You can’t expect a renaissance every 12 months; not all years will be banner years. We may have been a little spoiled coming off a bounty harvest or three of incredible modern horror movies, from the welcome new wave of female and POC filmmakers into the fold to the double-pronged attack on arthouse audiences (thank you, A24 and Neon) and Friday-night multiplex crowds (we see you, Blumhouse). The level of quality horror — don’t call it “elevated,” please and thank you — that die-hard fans of the genre and casual filmgoers alike have been able to lap up like blood from freshly opened jugular veins was beyond impressive in the late 2010s. Yet all waves eventually recede.
Throw in production and release delays caused by external circumstances and, well, you have a 2021 that delivered a decent enough amount of scary movies … but nothing along the lines of, say, a 2018 — think Hereditary, the Suspiria remake, the Halloween reboot, A Quiet Place, Upgrade — or the 3-2-1 mid-decade punch of The Babadook, The Witch and Get Out. It was a grabbag year, running the gamut from studio misfires and shrug-worthy sequels to a some indies that couldn’t get past high-concept, lo-fi throwback mode. (Say what you will about the Epstein-sploitation nugget The Scary of Sixty-First, it does conjure up the vintage spirit of the Forty-Deuce at least.) And even though some have gamely attempted to tackle our pandemic-driven moment, no one has quite come up with a definitive take on the real horrors still hovering outside our doors. It may be a while before filmmakers grapple with this 21st century plague.
Still, while you had to dig a little deeper than usual to find high points, there were some incredible films worth their weight in jump scares that slinked and slouched into streaming services and half-capacity theaters this year. From a supernatural sucker punch out of Britain to a mythological maternal nightmare courtesy of Iceland, a slasher-classic update to a longtime franchise’s best entry yet — these 10 horror movies represent the year’s best examples of screen-and-screen-again fear, fright and dread.