Here in the last few weeks of December, as the trash fire of a mostly unremarkable 2018 cools to lightly glowing embers, it’s time to reflect back on the best horror films that colored the year. Between big-budget, box office wins like Halloween and streaming giants’ excellent originals like Cam, I think we can all agree that if nothing else, 2018 at least provided us with a lot to be thankful for in the horror world.
And I do mean world—horror wasn’t only heating up here in the States. In fact, I would bet (without having done enough thinking to actually know) that the majority of my favorite horror films from the year were foreign, born of lands as familiar as the UK and as distant as Indonesia. I’ve collected a list of my favorite five below, before my trash mind rips most every detail away from me and I’m left with a vague hole where my memories of these films used to be.
As a general disclaimer, release years are sketchy for some of these films, with a few tied to 2017 (when they first started touring the festival circuit) even though wider distribution and an official “release” didn’t come until this year, or maybe has yet to come at all… Honestly, it’s best not to think about any of that at all and just enjoy the list.
The Ritual (2018)
Released by Netflix back in early February, British supernatural horror film The Ritual was my first favorite of 2018. Adapted by screenwriter Joe Barton from the eponymous 2011 novel and directed (in his debut) by David Bruckner, the film follows a group of old college friends who decide to spend their annual holiday trip uncharacteristically traversing through a supernatural threat-filled forest in memory of their dead buddy instead of spending a week characteristically partying in Amsterdam.
I loved this film for three major reasons (which you can read more about here): the cinematography, the writing, and the effectiveness of the monster. And when it comes to a horror movie—any movie, really—what more can you ask for than success in those categories?
We even had the opportunity to talk with cinematographer Andrew Shulkind, who gave us some incredible insight into the making of the film, from how they crafted their own version of a realistic scary night using lens and sensor technology, to how they framed shots in the tree-crowded forests of Romania, and even how they boldly and spontaneously cut a hole in the roof of a set building just so that they could use the light of the moon to illuminate a character in one of their scenes. Definitely check it out.
Shortly after The Ritual, another supernatural horror film landed on Netflix called Verónica. Imported from Spain and directed by Paco Plaza (who you might recognize from the REC series), Verónica immediately rivaled The Ritual for top spot on my “favorites so far” list. It also provided me with my first deep regret of 2018 which, as it turns out, would be the first of truly so many regrets. LOL, anywayyyy…
Verónica had passed through town just a few months earlier at the Music Box Theatre’s genre festival, Cinepocalypse. I sort of more or less attended this festival and I didn’t see it and if I were to tell you how easy it would have been for me to see it, paired with my reasoning (or lack thereof) for not seeing it, I would start crying and you’d be forced to call the police and have me arrested. Just know that I’m still trying to reconcile this terrible personal folly via regular periods of long, contemplative mental punishment.
But the movie though, Verónica: It’s set in working-class Madrid and sees our 15-year-old titular character and some friends conducting a seance with a Ouija board during a solar eclipse, which—you guessed it—really fucks some shit up. Specters and daemons start messing with Verónica and her younger siblings immediately and really aggressively, and everything about it is perfect.
It’s well-written, cleverly shot, and wonderfully acted, mostly by children who wouldn’t be able to see an R-rated movie in America unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, though things might be different in Spain—I don’t know and please don’t ask me. Go watch it on Netflix right now and also be sure not to miss it at Cinepocalypse in November of 2017!!!
Wow! Revenge! Have you heard of it? Because I sure hadn’t when I first watched it on Shudder earlier this month. Convinced I was watching a brand-new addition to the platform and perhaps to the entire world, I was ready to climb upon my pedestal to preach the pioneering good word, just like my boy JC, until I realized that everyone else had been heaping praise upon Revenge for moons—since its release back in May. Oh!
The genius of this French directorial debut from Coralie Fargeat is that it’s as focused, as matter-of-fact, and as straightforward as its apropos title. The theme of the story is revenge and not one element of the filmmaking ever seemed to lose sight of that.
The writing is solid and fittingly light on dialogue; the shots are beautifully framed and well-blocked, playing off of the expansive and naturally geographically rich landscape; the acting is impressively dynamic, authentic, and physically communicative; every moment of gore is gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, and perfectly complementary to the tone and style of the film.
It was a film that clipped away the kinds of complicated overgrowth that so often seeps into cinematic storytelling through the script, the acting, the shot compositions—everything—and instead dialed-in a razor-sharp focus on craft that’s evident in most every scene. It’s exciting, it’s believable, it’s precise, and it’s absolutely very, very highly recommended by me, your pal, Carly Smith.
Satan’s Slaves (2017)
Hoping to avoid another Veronica situation at this past summer’s Cinepocalypse 2018, I did a lot of (actually read: little to barely any) research before deciding what to see, and luckily, that modicum of effort paid off in a big way with Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves.
A remake of an Indonesian favorite directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra, Satan’s Slaves is another specter-laden spook story that, like Veronica above (and, spoiler alert, Tigers Are Not Afraid below), is filled with children who are all somehow capable of delivering standout performances—performances with the kind of depth that I had previously assumed was reserved for those who had spent considerable time on this godforsaken planet, experiencing life’s intimately crippling disappointments while passively rotating around the sun in a pattern of painfully forced existence. Wrong!
Though, I do suppose horror would be a solid place to find children precocious in their emotional complexities—or at least children with parents fucked up enough to put their pure and innocent offspring to work in an environment that prioritizes authentically inspiring abject terror over everything else—you know, if you were looking for emotionally precocious children. But probably also don’t go searching for children, you fucking creep.
Anyway, what? I’m not sure what happened here, but if it was unsatisfying, you should check out this slightly more focused review that I wrote before almost all of this film’s details had left me (see intro for more about the failed institution that is my memory).
Then you can scroll down to the next entry and wow, thank you so much for being here.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Closing out this whirlwind of a list experience is Issa López’s genre-bending fantasy/horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid, which is another film that technically came out last year and is still on the festival circuit but that I’m counting as belonging to 2018 because that’s when I saw it. Me. It’s my list.
We at Wolfbane covered (remotely, only one of us has a valid passport) Montréal’s big Fantasia Film Festival back in late July and early August, by which time Tigers had already gone from festival reject to festival darling. Another showcase of exceptional children, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a story that follows a group of street kids who have been orphaned by the very real and very dangerous Mexican cartels as they traverse a sticky situation involving a powerful and corrupt politician and incriminating material on a stolen cell phone in the kids’ possession.
As I wrote (more or less) in my review, it’s a story grounded in such a depressing reality that the way in which López was able to intermix fantasy—through our P.O.V. characters’ imaginations—becomes all the more captivating and impressive.
Much like Guillermo del Toro with Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), López darkens and roughen the edges of the magical, tempering it like a washing machine does an ultra-soft sweater, just enough so that it blends in totally authentically with the gritty realism of the kids’ experience on the streets.
An exciting offering from a young director, you won’t want to miss Tigers if you can get your grubby paws on it, which is something I would suggest doing as soon as possible, maybe even with a nice can of wine and a dog on your lap, but that’s just a little recommendation from me to you. Gbyeee.