This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Another year with an incredible volume of horror releases, 2017 displays pretty much everything that has been great about the genre in the back half of the 2010s in particular. There’s just such a wealth of indie horror releases here, from ones that got a fair amount of attention (Raw, It Comes at Night), to notably weird, underseen movies like Prevenge that seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye. It’s a year of pretty serious, cerebral horror films (the words “prestige horror” and “elevated horror” were being thrown around a lot by this point), but there’s always the occasional Happy Death Day to lighten things up.
Obviously, you can’t discuss 2017 in horror cinema without acknowledging It, a film that kicked down the doors of the American box office and completely redefined the upper ceiling of how much an undeniable horror story could ever hope to gross. It was a perfect storm moment of accessible (and memorable) Stephen King source material, faithful adaptation, perfectly polished direction from Andy Muschietti and outstanding performances, particularly by an emergent Bill Skarsgård as the slavering Pennywise. It was, in short, exactly what it needed to be to kickstart a sensation and a Stephen King revival on both the big and small screens, which has seen a copious number of projects launched in the months that followed It taking in a global $700 million haul. Unfortunately, as it tradition in adaptations of this story, It: Chapter 2 couldn’t quite keep up the momentum, but that’s to be expected when practically all fans prefer the “Losers as kids” portion of the story to begin with.
A strong contender to possibly unseat Get Out this year is little-seen Irish chiller A Dark Song, a film that explores how much faith and effort a broken person may be willing to invest in the hopes of achieving what would otherwise be impossible. The film follows a grieving mother, who wishes to contact her murdered son from beyond the grave, as she commits herself into the hands of an occultist who says he can achieve this result, but only at the greatest of costs. In order to succeed, this woman will need to partake in a months-long ritual in an isolated cabin in the Welsh countryside, where both she and the audience must battle against the insidious, creeping doubt that this entire activity is a sham, and that the occultist must be insane. Steve Oram, also excellent in Ben Wheatley’s 2012 film Sightseers, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance here as the irascible spiritualist who may or may not know what he’s doing, as the film builds to a transcendent, highly satisfying conclusion.
Cerebral, intimately disturbing horror is really the flavor of the day here, present in the post-apocalyptic paranoia of It Comes at Night, the seemingly Martin-inspired vampire story The Transfiguration, the unconventional ghost plot of Personal Shopper and the stomach-churning collegiate cannibalism of Julia Ducournau’s stunning coming-of-age movie Raw, the latter of which might well have inspired a few new vegetarians. This is an era of emerging filmmakers making bold, unrestrained horror features, whether they’re getting into limited release or existing solely in the streaming sphere, like Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game.
This is also, to date, the high water mark for the horror genre, in terms of overall box office gross. Driven by It, and with big totals lumped on by Get Out and Split in particular, 2017 made a strong argument that even after a century, audiences are more ravenous for horror cinema than ever.
2017 Honorable Mentions:
A Dark Song, It, Raw, It Comes at Night, Split, Personal Shopper, Creep 2, Prevenge, The Transfiguration, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Void, mother!, XX, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Gerald’s Game, Happy Death Day, The Devil’s Candy, The Lure
Director: Jordan Peele
It’s amazing how quickly demonization can turn into envy; how easily hate can transform into the desire for possession. This is the most basic observation of Jordan Peele’s feature debut Get Out, the horror film we’ll remember ever after as the most singularly, undeniably relevant to American culture in the 2010s. It presents us not just with the specter of historical racism and classicism, but a frightening meditation on their evolution in society over the last few decades. It’s rooted in a truth that is likely immutable: The bourgeoisie will always find a new way to exploit the less fortunate segments of society, even if it means becoming them.
As one minor character puts it, not at all subtly, “black is in fashion” by the time 2017 rolls around, and the well-to-do white classes aren’t about to sit idly by and not claim any benefit that exists for themselves. They see the perceived beauty of others as their natural right; ripe for the taking. They see athletic prowess or artistic talent as qualities within their grasp, if they can effectively steal them away from someone else. Peele’s screenplay crackles with satirical energy, alternatingly horrific and darkly humorous.
So too does Peele demonstrate another strength here in the arena of casting. Daniel Kaluuya clearly shines as Chris, an everyman who grapples with deep-seated childhood feelings of guilt, even as his prospective in-laws grow steadily more creepy. But the strength of Get Out’s casting goes far beyond its star, whether it’s the incredible comic levity injected by Lil Rel Howery into every one of his scenes, or the faux progressivism of an unbearably snide Bradley Whitford. Perhaps most effective is Allison Williams, who nails the “fake ally” role so well, and appears so innocent through the film’s first half, that the actress says white audiences still have a hard time accepting that she’s a “bad guy,” even when the film has finished rolling. Straight from her own mouth:
“They’d say ‘she was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, no! She’s just evil! How hard is that to accept? She’s bad! We gave you so many ways to know that she’s bad! She has photos of people whose lives she ended behind her! The minute she can, she hangs them back up on the wall behind her. That’s so crazy! And they’re still like, ‘but maybe she’s also a victim?’ And I’m like, NO! No! And I will say, that is one hundred percent white people who say that to me.”
We should hardly be surprised by such a result, but the fact that audiences reacted to the film that way demonstrates exactly why Get Out needed to exist in the first place. It is a potent modern fable on how the privileged will always seek out new ways to exploit those they see as less than human, wrapped in a veneer of multiplex-friendly popcorn thriller entertainment, and it announced the arrival of Peele as a premiere social satirist.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.