Best Horror Films of 2021

Was 2021 better than 2020? Well, at the end of this year, we have vaccines and booster shots. We know the best defense against the virus, and yet, the year was bookended by an insurrection in Washington, DC and a resurgent pandemic with a new variant more contagious than even the Delta. We have a new administration in Washington, and still, the sense that democracy is in crisis mode hasn’t really abated. In fact, the U.S. has been downgraded as a “backsliding democracy.” The tumult that was 2020 bled into 2021.

All of this anxiety should breed solid horror for years to come. Yet, as I went through all the films I reviewed in 2021 (more than 70 when I count the festivals I covered), this wasn’t a standout year compared to the last few. Part of this is due to the fact movies continue to face delays thanks to COVID. Still, this year featured some gems, and those are worth celebrating. So, with that, I bring you my best-of horror film list for 2021. (For my Best-of Shudder 2021 list click here).

Malignant/Directed by James Wan

This is James Wan’s love letter to giallo and 90s horror. This movie would have fit right at home with Dark Castle or Full Moon’s rooster during their heydays. Malignant delivered one of the best monsters of the year in Gabriel, a parasitic twin who could control electricity and broadcast his thoughts through speakers. His grudges and temper sent him on a course of murderous revenge. This movie is so silly and so much fun. It was the type of entertainment that we needed this year.

PG: Psycho Goreman/Directed by Steven Kostanski

Here’s another stellar creature feature. Matthew Ninaber gives a knockout performance as a malevolent space lord…who ends up with the name Psycho Goreman, or PG for short. After he lands on Earth, a group of kids finds a magical stone, and with it, they can command the space monster to do whatever they want. Along the way, he learns about human emotions, including love. Like Malignant, this is horror escapism at its best. This movie is funny, endearing, and wildly entertaining.

Lucky/Directed by Natasha Kermani

When you think the slasher has exhausted itself post-Scream, then along comes a movie like Lucky to put a feminist bite on everything. The killer in this, who wears all black and a non-discreet mask, is a stand-in for daily misogyny that women face. He’s that creep who lurks in the parking lot or the boss who says a woman’s work is never good enough. Starring Brea Grant, who also penned the script, Lucky is a smart take on a familiar subgenre. Grant just may be a new horror queen.

Candyman/Directed by Nia DaCosta

Other than the stinker Halloween Kills, Candyman was undoubtedly the most hyped horror movie of 2021. Did it live up to that? Yes and no. It has an ending that feels totally rushed, but the film is utterly stunning and visually arresting. DaCosta took the familiar story of Candyman and expanded it to reflect the Black community’s pain in the age of BLM. Yet, she did so without ever coming across as heavy-handed. This is a movie that draws on both Black history and the history of a franchise. Oh, and the brief cameo by Tony Todd is totally worth the wait. What’s especially impressive about this movie is the way it combines a typical slasher with some stellar body horror and even possession, especially once Candyman starts to take over the body of artist/lead Anthony McKoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Let’s hope this isn’t DaCosta’s last entry in the horror genre, now that she’s been tapped by Marvel to direct a sequel to Captain Marvel.

Titane/Directed by Julia Ducournau

This, for me, is the best horror movie of the year, hands down. After Ducornau’s steller 2016 debut feature Raw (one of the best horror films of the last decade, if you ask me), everyone waited for her follow-up. She did not disappoint. The film follows the story of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who has a weird fetish for cars and eventually has sex with one. Yes, it’s an extremely bizarre storyline with heavy body horror. But the film has layers of human emotion, several narrative turns, gender-bending and the most dazzling visuals out of anything I’ve seen this year. Titane makes it clear that Ducornau is one of the most important directors working in horror right now and one of the most interesting young directors period. Oh, and Ducournau became the first woman in history to win the top Cannes prize, the Palme d’Or, solo.

Runner-ups:

The Vigil/Directed by Keith Thomas

Jakob’s Wife/Directed by Travis Stevens

The Beta Test/Directed by Jim Cummings

Most Looking Forward to in 2022:

Scream, Baby, Scream!

The three survivors are back! Let’s hope this rebooted slasher has more to offer than Halloween Kills did. All trailers look promising, and with how much technology and horror have changed and evolved, isn’t it time for a little Ghostface and a little meta commentary? If you’re worried about the fact Wes Craven isn’t the one behind the camera this time, fear not, the franchise is in good hands with Ready or Not directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Opin.

The Righteous

This was my favorite horror movie that played at Fantasia. It’s a black and white tale about the end of the world, and without giving too much away, I’ll leave it at that. So far, no word on a wide distribution release date, but hopefully it comes out in 2022.

The Last Thing Mary Saw

This is another one of my favorites from Fantasia. It’s folk-horror done well with a chilling atmosphere. and a truly creepy performance by Rory Culkin. It comes to Shudder in January.

Here’s hoping that 2022 goes better than 2020 and 2021. At the very least, there’s a lot more horror to look forward to in the new year!

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