Top Horror Films of 2020

Blood Quantum' Review - Variety

What a year it’s been. From the pandemic, to the U.S. election that felt like it was 10 years long, this was a hard year. The horror genre, meanwhile, continued to have resounding success and always does best during periods of anxiety. The Invisible Man posted major box office numbers. “Lovecraft County” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” were huge hits on their respective streaming services, and the little indie film Host reinvented the found footage genre for the Zoom/pandemic age, much in the way that The Blair Witch Project rewrote the rules of the genre in 1999.

Before I offer my list, let me note one trendline that I noticed this year. OLD IS BACK. What do I mean by this? Well, H.P. Lovecraft is huge again. “Lovecraft Country,” based on Matt Ruff’s novel, is one example. Even in my creative writing classes, I have more and more students writing Lovecraft-like stories with otherwordly monsters and an indifferent universe. This year’s first big horror flick was Underwater, an aquatic film that rips off both Alien and the big guy himself, Cthulhu. The underwater scenes are as bleak and hopeless as the worlds in Lovecraft’s stories.

Further, there’s been a return to classic Gothic films/books. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is a contemporary take on Henry James’ stories, mostly The Turn of the Screw. The Invisible Man reinvented the H.G. Wells’ monster and had so much success that Universal now plans to reboot other classic monsters. Instead of a dark universe, they’re planning individual films, hoping to replicate the success The Invisible Man. We’ll probably be seeing the Gil-man, Wolfman, Frankenstein, and the Bride back on the big screen at some point.

Now, on to the list! Unlike past years, these are not numbered. I can’t pick a specific favorite film.

The Lodge (Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)

If you thought Franz and Fiala’s Goodnight, Mommy (2014) was brutal, especially its ending, then The Lodge may be too much. There’s nothing pleasant in the film. Nothing. No humor. No quips. This entire movie feels claustrophobic and frigid. After a father abruptly departs for work, his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), is left alone with his two children. A blizzard traps her in the remote cabin with the kids, where she’s haunted by the past and religious fanaticism. I saw this film in February when it was released in theaters, and boy, did that mid-winter night feel so much colder after viewing this.

Swallow (Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis)

This is a quiet little indie flick and one of a few films released by IFC that made my list. They had a very good year from a horror perspective. This film reminds me a lot of Rosemary’s Baby. Everyone thinks that they know what’s best for Hunter (Haley Bennett). The men want to control her, especially her hubby, Richie (Austin Stowell). So, she takes to swallowing objects, everything from a thumbtack to a marble, and in an odd way, it gives her some agency. (Read my review of Swallow for HorrOrigins). The conversations and break down of communication between Hunter and Richie are some of the most memorable scenes I’ve watched all year.

The Vast of Night (Directed by Andrew Patterson)

I can’t say enough about this film and how inventive it is. It’s a story about UFOs that’s all about the storytelling, using the technology from the 1950s, especially radio broadcasts, to spin its spooky narrative. You don’t even really see the bright lights or little green men. You don’t need to. Everything is relayed through the hair-raising dialogue and storytelling. But more so, the film is about two people, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz), who want to escape their small town. They dream of something bigger, and they get swept up in something much larger than themselves. (Read my review of The Vast of Night for Signal Horizon Magazine).

The Invisible Man (Directed by Leigh Whannel)

Director Leigh Whannel’s stock has really been rising within the horror community. After creating Saw with James Wan, Whannel’s career didn’t take off the way that Wan’s did, but then The Invisible Man happened this year, a major box office hit and collaboration between Blumhouse and Universal Studios. The film rewrote Wells’ monster and made him a metaphor for domestic abuse. The film is terrifying, bolstered by Elisabeth Moss’ harrowing performance. After the film’s massive success, Universal green-lit a slew of Universal Monsters reboots. COVID has delayed filming schedules, but there will be plenty more classic monsters in the coming years. Whannell, meanwhile, signed a two-picture, first-look deal with Blumhouse directly after the film’s release. (Read my review of The Invisible Man for Signal Horizon Magazine).

The Wretched (Directed by Drew and Brett Pierce)

I’m as intrigued by the story of The Wretched as I am by the film itself. This movie was #1 at the box office a few weeks in a row, thanks to IFC’s wise decision to screen it a drive-ins. This indie film became a major hit! It’s a positive story from the pandemic year. Also, this movie is just a lot of fun. It’s a throw-back to 80s films and practical effects with a few Hitchcock references thrown in. The witch also looks really, really damn cool. (Read my review of The Wretched for Signal Horizon Magazine. Read my interview with the directors for HorrOrigins).

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (Directed by/Written by/Starring Jim Cummings)

When was the last time we had a really good werewolf movie? Ginger Snaps (2000) is the last one that comes to mind for me. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a thoroughly enjoyable werewolf flick, but at the center of it is a family drama. The lead, John Marshell (Cummings), is an officer in a small Utah town. Oh, and he’s an alcoholic. His life is frayed. His wife divorced him, and the stress of trying to solve the town’s murders may push him over the edge at any moment. The film has SO much heart, humor, and stellar cinematography. It also makes for a good holiday film with its snowy setting and Christmas music playing in the background. (Read my review for HorrOrigins).

La Llorona (Directed by Jayro Bustamante)

If you are a horror fan, then you need to subscribe to the streaming service Shudder. Period. Year after year, they put out some of the best international and domestic films in the genre. La Llorona is one of the films they released this year, and it feels SO important, especially in the context of right-wing populism’s rise internationally over the last few years. In Guatemala, Alma is murdered with her children during a military attack. Thirty years later, the general who ordered the genocide is found not guilty, and Alma comes back to the world of the living to torment Gen. Enrique. This film is so haunting, especially in its portrayal of genocide and how those ghosts impact the present. This film is also a warning about strong men and how a country can collapse under authoritarian rule.

Relic (Directed by Natalie Erika James)

This is the final IFC film on my list. Few films recently have moved me as much as Relic, a story about dementia and a family’s struggles in dealing with the matriarch’s decline. Yes, there are scary scenes in this, but the film is more about witnessing a family member’s ailing mental health and being helpless to stop it. The house becomes a metaphor for a ravaged mind. The ending is one of the most poetic that I’ve seen in a while. I can’t wait to see what James does next. (Read my review of Relic for HorrOrigins).

His House (Directed by Remi Weekes)

Netflix’s horror selection is REALLY hit or miss, but then along comes a film like His House that totally reinvents the haunted house genre to tell the story of a refugee couple who flees war-torn Sudan. This film is creepy and atmospheric, but its real importance lies in the story that it has to tell.

Blood Quantum (Directed by Jeff Barnaby)

Once again, Shudder has more than one entry on my best-of, year-end list. Blood Quantum is important for SO many reasons. It’s directed by a Native filmmaker and features an all-Native cast. It totally rewrites the zombie genre to tell a story about erasure, survival, and reclaiming history. Like George A. Romero before him, Barnaby understands why zombies work so well as social metaphors. Oh, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film with lots of gore, too. Before I say anymore about this one, just go watch it, please.

Runner-ups and Honorable Mentions: Host, Shirley, Becky, The Devil to Pay, The Beach House, Color Out of Space

Let’s hope that next year is an easier year for all of us. Maybe we’ll finally get Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot in theaters and Halloween Kills by next October. Be safe everyone!

What Feels So Timely

I get a lot of screeners. There are often too many to go through, but I’ve been impressed by how many great horror films IFC Midnight has put out in the last few years. The company really made a name for itself with The Babadook, but this year, they’ve been putting out really quality content, like Swallow and Relic, two of my favorite films of 2020. What these films have in common is that they’re female-centric. All of them deal with issues that women face, be it abusive relationships, motherhood, or family dynamics.

Their latest film, Kindred, is set in the UK and focuses on the plight of Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance), who finds out she’s pregnant about 15 minutes into the film. Before she knows it, her boyfriend’s family, especially the sinister matriarch, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), tries to strip her of her agency. She has no say in whether or not she should even have the baby, or if she has the baby, how to raise the child. The film is about gaslighting and negative stereotypes women STILL have to fight against. Charlotte is labeled mad and ill more than once, for instance. It feels so relevant, when you consider what’s happened globally and the backlash against women’s right. Poland, for instance, recently passed a nationwide abortion ban, which has only been delayed because of mass protests. Abortion rights in the U.S., meanwhile, face a dire threat, now that the SCOTUS has a far-right 6-3 majority.

I was struck by how unnerving Kindred is, how all the monsters are human, and how no one, and I mean NO ONE will listen to the female protagonist. It’s an incredibly relevant film that I recommend.

For more on the film, you can check out my full review for HorrOrigins. The film is now streaming On Demand.

Who’s Sleeping Next to Us?

(Photo from IFC Midnight)

Recently, I wrote a feature story on the films What Keeps You Alive (2018), currently streaming on Netflix, and Honeymoon (2014), one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. The article looks at how both films have a monster who is a significant other and use a rural setting to invoke the Otherness/monster. It’s a terrifying premise, that the one we love isn’t who we think they are. The article appears over at Signal Horizon. Check it out if you’re so inclined!

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.

Celebrating the Success of The Wretched and an Interview with Its Directors for HorrOrigins

With theaters still closed due to COVID-19, film distributors have had to find creative ways to get their films shown. IFC Midnight took a risk by releasing some of their newer titles at drive-ins, including The Wretched, a witch creature feature written and directed by brothers Drew and Brett Pierce. The result of IFC’s move is the fact that a small indie horror film is now the #1 film in the country.

I interviewed the Pierce brothers for HorrOrigins. We talked about their dad’s work on The Evil Dead, their love of independent and genre cinema, and the success of their film. The story of their success is also the story of the film industry right now. With theaters closed, distributors, especially smaller ones, need to find a way to reach audiences. Now, IFC Midnight is releasing more of their films at drive-ins. Does this mean the pandemic will cause a revival of the drive-in? That remains to be seen. Theaters will reopen, maybe as soon as mid-late summer, but who knows if they’ll sell many tickets. Drive-ins offer a safe alternative. For now, at least, The Wretched is the story of a small indie film succeeding in incredibly tough circumstances. That’s a story worth celebrating.