"The Witch" (2016)
The latest film to join the new horror classic club, Robert Eggers' exemplary debut "The Witch" is 90 minutes of controlled atmospheric dread. Billed as a "New England Folktale," the movie revolves around a banished family of Puritanical Christians who set up a new home in a remote patch of wilderness. While the father is certain they will be able to grow their own crops and survive, things slowly take a turn for the sinister. What happens next combines a shattering period piece about the dissolution of a family with a genuinely disturbing horror movie about possession. Eggers, a former production designer, is so gruelingly authentic in every detail that the terror becomes frighteningly grounded, making ever slight disturbance in the family's foundation a rattling and troubling experience. The result is the most terrifying movie of 2016, hands down.
"The House of the Devil" (2009)
Ti West has quickly emerged as one of the most effective horror directors working today, not because his vision is original so much as incredibly precise: His 2011 film "The Innkeepers" cleverly used the tropes of an '80s comedy before transforming into an utterly terrifying ghost story. But nothing in the West oeuvre has topped the emulation of grindhouse insanity in 2009's "The House of the Devil," the slow-burn tale of a young babysitter (Jocelin Donahue) whose gig takes on a satanic twist in the explosive final moments.
"The Nightmare" (2015)
Rodney Ascher's 2012 documentary "Room 237" combined numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the meaning of Stephen King's "The Shining" into a compelling portrait of obsession. "The Nightmare," which explores the terrifying phenomena of sleep paralysis through the recollections of several people who suffer from it, takes a similar approach to unwrapping irrational fears. Cutting between various chilling anecdotes of sinister late night visions and horrifying reenactments, "The Nightmare" manages a tricky balance of visceral fright and sincere investigation. It's a rare non-fiction achievement that earns the ability to freak you out.
The best pregnancy thriller since "Rosemary's Baby" is also, frankly, one of the most unnerving slasher movies ever made. French directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury held nothing back for this tale of a pregnant woman fending off a home invader who wants the child in her womb. Never released in American theaters, "Inside" contains some seriously demented imagery, but not before setting up the scares with a technical efficiency that's downright Hitchcockian.
"Goodnight Mommy" (2015)
Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s visually arresting horror film is a Michael Haneke-like portrait of twins that builds from a cerebral start to a place of utter terror. Brothers Elias and Lucas Schwarz star as inseparable twins who welcome their mother home after her facial reconstructive surgery. Disturbingly outfitted like a ghost — she wears flowing gowns and her face is completely bandaged — the mother begins showing signs of odd behavior and emotional distance, leading the boys to suspect something has changed about her. The "truth" demands no spoilers, though be warned that the experience is not for the faint of heart. Filled with an unsettling atmosphere that overflows with art house beauty, "Goodnight Mommy" is a strange trip to experimental hell and back. Don't watch it alone.
Too often, found footage provides an excuse to eschew cinematic storytelling in favor of sloppiness. The anthology horror movie "V/H/S" is a sharp rebuke to this laziness, delivering the creepiest first-person horror movie since the original "Paranormal Activity," while pushing the genre in a fresh direction. The camera never sits still and neither will nail-biting audiences. "V/H/S" contains contributions from some of the more ambitious microbudget American filmmakers working today, not all of whom exclusively work in horror. The concept's parameters were developed by Brad Miska, founder of the horror fan site Bloody Disgusting: A group of young hooligans are tasked with stealing a mysterious tape from an ominous home. When they come across a heap of unidentified footage, the framing device begins as each cassette contains another morbid encounter. Consider it a 21st-century take on "Tales from the Crypt."
"It Follows" (2015)
Hailed by Quentin Tarantino and referenced on "The Good Wife," David Robert Mitchell’s creepy blend of teen nostalgia and tense dread marks one of the rare cases of indie horror crossing over to mainstream awareness. The last time that happened was "The Human Centipede," and Mitchell’s movie offers a far more elegant achievement. The notion of a sexually transmitted supernatural disease isn’t entirely fresh on its own terms, but Mitchell’s delicately framed tale — in which the afflicted see ominous figures from their subconscious slowly approaching from afar — taps into a kind of primal fear rarely seen in American cinema. At its best, "It Follows" hints at the possibility that the specter haunting various characters could surface at any moment, even after the credits roll.
"You're Next" (2013)
"You're Next" doesn't break new ground in the horror genre, but it sticks to rules that work. Director Adam Wingard ("A Horrible Way to Die") and screenwriter Simon Barrett ("Dead Birds") demonstrate a firm grasp on their material, delivering a tightly-wound survival story replete with disarming humor that holds the whole bloody mess together. After a morbid prologue in which two unnamed characters meet their doom at the hands of an unseen menace, "You're Next" settles into a family reunion that turns deadly when invaders show up. The murderers didn't count on Aussie outback veteran Erin's fast-paced survival skills, however, and as she sets traps and takes advantage of her environment, she keeps the masked killers on their toes and shifts the power dynamic, upending the mysterious scheme behind their attack. Never taking its scares too seriously, "You're Next" barrels forward with constant pleasure.
"The Babadook" (2014)
Australian director Jennifer Kent's expertly crafted debut finds a troubled single mother (Essie Davis) attempting to raise her young son (Noah Wiseman) on her own. That job gets tricky after she reads him the titular children's story, found in their shadowy home, which involves a supernatural home invader. It's only a matter of time before the Babadook starts lurking the shadows and threatening to unleash unspeakable horrors on the pair…or is he? The genius of Kent's haunting narrative is that it leaves us in a state of uncertainty with each new development: Did something really horrible just call the house and mutter its dreadful catchphrase before hanging up? Or is the mother losing her mind? The ambiguity will drive you as crazy as it does the mother.