We’re currently living in a new golden age of horror. As our real world becomes ever more terrifying, filmmakers have stepped up their game to use horror as a way to analyze the nightmare of our off-screen lives. Below are 10 engrossing scary to the core movies of 2019.
Director: Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé has been so openly confrontational and provocative for so long that it’s easy to forget just how powerful a filmmaker he can be. He is deliberately repulsive, sometimes to his own detriment; I don’t care how structurally inventive Irreversible is, I am never, ever sitting through that goddamned thing again. But there is an undeniable hypnotic fervor to his movies, from the sordid (but also sort of lovely) kink of Love to the elliptical madness of Enter the Void. The immediate thrill of Climax, Noé’s newest and unquestionably best film, is how, for the first time, you see him letting go a little bit, releasing some of his notorious control, letting his films and (most important) his characters breathe a little bit—to be themselves.
It opens with home-camera footage—the film takes place in 1996, for reasons that I’d probably understand a lot better if I were French—of a series of dancers, readying for a troupe tour of the United States, answering questions about their hopes and dreams, their desires, their fears, their basic motivations. It’s a slick, kind of cheap, but still incredibly effective way for Noé to give us just enough information about these dancers that we feel for them when they go through whatever Noé is about to put them through. (And you know he’s going to put them through something.)
But it’s what comes next that’s most exciting: during rehearsal, a glorious dance routine featuring the entire crew, both meticulously choreographed and thrillingly improvised, expressing themselves the best way they know how. Noé’s camera swirls around in one long take, and the effect is breathtaking, as alive and electric as anything he’s ever done. Now you’re really invested in this crew…which, as Noé’s counting on, was your first mistake. It turns out, someone has spiked the sangria for the post-rehearsal part with LSD, and, apparently, a lot of it.
Even if he puts all these people through the ringer—and oh, does he!—there is inspiration here. For the first time, it feels like the pain he’s putting everybody through is something he feels, too. It’s a most encouraging switch for Noé, and bodes well for him moving forward; it’s turned him into less of a Lars Von Trier geek show. Not to say that the ending doesn’t pack a wallop regardless. Noé, for all his newfound pseudo-humanism, isn’t going to send you home wanting for misery. But there is…well, not hope, exactly, but call it catharsis. He’s as uncompromising, and as resolutely himself, as ever. It’s just that there might be a little more shading and warmth inside the director than maybe even he himself realized. Don’t misinterpret, though: This is Gaspar Noé Warmth, not normal human being warmth. Rest assured, his world remains no place for children. —Will Leitch
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse
Director: Lukas Feigelfeld
Content warning for people with misgivings about cannibalism, vomit, organ splatter, maggoty mushrooms, sexual assault and infinitely worse: Hagazussa provides a minefield of triggers. It’s gross. It’s also stunning, a hypnotic recreation of its time and its place: 15th century Europe, a land cast into the dark ages long before the advent of the age of reason. In between unsettling and barefaced displays of noxious human ills and pseudo hallucinatory insanity, rests still frames so gorgeous they belong in their own art gallery tableau.
Snapshots of Austria’s countryside megacosm center on Albrun (Alexsandra Cwen), a woman orphaned as a girl and still alone as an adult, who spends a majority of her time trudging through and taking respite in the forests of her homeland. But Hagazussa’s idyllic appeal belies evil lurking in its frames, stalking Albrun like a basilisk, turning the woods she inhabits to stone.
Albrun is marked from birth, doomed to alienation from and othering by her fellow man: As a child, depicted in the film’s opening chapter by Celina Peter, she and her mother, Martha (Claudia Martini), are harassed in dead of night by men disguised in fearsome horn-headed costumes, as concealing as they are intimidating. They’re infernally convinced Martha’s a witch. An hour and change later, the audience is given reason to wonder if they were right. To young Albrun, their incursions qualify as nightmares worse than those chronicled in fables. In the present day narrative, the prejudice of her youth follows her.
She’s harassed by snotty village boys, then spared their taunts by a seemingly benevolent woman, Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), then manipulated into serving Swinda’s own perverse ends. If Albrun isn’t a witch, society does a bang-up job giving her incentive to reconsider the calling. Hagazussa is further distinguished through a patina derived from David Lynch and Panos Cosmatos—slow, deliberate, perpetually unsettling. The film takes its time, but it drags the viewer along the way toward a mind-shattering oblivion.
Are Albrun’s visions real, or figments of her imagination? Is witchery truly afoot, or is she just losing her marbles at the business end of ignorant mob persecution? The last of these is the only question with an emphatic “yes” answer, though the idea that the real monster here is Woman is pedantic bordering on boorish. Movies like this function because the monster exists, not simply because people historically treat outsiders like stray dogs at best, vermin at worst. —Andy Crump
Director: Elle Callahan
Imagine the hopeless paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing mashed together with the languid atmosphere of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, in which isolated youth are hunted down by a relentless force capable of hiding in plain sight by mimicking their appearances. That’s Elle Callahan’s Head Count, a film with a dreamlike tone slowly overridden by an inexplicable nightmare.
When a gaggle of 20-somethings get together at Joshua Tree for a mini vacation, they do what characters so frequently do in horror movies: Read a spooky story that accidentally summons a monster. In this case the monster is the Hisji, a shape-shifting entity that breaks prey psychologically before the killing begins. Accordingly, Callahan relishes the mental component of Head Count’s basic conceit, allowing the cast to slowly give in to suspicion and distrust while capitalizing on their collective uncertainty.
At every turn, Callahan creates opportunities to scare the crap out of her audience, often in broad daylight or a well-illuminated room, where the viewer leasts expect to be terrified. The film violates safety and sanctuary on the strength of Callahan’s shrewd filmmaking. There’s room for improvement—the monster ultimately has too much origin for its own good—but Head Count is self-assured in its craftsmanship and announces Callahan as a director with promise and perspective. —Andy Crump
The Hole in the Ground
Director: Lee Cronin
Ireland really should issue a kindly warning to its horror filmmakers, requesting that they stop making their country look like a land teeming with fae creatures waiting to kidnap them and their children into darkness. Movies from The Hallow to Don’t Leave Home make the Emerald Isle seemingly a place not worth visiting for those adverse to encounters with the supernatural. Lee Cronin’s excellent The Hole in the Ground adds to that number, joining Us (and Head Count, though somewhat tangentially) in 2019’s doppelgänger horror trend.
Here, single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslak) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) move to the Irish countryside to escape her bad marriage to Chris’s abusive father. They settle into a disused old manse which Sarah sets about repairing, until the day Chris goes missing in the woods surrounding them. When Sarah finds him, wandering about near, well, a hole in the ground, she notices right away that something’s off about her son, and begins to believe that Chris isn’t Chris at all. Cronin drives a rift between mother and child to gutpunching effect, carefully maximizing horror’s Creepy Kid™ tropes without overplaying the hits or giving too much away. The terror builds. Human monsters, a’la Sarah’s ex, are one thing, but when monsters merely appear to be human, their impact is doubly twisted. —Andy Crump
I Trapped the Devil
Director: Josh Lobo
Merry Christmas! Have some family dysfunction and possibly an untimely visit from the Prince of Darkness. The man locked up in Steve’s (Scott Poythress) basement might well be Satan himself. He might also be an innocent man, or at least a man innocent of being the devil, but Steve’s brother, Matt (AJ Bowen) and sister-in-law Karen (Susan Burke) don’t really know what to make of Steve’s situation. Is he deluded, or still grieving a loss that at first goes unspoken and later is made explicit? Or does he really genuinely have Old Scratch imprisoned in his home? Director Josh Lobo toes the slow-burn line, doing very little at the start to meaningfully terrify viewers, but he rapidly layers I Trapped the Devil with mood and dread, his finger looped through the pin of a grenade in every interaction Steve has with Matt and Karen, as if at any moment their tentative atmosphere could descend into straight-up chaos. The film’s central question hangs over all until, at long last, Lobo gives an answer, but the answer is so chilling that we might wish he’d kept us in the dark all along. —Andy Crump
Director: Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland makes decisively unsettling films, notably Berberian Sound Studio, by weaponizing familiarity: Rather than distance himself from his influences—Dario Argento movies and Euro-kink most of all—he leans into them so heavily that they metastatize into cinema that’s uniquely Strickland’s. Set in the world of high-end retail, In Fabric follows two characters (Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Leo Bill) as they come to possess a cursed dress purchased at Dentley and Soper’s, a department store revealed from the outset to be operated by a coven of witches and warlocks. In Fabric’s premise reads like either a Tales from the Crypt episode or one of those “award-winning” horror shorts clogging up YouTube.
Ultimately, it’s a superior remake of Suspiria to Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 thudding attempt at taking Argento’s blend of lunatic genius and remodeling it for an audience unequipped to appreciate the stuff of the Italian maestro’s filmography. Bleeding mannequins, taboo erotica, an eerily floating dress, truly purple dialogue spoken by frequent Strickland collaborator Fatma Mohamed as one of the witches, trippy aesthetics and unexpectedly side-splitting humor make In Fabric a stand-out entry in contemporary horror at a time when the culture is catching on to what makes the genre function in the first place. —Andy Crump
Knife + Heart
Director: Yann Gonzalez
Yann Gonzalez’s gleeful genre mashup Knife Heart is a queer provocation, a delirious journey through celluloid mirrors, daring to assert that pornography is as ripe for personal catharsis as any other art form. In the wake of a breakup with her editor Loïs (Kate Moran) and the murder of one of her actors, gay porn producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis) sets to make her masterpiece, one saturated with her rage and heartbreak.
She sends a clear message to her lover etched into a reel of dailies, one of her performers’ head back in ecstasy as if in Warhol’s Blow Job: “You have killed me.” As her cast and crew are killed off one by one, Anne pushes on, driven to put herself in her work, literally and figuratively, the spectre of doom for her shared community growing ever closer. Gonzalez’s film pulsates with erotic verve and a beating broken heart, as if giving yourself up to cinema is the only thing that can keep you alive. When the lights go down and the wind screams through the room, it’s as if Knife Heart, and by extension all film, is the last queer heaven left. —Kyle Turner
Directors: Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryuhei Kitamura, David Slade, Mick Garris
There’s a special kind of perversity to following up Joe Dante’s portion of this bleakly delightful horror anthology—a freakish short about a woman with a scar on her face (Zarah Mahler) whose fiance convinces her to get a “little” plastic surgery before she meets his mom—with the introduction of Mickey Rourke as the Projectionist, the character whose spooky movie theater stitches our five stories together. Dante’s “Mirari” screams bloody disfigurement into the faces of people who look like Rourke, faces warped by what can only be a sad and jarring dysmorphia condoned by Hollywood and the movie-making machine with which many of the filmmakers involved here have struggled.
And Rourke’s face resembling the puffed-out visage of one of the villains in Dante’s film can’t be lost on the director: Nightmare Cinema pretty clearly comments on, celebrates and deconstructs the idea of horror movies as popcorn fodder, of exploiting so many of our deepest fears as grist for the giant, cynical mill of populist entertainment. The Projectionist says as much: He’s collecting—literally in film canisters—the mortal terror of five strangers wandering in off the street.
There’s the hot-to-trot high schooler (Sarah Elizabeth Withers) trapped in an ostensible slasher scenario (Alejandro Brugués’ pitch-perfect “The Thing in the Woods”); the beleaguered mom (Elizabeth Reaser) whose reality crumbles post-break-up in David Slade’s hilarious and heartbreaking “This Way to Egress”; the piano prodigy (Faly Rakotohavana) whose harrowing brush with mortality sinks him into an ever-shifting B-grade serial killer thriller in Mick Garris’s rollicking “Dead.” As is the case with so many of these endeavors, one segment squats below the rest: Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Mashit,” which follows a priest (Maurice Benard) and likely pedophile—a fact mentioned in passing after we’ve already seen the priest fornicate with a nun (Mariela Garriga)—forced to slaughter a private school full of prepubescents possessed by a demon who supposedly punishes the lustful.
Cheap and mostly incoherent, Kitamura’s Grand Guignol has nothing interesting to add to any discussion about faith or the church or institutionalized repression or even the medium of horror, instead relying on the shock of watching a priest mutilate children in a church to sustain its spectacle. It’s all very stupid—unlike the other four stories surrounding it, each a welcome bite of reassurance that some of our best genre filmmakers still have the fear in them that keeps them working. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Richard Shepard
What should horror movies be judged by? Airtight narrative logic, or imaginatively deranged imagery? Scores matter, scripts matter, but by the end of the movie what tends to matter most are the visuals, and Richard Shepard’s new movie, The Perfection, sears its visuals into the viewer’s mind like branding on livestock, right up to its final shot, one of the genre’s most indelible since horror became the taste of the day in the mid 2010s. It’s a twisted kind of miracle that anyone who watches The Perfection will never be the same, and a testament to horror’s power to bend minds and spur nightmares with a single picture.
But the movie also reminds us that as much as pictures often come first, plotting usually should come a very close second. The film begins promisingly enough: After abandoning her career to care for her dying mother, cello prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) returns to the music world to reclaim her standing as the Bachoff Academy of Music’s star pupil, which means sabotaging the current title holder, Lizzie (Logan Browning). Charlotte reaches out to her old teachers, Anton (Steven Weber) and Paloma (Alaina Huffman), travels to Shanghai as Bachoff selects its latest student, and cozies up to Lizzie.
They flatter each other. They flirt. They drink, go partying, then make passionate love in a hotel, filmed with cinematographer Vanja Cernul’s lurid gaze. Maybe Charlotte bears Lizzie no grudge. Maybe they really do admire each other to romantic heights. And then they travel to rural China, where Lizzie grows increasingly sick, starts puking up bugs, discovers yet more bugs dithering about under the skin on her arm, and, when offered a butcher’s cleaver by Charlotte, chops off her hand.
This is the climax to The Perfection’s first half hour, ruined by a single viewing of the trailer. It’s also where Shepard springs the first of several fakeouts, stealing a page from Michael Haneke’s playbook. At its best, The Perfection is an homage to 1970s horror movies and 1980s thrillers, a glorious, multi-hewed mind screw. When Shepard sticks to this aesthetic, the movie soars on grotesque wings. When he commits the cardinal sin of demystifying the mysterious, it’s a major drag. A little ambiguity goes a long, long way in horror. —Andy Crump
Director: Jordan Peele
Us clarifies what Get Out implies. Even after only two films, Jordan Peele’s filmmaking seems preconfigured for precision, the Hitchcock comparisons just sitting there, waiting to be shoved between commas, while Peele openly speaks and acts in allusions. Us, like Get Out before it but moreso, wastes nothing: time, film stock, the equally precise capabilities of his actors and crew, real estate in the frame, chance for a gag.
If his films are the sum of their influences, that means he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of ideas, someone who knows how to hone down those ideas into stories that never bloat, though he’s unafraid to confound his audience with exposition or take easy shots—like the film’s final twist—that swell and grow in the mind with meaning the longer one tries to insist, if one were inclined to do so, that what Peele’s doing is easy at all.
A family comedy studded with dread, then a home invasion thriller, then a head-on sci-fi horror flick, Us quickly acquaints us with the Wilson family: calming matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), gregarious dad Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter wise beyond her years Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and adorable epitome of the innocent younger brother, Jason (Evan Alex). Though far from shallow, the characters take on archetypal signifiers, whether it’s Zora’s penchant for running or that Gabe’s a big guy whose bulk betrays a softer heart, Peele never spoonfeeding cheap characterizations but just getting us on his wavelength with maximum efficiency.
Us isn’t explicitly about race, but it is about humanity’s inherent knack for Othering, for boxing people into narrow perspectives and then holding them responsible for everyone vaguely falling within a Venn diagram. Regardless of how sufficiently we’re able to parse what’s actually going on (and one’s inclined to see the film more than once to get a grip) the images remain, stark and hilarious and horrifying: a child’s burned face, a misfired flare gun, a cult-like spectacle of inhuman devotion, a Tim Heidecker bent over maniacally, walking as if he’s balanced on a thorax, his soul as good as creased. Divorced from context, these moments still speak of absurdity—of witty one-liners paired with mind-boggling horror—of a future in which we’ve so alienated ourselves from ourselves that we’re bound to cut that tether that keeps us together, sooner or later, and completely unravel. We are our undoing. So let the Hitchcock comparisons come. Peele deserves them well enough. Best not to think about it too hard, to not ruin a good thing, to demand that Us be anything more than sublimely entertaining and wonderfully thoughtful, endlessly disturbing genre filmmaking. —Dom Sinacola