Year in Review: 10 Best Horror Movies of 2020
You could argue that we didn’t necessarily need horror movies this year — there was an abundance of real-life terror to contend with, from a pandemic with no immediate end in sight to the waking nightmare that was our presidential election. What’s scarier than a day in the life of Trump’s America circa 2020? What so many of needed, really, was something cathartic, and gave us a space to project our fears rather than, say, endlessly doomscrolling through Twitter feeds or Covid statistics. None of the exemplary scary movies on this list were directly about what was happening outside our stuck-in-lockdown doors. But more importantly, none of them ignored the real world, either, and even the most escapist film in this lineup somehow managed to add its voice to much bigger conversation about gender and genre. Here are our picks for the best horror flicks of the year — from ghost stories to gross-out slasher flicks, indigenous zombies to invisible men.
We’re likely to be cursed with a slew of movies, scary or otherwise, over the next few years that attempt to replicate the everyday horror of 2020 that we know as … the group Zoom call! At the very least, British director Rob Savage and his patrons at Shudder have set the bar regarding the milking of this format for maximum heebie-jeebies. A group of twentysomethings, led by a young woman named Haley (Haley Bishop), contact a medium in an attempt to hold an online seance. None of the assembled take things very seriously, until their conduit to the spirit world starts saying that they may have angered somebody, or something — and that’s when the screaming starts. It’s a good example of using a lo-fi technology and its recognizable characteristics (split screens, shifting viewpoints, looping backgrounds, etc.) to your advantage; like The Blair Witch Project and the countless found-footage horror flicks that came in its wake, it knows how to use a gimmick to locate a deus in a very 2020 ex machina.
There are some strange occurrences happening up at the Red Crow Indian Reservation. Gutted salmon are flopping around, dogs who’ve been put down keep barking, and that town drunk vomiting blood seems awful hungry for human flesh. Fast-forward six months, and the region’s Miꞌkmaq tribal folks find themselves in the middle of a full-blown zombie apocalypse. Writer-director Jeff Barnaby borrows a lot of elements from past walking-dead escapades, from a conflicted-sheriff hero (Michael Greyeyes, giving off serious leading-man vibes) to a safe zone under heavy siege. The fact that the survivors are First Nations people and the majority of chomping, clawing ghouls are white folks, however, should not be ignored. It’s a satisfying, indigenous spin on a classic genre, which doesn’t skimp on the carnage (there’s a sequence involving a nurse and a chainsaw that couldn’t be more splatterrific) or the cutting anti-colonialist, eco-concerned commentary. “That’s why the dead keep coming back to life,” says veteran Aboriginal-Canadian actor Gary Farmer. “Not because of God, but ‘cuz this planet ’round us is sick of our shit.“
Beware of camping in remote areas: you never know when a trio of oddballs, all of who’ve seemingly sprung to life courtesy of a children’s nursery rhyme, might come upon your tent and kill you, over and over and over and over again. Swedish filmmaker Johannes Nyholm’s creepshow du jour starts as a domestic tragedy that leaves a husband and wife (Leif Edlund and Ylva Gallon) dazed and traumatized. Cut to three years later, when they embark on an outdoor excursion. As if on cue, a brute, a mall-goth waif and a straw-hatted eccentric (Peter Belli) who apparently knows the number of Tom Wolfe’s tailor show up. You might say that things don’t end well, except things never end at all — the couple is forced to endure sadistic torture at the hands of these strangers before the whole scenario seems to spring back to square one. Then, after a few tweaks, everything rinses and repeats. You feel like you’re stuck in a nightmare, the kind that you can’t shake for weeks. Thanks a lot, Sweden!
Or: You got your slasher flick in my body-swapping comedy! No, you got your body-swapping comedy in my slasher flick! Sing it with us: Two great ’80s genres, tasting great together. Vince Vaughn is the psychopath known as the Blissfield Butcher, who terrorizes teens like Kathyrn Newton’s geeky senior every year around homecoming. Then one mystical-dagger-being-struck-by-lightning later, Vaughn find himself housing the young lady’s consciousness and Newton is now the serial killer doling out revenge on bullies, d-bag teachers and closeted jocks. Yes, Christopher Landon’s mash-up is indeed gimmicky — but it’s also an ingenious blend of goofiness and goriness that’s more than just the sum of its disparate parts. Like his Happy Death Day movies, this doesn’t try to favor laughs over shocks, or vice versa; you can feel the two categories bleeding right into each other. Just as you find yourself giggling at Vaughn channeling a giddy, lovelorn teen, along comes a body getting graphically cleaved in half courtesy of a table saw. That’s entertainment!
Having fled from civil war and unspeakable tragedy in the South Sudan, a couple — Bol (Sopé Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) — find themselves starting a new life in in London. The state-sanctioned apartment they’re assigned is more than a little run down, however. It is also filled with ghosts, though the question quickly becomes whether the malevolent spirits that also call this dilapidated flat home are native to the dwelling … or whether they’re the direct result from something deep in the duo’s history. Writer-director Remi Weekes’ feature debut is more than just a timely spin on the haunted house story. It’s a deft, devastating rendering of both the literal dangers and the dehumanization process inherent in modern refugee experience as filtered through a genre lens, in which the spookier, more surreal elements don’t cancel out the social commentary (or vice versa). That Faulkner quote about the past never being dead? You should keep it in mind as you watch this.
An eerie empowerment parable embedded in a domestic horror movie (or is it the other way around?), writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ unsettling portrait of an unraveling presents us with the “picture-perfect” housewife Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett). She’s quiet, dresses like a ’50s sitcom spouse and seems one casserole away from going full Stepford. Then she begin ingesting items like marbles, push-pins, chess pieces … and suddenly, Hunter feels like she has some tiny semblance of power over her life. Anchored by a genuinely fearless performance, this is straight-outta-the DSM body horror that touches a nerve — and gives viewers a lot to chew on.
‘The Invisible Man’
H.G. Wells classic man-who-wasn’t-there tale gets a modern update in the form of a #MeToo parable: Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss, in what’s arguably her best performance to date) is stuck in an abusive relationship with a bleeding-edge tech giant (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She goes into hiding, he’s found dead, and everything seems to be headed toward a happy ending. Except Cecilia has the strange feeling that her ex is still tormenting her somehow, which may have something to do with what he’d been working on in his laboratory … as well as all of those objects mysteriously moving of their own accord …. Director Leigh Whannell’s chilling, beautifully calculated nightmare turns an old Universal Horror property into something a lot scarier than monsters running amuck: a gaslighting tale, in which no one believes you’re suffering simply because they can’t see what’s causing it themselves. Bravo. DF
‘The Vast of Night’
Imagine a Steven Spielberg-esque, gee-whiz throwback about strange happenings in 1950s small town U.S.A., complete with bright young techno-savvy nerds (Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick), mysterious transmissions and a pinch of Roswell paranoia. Now scale back the big-budget bells and whistles while upping the imagination factor substantially. This ingenious debut from director Andrew Patterson knows exactly how to work its retro Twilight Zone mojo (down to inserting a black-and-white TV-anthology program from an alternate universe into the narrative cracks) without feeling like a third-generation copy of film-brat nostalgia. But it’s also using its creator’s astonishing virtuosity with the vocabulary of sci-fi/horror cinema to do more than just show off ts influences or show off, period. The movie keeps building on a sense of simmering dread that eventually hits a full boil, by which point you realize that Patterson has delivered contemporary audiences the watch-the-skies movie they truly deserve.
An elderly Guatemalan general (Julio Diaz) appears before a war-crimes tribunal to account for decades of persecuting, imprisoning and torturing political dissidents. “The past is in the past,” declares his wife (Margarita Kenéfic), who may or may not lead a coven that’s helped keep him in power. Except the past is always here, sitting right beside us, and so are its ghosts — a concept that filmmaker Jayro Bustamante brilliantly mines for slow-burning dread and a sense of chickens finally coming home to roost. And if you think that the unexpected appearance of a young Mayan woman (María Mercedes Coroy) claiming to be the family’s new maid suggests some sort of return-of-the-repressed revenge, you’re absolutely right. It’s the kind of tale of mystery and imagination that prefers to get under your skin rather than shock your central nervous system, which only makes its near-suffocating feeling of foreboding more potent.
‘She Dies Tomorrow’
What if the unshakable thought that you were going to shuffle off this mortal coil very, very soon was not just a parasite, gnawing away at your mental well-being — but also a contagion? Amy Seimetz’s completely unnerving thriller begins with a single person (indie stalwart and MVP Kate Lyn Sheil) finding herself gripped with the notion that was she is going to die tomorrow. After mentioning this to a concerned friend (Jane Adams), that woman inexplicably senses that her demise is imminent as well. Soon, this sense of nihilistic despair spreads exponentially, and because they would not stop for death, it kindly stopped for them — and it’s sent a meeting invite to the Outlook calendar in their skulls for tomorrow. The longer you watch these folks succumb to communal self-destruction, the more you begin to recognize their collective madness. Never mind the fact that Seimetz’s eerie parable of fatalistic social interactions and existential dread was shot last year; few movies have managed to capture the feeling of being trapped in The Year of Our Lord 2020 with such pinpoint accuracy.