20. “We Are What We Are” (2010)
It’s been a good century/millennium for Spanish-language horror thus far, as we’ll see further down the list, but one film that never quite got the audience it deserved is Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau’s gripping, rich, and beautifully made “We Are What We Are.” Selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, the film begins with a humble watchmaker dying on the streets. The police discover that he had a human finger in his stomach (in a scene that sees Daniel Gimenez Cacho reprise his role from Guillermo Del Toro’s debut “Cronos”), while the man’s children are left to wonder who’ll provide for them now their father’s gone. And not just financially: the family eats humans in a strange ritual. Devilishly plotted, made with real flair by Grau (who surely should have had a bigger gig by now) and finding fresh meat, so to speak, in the well-worn cannibalism trope, it’s one of the best foreign-language genre pictures in recent years. Of course, that made it inevitable that a U.S. remake would come along: the surprise was that Jim Mickle’s redo, released last year and also picked for Cannes, was so strong. Reversing most of the genders, changing up the setting and story considerably, it’s a distinctive and well-executed take, though not quite on the level of originality of its predecessor.
19. “The House Of The Devil” (2009)
In Ti West’s masterwork of delayed horrification, “one thing leads to another,” just like the song says. The Fixx hit single from 1982 makes an appearance in “House of the Devil,” but like the film itself, it’s far beyond dull, lazy ’80s nostalgia. Here we have the tip of the post-“Grindhouse” iceberg, a truly low-budget modern horror film that faithfully renders its 1980s period with precise accuracy. It would’ve been right at home as a quasi third bill alongside “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror,” but West’s take feels truer in spirit and budget restrictions, aping its aesthetic from the past but also finding a fresh take on its many influences, achieving a horror film equivalent of the Lisa Simpson’s line: “You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing.” However, if the climax didn’t deliver, West’s “scary movie” with almost zero traditional scary movie moments would be all for naught. But oh boy, does it ever deliver at the end, making good on that evocative title and giving the audience what they crave, who by the time it arrives are starving for anything (barring one shocking moment of violence at the end of the first act) bad to happen to its lead character. ‘Devil’ is so good at sustaining tension through very little that it almost becomes a study of the what you-don’t-see-is-far-scarier philosophy, and also a total subversion of the final girl concept.
18. “Cabin in the Woods” (2012)
It looked for a while like “Cabin in the Woods” might not actually ever see the light of day. After the film was produced, MGM was suffering catastrophic financial difficulties that put a number of projects into a nebulous realm of uncertainty (and possible direct-to-video obscurity). Thankfully, “Cabin in the Woods” was able to escape, rescued in part by Lionsgate (a studio that had largely been kept afloat by cheapie horror movies like “Saw“) and the looming powerhouse nature of co-writer/producer Joss Whedon (creator of cult TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Serenity“). When it finally did come out, it was like a bomb had been detonated within the horror genre. Both a loving homage and ruthless deconstruction of what makes scary movies so compelling, the film threw a group of hapless coeds into a rickety cabin and then showed you the behind-the-scenes forces rooting for their assured destruction (led by a couple of white collar dorks played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). Few films could pull of this tricky tonal balancing act, somewhere between celebratory and satirical, but co-writer/director Drew Goddard and Whedon manage the feat. The filmmakers simultaneously wag their fingers at viewers and give them exactly what they want (particularly in the gore-soaked, monster-filled final act). If you’ve never seen “Cabin in the Woods,” do yourself a favor: it’s like an all-day horror movie marathon crammed into one movie (with additional sociopolitical commentary). It’s amazing that after it so thoroughly took apart the genre, that movies like the “Evil Dead” remake are made with such a straight face. Why so serious guys?
17. “The Mist” (2007)
Director Frank Darabont had tackled Stephen King twice before, with Oscar-nominated prison films “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” but “The Mist,” based on a beloved 1980 novella (published commercially in King’s “Skeleton Crew” collection), had long been the filmmaker’s passion project. After attempts to mount a starry, big budget production proved fruitless, the writer/director assembled a rough-and-tumble crew (comprised largely of television professionals Darabont met while directing episodes of FX drama “The Shield“) and set about on a low budget, less-is-more rendition, which centers around a small New England town that is trapped by a mysterious, monster-filled mist. The resulting film is one of the finest King adaptations ever, with a heartbreaking ending that does the unthinkable —it actually improves upon the original story. Darabont’s down-and-dirty approach, while not what he originally intended, serves the story well, giving it a feeling of gripping immediacy that might have been finessed out if it had wound up being a manicured studio production. Plus the cast, while hardly attention-grabbing, is uniformly excellent, led by a wonderful Thomas Jane (in hardboiled leading man mode) and punctuated brilliantly by Marcia Gay Harden as the religious zealot that proves that there could be worse things than being trapped in the mist, like being stuck inside a supermarket with her. The black-and-white version of the movie, which ups the monster movie quotient, is prized by some fans and included on the deluxe Blu-ray release, adding slightly more to the movie’s timeless spookiness.
16. “The Babadook” (2014)
The second of two movies on this list that haven’t opened in theaters as of this writing, “The Babadook,” like “It Follows,” has nevertheless been freaking out audiences on the festival circuit and elsewhere in the world for months now, and already seems to be settling into a position as an instant genre classic. The debut film of Australian director Jennifer Kent, it stars Essie Davis as Amelia, a woman left distraught after the sudden death of her husband, and now having to care for her son (Noah Wieseman), who’s acting out in his own grief. But things go from bad to worse after he starts to believe that a monster from a children’s picture book, the titular Babadook, is lurking in the house. Kent drenches the film in atmosphere, expertly deploying every trick in the horror toolbox to put the audience through the physical wringer, but it’s also a horror picture of real substance, digging into issues of mental illness, parenting and grief in an uncompromising way that would be sanded down in a more conventional studio horror picture. The film’s virtually a three hander, and while the Babadook is one of the most memorable movie monsters in years, it’s the performances of the human leads that really haunt you (in a just world, we’d be talking about Davis as an Oscar contender). The film hits at the end of November: be sure to check it out.