One of our most enduring cinematic genres, horror is also among the most difficult to do right. This may sound obvious — countless attempts are made to scare moviegoers every year, whether in theaters or, increasingly, streaming online — but it's brought into focus by the few that actually make our pulses quicken. Whether about the anti-Santa, a Skype session gone awry or the terror of sexual awakening, here are a handful from this year that did just that. —Michael Nordine
"As Josef, [Mark] Duplass has a boyishly skittish quality that makes his character's unwittingly desperate attempts to bond with Aaron that much more upsetting. You can anticipate that Josef's about to pull some dopey prank on Aaron in a couple of scenes, like when Josef pounces on Aaron and then lectures him about having the kind of 'near-death experience' that Josef has every day. But Duplass' self-serious tone makes this unpredictable and exciting." —Simon Abrams
"From the trailer, and just from its initial vibe, Joel Edgerton's directorial debut The Gift looks like your stock 'when bad things happen to good people' thriller, complete with a soulful pet dog you just know is going to get it. But dog lovers, and everyone else, should know that Edgerton (who also wrote the script and co-stars in the film) isn't out for the cheap, predictable jolt. The dog ends up being OK; it's the humans who suffer, but even then, Edgerton is more interested in exploring the darker reaches of human culpability, regret and compassion — and in building and sustaining a simmering tension — than in loading up on gore or violence." —Stephanie Zacharek
"Would their real mom refuse to speak to Lukas? To give him dinner? Lukas is certain this mummied monster is a fake, and Elias is unable to say otherwise. Even if she unwrapped herself, what new face would they see? Since we've never met her — and Goodnight Mommy smartly doesn't do flashbacks — we can't be sure. At night they huddle in their bunk beds and listen to a cassette of their real mom singing them to sleep." —Amy Nicholson
"It's a common complaint about modern haunted-house movies: 'Why don't they leave?' How many paranormal activities have to take place before the families in the Paranormal Activity flicks exit, screen left? To their credit, the couple in Corin Hardy's chilling The Hallow come to their senses almost immediately. Not that it does them much good." —Pete Vonder Haar
"Forget Dracula and Freddy Krueger. In writer-director David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, the killer is as generic as death, the universal murderer. The monster can look like anyone: an old woman, a child, your mom. And instead of cackling quips or toying with blades, it simply paces toward you, as silent and slow as a lion, until it's close enough to pounce. Flee to Kansas and it will pad behind in pursuit. A child fears the bogeyman under the bed. Grown-ups wake up terrified of nightmares like this — they know that in some form, an assassin will slay us all and there's no escape." —Amy Nicholson
"Krampus begins with a letter to Santa Claus written by Max (Emjay Anthony), who doesn't believe in flying reindeer anymore but does hope that sticking to the traditions of the season will have a restorative effect on his parents (Toni Collette and Adam Scott), who are drifting apart. When Max's spoiled cousins ridicule him, Max rips the letter to shreds and casts the pieces into the night air, thereby summoning the mythological creature, Krampus, 'the shadow of Saint Nicholas,' who punishes those who've lost their holiday spirit." —Chuck Wilson
Queen of Earth
"Catherine's the woman who shows up to a party in smeared lipstick, saying and doing strange things, deeply uncomfortable with making chitchat over plastic cups full of overly acidic wine. She's a woman we can relate to, though definitely not one we want to be. Yet Queen of Earth is also a semi-comedy, often funny in an intentionally bleak way." —Stephanie Zacharek
"Like those of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity — both of which inspire scenes here — Unfriended's techniques are certain to be copy-pasted into imitators, some of which might improve upon it. What might be wonderful is if they were applied to something other than the jubilant murder of morally dubious teens. How about a laptop rom-com?" —Alan Scherstuhl
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"Who saw this coming? The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan's witty, crowd-jolting spook-house of an 11th feature, is its writer-director's best movie since the tail end of the last Clinton era. And it's the best studio horror flick in recent years, combining the but-what's-in-those-shadows? immersion of The Conjuring, James Wan's basement-wandering simulator, with the crack scripting and meta-cinematic surprises of Shyamalan's best early films." —Alan Scherstuhl
We Are Still Here
"Instead of the nubile young things who normally populate horror movies, a grieving middle-aged couple is at the center of Ted Geoghegan's '70s-evoking We Are Still Here. We meet Anne and Paul (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) after the death of their son; they're moving into a new house and unable to connect with one another. It's a mature problem that seems betrayed by the genre; imagine In the Bedroom with jump-scares. Anne feels the presence of malevolent spirits and mistakes them for her son. Paul shrugs it off, deepening their rift — and then the burning ghosts in the basement start murdering people." —Rob Staeger