With 2017’s charred remains now in the rear-view, let’s take one final chance to reflect on the year’s best-of-the-best horror films (a single opinion, of course). It’s my favorite year-end tradition when it comes to recaps, because I get to look back on all the best genre content with fondness while hopefully turning readers onto films they might have somehow missed. These are the distinguished titles that left me stunned, psyched-out and wholly fulfilled as a horror lover. Filmmakers, you were too good to me this year – now let me try and return the favor.
Before we jump into the actual ranking, allow me take a minute to point out how many first-time directorial efforts deemed placement on this list. Out of my total thirteen main selections, six are feature debuts – two of which from female powerhouses. Maybe this was a fluke, or maybe this is what happens when talented filmmakers are left to their own ambitions and devices when telling the exact stories that beat though their hearts. You’ll see what I mean when each is revealed – I don’t want to spoil any surprises just yet.
So, without further ado, let’s get to what you’re here for – 2017’s best horror flicks. First by starting with a quick scroll through my 20-14 “honorable mentions” that still deserve to be highlighted (and this list could easily be doubled).
20) Better Watch Out: Chris Peckover’s Christmas-themed invasion thriller features a memorable “twist” and an unforgettably insane performance from Levi Miller.
19) Beyond Skyline: Liam O’Donnell’s Skyline sequel will make you immediately forget about Skyline because “Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais fighting aliens” has that effect on a franchise. (Oh look, a feature debut.)
18) We Are The Flesh: Emiliano Rocha Minter’s enthusiastic prance through a garden of sin, which can be described as Mexico’s mother! except We Are The Flesh came first and did it with far more madness at stake. (You guessed it, a feature debut.)
17) Raw: Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic coming-of-age fever dream that’s as beautiful as it is nauseating. (UH HUH, FEATURE DEBUT *aside from a TV movie she co-directed.*)
16) Cult Of Chucky: Don Mancini, I thank you for flipping the Child’s Play mythology on its head and genuinely evolving an iconic franchise instead of just cashing in another throwaway sequel like others have done.
15) The Belko Experiment: Greg McLean and James Gunn team up for a little worksploitation horror that blows up heads in a darkly comedic, battle royale fashion (which, yes, I found hilarious in a very cynical kind of way).
14) Killing Ground: Damien Power’s Australian camping nightmare plays with dual timeline narratives and a sadistic plot that’s relentless when it comes to punishing audiences with hard-to-swallow character abuse. (Another feature debut, as well.)
13) Creep 2
While some might consider Creep 2 a slower Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon, Patrick Brice’s second Creep is a much deeper, horrifically honest serial killer confessional. Mark Duplass is back again as “Peachfuzz,” who puts out an internet ad searching for a videographer. This catches the eye of Sara (Desiree Akhavan), who in-turn sees the opportunity as her last hope at scoring YouTube fame. She doesn’t believe her new employer could actually be a serial killer, but soon meets the man in the mask – and complications immediately arise.
Where Creep is more a cat-and-mouse game, Creep 2 strips any kind of facade away from Duplass’ fabricated slasher persona. Figuratively and literally. Duplass exposes every nook and cranny in his character’s being, from beaming a martyr’s smile to replaying old murder footage. Akhavan plays a coy subject, but Duplass conveys enough horror in singular performance alone.
Against all odds, Creep 2 is serial killer story that succeeds by *not* killing. How many times have I said that in my film reviewing career?
12) The Babysitter
McG? Directing one of my favorite horror comedies of the year? You bet your bloody dollar. Netflix’s The Babysitter is one of 2017’s most unexpected surprises, thanks in large part to a breakout year for actress Samara Weaving. First bashing skulls in Mayhem, then trying to pull off a streaming occult ritual. It’s the McG you’re used to – aggressive needle drops and all – but with Weaving front and center, it’s a no-lose situation.
There have been complaints against the female characterization of Weaving’s babysitter, but my argument – and praise – comes from a script that’s heavy-handed with its trope skewering. All that corniness is for a reason, the whole “hot blonde girl next door who’s also a nerd” fantasy. She’s playing a chameleon who preys on a certain mentality, and becomes the person she must to lure with a certain bait – which she does. Well. Robbie Amell and the rest of Weaving’s clan are all top-notch genre goons, but The Babysitter is Weaving’s baby – all for the better.
11) A Dark Song
Unlike the blaring satanic riffs of The Devil’s Candy, Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song sings a soft, intrusive occult lullaby. Tension is subtle yet dynamic, as a mother (played by Catherine Walker) and a lunatic dark arts obsessor (played by Steve Oram) join forces despite their own motivations. One a grieving soul, the other a ritualistic explorer. Lies are told and things spiral out of hand, but Gavin’s overseeing guidance ensures a most moody, dramatic horror experience (in a great way).
While A Dark Song may be one of the slower films on this list, it’s not to be undervalued. Oram and Walker hold secrets and berate each other in a way that makes you wonder if the deed at hand is actually working. Oram especially, whose mastery of curse-heavy outbursts could be either preset madness or influenced distractions. It’s all very calculated to a constant simmer through Gavin’s vision, which he handles with far more composure than any debut filmmaker should.
Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Rift is cerebral filmmaking with a geographical head high – Thoroddsen appearing to be Iceland’s answer to stateside mumblecore-on-crack filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. It’s not his first effort, but sophomore title Rift is such a tonal departure from boogeyman debut Child Eater that Thoroddsen feels like a different filmmaker. More evolved, and dangerously confident. How else would you find success in an open-ended LGBT thriller as heavy as it is contemplative?
Lead actors Björn Stefánsson and Sigurður Þór Óskarsson strike a tumultuous chemistry in this chilly rustic vacation-gone-wrong, diving into the “winner vs. loser” aspect of broken relationships. Landscapes become a character in themselves thanks to the film’s postcard-worthy cinematography, as the region’s mythology becomes more haunting by the night. Don’t expect to be spoon fed and maybe take that as a warning – but I love Thoroddsen’s decision to leave the mystery in our hands. My hope is you will, too.
I’ve stated over and over again that Ben Young’s Hounds Of Love is one of the most savage, dagger-sharp debut thrillers in the last decade. A serial killer story that pulls the curtain back in a way that makes you beg for the shield to be reset. Scene by scene, we question how two individuals could be so cruel – which Young always has an answer for. Never one we want to hear, but that’s how the film digs its dirt-stained claws deeper and deeper.
Hats off to actors Emma Booth and Stephen Curry, two Australian darlings who throw themselves into a pit of misery to play murderous lovers. Booth along for the ride because she’s blinded by Curry’s charming promises – an accomplice to murder in hopes of a happy life. This is one of the greatest exemplifications of manipulation and chemistry 2017 has to offer, no matter how dark and undignified their actions become. True crime whittled bone-white – you’ll need a shower after this one.
As an office worker by day myself, I find Joe Lynch’s Mayhem to be a much-needed spell of catharsis. It’s not only about rebelling against “The Man,” but also reassessing our priorities outside cubicle walls. Sure, you’re tuning in here for Lynch’s bloody-faced royal rumble during a workplace quarantine – but there’s more to it than rage and gore. Come for the worksploitatin goodness, stay for a much smarter watch than some are giving it credit for.
Performances here are key to success, as Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving lead by aggression. They run through the halls of this office labrynth, dispatching of coworkers while Lynch burns the world down around them. If you work the grind day by day, this is the type of genre satire you’re going to dig on too many levels – no moment better than that pre-smackdown Faith No More needle drop. Mayhem is begging to be watched with a large group and rowdy reactions, don’t deny yourself the opportunity.
7) The Lure
What happens when Eurovision, cannibalism and modern-day Brothers Grimm storytelling collide? The Lure. A flesh-hungry musical from Poland about mermaids who sing a siren’s song as pop superstars and eat humans. Costumes, stage props, vocal hypnosis – imagine a glitzy spectacle of disco balls and bloody body parts, then slap a Eurotrash glimmer atop it all. I cannot praise the stylish accomplishments of this uncompromising technical vision enough, from peculiarity to choreography to actual musicianship. And all from a first-time filmmaker in Agnieszka Smoczynska?
Not only do you have a debut creator proving her worth twenty times over, but The Lure is another necessary score for female-backed projects. The camera’s gaze cares less about objectifying two feminine performances, better suited to focus on their growth as young mermaids exploring the world. Song by song, the girls pursue individual arcs that eventually explode in a chaotic disaster of myth, genre mirth and neon-lit fantasizing. This year never saw a starburst of cinematic exuberance equal to The Lure – hence why we’re discussing it now.
I cannot properly explain how good it felt to be absolutely blindsided by Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times. I knew the plot, understood the implications, but still felt like an 18-wheeler ran and backed over my soul until only a pancaked disc remained. This is due to so many factors, but none better than a very real 90s childhood nostalgia – and this is coming from someone who grew up in that general era. All the death and criminal undertones aside, of course.
Charlie Tahan’s portrayal of a troubled future serial killer is next-level in terms of 2017’s genre roles. Backstory builds rich foundations for character assumptions far past the end of Super Dark Times, but this isn’t to ignore what we do in fact see. Every young actor here smashes together coming-of-age mentalities with an accidental murder, soundtrack choices are throwback perfection, interactions are fueled by immaturity – writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski nail the gravity of their character’s situation, and Phillips brings that very crushing reality to life.
Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls is millennial slasher satire done so incredibly right. An undeniable Detention meets Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon product that some might coin our generation’s Scream. It’s all Instagram hashtags and text bubbles, along with a heaping pile of butchered corpses hacked with to bits with practical absurdity. A story about cheerleader types who are also trend-worthy murderers? In the wrong hands, this generational time capsule could have been a chat-happy disaster – luckily, such is far from the case.
Of course, the spotlight here deserves to be on Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp. These are our titular “Tragedy Girls,” whose social media presence is all about local killings and their morbid obsessions. Conversations are always over the speed limit, actions fueled by Wi-Fi and sarcasm, but there’s no better on-screen chemistry between female leads this year. If there were horror-geared Oscars, Shipp and Hildebrand would be sharing the Best Actress honor without any competition – plenty to “Like” and “Share” all damn night.
4) Get Out
Man, 2017 was a HELLUVA year for directorial debuts. Jordan Peele, who many knew as the not “Key” portion of Key & Peele, came out swinging for the social injustice fences with Get Out. The Golden Globes are calling it a comedy, but this white-devil imprisonment flick is far more terrifying than light-hearted. Real issues shoved under a genre microscope and exposed to the world with such fiery regard. In this numerical year, there wasn’t a more thematically important horror film than Get Out.
That said, success is not achieved simply by timely release. Mr. Peele has an astute eye for his eerily Carpenter-esque satire, be it the creation of his “Sunken Place,” not overburdening humor or subtle recurring imagery like the deer – glimpses of a “rookie” going yard in his first crack at the plate. Match that with knockout performances from Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Catherine Keener – too many to name – and you’ve got yourself a boisterously devious, primitively manipulative watch that burns with institutionalized fear.
An outcry for help that’s able to entertain, warn and hold a mirror to the audience, Get Out is not your everyday picket-fence, suburban mindfreak – and that’s what makes it one of the most interesting, provocative films of 2017.
I should have been wailing on my cherry-red guitar last year in support of The Devil’s Candy – a festival film I reviewed back in 2015 – but unstated distribution dealings pushed the film to 2017. No bother. It’s still a sinfully delicious satanic thriller starring a reinvigorated Ethan Embry. Fret shredding, ominous chants, the devil’s grasp – blast this one at maximum volume. Did you expect anything less from the director of The Loved Ones?
Sean Byrne only has two directing credits to his name, but they’ve both been near the top of horror’s crop each year. It’s a tragedy that Byrne isn’t notching opportunities more frequently, because The Devil’s Candy proves what a tonal mastermind he is. Performances are key, but Byrne’s colorization and soundtrack choices make this a heavy-rocking relationship story burst with intrigue. Embry’s tremendous artistic works serve to open such a darkened world through unholy designs. No doubt, this is one of the year’s sweetest horror treats.
Yes, Andy Muschietti’s It adaptation is a horror movie. I will not entertain your contrarian arguments. Everything from Bill Skarsgard’s transformation into Pennywise to Muschietti’s tonal command belongs near the top of any year-end genre recap, including the film’s ability to terrorize on far deeper levels than cheap jump scares. The refrigerator emergence, Georgie’s demise, Pennywise smirking his clown-face smile from a distance – all recognized as some of 2017’s top horror content.
They might not be giants, but the pint-sized child actors who carry It could easily be named the year’s best genre ensemble. Each part fitted to a childhood mold, all acted with a spark of youthful understanding that side-steps Hollywood stereotypes. “Losers” turned into heroes; the outcasts finding their moment. It works so well for the very reason that it’s far more than *just* a horror movie – but that doesn’t strip its classification. God forbid our genre movies expose a beating heart or layer on themes. Treat yourself to one of the richest cinematic developments of 2017 if you haven’t already – come float with me.
I’ve known since September of 2016 that Prevenge would rank highly on my year-end horror recap in 2017. First watched during my festival stay in Toronto, then again as soon as Shudder released it for streaming. A concept so fresh and well-nurtured, a director so comfortable with pushing the envelope. I mean, who better to direct/star as a pregnant slasher than an actual expecting mother? Fierce doesn’t even begin to describe this female-forward genre bombshell – mommy certainly knows best.
Of course, to describe Prevenge as a simple slasher would be incorrect. Renaissance woman Alice Lowe holds nothing back when confronting motherhood fears, nor does her revenge subplot leave expectations disregarded. Feature film debuts are rarely this confident, and that’s what makes Prevenge an unmistakable gender-inferno masterpiece of the horror genre. The whole “DJ Dan” sequence is worth Shudder’s subscription price alone – and that’s just one mere morsel of Lowe’s proportional madness. It is…something best seen for yourself. So do just that.