I don’t know if you all have noticed, but there have been a lot of horror movies released in recent years. There have been so many that I, a person who writes about horror movies with any free time I can spare, have not at all been able to keep up with the deluge. Long-time readers might remember a time when I could keep up, back when this site would be updated as frequently as four or five times a week. But those days are long gone (life, uh, finds a way to get in the way), so I feel like I’ve been playing an eternal game of catch-up for about a half-decade now. Earlier this year, my official policy became fuck it, and I decided to watch as many of these recent releases as possible without worrying about reviewing them. I do, however, want to highlight some of the more memorable ones I’ve seen, all of which are currently streaming* at your convenience if your spooky season needs a fresh injection of modern horror.
Daniel Isn’t Real (2019)
Adam Egypt Mortimer’s second feature is an unexpectedly crafty puzzle box. You think you’ve got a handle on it when troubled college student Luke (Miles Robbins)--who once witnessed a mass shooting that traumatized him--begins to have visions of Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), the imaginary friend from his childhood that nearly convinced him to kill his own mother. Now that he’s off at college, it seems as though Luke’s trauma has resurfaced, leading to what seems to be an obvious Jekyll/Hyde scenario where Daniel represents the unrestrained id that allows the typically timid, anxious Luke to tap into his potential. But there’s something even more sinister lurking below the surface, subtly perceptible in Schwarzenegger’s wry, captivating turn as the imaginary friend from hell. Daniel Isn’t Real takes a fascinating turn that puts it in the company of similar coming-of-age horrors like Freddy’s Revenge and Ginger Snaps.
The Golden Glove (2019)
A dramatization of German serial killer Fritz Honka’s 1970s killing spree, The Golden Glove is an absolutely filthy movie. Every frame feels like it was soaked in grime and grit as the film dwells in the squalor of Honkas’s hellish, gore-soaked den. This is the sort of vile movie that should probably land you on some kind of government watch-list just for streaming it: each moment is somehow more squeamish, disturbing, and pungent than the last, and Jonas Dassler is unnervingly convincing as the neurotic psycho who preys upon victims at a local tavern. Perhaps most unsettling? The Golden Glove is sometimes absurdly funny, particularly in the way it manipulates the audience’s sympathies throughout. It’s probably the funniest movie I’ve ever seen that opens with a drunken, frustrated guy clumsily sawing off a prostitute’s head.
The Head Hunter (2018)
The Head Hunter is a goddamn miracle of low-budget filmmaking. With only $30,000 and a ton of grit at their disposal, director Jordan Downey and co-writer Kevin Stewart convincingly whisk viewers away to medieval Norway, where a bounty hunter stalks his prey and searches for the creature responsible for his daughter’s death. However, his quest becomes increasingly horrifying when he realizes he might be the prey. A minimalist, nearly dialogue free triumph in visual storytelling, The Head Hunter is a captivating, atmospheric portrait of grief that quickly escalates into a gory spook-a-blast that leaves you wishing Downey and Stewart had titled it The Medieval Dead.
You’ve no doubt heard the story behind Host, another low-budget marvel hatched by a group of filmmakers during this year’s COVID-19 lockdown. If for some reason you’ve yet to actually give it a look, rest assured that this isn’t just a cute gimmick. Host is an absolutely gripping exercise in “screen horror,” as a group of socially distanced friends meet online to conduct a séance, a lark that goes horribly awry when they conjure an actual spirit. While it relies on the familiar haunted house parlor tricks (fleeting glimpses of spookiness, inanimate objects creeping to life, the lurking sensation that these characters are fucked), there’s an urgency and cleverness to Host that feels fresh. It also helps that the cast genuinely feels like a group of friends who just went looking for a good time via Zoom, only to find that they aren’t safe even in their own homes. It’s an anxiety most of us can relate to, unfortunately, and Host fiendishly preys upon it and establishes itself as the horror movie of 2020.
I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)
Quite possibly my favorite movie on this list, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a Russian nesting doll that continues to reveal new depths and layers to its story with each twist and turn. After being diagnosed as a sociopath, moody teen John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) battles the demons in his mind urging him to kill. It doesn’t help that he works at his mother’s funeral home, where he cultivates a morbid sense of humor and a natural curiosity about death. A string of serial murders does nothing to alleviate these thoughts, and he feels compelled to investigate the grisly deaths. The trail leads him to an eccentric neighbor (Christopher Lloyd), who’s hoarding more secrets than John—or anyone else for that matter—could ever believe. I Am Not a Serial Killer is the rare high concept horror movie that remains a compelling character study despite its sidewinding plot. Uncovering its secrets is a lot of fun but doesn’t come at the expense of John’s unconventional journey towards self-actualization thanks to gripping performances by Records and Lloyd.
An impressionist possession tale, Luz punctures holes into a familiar premise, bounding between past and present to reveal a decades-long haunting. When the eponymous Luz (Luana Velis) is taken to a police station following a car accident, she’s subjected to an unconventional line of questioning that awakens childhood memories. Disorienting, elliptical, and just downright hazy, Luz is the type of movie that needs time to settle into your brain and grow on you. Even then, you might not have the firmest grasp on it, and that’s okay—Luz is a movie that resists easy answers. If other films on this list are puzzle boxes, then Luz is like a jigsaw puzzle with a few missing pieces and some jagged edges. You feel these gaps and protrusions, though, and that’s ultimately what matters: Luz is a guttural experience, filmed with a stark, almost brutalist minimalism that compliments its demon’s primal urges.
Nina Forever (2015))
Don’t let the misleading poster art for this one fool you. Nina Forever isn’t a quirky zom-com but rather a poignant exploration of how we have to fix ourselves before we can fix others in a relationship. When Rob’s girlfriend Nina dies in a car accident, she isn’t content to stay dead; rather, she returns as soon as Rob strikes up a new relationship with Holly, emerging each time they make love as some kind of demented blood ghost. Yes, the premise is a bit on-the-nose: here’s a man who’s literally haunted by the girl he lost, making it difficult to move forward with the new love of his life. However, the rich character work and brutally genuine, vulnerable performances make this somewhat twee premise sing with authenticity. It’s a film that’s sympathetic towards everyone in this bizarre love triangle: obviously, Nina doesn’t want to be replaced, while Rob can’t be expected to just move on from her. Holly—who ultimately emerges as the film’s protagonist—also can’t be blamed for feeling frustrated by the entire situation. Outlandish, funny, gross, sweet, and even a touch heartbreaking, Nina Forever is another one of those rare horror movies that sees a dogged sort of hope in the face of loss. We can become better people in the face of tragedy, but only if we’re honest with ourselves first.
The Ranger (2018)
The Ranger is more substantial than its premise—which finds a group of punk anarchists running afoul of a demented park ranger (Jeremy Holm)—suggests. While director Jenn Wexler does mine it for its splattery, slasher movie potential, she’s also committed to carving out a nuanced arc for final girl Chelsea (Chloe Levine, who also starred in the wonderful The Transfiguration). Confronting this psychotic ranger means to confront her own childhood trauma, to find the rugged survivor lurking within her that she’s lost touch with over the years through drug use and mixing with a wrong crowd that’s left her running for her life. The Ranger is the sort of movie that gives the audience its cake and downright encourages it to eat it, too: Holm’s delightfully wry turn as a ranger laying waste to a bunch of no-good punks satisfies the audience’s bloodlust, while Levine keeps the proceedings tethered to a human element. The two contrasting tones seem like they shouldn’t work, yet Wexler strikes a nice balance in this taut, sharp little slasher.
Summer of ‘84 (2018)
In what seems to be a running theme for this list, Summer of ‘84 is yet another entry that isn’t quite what it seems. A cursory glance at its 80s teens investigating a possible serial killer living next door might lead you to believe it’s another nostalgia-gazing, “kids-on-bikes” effort that’s more homage or pastiche than it is its own thing. It looks like Fright Night meets Stand by Me, or whatever appropriate mash-up your brain conjures with this premise. Fret not, though—Summer of ‘84 actually counts on you suspecting as much before it twists its knife in your back with a sobering descent into paranoia and suspense. Directors François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell consistently subvert the nostalgic impulses that often wrap around these films like a warm blanket. Summer of ‘84 lets you get just cozy enough before it rips the blanket away with a grim climax and an even more haunting coda.
*It should come as no surprise that all of these films are currently streaming on Shudder, with the exception of I Am Not a Serial Killer, which can be rented for $3 on various other platforms. If for some reason you aren’t among Shudder’s one million subscribers, now’s the perfect time to change that. Believe me when I say you will have enough horror movies to last you this October—and well beyond.
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