The year is over and the time has come to assess the damage. What were the best the genre had to offer in 2015? New Zealand came up big, while new filmmakers, creepy twins, and potentially contagious horrors kept us awake this year.
Not that this was an easy list to compile. We enlisted the assistance of Senior Filmmaker Correspondent Jason Tostevin for some wisdom, which led to some polite disagreement, but we thank him all the same!
5. What We Do in the Shadows
In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates.
Viago (co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi) – derided by the local werewolf pack as Count Fagula – acts as our guide. He’s joined by Vladislav (co-writer/co-director Jemaine Clement), who describes his look as “dead but delicious.” There’s also Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) – the newbie at only 187 years old – and Petyr. Styled meticulously and delightfully on the old Nosferatu Count Orlock, Petyr is 8000 years old and does whatever he wants.
Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. It’s hard to get into the good clubs (they have to be invited in) or find a virgin. Forget about tolerating the local pack of werewolves (led by the utterly hilarious alpha Rhys Darby).
The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It was also the first great comedy of 2015.
That’s right – it’s a good, old fashioned Kiwi Tie for 5th place.
New Zealand teenage outcast Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) knows he and his friends are losers, so of course they start a band to get loud and be cool! But when their rocking involves playing an ancient piece of music known as the Black Hymn, they unwittingly summon an evil entity and the body count starts rising.
In his feature debut, writer/director Jason Lei Howden, a veteran of Peter Jackson’s special effects team, borrows heavily from Shaun of the Dead-style pacing and camerawork while managing to poke some blood-spattered fun at the “devil music” stereotypes often thrown at heavy metal.
You’ll find plenty of laughs, some rom-com elements, and winning performances from both Cawthorne and Kimberley Crossman as Medina, the school beauty who can also swing a pretty mean ax.
Clever and surprisingly self-aware, Deathgasm is fine excuse to feed your inner metalhead.
4. Bone Tomahawk
In a year rife with exceptional Westerns, this film sets itself apart. S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut embraces the mythos of the Wild West, populating a familiar frontier town with weathered characters, but casting those archetypes perfectly. Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, in particular, easily inhabit the upright sheriff and eccentric side kick roles, while Patrick Wilson’s committed turn as battered heroic lead offers an emotional center.
Zahler effortlessly blends the horror and Western genres, remaining true to both and crafting a film that’s a stellar entry into either category. Bone Tomahawk looks gorgeous and boasts exceptional writing, but more than anything, it offers characters worthy of exploration. There are no one-note victims waiting to be picked off, but instead an assortment of fascinating people and complex relationships all wandering into mystical, bloody danger.
Because the true horror is a long time coming and you’re genuinely invested in the participants in this quest, the payoff is deeply felt. This is a truly satisfying effort, and one that marks a new filmmaker to keep an eye on.
3. Goodnight Mommy
There is something eerily beautiful about Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s rural Austrian horror Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh).
During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. They spend their time bouncing on a trampoline, floating in a pond, or exploring the fields and woods around the house. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.
Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. Their graceful storytelling leads you down one path before utterly upending everything you think you know. They never spoon feed you information, depending instead on your astute observation – a refreshing approach in this genre.
The film is going to go where you don’t expect it to go, even if you expect you’ve uncovered its secrets.
2. The Nightmare
An effective scary movie is one that haunts your dreams long after the credits roll. It’s that kind of impact most horror buffs are seeking, but even the most ardent genre fan will hope out loud that Rodney Ascher’s new documentary The Nightmare doesn’t follow them to sleep.
His film explores sleep paralysis. It’s a sleep disorder – or a label hung on the world’s most unfortunate night terrors – that’s haunted humanity for eons. And dig this – it sounds like it might be contagious.
Ascher’s a fascinating, idiosyncratic filmmaker. His documentaries approach some dark, often morbid topics with a sense of wonder. His films never push an agenda, and he doesn’t seem to have made up his mind on his subject matter. Instead, his is open-mided approach which, in turn, iinvites the audience to follow suit.
It’s not all earnest sleuthing, though, because Ascher is a real showman. What’s intriguing is the way he draws your attention to his craftsmanship – like framing a shot so you see the speaker not head on, but in a large mirror’s reflection, then leaving the reflection of the cameraman’s arm in the same shot. Touches like this never feel amateurish, but they don’t really feel like a cinematic wink, either. Instead it becomes a way to release the tension, and remind you that you are, indeed, watching a movie… a heartbreaking, terrifying movie.
We spend a great deal of time watching horror movies, and we cannot remember an instance that we considered turning off a film for fear that we would dream about it later. Until now.
1. It Follows
David Robert Mitchell invites you to the best American horror film in more than a decade.
Yes, It Follows is the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.
Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.
Mitchell borrows from a number of coming of age horror shows, but his film is confident enough to pull it off without feeling derivative in any way. The writer/director takes familiar tropes and uses them with skill to lull you with familiarity, and then terrify you with it.
Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.