In a year in which real-world political and cultural events often seemed like fodder for a surreal nightmare, horror cinema could often appear superfluous. Even dedicated aficionados of the genre could be forgiven for questioning the escapist value of ghosts, demons, and chainsaw-wielding maniacs in a time when natural disasters, mass shootings, and super-villainous politicians seemed ascendant. Certainly, film distributors both big and small didn't do viewers or themselves any favors by flooding the multiplex with an embarrassment of cheapjack sub-theatrical rubbish. While 2017's horror releases didn't quite reach the insulting and offensive depths attained in 2016, looking back on this year reveals a dispiriting streak of lifeless crappiness. On the positive side, the year also produced an encouraging number of superb films. Rather than just one or two standouts, 2017 delivered several striking features that will be savored, unpacked, and re-evaluated for years to come. Intriguingly, the most exciting works of horror this year were often those that embraced the present moment (intentionally or not) rather than running from it, finding rich potential in notions of privilege, trauma, oppression, and apocalyptic uncertainty.
What follows is an all-inclusive assessment of this year’s theatrical horror features, ranked from worst to best. A film qualifies for this list if it could be viewed theatrically by the ticketed general public in the St. Louis metropolitan area between January 1 and December 31, 2017.
26. The Bye Bye Man
2017 / USA, China / Dir. by Stacy Title / Opened in wide release on January 13, 2017
It’s not just that Stacy Title’s film-shaped excretion is miserably ugly, laughably chintzy, and terminally un-scary. It’s that absolutely nothing about The Bye Bye Man is remotely functional. The unbelievable, unappealing characters consistently behave like morons who richly deserve their unholy fates. The villain is an unthreatening, arbitrary grab-bag of attributes with no backstory. And the plot is horrendously dull and nonsensical, when it’s not outright schizophrenic. How such an obnoxious, incompetent mess ever managed a wide theatrical release—even in January—defies human reasoning. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
25. Underworld: Blood Wars
2017 / USA / Dir. by Anna Foerster / Opened in wide release on January 6, 2017
Given the franchise’s history, anyone who blundered into Anna Foerster’s Underworld: Blood Wars expecting even a halfway bearable film was always bound to be disappointed. However, there’s something galling about the fact that the series’ producers continue to churn out features as unpleasant, wearisome, and stridently stupid as this unwanted fifth helping of vampires vs. werewolves compost. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
24. Don't Kill It
2016 / USA / Dir. by Mike Mendez / Opened in select cities on March 3, 2017
Redoubtable meathead Dolph Lundren enjoys himself in the role of a grizzled, acerbic demon hunter, and the film’s splatterhound goofiness is fleetingly enjoyable. However, Mike Mendez’s Don’t Kill It is a dismal exemplar of low-budget horror’s worst inclinations: boring characters; terrible dialog; aimless narrative; and all the transgressive “cleverness” of a 14-year-old glue huffer’s creative writing project.
2017 / USA, Canada / Dir. by Niels Arden Oplev / Opened in wide release on September 29, 2017
Setting aside whatever reasoning could have possibly prompted a remake of Joel Schumacher’s stylish and moody 1990 feature, Niels Arden Oplev’s Flatliners is a cavalcade of cinematic blunders from start to finish. Squandering a talented cast and betraying not one glimmer of visual or narrative originality, it also commits the worst possible sin for a supposed horror thriller: never being remotely scary.
22. Phoenix Forgotten
2017 / USA / Dir. by Justin Barber / Opened in wide release on April 21, 2017
Justin Barber’s sci-fi horror nothingburger seems convinced that the world wanted a shameless Blair Witch clone about the 1997 Arizona UFO sightings. Even if that were true, surely no one asked for a film as ungainly, tedious, and charmless as Phoenix Forgotten, which bewilderingly elects to nest a dull found footage story inside another dull found footage story.
21. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
2017 / UK, France, USA, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Japan, Australia / Dir. by Paul W.S. Anderson / Opened in wide release on January 27, 2017
Consistent with every entry in this inexplicably still-twitching series, the only appealing aspect of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is Milla Jovovich’s magnetism and her enthusiasm for such chuckleheaded material. Those alone aren’t remotely sufficient to redeem the sixth entry in the franchise, which is just as mind-numbing, visually unintelligible, and grimly idiotic as its predecessors. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
20. Friend Request
2016 / Germany / Dir. by Michael Verhoeven / Opened in wide release on September 22, 2017
Michael Verhoeven’s film isn’t quite as insufferable as its dire “haunted social media” high concept forebodes, and it even manages some grisly funhouse shocks at times. However, such meager merits hardly outweigh the tin-eared dialog, derivative design, and predictable plotting. Most repugnantly, Friend Request proffers a message that seems to advocate the pitiless spurning of misfits and outsiders. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
19. The Mummy
2017 / USA, China, Japan / Dir. by Alex Kurtzman / Opened in wide release on June 9, 2017
Alex Kurtzman’s muddled, dreary attempt to kick-start an ill-conceived Universal monster multiverse isn’t as unremittingly wretched as its reputation implies. Still, a couple of modestly inspired action-fantasy set pieces and Sofia Boutella's formidable allure can’t salvage a film so hilariously misconceived, shabbily considered, and atrociously written. At least Stephen Sommers’ 1999 version was fun in a self-consciously kitschy way.
2017 / USA, Canada / Dir. by Michael and Peter Spierig / Opened in wide release on October 27, 2017
Whenever a new entry in the Saw franchise shambles along, one can at least count on the spectacle of distasteful characters perishing in inventive death traps. In this respect, Michael and Peter Spierig’s Jigsaw delivers, and more stylishly than usual, but the series’ most obnoxious characteristics are also accounted for: ludicrous dialog, moral incoherence, and a distracting direct-to-VOD shoddiness.
17. 47 Meters Down
2017 / UK, Dominican Republic, USA / Dir. by Johannes Roberts / Opened in wide release on June 16, 2017
Johannes Roberts’ film fulfills the most essential function of a killer shark picture, in that it does a capable, even thrilling job of sending ravenous great whites hurtling towards the tender flesh of its heroines. That’s about all that the colorless 47 Meters Down has going for it, however, in between bland characters, limp melodrama, and a contemptuous third act fake-out.
16. Wish Upon
2017 / USA, Canada / Dir. by John R. Leonetti / Opened in wide release on July 14, 2017
Joey King’s lead turn as a hard-luck yet self-absorbed Everygirl is the only bright spot in John R. Leonetti’s peculiar, ludicrous mashup of “The Monkey’s Paw” and the Final Destination films. Gloomy yet daft, Wish Upon often feels like a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons, but its palpable contempt for teenagers sours any potential for black comedy.
2017 / USA / Dir. by F. Javier Gutiérrez / Opened in wide release on February 3, 2017
More passable than a 15-years-later sequel to The Ring has any right to be, F. Javier Gutiérrez’s film is just barely held afloat by some stylish touches and a plot that cleverly remixes that of the original. At bottom, Rings is more of a creepy, silly “what if” follow-up than a sturdy standalone feature, but it could have been much worse. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
2017 / USA / Dir. by Daniel Espinosa / Opened in wide release on March 24, 2017
The conventional wisdom is largely on point regarding Daniel Espinosa’s unapologetic Alien rip-off Life. The story is derivative as hell, and the allegedly brilliant scientist and engineer characters consistently make roundly stupid choices. However, the film is also genuinely nerve-wracking, conjuring a potent mood of raw animal dread and cascading pandemonium. Moreover, twist endings don’t come much bleaker.
13. The Belko Experiment
2016 / USA, Columbia / Dir. by Greg McLean / Opened in wide release on March 17, 2017
Greg McLean’s white collar horror satire never figures out exactly what it’s satirizing, and the screenplay is prone to ham-fistedness where story and character are concerned. Still, The Belko Experiment’s sheer viciousness is a thing to behold. There’s gore aplenty, of course, but the film doesn’t skimp on pitch-black pessimism or cruel subversions of viewer expectations. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
12. Annabelle: Creation
2017 / USA / Dir. by David F. Sandberg / Opened in wide release on August 11, 2017
While David F. Sandberg’s forbidding killer doll feature isn’t original enough to qualify as a truly standout horror film, it’s an absurdly steep improvement over 2014’s asinine and unbearably dull Annabelle. Haunted house and demon possession story clichés abound, but Annabelle: Creation implements them with lush gothic atmosphere and a pair of engaging performances from its lead child actresses. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.
11. Happy Death Day
2017 / USA / Dir. by Christopher Landon / Opened in wide release on October 13, 2017
If there was an honest-to-god surprise in 2017’s cinematic landscape, it was Christopher Landon’s ridiculously charming slasher comedy Happy Death Day. Anchored by a winning lead turn from Jessica Rothe, the film transcends its elevator pitch premise—Scream meets Groundhog Day—with brisk visual and situational wit, an infectious sense of morbid fun, and a surprisingly earnest indictment of self-absorption.
2017 / USA, Canada / Dir. by Andy Muschietti / September 8, 2017
Andy Muschietti’s film takes a few story missteps and doesn’t quite give Stephen King’s novel the expansive treatment it deserves. These quibbles aside, however, It is a deliriously entertaining dose of childhood nightmare fuel. With its phenomenal tween cast, unfailingly creepy visuals, and Bill Skarsgård’s bracingly inhuman Pennywise, the film expertly balances mortal terror and carnival absurdity. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
9. Alien: Covenant
2017 / USA, UK / Dir. by Ridley Scott / Opened in wide release on May 19, 2017
Ridley Scott finds a darkly intoxicating sweet spot with Alien: Covenant, striking a gratifying equipoise between Prometheus’ solemn Big Ideas science fiction and the elemental, creature-in-the-dark terror of the franchise’s 1979 original. Stellar action-horror set pieces and a chilling gothic-apocalyptic mood are vital to the film’s success, but it’s Michael Fassbender’s astonishing dual performance that steals the show. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.
2016 / USA, Japan / Dir. by M. Night Shyamalan / Opened in wide release on January 20, 2017
Notwithstanding the psychological authenticity of its premise, M. Night Shyamalan’s ingeniously constructed and consistently mesmerizing Split is the director’s all-around best feature in years. James McAvoy’s nimble (and surprisingly witty) portrayal of serial killer with multiple personalities is the film’s marquee draw, but it’s Anya Taylor-Joy’s quietly superb performance that lends pathos to the feature's Tales from the Crypt concept. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine and discussed further at Gateway Cinephile.
7. It Comes at Night
2017 / USA / Dir. by Trey Edward Shults / Opened in wide release on June 9, 2017
Horror stories don’t come much more shattering than Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, a post-apocalyptic chamber piece that trades the subgenre’s plague zombies for the more insidious monsters of terror, paranoia, and despair. With a handful of raw materials—two families, a farmhouse, and a mysterious plague—Shults transforms everyday human failings into the stuff of nightmares. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.
2017 / Norway, France, Denmark, Sweden / Dir. by Joachim Trier / Opened in select U.S. cities on November 10, 2017; locally on December 1, 2017
Joachim Trier’s film blends freshman campus melodrama, aching queer romance, and the uncanniness of X-Men to achieve a haunting and morally thorny tale of psychic terror. Thelma’s splendidly chilling visuals and a tormented, enigmatic performance from Eili Harboe are the most vivid attractions, but what’s most commendable is the film’s fearlessness in confronting the grotesque implications of its premise.
2017 / USA / Dir. by Darren Aronofsky / Opened in wide release on September 15, 2017
Widely (and inexplicably) misconstrued as both pretentious and misogynistic, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is the most audacious studio feature of the year: a primal scream of feminine rage with a searing contempt for the negligence of the self-absorbed male ego. Drawing from Polanski, de Palma, and del Toro—among others—and painting with Old Testament fire and brimstone, Aronofsky presents an allegorical nightmare with numerous potential interpretations. In its final 25 or so minutes, mother! mutates from skin-crawling psychological horror into unrelenting apocalyptic pandemonium, delivering one of 2017's most harrowing cinematic passages. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
4. Get Out
2017 / USA, Japan / Dir. by Jordan Peele / Opened in wide release on February 24, 2017
Distilled down to its fundamental plot workings, Get Out is a relatively orthodox mash-up of the satanic cult and survival horror subgenres, albeit one executed with astonishing dexterity and agreeably eccentric flourishes. What truly distinguishes Jordan Peele’s galvanic debut feature is what the director achieves with those conventional story components: a candid, deeply resonant depiction of black Americans' daily indignities and worst fears. Eschewing alt-right buffoons and Klan dragons for the more Machiavellian evil of wealthy, body-snatching white liberals, Peele creates an entirely new category of incisive horror overnight, etching Get Out’s place as a one of the seminal works of the genre in the 2010s. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.
3. A Cure for Wellness
2016 / USA, Germany / Dir. by Gore Verbinski / Opened in wide release on February 17, 2017
The most obvious factors that distinguish Gore Verbinski’s mad riff on The Magic Mountain from the lush gothic B-pictures of the 1960s are the absence of Vincent Price and the presence of R-rated gore and nudity. No cobwebby Technicolor castle ever looked as eerily magnificent as anything in A Cure for Wellness, however, and no Roger Corman chiller was ever so gloriously, evocatively nightmarish in its disregard for lucid storytelling. There’s no denying that Verbinski’s film is wanton, undisciplined, and illogical. It’s also utterly spellbinding for every one of its 146 indulgent minutes. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine and discussed further at Gateway Cinephile.
2016 / France, Belgium, Italy / Dir. by Julia Ducournau / Opened in select U.S. cities on March 10, 2017; locally on March 31, 2017
Positioning a young woman’s emergent cannibalistic urge as a proxy for her wild and alarming sexual liberation, Julia Ducournau’s feature embraces its central allegory as lustily as its anti-heroine scarfs down raw chicken breasts and nibbles at a severed finger. Dense with desolate visuals, Raw transforms a modernist college campus into a carnal inferno of concrete, blood, linoleum, and gristle. What most impresses about Ducournau’s film, however, is the nimble intelligence of its unapologetically feminist ethos. Keenly attuned to the way that society polices women’s choices, Raw employs its cannibalism metaphor to sharply interrogate the enforcement of sexual norms. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.
1. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
2017 / UK, USA, Ireland / Dir. by Yorgos Lathimos / Opened in select cities on October 20, 2017; locally on December 1, 2017
Director Yorgos Lathimos takes the plunge into full-fledged psychological horror, and the result is absorbing, unsettling, and profoundly perverse. In world where even the most familiar human connections are defined by blank awkwardness, The Killing of a Sacred Deer depicts a bizarre revenge story as fantastical as it is implacable. Colin Farrell is subtly enthralling in his depiction of a self-absorbed surgeon who cannot accept the horror that is lurching towards him, but the film’s standout performance is Barry Keoghan’s cold-blooded adolescent monster. Lathimos and his crew unfailingly demonstrate a virtuosic command of composition, lighting, sound, and music, crafting some of the most viscerally disturbing imagery and sequences of 2017. WIth cold precision, Killing reaches down into the shameful depths of human anxiety, extracting the blind, unreasonable terror that every secret will be uncovered, every sin will come to light, and every evil will be returned in kind. However, like all great horror films, Lathimos’ feature is ultimately frightening for reasons that defy articulation. It pulses with the sublime terror of the irrational and trembles with the fearsomeness of a vengeful, inscrutable god. Reviewed here.