To begin with an obvious observation: The most transparently zeitgeist-pandering horror film of 2016 was The Purge: Election Year, in which a power-suited female presidential candidate is berated, betrayed, stalked, shot at, chloroformed, and tortured by several baskets’ worth of deplorables set on keeping her from the White House at all costs. But what good is a politically evocative movie that is also — and please forgive me as I slip here into the language of scholarly film criticism — hot garbage? The post–George Romero notion that genre films are best understood as sociological critiques has become a cliché on the order of a dark and stormy night or the hatchet-wielding maniac in the girls’ dormitory. I wait in earnest for the day that some smart, self-aware young documentary filmmaker tells the journalists assembled at a film festival press junket that her rigorously researched exposé about some important current event is, in fact, an allegory for zombies.
There were several 2016 releases that attempted just this sort of sly schematism, like The Invitation, a perfectly enjoyable dinner-party-of-the-damned contraption that also increasingly overreached for significance as it went along (an ambition embodied in a final shot that expanded the script’s bottle-episode scenario to apocalyptic proportions). But in attempting to do a lot with a little, Karyn Kusama’s film captures something of the enduring appeal and importance of horror films, which is that — like comedies, but from a slightly different angle — they’re ideally suited to punch up from a comparatively low-down purview, in terms of both budget and prestige. With this in mind, the best scary movies of the year were legible between the lines as commentaries on something larger, although they worked primarily because they wore their metaphors lightly rather than ending up strait-jacketed inside them.
At the more mainstream end of the spectrum lies Ouija: Origin of Evil, the second entry in a franchise located somewhere between The Conjuring and The Purge on the profitability-plus-respectability index. Speaking of the former: Where James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 went Led Zeppelin–at-the-Silverdome-level epic in its bid for blockbusterdom — clocking in at a whopping 134 minutes, at least a half hour of which could have been cut by a judicious editor, although hopefully not any of the stuff with the evil nun — Mike Flanagan’s beautifully executed Oujia sequel kept things tight and intermittently terrifying.
Flanagan had a busy 2016, showing off his skills for clean, well-staged shocks in the streaming-on-Netflix thriller Hush, a riff on home-invasion shockers à la You’re Next and The Strangers, built around a double-barreled gimmick — the Final Girl (Kate Siegel) is also (practically) the Only Girl, and she’s deaf (not to be confused with the gimmick in Fede Alvarez’s fun-until-it’s-just-repulsive Don’t Breathe, in which the victim of a home invasion turns out to be blind, and, as played by Stephen Lang, who should be cast in everything, impressively lethal).
Origin of Evil is closer in style and spirit to Flanagan’s 2013 shocker Oculus, about the predations of an evil mirror. Given that Origin … is about an evil board game, it would seem easy to peg Flanagan as our leading chronicler of demonic household objects and move on, but Origin of Evil is cleverer and more suggestive than its premise; the elastic-faced acting-out of 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson) against her mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and sister (Annalise Basso) is less spooky than the almost entirely distaff dramaturgy and not-so-deeply buried theme of familial sins coming home to roost are novel.
In a strange twist, Origin of Evil’s supernatural antagonists are of Polish descent, creating a completely coincidental — but nevertheless nicely resonant — echo of Marcin Wrona’s marvelous Demon, which is set in a small village outside of Krakow, on a secluded island, shrouded in mist and filled with tableaux of dilapidation and disrepair. The plot similarities between Flanagan’s and Wrona’s films are quite striking, as both involve the discovery of old bones hinting at some past historical tragedy, but where Origin of Evil simply (and very effectively) attempts to replicate the inky textures of the late 1960s (Michael Fimognari’s cinematography mimics 35-mm crackle and grain), Demon is an honest-to-God (or whoever) throwback to mid-’60s European art cinema, with trace elements of Roman Polanski, Ingmar Bergman, and Luis Buñuel in its DNA.
The protagonist is Piotr, a young man (Itay Tiran) with plans to build a bridge between the hamlet and the mainland sometime after his wedding to the very eligible local girl Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska); the comic irony of Wrona’s film is that this forward-looking bridegroom is consumed with — or by — the past during the reception, as he gets violently inhabited by a vengeful, although not necessarily malicious, Jewish spirit. No less than the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man — another film to pivot on the presence of a dybbuk — Demon dramatizes the tension between tradition and modernity, envisioned as a folk wedding whose guests keep sinking deeper into drunken, desperate denial about the uncanny goings-on. Wrona’s death by suicide at the age of 42 in September of 2015 casts a tragic pall over a movie whose polished camera moves and perfectly calibrated ensemble acting suggested the arrival of a major talent.
The other subtitled genre standouts of the year were no less accomplished: both Babak Anvari’s U.K.-produced, Iran-set Under the Shadow and Na Hong-jin’s South Korea-based The Wailing showcase plenty of filmmaking smarts beneath their deceptively familiar setups. Under the Shadow centers on a young mother, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), trying to protect her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), amidst the carnage of the Iran-Iraq War; their daily routine unfolds to the sound of air-raid sirens and missile strikes against the Tehran skyline. The smashing of their apartment building’s roof ushers in dark forces as culturally specific as the ones in Demon: Anvari sees Wrona’s dybbuk and raises it a djinn — a poltergeist from Muslim demonology whose actions escalate from mischievousness to malevolence over the course of the film as it tries to steal Dorsa from her mother.
Much more than Demon, Anvari’s movie is a scare machine. The director unleashes jump-outs with an enthusiasm that borders on shameless, and with the backing of his British financiers, Anvari’s movie looks very much like model 21st century transnational filmmaking. Under the Shadow is the kind of polished entertainment that travels. The same goes for The Wailing, a two-and-a-half-hour procedural (longer even than The Conjuring 2!) that has been widely compared to True Detective except that Na actually goes to some of the places that disappointed Reddit threaders wished Nic Pizzolatto had visited instead of simply pitting Matthew McConaughey in a fistfight against a trailer-park pituitary case.
The Wailing takes place in a town cut off from the country’s giant metropolises, where a spate of grisly killings are blamed on an elderly stranger who may be something more than he seems. Unlike Under the Shadow, which dispenses with any pretense of doubt about the djinn’s presence early on, The Wailing tries (like True Detective before it) to delay the ultimate revelation — or rather Revelation — of its bad guy’s true identity (hope you’ve guessed his name). Na isn’t an acknowledged auteur on the order of his countrymen Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook (who made his most enjoyable movie in years with the exquisitely brocaded period parable The Handmaiden), and he isn’t a stellar storyteller: The film’s byzantine plot keeps spiraling out of control at regular intervals. What he’s got, though, is a knack for the sorts of sticky, lingering images that can make a wildly uneven film feel hugely unnerving: an early dream sequence featuring a bestial, red-eyed old man feeding on a deer is the sort of thing that can lodge in one’s memory banks.
Both The Handmaiden and The Wailing can be interpreted as a South Korean director’s attempt to address his homeland’s difficult historical relationship with Japan; Na and Park each prominently include Japanese characters driven by possibly duplicitous motives, and The Wailing unearths legacies of xenophobia and prejudice en route to its all-stops-out climax. The same rich brew of cultural observation and old-school, good-versus-evil metaphysics also flows through the veins of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, a 2015 Sundance standout that became one of this year’s biggest indie hits — and also one of the most critically polarizing titles around. For every review praising Eggers’s skillful reworking of dialogue and situations drawn from Jacobean-era historical documents, there was a critic castigating The Witch for being either (1) not scary enough or (2) the proverbial movie in which “nothing really happens.”
What’s actually happening in The Witch is nothing less momentous than a first-time filmmaker successfully crafting a classic. The talent on display in Eggers’s debut is staggering, even if its deployment is often very subtle. The film’s circa-17th-century environment has been meticulously built from the ground up, but it’s a less ornate act of re-creation than The Handmaiden; this excursion into the Old, Weird America before it even had a name unfolds within sparsely furnished rooms and against pitch-black negative spaces. After mislaying her baby brother in the woods outside her family’s farm, teenaged Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes a target for her parents’ and siblings’ festering anxiety; they fear that she’s been compromised by some diabolical outside influence and begin to regard her with fear and anger. The trope of innocent young women as targets for Puritan paranoia is well-worn, to say the least, and the script’s debt to The Crucible is apparent, except that Eggers isn’t simply putting repressive ideology under the microscope. The Witch manages to have it both ways, imagining a universe in which evil comes from within and without.
This thematic balancing act would be unthinkable without Taylor-Joy’s superbly modulated lead performance, which complicates the question of Thomasin’s capital-I Innocence from the very first shot of her staring upward in devout prayer. The film’s allusions to Häxan and The Shining are nicely turned, but by the end, Eggers is doing something similar to Lars von Trier in Antichrist — describing the process by which a young woman can be radicalized by the misogyny of those around her. Eggers delivers this thesis a bit less severely than Von Trier, and there is a comic velocity to the action by the end, culminating in a final passage that subverts the audience’s expectations even as it fully pays off everything that’s come before. Like all fairy tales, The Witch has a moral, even if it happens to be a deeply amoral one, and the way that Eggers visualizes his heroine’s ultimate choice elevates both the character and the film into the stratosphere, where it’ll hopefully hover for a good long while.