Best of 2019: Horror Films

I have no doubt that when we look back on this decade, we’ll consider it to be a horror renaissance. Films like The Conjuring and Insidious spawned entire franchises. Sleeper hits like It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, and Hereditary sparked the “elevated horror” debate, which I still despise, but I suspect may come to define the decade in horror. Even in TV, horror reigned supreme, with shows like “American Horror Story” and “The Walking Dead” killing  ratings and spawning massive fan bases. Furthermore, streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, Shudder, and Amazon Prime brought horror to even larger audiences and made the genre that much more international. The final year of the decade and my best-of list largely reflects these trends. My entries include work by directors who avoided the sophomore slump and created solid second feature-length films that I suspect we’ll still be talking about heading into the new decade. Like last year’s list, this one includes plenty of work by international directors who found a platform for their work thanks to streaming services. Additionally, more and more women are getting behind the camera, and that’s a good thing. There’s plenty of female representation on this list, and the horror genre is all all the better for it. Without further ado, here’s my best-of horror list for 2019!


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark directed by André Øvredal. This popular book series finally came to life on the big screen, and Øvredal did a good job establishing a frightful Halloween atmosphere and bringing some of the books’ most famous monsters to life, including the Pale Lady and Harold the Scarecrow. This film, and the director’s previous work, Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (one of my favorite films of the decade), prove that Øvredal is one of the best directors currently working in the genre, especially when it comes to establishing mood and tone.

Child’s Play directed by Lars Klevberg. I can’t tell you why this remake of the 1988 classic underperformed so much at the box office when compared to last year’s record-breaking Halloween reboot.  Maybe Michael Myers is just more popular, and maybe Halloween grossed millions upon millions because it brought back so many familiar names, specifically Jamie Lee Curtis. Child’s Play did something drastically different and made Chucky a large-eyed AI doll. Yet, the movie fit for our time period, and the way that Chucky evolves after witnessing violence was a fascinating take on the iconic Good Guy. Mark Hamill gave the doll surprising characterization and pathos, and his voice work alone makes this one of the better horror films of the year.

The Nightingale directed Jennifer Kent. Kent is the first director on this list whose highly anticipated second film came out this year. The Nightingale is a drastic departure from her debut film, The Babadook (also one of my favorite films of the decade). Her sophomore feature is a revenge flick that is incredibly hard to watch, especially the first 20-25 minutes. It has some of the most intense violence that I’ve ever witnessed on screen. In short, the film follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, who chases a British officer through rugged Tasmanian wilderness, hell-bent on revenge for the terrible violence he inflicted upon her family. The film has stunning cinematography and much to say about colonialism, gender, and race. This film is NOT for the squeamish.

Now, on to the top 10:

10. Little Monsters directed by Abe Forsythe. At the beginning of the decade, “The Walking Dead” reinvigorated the zombie genre, but at the end of the decade, its formula has grown stale and its weekly viewership has declined. Though Little Monsters isn’t the first movie to inject horror comedy into the zombie genre, it does so with gusto, thanks in part to the stellar performance by Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Miss Caroline, a teacher who does what she has to do to keep her kids safe, be it playing a song to calm their nerves or slaying zombies.

9. Doctor Sleep directed by Mike Flanagan. Fresh of the success of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” Flanagan had the difficult task of being the man behind the camera for Doctor Sleep and trying to please the fan bases of Kubrick’s initial masterpiece and both of Stephen King’s novels. Largely, he succeeded. As I noted in my review for Signal Horizon, Doctor Sleep is a film that acknowledges the past, specifically the legacy of The Shining, but is not trapped by it. At its core, the movie is about addiction, be it the monstrous True Knot or a grown-up Danny Torrance, played superbly by Ewan McGregor. This is an intertextual film that’s also not afraid to make changes when they’re warranted.

8. Midsomar directed by Ari Aster.  How do you follow-up the craziness and heaviness that was Hereditary? The answer: create a folk-horror film set in broad daylight that follows American college friends as they get swept up in a Swedish cult. If you haven’t seen it, see it. Then watch it again. There’s not much else I can say about this one that hasn’t been said already this year. Aster is yet another director on this list whose sophomore effort really came through.

7. Into the Dark: Culture Shock directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero. I’d be hard-pressed to find a film on this list, other than the top slot, that better defines the times we live in. Hulu/Blumhouse’s holiday horror anthology series “Into the Dark” has really been hit or miss so far, but Guerrero’s July 4th entry may be the best one yet. The film follows the journey of Marisol, a Mexican woman  (Martha Higareda) who pursues the American dream, crosses illegally into the United States, and wakes to an American nightmare. This film is so rich in visuals, especially its use of the July 4th imagery, that the cinematography alone makes it worth the watch.  Keep your eye on Guerrero. She’s poised to do great things in the genre, I suspect.

6. Crawl directed by Alexandre Aja. I can’t think of a film that kept me more on the edge of my seat this year than Crawl. If you know Aja’s work, then you know the film will have a lot of gore. In short, the flick is about crocodiles and a few survivors just trying to overcome the gators. Do I really need to say more?  Order a pizza, buy a six-pack, and watch this one with some friends.  If you want to read more, then check out the review I wrote for Horror Homeroom.

5. Us by Jordan Peele. The tethered, like the sunken place, may now be part of the lexicon, thanks to Peele, whose sophomore effort will make you think about who or what lurks underground. You’ll never look at Hands Across America the same way again. Watch this and then watch it again because like Aster, Peele is a meticulous filmmaker. There are loads of references to other horror films in this, and Nyong’o gives one heck of a performance. The dance sequence in the last 20 minutes is one of my favorite scenes of the year.

4. Ready or Not directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. For me, this film was the surprise hit of the year, and not only because it did well at the box office, but because I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. It’s campy. It’s funny. It’s gory. It has a social-political undertone that doesn’t whack you over the head. Samara Weaving plays one heck of a final girl in Grace, whose rich boyfriend lures her into some sick game where the rich hunt the lower-class bride. Believe me, you’ll root for Grace the moment she picks up the shotgun and does what she has to do in order to survive, wearing blood-splattered Chucks and a shredded wedding dress to boot.

3. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror directed by Xavier Burgin. This horror doc is a must-see for any fan of the genre, or anyone interested in film history in general. It features countless interviews with actors and directors and looks at the history of the genre through the lens of race. If you don’t have a Shudder subscription yet, get it for this film alone and for my final two entries.

3 (also) The Lighthouse directed by Robert Eggers, Eggers proved with his debut The Witch that he can make one fine period piece. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th Century, and it was shot using some of the same lenses from that time period. This film’s ratio and shooting techniques means it really should be seen on the big screen. Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattison play off each other SO well in this film as they slowly descend into madness and their truths/narratives never quite match up. Oh, major props to the seagull, too. Give that bird an Oscar!

2. One Cut of the Dead directed by Shin’ichirô Ueda.  Simply put, One Cut of the Dead is one of the most innovative films I have seen in a long time. It features a nearly 30-minute continuous shot as the opening scene, and from there, it’s one big love letter to indie film making, as a crew tries to complete a zombie film on time. This Japanese film will make you laugh, make you cry, and most importantly, endear you. Again, if you don’t have Shudder, what are you waiting for?

1. Tigers Are Not Afraid directed by   Issa López. This isn’t just one of my favorite films of the year, it’s one of my favorite of the decade. This is an incredibly beautiful and tragic film that calls to mind the early work of Guillermo del Toro, specifically The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Like those films, López created a fairy-tale like story to address a much deeper issue, in this case the Mexican drug cartel and a group of five children trying to survive amidst the violence after losing their parents. This film is visually stunning, heart-wrenching, and powerful. López is another director to watch. She’s already received high accolades from del Toro, who produced this film, and Stephen King, who raved about it on Twitter. Watch this, but not without a box of tissues nearby.

Finally, I want to add that I considered adding Parasite to the list, in part because it has some light horror elements and its director, Bong Joon-Ho has created horror films in the past, most notable The Host, but the film is more of a drama comedy than anything else, and it’s already on a number of best-of 2019 lists. It very well may snag some Oscar nominations, deservedly so.  I tried to stick to the horror and offer a few films that deserve more attention.

In the coming days/weeks, I’ll post about which horror films I’m most excited about in 2020, as we enter a new decade.  Have a wonderful holiday season and happy new year! Please feel free to share your own favorite films of 2019 by commenting below.













Review: Us (2019)

Anyone who was afraid that Jordan Peele would have a sophomore slump after the massive success of Get Out (2017) need not worry because Us  delivers as a bold, nuanced horror movie, one that strikes some comedic beats but is dark in its premise, social commentary, and kills. The core cast pulls off stellar performances, especially playing their eerie, grinning doppelgängers dubbed “the tethered.” With Us, Peele has invented  a new kind of monster, similar to the way that George A. Romero created the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead. Like Romero’s zombies, the tethered are literally a reflection of us, or as Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelgänger Red says, the tethered are “Americans,” a reflection of what it would be like to fall a step or two down the social ladder, a lower-class that often exists beneath the surface, ignored or mocked.

Us primarily centers around Adelaide Wilson’s story (Nyong’o), who, as a little girl, wandered away from her parents at the Santa Cruz boardwalk and drifted into the fun house, where she encountered her doppelgänger for the first time. During the first 15 minutes, we don’t know exactly what Adelaide encountered in the fun house, but the story slowly unfolds as the movie progresses, until we have a clear understanding of why Adelaide is reluctant to spend another summer at the beach with her family. In the opening sequence and during the flashbacks interspersed throughout the movie, Madison Curry gives a strong performance as a young Adelaide, who, like the rest of the cast, has to also play the role of her double. As young Adelaide slow-walks and eventually enters the shadowy fun house, Peele makes it clear that this is going to be a straight forward horror movie. The film immediately acknowledges past genre movies. In the opening scene, young Adelaide is seated before a TV, watching a Hands for America ad, which has major significance to both the social commentary and the story of the tethered. The TV is bookended by VHS tapes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and C.H.U.D., which makes more sense once the story of the tethered is revealed. Some of the boardwalk scenes are a nice nod to The Lost Boys.

Once the first flashback concludes, the film shifts to the present, and Peele takes his time building up the family of four, making us generally care about them, from the sibling dynamics of Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), to the very likeable and funny family patriarch, Gabe (Winston Duke), to the rattled and wide-eyed matriarch, Adelaide. This is a family that we root for, and when their doppelgängers show up for the first time, lurking and holding hands just feet from the front door, we fear for the family’s safety and hope that they’ll make it out alive. The home invasion scene is one of the best since Funny Games and The Strangers, two films that Peele had Nyong’o watch to prepare for the role.

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The Tethered

Initially, we don’t know much about the tethered, and the only one who really has any dialogue is Red, who gives a monologue about “the shadow” and “the girl,” and how the girl grew up to have a perfect, middle-class life, complete with a smart husband and two adorable children. When asked what or who they are, Red simply responds, “We’re Americans.” Through the creation of the tethered, Peele offers his social commentary, one a bit broader than Get Out. The tethered are indeed us, the Americans that we too often ignore, hence why they live underground, a failed mind control experiment, until they decide rise to the surface and launch a bloody revolution, wielding golden scissors and lining the streets of the beach town with the bodies of the upper-middle class, both black and white. They’re also an indictment of the Hands Across America initiative, which was a call for all Americans to join hands on a single day in 1986 to raise money for homelessness. Yet, at the same time, the country was facing an AIDS crisis and President Reagan was busy blaming the poor for their situation. He  said in May of that year, “I don’t believe that there is anyone that is going hungry in America simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them… it is by people not knowing where or how to get this help.”

More than Get Out, Us is a film very much steeped in class issues. Gabe buys a sputtering tug boat to impress the family’s white, snobby friends, Kitty  (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidicker). At one point, Gabe says that Josh bought a new car just to piss him off. Furthermore, though the Wilsons are doing just fine, they’re not as wealthy as the Tylers. Kitty drones on about her latest plastic surgeries and how she could have made it as a big movie star, if not for having kids. Yet, the Tylers also have doubles, a sign that they too can slip a few social rungs and everything they have can disappear if life takes a sudden turn for the worse. Moss is especially effective in the role of her double, tracing her lips with lipstick, grinning into a mirror, and running the blade of her scissors along her cheek. She truly embodies the inversion of what Kitty considers to be beautiful.

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Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide

But the real highlight of Us is Nyong’o’s performance as both Red, the leader of the tethered revolution, and Adelaide, who keeps her family close and grows more primal as the film progresses, to the point that her white outfit and hands are eventually blood-soaked. As she showed in her break-out performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, Nyung’o is stellar at playing a demanding, emotional role. From her facial expressions to her guttural wails when she has to kill any of the tethered, Nyong’o’s performance is a must-see, especially the final show-down between Adelaide and Red, which is a beautiful, visceral scene.

Peele made it clear in a tweet days before the film’s release that Us is a horror film. Perhaps he doesn’t want to rehash the nonsensical “elevated horror” horror debate that films like Get Out sparked. With Us, he fully embraces his love for the genre. From the multiple references to other horror movies, to the nerve-rattling score by Michael Abels, who he also worked with for Get Out, Us is a film very much aware of the genre in which its operating and how to keep an audience on the edge of its seat. It’s an ambitious film, one that shows why Peele should continue working in the horror genre. He knows that horror has always been a great vehicle to address deeper issues, and with Us, he makes a bold indictment of 1980s America and current class divisions.







Candyman Reboot?

The horror world has been abuzz over the news that Jordan Peele is interested in remaking Candyman, the 1992 film about a murdered slave, Candyman (Tony Todd), who will appear if you repeat his name in the mirror. It’s unclear if Peele would actually direct the film or produce it, but regardless, though Candyman is not that old, its themes of gentrification and the past never staying dead are deserving of an update. After the success of Get Out, Peele is the right person to  oversee the project if it moves forward.

Candyman is a film that I really like and recently re-watched. Directed by Bernard Rose and based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” it is  atmospheric and haunting. Set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Housing project, as opposed to Liverpool, the setting of Barker’s story, the film is moody and deals with issues of class, race, and gentrification without being preachy or over-the-top. Of the filming location and housing project, Rose said that it is “an incredible arena for a horror movie because it was a place of such palpable fear.” Yet, who and what are we supposed to fear? These are questions the film asks. The protagonist, Helen Lye (Virginia Madsen), is a white graduate student interested in researching folk tales and myths, which brings her to the housing project and the history of the Candyman myth. Her arrival poses a lot of questions. Is she merely using the housing project and its impoverished residents to further her own agenda? Would she bother to care about any of the residents if not for her research and her personal goal of academic noteriety? Regardless, Helen forces her way into the housing project, snapping photo after photo, taking what she needs in the process. Residents clearly know that she doesn’t belong, but that doesn’t stop her from invading their space. At one point, she literary crawls through a hidden hole to enter another apartment where a murder occurred.


(Helen played by Virginia Madsen)

Candyman’s story, meanwhile, uses tropes found throughout African American literature and film. He is a murdered slave who fell in love with a white woman and was brutally killed as a result. The past, so to speak, never really stays dead, and once Candyman is summoned, he seeks revenge with a bloody hook hand, while speaking in suave Victorian language.  Tony Todd’s performance is one of the real highlights of the film, and it would be hard to find someone to top him.



(Candyman played by Tony Todd)

It is unclear how quickly production will move forward with a Candyman remake, if it happens at all; however, Jordan Peele is the right person to produce or direct the project. Get Out shows that he has a clear understanding of class and race, specifically how they are intertwined. Candyman does not necessarily need a remake, but I would be interested to see Peele’s take.