Happy New Year! We’ve reached the end of 2019. Things started off quickly with a surprisingly good January effort. Along the way, a few anticipated movies faltered. Two Stephen King adaptations – Pet Sematary and In The Tall Grass – disappointed. Remakes of Child’s Play and Black Christmas were good, but proved to be divisive. But several indie movies impressed, including The Head Hunter and Daniel Isn’t Real. And some good old-fashioned B-monster movies (e.g., Crawl) had fun in theatres. But only 10 horror movies can make the final cut. So here are the 10 Best Horror Movies of 2019.
10 – I Trapped the Devil
A seemingly unstable man claims he has locked the ‘Devil’ in his basement. First-time writer and director Josh Lobo takes this simple premise and crafts an atmospheric, low-budget horror movie. From its opening frame, I Trapped the Devil is a tense affair, capturing the isolated feel of its winter setting. Eschewing jump scares and light on gore, Lobo builds his suspense from his ‘is he or isn’t he’ concept. Other critics have pointed out that I Trapped the Devil feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode. And to some extent, I Trapped the Devil drags a little in the middle. Nevertheless, Lobo never loses a grasp on the movie’s nihilistic tone and delivers an appropriately ambiguous ending.
9 – Braid
There was a lot of good indie horror in 2019. Among some of this year’s trends, directors seemed to favour the psychedelic visual palette of Giallo movies. Like Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy or Gaspar Noe’s Climax, Mitzi Peirone’s psycho-thriller Braid was a visually stylish directorial debut. Yet it was also a remarkably restrained effort, more cerebral than visceral. But it’s still punctuated with some shocking violence. Up-and-coming genre ‘Scream Queen’ Madeline Brewer (Cam) delivered another fantastic performance. Most importantly, Braid featured smart, suspenseful story-telling. Petrione shows, rather than tells. Its ambiguous ending instantly elevates Braid above the majority of indie horror.
8 – Escape Room
Big, dumb, and, most importantly, fun. And there’s nothing wrong with a good popcorn horror motive. Yes, Escape Room was a January horror release. And we all know January is traditionally a cinematic dumping ground. In addition, Escape Room is clearly escapist entertainment. But guess what? It all works. Director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) keeps the improbable action moving briskly. Like the early Saw movies, there’s a fun inventiveness to the movie’s death traps. Throw in some genuine white-knuckle suspense, a strong cast, and a final nod to a sequel, and Escape Room broke the January glass ceiling. Consider me signed up for any follow-up.
7 – Bliss
Another emergent horror trend over the last year or so has been a fascination ‘dying for your art’. Velvet Buzzsaw. Suspiria. The Devil’s Candy. And our Number 7 movie of 2019, Joe Begos’ Bliss. Less a coherent story, more a nightmarish visual descent into madness, Bliss may be 2019’s most interesting horror movie. Like his painter character, Begos throws a lot of different things into this movie. At times, Bliss is a cautionary tale of the dangers of drugs, striking a similar tone to Requiem for a Dream. Throw in a little vampire allegory for the ‘starving artist’ with hypnotic bloodlust. What you get in the end is a dizzying, hypnotic, and gory descent into a nightmare, making Bliss one of 2019’s bolder movies.
6 – The Perfection
To be brutally honest, Netflix didn’t deliver much good horror in 2019. There was the wonderfully eclectic Velvet Buzzsaw, but most of their releases – In The Tall Grass and Rattlesnake, for instance – were disappointments. But Netflix’s mid-year release, and our Number 6 movie, The Perfection, exceeded all expectations. If you’ve watched enough horror movies, there’s not a lot surprises. But The Perfection is the rare movie that keeps its audience guessing. It starts in one place, leaving you fairly confident in where it will end. Yet no sooner than you than you think you have a handle on things, The Perfection abruptly changes course. With some uncomfortably grotesque body horror and winning performances across the board, The Perfection was a pleasant surprise from Netflix.
5 – The Hole in the Ground
Irish horror movie, The Hole in the Ground, could easily have been just another ‘creepy kids’ thriller. Fortunately, The Hole in the Ground is atmospheric and visually haunting enough to distinguish itself from similar movies. Director Lee Cronin keeps the story-telling tight and spreads out several effective scares. But where The Hole in the Ground truly rises above more derivative efforts is with its open ending. Things finish on a note that make you question everything you think you’ve just watched. So yes, more questions are raised, than answered. As a result, you’re left with an unsettled feeling once the credits have finished rolling.
4 – Midsommar
If Blumhouse Productions has dominated mainstream horror, A24 has emerged as the number one studio for ‘elevated horror’. Our Number 4 movie of 2019 is another A24 movie and Hereditary director Ari Aster’s second directorial feature. If Hereditary dealt with family breakdown, Midsommar is all about relationship break-up’s. An idiosyncratic folk horror movie, Midsommar eschews traditional horror techniques. Specifically, Aster avoids jump scares and quick editing to elicit shocks. In fact, Midsommar’s approach to its often horrific imagery is almost benign. When one character smashes a face with a mallet, Aster doesn’t include the familiar production cues (e.g., music, editing) to remind the audiences it isn’t real. Given its runtime, Midsommar doesn’t always sustain its atmospheric dread. And, at times, it feels a little too pondering. Nonetheless, Aster’s sophomore effort is beautifully filmed, haunting, and delivers an ending as unnerving as The Wicker Man.
3 – Doctor Sleep
Though It Chapter 2 disappointed, we still get a Stephen King adaptation on our Top 10 Horror Movies of 2019. Tasked with following up one the greatest horror movies made, director Mike Flanagan admirably balances fan service with his own style and take on the ‘Master of Horror’. As a result, Doctor Sleep plays out like a necessary continuation rather than a rehash. While it doesn’t match the atmospheric dread of The Shining, Doctor Sleep still disturbs and scares. Both Ewan McGregor and young Kyliegh Curran are excellent. As Rose the Hat, Rebecca Ferguson is a chilling villain. Moreover, Flanagan tinkers with the book’s ending to allow for a nice coda to The Torrance Family story.
2 – Ready or Not
‘Fucking rich people’. If you were worried Ready or Not would turn out like a ‘Truth or Dare’ version of ‘hide and seek’, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett put those concerns to rest quickly. Stylish, darkly funny, and wildly bloody, Ready or Not was one of 2019’s better horror movies. Family curse or misguided belief? Ready or Not surprises to the end. As this generation’s ‘Scream Queen’, Samara Weaving (Bad Girl, The Babysitter) continues to impress. As an interesting side note, Ready or Not marked yet another year where late August wasn’t just a dumping ground for studio leftovers.
1 – Us
No sophomore jinx here. Jordan Peele’s Us was my top choice at the halfway point of 2019 and it’s still clearly the best of the year to date. With his second directorial feature, Peele has given the horror genre something completely unique. Trust me, the trailers probably only contain about a small window of what’s in the movie. As a result, you’re taken on an original horror ride that unexpectedly twists on more than one occasion. To his credit, Peele shows a remarkable balance between mainstream horror film-making and art-house ambitions. Us is atmospheric, funny, and ‘jump’ scary. Yet it’s also thematically rich, challenging you with its ambiguous subtext.