For my The Scariest Things “best of 2019” list, I decided to do something a little different and focus on 10 of my favorite films that I saw at or for film festivals this year. Sure, I had many non-festival favorites this year, such as Crawl, Midsommar, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, to name but a few. I also had festival favorites that have gained more of a buzz than the ones listed here, such as Extra Ordinary, The Lodge, and Daniel Isn’t Real. But here I wanted to concentrate on 10 favorites that deserve a wide audience but may be flying under the radars of many fright-flick fans.
Thankfully, many festival offerings are making it to wide release in cinemas or on home-viewing formats or options much more quickly than even in the recent past, so you can find some of these titles already available, while others are earlier on in their fest rounds.
(1) Black Circle (Svart Cirkel)
This Mexican/Swedish coproduction from director Adrián García Bogliano blew me away when I watched it earlier this month, so much so that it rocketed to the top of this list. This tale of mesmerism and doppelgangers boasts, as I said in my The Scariest Things review, “an ever-growing sense of dread and paranoia that begins right from Black Circle’s esoteric opening with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments of terror and longer spellbinding set pieces. The mise-en-scene has a 1970s Eurohorror vibe, artfully designed and lit.”
A group of young teenagers goes on a mission into space as a publicity stunt in the not-too-distant future, 10 years after a nuclear strike was launched to save earth from an alien takeover. “Alien invasion, slasher elements, creature feature fun: this dazzling low-budget winner has it all, with first-rate characterization and solid performances, to boot!”, as the summary for my The Scariest Things review of this film states.
(3) Here Comes Hell
This black-and-white independent U.K. feature starts off as a British comedy of manners and old dark house mystery before plunging head on into full-throttle horror territory. First-time director Jack McHenry and his cast and crew serve up a fun, high-energy helping of supernatural bedlam with a big heart — and gallons of grue.
(4) Echoes of Fear
This offering begins as a supernatural chiller and then takes an unexpected turn — and you should learn no more about its plot than that. Trista Robinson gives a superb performance as a young woman who inherits the house of her recently deceased grandfather and begins experiencing paranormal incidents. This indie effort from codirectors Brian Avenet-Bradley and Laurence Avenet-Bradley is an impressively crafted, highly original slice of fear fare. You can read my spoiler-free The Scariest Things review here.
(5) The Black String
Frankie Muniz gives a top-notch performance as a young man who has either become the victim of witchcraft, or has begun losing his grip on sanity. Brian Hanson helms the film wonderfully, blending paranoia and occult elements winningly. The makeup and visual effects are cracker jack, as well.
(6) Bloodsucker’s Planet
If you dig space opera and creature features, writer/director/cinematographer/editor/producer Mark Beal’s vibrant film Bloodsucker’s Planet is a must. Imagine The Green Slime (1968) and Mario Bava’s Planet of The Vampires (1965) mashed up into a super-fun feature, and you still aren’t prepared for the mind-blowing experience this retro gem has to offer.
(7) Come to Daddy
Elijah Wood portrays Norval, a young man traveling to a remote beach house to meet his father, who abandoned him three decades earlier. Stephen McHattie plays the abusive, aggressive, judgmental father. The first act is highly uncomfortable as the father exposes Norval as a liar, and after that, the film takes some unpredictable, mind-bending paths. The film is a true genre bender, playing loosely with horror, dark comedy, and thriller elements.
Alex Essoe has been one of my favorite actors since her debut in the amazing Starry Eyes (2014), and she absolutely shines here as a young woman who is too polite for her own good when a slightly older woman (Precious Chong) tries to become too friendly, too quickly with her. “Dark comedy chiller Homewrecker is a superbly acted dive into both psychological and physical horror with a keen eye on the social aspects of modern manners and competitive relationships between women,” I wrote in my review for The Scariest Things. “Chock full of squirm-inducing moments and uncomfortable humor, it is a sometimes uneasy watch that is highly rewarding.”
Stephen McHattie makes my list twice thanks to his winning performances as two different characters — a perpetually strung-out trumpet player and a hitman — in director Bruce McDonald’s (Hellions  and Pontypool ) latest. Surrealism, horror, neo-noir, and fantasy are all part of this gorgeous film, which wallows in the seedy depths of its titular world.
(10) The Lake Vampire
Police procedural film meets occult horror in this dazzling Venezuelan outing. When the charred remains of an autographed copy of a writer’s book is found on a beach next to a corpse drained of blood and beheaded, the author is drawn to a retired police officer who reluctantly relates the details of a mystifying case from the 1970s. All the technical aspects of the film are magnificent, and the performances are equally excellent.