With 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” director Adam Wingard will finally enter the world of big budget Hollywood filmmaking. And he deserves it, too. He’s spent years toiling in the world of independent film, churning out winning feature after winning feature, full of thrills, chills and tons of spilled blood.
It’s this period of his career that we’re looking back on now, as we rank his horror movies, from the very best to the mostly forgettable. (His earlier features we didn’t include because they are both hard to find and more mumblecore-y than anything else. We also didn’t include the anthology films, since his sections appear alongside the works of other filmmakers.)
5. ‘Death Note’ (2017)
It’s not that “Death Note” is bad, per se, it’s just not as successful as Wingard’s other movies. Part of this has to do with the fact that he made the film without his longtime writer Simon Barrett and part of it was just that the idea (an Americanized, live action version of a Japanese animated property) had been passed around for so long and gone from director to director so many times that the entire concept felt threadbare and unwanted.
Still, parts of it are a lot of fun, with a nifty conceit (write somebody’s name down in a magical book, that somebody dies), some fun twists, and a game cast (including Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, and Lakeith Stanfield). How can you possibly hate any movie that proudly features Willem Dafoe as a demonic motion capture glam rock genie? Our point exactly.
4. ‘Blair Witch’ (2016)
For a while, nobody even knew that Barrett and Wingard’s upcoming film was a slick reboot of “The Blair Witch Project” (early marketing even had it under a phony title, “The Woods”). And maybe it would have been more widely received if the ruse had been carried through and folks buying a ticket to the fake movie would end up getting their re-conceived “Blair Witch.” Wholly underrated upon its initial release, this is one of the more terrifying found footage movies ever and a winning extension/elaboration of the original film’s mythology. (Supposedly early cuts went even further into gonzo territory.)
It’s also got some of the most incredible sound design in modern horror. But, for all of its many virtues, “Blair Witch” failed to leave a mark creatively (it was the first of a planned series of film) and the franchise remains, sadly, un-rejuvenated.
3. ‘A Horrible Way to Die’ (2010)
After spending a couple of years in the mumble core trenches making marginally seen oddities, Wingard broke out with “A Horrible Way to Die,” a film that feels indebted to American independent dramas as much as it does South Korean horror movies.
AJ Bowen plays a serial killer who escapes from prison and starts brutally hunting his traumatized ex-girlfriend (Amy Seimetz). What could have been a straightforward serial killer thriller (and, in some ways, very much still is), is elevated by the performances, by the thoughtful examination of recovery, and by Wingard’s sheer virtuosity when it comes to staging sequences of extreme terror and/or violence. This is the film that put the filmmaker on the map, and rightly so.
2. ‘You’re Next’ (2011)
“You’re Next” made a splash on the festival circuit and inspired a bidding war for the distribution rights but languished on victor Lionsgate’s shelf for nearly two years before quietly being released. (It was feared the movie would be a direct-to-video affair.) Thankfully, it was worth the wait. A hellzapoppin’ take on the then very-much-en-vogue home invasion thriller, “You’re Next” features a band of animal-mask-wearing marauders who target a secluded family reunion.
What follows is all out chaos, with fountains of blood and elaborately staged suspense set pieces. This is when Wingard came into his own and created a real rollercoaster ride; plucky lead Sharni Vinson (channeling Linda Hamilton and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) should have been a movie star afterwards. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
1. ‘The Guest’ (2014)
With “The Guest,” Wingard made a bid for crossover acceptance, crafting a pulpy made-for-Cinemax-style action movie that also doubled as a splatter-y horror movie, set in a perpetual Halloween and scored with the tinny synths of an old John Carpenter film. In other words, “The Guest” is a low-key midnight movie masterpiece, anchored by a sublime performance by Dan Stevens as a man who visits a family in a small New Mexico town claiming to be the best friend and army buddy of their recently deceased son.
From there, things get considerably weirder, funnier, and more blood-soaked. For much of the running time, it some kind of bizarre, nightmarish twist on “Jack Reacher,” with a stranger coming to town and saying he wants to help and then ruining everything. (The last third of the movie dips into the elegantly surreal.) This is Wingard’s most fully realized film, beautifully designed and executed, with a whip-smart script by Barrett, memorably glitchy electronic score and a cast full of committed performances that are knowing but never cartoony. If you haven’t seen it, well, get ready to meet your new favorite movie.