actually enjoy. Where most films in the genre sleazily dwell on the rape scenes, Fargeat omits it altogether, leaving most of the obligatory assault off screen. Because you don’t immediately feel like a piece of shit for watching it, the revenge part of the movie becomes a lot of fun. Gory, over-the-top, and beautifully shot, Revenge is a modern day exploitation classic.
Now that we’re well past the trend in the late 90’s where it seemed every independent film was ripping of Quentin Tarantino, the ones that do now are a bit easier to digest. The comparisons between Pulp Fiction and Ryan Prows’ micro budget crime movie are inevitable, as both are seedy adventures of criminal misanthropes told in unchronological chapters. But Lowlife is a weird, little artifact that definitely stands on its own. It’s equally funny and dark and has a completely different cinematic voice than that of Tarantino’s. Overall, Lowlife is a scrappy gem that needs more love.
Mandy needs no introduction. Panos Cosmatos’ druggy revenge feature was perhaps the buzziest thing in film circles all year. And deservedly so. If I could give an award for Best Cinematography, Mandy would win, hands down. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. And coupled with a batshit performance from Nicholas Cage, this movie is pure cinematic candy.
I can sympathize with some of the complaints that the first half is too slow, but I really think the deliberate pacing makes the film feel as a singular whole, affording us Cosmato’s pure, undistilled voice and vision, as well as an emotional anchor to steady us during all the violence. If you need fast paced fun, then go watch his dad’s film, First Blood Part II. No, seriously, go watch it. It’s great.
I’ve actually seen Annihilation more than any other film on this list, and I probably understand it less than all of them. That being said, I absolutely adore it. Its general obtuseness will split audiences and be what most people take away. However, that sentiment detracts from the fact that as a narrative film, Annihilation functions remarkably well. The pacing is fluid, and there’s a general sense of adventure, even amongst all the dread. It also contains the scariest scene of the entire year—something I won’t dare spoil here. Just like director Alex Garland’s other film, Ex Machina, Annihilation is something I see myself coming back to many more times to peel back the layers.
I’m quite positive—actually, I’m 100% certain because I know some of you—that Suspiria is a film that’s bouncing all over critics’ year-end lists, sometimes even bouncing on and off entirely. And yeah, Suspiria is just that kind of movie. A week after I saw it, it was my number one. Then it went out of the top five; now, it’s number three. My reasoning overall, despite its strange inability to be ranked alongside other films, is that it deserves a top middle spot, because it’s a fucking film. It’s pure cinema, as Shock Waves podcaster, Elric Kane would say. Suspiria could not exist in any other medium—hell, it seems distinct from all other works in its own medium. Bottom line, the experience of watching this in the theater gave me thrills only a film could deliver.
I loved, loved, loved Suspiria. I love its density, its beauty, its ugliness, its politics, its themes. I’m going to love going back to it and digesting more. It’s only in the last couple weeks, after dwelling on the film and reading about it that some of its flaws have become readily apparent—the big one being that it bites off way more than it can chew thematically, more than it can even properly wrap up in its gargantuan runtime. I don’t think any of the flaws are fatal (far from it, actually), and perhaps they’ll even endear themselves to me over the coming years. But from a technical standpoint, there was at least one other film (below) that was simply better.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is my second favorite film of all time, and I know for a lot of genre buffs, it’s just as cherished. I just hope that everyone is evaluating Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining as a separate, distinct entity from the original. I’ll also admit, I’m kinda bothered that some people are having trouble classifying the new Suspiria as a horror film. I don’t know what it is about the violent deaths, gore, witches, and bonkers, bloody ending that confuses people so much. I actually describe it as a Creeping Dread Film where you just know what the Creeping Dread is upfront.
And speaking of Creeping Dread Films, Hereditary may be the genre’s pinnacle achievement. On a pure technical level, it is the best movie of the year. This is, rather, a brain vs. heart sort of thing: my objective, analytical side knows this is the number one film, but there was just another I liked more, one that was more personal to me—the film that ultimately stole my heart.
However, Hereditary is a horror masterpiece that will live alongside The Shining, Halloween, and Candyman for all eternity. From its pacing, sound design, and elegant cinematography, it’s a beast of a horror film that’s fashioned solidly from the bottom-up to creep into that lizard part of your brain, the portion that triggers the fight or flight response. And yet, paradoxically, it’s not about what’s popping out at you, but what could be in the background or the dark, subconscious desires you can’t control. There are no safe spaces. Not in your home, your family, or your own mind.
I don’t generally give a shit about these things, but if Toni Collette isn’t nominated for an Oscar, then the Academy is even further lost than we all realized. She pulls off the whole is-she-crazy-or-isn’t-she thing so well as to make the question irrelevant. Her performance, alongside Ari Aster’s iron-clad, steadfast direction, makes Hereditary the must-see horror event of the decade.
There’s no need to go too in depth about Snowflake here, because you can just read my review of it. But I will say this: I don’t mean any disrespect to directors Adolfo Kolmerer and William James, but Snowflake is decidedly not the best film of the year. It is, though, really really great—and most importantly—it’s the film I’m most excited about this year. (And if I can’t put my favorite film at number one, what the hell is the point of these lists anyway?)
The sheer fact that Snowflake was made for $29,000 melts my mind grapes. It’s a big film with a lot of characters, crazy action, practical effects, and ambitious set pieces. To bring it to a much finer point—it’s just goddamned inspiring. I’m in pre-production for my first short film at the moment and I can tell you, with all the money, people, and time involved, it’s very easy to lose confidence in yourself and the project. Watching Snowflake the other night felt like someone injected me with 1,000 cc of confidence. The film reminded me that all you need is passion—the rest of the pieces will just fall into place wherever that may be.
In an ideal world, Snowflake would be a minor hit, given the accessibility of the digital streaming market. At the very least, it should be a real shot in the arm for independent cinema, especially of the genre variety. It’s proof that talent will shine through, regardless of budget. Seek this one out immediately.