I’m a horror fan; an unapologetic, jump scare loving, creep show fanatic. Horror, alongside science fiction, has been a way of expressing the taboos and darker parts of human nature which never fail to intrigue me. Every culture has their own stories of monsters and beasts, spectres and wraiths – the things that go bump in the night – because fear is a universal human experience. We all know what it feels like to have the sensation of being watched by unseen forces, to feel the goosebumps run up your arms and the back of your neck, the way your pulse quickens as the house creaks and squeaks in the nocturnal hours.
Fear can be a thrilling, adrenaline induced high, and perhaps that’s why we have always loved horror stories, from the penny dreadful booklets of the Victorian era, Murnau’s iconic Nosferatu at the advent of cinema, to the cult classics of Hammer Horror and slasher flicks. It is a genre that shows no signs of slowing down its creative output, and in the past decade, new icons of horror have arisen to join the likes of Carpenter, Romero, Argento, Raimi and Craven. In celebration of Halloween and Samhain, I fancied compiling a list of my five favourite horror films of the last ten years. So, grab your popcorn, sweets and pumpkin spice flavoured treats and buckle in for a spooky round up.
The Conjuring (2013)
First up, we have the first instalment and originator of James Wan’s Conjuring Universe franchise. Following the exploits of real life paranormal investigators and couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring explores the events of the Perron family haunting in Rhode Island. This is a classic family haunting caper, strongly evoking its 70s setting with highly detailed and accurate costumes and sets, along with evocative music of the time. In many ways, The Conjuring is the more accomplished sister of the Amityville story, the case which propelled the Warrens to international fame. The infamous Long Island haunting has never had quite the well rounded adaptational treatment that this Rhode Island haunting receives in The Conjuring. This is a tour de force film from Wan, who has firmly secured his seat in the hall of top horror film directors of the 21st Century. The rapport between the actors shines in this well crafted tale of infernal spirits plaguing the innocent living; the crux of what makes this story so compelling and disturbing is the strength of the Perron family unit. The talented cast of child actors – many of whom have gone on to accomplished careers such as Joey King and Mackenzie Foy – builds the audience’s sympathy in a way that is needed for the final turn of the film to achieve its gut punch. In a similar vein to 1982’s Poltergeist, it is the familial bonds that drive the drama of this tale and what makes the film’s final moments so satisfying.
The VVitch: A New England Folktale (2015)
From strong familial bonds to a family pushed to the very brink by fanaticism, paranoia and the dark goings on in the frontier woodland. While Robert Eggers has received wider recognition and acclaim for his 2019 film The Lighthouse, it is his directorial feature debut that stands out for me in the horror genre. When a puritan family are driven out from the 17th Century Plymouth colony following a religious dispute, their newfound autonomy in the American wilds rapidly sours when their newborn child goes missing. This is a starkly real horror film which, while never shying away from the supernatural elements of the narrative, focuses much of the horror upon the psychological tensions which abound within this isolated family unit. This is a film that will leave you unnerved and deeply disturbed with Eggers’ keen eye for horror imagery firmly establishing itself in this brilliant debut. Anya Taylor-Joy’s breakout performance in this riveting psychological horror hints at her subsequent Hollywood success; indeed, The VVitch is a standout film that showcases the blossoming of many young careers in film, careers which I am keen to follow.
Crimson Peak (2015)
While The VVitch offered us new stars of the horror genre, this next film is veteran director Guillermo del Toro’s return to his horror roots. Crimson Peak is first and foremost a visually sumptuous film, but what else would you expect from a director like del Toro – a man whose cinematographic visuals earned its own exhibition at the Museo de las Artes in his home city of Guadalajara, Mexico? Though this is not as iconic a narrative as The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, to me, Crimson Peak is del Toro’s love letter to the totems of gothicism. It touches upon many of the themes which gothicism was founded upon; those of feminine sexuality, sexual expression, psychological intrigue and the tearing down of 19th Century taboos. Jessica Chastain’s performance as the regal Lucille Sharp is particularly chilling, her knife’s edge balancing act between icy control and total madness played with Chastain’s usual precision. Yet, it is the film’s setting and aesthetic design that makes Crimson Peak a stand out. The earth and walls literally bleed and the haunting spirits are so viscerally realised that they remain imprinted upon one’s mind’s eye long after the credits roll. If you are in need of a key slice of what the original gothic movement encapsulated, this should certainly be on your watch list.
Get Out (2017)
As gothicism, and by extension, its genera progeny horror has always done, taboos and contemporary societal tensions are often the basis upon which the greatest horror works are created. Just as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explored the horrific potential of life created in the cold confines of a scientific laboratory at the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and the works of Ann Radcliffe challenged the assumptions of gender and feminine weakness of the late 18th Century, Jordan Peele’s Get Out addresses the insidious nature of race relations in 21st Century America with disturbing nuance and care. This is the second directorial debut on my list and, similarly to Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and The VVitch, Get Out outshines Peele’s more recent horror outing Us. Peele’s background in comedy is clear in both his films, but it is utilised with particular brilliance in Get Out. The comedically tinged tension of what at times feels like the squirming comedy of shows like The Office is then completely overturned by the horror of the film’s ultimate reveal. This is a film that deserves at least two viewings in one sitting – the first, without any foreknowledge of the narrative’s twist, and the second to see all the fine details that are woven within that hint towards this ultimate turn. Peele’s story telling is achingly brilliant in its observations and narrative handling, and with as powerful a lead as Daniel Kaluuya as the film’s protagonist, Get Out truly is a modern classic of the horror genre.
Finally, we come to the third of my directorial debut horror tryptic – Ari Aster. Having reached icon status with his 2019 (literal) cult horror film, Midsommar, it is his first outing into the spine chilling genre that had me hooked. More overtly paranormal in its scares than its 2019 counterpart, Hereditary offers its chills in a clever mixture of psychological tension and hyper real supernatural horror. There is a bare bones simplicity to the way in which Aster handles the preternatural elements of this narrative’s scares, reminiscent of Eggers’ style in The VVitch. Indeed, Hereditary feels like the modern hybrid offspring of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, with its broken family dynamics, overbearingly kind neighbours and viscerally realised moments of gore. The film’s build to the frenetic violence of the final act feels like the work of a highly experienced story teller; like Eggers, Aster has a masterful eye for starkly horrifying imagery, and as I once joked on Twitter, if his film’s don’t culminate in his female lead’s dramatic emotional breakdown, is it truly an Ari Aster film? Following Midsommar’s iconic status in the horror genre, I am keen to see what more terrifying delights Aster’s brain will give birth to, but for now, I’ll just have to revel in his small but accomplished catalogue of horrifying treats.