The Very, Very Good and the Horrid
Last year was an unusually strong one for the horror genre, in terms of both artistic merit and the broader pop-cultural context. (Any year in which a straight-no-chaser indie horror feature can run away with a $250 million box office and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar is momentous.) Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that 2018’s horror offerings would feel like a bit of a letdown, a return to the more typical distribution of quality, wherein a few dark jewels stand out in a sea of mediocrity and outright garbage.
Looking back over the smoking ruins of 2018 — both in the cinematic and real-world sense — some of the year’s best horror cinema seemed to be absorbed with doom: variations on the notion that an awful fate is (or at least seems) utterly inescapable and unalterable. Beyond that sensation of a cataclysm slouching its way forward, a potent atmosphere of pessimism and fatalism also ran through the horror of 2018. Looking back over films as diverse at Annihilation, Beast, Hereditary, The Little Stranger, Mandy, and Suspiria, one is inclined toward the kind of anguished Old Testament sentiment voiced by Job: The thing which I greatly feared has come upon me.
What follows is an all-inclusive assessment of this year’s theatrical horror features, ranked from worst to best. A feature film qualifies for this list if it had an Academy Award-qualifying theatrical opening in New York City or Los Angeles between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, and could be viewed theatrically by the ticketed general public in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
31. Slender Man
2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Sylvain White / Opened in wide release on Aug. 10, 2018
It takes more than mere creative incompetence and a dearth of scares for a film to reach the nadir of these rankings. What makes Sylvain White’s jaw-droppingly terrible Slender Man the Worst Horror Film of 2018 is just how spectacularly incoherent it proves to be. The plot isn’t convoluted per se, but it is so ineptly conveyed that it becomes virtually impossible to parse. Forget apprehending what the titular bogeyman wants or what its powers are: It’s often challenging to puzzle out what the hell is even happening at any given moment. (White doesn’t deserve all of the blame here. The absence of the most promising tidbits from the film’s first trailer hints that studio monkeying is partly responsible.) That such baffling movie scrapple was crapped into multiplexes in the service of a hackneyed and forgettable teens-vs.-creepypasta story – rather than, say, some kind of misguided avant-garde experiment – is the ultimate insult
30. The Predator
2018 / USA / 107 min / Dir. by Shane Black / Opened in wide release on Sept. 14, 2018
The worst film Shane Black has ever made, by a depressingly enormous margin. In an attempt to pay homage to John McTiernan’s masterful and hyper-masculine 1987 original, The Predator takes a unceremonious dump all over its legacy. Embarrassingly terrible for a Hollywood franchise film.
29. The Meg
2018 / USA, China / 113 min. / Dir. by Jon Turteltaub / Opened in wide release on Aug. 10, 2018
Ever wondered what one of those crappy sci-fi horror “mockbusters” from The Asylum would look like if it was produced for $150 million? Director Jon Turteltaub made one. A film in which Jason Statham fights a 70-ft shark was always going to be stupid, but did it have to be this dull and disdainful of fun?
2018 / Australia, USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Michael and Peter Spierig / Opened in wide release on Feb. 2, 2018
There’s a touch of daft ambition in the Spierig Brothers’ effort to weave an ahistorical ghost story and anti-gun morality tale (huh?) out of the real-world weirdness of the Winchester Mystery House. Of course, there’s also a touch of daft ambition in jumping headfirst off a cliff.
2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Ruben Fleischer / Opened in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018
Sony and Ruben Fleischer attempt to turn Spider-Man’s nastiest nemesis into the anti-hero in a stand-alone body-horror action blockbuster. Unfortunately, the weirder bits aren’t remotely weird enough to justify Venom’s moronic superhero monotony.
26. Assassination Nation
2018 / USA / 108 min. / Dir. by Sam Levinson / Opened in select cities on Sept. 21, 2018
What happens when a writer-director gets it in their head to modernize The Crucible as an unholy hybrid of CW teen kitsch, sub-Tarantino edginess, and The Purge franchise? Assassination Nation happens: a gory, pseudo-woke thriller than doesn’t have a politically or morally cogent thought in its pretty little head.
25. Insidious: The Last Key
2018 / USA / 103 min. / Dir. by Adam Robitel / Opened in wide release on Jan. 5, 2018
The kindest thing one can say about the fourth entry in the increasingly idea-starved Insidious franchise is that the producers remain admirably determined to center their horror series around an emotionally vulnerable septuagenarian heroine (Lin Shaye). Sadly, The Last Key is otherwise a tedious grab-bag of soulless haunted-house shocks.
24. Hell Fest
2018 / USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Gregory Plotkin / Opened in select cities on Sept. 28, 2018
Hell Fest is saddled with chintzy production values, an embarrassing script, and terrible performances. And yet there’s an elemental pleasure in watching an old-school slasher flick like this unspool with such guileless confidence, and without superfluous, franchise-minded world-building.
23. The Nun
2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Corin Hardy / Opened in wide release on Sept. 7, 2018
The Nun boasts some excellent, creepy production design that evokes the classic horror features of the 1930s and ’40s, but that’s about all Corin Hardy’s prequel-spinoff to The Conjuring has going for it. It’s the platonic ideal of the crappy multiplex horror release ca. 2018: all aimless, mechanical jump-scares, ineffectively shored up with muddled “mythology.”
22. Truth or Dare
2018 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Jeff Wadlow / Opened in wide release on April 13, 2018
A rather ridiculous attempt to turn a drinking game into a feature-length horror story turns out to be … not as dreadful as it could have been? Granted, Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare is trash, but it’s intermittently entertaining trash that’s almost charmingly committed to its confused premise.
21. Anna and the Apocalypse
2017 / UK / 93 min. / Dir. by John McPhail / Opened in select U.S. cities on Nov. 30, 2018
John McPhail’s zombie Christmas musical splatter comedy is the inflection point in these rankings where the year’s horror features shift from bad to passable. There’s little in Anna and the Apocalypse that’s an outright misfire – excepting some of the later songs and a too-cartoonish antagonist – but it also feels like a complete waste of a promising genre mash-up.
20. The Possession of Hannah Grace
2018 / USA / 86 min. / Dir. by Diederik Van Rooijen / Opened in wide release on Nov. 30, 2018
Director Diederik Van Rooijen’s feature has a ruinously generic title, but while Hannah Grace is drearily beholden to demon-possession conventions, it’s also an odd departure from them. Beginning where such stories typically end, the film builds a kind of locked-room thriller around a late-night morgue attendant and a corpse infused with Satanic hoodoo. This glumly functional film is often stuck wandering in circles, but it’s also peculiar enough to leave an impression.
19. Bad Samaritan
2018 / USA / 110 min. / Dir. by Dean Devlin / Opened in select cities on May 4, 2018
Dean Devlin’s dunderheaded but modestly enjoyable serial-killer thriller has a few marks in its favor, principally Robert Sheehan, better than the film deserves as a petty thief who stumbles into the lair of a human monster. Given a bigger budget, a surer hand than Devlin, and a more ruthless commitment to its horror elements, Bad Samaritan might have emerged as halfway-decent art-horror trash.
18. The First Purge
2018 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Gerard McMurray / Opened in wide release on July 4, 2018
The Purge films have always been conceptually ludicrous, but with The First Purge, director Gerard McMurray at least manages to fashion the franchise’s latest chapter into grisly, semi-woke fun. The feature’s politics are only an inch deep, but at least they’re intelligible this time around, with McMurray fully committed to highlighting the plain but unfortunately relevant racial and class angles in the material.
2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by David Gordon Green / Opened in wide release on Oct. 19, 2018
The Predator might have been a complete boondoggle, but the sequel-slash-reboot to John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece was somehow the genre's bigger disappointment in 2018. The talent involved was promising – David Gordon Green directing! Jamie Lee Curtis returning! – but the resulting feature is little more than a slick, misguided Halloween fan film. At least Carpenter’s new score is aces.
2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Craig William Macneill / Opened in select cities on Sept. 14, 2018
To explore the why of Lizzie Borden’s real-world crimes, director Craig William Macneill adopts an approach halfway between psychological character study and revisionist feminist history. Unfortunately, Lizzie is neither insightful nor sharp-elbowed, just an atmospheric but turgid crime-horror flick that indulges in unnecessary structural shenanigans.
2018 / USA, Canada / 110 min. / Dir. by Julius Avery / Opened in wide release on Nov. 9, 2018
One is reluctant to call Overlord a failure, given that it unequivocally delivers on its conceptual promise: a throwback World War II-era actioner that takes a hard left into the sci-fi horror of the Castle Wolfenstein video-game series. Perhaps it’s simply that when compared to amusing Nazisploitation kitsch such Dead Snow and Iron Sky, Overlord feels strangely prosaic and straitlaced.
2018 / Australia / 100 min. / Dir. by Leigh Whannell / Opened in wide release on June 1, 2018
Director Leigh Whannell reaches behind the couch and pulls out a VHS tape in a ragged cardboard sleeve dated 1993. Inside is Upgrade, a modestly entertaining blend of action, sci-fi, horror, and black comedy that feels like something from an earlier era of genre filmmaking. Predictable and ludicrous but oh-so-stylish, the film features Logan Marshall-Green showing off some truly bonkers physical acting.
13. The House with a Clock in Its Walls
2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Eli Roth / Opened in wide release on Sept. 21, 2018
The Good: A pleasant, throwback atmosphere of warmth tinged with danger; Jack Black and Cate Blanchett as quirky next-door frenemies; Eli Roth proving he can deliver a film that isn’t sophomorically provocative; Blanchett’s chic purple ensembles. The Bad: So mild and by-the-numbers it will probably vanish down the memory hole in a year.
12. Unfriended: Dark Web
2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. Stephen Susco / Opened in wide release on July 20, 2018
Director Stephen Susco preserves the MacBook-desktop formal conceit of Unfriended and throws out everything else, including the supernatural hook. Instead, Dark Web serves up an abrasive, ludicrous, and yet chilling update to thrillers like The Game and The Net – one suitable for an era in which kitchen appliances are WiFi-enabled and personal privacy has been quietly strangled in the alley.
11. Good Manners
2018 / Brazil / 135 min. / Dir. by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas / Opened in select U.S. cities on July 27, 2018
Perhaps not the Brazilian social-realist, urban-musical, lesbian-romance werewolf movie the world deserves, but the Brazilian social-realist, urban-musical, lesbian-romance werewolf movie the world needs right now.
2018 / USA / Dir. by Steven Soderbergh / Opened in wide release on March 23, 2018
At first glance, Unsane resembles one of director Steven Soderbergh’s “for the suits” features. It Girl? Check: Claire Foy. Genre picture? Check: psychological horror. Zeitgeist relevance? Check: #MeToo angle. However, Soderbergh’s latest plays more like the chilly cynicism of Side Effects filtered through his experimental inclinations, resulting in a strange, skin-crawling entry in the ever-fecund subgenre where the protagonist may or may not be losing their mind.
9. The Little Stranger
2018 / UK / 111 min. / Dir. by Lenny Abrahamson / Opened in select U.S. cities on Aug. 31, 2018
While not an unqualified success, The Little Stranger represents one of 2018’s more impressive feats of cinematic adaptation. Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Lucinda Coxon translate Sarah Waters’ unsettling, ambiguous Interwar novel into an equally unsettling, ambiguous film. Contrary to the feature’s marketing, it’s barely a horror picture at all, but so intensely Gothic that it almost drips with Midlands damp.
8. Strangers: Prey at Night
2018 / UK, USA / 85 min. / Dir. by Johannes Roberts / Opened in wide release on March 9, 2018
If there was one truly unexpected development in the horror landscape of 2018, it’s that the overrated 2008 home-invasion thriller The Strangers would receive a sequel that, in its best moments, attained a giallo-level aesthetic intensity. Prey at Night is mostly just a gratifying maniacs-vs.-family slasher picture. And then: Bonnie Taylor’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” starts playing over the PA at a deserted swimming pool ...
2018 / UK, USA / 115 min. / Dir. by Alex Garland / Opened in wide release on Feb. 23, 2018
Alex Garland follows up his 2014 sci-fi masterwork Ex Machina with an ambitious and self-assured adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s enigmatic novel Annihilation. While at time straying into predictable creature-feature rhythms, Garland’s film is consistently bracing in terms of its formal artfulness. And by the third act, it turns seriously weird, radical, and mesmerizing.
2018 / Sweden / 110 min. / Dir. by Ali Abbasi / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 26, 2018
Between his twice-adapted vampire novel Let the Right One In and the screenplay for Border (reworked from his own short story), writer John Ajvide Lindqvist is well on his way to establishing a shared universe of dark European folklore reimagined for a modern world of loneliness and hidden depravity. Ali Abbasi’s unhurried and twisty supernatural thriller is the kind of cinematic curio that defies genre categorization, but it’s foremost a film that both revels in and humanizes the grotesque.
2018 / 152 min. / Italy, USA / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 26, 2018
All credit to Luca Guadagnino: Faced with the seemingly lose-lose challenge of remaking Dario Argento’s hallucinatory 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the director essentially gave birth to its evil twin. Severe instead of florid and political instead of mythic, Guadagnino’s feature is a ferociously feminine invocation of all the unsettled horrors of the 20th century. It might be content to be thought-provoking rather than ground-breaking, but it’s also utterly horrific in bizarre, innovative ways.
2018 / 121 min. / USA / Dir. by Panos Cosmatos / Opened in select U.S. cities on Sept. 14, 2018
It’s as though director Panos Cosmatos read a sniffy review that called his trippy but narcotic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow “weird” and thought, “You haven't seen weird yet ...” On paper, Cosmatos’ sophomore feature Mandy is a straightforward – if gory – revenge picture. In practice, it’s an utterly deranged descent into psychedelic Rule of Cool movie logic, the sort of film where a spot-on Nicolas Cage pauses in the middle of his rampage against demonic bikers and a messianic sex cult to forge a Klingon battle axe. Because why the hell not? The future stoner classic of 2018.
2017 / 107 min. / UK / Dir. by Michael Pearce / Opened in select U.S. cities on May 11, 2018
A genre purist would probably maintain that Beast is not really a horror picture, but director Michael Pearce’s deeply disturbing, astonishingly confident debut speaks for itself. Set on the wind-kissed Isle of Jersey, this tale of suffocating social isolation and wild-eyed paranoia is centered on the self-pitying Moll (Jessie Buckley). When she tumbles into a romance with a charismatic bloke who might be the island’s at-large serial killer, the question that vexes Moll isn’t so much whether he's guilty but, rather, whether his guilt even matters to her – and what does that say about her? In a just world, Buckley’s performance would be a star-making turn: It's a rare actor who can turn the “psycho eye-twitch” into an understated and authentically unnerving flourish.
2. A Quiet Place
2018 / 90 min. / USA / Dir. by John Krasinksi / Opened in wide release on April 6, 2018
For the horror aficionado, there’s a distinct pleasure in observing a mainstream audience connect with an standout entry in the genre, and that’s especially true of John Krasinki’s nerve-wracking creature-feature hit A Quiet Place. Conceptually irresistible yet narratively modest, Krasinki’s film sets itself apart from other multiplex fare through two small but brilliant gestures: brutally dispatching a seemingly untouchable character before the opening title even appears, and then cutting to black on a moment of absolute perfection, exactly at the 90-minute mark. In between those bookends, the director delivers one of the best family-in-peril thrillers of the past decade, built on little more than an elemental scenario, capable performers, and Krasinki’s own nimble, freshly energized instinct for cinematic storytelling.
2018 / 127 min. / USA / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018
The word-of-mouth that followed director Ari Aster’s debut feature in the wake of its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January was the kind of hype that invites scoffs from jaded horror enthusiasts. (This generation’s The Exorcist! The scariest thing you’ve ever seen!) Such hyperbole is almost never justified in the harsh sunlight of a wide release. However, when it slithered into theaters this summer, Hereditary didn’t just claim the mantle of Best Horror Film of 2018 – it was revealed as one of the most terrifying and traumatizing films of the 21st century.
If, by chance, the reader has not yet submitted themselves to Aster’s blood-curdling vision, the less said about the film the better. Suffice to say that Hereditary may not be the best horror film since the turn of the millennium, but it’s almost certainly the one that leaves the deepest scars. The feature contains images that sear themselves into the viewer’s brain, providing an unfailing reserve of nightmare fuel for years to come. Such suffering is the toll one pays for Aster’s bleak yet deeply resonant observations regarding humanity’s enthrallment to irresistible forces: genetic sequences, parental abuses, and the whims of the unquiet dead.
Much of the credit for this darkling triumph naturally goes to Aster’s virtuosic direction, as well as Colin Stetson’s almost preternaturally upsetting avant-garde compositions – a contender for the best film score of the year in a field with some stiff competition. Nonetheless, what elevates Hereditary from chilly formal exercise into something profoundly, calamitously harrowing are its performances, including excellent turns from Gabriel Byrne, Anne Dowd, and Milly Shapiro. However, the film’s clear breakout star is Alex Wolff, whose portrayal of adolescent son Peter acutely conveys the boy’s crushing sense of guilt and his creeping awareness of an approaching doom.
That said, the center ring of Hereditary undeniably belongs to the incomparable Toni Collette, delivering a career-best turn that is (somehow) simultaneously an authentic, spellbinding, and comically unhinged performance. Decades from now, when the gatekeepers of the horror canon look back on 2018, it’s going to be challenging for them to choose just one of Collette’s numerous iconic moments in Hereditary to exemplify the film’s hellish intensity. Of course, there’s only one moment that they probably can pick, when all is said and done: Collette, bug-eyed, face contorted, mouth a yawning abyss of Saturnian fury, shrieking across the dinner table at her petrified son: I am your MOTHER!!!