Halloween always provides a good excuse to celebrate scary movies, but as anyone keen on the genre knows, it’s never really a bad time to do that. That’s especially been true this year, long before “It” broke box office records. Just a few months into 2017 and it was already a banner year for genre films, with “Get Out” becoming a cultural phenomenon, new horror festivals generating headlines, and other promising developments that send a positive message to genre fans. While the industry worries about the future of moviegoing and the quality of the art form in a blockbuster-dominated era, horror fans have nothing to worry about — the genre is secure, but only if you know where to look.
Keeping up our annual tradition, here’s an overview of 13 of the very best horror indies produced over the last 12 months, all of which are available to rent, on streaming platforms or in theaters. Happy Halloween.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”
Father-and-son coroners stand over a motionless corpse in Andre Ovredal’s (“Trollhunters”) first English language feature, a taut supernatural thriller that takes place almost exclusively within the confines of a morgue. Played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, the characters are tasked with a late-night mystery: Figure out the cause of death by morning. That job turns out to be a lot more terrifying than they expected, as strange paranormal events start to encroach on the morgue, and the two men begin to suspect that the dead woman on the table has something to do with it. Communing with the spirit of “The Shining,” Ovredal spins the material into a minimalist haunted house story in which the slow approach of a dead person’s footsteps on the other side of a creaky door holds far more terrible possibilities than any given jump scare. And when the jump scares finally do arrive in the morbid finale, they hit hard. Ultimately, the most remarkable performance in “Jane Doe” belongs to Olwen Kelly as the motionless body getting snipped apart over the course of the movie. Her frozen gaze as the coroners stand above her invites scrutiny that taps into a kind of deep-seated dread: Did she just blink? Or was that your imagination? And…did the bell tied to her toe just let out a small ding? “Jane Doe” will leave you pondering those questions in the dead of night.
One of the great American movies of the year, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut has a lot on its mind: It’s a blistering attack on latent white racism among America’s wealthy one percent, and the story merges the interracial dynamics of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with a B-movie premise worthy of George Romero. That premise — which finds wealthy white liberals using hypnosis and brain surgery to turn black people into their slaves — skewered the notion of a post-racial America from multiple directions at once, setting aside more obvious targets to unearth some of the worst aspects of black-white tensions hiding in plain sight. All that, and “Get Out” manages to be genuinely creepy, too: When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother (Catherine Keener) and sent to the dark void known as the Sunken Place, Peele manages to generate a crushing sense of claustrophobia around this sudden, unknown threat. The metaphor for minorities feeling trapped by a society indifferent to their concerns resonates with remarkable power. It’s an astonishing feat that illustrates the fundamental appeal of this transcendent movie, in which the terror is at once otherworldly and all too real.
By the time “Prevenge” begins, it’s already about a pregnant woman murdering a series of self-involved men at the behest of her unborn fetus. Writer-director Alice Lowe’s ghoulishly charming debut apes some of the acerbic dark humor glimpsed in her acting collaborations with fellow Brit Ben Wheatley, but it’s her commitment to the character — which she performed herself while several months pregnant — that allows the movie to rise above the silliness of its premise. Lowe’s character is a deeply wounded woman out to avenge the death of her husband, and no matter how much blood she spills, her underlying grief resonates.
The year’s most impressive Stephen King adaptation isn’t the one about the killer clown. Instead, this stylish treatment of a King novella, about a farmer who kills his wife and feels guilty about it, does the trick. Thomas Jane plays tortured would-be lunatic Wilfred James, who lords over 80 acres of Nebraska farmland that his family has owned for generations. Within five minutes, a disheveled Wilfred establishes in voiceover that he’s confessing a crime, and by 10 minutes, it’s clear what he’s done. When Wilfred’s wife Arlette (Molly Parker) suggests they split the land and get divorced so she can raise their teen son Henry (Dylan Schmid) in the city, he goads the young man into a scheme to kill the woman so the two of them can stay put. As directed by Zak Hilditch (whose 2013 debut “These Final Hours” was an expressionistic apocalyptic tale), “1922” has the merits of a solid “Tales From the Crypt” or “Masters of Horror” episode, with a straightforward story that folds the delicate visual language of a rural Terrence Malick drama into the mold of existential horror. The result suggests what might happen if Malick took at stab at “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with a mentally disturbed male protagonist straight out of King’s “The Shining.” So while not the most original or surprising King story, it hits a lot of the right notes.
As a book, Stephen King’s “Gerald’s Game” is the alternately disturbing, grotesque, and absurd story of a woman handcuffed to a bed in a sex-gone-wrong scenario; director Mike Flanagan hits all those beats on cue. The unfortunate chained woman is Jessie (Carla Gugino), whose older husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) takes her to a remote lakeside house in a desperate shot at rekindling the flame of their sexless marriage. His weak attempt to arouse her with a rape fantasy quickly sours, and in the midst of a fight, he falls down dead. So Jessie’s stuck screaming for help, and possibly going mad in the process. That’s just the starting point for a visually engrossing psychological thriller that builds to a bloody payoff. Flanagan has been making waves as a major horror director for ages (see: “Oculus”), but “Gerald’s Game” is his most startling accomplishment — a shocking survival story in which the heroine must burrow into her own mind to figure out a way out, or go crazy in the process.
The French-Belgian debut from Julia Ducournau is a surreal, deliriously twisted coming-of-age story that suggests “Heathers” by way of “Dogtooth.” The plot only skirts the surface of its strange narrative: A young woman joins her sister at a massive veterinarian school campus, where she’s subjected to a series of humiliating hazing rituals and discovers her taste for human flesh.
Wait a minute. Veterinarian schools have campuses with hazing rituals? And…cannibalism? Writer-director Ducournau’s memorable first feature takes its off-kilter logic at face value, developing a mesmerizing look at the experience of a young woman waking up to her desires in a world of peculiarities. Alternately beautiful and grotesque, it’s bound to please horror fans and cineastes alike.
“Hounds of Love”
Photo by Jean-Paul Horr
Australian director Ben Young’s directorial debut is a shocking kidnapping thriller for the ages, one that finds Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) trapped in the bedroom of a serial killers couple in a neighboring town (Emma Booth and Stephen Curry). As she bears witness to an abusive relationship and grows more terrified about her survival prospects by the minute, “Hounds of Love” never ceases to be an utterly gripping drama, one that deals with the dissolution of family ties as much as it depicts a gut-wrenching scenario. As Vicky attempts to make nice with her female captor, the pair develop an intriguing bond over the mutual sense of frustration of living in a man’s world, and this horrific scenario clearly has a lot more on its mind than the capacity to make you uncomfortable. But it does a pretty great job of that, too.