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Last year had some big shoes to fill, following the huge horror presence in 2018. Jordan Peele won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, A Quiet Place defined a new style of sensory-deprivation-horror, and there was no shortage of quality remakes and sequels.
Early on, 2019 saw the ripple effect of last year’s success, with Peele’s Us securing his reputation as a horror auteur and more don’t-talk-now movies looking for a hit. But there were plenty of new, original, high quality flicks to keep you up at night. Here’s what to catch up with in a slower moment of the release calendar.
The Wilson family’s peaceful vacation spins out of control when a family of violent doppelgangers appear in their driveway and insist on becoming “untethered.” The leader of the group is familiar to Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) — she and Red had a fateful meeting as children, and now Red’s back to free herself and her fellow tethered.
Us presents a core spooky concept and spins it into something larger and more terrifying. The slow-and-steady build never lets the tension drop — it only lets you catch your breath for a moment before plunging back in. Stylish throwbacks to ’70s horror root this story in the genre’s long history, even as the visual symbolism — white rabbits, shiny golden scissors — stands out as wholly unique. The entire cast performs their dual roles impeccably, but Lupita Nyong’o is especially mesmerizing as the lead protagonist and antagonist. This tense follow up to Get Out proves that Jordan Peele is not a flash in the pan, but a director of immense skill, capable of pushing an idea without losing sight of the overall story.
Stream on HBO Now/Go; rent on Amazon | Vudu
A group of strangers are drawn into the eponymous escape room and find the puzzles deadlier than expected. More than that, the clues and solutions to the puzzles are familiar — so familiar that it can’t be an accident. Will they escape alive, or will the group tear themselves apart before they reach the end?
Escape Room is selling a straightforward bill of goods, but the quality of its delivery makes it exceptional. The crew must strategize their way through different themed rooms, each a unique set-piece for daring stunts and emotional reveals. The tight configuration of the puzzles and solutions keeps the pace moving, but the real stand-out is the players themselves. Each character is quickly established and interesting in their own right, especially competent veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) and amiable Mike (Tyler Labine). The dynamic of the group is so strong that you can’t help but root for them, which makes their progress tense and engaging.
Stream on Starz; rent on Amazon | Vudu
Having successfully survived the birthday time-loop of Happy Death Day, Tree (Jessica Rothe) quickly finds herself right back where she started: fighting off a masked killer, only to wake up back at the beginning of the day. Only now, she knows what’s really happening; it’s a science-experiment gone wrong, and it’s up to her to solve it.
In the first movie, Tree was left with the feeling that she was given a second chance to save herself, repair her relationships, and make the most of her life. The sequel undercuts that in a great way — what if she isn’t special, but just the lucky victim of a time-loop accident? The plot meanders a little at first, clearly trying to find a way to refocus on Tree. Ultimately this is forgivable because Rothe delivers impeccable comedy in every scene. Although the first movie shifted tonally from scene to scene, Happy Death Day 2U finally fully commits to its humor potential, and it’s a better movie for it.
Stream on Starz; rent on Amazon | Vudu
Recommended viewing for any horror fan, Horror Noire is a documentary surveying years of horror movies made for black audiences. From The Birth of a Nation to Get Out, the survey covers a hundred years of cinema, tackled decade-by-decade, to give a thorough run-down of horror made by black artists, for black audiences. Icons like Tony Todd (Candyman), William Crain (Blacula), and Rachel True (The Craft) talk not only about their own contributions, but about the work of artists that inspired them. Anyone with an interest in horror, or in the positive effects of media representation, will find Horror Noire illuminating — and likely end up with a nice list of classic horror to watch.
Stream on Shudder
Five years after a deadly poisoning, the remaining members of the Blackwood Family live an isolated life. Constance (Alexandra Daddario) cooks and cleans for sister Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) and their sick uncle Julian (Crispin Glover), and although the villagers ardently hate them, they have achieved a sort of peace in their mansion on the hill. At least, until their shrewd cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) arrives for a visit, disrupting the family’s careful balance.
A stylish gothic mystery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle captures an intensity that extends far past its genre trappings. The steady build of tension is so palpable even the characters themselves seem to feel the weight of it, bowing under the pressure until they can do nothing but break. This movie is all about the intense interplay of personalities too strong to resolve peacefully. Intense performances from the cast and an eye-catching sense of style elevate this family drama into a chilling tale of abuse and isolation. There are no jumpscares or gore, just a series of harrowingly realistic stepping stones leading you powerlessly to disaster.
Stream on Amazon; rent on Vudu
Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the verge of breaking up (to the relief of everyone around them) when a family tragedy leaves Dani emotionally devastated. The couple agrees to attend a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in rural Sweden, but the festivities aren’t as idyllic as they initially seem. By the time the group realizes how sinister the festival is, it’s far too late to turn back.
Audiences are generally divided between thinking that Midsommar was pure genius or meandering — but everyone agrees that you should see it. The visual design provides more than enough sensory delights and terrors to make up for any weaknesses in the pacing. The acting, in particular Pugh’s grief-ridden intensity, makes the best scenes of the movie soar.
Stream on Amazon; rent on Vudu and Google Play
When her father stops responding to phone calls, Haley (Kaya Scodelario) drives headlong into a category 5 hurricane, only to find him trapped in the crawl space of their old home after being mauled by alligator. The alligators have them cornered, but they’re safe as long as they hide behind some low pipes. With the hurricane approaching and the water rising, they’re running out of options.
Crawl hits a lot of the hallmarks of a great creature feature, even if it doesn’t necessarily hold up to closer scrutiny. But really, the subgenre is best served by moments of hell-yeah action, not introversion, and on that front Crawl delivers. At times it seems like it might stray into SyFy-style spectacle, but shlock master Alexandre Aja keeps it above water thanks to solid character development, a strong core relationship, and some truly unnerving gators.
Rent on Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu
Put the horror-comedy spirit of Cabin in the Woods, final-girl-fights-back attitude of Halloween (2019), and rich-people-are-monsters messaging of Succession in a blender and you’ll get Ready or Not.
The premise is delightfully ridiculous: On her wedding night, Grace (Samara Weaving) learns that her in-laws are going to hunt her down in a deadly game of hide and seek. You see, their ancestor, Great Grandfather Victor, made a deal with the sinister Monsieur Le Bail, who now requires regular sacrifices or else he’ll destroy the family — or at least that’s what the Le Domases believe. It’s a goofy, gory movie with some incredible performances. (Andie MacDowell looks like she’s having a ton of fun and it makes me really happy.) It all builds to an ending so explosive that it almost makes the first 90 minutes of bloody hijinks feel tame in comparison.
Rent on Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu
Evan (Isaac Jay) meets and follows a new crush, Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), on a weekend trip with her friends, but he soon finds himself at odds with the group for insisting there’s another person among them — one hiding behind their ability to shapeshift. The first feature film by Elle Callahan shows impressive skills in creating the feeling of distrust in the viewer even while all the characters sense nothing amiss. It’s The Thing by way of It Follows, while bringing its own style to the table.
The premise, combined with the excellent cinematography, does a great job in elevating otherwise mundane scenes into seriously scary moments. The group gathers to play a drinking game, the camera swinging in a wide arc so that nobody is visible the whole time. You’re just waiting for someone to disappear, or to appear twice, but you can never tell exactly what’s going to happen. Though the special effects might leave you asking why bother showing the monster at all, the film more than makes up for it with the atmosphere alone.
Stream on Netflix; rent on Amazon and Vudu
When her mother disappears, Estrella (Paola Lara) is left to fend for herself, and ends up joining a group of homeless children lead by Shine (Juan Ramón López). With three wishes at her disposal in the form of pieces of chalk, she’s not entirely defenseless, but she soon learns that magic has consequences. In a neighborhood torn apart by gangs, the consequence is always violence.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a dark, beautiful, violent tale of magical realism. Never does Issa López’s writing sound like an adult puppeting children, even when Estrella and Shine are talking about things that seem far outside their grasp. At a few moments the roughness of the CGI is distracting, but that’s easy to forget because the world writer-director Issa López conjures is otherwise so engaging. Although it isn’t always scary in the way many horror movies are, the ever-present horror built into the story is enough to make anyone afraid.
Stream on Shudder