From decade to decade, horror is a genre constantly grappling with its past, the imagery and themes of its seminal works recurring in new configurations as the culture around it shifts. Witness Midsommar’s clumsy recapitulation of The Wicker Man’s famous climax not as transcendent theological black comedy but as a messy breakup, the structure and subject matter of Poltergeist and The Exorcist repeating in The Babadook and, with markedly less impressive results, Stranger Things. The 2010s have seen a groundswell of interest both critical and popular in horror film and its history.
Perhaps in light of our own protracted national nightmare this cultural rediscovery of horror was inevitable. At least you get to walk out of the theater afterward, adrenaline purged, fears given — at least for a little while — tangible form. After almost twenty years of war and chaos we’re finally starting to look inward at the bloody, tainted wellspring of the world in which we live. The result has been an embarrassment of riches, a new golden age of horror encompassing our modern anxieties in all their nihilistic misery. Here are my ten favorites of the decade.
10. Us (2019)
The blackly comedic Get Out put Jordan Peele on the map, but Us, his sophomore film, makes a much more nuanced and unsettling case for his talents as a horror director. A beautifully shot and lit nail-biter only slightly undercut by its script’s overabundance of sardonic quips, Us gets its fingernails into the cracks in black identity and class mobility and pulls until the squirming viscera beneath are laid bare. Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss as a hateful, drunken upper-class married couple are a nauseating delight and the film’s opening descent into the bowels of a cheesy boardwalk house of mirrors is almost unbearably tense. It’s a brutal movie behind its frightening conceit, a look at the silent and horrifying cost the world pays for our lives as Americans.
9. Unedited Footage of a Bear (2014)
Alan Resnick’s short film Unedited Footage of a Bear, which originally aired in the middle of the night on Adult Swim, is more like a recorded ketamine hallucination than a movie. Starting with someone’s candid cell phone video of a bear in the wild it transitions with seamless dream logic to an ominously vague commercial for “Claridryl” and then into a terrifying vision of “reality” in which the commercial’s star, a suburban mother, is confronted by her grinning doppelganger in the street. The commercial and the narrative which follows it are rendered fictionally indistinguishable by expertly unsettling editing, the psychotic home life of the doppelganger and her original’s children gruesomely fused with the commercial’s chirpy, antiseptic wholesomeness. It’s a grueling viewing experience and a brutal reminder that human nature allows for the normalization of even the most terrifying things.
8. The Handmaiden (2016)
An adaptation of the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a darkly funny love story about class, pornography, misogyny, and sex. With its nested plot twists and quietly sumptuous interiors it conveys effortlessly the suffocating feeling of the labyrinth of social restrictions within which its two heroines live. Its sex scenes are as intricate as its gross-out spectacles and nastily direct torture sequence, women’s bodies twining together in imitation of and expansion on the hoarded pornography which shapes so much of the story. It’s a resolutely adult and nuanced film about the ways in which we discover and experiment with our sexualities and the role porn can play in encouraging or malforming that exploration.
7. The Love Witch (2016)
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is a relentlessly idiosyncratic movie. Biller herself designed and made most of its costumes and dressed most of its sets — even painting the garish New Age occult oils in Elaine’s rented apartment — in addition to writing and directing, and her singular vision encompasses the film so thoroughly that it feels like staring at the world through her eyes. As the witch Elaine tumbles deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of her own warped beliefs about romance and gender, the film tilts from pastel fairytale to repulsively stunted nightmare, fantasy colliding with reality with a wet, sucking sound of metal piercing flesh.
6. Knife+Heart (2019)
Yann Gonzalez’s neon-soaked recreation of 1980s Paris’s gay underground scene is one of the most audacious horror movies in decades. A story about the painful inability of rejects to care for one another, it tracks a mutilated killer’s rampage through the world of vulnerable gay and trans sex workers and pornographers and the ways in which his victims’ loved ones move on from the tragedy, or fail to, as well as the ways they reproduce his self-loathing violence in their own lives. It’s a grimy, complicated look at life on the margins of an uncaring world and at the hurts large and small the people trapped there visit on each other.
- My Shocktober Was as Bountiful as 2019 Was Terrible
- Gears of War Has Secretly Always Been a Horror Franchise
- Alan Wake Defied Horror to Be the First Great “Terror Game”
5. It Follows (2014)
Disasterpiece’s alternately contemplative and anxiety-inducing synth score, Mika Monroe’s subdued performance as Jay, the overgrown rust belt desolation of its setting; It Follows feels like a haunted “lo-fi anime beats to study to” YouTube video, its hypnotic pace drawing you deeper and deeper into the terrifying conceit until the presence and absence of figures on the screen become equally nerve-wracking. That it probes further into the experience of life after being raped than anything in recent memory only heightens the film’s vulnerable tension. It’s a finger digging in an open wound.
4. The Babadook (2014)
As Amelia Vanek, Essie Davis is so burnt out, so visibly collapsing in on herself under the strain of raising her difficult son Samuel as a single mother that the screen itself practically crackles whenever she turns toward it. Jennifer Kent’s debut film is white-hot and draining, its scenes of desperate, bottomed-out child abuse both conscious and unconscious some of the most upsetting ever committed to film. “If you’re so hungry, why don’t you eat shit?” Amelia snarls at a trembling Samuel in one scene. Moments later she’s teary-eyed and begging his forgiveness, the entire coiling, slippery anatomy of abusive parenting laid out bare where we can’t look away from it.
3. Hagazussa (2017)
Lukas Feigelfeld’s crowdfunded arthouse debut about a young 15th century Alpine woman’s ostracization from her community is nasty and abject, a curdled vision of life as an outsider. Its earthily naturalistic feel extends to its actors’ greasy skin, blemishes, and failing teeth. And its sexual scenes — a woman fantasizing while milking her goat, a brutal hillside rape in which the victim and orchestrator but not the perpetrator are visible, a deranged mother smearing her daughter’s menstrual blood on the child’s forehead — carry that uncomfortable physicality into an even more intimate space, attaining a stronger feeling of immediacy than any film about conventionally perfect people could ever hope to touch.
2. The Witch (2015)
If art wants to find meaning in breaking things, it should break beautiful things first. Robert Eggers’ The Witch does just that, presenting a heretical Puritan family’s struggle to survive in the wilderness not just through privation but through moments of unbearable tenderness. When family patriarch William tries to explain to his twelve-year-old son why he doesn’t know if the family’s youngest, vanished and presumed dead, is in hell or not it’s like you can see actor Ralph Ineson coming apart inside, the crossed strings of his deeply-held faith and his love for his son fraying one another as they tighten. Eggers’ film is devastating not just because it reaches deep inside us and crushes something vital in our hands, but because it pulls it out and shows it to us first.
1. Under the Skin (2013)
A baby sits alone on a stretch of windswept Scottish shale beside the pounding sea. It screams in fear and discomfort while a beautiful stranger looks on from a short way up the beach, doing nothing. The stillness of Jonathan Glazer’s strange, predatory film, the emotionless sterility of it, is perhaps the most upsetting part. When emotion does finally penetrate the nameless woman the result is pitiful, the film’s entire structure inverting in an instant from hypnotic seduction to scrambling, infantile panic. Composer Mica Levi’s score seethes and murmurs under all of it, indistinguishable from the events it backs. It’s maybe the single most incredible horror soundtrack since John William’s score for Jaws, so mesmerizing that it lingers even in still images of the oily black void, the film’s defining image and its single deepest point of cultural penetration. Under the Skin is pure terror, sinuous and cold.