Bryan Stumpf’s Top Ten of 2016
While 2016 was a year full of dark moments in the world, for me, the year had a handful of highpoints — I got married, got a new job, moved into a new house, and in the last few months, I completed post-production on my short horror film, Ghost Walks finally making it festival-ready. (I just received news today that Ghost Walks is a finalist in the first festival I submitted it to, the Snowtown Film Festival! Whee!)
So 2016 was also a very busy year — so busy I sadly didn’t get around to submitting very much to The Slaughtered Bird. And so, as I put together what was initially going to be just a simple list of my favorite horror films of 2016, I couldn’t help but editorialize, and spill forth with thoughts I’ve had about movies and the horror genre over the past 12 months.
Below is the expanded version of my top ten horror of 2016, with reflections over where horror went over the year, and my hopes of where it might be going in 2017.
One of the main things I noticed, looking over my list, is that it was a very good year for the horror sub-genre of the “contained thriller” — no less than SEVEN of the below ten movies pretty much take place in one isolated location, in a very short time frame, with only a few characters.
If I had to guess a reason for this raft of contained thrillers, maybe it was counter-programming to the plethora of Marvel movies and tent pole franchises at the multiplexes. When every other “big movie” is a sprawling, epic with super-humans battling intergalactic bad guys all over the globe and across the Milky Way, maybe filmmakers foresaw audiences desiring alternative experiences — like say, small intimate films consisting of a handful of characters spending a spot of time in a room.
And so, topping my list is…
The trifecta of filmmakers Jeremy Saulnier, Jeff Nichols, and Jim Mickle are the new vanguard of American independent, counterculture cinema — with Justin Benson/Aaron Moorhead (Spring) and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) firmly in the same camp.
Since 2010, Saulnier, Nichols, and Mickle have impressively expanded film grammar and modern storytelling structure, yet all three remain criminally unheralded. Mickle will be absent from this year’s list, only because he was too busy on the phenomenal TV series Hap and Leonard to put out a film this year. Nichols turns up later in this list, but the top spot belongs to Saulnier’s Green Room.
Yes, Green Room is raw, brutal, and shocking, but it also has some of the best, most groundbreaking writing of the year. Writer-director Saulnier is a master of allowing his characters to make satisfyingly fruitless decisions. Reviewers of Saulnier’s Blue Ruin from 2013 mistakenly called main character Dwight “bumbling,” yet I would say he’s the one of the more perfectly crafted 21st Century Everymans. With Dwight dealing with tense situations in deeply flawed, perfectly uncontrived and ultra-unvarnished ways, Saulnier introduced a revolutionary new take on the Everyman.
And with Green Room, Saulnier crafts a revolutionary story structure. Not only do characters spend an unconventionally sizable amount of screen time meandering into dead ends, but Saulnier subverts the traditional movie storytelling rulebook in several ways — you’ll likely be blindsided by which characters get maimed, which characters are killed, which characters live…and which character gets the last line.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Another perfect contained thriller, with a mesmerizing performance by John Goodman, and impressive directing by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg. Not only was 2016 a great year for contained thrillers, it was also a great year for studios taking chances on “spec scripts” — those screenplays typically written by novice screenwriters hoping to get noticed by the big studios. 10 Cloverfield Lane originated as The Cellar, a spec script written by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken that wallowed on one of the many on-line “hit lists” featuring spec scripts much beloved by readers, yet unproduced by studios. With the help of J.J. Abrams, The Cellar was developed into 10 Cloverfield Lane, a “spiritual sequel within the Cloverfield universe” for Paramount Pictures.
(By the way, J.J. Abrams and Paramount Pictures — My contained thriller spec script Commute still remains much beloved by readers, yet unproduced. In fact, a great way to describe Commute would be “10 Cloverfield Lane in a car.” Message me!)
Yet another excellent contained thriller from 2016, with Uruguay’s Fede Alvarez proving his deft directing chops in his second feature film — much more convincingly than his first feature. I wasn’t one of the more enthusiastic fans of Alvarez’s feature film debut, the 2013 Evil Dead remake. In my opinion, the remake, while well-made, was seriously lacking in scares…the dead just weren’t evil enough. But in Don’t Breathe, Alvarez’s ability to build dread and tension is truly something to behold.
As we reach the list’s mid-point, Midnight Special, The Witch, and Lights Out are the three non-contained thrillers on the list. And it might be a stretch to include Midnight Special on any “horror” list, but I did find its subject matter deeply unsettling at times, with a bit of heartfelt dread that seems signature to anything Jeff Nichols writes/directs. Either way, anything written/directed by Nichols is guaranteed a spot in my year-end top ten.
If you’re a fan of the atmospheric slow burn, like me, The Witch is like a fine wine to be savored. And I would also include writer/director Robert Eggers in the above-mentioned new vanguard of American independent, counterculture cinema. I simply relished The Witch’s exquisite slow burn in the beautifully photographed untamed woods of 1630s New England America. And the film contains some of the finest goat acting in cinema history! My parents have a goat farm — so now, every time I swing by the homestead, I become a talent scout, gazing out into the pastures, looking for the next goat ingénue.
I was so impressed by the 3 minute horror short Lights Out when it debuted on-line back in 2013, that I was compelled to research its director, the Swedish filmmaker, David F. Sandberg. I learned Sandberg had directed other impressive shorts, and I even listed his Cam Closer, a “smartphone horror” short, in an article for MoreHorror.com, Bloody Stumpf’s Choice Cuts: 5 Scariest Smartphone Horror Shorts.
Like many, I was excited to hear Sandberg was expanding the Lights Out short into a feature, but was skeptical of how he’d expand the 3 minutes into 90 minutes. Yet with the help of writer, Eric Heisserer (who also penned one of my favorite non-horror films of 2016, Arrival), the Lights Out feature retains all the cleverness and scares of the short, while also creating a new horror mythology ripe for a franchise. I’m always impressed when writers put a lot of thought into the architecture of their story’s mythology, and Heisserer and Sandberg clearly put the time in, expertly utilizing the film’s central “gimmick,” as characters scramble to acquire all means of luminescence to ward off new horror icon, Diana.
Train to Busan
OK, now back to the contained thrillers, and what appears to be South Korea’s favorite single location for contained thrillers: the train. Three years after Joon-ho Bong’s stellar, Snowpiercer, South Korea exports yet another contained thriller on a train. And a decade and a half into the New Era of Zombies, that started around 28 Days Later, Train to Busan’s director Sang-ho Yeon makes the contained zombie thriller seem fresh and new. Yet Train to Busan is much more than a “zombies on a train” movie — Sang-ho Yeon interweaves a genuinely tear-jerking family story within the claustrophobia and undead.
(Hey Joon-ho Bong! Looking for your next project? My short film Annulment a contained romantic comedy, about a recently divorced couple stranded at a cottage during a zombie apocalypse, could definitely be expanded into a feature film!)
Yet another contained thriller, The Invitation takes place in one house during a dinner party. I worked with Logan Marshall-Green on Cold Comes the Night, and I’ve been rooting for him to star in a slow burn, brooding, meditative thriller. And in The Invitation, Marshall-Green puts his sad eyes and hunched shoulders to excellent use in his performance as a grieving father. For the most of its screen time, The Invitation is riveting ensemble drama, but in the third act, things get wine dark and chilling, firmly cementing its spot on this list.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
What starts off as a police procedural, The Autopsy of Jane Doe slowly becomes a contained horror in a morgue. The meticulously calibrated directing by Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal’s secures Doe’s place on this list. As for the writing – and maybe I saw Doe on so many top 2016 horror lists, my expectations were too high – the narrative logic gets a bit muddled in the third act. Though Doe grips you tight with its twists and tempered performances by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, playing father and son morticians, it doesn’t quite maintain the tension in its second half, that it so assuredly builds up in its first half.
The Shallows (with reservations)
If the first five minutes of Jaws was stretched out to feature length, it would look a lot like The Shallows. And I really liked about 96% of The Shallows — my reservations are exclusively anchored to one or two unfortunate choices at the film’s climax. Either way, you can’t come up with a better crowd pleaser than a woman stranded alone with a relentless predator, and at the same time, Blake Lively and director Jaume Collet-Serra imbue this “monster movie” with the kind of beauty, heart, and dignity it deserves.
And the writing is quite good. The Shallows is the other screenplay in this list, along with 10 Cloverfield Lane, that was a spec script that wallowed in an on-line “hit list” unproduced for several years, until Columbia Pictures decided to take a chance on it.
Hey Columbia Pictures — Have I mentioned my contained thriller spec script Commute still remains much beloved, yet unproduced?
And Collet-Serra — Are you trying to break my heart by choosing a film called The Commuter for your next project?? Seriously??
They Look Like People
This year’s number one inspiration for micro-budget filmmakers, much like 2012’s The Battery. Writer director Perry Blackshear shows how to make a smart, compelling, and frightening film on an obviously threadbare budget.
I Am Not a Serial Killer
If John Hughes asked the John Carpenter of 1982 to help him make a giallo film, it would look a lot like I Am Not a Serial Killer. Assured atmospheric directing by “Master of Bleak” Irish filmmaker Billy O’Brien, excellent cinematography by Robbie Ryan, and an amazing performance by Christopher Lloyd — this movie came out of nowhere and blew my mind.
Far from a perfect film, but like I Am Not a Serial Killer, I appreciated The Triangle’s clever misdirections. I also admired how The Triangle smartly upends the common expectations of a found footage movie. While Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s Blair Witch re-boot might have been poorly received for hewing too closely to the original found footage Witch, the filmmakers behind The Triangle showed the untapped revisionist possibilities in the sub-genre.
Some swear the Blair Witch re-boot was the final nail in the found footage coffin, but I’ve seen The Triangle in other top ten 2016 horror lists. And throughout 2016, my found footage screenplay in paperback The Making of Merciless sold rather well, and continues to sell well. (And if you’re at all curious why it’s been selling well, buy your copy now on Amazon: www.amazon.com/Making-Merciless-Bryan-Stumpf/dp/1533133263)
Non-Horror Honorable Mentions:
Manchester By the Sea
Wishing all a productive and prosperous 2017!