“Dread-inducing”

“Stomach-churning”

“Guaranteed to give you nightmares for weeks”

“The scariest horror movie since The Exorcist

Horror fans know, by now, to take a lot of the recommendations screaming at us from DVD/BR covers or strategically-placed movie posters with a grain of salt, even when the pull-quotes are from trusted sources, as opposed to randomers with words such as “gore” or “blood” attached to their name.

You’re probably scoffing at “2015’s scariest movie”. How could you not be? Your visit to a site called Wicked Horror suggests some interest in, if not a rabid obsession with, the genre and the main drawback to being a horror fan is that, more often than not, it’s much harder to get properly scared by something.

Sometimes, however, the hype is justified, as with this year’s surprise shocker The Gift, a film most dismissed thanks to a purposefully-engineered trailer designed to lure us into thinking we had it all figured out. So why am I so confident in describing Last Shift, the latest fright flick from writer-director Anthony DiBlasi, the scariest movie of the year?

Simply speaking, because it is.

Juliana Harkavy in Last Shift

The deceptively insular movie stars The Walking Dead‘s Juliana Harkavy as Jessica, a plucky, enthusiastic rookie cop tasked with holding the fort in a soon-to-be unused police station. The sergeant (who, fittingly, kind of looks like a skeleton) informs her that all 911 calls have been re-routed to the new building and it should be a quiet night as a result. Naturally, since this is a horror movie, that does not turn out to be the case.

Related: Exclusive Interview: Anthony Di Blasi Talks Last Shift  

Soon enough, Jessica finds herself fielding increasingly distressed calls from a young woman in trouble, tussling with a homeless man, thrust, without warning, into darkness thanks to some wonky electrical issues and, of course, seeing things that can’t possibly be real. As the hours tick slowly by, she gradually starts losing it until it’s not quite clear what’s actually happening.

The strength of Last Shift lies in its ability to wrong-foot us at every turn. DiBlasi has previous experience with this, Missionary, his masterful dissection of obsession and religious dedication, played off the idea of good guys and bad guys not being as easy to identify as one would think. He plays a similar, albeit more serious, game here, ensuring that the more unsure Jessica is of her surroundings, the more unsure we are of them also.

The flick relies heavily on sound and light. The slightest bang or crash often elicits the biggest scare, but it’s not in the much-maligned quiet-quiet-bang way that genre defenders like Mark Kermode find so insufferable. This is a well-considered, expertly-placed kind of scare, dreamt up by someone who’s spent his whole life figuring out the nuts and bolts.

Single location chillers such as this one often fall apart once the audience starts wondering why the protagonist doesn’t just leave, but here the eerily fluorescent, rattly police station feels both claustrophobic and labyrinthine, particularly as Jessica struggles with both her demons and her desire to impress her superiors. A believable, fleshed out heroine, Jessica’s steely demeanour only starts to crack after several unexplained events–a shrieking damsel in distress she is not.

Considering she’s the only person on screen for much of the film’s running time, Harkavy does a phenomenal job of investing us in Jessica’s plight. The camera holds tight to her face, hovers over her shoulder, so our eyes are constantly darting around trying to catch what’s lurking in the corners. And yet, there’s really no point because it’s never quite what we expect.

Working off a whip-smart script DiBlasi co-wrote with longtime producer and friend Scott Poiley (who also has a writing credit on Missionary), Last Shift nods to similarly-themed movies but forges its own path in such a way as to make one question the legitimacy of everything that has come before.

Villains in Last Shift

Its key sequences are numerous, from inanimate objects moving by themselves to bumps in the night to a strangely long hair in a sandwich. They tick all of the boxes, but they’re peppered at the most unlikely junctures. Even those who think themselves immune from modern terrors will find jolts here. And the jump scares, as hard as it will be for purists to believe, are incredible. Perfectly timed, executed with flair and, crucially, meaningful within the greater narrative.

A sequence in a holding cell will send even the surest stomach plummeting to the floor, but the sense of dread is present throughout. The classic “calls coming from inside the house” angle is turned on its head when it’s revealed that whomever is ringing Jessica must be dialing her directly. Likewise, although the design of the villains is slightly familiar, the way in which they operate, and how they’re dealt with, is entirely new.

Everything is so well-considered, from how DiBlasi plays with light and sound to how he keeps us guessing right up until the movie’s gut-punch ending. Last Shift is also, happily, yet another argument against found footage, choosing to eschew shaky-cam for clever flourishes and witty tricks that throw us off the scent just as Jessica struggles to find her balance.

It’s a twisty, clever, very smart horror movie that proves, in much the same way blockbusters like Inception do for the multiplex crowd, that horror fans can and will keep up with intelligent supernatural fare, and that it takes more than “paranormal” gimmickry to keep us interested. There are no gimmicks here. Stripping it back after several viewings, it still holds up. In fact, it gets even more frightening.

Last Shift is profoundly, intensely, nightmare-inducingly creepy. There are too many great moments to count, the visuals are stunning and disturbing, the design impeccable and the scares properly stomach-churning. This isn’t just DiBlasi’s best work to date – in an already impressive back catalogue – it’s one of the best, and most terrifying, horror movies of the year.

WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Anthony DiBlasi
Writer(s): Anthony DiBlasi, Scott Poiley
Stars: Juliana Harkavy, Joshua Mikel, J. La Rose, Natalie Victoria
Year: 2015
Studio/ Production Co: Skyra Entertainment
Language: English
Length: 90 minutes
Sub-Genre: Supernatural