Best Horror Films of 2013

While my total for viewed films overall was up in 2013 the new horror that I saw was down. Due to that I decided that a top 10 would be more prudent and meaningful. That does not mean, however, that these are the only horror films I liked. I have created a Letterboxd list that ranks the horror I saw from 1-38. About half that list are films I liked and would recommend viewing.

But these are the best of that faction.

10. Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies (2013, Summit Entertainment)

Making a genre-specific list can be a tough thing, especially when you deal with horror. There are a few reasons for this: first, almost everyone and anyone has their own picks that they peg as horror that are debatable. For example, a few years ago I chose Take Shelter. I stand by that and get arguments against it. Similarly, though one of my favorite films of the year, I don’t see Stoker as a horror film, but I get it.

Which brings us to Warm Bodies. Yes, it’s comedic and romantic and there are zonbies. I can even get it if you don’t want to see zombies this way at all. However, I think it does what it does in a fun and creative way. It’s not perfect, of course, and the balancing act to an extent puts a ceiling on it but I did enjoy it quite a bit, aside from the makeup work.

9. Stitches


This is perhaps the darkest dark horse to crack my list for a few reasons. First, yes, when balancing horror and another genre things get tricky and this movie keeps the laughs and gore working hand-in-hand rather well. Moreover, it not only deals with a hard motif to sell me on, but it incorporates a folklore of the craft of clowning such that it creates a marvelous horror mythology out of it, and most definitely puts its own unique spin on the scary clown motif.

8. Maniac

Maniac (2012, IFC Midnight)

This is the latest-viewed in the year selection that I included. As noted before I didn’t get to finish viewing the original Maniac, and I don’t really mind that now. This one features a memorable score, a great use of POV with some great sleight-of-hand behind the camera and in the editing room. It’s also further testament to how a great performance can elevate a horror film and Elijah Wood is a testament to that here.

7. The Purge

The Purge (2013, Universal)

I do wish some things in The Purge, say the decision to have the antagonists in animal masks, hardly a unique one at that; had been handled differently. However, despite that pet peeve and and overly-short act one that was rather shaky. This definitely worked for me in the end. To the point of my post about it, it sets up as a film whose sequel may surpass it. I do think this is a good first step and that that film functions as a home invasion tale with an added twist.

6. Haunter

Haunter (2013, Dark Sky Films)

I wrote about this film specifically during 61 Days of Halloween and addressed the way it uniquely combines a few tropes that are old hat by now. It’s an engaging low-key horror tale that revels in slight variation, nuance of character takes its slow-burn to a near blaze by the end.

5. The Condemned

The Condemned (2012, Strand Releasing)

It’s a little surprising to even myself that this is the only horror film shot in a language other than English on this list. However, it does bear mentioning that if you limit yourself to American horror only, even with a healthy dose of indies, you’re doing yourself a disservice as you’ll find some really cool stuff globally. This one is not even coming from that far away as it was produced in Puerto Rico. Because it’s likely the least-seen of all of these here’s my review from April:

This can be a tough film to discuss without putting too fine a point on things and giving away several key elements, but like the film I will try to be subtle. There has been much talk in recent years, as it’s been more in vogue as of late than in years past, of the slow burn, particularly as it applies to the horror genre. A slow burning tale, as I’ve likely stated before, is not one that’s in and of itself problematic. Usually, the key to success for these films is either of two things: first, incremental and consistent, even if slight, escalation of stakes, and second, a sufficiently impressive and resonant pay-off to the wait.

The Condemned does not build quickly, even for a slow burn, but it excels tremendously in the pay-off department. What’s interesting is that it dabbles with many known tropes: haunting, children, secrets and the like, but with the way things play out it even toys with the very notion it even being a horror film, in a similar way to how last year’s The Hidden Face did, but ultimately remains one for all else it is.

There are subtleties throughout, things you are advised to recall though you may not think it crucial at the time. The Condemned is a wonderfully rendered tale that does sufficient visual exposition and elaboration on its turning points such that most, if not all, loose ends are tied up and the whole piece is elevated by, and not subjugated to, its trickery.

Its surely for horror fans, and I’d say art house fans too as it is an intelligent, well-acted and crafted film that does linger. It seems like the horror crop of 2013 may be a brainier bunch than ones in the past few years.

4. The Awakening

The Awakening (Universal Home Video, 2011)

This is another one that inspired me to write a piece. Not quite a review but it was the very strong performances in this well-crafted old school ghost story that re-emphasized in my mind the foundation of drama in all other genres, especially horror. Because the performances are so good, the characters so well-drawn and story so conducive to building them the scares (fairly fundamentally employed though they may be) really work.

3. Byzantium

Byzantium (2013, IFC Films)

Yes, this is a vampire love story. This was a dismissed film on Peter Travers summer “skip list” based on vampires alone. But this is Neil Jordan, this is not run of the mill, and most definitely not twilight. And make no mistake this film unlike Warm Bodies definitely emphasizes the horror aspect. It also tells a tale in two time periods, and has the narrative intertwine, has great production design and cinematography and is well worth looking for if you want an escape from the ordinary.

2. The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013, New Line Cinema)

Welcome to the top of the list or as you could call in 2013 James Wan country. Even though I was a huge Insidious fan, and I saw trailers for The Conjuring coming, I didn’t realize ahead of time that he’d have two horror releases so close to one another. Much less did I realize that Wan would throw down the gauntlet before at least taking a hiatus from the genre. The fascinating thing, and I will expound on this below, is that when all is said and down there were really two somewhat different approaches to the genre taken. Many would’ve expected his two films to be two-sides of the same coin, but they’re really not. Not quite.

The Conjuring is old-school scary that gets huge near its finale for better or worse all the chips go to the middle of the table. And notably, publicity stunt or not, genre-necessity for a studio or not, its R-rating can only be intellectually argued based on how effectively made it is, and not based on any MPAA guideline it violates.

1. Insidious: Chapter 2

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013, FilmDistrict)

Landing in the top ten, especially up at number one, is ostensibly about two things in most cases: doing something a little bit different and doing it very well. Yes, Insidious: Chapter 2 is a sequel. However, its status as such gives it even more leeway; heck, it’s almost expected to be a variation on the original. As a testament to Leigh Whannell, James Wan and Blumhouse, they did not play it safe. They took a chance and took this second installment where pretty much no one else expected, and I for one loved it.

Why The Purge Matters


Box office actuals won’t likely be out until tomorrow, but the estimates are that The Purge not only won the box office for the weekend clearly, but it also sets a record for an opening by an R-rated horror film in the US. On top of that, it’s take in excess of $36 million dollars more than makes back its reported 3 million production budget.

I’ve frequently commented on budgets inasmuch as I don’t care what they are so long as the film is good. As a viewer that’s true. If a film cost a couple of thousand dollars and works (like Absentia) good for it. If a movie costs a lot of money and works for me bully for it as well (See Artificial Intelligence). Budget really only comes into play on a film, for a viewer, when a film is trying to tell a story beyond its means and fails. If a film understands its constraints and tells its story well within them you can’t knock if for being made on the cheap.

As a filmmaker, budgets do matter. When a film made with a very small investment compared to many, especially so-called tentpoles, can be a hit regardless of what its magic number is and return on that investment that’s a great thing. Most people with sense recognize that fiscal responsibility is needed. Steven Spielberg has directed a number of blockbusters but even he knows that more isn’t always more. So there’s a sense that profit, more than throwing money at a supposed sure thing; or rather something that can’t miss because too much has been invested already, doesn’t always make sense.

The Purge (2013, Universal)


But the success of The Purge is exciting because its strength is its idea. Now, I am one of those who enjoyed the film a great deal. There was a certain more that I wanted, and not in the best way, but the film does work and sets the stage. The concept is about a night of legalized crime. The introduction to the concept is through a microcosmic approach where one family who usually does not get involved, just hides out, becomes ground zero for the neighborhood’s hunt. It essentially plays a home invasion plot.

However, with a jumping-off point of legalized crime and the potential franchise (I am sure it will be one now) drawing its strength from a concept rather than a star or an iconic character there are any number of areas or stories in the genre it can explore. It can either start the next installment with this family or go off on a tangent, it can show the chaos that lead to this all or any number of permutations on Purge Night. Like many of the most successful franchises it tethers itself to a once-a-year happening, but in this case they created a holiday.

I think a common talking point was we wanted more about what precipitated the institution of the purge. That is introduced just enough such that the story can work and the details are left as potential fodder for later. In this film its a given and that’s fine. It still works very well and more importantly people talked about it. Whether you went in cynical or willingly suspended disbelief it got people talking, just on the concept.

On my Twitter feed I saw a hashtag develop of #LegitPurgeQuestions. Yes, many of them were funny but it’s still people talking, engaging, being interested in the idea, and when all is said and done, wanting more.

When I recently rescreened Sinister I noted how many bullets I jotted down for a post I’m planning later in the year. There are many talking points in it. Blumhouse is not only making successful horror films but ones that get people talking and whether you enjoy them or not, I for the most part have liked them a lot, they’re keeping a genre that’s always in peril of stagnation, to one extent or another, fresh.

I say that can be nothing but a good thing.