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!

Best-of 2021: Shudder

With the year winding down, it’s time for another best-of list! This is a piece that I wrote for Signal Horizon, naming my favorite exclusive and original content on the horror streaming network, Shudder. My larger best-of horror list for 2021 is coming, and it’s likely at least 1-2 of these picks will end up on that broader list. You can read my Shudder list here.

Stay tuned for the other list coming soon!

Neo-Slashers and Something to Cure the Post-Halloween Blues

If you’re looking for something to take away the post-Halloween blues like I am, then let me recommend checking out the newest special issue of Horror Homeroom on the “neo-slasher.” It’s jam-packed with content on the new Halloween films, a reimagining of the Final Girl, and a host of other topics. I’m happy to say that my essay on post-9/11 horror and slasher remakes entitled “A Tale of Two Remakes: Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006),” is part of the issue. You can read the full issue here.

Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman – Say His Name {Movie Review}

Courstey of Universal

First, let me start off by saying PLEASE go to Rotten Tomatoes right now and read the reviews by Black critics on Candyman (2021). Those are the reviews what you sould read first, especially after you’ve seen the new movie and the 1992 OG version. Those critics can offer a take on this franchise that well, I really can’t. That said, after seeing the movie, I can’t stop thinking about it, both the good and the bad.

In Nia DaCosta’s “spirtual sequel,” Chicago’s Cabrini-Green is a gentrified neighborhood complete with high rises, Whole Foods, and hipster art galleries. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Anthony McCoy, an artist stuck in a serious rut, rehasing the same social/political art that he’s created for the last few years. After his girlfriend’s brother tells him the story of Candyman, he becomes obsessed with the urban legend and visits what remains of the projects, photographing graffettied walls while smashed glass crunches under his Converse. Colman Domingo plays old timer William Burke, who explains the lore and fuels Anthony’s obsession. He’s one of the last remanents of the Cabrini-Green projects and has one of the best bits of dialogue about an hour into the film about what Candyman is. In DaCosta’s film, he’s not only Tony Todd’s character. He’s a metaphor for Black oppression and violence, taking on many different faces and stories. “He’s the whole damn hive,” to quote Domingo’s character. Yet, even if DaCosta expands the lore, she doesn’t erase the story of Todd’s character or the events surrounding Helen (Virginia Madsen) from the first film. They are referenced quite a bit but placed in a larger, interesting context.

Teyonah Parris plays Brianna, Anthony’s girlfriend who also hustles around the art scene and is pretty much responsible for landing Anthony shows. As his behavior grows increasingly erratic and even dangerous, Brianna, of course, becomes alarmed. One of my main gripes about this film is that Brianna isn’t given a whole lot to do. There is major family trauma revealed through a flashback, but it’s just sort of…dropped. That’s a storyline that needed much more room to breathe. It’s utterly wasted potential. Further, Anthony isn’t given much depth beyond the brushtrocks and serving as a vessel, a body for Candyman to increasingly possess.

The film’s other main issue is the script, especially the last act. So much happens in the last 20-30 minutes that it will make your head spin. Not all of it makes sense. This film probably would have done better with a two hour runtime, as opposed to 90 minutes. There are too many ideas crammed into this movie, everything from gentrification, to Candyman’s lore, to police violence. The film never becomes didactic, but some of the ideas simply feel too thin, mere sketches than a fully realized story. That said, the first half of the film especially has some dazzling visuals. The kills astonish, especially the mirror motif. One bathroom sequence involving high school girls is one of the most innovative scenes in horror that I’ve witnessed all year. DaCosta is one heck of a filmmaker, and I can’t wait to see what she does with a project that isn’t saddled with so much backstory and history.

Overall, Candyman (2021) has some really great moments and a few cameos that I won’t mention because I want people to be surprised. I’m still thinking about it 24 hours after I saw it, and I suspect I’ll be thinking about it for some days to come yet. The visuals are strunning and the way that both Candyman and Cabrini-Green are expanded in the context of this franchise are fasicnating. This film is in conversation with the origional while managing to take some inventive leaps. That said, the narrative falters quite a bit as it rushes towards its conclusion.

Now, please, go to RT and check out those other reviews.

George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park

Believe it or not, in 2021, we’re going to have a never-before-seen Ceorge A. Romero movie. That film is The Amusement Park, shot in 1973 for the Luterhan Society as a means to raise awareness about elderly abuse. The film was lost for years but recently restored and rediscovered thanks to the George A. Romero Foundation and IndieCollect. Shot between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the 53-minute-long film debuts on Shudder on June 8.

There are no zombies in this one, but it’s on par with some of the most terrifying films the master of horror has ever directed. The amusement park concept stands as a terrifying and surreal allegory about the way we abuse the elderly. Lincoln Maazel’s nameless character suffers one abuse after another, from ticket vendors, to a biker gang, to dismissive youth who walk by as he writhes on the ground in pain. No supernatural elements are needed in this nightmareish vision of a careless and cruel society. Romero has always presented humans as worse than the monster, and this certainly rings true here.

For more of my thoughts on the film, check out my review for Signal Horizon.

Unearthing a Lost Found Footage Gem: The Last Horror Movie

I admit that I’ve never heard of The Last Horror Movie until I saw it on a list of potential assignments for Signal Horizon Magazine. For whatever reason, the movie didn’t catch much buzz during the 2000s found footage boom that followed the massive success of The Blair Witch Project (1999). I confess that I’m not as crazy about the subgenre as some other fans, but I was equally disturbed and fascinated by The Last Horror Movie.

Directed by Julian Richards, the film primarily features one character, Max (Kevin Howarth), a serial killer who films his murders over horror movie rentals. Much of the movie plays out like a snuff film, and though that’s certainly uncomfortable, the real way the film disturbs is through its commentary on spectatorship. Several times, Max asks the audience why they keep watching, and as the film becomes more and more brutal, we, as viewers, have to stop and ponder why we stay tuned in. Why not shut it off? Do we also have lust for on-screen violence? Max has some warped logic, but he’s likeable in an odd way, sort of like Henry (Michael Rooker) from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. That’s another reason why The Last Horror Movie is effective. Like Henry, it presents us with a character who comes across as generally normal, at least at first.

It’s difficult to find the film on any major streaming platforms, and it hasn’t gotten a proper physical media release in some time. That’s a shame. It stands a cut above most of the found footage films from that era.

For more of my thoughts on The Last Horror Movie, please check out my articles over at Signal Horizon.

Violation: A Brutal and Subversive Revenge Tale

Picture

The horror genre continues to redefine itself in the age of #MeToo and the 21st Century, rewriting old tropes, specifically the rape/revenge subgenre. I’m thinking of movies like M.F.A. (2017), Revenge, and to some extent, Promising Young Woman (2020). The latest is Violation, which released late last week on Shudder after its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year. The general premise is familiar for the subgenre. A young woman, Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer), is raped by her sister’s husband. However, where the film goes from there is a wild, brutal affair, one that challenges expectations and also underscores the fallout and PTSD the protagonist endures after the rape and subsequent vengeance. Further, Violation makes a spectacle of the male, a reversal of standard horror rules.

Violation is a film I keep thinking about weeks after I first saw it and reviewed it for HorrOrigins (you can read the full review here). It’s another film that marks a change in the subgenre and an exciting future, filled with possibilities of what the genre can be when more women get behind the camera (the film was co-directed by Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli). Violation undoes traditional horror spectacle, while focusing mostly not on the blood and revenge, but rather the aftermath.

Freaky: The Horror-Comedy We Need

Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal

When I think about my favorite horror films of 2020, I think about how heavy they are. These include Relic, a film about dementia, The Invisible Man, a metaphor for domestic abuse, and His House, a haunted house story about the refugee crisis. Sure, 2020 had some lighter horror cinema, like The Wretched and The Vast of Night, but the heavyweights were a tough watch mentally. Thank god for Freaky, directed and co-written by Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U). Landon is quickly becoming the new king of horror-comedies. Freaky is a clever film that has plenty of nods to iconic slashers, but it’s also a fun romp that borrows the premise of Freaky Friday and turns it on its head, making for a bloody good time.

The film stars Millie (Kathryn Newton), a shy teen bullied by her peers. The hideous sweaters that her mom buys for her with an employee discount don’t help. Millie isn’t rich or popular. She lost her dad about a year ago, and fearing more loss, her mom doesn’t want her to attend college out of the area. Millie is a relatable character, an outcast trying to navigate high school. Before we meet her, though, we’re introduced to the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). Freaky’s first 15 minutes play out like the opening of a Friday the 13th. Kids sit around a bonfire, recounting stories about the killer. Of course, he shows up minutes later, donning what looks like a Jason Voorhees knock-off mask. He slashes and dices victims one by one. He even tilts his head to the side like Michael Myers to study his work. The film’s opening 15 minutes are some of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in the genre all year. The gore is as outlandish as the teens’ reactions once the Butcher shows up.

After a football game, Millie encounters the Butcher as she waits for someone to pick her up. He stabs her with an ancient dagger that he stole. Cue the storm clouds, ancient cruse, and Freaky Friday-like body swap.

From there, the film grows more entertaining. Seeing Vaughn act like a teenage girl, including trying to make out with Millie’s crush in the backseat of a car, is a hoot. Further, post-body swap, Millie/the Butcher grows a sense of agency. She wears a striking leather coat, pulls her hair back in a blond pony tail, and even tells a jock that his touch makes her sex dry up like sandpaper. Newton’s performance, much like Vaughn’s, deserves a lot of credit. Watching her take what she wants with the spirit of the Butcher inside her is a lot of fun. She gets back at everyone who bullied her. Besides, how often do we see a female teenager as the killer in a slasher film? It’s a great reversal.

Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal

The supporting cast deserves accolades, too. Landon’s characters are diverse and well-developed. Nyla (Celeste O’Connor), Millie’s best friend, doesn’t exist in the story to just serve the white protagonist. She has her own sense of agency and puts up several road blocks to thwart the Butcher’s plans. Millie’s other best friend, Josh (Misha Osherovich), is an assertive and funny gay character. He steals the show in several scenes. Even Millie’s mom, Coral (Katie Finneran), grows more sympathetic the more that you learn about her and why she turns to the bottle. She’s grieving, and her children are all she has left. There is some family drama in the film, but it never bogs down the general levity.

Further, the film’s cinematography and colors are bright and match the film’s humor. Freaky generally forgoes the usual shadowy frames of horror film. It’s a nice contrast from other slashers, and like Happy Death Day, it’s another way that Landon toys with and reverses some of our expectations.

Freaky is the horror-comedy that we need after such a tough year. It’s a great reversal of the slasher tropes that also shows Landon’s love for the genre. It’ll make you laugh and give you a protagonist that you can root for. Both Vaughn and Newton excel in their respective roles, especially once the body swap happens.

Freaky drops this weekend On Demand.

Two Directorial Debuts to Watch

The last week has seen the release of two films by first-time directors that I’m confident will end up on several year-end, best-of horror movie lists.

The first is the Shudder exclusive The Beach House, written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown. The film follows two 20-somethings whose relationship is at a crossroads, and in an attempt to salvage it, they spend a weekend at the beach. Yet, it turns into an aquatic nightmare for them as an environmental contagion takes over the town. The movie has such a sense of dread, especially in its last act, that it may not be for everyone. But it’s one of the most effective ecological films and body horror flicks that I’ve seen in a while. Anyone into Lovecraftian horror should check it out. I reviewed it for HorrOrigins. The review is fairly spoiler free.

The second film, which released one day after The Beach House, is IFC Midnight’s Relic, marking the debut of Natalie Erika James. While The Beach House serves up summer scares and mostly takes place in daylight, Relic’s atmosphere and palate is far darker. Largely set in a creaky countryside home surrounded by a thick forest, the movie highlights the ravages of dementia. It’s a devastating, somber film that’s drawn comparisons to Hereditary and The Babadook. I also reviewed this one for HorrOrigins. I have no doubt Relic is a film that will continue to build buzz and will be talked about over the next several years. It’s the perfect example of how horror is the perfect vehicle to address more serious issues, in this case the aging process.

Pay attention to Brown and James. Their strong debuts make for promising careers ahead.

Antrum: A Clever Use of Found Footage

Due to COVID-19, theaters are still closed. Streaming services are the only means to view new content, other than drive-ins. The releases of bigger horror films, like Candyman and Antebellum, have been delayed. As a result, this has given the chance for indie films to find an audience. Recently, an article at AV Club caught my attention regarding the success of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made. It snagged Amazon Prime’s top-trending title last month, during the height of isolation. Though initially hesitant to watch the flick, namely because it sounded gimmicky, I gave it a stream. On the one hand, the low-budget film (shot for $60,000), has a few aspects going for it, namely its 1970s aesthetic. That said, the plot and characters are too thin, and the result is a film that doesn’t add up to much of a cohesive plot or narrative arc.

Directed by David Amito and Michael Laicini, Antrum is initially about “the deadliest film ever made,” so cursed that a theater in Budapest burned down when it screen the film in 1988. Faux film reviewers and horror hounds are interviewed in the opening minutes, and it’s a clever use of the exhausted found footage subgenre. It builds hype for the movie within a movie, that is the story of Oralee (Nicole Tompkins) and Nathan (Rowan Smyth), siblings who embark on an adventure to dig a hole to the pits of hell to rescue their recently euthanized dog because Nathan has visions he’s been sent to the fiery place, for whatever reason. Oralee locates a spot, telling her brother it’s where Lucifer landed when he was kicked out of heaven. They grab shovels and start digging, and that’s about as much of a plot as the film offers.

From there, the story loses its narrative and descends into a film of bizarre, often disjointed images, some of them unsettling. There are strange noises in the woods. At one point, an image of Lucifer’s face lingers on the screen longer than the creepy flashes of Pazuzu’s face that haunt The Exorcist. There are even a few Nazis hanging around a massive demonic statue, but they serve no real purpose to the plot, other than a sense of danger.

If you set narrative gripes aside, the film deserves some props for the way it was shot, mimicking 1970s Satanic cult films. The grainy quality serves the film well, especially when juxtaposed with some of the images that flash on screen. It’s a clever aesthetic and perhaps the best aspect of Antrum.

There’s also something to be said for the attention the film has garnered. The AV Club article notes that when it payed at film festivals in 2018, it caught the attention of Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of The Blair Witch Project, the film that started the found footage hype back in 1999. Like Antrum, The Blair Witch Project used found footage to bend reality. It had one of the most clever marketing campaigns in all of horror history, creating missing person posters for its three lead actors and a website during the early days of the internet dedicated to their “disappearance.” Antrum uses fake interviews to hype what follows in the rest of the film.

Antrum won’t have the legacy and influence of The Blair Witch Project. No other found footage film will, but it does do something unique and interesting with the tired found footage genre. It’s slow-hype and word of mouth, including teens on TikTok debating if Antrum is actually a cursed film, is commendable, especially for a film shot on a budget of $60,000 by a studio (Uncork’d Entertainment) known for knock-offs and b movies. COVID has given some indie movies a bigger audience. Give Antrum a stream. Ignore its narrative in-cohesion and enjoy its 70s Satanic art house aesthetic.