While horror fans have always known the genre was about something deeper than mindless gore, the massive success of last year’s Get Out gave the mainstream a chance to finally catch on. Horror in 2018 seemed to get more thoughtful consideration than it has in years past. When you’ve been paying attention to the genre for this long, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the sudden discovery that horror is about trauma, a word that popped up repeatedly in reviews of Hereditary, Suspiria, and Halloween. At the same time, this was an especially strong year for horror films with richly developed themes about grief, women’s bodily autonomy, and, yes, trauma; the fact that these movies are getting the mainstream analysis they’ve always deserved is ultimately a good thing. And if some films were overpraised for their deeper meaning — Halloween is not nearly as substantial as people seem to think it is — at least we’re taking horror seriously.
That’s not to say that all of the movies on this list are serious: Many of them are just fun! The majority, however, are at least tangentially concerned with bigger questions — questions that the heightened, high-stakes genre of horror is particularly good at exploring. As Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama told me, “I often feel like horror and genre in general can be a really great container for ideas that are harder to actually make movies about.” These are the movies that stuck with me, whether because they made me think, scared the shit out of me, or — in the case of the best of them — expertly did both.
19. What Keeps You Alive
Director: Colin Minihan
Writer: Colin Minihan
There’s a version of What Keeps You Alive that’s a lot less interesting than the movie we got: Writer-director Colin Minihan originally intended the film to be about a straight couple. As is so often the case, it turns out that queering the narrative was exactly what he needed to elevate his movie to the next level. Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) takes her wife, Jules (Brittany Allen), to a remote cabin to celebrate their one-year anniversary. As Jules learns more about Jackie’s mysterious past, she grows slightly wary — and that suspicion is amplified when Jackie suddenly shoves Jules off a cliff to her death. Jules doesn’t die, however, and What Keeps You Alive becomes a tense cat-and-mouse thriller. There are times when the plot strains credulity, but that’s easy enough to overlook when the suspense has been ratcheted up this high. Horror has often exposed that marriage can be a true nightmare: Extending that to a same-sex marriage is a breath of fresh air.
What Keeps You Alive is available to rent.
18. The Night Eats the World
Director: Dominique Rocher
Writers: Jérémie Guez, Guillaume Lemans, and Dominique Rocher
One of the most memorable parts of 2002’s 28 Days Later was the opening sequence. Sure, zombies are terrifying, but there’s something equally unnerving about just being the last man standing. French film The Night Eats the World leans into that idea, as Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) inadvertently sleeps through the zombie apocalypse and wakes up to discover that pretty much everyone around him has been horribly murdered and transformed into the walking dead. There have been plenty of zombie films that focus more on the aftermath than on the outbreak itself, but The Night Eats the World stands out as relentlessly inward-facing and meditative. The zombie threat is always there, but Sam is more concerned with human connection than with survival. He even attempts a (rather one-sided) friendship with a zombie. There’s very little action here, but there’s plenty of horror: All things considered, what’s scarier than being alone?
The Night Eats the World is available to rent.
Director: Ryûhei Kitamura
Writers: Ryûhei Kitamura and Joey O’Bryan
In Downrange, a group of young people get stranded on the side of a desolate road, where an unseen sniper begins picking them off one by one. That’s...about it. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that there aren’t really any twists here — no major reveals or changes of scenery. But even though it takes place in the open air, Downrange is a thrilling example of claustrophobic horror, as the sniper’s would-be victims crouch behind the safety of their SUV. The tension is in high supply, and so is the bloodshed: Director Ryûhei Kitamura, who also cowrote the screenplay, once again proves that he is a master of artful slasher gore, as he did in 2008’s appallingly gross The Midnight Meat Train. To that end, this is a horror film that is decidedly not for everyone, particularly given that the threat of gun violence is far too real. But if you can stomach it — and that’s a big if — Downrange is an impressively effective study in how to balance excess and restraint.
Downrange is streaming on Shudder.
Director: Gareth Evans
Writer: Gareth Evans
Those who are fans of filmmaker Gareth Evans for his gleefully violent Indonesian action film The Raid may be somewhat baffled by Apostle, a movie whose thrills are fewer and farther between. That’s not a mark against it: Apostle’s deliberate pacing works in its favor, so that when the film does arrive at its bloody conclusion, the carnage feels well-earned. Dan Stevens stars as Thomas Richardson, a man with a mysterious past who travels to a remote island to rescue his sister from a cult that is holding her for ransom. The truth of the cult — and of Thomas’s life before his arrival on the island — is portioned out piecemeal, but Evans is adept at building dread. Apostle gets under your skin so effectively that even when nothing expressly frightening is happening, you still feel on edge. And in the moments of more overt horror, Evans has created some remarkably harrowing images that linger in your mind long after the film is over.
Apostle is streaming on Netflix.
15. Clara's Ghost
Director: Bridey Elliott
Writer: Bridey Elliott
The mere presence of a ghost doesn’t earn a movie a horror designation, and Clara’s Ghost is certainly hard to categorize. But writer-director Bridey Elliott’s feature debut has a creeping sense of unease that easily earns it a spot on this list. It’s a lot funnier than Krisha, which topped my 2016 horror list, but both films use the language of horror to unpack the terror endemic to a dysfunctional family. Clara’s Ghost isn’t autobiographical, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it is, since Elliott casts her real-life family — her father, Chris Elliott; her sister, Abby Elliott; and her mother, Paula Niedert Elliott — as her family in the film. Paula plays the titular Clara, who has spent years neglected and mocked by a husband and kids who are too self-obsessed to notice how much she’s struggling. Whether the ghost she sees is real is sort of beside the point: her pain is. This is a comedy, but there’s real pathos to it, and Paula’s performance is, in a word, haunting.
Clara’s Ghost is available to rent.
14. Summer of 84
Directors: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell
Writers: Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith
There have been plenty of imitators since 1954’s Rear Window, perhaps because there’s something really frightening (and frighteningly believable) about discovering your neighbor is a murderer. (This year also gave us The Clovehitch Killer, in which a teenager begins to suspect his father is a serial killer.) But Summer of 84 is one of the more successful homages, not only to Rear Window but to ’80s teen adventure movies: It’s like The Goonies, except the buried treasure these kids are searching for is proof that their neighbor is murdering teenage boys. Yeah, this is dark, and that’s part of why it’s so effective — the tone is Stranger Things, but the threat is grounded in real-world horror, making the theme of lost innocence that much more potent. The success of movies about teenagers rests on the abilities of the young actors assembled, and Summer of 84’s strong cast, led by Graham Verchere as Davey, does a lot of heavy lifting.
Summer of 84 is streaming on Shudder.
13. The Little Stranger
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Lucinda Coxon
One of the biggest mysteries about The Little Stranger is why it came and went in theaters so unceremoniously. It’s director Lenny Abrahamson’s first film since his highly acclaimed 2015 drama Room, and it has a fabulous cast, including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, and Charlotte Rampling. But the 1940s-set The Little Stranger is slight by design: Despite its gothic trappings, this is a ghost story with the subtlest of thrills. Gleeson plays Dr. Faraday, a physician who is called to the Hundreds Hall estate where his mother was once a maid. There are whispers of an evil force in the house, but Faraday, a man of science, is not so easily convinced. The film’s intentional coldness and somewhat open-ended nature might prove too frustrating for some: The Little Stranger requires a fair amount of patience. But this is a movie you have to let yourself sink into, where the horror is not in the occasional bursts of violence but in the deeply unsettling mood Abrahamson creates.
The Little Stranger is available to rent.
Director: Julius Avery
Writers: Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith
War is hell, as countless films before Overlord have reminded us. But while the horrors of war have been depicted time and time again, few movies have offered such an explicit mashup of two seemingly distinctive genres. This is a war movie about a group of American soldiers who have been sent to destroy a German radio tower on the eve of D-Day. But when the soldiers stumble on something unexpected — secret Nazi experiments that include reanimating corpses — Overlord takes a wild left turn from war movie to zombie action thriller. Perhaps what’s most surprising about this genre-bender is how seamlessly its two divergent parts blend together. When you get right down to it, though, the high-stakes violence and explicit gore of war movies have never been far from what horror films have to offer; war movies just have that inexplicable sheen of respectability. Overlord exposes the brutal truth — bloodlust is bloodlust — and has a good time doing it.
Overlord will be available to rent in February.
Director: Adam MacDonald
Writer: Adam MacDonald
The central theme of Pyewacket — “be careful what you wish for” — is a horror standby. The key here is the execution, and Adam MacDonald’s deceptively nasty fable is especially effective at getting its point across. Nicole Muñoz stars as Leah, a teenage girl obsessed with black magic. She has a strained relationship with her mother (Laurie Holden), who provokes her daughter’s ire by moving them to a house in the woods away from Leah’s friends. In the grand tradition of horror movie characters making really bad decisions — and teenagers majorly overreacting — Leah summons the demon Pyewacket to kill her mother. MacDonald repeatedly subverts audience expectations, covering somewhat familiar terrain in a way that makes it seem brand new. And just when you think you finally have a handle on where things are going, Pyewacket hits you with a gut-punch of an ending that’s as heartbreaking as it is horrific.
Pyewacket is streaming on Hulu.
10. Good Manners
Directors: Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Writers: Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra
You could say that Good Manners is two movies in one. The film has two distinctive halves: In the first, a wealthy pregnant woman named Ana (Marjorie Estiano) hires Clara (Isabél Zuaa) to be a nanny for her unborn child. The two develop an intimate relationship, even as Clara discovers Ana’s very troubling nocturnal behavior. And in the second half — well, there’s no way to discuss the plot without giving too much away. Suffice it to say, after the truth of Ana’s pregnancy is revealed, Clara’s life takes a dramatic turn. Good Manners is the kind of movie you’re better off knowing nothing about. Calling this two movies in one is actually somewhat limiting: Good Manners is a horror movie, a romance, a musical, and a family drama. There’s even an animated sequence. On paper, it might sound like Good Manners is doing too much, but the strong performances and a solid emotional core make the whole endeavor compelling and surprisingly moving.
Good Manners is available to rent.
9. The Ritual
Director: David Bruckner
Writer: Joe Barton
The Ritual follows a group of four friends — once five — who take a hiking trip through a national park in Sweden to honor the wishes of Rob (Paul Reid), who was murdered in a botched convenience store robbery. There are strange happenings in the forest, and the deeper the men go, the more horrors they encounter: eviscerated animals hanging from trees, wounds on their bodies they can’t explain. But scarier than anything in the forest is what happened six months prior in that convenience store, where Luke (Rafe Spall) did nothing to intervene as his friend was hacked to death. The Ritual is at its most frightening when it flashes back to those moments: There is a literal monster in the forest, but the real horror is in Luke’s grief and his guilt at, in his mind, letting Rob die. The film builds to a wild crescendo, employing impressive creature effects for a particularly out-there climax, but wisely never loses sight of the shared trauma buried underneath.
The Ritual is streaming on Netflix.
8. Unfriended: Dark Web
Director: Stephen Susco
Writer: Stephen Susco
The first Unfriended movie — which earned a spot on my 2015 horror list — was a delightful surprise. How could a horror film that takes place entirely on a computer screen be this good? Unfriended: Dark Web posits an even more challenging question: How could a horror sequel that takes place entirely on a computer screen match and even improve on the original? The biggest point in Dark Web’s favor is that (mild spoiler alert) there’s nothing supernatural about it. While the first Unfriended was your pretty standard ghostly revenge story (with the twist of being told mostly via Skype), the sequel is a more complicated thriller about the dark web, where murder for hire is an actual possibility. Sure, the film showcases a highly unrealistic depiction of what that might look like — this is not a documentary — but what makes Dark Web so unsettling is that it’s not that far from reality. The internet doesn’t need ghosts to be scary; the internet is fucking terrifying as is.
Unfriended: Dark Web is available to rent.
Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Writer: Isa Mazzei
Cam is another horror film that largely takes place online, but there’s a more supernatural slant here. Alice (Madeline Brewer) earns her living as a cam girl, performing edgy live shows as “Lola” that blend nudity and violence. One day Alice is horrified to discover that Lola is broadcasting on her own: She tunes in and watches her exact double perform a show for an audience that is none the wiser. The horror of the double is a classic conceit — read Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” which was published nearly 100 years ago, for some fascinating context — but the cam girl angle offers a fun modern twist. The real surprise of Cam, however, is how it treats sex work: This is a progressive, sex-positive, unabashedly feminist film in a genre that has often been derided for punishing women for their sexuality. In addition to just being a total joy to watch, Cam is also a thoughtful exploration of the importance of women’s bodily autonomy at a time when that message is desperately needed.
Cam is streaming on Netflix.
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Writer: Coralie Fargeat
The rape-revenge movie has (mercifully) fallen out of favor since its heyday in the ’70s with films like The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. These movies inflict brutal sexual violence on their protagonists and use rape as character development, reflecting a seriously misguided conception of empowerment. With Revenge, writer-director Coralie Fargeat offers her take on the genre and shows that it is possible to do it right: As the title reflects, her focus is almost entirely on the revenge. Yes, Jen (Matilda Lutz) is raped at the beginning of the movie, but Fargeat is wisely restrained when it comes to what she shows. Instead, the brutality of Revenge comes almost entirely from the harm Jen inflicts on the men who attacked her and left her for dead. To those who are fundamentally opposed to the genre, Revenge will likely still be tough to endure, but Fargeat’s careful approach — and her female gaze — makes a world of difference here. The gloriously bloody finale provides real catharsis.
Revenge is streaming on Shudder.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer
While Unsane earned a “thriller” label from most critics, this is psychological horror at its finest. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is suffering from PTSD after escaping her stalker, David (Joshua Leonard). When she goes for a consultation at a psychiatric facility, she is tricked into committing herself, and soon finds herself trapped there. What’s worse, David has conned his way into a job as an orderly, and no one will believe her. Of course, it’s not just the staff of the facility who think Sawyer is seeing things — the audience has real doubts too. Unsane masterfully blurs the line between Sawyer’s legitimate fears and her paranoia. Steven Soderbergh’s decision to shoot the film on iPhone might just sound like a gimmick, but its unique look majorly ups the anxiety: This is an unbearably tense viewing experience. Unsane forces you into this nightmare scenario alongside Sawyer, all the while wondering if you can trust what you’re seeing.
Unsane is available to rent.
4. Mom and Dad
Director: Brian Taylor
Writer: Brian Taylor
When you need someone to deliver an unrestrained and thoroughly deranged performance, you call Nicolas Cage. While his fully committed work in Mandy — another gonzo horror film — got more attention this year, Mom and Dad is actually the better movie. Let’s be clear, it’s completely ridiculous, but it’s also well aware of that. Cage and the perpetually underrated Selma Blair play Brent and Kendall Ryan, parents who are doing the best they can for their teenage daughter and younger son. That is, of course, until a mysterious static signal causes all the parents who hear it to start murdering their children. It’s a wild concept, and Mom and Dad has an impressive amount of fun with it. Cage turns up the dial on his natural intensity to 11...thousand as he goes from doting dad to single-minded psychopath. There’s no real explanation for what’s happening here, no method to the madness at all, but watching these parents go apeshit for 80 minutes is a blast. Who needs logic?
Mom and Dad is streaming on Hulu.
3. A Quiet Place
Director: John Krasinski
Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski
Who could have predicted that John Krasinski — a newbie to horror — would emerge as one of the most exciting genre filmmakers? The success of A Quiet Place began with its clever concept: Alien creatures who hunt by sound have descended on Earth, murdering anyone who makes noise. A family of four must live in complete silence to survive. But Krasinski took that potential and helped transform A Quiet Place into a modern horror classic. To play his onscreen wife, he cast his real-life spouse Emily Blunt, who delivers a stunning performance including a breathtaking bathtub birth scene. He also made sure to cast Millicent Simmonds, an actor who is actually deaf, as a deaf character, giving the film important authenticity. And then there’s Krasinski’s direction: In his first-ever horror film, he shows a remarkable command of tension and suspense, creating some of the year’s most stressful sequences. If Krasinski sticks with the genre, chances are this won’t be his last time on these year-end horror lists.
A Quiet Place is available to rent.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: David Kajganich
The witches in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria aren’t really any less malicious than the witches in the 1977 Dario Argento film of the same name. So why are we now rooting for them? It’s a little more complicated than that (isn’t it always?), but there’s no denying that Guadagnino has a bias toward these powerful, terrifying women. They are the matrons at the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, where Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives to study dance. Susie is also drawn to the witches — though she doesn’t know they’re witches yet — and develops a bond with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) that wavers between maternal and sexual. Suspiria is all about that push and pull, constantly inviting you in while also keeping you at arm’s length. Guadagnino is adept at balancing the beautiful and the repulsive, and that’s the ideal vibe for a film whose witches are both brutal and right. With all the talk of “witch hunts,” how can you not take the witches’ side?
Suspiria will be available to rent on Jan. 15.
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
As someone who loves horror and writes about it often, people always ask me about the movies that have actually scared me. That’s a tough question to answer: Jump scares are easy, but real, lasting fear is much harder to pull off. I can count on one hand the films that have really, truly frightened me. I say that not to brag — I’m honestly really skittish, so jump scares get me every time — but to put things in perspective. Hereditary scared the shit out of me. The night after I saw it, I woke up with an actual panic attack. Writer-director Ari Aster set out to make a film that felt unsafe, and that’s the most apt description of this movie: It feels fundamentally wrong in a way that’s truly (intentionally) disconcerting. There is one scene so shocking that it made me want to leave the theater. It’s Hereditary’s willingness to push you to the breaking point — to make you want to literally flee — that makes it so relentlessly terrifying. What a treat that the best horror film of the year — not to mention one of 2018’s best films overall — is also easily one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Hail, Paimon.
Hereditary is streaming on Amazon.