It’s that time again. Another year has come to an end. Another decade, even. We defied the odds and live to fight another day, just like horror cinema proved itself – once again – a genre that continues to survive, adapt and thrive. Even at that, 2019 was an odd year for horror in that mainstream titles featuring household villains ended up leaving less of a mark than so many vastly different indies (in my opinion). If anything, 2019 was a reminder of the tremendous diversity among horror subgenres that offer a cornucopia of terror. Take your pick, choose your fate and dive into Part I of our top horror movies of 2019.
In a year when toxic masculinity takedowns skewered fratboy culture on a rotating spit, Pledge paddles Greek life into submission. Three boys, a “dudes only” initiation and the true meaning of “Hell Night.” Director Daniel Robbins and writer Zack Weiner tread aggressively within lockdown parameters while unleashing their macho-cult villains upon “outcast” college freshman. Aaron Dalla Villa is on full display as the secretive fraternity’s most psychotic pillar, while pledges deemed “too weird” for “normal” Greek communities find themselves endangered in the name of acceptance, popularity and “brotherhood.” A lean, mean and uppercase NASTY collegiate horror story.
Arthouse, renegade filmmaking and possession takeovers collide in Tilman Singer’s Luz. As a cabbie mimes the illegal actions of her wild night “under the influence” while being interrogated inside a police station, Singer’s hypnotic vision overtakes like a hallucinogen passed from Satan’s tongue. Luana Velis stands out as driver “Luz,” as the demonic angle of her implausible recollections is treated with bizarre vitality. We’ve seen exorcisms, priests shaking crucifixes and chanting, but this is a cryptic delusion you can’t sweat out. Even better? The running time is under 90 minutes. In, out, and the job is handily done. Imagine submitting *this* as your graduate thesis (true story).
18) Party Hard, Die Young
When – hear my words, WHEN – we talk about the slasher renaissance upon us, Party Hard, Die Young will be one of the frontline examples. Dominik Hartel finds a way to evoke the essence of ‘80s teenage slashers while modernizing themes for our modern social climate. European high school graduates spend a week partying at X-Con before their college-equivalent education begins, but a slasher villain crashes their carefree raving. Sex, drugs and heavy electronica beats influence this throwback subgenre treat candy-coated in slick neon cinematography. Kills deliver while messaging takes a stance against social horrors of our time. This, dear readers, is how you resurrect a “dead” subgenre.
There’s a reason Lupita Nyong’o is being recognized by film critic guilds as the year’s best actress for Us. The duality between each tethered role is such an accomplishment; men playing monsters and vice versa. Jordan Peele takes some mighty ambitious storytelling risks that translate into freaky-scary psychological mania. Now we have a Halloween costume that’s to be repeated for years to come and a new perspective on household scissors. Between the “neighbor fight” (we’ll call it) and Lupita’s classroom tango against herself, Us remains such a panic-driven slice of representative horror. I am so very excited to see how Peele expresses himself next.
16) Happy Death Day 2U
As someone who wasn’t smitten by Happy Death Day, sequel Happy Death Day 2U stands as one of 2019’s sweetest surprises. By abandoning a more straightforward slasher foundation, Christopher Landon’s second serving of time-loop horror is a richer, tastier recipe. Jessica Rothe once again boasts survivor-girl charisma as Tree Gelbman, but scripted devotion to traumas of the sorority student’s past this time around makes for deeper investment. I’ll admit, levels of horror are lessened in favor of sci-fi inventiveness and coming-of-age comedy – but, miraculously, this only helps Happy Death Day 2U. One of the only instances where I’ll confess that less outright horror is more.
15) Pet Sematary
Hi, it’s me, one of many critics who wrote a positive review of Pet Sematary out of SXSW because we *actually* enjoyed every second. We exist, I promise! Filmmakers Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer bring darkness to Ludlow, Maine, from foggy soundstage marshes to eerie backwoods treelines. From processions of animal-masked children to Jeté Laurence’s “twist” transformation. It’s not so much that Kölsch and Widmyer resurrect a Stephen King novel, but breathe life through some twisted necromancer’s curse. Again, you’re tuning in for Laurence’s adolescent performance and how a broken family rolls the dice on reanimation. It’s tragedy caked in filth, just how I like my horror.
14) Culture Shock
In a year of largely underwhelming Into The Dark entries, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock stands atop the shoulders of more generic anthology horror ideas. Guerrero’s commentary on nationalism, border walls and loudmouth politics brings razor-wire satire to Hulu’s collection of holiday horror tales. What transpires could be described as “Black Mirror meets a Ted Nugent rally speech,” but Guerrero perfects a tonal balance between exaggerated exploitation and realistic audacity. The kind of perspective best handled by culturally representative filmmakers, especially when addressing the “American Dream” from a Mexican point of view. Fiesty, unafraid, and worth the megaphone proclamations.
13) The Pool
What do a Pizza Hut delivery man, drained Olympic swimming pool and ornery crocodile have in common? Watch The Pool and you’ll find out. From Thailand comes Ping Lumpraploeng’s gleefully mean-spirited creature feature, equal parts single-location survival story and “When Animals Attack” battle vs. nature. You’d think the gimmick would wear thin, but main character “Day” is positively brutalized every time Lumpraploeng teases a glimmer of hope. It’s despicable, frankly, but also what makes this pseudo-aquatic horror flick such a stupidly fun blast of improbable, over-dramatized “terror.” Abandon sanity and rationale, order an extra-cheese pie and invite over a few midnight-movie buds for maximum effect.
Oh, trigger warning for any dog lovers…just to be safe.
Belzebuth takes the kitchen sink approach to possession filmmaking, handily avoiding repetition. You’ve got a tattooed Tobin Bell who plays this maverick biker-badass exorcist; the excommunicated padre. Also religious run-ins with talking Jesus statues, unthinkable amounts of child endangerment and appreciated Álex de la Iglesia vibes. Unlikely evil hunters team up, from lawmen to paranormal investigations, who must prevent more children from dying at the hands of religious blasphemy. Some might say Belzebuth is “a lot,” but I’m very here for each dip and swerve.
Is it weird to use the phrase “relationship goals” when describing a film in which small-time criminals are held hostage by the homeowners who interrupt their ongoing robbery? Villains is a darkly humorous home invasion flick that quickly turns into southern-comfort torture. Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe display chemistry on chart-topping levels as bumbling crooks who tenderly love one another with sweetened warmth. On the opposition are Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick, who flip from victims to sophisticated wardens intent on punishing two down-on-their-luck grifters. A game of cat and mouse that’s predatory, delightfully batty and hilariously sinister.