2017, like every other year, was a solid year for horror movies. Between the traditional horror films and transcendent indie projects, one could find a good number of deeply unsettling fares. The films mentioned below have offered us unique takes on the well-worn horror narrative. Here’s our selection of the year’s top horror movies:
15. The Transfiguration
There’s nothing new about employing vampirism as a sly metaphor for the bumpy transition to adolescence. Nevertheless, Michael O’ Shea’s low-key, social realist approach brings something fresh out of the subject. The narrative revolves around Milo, an African-American teenager and self-confessed lover of vampire fiction. He lives in the dilapidated projects with his elder brother Lewis. Bullied and neglected, Milo is seen as the weird, lonely kid. In school counseling sessions, he is questioned about his habit of injuring animals. And, worse still, Milo kills and drinks blood of the humans. But the teenager’s macabre routine is interrupted with the arrival of Sophie. She is a slightly older girl who moves into the building to live with her abusive grandfather.
The Transfiguration pays solid tribute to vampire movies, while also perfectly focusing on the existential angst of a teenager. It’s hardly a straightforward horror or romance, but it moves between two genres with fine emotional sensitivity. Eventually, it’s a sharp observation of social/emotional isolation with few unflinchingly violent moments.
Although ‘It’ delivers superior effects-laden genre thrills, Zack Hilditch’s 1922 perfectly converts the biting Stephen King prose to visuals. Thomas Jane fabulously plays Wilfred James, a rancher living with a disoriented wife Arlette and teenage son Henry. Arlette desires to get out of the bitter relationship and forge a new life in the city as a dressmaker. However, hot-headed Wilfred doesn’t have big ambitions apart from tending to his land. When Arlette determines to sell her 100 acres and moves to Omaha City, the ‘conniving’ man inside Wilfred wakes up. He decides to commit a gruesome crime and demands his son’s help by making a sly argument.
1922 is a pulpy feminist tale that riffs on King’s recurring themes of guilt, impugned masculinity, and insanity. The film like the novella unfurls as a first-person account and vividly visualizes the moral rot. Cows are sacrificed, rats feast on the dead and all such creey images carry a symbolic weight (also loaded with biblical references) to overtly showcase the corruption of minds and land. Perhaps, it stretches a bit in the latter half, but an unwavering menace lingers long after its ending.
13. Alien: Covenant
Alien movies have long lost the thrill and shock infused earlier by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. But with Scott’s return to helm the Alien prequel trilogy, there was quite a lot of hope. Prometheus (2012) that’s now followed by Alien: Covenant proves that despite being directed by capable hands, we can never re-experience the genuine terror of Alien (1979). However, the new Alien movie retains some of Scott’s visceral horror shock aspects which make it worth watching. The narrative begins with a group of disparate space adventurers chasing a ping, echoing from an unknown part of the universe. The crew lead by Billy Crudup and Katherine Waterston discover what happened to Noomi Rapace’s character. She is last seen with her devious humanoid David (Fassbender). The exploratory group lands up on a habitable planet and faces the worst thing possible.
The plot seems repetitious and dialogues are often clunky. But what keeps Covenant interesting is Scott’s energy and craft plus Fassbender’s icy performance. It concocts some good xenomorph scares. It’s a disappointment to those expecting that Covenant might forge new ground, but entertaining nonetheless.
Andy Muschietti’s much anticipated adaptation of seminal Stephen King novel neither delves deep nor is it very scary. However, relatively it’s a lot better than the 1990 mini-series. It chronicles the terrorizing presence of a demonic, otherworldly clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) in a small town Maine. The narrative revolves around seven pre-teen characters. Chief among them is Bill whose little brother Georgie has gone missing for over a year. The group of misfits vow to find out what happened to little Georgie. Their search and research makes them stumble upon the town’s long history of mysterious child disappearances. Director Muschietti’s imagery doesn’t quite crackle with tension like King’s spine-chilling prose. Nevertheless, he dutifully provides well-crafted jump scares and a cathartic, effect-heavy finale. The performances of the young heroes are quite engaging and Skarksgard brings menacing physicality to his evil clown role.
11. It Comes At Night
Trey Edwards Schults’ remarkable low-budget indie feature Krisha was a grueling psychodrama. It involves the return of an elderly alcoholic woman to her close-knit family. Shults’ impeccable imagery focuses on how she brings despair and chaos into the seemingly peaceful abode. The director’s second feature also deals with a family subjected to extreme emotions. But, It Comes At Night unfurls in a post-apocalypse scenario, where sickness and sudden death are indelible. However, Shults treats such quasi-horror territory without any greater pay-offs or unforeseeable twists.
The director never lets us see what unnerves the family of three – Mother Sarah, Father Paul, and their 17-year-old son Travis. The myriad of sinister possibilities is, however, ably hinted. The film opens with the death of Grandpa Bud. He is executed by Paul to relieve him from the inescapable pain of the plague. Later, another family unit (a young couple with their little son) arrives at Paul’s doorsteps to seek safety. But with the arrival of the new family, paranoia and fear of invisible threat gradually escalate. At its best, Shults’ vision works as a devastating examination of human nature. Those expecting genre thrills would be deeply disappointed.
10. A Dark Song
Liam Gavin’s slow-burning British horror exchanges gore, jump scares for subtly eerie psychological terror. The story is grounded in a palpable scenario: a woman, preoccupied with after life, wants to contact her dead child. The woman named Sophia (Catherine Walker) journeys to desolate yet beautiful North Wales. There she meets Joseph (Steve Oram), an alleged authority on paranormal secrets. She offers her entire savings, liquidized after selling all the assets, to establish contact with the netherworld. Joseph reluctantly accepts the offer. He maps out an elaborate ritual to enter into the realm of demons. Sophia follows different rituals for months to fully purify her soul, locking herself in a mansion.
A Dark Song perfectly exploits the protagonist’s anxieties to create taut psychological fears. Gavin’s offbeat approach and nuanced symbolism reflect the influence of Ben Wheatley’s oeuvre. Eventually, the film takes horror conventions to make a thoughtful study on human grief and on our relentless search for meaning in everything.
9. The Untamed
The talking point of Mexican film-maker Amat Escalante’s art-house erotic horror is the sleazy, tentacled alien creature. As in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), this otherworldly thing crystallizes the characters’ repressed desires and fears. The film pretty much has a grounded, social-realist setting. Ruth Ramos plays Alejandra, an estranged wife with an extremely macho husband Angel. Alejandra endures domestic hardships for her two little boys. Things turn worse, when her beloved younger brother ends up in coma after a brutal assault. This event slowly guides Ale to visit an isolated woodshed in the dense forest.
Director Escalante elegantly juggles between social-realist atmosphere and unsettling horror/fantasy set-up. The creature isn’t just designed to provide traditional scares, but used as a symbol to collectively represent the different social and cultural issues. Apart from few unambiguous, shock images, Escalante’s deft visual style keeps alive the narrative’s contemplative tone. All in all, The Untamed provides a profoundly unnerving horror movie experience.
8. Berlin Syndrome
Cate Shortland’s psychological horror-drama is an intriguing examination of women’s alleged vulnerability. Australian photographer Clare vacations in Berlin when she meets a charming local guy Andi. After a casual fling one night, Clare wakes up to find herself locked in his apartment. Andi, who works as an English teacher has no intention of letting her go. Gradually, the narrative delves into the complex relationship between the captive and captor.
Director Shortland’s confined and sparsely lit visual style perfectly delineates the protagonist’s physical and emotional imprisonment. While the director’s suspense set-pieces evoke great tension, Berlin Syndrome mostly works as unnerving dual character study. The narrative at times loses its momentum (especially towards the end) but the underlying tension never goes away. Teresa Palmer is compelling as Clare who stays enigmatic till the end. She realizes her full potential to lay bare the character’s ferocity, frailty, and sexual appetites. And, Riemelt plays the sociopath character without displaying any over-the-top villainy.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’