Ryan’s Top 10 Horror Films of 2019

From blockbuster sequels to art house cinema, 2019 has been a solid year for horror. Seems every month in 2019 had a horror (or horror-adjacent) movie or two hitting cinemas. For purposes of this list, I am not considering any direct-to-streaming movies (e.g. Velvet Buzzsaw). Furthermore, I am not considering any high drama that many (not including myself) consider horror (such as The Lighthouse or Parasite). I’ve done my best to curate a well-vetted list of new releases for purposes of ranking them based upon a comprehensive approach including factors such as entertainment value, technical achievement, originality, atmosphere, and provocativeness. Here we go!

10. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Everyone loves a good ghost story, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has several ones that remind me of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? on steroids! This is a surpassingly frightening horror movie! It takes the very practice of passing along scary stories generation to generation, and explores the far reaching effects that the power of story has in a manner that it as insightful as it is visually terrifying. Directed by Andre Ovredal with a superlative screenwriting and story team including Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark relies upon a more classical approach to a horror movie by building upon old fashioned ghost stories. You know, the kind that you sit around the camp fire or on the floor of your childhood sleepover and tell one another. These are stories that have been shared and passed down so prolifically that they feel alive.

9. Child’s Play: “Hi, I’m Chucky, wanna play?” It’s a fun horror movie, flaws and all. Let’s address the white elephant in the room. This is not as good as the original; however, instead of primarily focussing on what did not do right, I’d like to highlight what it did well. At the end of the day, this is a highly entertaining horror movie that brings Chucky’s origin into the 21st Century. Unlike the trajectory of the Child’s Play franchise after the original sequel that embraced the camp effect, 2019’s Child’s Play attempts to go full-on horror. Unfortunately, it should have gone the camp route, because I feel that would have been received more favorably. There are moments that you question whether or not they are supposed to be funny. And it’s that ambiguity that leaves us uncomfortably in the middle during many moments in the movie.

8. Us: The followup to the horror masterpiece Get Out ultimately falls short of the bar set by its predecessor. But don’t worry, there is still plenty to like in Us. Whereas Get Out was a horror film built upon compelling, thoughtful social-commentary on the uncredited, forced appropriation of one ethnic group by another, Us plays as a straight forward horror film, complete with all the thrills for which you hope to experience. There is certainly an attempt by Peele to comment on class, MAGA, and other important social topics, but the film tries to do too much, and winds up not accomplishing what it so desperately wants to do. Keep your eyes peeled for details, because you are going to need them in order to best appreciate the ending.

7. IT Chapter II: The larger, less terrifying chapter. Return to Derry, Maine with the Losers Club as they once again face the nightmarish clown Pennywise. With expectations set incredibly high from the critical and box office success of the first chapter, chapter 2 had some major clown shoes to fill. And was it successful? That is mostly up to the individual audience members; however, from a critical perspective, the second chapter falls short of the first one in both character and plot. While there are some scary moments (mostly driven by jump-scares) and some good character-driven moments, as a whole, the movie feels bloated for time, poorly paced, unintentionally campy, and not nearly as creepy as the first one. I appreciated the original for expertly crafting the atmosphere of dread and delivering terrifyingly creepy moments not primarily reliant upon jump-scares; but this second chapter seems to fall victim to sequelitis and revert to using jump-scares more than the art of crafting suspense with the camera.

6. Room for Rent: Lin Shaye would kill to find a decent man. Directed by Stuart Flack and written by Tommy Stovall, Room for Rent takes you on a journey into the twisted mind of a grieving widow and her delusional methods to cope with her loneliness. From the moment that Joyce Smith (Shaye) appears on screen, it is clear that Shaye is completely immersed in the character, much as we have come to expect from her more than 90 feature length films (many of which are horror).A tremendous amount of depth exists in this story if you look beyond the surface. Unlike many slasher or psychotic killer movies, in which the plot or characters are not realistic, the entire plot is stepped in realism and Joyce is a believable central character. Moreover, the tenants and neighbor are also believable. Perhaps what makes this movie frightening is the notion that this could very well happen. It will at least make you think twice before renting a room from an elderly woman off Craigslist or AirBnB.

5. Pet Sematary: “Sometimes dead is better.” Unless you’re back from the dead with a vengeance! Brace yourself for the spine-chilling, immensely terrifying 2019 adaptation of the best-selling novel Pet Sematary by the legendary Stephen King. Whereas many remakes/reboots of earlier horror films often suffer, this one emerges from the soured soil as a force to be reckoned with. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer deliver a heartpounding rollercoaster of a nightmarish experience as Pet Sematary opens everywhere this weekend. Instead of a direct from page to screen adaptation, much like the fantastic 1989 original version (and yes, it still holds up), this version takes some creative liberties; however, the soul of the novel and even the 1989 version is clearly there. This creative latitude enabled the film to deliver new, surprising scares that are sure to frighten you. If you haven’t seen the extended trailers–DON’T–cannot say that enough. It’s best to go into this film with only the name and the initial teaser trailer in your mind.

4. Crawl: So much fun! Crawl is that horror movie that comes out of nowhere to wow audiences! It’s so simple, yet incredibly clever, exciting, and rewatchable. When it seems that old-school creature-features are a thing of the past, Crawl emerges from the murky depths to prove that we love to see man-eating monster-like creatures on the big screen. This movie know that it is B-class, and totally rocks it! It delivers precisely what we want out of this sub-genre of horror in a brilliantly unapologetic fashion that is destined it make this a future classic. It possesses a delicate balance of seriousness and camp that is seldom struck–a great example of lightning in a bottle. Not since Lake Placid have I enjoyed a creature feature this much.

3. Midsommar: Ars gratia artis. The latin inscription around MGM’s Leo the Lion is the best way I can describe Ari Aster’s Midsommar. For fellow cinephiles, this is the type of film that reminds us of the power of the moving image and the art of visual design. Film is a visually driven medium, and Midsommar exhibits that in spades. Although it was predicted to be then confirmed by the director to be a companion piece to Hereditary there is little similarity except for one important point: the theme of grief. Furthermore, Midsommar also comments on relationship revenge and drug culture. I’ve heard this film described as one long acid trip by folks on Film Twitter, and that is not entirely inaccurate. From edibles to cocktails, many of the scenes are viewed through the lens of a drug-induced reality that creates a fever-dream-like state of being. Trippy, is putting this cinematic experience lightly. And it is that. A cinematic experience unlike any other that I have ever witnessed. Whereas, in my opinion, this film’s greatest flaw is the lack of a compelling plot–and that’s a big deal, no mistaking it–the film excels at typifying film as art.

2. Ready or Not: Outstanding! Ready or Not is a brilliant horror comedy from start to finish. Fantastic screenplay, cast, direction, effects, everything works flawlessly. Probably the most fun movie of the summer. It’s a no holds barred dark comedy full of entertaining, campy dialogue and gruesome kills. Not since the cult classic Clue, has there been such an excellent horror comedy heavily influenced by the concept of a game. Samara Weaving slays audiences as the wedding dress wearing Grace as she transforms into this movie’s answer to Kill Bill. Although most of the other characters are relatively flat, you forgive them because of the endless jokes about the insanely rich and the non-stop bloody comedy. Does the film have shortcomings? Sure does–the cinematography and lighting, for examples; however, this movie is so incredibly charismatic and it’s hilarious enough to more than makeup for the technical faults in this movie. When I state “everything works flawlessly,” I suppose it’s a bit hyperbole because it’s not a perfect film, but it knows its strengths, and those strengths support everything else to deliver a movie that will keep you highly entertained for the entire run time that is non-stop antics and action.

Honorable mentions before my pick for the No.1 horror film of 2019:

And the No. 1 of 2019 is… Doctor Sleep: A brilliantly unsettling and crisp horror film! Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is both an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, by the same name, and a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This highly anticipated film had the unusual task to fit the Kubrick film and King’s novel The Shining, since it is well known that King was not happy with the Kubrick adaptation. Although many unplanned sequels to iconic classics are challenged to justify their own existence, and often fail to live up to the magic of the original, Flanagan defies the fate that so often befalls sequels and delivers a compelling film worthy to be connected to Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece. There is something irresistible about returning to the infamous Overlook Hotel, and this film knows that you are mostly in the auditorium because of anticipating the trade mark carpet, Navajo-deco interior design, and bloody elevators, and holds that ace up its sleeve until the third act. Whereas the storytelling could have taken the easy way out, knowing that you would blindly accept virtually everything as long as you get to check back into The Overlook, it still offers a compelling, challenging narrative that brilliantly sets up the showdown at the most infamous hotel in all literature. Combining the best of the King novel with the haunting imagery and ominous atmosphere of Kubrick’s masterpiece, this film surpasses the expectations and apprehensions most of us had when we knew the legacy shoes this sequel had to fill.

Be sure to checkout my Top 10 Films of 2019 List as well!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” horror movie review

Everyone loves a good ghost story, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has several ones that remind me of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? on steroids! Don’t let the August release date fool you, this is a surpassingly frightening horror movie! It takes the very practice of passing along scary stories generation to generation, and explores the far reaching effects that the power of story has in a manner that it as insightful as it is visually terrifying. Directed by Andre Ovredal with a superlative screenwriting and story team including Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark relies upon a more classical approach to a horror movie by building upon old fashioned ghost stories. You know, the kind that you sit around the camp fire or on the floor of your childhood sleepover and tell one another. These are stories that have been shared and passed down so prolifically that they feel alive. Ghost stories are such a part of our childhood and teenage years, and this film explores the idea of these stories coming to life. A terrifying prospect. Despite the one-dimensional characters, this movie keeps the audience engaged because of the incredibly fun plot and nightmarish visuals. And no, the end of the movie is not tied up with a nice little bow. Traditional narratives follow: order–>disorder–>order again, but horror often takes on an order–>disorder–>order–>disorder path. While there are elements in this movie that may predispose you to thinking that it’s an anthology like Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it is one linear narrative. Scary Stories is  thoughtful horror movie that is a throwback to the tales of old, when hauntingly spooky was more important than grisly gore.

Pennsylvania 1968 on Halloween, and change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley, where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion, on the edge of town, that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories she passed along to children whom would talk to her through the wall of her foreboding mansion. In addition to passing down the stories orally, she wrote them down in book that truly immerses the reader into the terrifying plot. When a group of teenagers accidentally stumbles onto Sarah’s book of scary stories to tell in the dark, they realize that these stories are become all too real, and they find themselves strapped in the pages of these stories that transcend time and reality.

On one hand, this movie may appear overly generic to the casual observer, given the chief elements that make up the story. You have a group of misfit teens in small town middle America, lots of period nostalgia (that is thankfully not even more of the already proliferated 80s), a cursed object that torments its readers, and a haunted house. Everything that a writer needs to create a forgettable horror movie that goes directly to streaming services is here. But that is where you would be wrong to presume it is just another generic haunted house movie. The premise may not be exuding originality but the expression of the premise is. Combine the original expression of a plot template with the stunning visuals that we’ve come to expect from the del Toro brand, and you have one fantastic horror movie. Clearly exhibited in each and every scene, there are many signs that this movie was built by writers and a director who cares about the story and the audience experience. The degree to which this haunted house movie works for audiences may one day be seen in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. So many visual elements in this movie lend it to a haunted house (definitely more than the upcoming Us haunted house). Even if you did not grow up reading the Scary Stories books, you probably read Goosebumps or watch the TV version of the former or Are You Afraid of the Dark? and that is all you need to know or be familiar with. Go in with a love of good old-fashioned ghost stories, and you will have a fun time.

This is the second gateway horror movie that we have seen in the last couple years. Last year, we had The House with a Clock in its Walls, which worked as a gateway horror movie (albeit less so than this one). Ever since the TV shows referenced earlier went off the air, there has been a need for PG and PG-13 horror for younger audiences that also appeals to adults. Most of the horror movies over the last couple of decades have large been aimed at older teens and adults. The trick is to write a story that is appropriate enough for general 12-17 viewers, but still contain the macabre elements that 18+ viewers want to see. And that doesn’t mean gore, it means a thoughtful approach to crafting a fun horror movie that genuinely frightens you. Spooky atmospheres, ghostly apparitions, and tormented characters have been a staple of the American horror film from the days of Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. But in recent years, haunting production design and memorable monsters have taken backseat to schlock fests. This movie seeks to bring back the old fashioned haunted house ghost movie to foster an appetite in young audiences for the fantastic world of horror.

The central character and our character of opposition are two opposite sides of the same coin. Driving their decisions is a love of storytelling and family issues. Of course the familial issues differ greatly, but they complement one another nicely. When developing central and opposition characters, it’s important for the screenwriter to remember that often both characters need to share some common traits, and even common goals, but the difference is in how that desire to achieve the goal is expressed through action. There appears to be ab attempts by the movie to provide opportunities for the characters and plot to comment on the society and politics, but it’s never fully developed. Underscoring many of the scenes in the film is the 1968 presidential election and the controversial Vietnam War. I feel that the socio=political elements were not used as effectively as they could have been, so it would have been better just to leave them out as those moments don’t add anything to the overall story.

The power of story. It was Cecil B. DeMille who stated that the “greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” and Scary Stories takes its cue from the timeless words from a  Hollywood great. Films were always about breaking ground in visual technical marvel, the almost oxymoronic photorealistic animation, or grisly violence; they were about telling stories. Not unlike the ones that got orally passed down. And these stories helped to shape generations of current and future storytellers. When you tell a story enough, it begins to have a life of its own, there is a place for some evil to be contained as we creatively explore the human condition, sexuality, gender roles, faith, psychology, and sociology through the American horror film. We already have a movie about what happens when the stories die (see my article on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), so this one takes the approach of what happens when you steel someone’s storybook but pairs that with the healing power of storytelling. To get into how and why would reveal too much about the showdown of the movie, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. At the end of the movie, you are left with wondering about the stories that you have passed down, and power to terrify or to heal that comes along with them. You may even find yourself wanting to get a group of friends together to tell ghost stories.

If you love a good ghost story, then you definitely want to catch this while in theatres to truly appreciate and experience the nightmarish visuals of the monsters and the beauty of the production design. Get into the Halloween spirit a little early with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as you enjoy a throwback to a more classical approach to the American horror film.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry