It’s been a great year for horror. How great? For the first time, you get a Top 10 list exclusively for horror films. Rejoice!
Let’s bitch it out…
Before we begin, a few caveats:
- Festival films are not included on this list. Films had to be released in wide or limited theatrical release or on VOD in 2017 to be eligible
- Obviously I didn’t see every horror film this year. There’s a list of omissions and concessions at the bottom.
- If you missed the “Worst Films of 2017” be sure to check it out here.
And now on with the list!
10. The Belko Experiment (McLean, 2016) / Pyewacket (MacDonald, 2017) – Tie
Two very different films tie for tenth place. The first, The Belko Experiment, is Battle Royale for the corporate sector, directed by Australia’s Greg McLean from a script by Guardians of the Galaxy and Slither‘s James Gunn. Here’s an excerpt from my review for Bloody Disgusting:
“The combination of Gunn and McLean is a marriage made in heaven for horror fans. Gunn’s script is clever, moves quickly and, most importantly, is funny enough to balance out the morally depraved behaviour of the characters. McLean, the director best known for the sweeping Australian landscapes of Wolf Creek and Rogue, proves surprisingly adept at reinforcing the claustrophobic enclosures of the Belko building.
“One of The Belko Experiment’s greatest assets is its cast, which is populated with genre vets and character actors. Although nearly all of the roles are tropes (hero and heroine, plus the new employee, the gay, the stoner, the psycho, etc) the film never feels reductive. Gunn’s script follows some familiar beats, but the humour keep things fresh and several of the deaths are legitimately surprising.”
Pyewacket is a completely different film: this small Canadian film about a girl who may or may not have summoned a demon to kill the mother she believes is ruining her life is a gem. From my Bloody Disgusting review:
“One of the smartest things that writer/director Adam MacDonald does is keep the audience guessing about what is – or isn’t – happening. Our allegiance is to Leah, who is in nearly every frame, so what she experiences, we experience. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that she’s an unreliable witness. Pyewacket plays on this uncertainty, focusing on mood and tension rather than trot out a monster that the budget can’t afford.
“MacDonald’s screenplay teases and delays, ramping up the psychological tension and employing a few deft narrative surprises that keep us guessing, especially with regard to the timing of Pyewacket’s arrival. Has Leah’s ritual actually worked? Has her mother already been killed and taken over by the Pyewacket? Or is Leah simply hallucinating an imaginary villain to symbolically represent all of her problems? It’s impressive how much mileage MacDonald wrangles out of these questions without resorting to repetition.”
9. My Friend Dahmer (Meyers, 2017)
It could be argued that My Friend Dahmer is less of a horror film than a drama biopic about a very disturbed public figure. That, however, does a disservice to both the horror genre and to the film, which finds horror in everyday life in a variety of ways. From my Toronto After Dark review back in October:
“Evoking inquisitive, melancholy examinations of tragedy like Elephant, Meyers’ film takes its cues from Backderf’s source material by following Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) through his final year at high school in 1978…Dahmer excels by going beyond a simple examination of Jeff Dahmer. Meyers’ script doesn’t excuse or condone Jeff’s behaviour, but it doesn’t shy away from the broader social circumstances that contributed to his isolation and despair.
“Audiences seeking concrete answers about why Dahmer eventually became a monster, however, should manage their expectations accordingly; Meyers (and by extension Backderf) isn’t interested in offering cut and dry answers. Real life is rarely black and white and My Friend Dahmer is better for acknowledging the murky, unsettling moments that add up to make us who we are. Even if who we become is the monster we were taught to fear.”
8. Alien: Covenant (Scott, 2017)
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for my money, Alien: Covenant is one of the most interesting films of the year. It’s not perfect – not by a long shot – but it is a fascinating entry in the evolution of the Alien franchise. With Covenant, director Ridley Scott confirms that his fascination lies not with the series’ signature visual identifier – the xenomorph – but with its android character(s). And you know what? I’m fine with that.
Less pretentious than Prometheus, with (slightly) fewer gaping plot holes and annoying caricatures, Covenant is ultimately a story about creators and their creations. It’s evident from the very first scene when Weyland (Guy Pearce) “teaches” his android David (Michael Fassbender) a lesson about control and authority. David is one of 2017’s most fascinating characters; not only is he intellectually complex and ethically murky, his dispassionate regard for human life is the film’s scariest element. The xenomorph may be responsible for the jump scares, but watching David threatens Daniels (Katherine Waterson) is simultaneously fascinating and frightening.
Plus: the scene where David teaches his successor Walter how to play the flute is easily one of the year’s most bizarrely (homo)sexual interactions and I am here for it.
7. Happy Death Day (Landon, 2017)
Maybe it was just me, but I feel like no one expected Happy Death Day to actually be good. The trailer looked fun, but slight – like those uninspired Scream knockoffs in the late 90s.
In reality the film is a clever riff on the slasher subgenre, paying faithful homage to the good elements while updating the technology and the narrative conceit for modern audiences. As a protagonist, Tree (Jessica Rothe) is an unlikable beeyotch, which <unapologetic confession> makes her early repetitive deaths mildly enjoyable. By the time Tree starts to get the hang of her Groundhog Day experience, however, we’re not only actively rooting for her, we’re rooting for Happy Death Day as 2017’s least guilty “guilty pleasure.”
Happy Death Drive is a great time at the movies and *fingers crossed* it will prompt a new cycle of slashers by confirming to Hollywood suits what horror fans have always known: there’s money to be made in this subgenre.
6. Mayhem (Lynch, 2017)
Joe Lynch’s horror film is a biting take -down of corporate America and its bureaucracy. From my original review at Fantastia Film Festival this summer:
“…the film satirizes not only the Orwellian double-speak and codified behaviours that make our day to day such a slog, but also the subconscious desire that most of us have to burn the establishment to the ground. Mayhem documents what would happen to the former if we were given the opportunity to act on the latter and the results are cartoonishly gory, profane and extremely enjoyable.”
Bonus points: our protagonists are an Asian man (the wonderful Steven Yuen, finally released from the hell of The Walking Dead) and a woman (Ash vs Evil Dead‘s Samara Weaving) taking on a bunch of old white heterosexual dudes. Mayhem may just be the most cathartic horror film of 2017!
5. Tragedy Girls (MacIntyre, 2017)
If you’re looking for a great, fun movie, Tragedy Girls is the film for you. The idea of a pair of wannabe killer teen girls embarking on a killing spree driven by their desire to become (social media) famous should be a) gauche, b) stupid or c) frivolous. The result, however, is one of 2017’s best horror films.
From my Fantasia Film Festival review back in July:
Tragedy Girls…“is so much damn fun. [Alexandra] Shipp and [Brianna] Hildebrand (already stars on the rise thanks to their roles in the X-Men and Deadpool franchises) exude star quality, commanding attention whenever they are on screen. The dialogue perfectly captures the way teens speak, and both actresses sell the whip-smart slang with conviction and attitude. The film gets a lot of comedic mileage – because this is undoubtedly a horror comedy, albeit a black one – from their facial reactions and their diminutive status, playing on the perception that girls couldn’t possibly be involved in such heinous acts. Of course anyone who has seen Heathers knows better.
“The film’s other strength is MacIntyre and co-screenwriter Chris Lee Hill’s clear reverence for horror films. This is a film that will work for mainstream audiences, but there are references galore to horror classics, both in the dialogue and the plot. ”
4. Better Watch Out (Peckover, 2017)
Seasonal horror is a tough nut to crack. With Better Watch Out, Chris Peckover has created an instant holiday classic that is fun, fresh and playful.
It’s also a film that demands to be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible. All you need to know is that a young babysitter and her charges come under attack from masked men one snowy holiday night. Here’s a taste of my non-spoilery snapshot review from Fantasia:
“Understanding these characters is integral to the film’s success because we need to know what drives them when the shit hits the fan. And boy does it ever: Better Watch Out goes to completely unexpected (and at times extremely gruesome) places. The nasty shocks are off-set by treading the always tricky horror/comedy line with wit aplomb, thanks to a cocky, confident script by Zack Kahn and director Chris Peckover. To say anything else is to give away the film’s surprises, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Home Alone references, including the infamous paint can over the banister scene, which absolutely slayed the Fantasia crowd.”
3. Hounds of Love (Young, 2016)
Throughout the first half of 2017, I kept hearing about a nasty little horror film. An uncomfortable, hard to watch, twisted film based on real events that occurred in Australia.
This was my introduction to Hounds Of Love, a horror film that lives up to all of its monikers in the best way possible. Because it is nasty, uncomfortable, hard to watch and twisted…for all the right reasons. This should come as no surprise since everyone knows that Australian horror doesn’t f*ck around (see also: Wolf Creek, Killing Ground and The Loved Ones).
Writer/director Ben Young’s film is set in the late 80s and features a couple (of sociopaths) on the prowl. Using their marriage as a cover to disarm and lure young women into their car, John (Stpehen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth) rape and torture girls in their suburban home before disposing of the corpses in the woods. This is the fate that awaits Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) when she accepts a ride. Outside of a grim cold open, the majority of Hounds of Love is dedicated to her physical and mental struggle to survive.
That struggle is primarily psychological: after realizing that begging and pleading didn’t help previous victims, Vicki changes tactics, focusing on the White’s intimacy and jealousy issues in order to turn them against each other. This battle of wills is fascinating, but Hounds of Love isn’t a parlour film about a young girl playing chess with her adversaries; the stakes are real because the Whites are atrocious people who do horrible things to their victims, none of which is sentimentalized or watered down by Young.
I won’t lie: this film will be too much for some people. It is a hard watch. For horror fans who appreciate their gruesome kills and ultra violence with a healthy dose of character development and tense direction, however, Hounds of Love is a bloody masterpiece.
2. Get Out (Peele, 2017)
Get Out was always on my list of best films of the year. Ever since I saw the film early in the year, it was evident that Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut is significant – both for horror and for race politics. It’s emblematic of the genre’s power for addressing, criticizing and highlighting socio-cultural issues of the day in packaging that appeals to a broad audience.
Peele has a keen eye for composition and framing. His direction is confident and assured. Peele is clearly also adept at screenwriting: Get Out is meticulously plotted and pays off in repeat viewings. He knows how to create tension, and scares, and how to get fantastic performances out of his actors. He’s an artist completely in control of his craft…and this is his first feature film. It’s kind of mindblowing.
I would be remiss to overlook the talent of lead actor Daniel Kaluuya, whose performance anchors the film. As the white bitch you can’t wait to see put down, Allison Williams is startling and Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford are solid as the in-laws you can never quite relax around.
Get Out‘s power is undeniably tied to its timeliness. It’s impossible not to watch the film through the filter of 2017, a year that has seen unparalleled instances of racism, the return/rise of hate groups and a continued lack of prosecution for hate crimes, particularly those against persons of colour. Get Out‘s posits that these events are not new or unique; they never ceased to exist and are, in fact, systemic and embedded in history. The treatment of black and racialized bodies in society and in the media has always been problematic. Peele’s film simply exposes the lies we told ourselves about being progressive and accepting; he brings to the surface some very harsh truths as if to say “don’t think you can explain this away.”
So yes, one of the film’s greatest strengths is its relevancy. Get Out is also a massive critical and popular hit and a f*cking brilliant (horror) film. It truly is one for the ages.
1. Raw (Ducournau, 2016)
It’s a bit of a cheat to include Raw on my list since I technically saw this French body horror film at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, but it’s allowable since it wasn’t released theatrically until this year.
Raw is an exceptionally brilliant film that is about much more than cannibalism. It’s about peer pressure and sibling rivalry; about sexist practices and sexual awakenings; about coming of age and identity politics. It features a star-making turn, a whip-smart script and great direction. It works on multiple levels that demand to be unpacked and discussed. I have returned to this film countless times over the last year – more than any other horror film I saw – making it a no-brainer to top my Best Horror Film list for 2017. From my Bloody Disgusting review:
“Consuming meat sets Justine down a dark path. She develops a bizarre rash that she can’t stop scratching (the first example of the film’s love of squirm-inducing body horror-esque visuals). She develops a taste for flesh that she can’t seem to control and her hunger begins to dictate her actions, making her increasingly unstable and dangerous. Alexia seems to encourage this transformation (the sibling rivalry drama between the girls is palpable), especially after she witnesses Justine indulging her new hobby following a disastrous attempt at sisterly bonding over Brazilian waxing. The resulting scene, as Justine ponders and then consumes the spoils of the accident, had the…audience on the edges of our seats in disgust and appreciation. It is a show stopper.
“At the end of the day Raw is an extremely confident film that will satisfy both gore hounds and purveyors of smart horror. It is one of the most surprising films of the fest and should be particularly appealing to audiences who appreciate France’s brand of extreme horror. It is highly, highly recommended.”
Haven’t seen it: 47 Meters Down, Annabelle: Creation, It Comes At Night, Split
Liked, but didn’t love it: It