Celebrating 2019 in Horror Movies - The Best

November and December, two months defined by holiday cheer, can be a horribly depressing time for horror movie fans. Gone are images of spiders crawling out of eye sockets and men breaking down doors with axes, only to be replaced with mistletoe and images of happy dinners around the fire. While everyone else is celebrating, we are waiting for the delightful misery of mid-January to bring us the thrills and chills of the harshest months of winter. As we close out spooky season, let’s reflect on some of the best horror movies of the year.

Midsommar

Here it is, my official apology to Ari Aster. After months of deliberating, re-watching the movie, and even a little internet research, I’m ready to say it: I was wrong about Midsommar. Perhaps with his debut film, Hereditary, still fresh in my mind, my expectations for Midsommar were unrealistic. Where Hereditary had jump scares and the occult, Midsommar managed to capture the most terrifying thing of all: human intimacy and emotion.

For months I claimed to dislike the film, saying it was pointless and didn’t bring that same rush of unadulterated fear like his first film. But that couldn’t explain why my brain kept running through the muddled details of the film long after I had left the theater. Even the cinematography was so striking I found myself googling exchange programs in Sweden and Hungary despite myself. Finally, after hearing Aster’s take on the film, it was time to try again. The second time, it clicked.

If you haven’t seen Midsommar, Ari Aster describes it in an interview as “a breakup opera,” highlighting the melodrama heightened by the backdrop of folk horror. The story centers around a woman named Dani who has just suffered the loss of her mother, father, and sister. In the midst of reassembling the broken fragments of her life, her distant boyfriend, Christian, receives a tantalizing offer to attend a midsummer festival in a remote commune in Sweden. Though tensions are high between the couple, the two journey to the festival together along with several of Christian’s friends. What first appears to be an idyllic Swedish village, home to the Hårga people, devolves into the stuff of nightmares as the friends slowly realize the true nature of the community.

The Hårga people are what truly make this film interesting. Deriving loosely from Swedish Pagan tradition (without the murder, of course), the Hårga observe intense community traditions. While their rituals are gory and painful to watch, the people are equal parts violent and empathetic. Pelle, who initially invites the group to his home town, is a stark contrast to Christian, but not in the typical hero/villain way we might expect. Christian is cold and emotionally stunted. He can’t understand Dani and even forgets her birthday on the trip. We see cracks in their relationship forming, even before the gory elements come into play. Pelle, on the other hand, despite his role in the violence, is relentlessly empathetic. He is willing to be vulnerable with Dani, something she desperately needs. She can turn to him with her emotional baggage without fear of being judged. Even when it is evident that the Hårga people are more sinister than they appear, we trust Pelle because he has worked to build that trust.

Christian reminds us of ourselves. He is petty, abrasive, distant--human. He gaslights Dani throughout the film and it’s almost impossible to root for him, even when he is the obvious victim. Pelle, on the other hand, is a combination of two alien extremes: empathetic to the point that his emotions are tied to those in his community, but also a key player in acts of extraordinary cruelty. The audience is forced to reconcile our evolving feelings toward complex characters.

While I won’t reveal the final scene, the catharsis that comes in the final moments ties a montage of colorful, floral violence and ritual sacrifice to the central thesis of the film. In the final moments, through the haze of flowers and food and blood, we are able to see the raw emotion between Dani and Christian.

Even if you don’t love this film at first watch, it will leave you thinking for months. This earns its spot as one of the best horror films because Midsommar forces the audience to reconsider the nature of relationships and the traditional roles of hero and villain.

Us

Jordan Peele has done it again. With easter eggs, plot twists and a star-studded cast, Us checked all of my horror movie boxes. In the first thirty minutes, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, rotating between keeping my eyes glued to the screen and cowering in fear. You can’t watch this film just once; I had to watch it twice to even fully understand the plot. Like any good horror movie, Us is a complicated puzzle waiting to be solved.

Us tells the story of a family traveling to Santa Cruz for what seems like a relaxing beach vacation. However, following a traumatizing incident at the beach in her childhood, mother Adelaide (played by Lupita N’yongo) is hesitant to return. Soon it becomes clear exactly why she has these drawbacks when an identical family (armed with terrifying golden scissors) breaks in to taunt them.

While many horror movies deal out flat, one-dimensional characters only to slash their throats in the end anyway, Us gave us characters with life outside the two-hour movie. The Wilson family––Gabe, Adelaide, Zora, and Jason––are close-knit and funny. They make jokes with each other and siblings Zora and Jason fight in a familiar, sibling way. Even in the midst of guts and gore, Gabe’s boat “The Crawdaddy” still gives the audience something to laugh at with the characters. Even without the terrifying backdrop, there could still be a movie about the charming and interesting lives of the characters, something most horror movies cannot replicate successfully.

When things start to go south for the family, they don’t fall into silly horror movie traps. Yes, Gabe is overly confident, but not in a way that feels unrealistic. He trusts his wife when she tells him something is horribly wrong, even considering abandoning their beach vacation for her peace of mind. The relationships aren’t superficial and they would even exist without the imminent threat of danger––something that many horror movies also fail to establish.

Another thing that makes Us not only good but exceptional is the soundtrack. Underscoring violent scenes with the Beach Boy’s iconic “Good Vibrations” and NWA’s “Fuck the Police” show us that horror doesn’t have to be composed of unfamiliar melodies, but the music we know and love.

Of course, there is the iconic ballet scene near the end of the film that is both horrifying and poetic. Disrupting several scenes of fiery violence, the scene shows Adelaide fighting her double. Both visually stunning and unsettling, the audience is given a moment to reflect on the themes of the movie. Never losing its humor or its sense of purpose, Us is a complicated tapestry of what scares us the most.

As horror evolves and inches closer to that ever-elusive Oscar, we are able to more accurately define what makes a scary movie good. Truly frightening horror captures more than images of monsters and demons––it capitalizes on raw emotion and fragmented relationships. This year in horror, we saw experimental films that dissect broken people (figuratively and literally) and present the audience with puzzles to solve while watching.  We close out the most delightfully haunting time of year with the knowledge that horror is advancing as a genre. Directors and actors continue to add depth to their work, and every day we find new ways to scare ourselves to new levels. With these gems and more, I leave October knowing that one day Thanksgiving and Christmas will be only a faint memory as we celebrate three months of Halloween, honoring the demons within us as they should be honored.