For horror cinema, 2019 was a year defined by expectations: high hopes fulfilled; cautious optimism dashed; sinking sensations confirmed; and left-field surprises aplenty. Three of the genre’s emergent auteurs – Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, and Jordan Peele – debuted highly anticipated sophomore works, all of them bracing and distinctive. Crappy-looking sequels in crappy franchises turned out to be crappy – except for the latest Annabelle, which is somehow the best Annabelle. Genre-hopping veterans ventured back into horror with results ranging from unfortunate (The Dead Don’t Die) to campy (Greta) to delirious (Climax). Stephen King reared his head not once, not twice, but thrice. Back-to-basics thrill rides like Crawl and Ready or Not illustrated the virtues of lean-and-mean horror fundamentals. Rob Zombie is still cranking out low-budget nastiness, Satan bless him. And out of nowhere, a mostly unknown Mexican filmmaker strode effortlessly into the genre with the best feature of the year.
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 between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019, and could be viewed theatrically by the ticketed general public in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
27. 47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Johannes Roberts’ sequel is so numbingly bad it makes its anonymous, exasperating predecessor look like a work of kitschy genius in comparison. Spectacularly dumb, repellently awkward, and not remotely scary – plus, the digital sharks look awful.
The creative minds behind the Unfriended series must be quite annoyed that their future “End User License Agreement: The Horror Movie” concept has already been snapped up by a film this shoddy, unimaginative, and monstrously tedious.
Michael Chaves’ lumpy, dreary ghost story illustrates that a multiplex studio horror release can be bare-minimum competent and still feel like an utter disappointment. It’s depressing that this listless nonsense is what passes for Latinx representation in the Conjuring-verse.
24. The Intruder
Deon Taylor’s film is a capital-B Bad Movie in the “psycho stalker” subgenre that’s saved from its own unremitting awfulness by sledgehammer-subtle Trump-era allegory and an utterly bonkers performance from a very sweaty and haggard Dennis Quaid.
The embarrassingly janky Brightburn is a glorified What If story that turns Superman’s origin into a protracted and incoherent metaphor about toxic masculinity. At least the horror elements, when they appear, are genuinely horrifying.
In a year littered with the rotting corpses of unsuccessful studio franchise sequels, this film might be 2019’s biggest disappointment. Jim Jarmusch made a very weird, all-star zombie flick and the result is listless, unfunny, and thuddingly obvious.
21. Child’s Play
Lars Klevberg’s sci-fi reimagining of everyone’s favorite killer doll is preposterous and predictable, but it’s also modestly clever in a crude sort of way. Who would have thought a Child’s Play reboot in 2019 would amount to a juvenile, gore-spattered EC Comics parable about the Internet of Things?
20. The Prodigy
Through most of its running time, Nicholas McCarthy’s Bad Seed riff is a glum and stiffly ponderous work. It’s the third-act turn, however, that elevates The Prodigy into an ambitious failure, delivering one of the darkest and ballsiest twists in multiplex horror this year.
19. Escape Room
It’s patently ridiculous and indulges in some truly inane world-building in its final stretch, but Adam Robitel’s survival-horror gewgaw has more style and imagination in one of its puzzle-box deathtrap rooms than can be found in any given Saw film.
On the one hand, Greta is self-conscious trash with a lip-smacking Isabelle Huppert performance at its center. On the other hand, it’s such a forgettable, kitschy nothingburger that it leaves no lasting impression.
Sophia Takal’s ground-up reimagining of Bob Clark’s 1974 slasher had potential, but its bloodless PG-13 scares and pandering sloganeering do a disservice to its gleeful, misogyny-skewering ambitions.
16. Zombieland: Double Tap
Ruben Fleischer’s sequel to his cheeky original film wasn’t remotely necessary, and it certainly lacks the spark of novelty. However, the charismatic and enthusiastic cast at least partly salvages Double Tap from the inevitable familiarity of a retread.
15. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Wedging the creepy tales from a beloved YA anthology into a single narrative is an odd choice, as is turning the whole affair into wobbly metaphor about Vietnam and Richard Nixon. Moment to moment, however, André Øvredal’s feature serves up enough skin-crawling imagery to satisfy.
Andy Muschietti’s return to Derry, Maine is solid enough, but it doesn’t have the same bittersweet charm or funhouse madness as Chapter One. The adult cast members are generally weaker and less engaging than their tween forebears, and even Pennywise’s grotesque theatrics aren’t sufficient to distract from the film’s overall rambling inelegance.
13. 3 from Hell
Rob Zombie’s wild-eyed, grindhouse sensibilities always peek through, even when he’s hobbled by a shoestring budget and a fever-dream screenplay. 3 from Hell is something of a plodding disappointment, but there's still more agent-of-chaos energy it is sleazy crevasses than in the entirety of Joker.
There’s an irresistible appeal to Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer giving her all in a trashy B-movie like Tate Taylor’s small-town tale of festering resentment and bloody revenge. However, Ma’s awkward handling of racial subtext ultimately makes it feel a bit confused and compromised.
Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s remake generally one-ups the 1989 original in terms of eerie style and sheer R-rated nastiness, even if there’s still something still lacking in this adaptation of Stephen King’s darkest, most morally blasphemous novel.
Admittedly, this sequel to the 2017 sleeper hit pushes its horror elements far into the background in favor of wacky comedy and spiraling sci-fi lunacy. However, Happy Death Day 2U still boasts the components that made the original such a pleasure: crackpot narrative energy and a heavenly comedic turn from Jessica Rothe.
9. Annabelle Comes Home
Gary Dauberman’s spooky, unexpectedly entertaining film is the best Annabelle feature to date. It’s also the first Conjuring spinoff that feels unabashedly fun, packing enough gleeful demonic mischief for an entire horror franchise into a single, Halloween-inspired night.
The midnight-movie cousin to Knives Out and Parasite – 2019’s other screw-the-rich satires – Ready or Not is the best work yet from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Eschewing sober allegory for gruesome, devil-worshipping excess, the film turns a simple game of hide-and-seek into the stuff of giddy, gore-drenched catharsis.
Mike Flanagan cunningly resolves two novels and one iconic film into a fresh work of disquieting psychic horror, crowned by a mesmerizing villainous turn from Rebecca Ferguson. If only the director had resisted turning his feature into a Stanley Kubrick fan film in its final stretch, Doctor Sleep might have been great rather than merely very good.
Climax is simultaneously a dazzling dance musical, a grueling hedonistic nightmare, and a scared-straight PSA on acid (literally). The always-provocative Gaspar Noé crafts an experience that’s as hypnotic as it is divisive, edging the style and boundaries of the genre in uncomfortable, sweat-slicked directions.
Crawl is nasty, brutish, and short, the way a killer alligator movie should be. Unlike many creature features from recent years, Alexandre Aja’s film – his best yet – perfectly understands the elemental appeal of a vicious, well-crafted (wo)man-vs.-nature thriller.
Jordan Peele gets appropriately ambitious with his sophomore feature Us, a chilling, beguilingly bizarre plunge into America’s netherworld. As usual, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o brings her A game, but this time she’s headlining with a tremendous double-feature performance. It’s the rare sort of dual role that’s as cunningly nuanced as it is attention-grabbing.
The Lighthouse is a film that’s utterly fearless about serving up bizarre sights and situations with all the subtlety of a blasting foghorn: brine-encrusted dialogue, cephalopodic horrors, manic homoeroticism, and looney-tunes mythic symbolism. No one asked for a barking-mad cabin-fever buddy comedy as seen through the lens of Melville, Lovecraft, and Woolf – yet here it lies, squirming and shrieking. Neptune bless Robert Eggers for having the courage of his convictions.
Art-horror’s finest purveyor of inescapable doom, Ari Aster asks his audience to stop and smell the roses during a long, trippy plunge into a pastel-colored inferno. Not incidentally, that fall can also be regarded as a triumphant ascent from a hell brimming with grief, misery, and a shitbag boyfriend. It all depends on which way is up for Florence Pugh’s harrowed May Queen, who dances the ritual steps of renewal as her companions become the totems in a blood-smeared pagan ceremony. Midsommar doesn’t entice. It enfolds, asking with a blank Nice Guy smile: Do you feel held?
Although grounded in the horrors of the Mexican drug war and tinged with apocalyptic gloom, Issa López’s dark, masterful fable has the glimmer of a campfire tale whispered in the forest primeval. Gentle and ruthless in equal measure, Tigers Are Not Afraid deftly balances the ugliest of real-world terrors, a rich ghost-story atmosphere, and the stubborn hopefulness of childhood. Anchored by a world-class performance from young newcomer Paola Lara, López’s feature finds unlikely comfort – and even liberation – in the dustiest of gothic tropes. In the midnight hour, the unquiet dead hiss for vengeance, and justice creeps toward evil men on little cat feet.