Years like 2020 showcase just how malleable movies’ interpretations can be. In a similar phenomenon to how media was viewed again and again as representing entertainment “in Trump’s America,” the best horror films of 2020 seemed to presciently capture the isolation, mistrust, and racial tension permeating a year dominated by protests and a pandemic. Whether they reflect everything that mattered to moviegoers (or movie streamers, as most of us were by necessity this year) through their form—filmed on video conferences like Zoom—or their content—gripping tales of confinement, trauma, and contagion—the world of horror was a respite simply because it seemed to understand exactly what we were going through.
Here are our picks for the 15 best horror movies of the year:
At a mere 56 minutes long, it wouldn’t be hard to make a case for Host as an extended short film rather than a legitimate feature, but the fact that horror fans didn’t seem to feel compelled to be sticklers about this—pretty damn rare, considering this particular arena of geekdom—speaks to the fact that filmmaker Rob Savage’s pandemic-era horror film was received very warmly by we shut-ins jonesing for a good scare in the middle of a lost summer. Host will forever be recognized as a time capsule of our struggles to adapt to the social isolation of COVID-19, being accomplished exclusively via the exact sort of error-tinged Zoom calls we’ve all become very familiar with, almost a year since the pandemic began. On a basic level, the film is an impressive technical accomplishment, having been executed by a director who was never once in the same room as any of his performers, and featuring some nifty DIY effects that presumably had to be rigged in some instances by the performers themselves. But Host is also just a tense, exciting supernatural thriller that cuts straight through the treacle and brings Conjuring-like bumps in the night into the age of complete digital dependence. When it comes to thematic relevance, it’s perhaps 2020’s tightest hour of no-frills, no-fuss frights. —Jim Vorel
No genre is as self-reflective as horror, and in horror there’s no better format for facilitating self-reflection than the anthology. Anthologies go hand in hand with the genre, don’t they? Horror works in long form as well as in short bites (RIP Quibi), and whether a Creep Show, a Tales From the Darkside, a Terror Tract or a Trick ‘r Treat, V/H/S/2 or, well, the other V/H/S movies, the omnibus is a staple for this storytelling mode. So The Mortuary Collection is technically nothing new, being yet another anthology littered among other anthologies—in history and in 2020 (see: Scare Package, and kinda sorta Scare Me).
But it is really good, and shrewdly hinges on a terrific, macabre lead performance from Clancy Brown, playing a mortician (with a secret) serving as narrator and master of ceremonies as he regales his new employee, Sam (Caitlin Custer), with stories of ghouls, cannibals, and other assorted monsters. Their back-and-forth turns into a referendum on originality in horror, and of course ultimately ends badly for her (though in a twist, we don’t feel bad for her at all). The framing is clever, the stories effectively creepy, and the aesthetics varied from one to the next: A little EC Comics here, a little André Øvredal there, some Fred Walton and Amy Holden Jones elsewhere. The film demonstrates just how diverse horror is as a craft, but it also makes a good argument for the core entertainment value of horror being a pleasure unto itself. Subtext is good. Delicious scares are better. —Andy Crump
It can be difficult to organically thread “romance” into horror-comedy, broadening a film to equally weigh a third major genre, but it’s the quirky relationship fodder where Extra Ordinary ultimately displays its greatest strength. This Irish indie never truly takes the frightening side of paranormal investigation seriously—it’s a true comedy all the way, and probably stronger for it—but it’s the unexpectedly quiet, thoroughly human lead performances that make it memorable. Those come from Irish actors Maeve Higgins and Barry Ward as two unassuming but uniquely talented people, imbued with abilities that allow them to touch the spirit plane rather more easily than they’re able to socialize with living, breathing humans. Higgins in particular really owns the character of Rose Dooley, imbuing her with a good-natured and immediately relatable soft-spokenness on top of an aura of melancholy that belies her ability to bring closure to spirits stuck in limbo. The scenes the two have together contain a certain warmth, a feeling that two people have been brought together who complete one another nicely—if only Ward’s ex-wife wasn’t still in the picture (in poltergeist form). Nevertheless, it’s Will Forte’s charismatic performance as washed-up prog rock star/demonic cultist Christian Winter that is likely to draw more U.S. viewers to Extra Ordinary, given that he’s the film’s most recognizable star. He makes the most of the opportunity to play another deeply eccentric character in a career that has been full of them, although his performance almost feels like something from a different movie when compared to the more grounded focus on the relationship between Higgins and Ward. That central duo, and their emerging rapport, make Extra Ordinary a heartfelt, breezy entry that gets a lot of mileage from very few moving pieces. —Jim Vorel
North Truro, being one of the quietest and most detached parts of Cape Cod, makes a perfect setting for epidemic horror. The houses dotting shorelines feel at once stacked on top of and completely removed from one another. Even if you can see your neighbors sitting on their deck, you’re distanced from them. That eerie spatial contradiction is the key to Jeffrey A. Brown’s new movie, The Beach House, yet another oopsie-daisy horror story suited too well to the age of COVID-19, which has quite possibly left a slew of genre directors anxiously shearing down their nails like beavers on birch in response to their work’s accidental topicality. Brown at least chose a location where coronavirus has had a lesser impact on the great state of Massachusetts compared to other parts, so maybe he’ll welcome that as a small mercy. On the other hand his protagonists, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros), chose poorly. There’s no COVID-19 in The Beach House, but there is something arguably worse, and it’s in the water, which is a real “fuck you” to vacationers hoping to dip their toes in the Cape Cod Bay.
An underrated rule in horror is to trust whoever has the biggest brain. Emily has a damn galaxy brain, in a very literal sense. “One thing slightly off, and we would be nothing,” she tells Jane, waxing poetic about her own chosen field of astrobiology. “Dust or gas or something. I’m in awe of it.” Brown admires Emily’s mind as much as Emily admires the cosmic implications of her study, continuing the emphasis horror has put on intellect in 2020 beginning with Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever. In the event of a bodily alien contagion’s spread, get in the foxhole with the genius.—Andy Crump
Talk about bad timing. Or good timing? Whether Sea Fever’s release coinciding with the pandemic is to either the film’s benefit or detriment is a question without a concrete answer, but like Nicolas Pesce’s The Grudge, it’s all a matter of strange kismet. How else to take a horror movie about people stuck in tight quarters together, endangered by a heretofore unknown entity that transmits to hosts with but a touch and kills in geysers of blood? And the one person in the cast smart enough to make deductions and offer advisories on how to proceed is routinely ignored by everybody else, especially when that person identifies self-isolation as the safest course of action. Prescient! Sea Fever, however, isn’t about a virus but an undiscovered lifeform that inhabits the photic zone, basically a gargantuan tentacled thing that passes on its spawn to other organisms, which then explode violently from said organisms’ eyeballs. The creature menaces the crew of a fishing trawler off the West coast of Ireland, including Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), the introverted marine life expert brought on board to sort out “anomalies” in the catch. She’s also the only one capable of figuring out what’s happening to the boat, and the crew, in what reads as an amalgam of The Thing and Leviathan, with maybe a bit of The Abyss in there as well. Sea Fever’s gory, claustrophobic paranoia is only part of its pleasure. There’s terror in the depths, but bioluminescent beauty, too, the kind that inspires Irish folklore when it should inspire a moratorium on fishing. Sea Fever didn’t get to pick its moment, but the moment is ripe for movies like it to help put in perspective the matter of quarantine. A great movie at any time, but an unexpectedly thought-provoking movie for the time that we’re in. —Andy Crump
Call it a family affair. Husband and wife team John Adams and Toby Poser wrote and directed The Deeper You Dig together. Adams stars in the movie as Kurt, Poser as Ivy and their daughter, Zelda Adams, as Echo. Going into business with loved ones is a bad idea in nine out of 10 cases. Here, that bond functions like cement holding their movie together, giving real weight to The Deeper You Dig’s unadorned spartan aesthetic. Kurt’s renovating a rickety old home on his own, which is for the better because he’s not the social butterfly type. One evening, he goes out for drinks, has one too many, and in a terrible split second of distraction on a snowy ride back, he runs Echo down by accident. Immediately after, not at all by accident, he hides her corpse in his tub, and eventually goes so far as to dismember her and bury her in the woods. Meanwhile, Ivy, her mother, a medium who long ago lost her gift for communicating with the other side, desperately begins searching for her missing child and regains her spiritual talents in the process as Echo’s ghost begins haunting and taunting and maybe also possessing Kurt.
The Deeper You Dig is uncomplicated in terms of craft. Adam and Poser find an angle and stick with it instead of mucking about with flashy nonsense. Theirs is a far more effective approach than any hyperkinetic and self-regarding form of filmmaking for a story like this, where the deliberately paced plotting reveals chills in their due time without vaulting ahead to force them on the audience well before it’s necessary. The Deeper You Dig’s austerity is only its second greatest strength, of course, the first being the Adams-Poser effect, but it’s still a strength worth celebrating. —Andy Crump
If there has been a relatively consistent through-line within the horror genre, it is that there is something uniquely creepy about older people. Elderly women specifically have been portrayed as innately grotesque, their disrobed bodies often enough to provoke a response of guttural unease in the viewer. The 2010s in particular saw an increase in this trope: The unhinged sundowning Nana in The Visit, the baby-snatching sorceress in The Witch, the Scandinavian cult’s nude female elders in Midsommar, the deceptive old lady whose nude jaunt around her kitchen was distinctly unsettling in IT: Chapter 2. These examples, among countless other jump-scare-inducing characters, embody traits symbolizing the crone—an unsightly old hag who often represents death incarnate. While Natalie Erika James’ Relic focuses on aging family matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin), the film is interested in much more than a face-value study of the horrors of getting old.
Relic posits that old age is not something to be reviled or worshiped, instead viewing aging as a continual process as opposed to a fearful spectre. The film is overwhelmingly empathetic toward Edna, even when her demonic transformation renders her unaware of the threat she poses to herself and others. James shows Edna is much more than her senescent body and faltering mind. She affords Edna humanity, even when her actions border on the inhuman, leaving no room for societal repugnance to strip that from her.—Natalia Keogan
Hank (Jeremy Gardner) has a problem: Abby (Brea Grant), his longtime girlfriend and the weathervane of his existence, has up and left with only a vague note to explain her sudden disappearance. All Hank has to hang onto now is his family’s old home, which he and Abby had made their home together, plus a bottomless case of peanut wine. Oh, also, there’s that damn monster that batters Hank every night after the clock strikes 12. That’s a problem, too. After Midnight could be read as anything other than a horror film, but if there’s a worse horror to live with than the horror of knowing your short-term future is going to be defined by monster attacks, well, Gardner doesn’t care. Following his usual tack, he wrote this movie, co-directed this movie and put himself in front of the cameras while they rolled: There’s more budget to speak of than his other work (like The Battery), considering the involvement of effects studio MastersFX (see: Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight), but most of the money goes toward…well, wait for the final 10 or so minutes to find out. Everything that’s left over goes toward creating a sadsack world for Hank to live in and pity himself in, his stunted emotional growth being the bugbear holding him back from going anywhere with his life and with Abby. “Manchildren but make it scary” sounds like a terrible elevator pitch, but Gardner’s been making low-budget, high-tension, higher-atmosphere movies in his sleep for his whole career, and After Midnight is the most refined example of his vision yet. —Andy Crump
Aided by elemental forces, her exquisitely wealthy boyfriend’s Silicon Valley house blanketed by the deafening crash of ocean waves, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) softly pads her way out of bed, through the high-tech laboratory, escaping over the wall of his compound and into the car of her sister (Harriet Dyer). We wonder: Why would she run like this if she weren’t abused? Why would she have a secret compartment in their closet where she can stow an away bag? Then Cecilia’s boyfriend appears next to the car and punches in its window. His name is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and according to Cecilia, Adrian made a fortune as a leading figure in “optics” (OPTICS!) meeting the self-described “suburban girl” at a party a few years before. Never one to be subtle with his themes, Leigh Whannell has his villain be a genius in the technology of “seeing,” in how we see, to update James Whale’s 1933 Universal Monster film—and H.G. Wells’ story—to embrace digital technology as our primary mode of modern sight. Surveillance cameras limn every inch of Adrian’s home; later he’ll use a simple email to ruin Cecilia’s relationship with her sister. He has the money and resources to peer into any corner of Cecilia’s life. His gaze is unbroken. Cecilia knows that Adrian will always find her, and The Invisible Man is rife with the abject terror of such vulnerability. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio have a knack for letting their frames linger with space, drawing our attention to where we, and Cecilia, know an unseen danger lurks. Of course, we’re always betrayed: Corners of rooms and silhouette-less doorways aren’t empty, aren’t negative, but pregnant with assumption—until they aren’t, the invisible man never precisely where we expect him to be. We begin to doubt ourselves; we’re punished by tension, and we feel like we deserve it. It’s all pretty marvelous stuff, as much a well-oiled genre machine as it is yet another showcase for Elisabeth Moss’s herculean prowess. —Dom Sinacola
For many, scary movies are fun. Watching scary movies is fun. Boil that down further: Telling scary stories is fun, no matter the setting, as long as you’re in proper company. Shudder’s Scare Me toasts that dynamic via a contest of wills between two horror authors trying to out-terrify each other before the second-best possible stage for telling scary stories: a crackling fireplace. (The very best is a campfire, but beggars can’t be choosers.) The authors are Fred (Josh Ruben) and Fanny (Aya Cash). Fanny is the best-selling writer behind the popular critical smash Venus, a zombie novel that, based on what little the audience hears about it, sounds like elevated horror nonsense (which is exactly the kind of thing that scored points on screens and shelves in the mid-2010s horror boom). Josh is a loser. He hasn’t written a damn thing or a thing worth a damn, and he’s secluded himself in a cabin at a Catskills resort to do Serious Work, which he doesn’t, because again, he’s a loser. Fanny’s staying in a nearby cabin, and when the power goes out across the area, she walks in on Fred and challenges him to scare her with his best shot.
The pace of Scare Me slows a tad more than ideal as Ruben takes the plot to its inevitable conclusion, but it’s still a joyful, satisfyingly eerie experience. There are reasons we enjoy the adrenaline blast horror movies give us. Scare Me, which should be essential viewing each Halloween season, understands those reasons well and celebrates them with enough laughs and gasps to leave viewers choking.—Andy Crump
Beyond colorful figures and fantastical tales, folklore often serves to transmit sage advice or words of caution from generation to generation. But what happens when there is a widespread, organized attempt to snuff out the intergenerational structure that allows for these stories and cultural traditions to thrive? In La Llorona, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente posits that when the national narrative refuses to recognize the atrocities its own country committed against an entire ethnic group, weaponizing popular legends in order to convey horrifying reality is perhaps the most effective rallying cry—alongside the anguished wails of a tortured mother. La Llorona centers on the family of General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who stands trial for decades-old war crimes perpetrated against indigenous villages in Guatemala. Though found guilty, much like Efraín Ríos Montt, Monteverde’s conviction is ultimately overturned, causing mass demonstrations that are eventually localized outside of Monteverde’s lavish estate.
Bustamante’s La Llorona is less concerned with eliciting genre conventions than it is ensuring that the visceral terror felt by those who were persecuted is given a global platform. There is no need for gratuitous jump-scares or bone-chilling monsters when flesh-and-blood boogeymen walk among us, their sadism justified by the country’s highest order and international courts. In fact, the struggle for indigenous liberation is so ingrained in the film that Rigoberta Menchú, whose advocacy regarding the oppression of her native K’iche’ people in Guatemala (and indigenous struggles globally) earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, was involved in the film’s trajectory and even has a brief cameo.—Natalia Keogan
On its face, the prospect of resurrecting two franchise IPs which have been endlessly re-made decade after decade teeters on the banal and unimaginative. Yet director Christopher Landon’s Freaky effortlessly weaves together the conventions of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th, eschewing the confines of “remake,” instead creating a unique genre hybrid that’s slick and endlessly entertaining—all the while maintaining a clever self-awareness which enlivens the film’s jump-scares and punchlines without descending into the horror-comedy pitfall of self-referential metaness.
What follows is a binary-bending comic exercise in sexual fluidity and gender expression which juxtaposes Vince Vaughn’s hefty stature with Kathryn Newton’s petite frame in order to prod at the horror genre’s previously held notion of who is perceived as weak, both in attitude and appearance. Vaughn and Newton give stellar performances, channeling the other’s mannerisms while poking fun at their own corporeal limitations and their immediate (dis)comfort within their new vessels. It’s heartening to see that the horror genre—still undeniably male-dominated—persists in its commitment to pushing boundaries. Whether those boundaries demarcate what we are able to stomach in terms of violence or what we are able to unpack within our own internal concepts of gender and sexuality, Freaky joins these tenets in order to craft a horror story rife with unexpected, imaginative kills all while subverting societal expectations of who we should really be afraid of—and why.—Natalia Keogan
The barren, lonely, modest urban landscapes of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor reflect a familiar perspective. Brandon is, as you either already know or have surely guessed, David’s son; he shares his father’s interest in corporeal grotesquery, physical transformation representing mental transformation, and an unnerving, topical preoccupation with viruses. Brandon cuts deeper than daddy, though, if not (yet) with the same incisiveness, then with a clinical precision that only intensifies the oneiric oddness coursing intractably through Possessor.
This disturbing horror/thriller follows Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin working for a shady organization that carries out its hits via remote cerebral link between assassin and unwitting host—in this case Colin (Christopher Abbott). Cronenberg charts a horrific journey from mind to mind, plotted along neural pathways but predictably expressed along physical routes. It veers off into an arterial journey, the narrow vessels containing the stuff of life—and death—in a larger body. The film has the feel of a grand sci-fi spectacle shrunk down to a dark, dingy miniature; its crude efficiency belies the potency of Cronenberg’s ruminations on the theme of a foreign invader corrupting a wayward soul in a poisonous society.—Paddy Mulholland
Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da roots through the stack of anxieties felt under COVID-19’s stresses, picks out a single thread and sings a wicked nursery rhyme about it: The film isn’t about disease, but about living the same day on repeat while you’re grieving. Nyholm unwittingly considers the consequences of an outbreak without building a narrative around one at all, a happy accident made happier by the fact of the film’s long road to commercial release. Koko-di Koko-da premiered at Sundance 2019, secured a distribution deal for November of that year, got pushed back to March 2020, got taken off the calendar by COVID-19, and now, roughly a year after its original intended release, is finally here to give viewers a mirror for examining their dread. At least none of the characters catch a deadly virus!
Someday, one intrepid horror journalist will sit down at their desk, fire off a salvo of emails, make a few dozen calls, do the legwork, and tell the story of how 2020 became the year of pre-pandemic pandemic horror. In the meantime, Koko-di Koko-da deserves appreciation for exceptional craftsmanship and command of tone. Nyholm’s horror explores a side of bereavement where nihilism collides with unexpected hope: The way through collective mourning is horrible, but that means there is indeed a way through. —Andy Crump
Nothing sucks the energy out of horror than movies that withhold on horror. Movies can scare audiences in a variety of ways, of course, but the very least a horror movie can be is scary instead of screwing around. Remi Weekes’ His House doesn’t screw around. The film begins with a tragedy, and within 10 minutes of that opening handily out-grudges The Grudge by leaving ghosts strewn on the floor and across the stairs where his protagonists can trip over them. Ultimately, this is a movie about the inescapable innate grief of immigrant stories, a companion piece to contemporary independent cinema like Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea, which captures the dangers facing immigrants on the road and at their destinations with brutal neorealist clarity. Weekes is deeply invested in Bol and Rial as people, in where they come from, what led them to leave, and most of all what they did to leave. But Weeks is equally invested in making his viewers leap out of their skins. —Andy Crump