2020 was an experience unlike any other in recent memory...
...It both felt like and revealed some of the world’s deepest horrors, part of which we’re still making our way through. In spite of the harrowing nature of our real-life circumstances, 2020 brought some powerhouse new films to the table. So many, in fact, that I’m still trying to catch up!
Below are ten of my favorites, in alphabetical order, that got me through the year in one way or another. I hope that, if there are some on here you missed, they bring you as much joy to discover as they did me.
Directed by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella
Written by Jeremy Gardner
Successfully weaving together love and monsters is every romantic horror fan’s dream, and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead have produced yet another wonderful entry with After Midnight. When Hank (Jeremy Gardner)’s girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant) leaves with no explanation, he must face off against a monster even more dangerous than heartache to protect his home and wait for her return. Simple as the plot may sound, it deftly weaves the highs and lows of a decades-long love, longing for more than a small-town life, and a practical effects creature terrorizing a man on the verge of losing himself into something quietly affecting and surprisingly sweet. Plus, it’s the only movie from 2020 to have me crying over some karaoke.
Written and directed by Brad Michael Elmore
2020 was, among a host of questionable things, a surprisingly vibrant time for representation in horror. Both on screen and in casting, having people with the life experience outside the norm you’re trying to depict step into those roles seems to be on its way to becoming a not-so-foreign concept. Bit is one of my favorite examples of the year not just because it centers a badass queer trans vampire looking to shift the power structure of the world she’s been thrown into, but because it does it all in such a way as to transcend even its most important representations, and it isn’t afraid of letting its core fucked-up women make fucked-up choices.
This list is full of women allowed to be complex and make mistakes, but Bit is top of the list for it because Duke (Diana Hopper) is a window, for me, into every sense of rage I’ve ever felt about sexual violence done not just to me but to every person out there who’s had to face it. It’s hard, and it twists you into something with a sense of justice that may be a little harsher than most. Laurel (Nicole Maines) is right, too. The paradigm shift is necessary to break the cycle of the world, but Duke is only wrong in some of what she does, not any of what she says. Bit is one of the entries in 2020’s horrorscape that, I think, offers a little more below the surface to chew on than what at might first appear, and for that it should be considered unmissable.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw
Written and directed by Thomas Robert Lee
Speaking of complicated women being allowed to stay complicated, I got the opportunity to review Curse of Audrey Earnshaw during festival season and she hasn’t truly left my head since. Part folk horror, part domestic drama, this tale of a town plagued by tragedy and the young woman they believe to be responsible for it all is a tense slow burn with an unapologetically vicious lead in Audrey (Jessica Reynolds). After spending most of her life hidden away by her mother as a means of protection, Audrey is at best morally grey in her motives, but always relishes her power. Combine that with a haunting score and cinematography and you have a witchy movie sure to linger in your head after it’s over.
Directed by Rob Savage
Written by Rob Savage and Gemma Hurley and Jed Sheperd
I’m not sure there are many people left in the horrorsphere who have not seen Host, and for good reason. It’s a sharp, vicious little capsule of 2020’s social scape, made entirely while following quarantine guidelines, and it scared me so badly on first watch that I have thought about it at least once a day, every day, since its release back in July. It’s a brilliant, tight piece of filmmaking and of horror that neither wastes time nor lets up on its tension for its entire 56-minute runtime. Host is a testament to the ways determined creators have found to put their art out into the world in spite of the worldwide shutdown that threatens to smother it out. For best experience, I suggest watching it the way it looks: on a laptop, lights out, headphones on.
Written and directed by Joko Anwar
I’m a sucker for a good haunting, atmospheric folklore movie, and 2020 provided in one form or another in spades. Joko Anwar’s Impetigore is one such offering that roped me in from its first moments and didn’t release me until the credits rolled. Perhaps one of the only films on the list whose violence could be described as both brutal and beautiful in one fell swoop. It’s a heartbreaking, tense tale of a woman returning to her homeland to claim her inheritance and finding far more than she bargained for. From a house with cinematography that lingers in its deepest corners, to a village of people with a secret to keep buried, people in power who enact violence so casually it’s over before you know it happened, and an unforgettable shadow puppet routine, Impetigore is nothing less than a horrific artform.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannel
Much like Host, I feel certain this one made it onto most everyone’s favorites list in 2020 for good reason. I was initially going to leave it off in an effort to spotlight some others that may have been overlooked, but there’s something about this adaptation that I can’t quite shake. The experience of watching it, as someone who has been in a similar situation, with someone who never was so discordant it added an unexpected layer of horror I hadn’t anticipated. Do people who have never had someone like Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in their life not spend the full runtime holding their breath? Do they not look in the edges of every frame for the unseen man who is always there, whether visible or not? Do they know the complex feelings of starting out with the tensest, most terrifying moment of your life and just…being terrified from there on out? The restaurant scene in particular has been picking up a bit more analytical steam recently, and rightly so. This adaptation hits close for an unfortunate number of us, it seems, but that’s part of what makes it such effective horror. The catharsis at the end is worth the wait, but what lingers with you is the knowledge that no place is safe when no one believes.
M.O.M: Mothers of Monsters
Written and directed by Tucia Lyman
No other film on my list made me feel as grossly uncomfortable as Mothers of Monsters, but in the best way possible. Its harrowingly bleak story of a woman who believes her son might be a psychopath bled into every fiber of my brain for days after watching and seems to have stayed there ever since. Shot in a found-footage style, MOM has a mother making YouTube videos airing her concerns about her son’s mental state so that other mothers of other teenage sons might be able to see the signs in their own children and get help one way or another before it’s too late for them. Along the way her own mental state begins to deteriorate in such a way that we soon become unsure of who to trust. Sure, her son is unusual, but is he really “might shoot up the school” unusual or is there something else about him she’s afraid of that she can’t bring herself to admit?
Beyond her own fears, MOM is also a biting look at our fascination, as an audience, with serial killers and troubled people generally. She spends much of her time speaking directly to camera—and thus, to us—about her concerns both with her son individually and with people beyond her intended audience who might be watching her videos. Possibly my favorite line in the whole film, “If you’re not a mom with a troubled kid and you’re watching this, you’re a psychopath. Have some fucking respect,” attacks society’s fascination with its most troubling people in a direct way that I hadn’t seen anywhere in a long time, if ever. While I don’t necessarily agree that taking an interest in true crime and horror makes you a psychopath, the point here is more about trying to dissect someone like they’re something on display instead of a person.
Directed by Natalie Erika James
Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White
If you’re looking for a film guaranteed to emotionally destroy you on a molecular level, Relic is where it’s at. A darkly heartbreaking look into a horror that’s all too real for so many of us, this is a multigenerational tale of mental deterioration that chips away at your heart until its final sequence. Robin Nevin’s performance as Edna is affecting in even its most subtle moments. As someone who has lost a family member to dementia, I can say without a shadow of a doubt the depiction in Relic is unflinching and painfully accurate. The final sequence between Edna and her daughter when Edna is trying to hold onto the last vestiges of her memory and her daughter must make the decision to stay with her or leave is one of the most heartbreaking sequences I witnessed in 2020. Dementia truly is like watching pieces of the people you love fall away in your hands until they become little more than shadow versions of themselves and, while Relic was a painful watch, it proved to be a cathartic experience for me in finding the words to express the loss of my own grandfather, and for that I am grateful.
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Written by Sev Ohanian and Aneesh Chaganty
Another entry that speaks to the power of representation, Aneesh Chaganty’s choice to prioritize casting a disabled actor in the main role of his story of a disabled young woman discovering some dark truths about her mother meant a lot to me, not least because it meant I got to see elements of my own life play out on screen with a care I haven’t seen before. Kiera Allen’s performance as Chloe is a force. Chloe is many things all at once: fiercely independent, unafraid to play society’s sympathies to her favor when she needs them, whip smart, and stronger than even her mother (Sarah Paulson) gives her credit for. This underestimation is core to the story, and part of why Chloe’s journey is ultimately rewarding—if a little bitter—to watch. A fair warning, though: the story centers on medical abuse and may not be an easy watch for everyone.
Vast of Night
Directed by Andrew Patterson
Written by Andrew Patterson and Craig W. Sanger
It takes a special kind of magic for a movie to hook you in immediately, and while every movie on this list managed it in one way or another for me, none does it in quite the same way as Vast of Night. The dynamic between Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) is instantly endearing. The cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, with a tracking shot that may well be among some of the best camerawork in all of 2020. The atmosphere is a pitch perfect encapsulation of the golden era of 60s sci-fi television in shows like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, and the opening Serlingesque monologue alone had me inexpressibly giddy and all in for what I was being offered. If getting truly lost in another world is what you’re after, Vast of Night is here to deliver in spades.
Honorable Mentions and Looking Forward
Honorable Mention: We Summon the Darkness, written by Alan Trezza, directed by Marc Meyers
There are few things that bring me joy in film like women going off the handle against people that deserve it. Examinations of religious extremism also have a soft spot in my heart. Bring the two together and add in a twist with a kick and you get We Summon the Darkness. It may not be especially cerebral, but it is immense amounts of fun to watch. It does turn a bunch of tropes on their heads, and gives Alexandra Daddario, Maddie Hasson, and Amy Forsyth the space to be madwomen, always an immense joy.
Honorable Mention: Birds of Prey, written by Christina Hodson, directed by Cathy Yan
Before anybody tells me this is not a horror film, I know. But it did do an immense amount of work this year to lift my spirits and it does depict recovering from some pretty horrifying relationship damage. Watching Margot Robbie fully embrace and relish her role as Harley Quinn, newly emancipated, is a shot of pure chaotic happiness. Plus, if you’re not bopping to the BOP soundtrack, do you truly have a soul?
Looking forward: CAVEAT, written and directed by Damian McCarthy
I found CAVEAT at 2020's Screamfest, and that wonderfully terrifying bunny on its cover has been living rent-free in my mind ever since. The letterboxd synopsis for this wild little gem says, “A lone drifter suffering from partial memory loss accepts a job to look after a psychologically troubled woman in an abandoned house on an isolated island”. Recipe for pure madness, right? But believe me, mix in a toy rabbit that may or may not be able to sense the spirits of the dead and you still haven’t quite scratched the surface of just how weird this gets. Look for it next year and come back to me when you’re ready for an Alice in Wonderland conversation.
Looking forward: A Nightmare Wakes, written and directed by Nora Unkel
I had to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein five times in my last two years of college, and each time I found more to love about it. So, when I discovered A Nightmare Wakes at Salem Horror Fest, which tells the story of Shelley’s creation of the story through the lens of the infamous party and her life, I knew it was bound to be something worth seeing. What I got was a story and a film told with infinite tenderness and love for both Mary Shelley’s monsters and Mary Shelley herself. Woven with sometimes subtle but always beautiful nods to the work and the woman, Nightmare is nothing short of a visually breathtaking experience. Besides, Byron gets to be absolutely flamboyant on screen and who doesn’t love that?
By Katelyn Nelson