From Annihilation to Hereditary and Tumbbad: The best horror films of 2018 and the themes they explored

Anupam Kant Verma

Dec 31, 2018 09:31:40 IST

We live in anxious times. If 2018 didn’t lower the bar that the previous couple of years had set across the political and social landscape of the world, one could argue that it didn’t raise it either. The continued resurgence of a virulent right-wing across the world, often leading to thumping electoral success — in Brazil, for instance — shows few signs of waning anytime soon. Climate change continues unabated, with an increasing political uproar disputing its existence.

As things get stranger in a world run on algorithms growing far too complex to keep a finger on, our horror films turn bleaker and more restive in a desperate bid to make sense of the times. The titles of the films in this list will suffice to give the most casual of readers a pretty good idea of the world we encountered in 2018. The films themselves offer differing ways of dealing with it all; sometimes escapism, often despair, and more often than not, caution. This last word ought to be the mantra we take with ourselves into the new year. For without it, we risk turning into comatose citizens, gradually losing our grip on the real world.

10. Veronica

Paco Plaza’s (REC, REC 2) most ambitious work to date, Veronica is really about the crushing horror that accompanies responsibility. He raises the stakes by choosing a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality for the film’s protagonist, tasked with raising her younger siblings while their single mother works crazy hours at a restaurant. When a malevolent spirit enters the picture, Veronica is pushed far beyond her limit, and tragedy seems to be right around the corner.

9. Unfriended: Dark Web

Superior to its more celebrated cousin, Searching, Unfriended: Dark Web sinks the viewer down a terrifying rabbit hole whose familiarity is matched by its contemporaneity. The film takes place almost entirely on a computer screen and plays on the anxieties surrounding the increasing connectivity of devices and the mysteries of the dark web. It is a cautionary tale about a world where the faceless and Facebook march together; often right into our homes and private lives, exposing our helplessness and naiveté to disastrous consequences.

8. Tumbbad

Rahi Anil Barve’s debut film must be celebrated not only for its ambition, gumption and visual acumen, but the pride and faith it invests in the genre as well. Buoyed by a near-bullheaded belief in the power of good old solid storytelling, Tumbbad is a vision that stood out in the scrum of Hindi cinema in 2018.

7. Upgrade

The moment I finished watching this surprisingly satisfying techno-thriller-horror, I rushed to find out who’d come up with this enigmatic curveball of a film. Leigh Whannell, I learned, is the writer for a host of James Wan films, including the extraordinarily successful Saw and Insidious. Clearly his dexterity extends to the field of direction as well, for with Upgrade he’s crafted a whimsical, weird and assured film that people who came out of Venom with their heads sunk to their chest should definitely watch to receive a well-deserved upgrade.

6. Revenge

Coralie Fargeat’s cinematic equivalent of a f**k you to the depraved masculinity underlining the worst exploitation film fare, Revenge is mad, bad and dangerous to watch. Fargeat upends expectation after expectation, while creditably staying faithful to genre roots, in effect crafting a heroine for the ages and exposing the genre for its weaknesses and the couch potatoes for their sores. There is ultra violence splashed in ultra colours and revenge served sizzling hot, but this time there’s woman behind the gun and it will make your blood run cold.

5. Mandy

Replace the heroine with a manic Nicolas Cage, put him in-charge of a scythe-like weapon, redden the palette bloody and the above paragraph may well end up describing Panos Cosmatos’ sophomore cinematic vision. A psychedelic trip to hell, Mandy is balls out bold, blood-soaked, wild and loud; a rock concert presided over by the devil himself.

4. Hereditary

Four watches in, I still haven’t reckoned fully with the idea of Ari Aster’s debut film as a genuine horror classic. A superior family drama scratches off its skin to reveal a horror film chock full of scares and haunting images. Nothing wrong there. But is it a revelatory film experience? I’m not sure. Hereditary continues to leave me frustrated by the painful familiarity with which it digresses from its boldly shod path. It is one of those few good films that get weaker as it progresses. But its successes remain worth celebrating.

3. A Quiet Place

John Krasinski pulled off a tiny miracle with this one. Another inspired debut film, in a year where horror debuts seem to be the stand out trend, A Quiet Place’s stupendous use of silence to construct drama and nerve-wracking tension offered a quiet alternative to the desperate loudness of the modern blockbuster. I can’t think of a bigger compliment in this day and age of endless chatter and loud rage.

2. The Endless

It would be an affront to pigeonhole Benson and Moorhead’s film in any genre. It is a mind-bending thriller, fantasy, horror-mystery buddy drama set in a cult that suddenly spills over into their earlier films, in a wonderful dive into intertextuality and world-building. The Endless is pure joy to witness as it unspools its riches with spellbinding intelligence and love for the medium. You can’t blame anyone for going weird when two brothers set out to stay with a cult. Only, Benson and Moorhead simply push things to another level altogether.

Before I reveal the number one pick, I would like to draw attention to a few films that made for a memorable horror watching year, warts and all. It was sheer joy to witness Nicholas Cage and Selma Blair hunt their children down in the wildly subversive but fun Mom and Dad. Michael Myers made a mostly by-the-numbers return to the screen in David Gordon Green’s take on Halloween. Ghost Stories added a dash of British impropriety beneath the stiff upper lip to the anthology horror genre. What Keeps You Alive was riveting, until it decided to abandon its realist ship. The Night Eats the World, well, just watch it as soon as you can.

I will end this with a small disclaimer: I haven’t managed to watch Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria just yet. Going by internet and critic chatter, it may have jumped into the list. Here’s hoping it heralds a great 2019 for horror.

1. Annihilation

The most horrifyingly beautiful horror film of the year — director Alex Garland’s sophomore sci-fi effort, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s eponymous novel — is also its most cautionary. Unlike Paul Feig’s risible Ghostbusters update featuring an all-female cast thrown in for no particular reason, Garland’s female protagonists aren’t products of a cash-grab. They enter a most beautiful nightmare in a bid to save us from our own parasitic anxieties. They grapple with the forces of the unknown in ways they find hard to understand themselves, painting a perfect picture of the far-from-perfect world we find ourselves in today: beautiful, complex, forbidding and alluring in equal measure.

Updated Date: Jan 03, 2019 10:48:13 IST

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