2019 was another stellar year for horror hits and box office gold. But here are 50 smaller, must watch indie genre gems you may have missed.
As another year gets underway, we celebrate the best genre gems of 2019 with our BIGGEST LIST EVER!
If there was ever any doubt that we are experiencing another golden age of horror, we were blessed with a wealth of genre riches in 2019 — so many that this list highlights nearly twice as many films as our Best of 2018 list. While there were several blockbuster horror hits and highly buzzed about studio releases, we’ll be celebrating the many exceptional indie films that may have flown under your radar. Whatever your personal tastes, there’s bound to be plenty here for you to fall in love with, as submitted by our writers from their personal Best of 2019 lists.
PART ONE (FILMS 1-10)
The Lighthouse, One Cut of the Dead, The Nightingale, Parasite, Knife + Heart, Luz, Bliss, Little Monsters, Mermaid Down, Starfish
1. The Lighthouse (Dir. Robert Eggers)
The Lighthouse (2019), starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, directed by Robert Eggers, and written by Robert and Max Eggers, is an intense, thought provoking, and beautifully done film that’s not only one of the best movies of 2019, but of the decade. Set on an isolated rock somewhere off the coasts of New England, The Lighthouse focuses on two men (Robert Pattinson & Willem Dafoe) are wickies, lighthouse keepers who maintained the lights over long stints of time.
Eggers has cemented his position as a true auteur of horror, a genuine rarity on its own, and his dedicated team of professionals bring us a film filled with madness and terror. It may be a little different than what some are used to, but believe me when I say The Lighthouse offers a lot to everyone interested in horror. The film will leave you shaken by grotesque imagery, haunted by the howl of the foghorn, and questioning everything our protagonists have to say…
(Recommended by Thomas McKean)
2. One Cut of the Dead (Dir. Shinichirou Ueda)
One Cut of the Dead is a series of short stories, all connecting into one compelling narrative. Although each section is short, everything ties together beautifully while bringing plenty of explosive violence and tension. As a fan of both Japanese horror movies and independent films, I enjoyed everything about this movie. I especially loved how inventive the plot was. In the midst of filming a zombie movie, cast and crew find themselves being attacked by actual zombies. Of course, when the first zombie appears, the person who sees it assumes it’s just another person in costume. However, it’s not long before he discovers how wrong he was. There is no way to tell who’s a zombie and who is an actor in the film. It is an absolutely brilliant way of starting a movie, and it only gets more interesting from there.
With a great storyline, a highly creative approach to storytelling, believable characters, and a quick and incredibly fun spiral into chaos, One Cut of the Dead (currently streaming on Shudder) is easily one of the year’s most surprising and satisfying watches. It’s a must watch if you enjoy foreign zombie films. On top of that, it’s a treat to rewatch to see how effectively each piece of the story fits together to create an interweaving narrative.
(Recommended by Lisa Fedel)
3. The Nightingale (Dir. Jennifer Kent)
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Nightingale is set in 1825 and follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, who is chasing a British officer (Sam Claflin) through the Tasmanian wilderness, with the help on an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Like Kent’s first feature film, The Babadook (2014), this film is also about trauma, but is much less forgiving in its depiction of violence. It’s not an easy film to watch – some festival goers walked out of screenings due to multiple scenes of violent rape.
Kent shines a cold, stark light on the real-life violence during this period in colonial Australia, taking time and care to give an authentic depiction of this time. Despite all the violence in the movie, it’s never once glorified; even Clare’s acts of revenge are unforgiving and difficult to watch.
Aisling Franciosi is magnetic as Clare. You can’t help but root for her even though she is flawed and isn’t the rage-filled badass character we often see in revenge films. Unlike her tormentor, Hawkins (Claflin), Clare is emotionally destroyed after every act of violence she endure or commits herself, but it’s this trait that makes her so remarkable as a character.
The Nightingale is not the easiest movie to sit through, but it’s somehow a rewarding experience and is not one to be missed.
(Recommended by Nightmare Maven)
4. Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)
It’s refreshing that one of this year’s most talked about — and beloved — films is from South Korea. Foreign films often get delegated to their own category when we talk about movies here in the U.S., as if they don’t conform to the same genres or standards. Parasite is the latest from Bong Joon-ho, a director who has given us a number of successful crossover films, including Snowpiercer and Okja. But while his newest film clearly has universal appeal, Bong Joon-ho insists that it’s a movie specific to his home country.
The plot follows the Park family, who struggle financially and live in a half-underground apartment. Their son, Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), gets a job tutoring for the well-off Kim family, which gives the Park family not only an idea, but also a way in. I don’t want to say too much, since this is a film that is easily spoiled and best seen with little knowledge. What I will say is that it’s surprising both in plot and in categorization. There are tense and horrific moments in Parasite, but it isn’t really a horror film in the traditional sense. It would likely be better classified as a darkly comedic thriller. Either way, there’s plenty for horror fans to love, and we felt compelled to include it in this list. Trust us when we tell you the hype you’ve been seeing and hearing for months is real: Parasite is one of the best movies of 2019.
(Recommended by Jackie Ruth)
5. Knife + Heart (Dir. Yann Gonzalez)
The modern gialli resurgence, or renaissance, if you will, can be most notably traced back to 2009 with Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s film Amer, followed by their equally impressive The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013). Several other filmmakers would follow suit with varying degrees of success. Which brings us to 2019, with more excellent but sadly unsung additions to the modern gialli collection, including Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart.
Set in Paris in the Summer of 1979, Anne, played by French pop star and former Mrs. Johnny Depp Vanessa Paradis, is a director of cheap gay porn films. While dealing with a breakup with her lover, who happens to be her editor, her actors begin to be brutally murdered by a masked killer. Ultimately a successful giallo is intrinsic upon providing stylish and lurid kills accompanied by a memorable score, which this film fully achieves. Shot in beautiful 35mm with M83’s magnificent score as well as some wonderfully dreamy flashbacks. But while the knife provides plenty of blood, it is in fact the film’s heart that leaves the biggest mark. The all gay cast of characters, homo-eroticism, love affair, and underlying theme of bigotry is both incredibly refreshing and poignant. All the while, the actual porn scenes themselves are very over the top and comedic, which lends some welcomed levity to the otherwise dark tone. The ensemble cast displays great chemistry and are very likable — adding to the true heart and charm of the film.
With clear nods to Argento, Martino, De Palma, and perhaps even a dash of John Waters, this is one of my favorite foreign films of the year — and it hasn’t garnered nearly enough praise or attention. I’d also . be remiss if I failed to mention it features the best death by a dildo of the year! For you physical format collectors, there is a beautiful Blu-ray edition released by Altered Innocence.
(Recommended by Thomas Muehlbauer)
6. Luz (Dir. Tilman Singer)
Tilman Singer’s demonic-possession film, Luz, appears to have struck a spooky chord with everyone who’s seen it. From its eerie, hypnotic opening sequence to its hallucinatory, frightening climax, the film is limited-budget “art house” done right. Shot on 16mm with an unsettling score and bleak set-pieces, the movie wants to frighten its audience with strange scenes of surreal imagery and weird, sometimes profane dialogue.
The plot involves an injured cab-driver named Luz who wanders into a near-empty German police station and begins an interrogation session with two detectives. Meanwhile, in a separate narrative that quickly merges with the one above, a seductive woman named Nora engages a handsome doctor in a bar before relaying to him the story of a girl, Luz, she once knew at a Catholic boarding school. Once Nora and the doctor connect with Luz in the police station, the film takes on a theatrical, bizarre sheen. Audiences learn more about the demonic entity that wants to reunite with Luz and about her backstory at the boarding school. Luz reenacts certain events from the past, but Singer chooses to include sound effects from those experiences in real time. By the time Luz reaches the end, audiences have gone on a jarring, experimental, and symbolic journey, one that concludes back in the lobby of the police station just how it began.
Most interesting about Luz is the way it spins the familiar demonic-possession theme on its head. The film requires some patience on the part of the viewer in order to arrange all of its pieces, but this nontraditional approach is part of the movie’s bizarre appeal. 2019 was an exciting year for experimental horror, with Luz right at the top of the list of films not afraid to push narrative boundaries and force their audiences to think.
(Recommended by Josh Hancock)
7. Bliss (Dir. Joe Begos)
Bliss is a cutting-edge, rock and roll nightmare that brings the classic vampire tale to a new generation. Directed by Joe Begos, Bliss gives its audience a taste of the Los Angeles nightlife through the eyes of struggling artist Dezzy Donahue (Dora Madison) as she fights a new kind of drug addiction – the thirst for blood. With neon-soaked, visceral cinematography from Mike Testin, Bliss is a feast for the senses that will leave audiences hungry for more blood, sex, and rock and roll.
Dora Madison is a force of nature, leaving everything on the table with fearless abandon. The sleazy counterculture vibes blend in a cool mixture of sexy and savage and punctuate the downward spiral that is a true descent into utter madness. The haunting message of the price people will pay for their art radiates out of Begos’ talented cast and crew who provide the hypnotic setting that dares audiences to try and look away.
Fans of psychedelic horror, Fulci, and Noé will fall in love with Bliss, which is a trip all its own that will ferociously attack the senses of even the most sober patron.
(Recommended by Jack Wilhelmi)
8. Little Monsters (Dir. Abe Forsythe)
Dave (Alexander England) is a man-child whose recent breakup forces him to move back in with his sister and her young son, Felix. While picking up his nephew from school, he meets Felix’s beautiful kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), and offers to help chaperone an upcoming field trip at a local petting zoo. Unfortunately, an army base nearby has been doing some experimenting, and before long there’s a zombie outbreak next door to the zoo! Dave and Miss Caroline convince the kids it’s all part of a game while fending off monstrous mutants and looking for a way for all of them to escape unharmed. Between the zombies, the soldiers, and a dissipated kids’ entertainer (Josh Gad), will the class get out alive?
We are not giving Lupita Nyong’o enough awards. She is luminously charming in LITTLE MONSTERS, and her bright blend of winning enthusiasm and fierce protectiveness carry us along as if we were just another doting child in her charge. As a zombie horror comedy, the film invites comparison to Shaun of the Dead. While the Edgar Wright classic is smarter, LITTLE MONSTERS has a bit more heart. Miss Caroline is entirely selfless, putting the well-being of her class ahead of everything as the world comes apart around her.
There are definite laughs to be had, particularly with Gad’s drunken Teddy McGiggles. But unlike many other, bleaker zombie comedies, LITTLE MONSTERS gives us a reason to think beyond ourselves — and a future worth fighting for.
(Recommended by Alli Hartley)
9. Mermaid Down (Dir. Jeffrey Grellman)
If you’re a fan of fantasy-infused horror, you won’t want to miss the viscerally stunning Mermaid Down. A literal fish out of water tale, the film follows a mermaid who is ripped from the ocean and locked away in a sanitarium. Unable to speak, she struggles to find a means to communicate with those around her and expose her captor for the monster he is.
Along the way, she bonds with the other women in the hospital — among them a ghost with secrets of her own — and this is where the story’s true magic lies. These women are the heart of the story and they discover their strength when they band together to save each other.
Mermaid Down blends horror and fantasy seamlessly but the human element is never overshadowed by the otherworldly nature of the story. It’s a truly moving and beautiful film that will stay with you long after it’s over.
(Recommended by Joy Robinson)
10. Starfish (Dir. A.T. White)
Starfish is an intensely emotional film that focuses on small moments to indicate larger themes such as grief, loss, and friendship. As Aubrey wanders her recently deceased friend’s apartment, we see her looking at the common things her friend owned, taking a shower in her bathroom, laying on her couch, and even sleeping in her bed. Virginia Gardner as Aubrey shines in these moments, she gives a sincere and heartfelt performance that had me feeling the pain she was experiencing. It’s an intimate movie, one that feels like a secret just between the viewer and the story.
This is why I view Starfish not merely as a film but an experience that washes over the viewer. Mixed into the bereavement are recently unleashed monsters in the outside world that threaten all of humanity. Although jarringly different, these two story lines work remarkably well together as the monsters are smartly underplayed and Aubrey’s relationship with her deceased friend connects to the apocalyptic happenings in surprising and touching ways.
Beautifully shot and acted, Starfish wonderfully strums the heartstrings while apocalyptic monsters roam around the world. Writer and director Al White has captured a unique, deeply poignant film that will resonate with anyone who has had a broken heart, and one well worth experiencing.
(Recommended by Jason McFiggins)
PART TWO (FILMS 11-20)
I Trapped the Devil, Knives and Skin, Daniel Isn’t Real, Satanic Panic, Villains, Depraved, Lords of Chaos, The Perfection, The Shed, HagazussaShow Less
PART THREE (FILMS 21-30)
I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday, She Never Died, Level 16, Rattlesnake, Nightmare Cinema, Girl on the Third Floor, The Head Hunter, Haunt, 10/31 Part 2, PiercingShow Less
PART FOUR (FILMS 31-40)
Culture Shock, The Black String, Hell House 3, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Wounds, St. Agatha, One Must Fall, Close Calls, Book of Monsters, PledgeShow Less
PART FIVE (FILMS 41-50)
Rabid, Charlie Says, In The Tall Grass, In Fabric, Anna and the Apocalypse, The Curse of Buckout Road, Darlin’, Tone Deaf, Riot Girls, ClimaxShow Less