Wow, 2017 was one hell of a year in horror. We had blockbusters, people! Three horror movies broke blockbuster status, earning hundreds of millions of dollars. It—good God did that movie make some cash. What does that mean? It means more big budget, R-rated horror will be coming our way.
It was quite a year for genre-bending films like It Comes at Night, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and mother!—polarizing, amazing gems that really need to be seen.
But we’ll focus on films a little more clearly defined as horror. Thanks to Chris Hamel, President and Programmer of our beloved Gateway Film Center, for joining us to count down the best horror films of 2017.
10. Tragedy Girls
Heathers meets Scream in the savvy horror comedy that mines social media culture to truly entertaining effect, Tragedy Girls.
Tyler MacIntyre directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Chris Lee Hill and Justin Olson. The trio wade into the horror of a social media generation with more success than anything we’ve seen to date. A great deal of their success has to do with casting.
Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp nail their characters’ natural narcissism. Is it just the expectedly shallow, self-centeredness of the teenage years, or are they sociopaths?
The film is careful not to go overboard with its commentary, though, and the final product is the better for it. MacIntyre’s affectionate, perhaps even obsessive, horror movie nods receive at least as much of his time and attention.
The result is both mean and funny. Josh Hutcherson’s small, image-lampooning part is an absolute scream proving that MacIntyre and company have pop cultural insights to spare, and proper comedic timing to boot.
9. Girl With all the Gifts
It is the top of the food chain that has the most reason to fear evolution.
Isn’t that the abiding tension in monster and superhero movie alike? The Girl with All the Gifts explores it thoughtfully and elegantly – for a zombie movie.
So, what’s the deal? A horde of “hungries,” each infected with a plant-based virus, has long since overrun the human population. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), her researchers and the military are holed up while trying to derive a cure from the next generation, like Melanie (Sennia Nanua) – the offspring of those infected during pregnancy.
But much of the film’s success sits on Nanua’s narrow shoulders, and she owns it. The role requires a level of emotional nimbleness, naiveté edged with survival instinct, and command. She has that and more.
Cirector Colm McCarthy showcases his bounty of talent in a film that knows its roots but embraces the natural evolution of the genre. It’s not easy to make a zombie film that says something different.
But what Girl has to say is both surprising and inevitable.
And she says it really, really well.
A transfixing James McAvoy is Kevin, a deeply troubled man harboring 23 distinct personalities and some increasingly chilling behavior. When he kidnaps the teenaged Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suva), the girls are faced with constantly changing identities as they desperately seek an escape from their disorienting confines.
Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities is making emergency appointments with his longtime therapist (Betty Buckley, nice to see you), only to show up and assure the Dr. everything is fine. She thinks otherwise, and she is right.
The split personality trope has been used to eye-rolling effect in enough films to be the perfect device for Shyamalan’s clever rope-a-dope. By often splitting the frame with intentional set designs and camera angles, or by letting full face close-ups linger one extra beat, he reinforces the psychological creepiness without any excess bloodshed that would have soiled a PG-13 rating.
Still, it all might have gone for naught without McAvoy, who manages to make Kevin a sympathetic character while deftly dancing between identities, often in the same take. He’s a wonder to watch, and the solid support from Buckley and Taylor-Joy help keep the tension simmering through speedbumps in pacing and questionable flashbacks to Casey’s childhood.
7. The Lure
Sisters Gold (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) are not your typical movie mermaids, and director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut The Lure is not your typical – well, anything.
The musical fable offers a vivid mix of fairy tale, socio-political commentary, whimsy and throat tearing. But it’s not as bizarre a combination as you might thing.
The Little Mermaid is actually a heartbreaking story. Not Disney’s crustacean song-stravaganza, but Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak meditation on the catastrophic consequences of sacrificing who you are for someone undeserving. It’s a cautionary tale for young girls, really, and Lure writer Robert Bolesto remains true to that theme.
But that’s really too tidy a description for a film that wriggles in disorienting directions every few minutes. There are slyly feminist observations made about objectification, but that’s never the point. Expect other lurid side turns, fetishistic explorations, dissonant musical numbers and a host of other vaguely defined sea creatures to color the fable.
6. The Transfiguration
Milo likes vampire movies.
Eric Ruffin plays Milo, a friendless teen who believes he is a vampire. What he is really is a lonely child who finds solace in the romantic idea of this cursed, lone predator. But he’s committed to his misguided belief.
All this changes when Milo meets Sophie (Chloe Levine), another outsider and the only white face in Milo’s building. A profound loneliness haunts this film, and the believably awkward behavior of both Ruffin and Levine is as charming as it is heartbreaking.
The Transfiguration is a character study as much as a horror film, and the underwritten lead, slow burn and somewhat tidy resolution undercut both efforts.
Still, there’s an awful lot going for this gritty, soft-spoken new image of a teenage beast.
Clowns are fun, aren’t they?
The basic premise of It is this: little kids are afraid of everything, and that’s just good thinking.
The Derry, Maine “losers club” finds itself in 1988 in this adaptation, an era that not only brings the possibility of Part 2 much closer to present day, but it gives the pre-teen adventures a nostalgic and familiar quality.
Bill Skarsgård has the unenviable task of following a letter-perfect Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise. Those are some big clown shoes to fill, but Skarsgård is up to the challenge. His Pennywise is more theatrical, more of an exploitation of all that’s inherently macabre and grotesque about clowns.
Is he better than the original? Let’s not get nutty here, but he is great.
He and the kids really make this work. The young cast is led by the always strong Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), and he’s surrounded by very strong support. Sophia Lillis charms as the shiniest gem in the losers’ club, and Finn Wolfhard (that is a name!) is a scream as the foul-mouthed class clown Richie.
The almost inexcusably cute Jackson Robert Scott is little, doomed Georgie, he of the yellow slicker.
Director Andy Muschietti shows great instinct for taking advantage of foreground, background and sound. Yes, It relies heavily on jump scares, but Muschietti’s approach to plumbing your fear has more depth than that and he manages your rising terror expertly.
What you’ll find in writer/director Julia Ducournau’s notorious feature debut is a thoughtful coming of age tale.
Justine (Garance Marillier, impressive) is off to join her older sister (Ella Rumpf) at veterinary school – the very same school where their parents met. Justine may be a bit sheltered, a bit prudish to settle in immediately, but surely with her sister’s help, she’ll be fine.
Ducournau has her cagey way with the same themes that populate any coming-of-age story – pressure to conform, peer pressure generally, societal order and sexual hysteria. Here all take on a sly, macabre humor that’s both refreshing and unsettling.
In a very obvious way, Raw is a metaphor for what can and often does happen to a sheltered girl when she leaves home for college. But as Ducournau looks at those excesses committed on the cusp of adulthood, she creates opportunities to explore and comment on so many upsetting realities, and does so with absolute fidelity to her core metaphor.
She immediately joins the ranks of Jennifer Kent (Babadook) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) – all recent, first time horror filmmakers whose premier features predict boundless talent.
3. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Winter break approaches at a Catholic New England boarding school. Snow piles up outside, the buildings empty, yet Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) remain. One has tricked her parents for an extra day with her townie boyfriend. One remains under more mysterious circumstances.
Things in writer/director Oz Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter quietly unravel from there – although quiet is not precisely the word for it. There is a stillness to the chilly, empty halls. But thanks to the filmmaker’s brother Elvis, whose disquieting score fills these empty spaces with buzzing, whispering white noise, a sinister atmosphere is born.
Perkins repays your patience and your attention. You can expect few jump scares, but this is not exactly a slow-burn of a film, either.
It behaves almost in the way a picture book does. In a good picture book, the words tell only half the story. The illustrations don’t simply mirror the text, they tell their own story as well. If there is one particular and specific talent Blackcoat’s Daughter exposes in its director, it is his ability with a visual storyline.
Pay attention when you watch this one. There are loads of sinister little clues to find.
2. Hounds of Love
Driven by a fiercely invested and touchingly deranged performance from Emma Booth, Hounds of Love makes a subtle shift from horrific torture tale to psychological character study. In 108 grueling minutes, writer/director Ben Young’s feature debut marks him as a filmmaker with confident vision and exciting potential.
It is the late 1980s in Perth, Australia, and at least one young girl has already gone missing when the grounded Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) sneaks out her bedroom window to attend a party. This isn’t nearly as dumb a move as is accepting a ride from Evie White (Booth) and her husband John (Stephen Curry).
As the couple dance seductively and drink to celebrate, Young disturbingly conveys the weight of Vicki’s panicked realization that she is now their captive. It is just one in a series of moments where Young flexes impressive chops for visual storytelling, utilizing slo-motion, freeze frame, patient panning shots and carefully chosen soundtrack music to set the mood and advance the dreadful narrative without a spoken word.
And then, just when you might suspect his film to wallow in the grisly nature of the Whites’ plan for Vicki, Young turns to dialog sharp enough to upend your expectations, and three vivid characters are crafted in the suffocating dread of the White’s neighborhood home.
No doubt, events get brutal, but never without reminders that Young is a craftsman. Subtle additions, such as airplanes flying freely overhead to contrast with Vicki’s captivity, give Hounds of Love a steady dose of smarts, even as it’s shaking your core.
1. Get Out
Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around the cold realities of “walking while black,” writer/director Jordan Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation.
When white Rose (Alison Williams) takes her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet the fam, she assures him race will not be a problem. How can she be sure? Because her Dad (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama’s third term “if he could.” It’s the first of many B.S. alerts for Peele, and they only get more satisfying.
Rose’s family is overly polite at first, but then mom Missy (Catherine Keener) starts acting evasive and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) gets a bit threatening, while the gardener and the maid (both black – whaaat?) appear straight outta Stepford.
Peele is clearly a horror fan, and he gives knowing winks to many genre cliches (the jump scare, the dream) while anchoring his entire film in the upending of the “final girl.” This isn’t a young white coed trying to solve a mystery and save herself, it’s a young man of color, challenging the audience to enjoy the ride but understand why switching these roles in a horror film is a social critique in itself.
Get Out is an audacious first feature for Jordan Peele, a film that never stops entertaining as it consistently pays off the bets it is unafraid to make.