Fantastic Fest’s annual programming offers some of the most exciting genre films from around the world, and every year there are a few horror films which stand out among the rest, inevitably landing on year-end top 10 horror lists when they eventually hit theaters. Fantastic Fest 2014 brought us The Babadook and It Follows, two of the greatest horror films of the past year, and this year’s festival is no exception with intensely great offerings like The Witch, The Devil’s Candy, Crimson Peak, February, The Invitation and more.

This year’s festival was the most consistent to date in terms of quality, offering so many great films to discuss that it’s almost impossible to cover it all. Here we take a look at the best horror films of the festival — the most visceral, inventive, stunning and thoughtful additions to the genre, and the ones horror (and film) fans will want to put on their radar.

The Witch

Robert Eggers makes an impeccably confident directorial debut with this New England folk horror story about a family who object to the perceived lack of religious dedication in their colony and strike out on their own. Almost as soon as they settle on a plot of land, strange, terrible things begin to occur: the baby of the family is abducted, their fields will not bear bountiful crops, the young twins claim to be hearing whispers from their black goat, and the boy of the family is abducted and returned soon after…seemingly possessed. Eggers crafts a gorgeously atmospheric film filled with tension that feels effortless. The period-accurate dialogue lends a weighty dread, as every verbal exchange is dramatically heightened and tinged with religious dread.

The film could end before it really commits to the titular promise and it would still be a highly effective piece of cinema, but the last 10 minutes make The Witch an exceptionally eerie and wild experience, nearly gleeful in its singular horrors.

Snoot

The Devil’s Candy

Filmmaker Sean Byrne left quite the impression a few years ago with The Loved Ones, an Australian horror film about a young man kidnapped on prom night by the girl he’s rejected in school and her deranged father. Byrne returns with his sophomore feature, delivering an exhilarating and terrifying take on the traditional satanic possession / haunting narrative. Ethan Embry stars as an artist who moves his wife (Shiri Appleby) and teen daughter (Kiara Glasco) into a new home, previously occupied by a tormented man (Pruitt Taylor-Vince) who murdered his mother and father because the devil told him to and he could no longer hold the menacing voice at bay with the noise of his electric guitar.

The Devil’s Candy is a film with a totally metal heart — this thing just SHREDS. Byrne crafts excellent moments of tension that succeed largely thanks to the effectively established relationship between a father and his daughter. With a climax that’s turned up to 11 and beyond, The Devil’s Candy is an assured sophomore effort that will inevitably leave more than a few moviegoers with melted faces.

A24

February

Atmosphere — and satanism — is the key to this year’s horror at Fantastic Fest (and the key to successful horror in general), and the debut film from director Osgood Perkins (son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins) is nothing but atmosphere. Set at a boarding school at Christmas, February centers on Kat, a young woman (Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame) whose parents have neglected to pick her up for the holidays. Fearing her parents are missing or dead, Kat is left with fellow student Rose and a few nuns to wait out an increasingly, subtly unsettling weekend that grows to outright insanity. At the same time, a dueling narrative follows the enigmatic Joan (Emma Roberts), a young woman who has escaped from a mental hospital and is hitching a ride with a married couple grieving the loss of their daughter.

February is deliberately obtuse until its narrative threads begin slowly, dreadfully tying themselves together, building to an ending that will leave many feeling as cold as the film’s setting. Perkins ultimately delivers one of the most interesting and inventive break-up narratives, and a surprising, subdued entry into the horror genre that earns its shocks with restraint.

Screen Media Films

Darling

Young up and coming director Mickey Keating has already directed three films and comes to Fantastic Fest this year with his fourth, Darling, a confrontational homage to Repulsion and The Shining that’s not so much an assault on the senses as it is a visceral manipulation of them. Presented in striking black and white, Darling centers on an eerily beautiful young woman who accepts a job as caretaker of an old house that comes with some unsettling baggage. As the narrative unfolds in increasingly intense chapters, we wonder if the young woman is troubled or if the house is exerting some paranormal control over her fragile mind. Each chapter escalates brutally, enhanced by strong sound design and a powerful, inspired score.

Darling is effective in its simplicity and artistic sensibilities, making Keating one of our most interesting and ambitious new directors. I’m curious to see what he’ll deliver as he continues to mature, but his work on Darling proves that he already has the confidence some of his older peers lack.

Demon

Our own Matt Singer had a chance to sit down with Demon, the new horror film from Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona, who died just seven days before the film premiered at Fantastic Fest. Demon takes place during a wedding, as the groom-to-be discovers a pile of human bones on the grounds of his fiancee’s family home, which is to be given to the new couple as a wedding gift. Using dybbuk mythology, Wrona crafts a powerful, impressive, and terrifying horror film. From Matt’s review:

“If Wrona was alive and well, Demon would still be a brilliant film, an impressive and inventive blend of psychological horror and sardonic comedy. But his suicide casts the entire film in a whole new light, and adds even more poignance to the already heartrending story of a seemingly happy man who succumbs to an inexplicable breakdown.”

Drafthouse Films

The Invitation

Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) returns to the director’s chair with a vengeance, this time working on a much smaller and far more effective scale on The Invitation. Kusama’s film is almost the inverse of the “comedy of errors” convention, offering what may very well be the first “horror of manners.” When a man is called back to the home he previously shared with his ex-wife for a mysterious dinner party with a group of friends, the evening grows more and more disconcerting, with Kusama highlighting the ways in which we, as adults, are almost unnaturally dedicated to being polite and humoring our friends — and the ways in which that behavior can yield chilling results. (Full review)