Curator’s Note: Despite popular opinion I feel 2013 (even this summer!) has been an excellent year for film. As with every year in cinema it largely depends on how much of it you’ve seen and what you’ve seen to make it the best it could possibly be. It’s been a big year for genre pictures, particularly sci-fi and horror. To celebrate Halloween I thought I’d offer up what I feel are the 13 best horror movies of 2013. And before you ask an obvious joking question, yes there have been more than just thirteen. One last note, I am only considering films that received a theatrical release (outside of festivals) in the United States during this calendar year.
26 filmmakers bring you 26 bite-sized servings of extreme horror in The ABCs of Death. Half the fun is guessing what each letter stands for as revealed at the end of each 2-5 minute offering. I won’t lie, most are unimpressive and half you’ll wish you could forget, but there are some ripe picks in the patch… D, L, P, U, X, Y to start with my favorites. The film could have been called 26 Films To Not Watch With Your Mother. I’d only recommend the complete package to hardcore horror connoisseurs.
Speaking of mothers, Mama came out in January and remained on my mind all these months later. Two girls are discovered in the woods after five years of living on their own… or were they? Jessica Chastain is their aunt turned adoptive mother in a role like you’ve never seen from her before. The film has some admirable plot and camera tricks up its sleeve but the CGI mama will leave you feeling deceived.
11. Escape From Tomorrow
“Bad things happen everywhere.” The best poster of the year is the one for Escape From Tomorrow with that quotation above a bloody hand that could only belong to Mickey Mouse. Haunted by an incident he witnessed whilst at an undisclosed theme park (*cough* Disneyland *cough*) as a kid, Jim’s family vacation with his own wife and kids slowly becomes a surreal nightmare. The film is infamous for being filmed without permission at Disney parks. It’s one of the strangest brews you’ll drink all year.
10. The Borderlands
The Borderlands follows a group of Vatican investigators who check the validity of miracles instead of your typical “paranormal activity.” The reasons for countless cameras (including one attached to each character’s head) is firmly established from the start so that the rest of the movie can focus on scaring our pants off one bump in the night (and even in the day!) after another. The British West Country is a nice change of scenery for a found footage horror film this side of TrollHunter.
Still trying to get the taste of Apollo 18 out of your mouth? Give Europa Report a sincere try. This time a group of international astronauts is headed to Jupiter’s frozen moon in hopes to discover life beneath its surface. The performances aboard maintain the fidelity of the mission, making this the most realistic space movie of the year over Gravity. The fear of the unknown reigns supreme before the film goes just too far in the final minutes.
Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, proves that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in Antiviral, a rather ingenious commentary on our celebrity-centered culture that is also one of the more disgusting films in recent memory. Caleb Landry Jones is mesmerizing and alarming in the lead role as a salesman for a company that injects customers with the virus harvested from their favorite celebrity. It takes celebrity-worship to all new twisted level. The most terrifying part is how much we are already on a path to this sterilized yet infected dystopia.
7. We Are What We Are
This is a plodding look at a reclusive and fanatical family that lives on the outskirts of a small mountain town. The rain begins to pour from the very beginning, literally unearthing their dark secrets for the more curious townsfolk, Doc Barrow (played by Michael Parks) is among them. Parks and all of the family members turn in some very fine performances; Bill Sage deserves a shout-out for his complicated patriarchal role. The film contains grisly material but its so beautifully made that it’s an art-horror piece about your-not-so-typical American family. Traditions speak for the film’s title and you may be (un)pleasantly surprised by where it goes.
This is a modern retelling of the 1980 classic of the same name that also mixes the likes of Enter the Void and Drive, if you can imagine such a concoction. Maniac takes you inside the mind of a sick and schizophrenic serial killer, literally, through use of a consistent first-person perspective. The result is something incredibly challenging to sit through and simply awe-inspiring to filmmakers.
5. Frankenstein’s Army
It’s films like this that prove the found footage sub-genre is far from dead and has almost unlimited possibilities. What begins as a means of Soviet propaganda in the midst of WWII ends up like something right of the Wolfenstein video game series (on that topic, this movie often feels like watching an elaborate E3 demo of an upcoming survival horror game). The sheer amount and variety of atrocities that our war heroes meet in this outrageous exploration into human experimentation is impressive, not to mention being an unlikely period piece.
The sequel to last year’s found-footage anthology upped the ante in almost every way. There are only four “tapes” this time around and 3/4 are worth your time, unfortunately the worst is saved for last. Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s segment, “Safe Haven,” is an increasingly FUBAR investigation into an Indonesian cult and will surely go down in horror history. Eduardo Sánchez of The Blair Witch Project fame has an immensely entertaining segment that found a way to put a GoPro on a zombie.
3. World War Z
Nobody is more surprised than me to see this movie this high on this list. After a troubled production and a trailer that did it in zero favors in my estimation, World War Z had a helluva time proving me wrong but it did so scene after scene. The CGI zombies are a plague but they do not have as much screen-time as you’d fear. The movie is completely redeemed by its corridor confined climax which had the guts to bring a worldwide epidemic’s fate into an nontraditional small yet increasingly thrilling space. I hope we see a sequel and after performing like gangbusters at the box office it seems likely we will.
2. A Field In England
Ben Wheatley’s revisionist history lesson surrounding a group of deserters from the English Civil War is not a horror film on the surface. After wandering through the titular space they come across mushrooms, an Irish treasure hunter and visions of an impending doom. The most unnerving scene I’ve seen all year is when one of our lead characters exits the Irishman’s tent in a slow-motion craze with a rope tied around his waist, all set to Jim William’s electrifying score. The film reaches horror by throwing us into the unknown and pulling us under its trance-like state. A Field in England is destined to become a cult classic. They offered the audience shrooms at my screening. Trust me, you won’t need them.
1. Beyond the Hills
Out of all the “horror” films on this list this one may receive the most grief for being under the genre’s umbrella. It’s true, the film is marketed and sold as a foreign drama (or as we should probably call it, a drama) but hidden inside this examination of an Orthodox convent in modern-day Romania is a terrifying story of mistreatment and misunderstanding that leads to some serious consequences. It’s all the more scary when you learn it’s based on a true story. Beyond the Hills may be the most realistic exorcism movie ever made. It comes to us from the director of the equally horrific 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Forget horror, this is one of the best films of 2013 period.
There you have it, the best 13 horror films of the year according to yours truly. Honorable mentions include American Mary, The Conjuring (if you see two James Wan films this year, see this one twice), Evil Dead and You’re Next. In all honesty, the most horrific film I’ve seen in 2013 would have to be the documentary The Act of Killing, but that’s stretching the genre’s umbrella even further and deserves its own conversation. What are your favorite horror films of the year? Let me know in the comments below.
J.S. writes about all things film over on The Film Tome. Enter the tome and you will find reviews, news, trailer analyses, lists, essays, an official podcast and more.