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10 Best Horror Movies of 2016

From Puritan witches to perverse serial killers and predatory sharks – our picks for the year’s scariest, most shocking horror flicks

In terms of sheer, unmitigated terror, it was hard to beat the shriek-inducing fright that folks woke up to on November 9th, as they realized that the nightmare they now faced wasn't make-believe. But that doesn't mean that horror films didn't give the bloodcurdling reality we now face some more-than-decent competition. From surprising mainstream releases to a solid "mumblegore" anthology, serial-killer character studies to shark v. starlet showdowns, Gothic ghost stories to uncut Puritan dread, the cinema du scare had a great showing in 2016. We've stitched together our top 10 choices for the best the genre had to offer over the last 12 months – movies that still manage to send shivers down our spines and cause our stomachs to turn.

(Note: Green Room borrows horror-film elements but isn't a horror film per se, so much as the greatest siege thriller to ever feature skinheads, shotguns and box-cutters. That's the only reason it's not on this list.)

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10

‘The Love Witch’

In gloriously lurid technicolor, a foxy witch (Samantha Robinson) concocts potions with which she can ensnare a man through sex-magic. Anna Biller's tone-perfect throwback somehow bypasses cheap camp and informs its pagan horror with a thoroughly modern feminist sensibility. Part Hammer homage and part XX-rage reclamation, this subversive genre flick hides a deceptively smart referendum on womanhood inside a reverent valentine to the grindhouse Grand Guignol of yesterdecade. And that near-silent ending packs a wallop. CB

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9

‘The Shallows’

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) delivers a barebones nail-biter in which a young woman's paradise descends into a gut-wrenching fight for survival. Med-school dropout Nancy (a convincingly iron-willed Blake Lively) travels to Mexico in search of the secret beach that her deceased mother once visited. After a magical afternoon of surfing, she's attacked by a great white shark and left stranded offshore alone, with a nasty gash on her thigh and no clear passage to safety. Cheesy ending aside, this is tense, exciting predator-and-prey, woman v. nature stuff, not to mention undeniable eye candy, with its lush ocean scenery (mostly blue-screened) and Lively's much-displayed bikini bod (real). LK

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8

‘Southbound’

This collection of five tales from the seriously dark side – centering on assorted characters traveling down the same stretch of desolate American highway – not only incorporates fresh takes on the creature feature, religious-cult terror, supernatural phenomena, the medical procedural and the home-invasion thriller. It also defies the odds by overcoming the mixed-bag methodology of most anthology films and establishes a tonal consistency, complete with a through-line via indie horror fixture Larry Fessenden's radio DJ. Stitched together in an inventive, circular fashion, this wholly satisfying concoction features humor and frights in equal doses, fine performances and an even better score. But it's the segment in which an unnerved man must try to save the girl he accidentally hits with his car that stands out as perhaps the biggest squirmfest of the year. LK

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7

‘Evolution’

Adult women and prepubescent boys are the only residents of a secluded beachfront community. So what happens when the youngsters begin aging and thus threaten the careful balance? The answer has something to do with involuntary surgery, starfish and a mysterious nighttime ritual, but France's Lucile Hadzihalilovic couldn't be less interested in resolving her mysteries. Instead, she'd rather linger on disquieting imagery and aural manipulations geared to make your skin crawl. Bring on the arthouse body horror. CB

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6

‘I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives Inside the House’

Few recent films have had more respect for the austere pleasures of the old-fashioned haunted house movie than this eerie retreat into floor-creaking, spine-chilling New England gothic. Far from the Lecter-like sociopath she perfected in Luther, Ruth Wilson here plays a wispy hospice nurse who's assigned to look after a retired horror author (Paula Prentiss, in a rare appearance) until she dies. Death comes slowly, but the creeps settle in right away, as one of her patient's literary creations appears to be wandering off the page. The house doesn't belong to either of its living residents – they're merely "borrowing" the space, as dread fogs the rooms like the black mold on the walls. ST

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5

’10 Cloverfield Lane’

Credit producer J.J. Abrams with pulling off the year's savviest P.T. Barnum trick: Much like the film's sorta-kinda 2008 predecessor Cloverfield, this tale of monsters lurking inside and out popped up unexpectedly, shrouded in mysterious fanfare and sporting a franchise-ready name. But those expecting another shaky-cam alien invasion were treated to a beautiful bait-and-switch. There's a similar end-of-the-world vibe to this creepy follow-up about a paranoiac (John Goodman) holding two strangers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr.) in his underground bunker, ostensibly protecting them from threats unknown. But 10 Cloverfield Lane trades in found-footage gimmicky for a crisp, Hitchcockian flair, squeezing all the tension it can out of the is-he-crazy-or-not question before reaching an emphatic answer. ST

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4

‘The Invitation’

At a formal dinner party in the Hollywood Hills, a man (Logan Marshall-Green) starts to believe that the hosts – his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband (Michiel Huisman) – have a sinister agenda for the guests. This wickedly cruel take on New Age Angeleno culture burns the wick sloooooowly, teasing out the big reveal through a series of sick little games and psychological torments, each one ratcheting up the collective uneasiness and paranoia. In a year full of prestige movies about divorced parents coping with loss, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) lands a sharp allegory about the power of denial and the weaponization of grief. ST

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3

‘The Eyes of My Mother’

A monster calls: In writer-director-editor Nicolas Pesce's gorgeously ghoulish debut, an impressionable girl turns into a dismembering serial killer through a bizarre mixture of nature and nurture.  Francisca (newcomer Kika Magalhaes) is a lonely young woman living in a secluded house in search of playmates – starting with the man who murdered her mother that she slowly tortures in her barn. Told in three sections and filmed in luscious black and white, this dreamlike character study earns comparisons to Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in its matter-of-fact depiction of everyday evil lurking in quiet communities. Vocal cords are severed, eyes get pulled out of the socket, but what's most gruesome is our deep-seated need to create ad hoc families, even if it means leaving a body count in our wake. TG

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2

‘Don’t Breathe’

Teens. Psychopathic murderer. Locked house. Add in a batshit third-act twist, then shake well and serve with a garnish of liberal bloodshed. There's no substitution for good ol' fashioned filmmaking skill, and the sophomore feature from Fede Alvarez (that Evil Dead reboot) uses every aspect of his talent and the genre's tropes (especially the dark) to terrorize you with mind-boggling efficiency. Instead of springing cheap jump-scares on his viewers, he wisely places the threats in plain sight – and simply lets the audience terrify themselves with tense anticipation. Also: congratulations, Stephen Lang, on entering the Pantheon of modern-horror bad guys. You've earned it. CB

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1

‘The Witch’

A shape-shifter, a baby-killer, a forest predator who communes with the Devil himself – the title character of Robert Eggers' Puritan "folk tale" is a Satanic hag of the first order. And when this monster gets her claws into a 17th-century New England family excommunicated by their righteous religious neighbors, it feels less like a cathartic comeuppance for old-world bible-thumpers and more like a vicious assault on people trying their best to live and love in an unforgiving world. Star Anya Taylor-Joy joins the Jamie-Lee Curtis/Heather Langenkamp lineage of canon-worthy "final girls"; damned by her family for crimes she didn't commit, she's given no choice to but spill more blood and add to our nation's legacy old, weird American nightmares. This is horror as an inescapable cycle of abuse. This is horror in which crows peck at flesh and the cinema's most evil goat – damn you, Black Philip! – might reasonably ask a young maiden, "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" This is horror at its best. STC

In This Article: Horror

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