What a year for horror…
2020 has certainly seen its share of terror — both on screen and in reality. With a global pandemic forcing most of us inside our homes, it’s been scary times for the film industry. Yet while horror was hardly immune to the year’s savagery — bye-bye Candyman, see you next Fall Halloween Kills — it’s arguably fared better than any other genre. Thanks to a strong community and a willingness to push the creative envelope, horror has survived, thrived, and, in some cases, held us together during this long, dark year.
Sure, the delays for the blockbuster horror fare were disappointing, but they also opened the door for low-budget horror gems that have long been the backbone of the genre. Similarly, genre festivals led the way in experimenting with digitization, allowing for new and diverse voices to participate. But, it wasn’t just new releases aiding this connection: Fans turned to older titles as a way to share and process our collective fears with Zoom script readings, watch parties, and live tweets.
In October, when we were all missing our favorite Halloween traditions, curated drive-ins gave us a way to stay connected while safely distant. Granted, other genres were doing these things as well, but the call to action truly felt as if it were coming from inside the house of horror. We may have been quarantining alone, but we found ways to share our favorite comfort horror with friends and loved ones. That newfound sense of community is unlikely to change even when theaters do eventually re-open.
The list ahead is hardly what we envisioned back in January, but it’s admittedly stronger. Smaller films that may not have risen to the surface in years past were given the opportunity to shine through word of mouth and accessibility. And there’s no doubt, given one entry in particular, that a genre long known for trailblazing led the way in discovering a new way to make movies. Essentially, we’re in uncharted waters and what better community to forge ahead than the one that knows how to deliver one good scare.
10. His House
Release Date: October 30th via Netflix
Who’s In It? Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Matt Smith, Javier Botet
You Gotta See This! In a stunning feature directorial debut, Remi Weekes’s His House is the story of Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) Majur, Sudanese refugees who have survived the deadly voyage across the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Britain. Not only are they grieving the loss of their daughter, but the dilapidated council house they’ve been assigned to live in has a sinister secret lurking within its walls. At once a terrifying haunted house tale and a study in grief and survivor’s guilt, His House explores the often untold horrors of shared trauma and forced assimilation central to the refugee experience.
In addition to the horrific spirits lurking within their house, Bol and Rial must also navigate the threat of asking for help lest they be sent back to South Sudan for “biting the hand that feeds.” Weekes brilliantly uses genre tropes to highlight this harrowing experience, particularly the stakes that come with a strange, new land. These images, combined with a moving story of humanity after tragedy, makes His House an important film and Weekes a filmmaker to watch. –Jenn Adams
09. The Lodge
Release Date: February 7th via NEON
Who’s In It? Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Alicia Silverstone, Richard Armitage
You Gotta See This! A volatile family (in this case, a dad out of town, his estranged kids and his new girlfriend). A winter getaway. An unexpected blizzard. No way out. These beats have long graced echelons of horror’s past, and The Lodge seems primed for a shortlist appearance from its sheer darkness and despair. The film kicks off with one of the bleakest openings you’ll find this year, and invests whatever energy it could’ve grown remotely happier with into the eerie gloom that permeates the namesake locale.
A sizable share of the film’s tension is doled from a distance with a well-stoked slow-burn; this pace does wonders in thickening the atmosphere when it’s not being built with remarkable performances. While children Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh hold their ground, Riley Keough’s deservedly well-upheld turn is The Lodge‘s centerpiece, as her emotional journey through repressed traumas and old demons guides the film on an intensifying course to its nerve-shredding end. —Sam Mwakasisi
Extra! Extra! Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.
08. She Dies Tomorrow
Release Date: July 31st via NEON
Who’s In It? Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe
You Gotta See This! Amy Seimetz couldn’t have possibly known the times in which she’d release her latest directorial effort. And yet, She Dies Tomorrow sticks in the back of the brain like a subliminal command, a brain-worm that crystallizes the isolation and existential dread of 2020 like few other movies this year.
A kind of infection of despair spreads from person to person like — you guessed it — a virus, but one that sinks each of its victims (Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, and others) into the unshakeable idea that they’re going to die tomorrow. What would you do? How would you prepare? What loose ends would you tie up?
Seimetz asks all these questions and more, and delves into them with all the neon-soaked melancholy she can muster. There’s no solace in the knowledge of death, just more sadness. –Clint Worthington
Extra! Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ full review here.
Release Date: January 10th via 20th Century Studios
Who’s In It? Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller
You Gotta See This! Filmed in 2017, Underwater ran into a slew of problems before finding release in a pre-COVID 2020. Coming out to lackluster numbers and middling reviews, the year has moved on and more people have found their way to it. Underwater is already quickly gaining a following and is well on its way to become a contemporary cult classic. It’s fitting as this Kristen Stewart-led ensemble manages to evoke the same feelings found in iconic films such as Alien and The Descent.
Director William Eubank captures claustrophobic terror while still being able to showcase bigger-than-life dynamics, no doubt aided by a smart, tight script from Adam Cozad and Brian Duffield. In hindsight, Duffield has proven to be quite the lovable screenwriter this year with Spontaneous and Love and Monsters, and this tag team effort is no different. Mixing ticking time bomb tension with perhaps the greatest swing for creature features in years, Underwater should not be slept on. –Ryan Larson
Extra! Extra! Read Joe Lipsett’s full review here.
Release Date: October 2nd via NEON
Who’s In It? Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh
You Gotta See This! Exhaustive as it’s become to reference his father David in regards to his interest in science fiction and body horror, Brandon Cronenberg is showing all the signs of a filmmaker settling into his own modern flavor of macabre with his new outing Possessor. The film’s core story of an increasingly complicated mind-hijacking assassination job runs on its marriage of flesh and machine alongside its clinical vision of the near-future.
This sense of world-building proves fertile for a three-dimensional horror to fester on anatomical and abstract levels, with the film’s excruciating violence invoking as much reeling from audiences as its explosive sequences of inner visions. However, the fear proves exceedingly compelling thanks to a cast led by Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott, whose innate senses of complexity, pain, and vulnerability round out Possessor as a psychological thriller that loses its mind on all fronts and all cylinders. –Sam Mwakasisi
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s full review here.
Release Date: September 18 via Magnet
Who’s In It? Jules Willcox, Marc Menchaca, Anthony Heald
You Gotta See This! Grieving widow Jessica (Jules Willcox) is moving to the Pacific Northwest to start a new chapter in her life. Those plans go out the car window when she’s stalked and kidnapped by a deceptively nice man (Marc Menchaca), who locks her in the basement of his remote cabin. What follows is an updated and self-aware version of the familiar slasher narrative as the Man hunts Jessica through the wilderness, hellbent on making her his latest victim. Jessica does everything “right.” She listens to her intuition and uses the resources available to her to escape time and again, all to no avail as her ingenuity is evenly matched by his determination and willingness to use his societal advantages against her.
A lesser movie would keep Jessica confined to said basement for the majority of the runtime, but Alone honors its True Crime audience by following the logical trail of obstacles in the way of salvation, both natural and orchestrated, and showing Jessica’s strength in a way that feels like true empowerment. It’s a frustrating, but ultimately cathartic reflection of navigating a world not designed to support women. Jessica is more than just a victim as she is forced to overcome both physical and emotional pain yet somehow finds the will to survive. A breathless, “hell yeah” climax reveals what may be the only effective weapon against predatory men and shows that even though survivors may suffer alone, by sharing our experiences, we are anything but. –Jenn Adams
Extra! Extra! Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.
Release Date: November 13th via Universal
Who’s in It? Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Dana Drori, Katie Finneran, Alan Ruck
You Gotta See This! Christopher Landon once again brings humor and heart to the horror genre with his latest Body Swap Slasher mash-up, Freaky. Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn star as both killer and final girl who each wake up in the other’s body after Vaughn’s killer, the Butcher, attempts to murder Newton’s Millie with an ancient and powerful knife. The swap begins a race against the clock as Vaughn’s Millie must stab Newton’s Butcher with said knife before midnight or they will be stuck in each other’s bodies forever.
Body swap films live and die by their lead’s abilities to distinguish between each persona, and Newton and Vaughn are stellar in their portrayals of two iconic horror archetypes. Their performances transform a simple horror comedy concept into a touching commentary on power, strength, and acceptance while lovingly deconstructing staples of the genre. Throw in some creative kills and revenge fantasy catharsis and you’ve got a modern teen horror film destined to become essential Friday the 13th viewing. –Jenn Adams
Extra! Extra! Read Ryan Larson’s full review here.