The year 2014, more so than any other in recent memory, had an indie film scene filled with dramas and thrillers that objectively felt like horrors. The Jake Gyllenhaal double feature of Enemy and Nightcrawler had me nervous and disturbingly befuddled, Jim Mickle’s Cold in July rendered the edge of my seat moot, and the Israeli revenge thriller Big Bad Wolves was expertly crafted tension. Not to mention the opaque strangeness of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.
But even with this bolstered genre-crossing going on, there were still more than enough genuine horror flicks out there to keep fans interested. Even if, in the case of Ouija, most people’s interest was in hanging it out to dry. So without any more witching and bitching – the title of another decent flick from this year – here are the ten horror films that affected me the most in 2014, starting with Evil Daniel Radcliffe.
10. HornsIt’s hard to imagine there being a more uneven movie this year than Alexandre Aja’s Horns. In adapting Joe Horn’s excellent novel, Aja was forced to snip away at the story and rework it to fit feature length, and in doing so turned the story from a highly personal experience into a murder mystery. But when it was good, it was fantastic, and this will likely be the only time audiences get to witness Daniel Radcliffe taking advantage of people’s innermost selfishness - a power that comes with the exceedingly massive horns growing out of his face. Though not a great movie, Horns delivers a story about sins that rarely gets this extreme, and Radcliffe once again proves his skills at being the best part of whatever movie he’s in.
9. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. DeadAlthough it featured one of my favorite onscreen deaths of all time, Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow was just a better than average zombie comedy. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, on the other hand, is something else entirely, with a gore-to-laughs ratio as high as anything else in 2014. Sole human survivor Martin (Vegar Hoel) unwittingly gets a zombie’s arm grafted onto his body, which gives him just enough corpse power to take on zombie survivor Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) and his undead Nazi army… with the help of some American fanatics, of course, as Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer and Ingrid Haas show up for hit-or-miss comic relief. (I’ll watch Starr in anything, especially when he’s in torso-destroying mode like this.) The story isn’t revolutionary, but Wirkola’s perpetual one-upping of the action scenes in this sequel more than makes up for it.
8. ABCs of Death 2I began this year unconsciously assuming all of my Top 10 lists this year would be free from anthologies. But to my surprise, the 26-headed beast that is ABCs of Death 2 wasn’t just a million times better than its predecessor, but a solid flick from start to finish - with the rarest of exceptions. A movie that features a mother being attacked by a giant penis (can’t wait to see what Sôichi Umezawa does next), this sequel is repeatedly engaging, swapping grossness with hilarity, with more than enough WTF-ness from directors like Todd Rohal, Bill Plympton, the Soska sisters, Chris Nash, E.L. Katz, Vincenzo Natali and many more. Not that everyone in the world will enjoy ABCs of Death 2 as much as I did, as that could fare badly for the future of mankind.
7. Oculus. Arguably the most polarizing of all the glossy horrors that got wide releases in 2014, Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to his creepster 2011 thriller Absentia was a movie that centered on a haunted mirror’s presence in a tortured family’s lives. And though it works the shit out of that premise, Oculus draws its horror by relying less on pointless jump scares and more on embracing its characters’ unreliable insanity. Any day of the week, I’m taking a ghost that makes people mental over one that slams around kitchen cabinets. By playing with timelines and family dynamics, Oculus gives its characters depth and lets Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff go crazy. And that apple/lightbulb gag? One of my favorites this year.
6. The SacramentIn giving this found-footage approach the cover of being a Vice documentary, Ti West gives The Sacrament the filmmaking polish it needed to become a truly effective look at religious cult mentality. A handful of solid films about cults have come out in the past few years, but none with the menace and ugliness seen here. The Sacrament is a film that enters a big picture story through the bottom corner, widening its focus on the hidden-away utopia Eden Parish and its influential leader Father, played with malicious gravitas by Gene Jones. The plot’s inherent inevitability is a slight drawback, but AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg are the perfect everyman actors to make it all feel unpredictable anyway, and West succeeds as much for the things he doesn’t reveal as for what he does.
5. HoneymoonAnother film that successfully draws out the psychological horror more than the tired stereotypes, Leigh Janiak’s directorial debut Honeymoon is a tight, well-constructed slow burner that gets a lot accomplished without very many moving parts. Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie are physically intimate newlyweds who head out to a remote lake cabin for some quiet celebration time. Then something happens, and the rest of the film is a testament to how the right mind can make any kind of horror seem fresh, as the central relationship is as much a victim of the mysterious threat as any living thing. This may be the only time a movie has ever made French toast unnerving.
4. A Field in EnglandU.K. filmmaker Ben Wheatley will likely never make another film like A Field in England. Hell, no one will. Shot in a starkly gorgeous black and white, this experimental mind fuck (which got a late U.S. release) doesn’t tell a story so much as present a series of sensory incidents in the lives of war deserters in the 17th century who are being guided by an alchemist to find a buried treasure in a field… a field that has the ability to warp minds. Though it never leaves its black comedy behind for very long, A Field in England is quite often frightening based solely on Wheatley’s direction, as he uses quite a few simple tricks to keep audiences from getting too comfortable. The sequence where the impeccable Reece Shearsmith goes on a psychedelic trip is quite possibly the most disturbingly edited scene I’ve ever witnessed.
3. The GuestI mentioned not-quite-horrors in my opening paragraph, and Adam Wingard’s The Guest seems at the outset like it would be lumped in that bunch - but this is by and large a slasher movie centered on the guy doing the slashing. And it’s one played with sparkling-eyed charm of Dan Stevens. A war vet, he arrives at the home of a family whose son was killed in combat, with a goal of keeping them safe. Only there are people after him, and he’s just a tad more unhinged than anyone is ready for. With a synth-heavy soundtrack that oozes 1980s B-movies, The Guest is a hoot from start to finish, winking playfully at the audience as it sprays blood everywhere. Definitely Wingard’s most finessed feature yet.
2. Starry EyesEverybody’s got dreams of fame and fortune, with some of us willing to go the extra mile to try and acquire them. And as is learned in Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s dread-filled Starry Eyes, there are no guarantees. Alex Essoe delivers a breakout performance as Sarah, a struggling actress who finds herself within the conspiratorial world of Hollywood excess, locked into a terrifying deal where happiness is clearly only a state of mind. Starry Eyes does wear its themes on its sleeve – ambition and sex are powerful motivators and detractors! – but there’s just enough subtlety that the build-up to madness feels earned. It also makes me never want to be an actor, in the same way that Jaws made people stay away from the ocean; I know it’s not like that for everyone, but my luck is shitty enough that this would be my biopic.
1. The BabadookAnother extremely polarizing exercise in non-standard horror, Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut The Babadook is the one movie on this list that could still function properly if you took all of the horror out of it. The titular storybook-page villain is perfectly creepy – especially its rickety voice – but this movie’s excellence comes from the way in which the Babadook personifies (or monster-fies) the broken relationship between Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in the years after the patriarch of the family was killed. Davis is a revelation as a woman whose mental state is constantly in fractured flux, with Kent and editor Simon Njoo creating a startling trip through the horrors and pressures of family life. Non-parents might not be able to find any emotional grounding in either Amelia or Samuel, but those of us with children were probably more horrified to find out just how much sympathy the film inspired.
Honorable Mentions: Open Windows, Late Phases, the Johnny Depp-less parts of Tusk, Grand Piano, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears