It has been a year, to say the least...
...At this point, I think we're all ready for 2020 to die a brutal, bloody, painful as fuck death, and be slowly digested in a sarlacc pit for a millennium.
But it hasn't all been bad. In particular, the horror genre kicked ass this year!
Despite seeing multiple highly anticipated horror films pulled from theaters thanks to the pandemic--Candyman, Saint Maud, and Halloween Kills, to name a few--2020 still saw a surprising amount of exceptional genre outings. We got not one, not two, but three A+ horror anthologies. We got stories that absolutely wrecked us. We got new types of tales revolving around pandemic life. Hell, we even kicked off the year with an epic aquatic horror adventure in Underwater, and then followed it up with a few more deep sea terrors. Fresh, exciting voices emerged, with more than a handful of directors releasing debut features that blew our minds.
The horror genre had a hell of a year, and I had a hell of a time narrowing down a top ten list.
Below, you'll find my ten favorites of the year. These are just my selections, and in a year that was loaded with great content, we probably have some different opinions. That's good. That's how it's supposed to be. And I want to hear from you if you have different picks! Life would be boring if we all agreed!
Enjoy and happy soon to be death to 2020!
THE BELOW ARE IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER
Color Out of Space
Whoever said that January is nothing but a dumping month for studios looking to unload bad movies? I’ve always thought the idea was a bunch of BS, and 2020 proved it with the return of Richard Stanley (Hardware) and his phenomenal adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space. I fell in love the moment I laid eyes on this purple, ooey gooey creature feature.
It’s impossible not to love Nicolas Cage screaming about alpacas as he loses his mind over the strange force that is spreading through his family’s farm. Inevitable Nic Cage GIFs aside, Color Out of Space also offers up an incredibly emotional story about loss and acceptance, and as someone who lost someone not long ago to cancer, I can say Stanley’s film offers just as much healing power as it does queasy body horror.
The Dark and the Wicked
I bet if I did a survey, at least fifty percent of you would rave about The Strangers and how scary it is. I would agree. The nihilistic message of “because you were home” is endlessly chilling. But if you thought that was scary, wait until you see director Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked, which I’m confident in saying is his masterpiece.
In a year that has featured so many great scares, no film has gotten under my skin quite like The Dark and the Wicked. The premise of a family that is stalked by an evil presence simply because, as Bertino has said, “it can smell blood in the water” (as mentioned by star Marin Ireland on the blu-ray), is absolutely terrifying. Everything, from the prickling sound design to the shadow-filled cinematography is executed perfectly. It won’t leave you in the best of moods, but it might make you think, you know, maybe I should call that family member I haven’t talked to in a while before a demon rips their soul out. Just a thought.
There was a lot of great but grim horror this year. But there were also films like Freaky keeping us full of life while everything else burned around us. This Freaky Friday twist in which Kathryn Newton switches bodies with a Jason Voorhees-like Vince Vaughn is a purely unabashed love letter to slasher films and 90s horror. It plays like director Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day, but with all the gore of an 80s horror film, and it is a bloody blast. Newton and Vaughn are having the time of their lives in the roles, and it shows.
More important than an endless rewatchability, this fun horror comedy also features one of the most important moments of the year with an onscreen kiss that is vital for those who have struggled with their sexuality and need more moments of seeing themselves positively in film. And don’t even get me started on how badly we need more teen horror like this for younger fans.
Freaky slayed me.
I don’t think there was a hotter horror film than director Rob Savage's Host this year. Deservedly so, because this was the only film in 2020 to keep me up at night flinching at every noise thinking there was a goddamn demon in my apartment! Luckily it was just a goddamn earthquake instead, but still!
Made entirely in quarantine, this spooky flick about a group of friends who invite a demon into their lives through a virtual séance gone wrong doesn’t offer much in the way of “plot”, but sometimes it’s best not to let too much plot get in the way of a good scare, and that’s exactly what Host is. A straight forward, nail-biting barrage of terror with performances that feel real and inventive techniques that budding filmmakers will probably be imitating for years.
I have a feeling that when all is said and done, no matter which films are considered “better”, Host is going to be that horror flick we all remember as the one that defined the terror of living in 2020.
The Invisible Man
One of the greatest gifts that a film can give to us is the gift of an experience, where we get to live through the eyes of another and see or feel things we might not in our day to day lives. The thing is, that experience isn’t always a pleasant one. Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man came out of the gates swinging, landing a solid punch that put us all in the shoes of a woman terrorized by a man representing the very concept of toxic masculinity and abuse. This stunning remake brilliantly adapted the classic H.G. Wells story into something powerful and utterly frightening that left me looking over my shoulder and staring at the seat next to me, wondering, what if someone is sitting there?
Whannell uses wide spaces focused on Elisabeth Moss (who delivers a breathtaking performance) to make her feel more vulnerable to an attacker that could emerge at any moment, and it could not be more nerve-wracking. This film is relentless in its discomfort, and more than effective at riddling the audience with anxiety. My wife couldn’t go three minutes without squealing. Combine that with Whannell’s adept style and jaw-dropping cinematography, and I’d even go so far as to say that this is the best Invisible Man movie. Period.
The Mortuary Collection
This anthology has convinced me that if we ever get a Phantasm remake, it’s Clancy Brown as the Tall Man or bust. If you’ve seen it, you know why. Clancy’s role as a funeral home director in this impressive feature directorial debut from Ryan Spindell reeks of Tall Man vibes, to the point where I was just waiting for him to shout “Giiiirrrrlllll” at curious co-star Sam (Caitlin Custer) as he reviles her with scary tales about the corpses lying about the house.
The Mortuary Collection is a film that bleeds spooky October atmosphere and revels in the value of stories. As Brown’s character Montgomery says at one point, it’s not the length of the tale, but the quality, and The Mortuary Collection is pure quality. Every tale in the film, no matter the length, is unique, chilling, and one of them even offers a top five kill of the year. Spindell’s debut comes off like a polished horror veteran, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
In the case of legendary director David Cronenberg and his son, Brandon Cronenberg, it’s a tale of like father like son, because Brandon has solidified himself as a visionary with his explosive sci-fi horror mind fuck, Possessor. Pardon the Cronenbergian pun, but this film is mind-blowing. Following an agent who works for a company that inhabits people’s bodies and uses them to commit assassinations, Possessor in some ways both feels inspired by and is a homage to David’s work, but with Brandon’s own sensibilities prevalent throughout, and it’s all done masterfully.
To think that this is only the second feature from Brandon is astounding. The growth for Brandon between Antiviral and Possessor is tremendous. The performances are mesmerizing. The violence is gruesome. The imagery is stunning. Possessor is a film that truly possesses its audience and takes them on a weird, unforgettable ride, and to say it’s one of the best of the year is an understatement. It is the best.
Speaking of fresh faces on the genre scene, Natalie Erika James made her feature debut this year with Relic and served up one of the hardest hitting knockouts of 2020. A vague story in which a mother and her daughter try to help their grandmother as she declines due to dementia and potentially another evil residing in the house, Relic is the sort of beautiful but heart-wrenching story that lives breathing in your mind long after it’s over. I’ve witnessed how ravaging of a disease dementia is in my own great grandmother, and Erika James captures the helpless feeling of watching it’s destruction with painful accuracy, all of it complimented by superb performances, especially a devastating portrayal from Robyn Nevin as the afflicted Edna.
Relic isn’t just a pinch on the heart though. It’s also a festering pit of atmosphere that infects the viewer and puts us into the rotting mind of Edna. I can’t watch Relic without feeling a sinking sense of dread and existential terror, and that’s it's unforgettable power. For a relatively quiet film, it has sat screaming in my mind for months.
When you watch an ungodly amount of new films every year—at least one a day, in my case—it takes a lot for something to stand out. So whenever a film snaps me out of my monotonous haze and gets me to sit up like a goddamn respectable adult, I pay attention. Scare Me, the unique horror anthology from Josh Ruben (making his directorial debut), did exactly that.
Following a pair of strangers who tell each other scary stories while waiting out a power outage, Scare Me is an exercise in minimalist filmmaking, and presents an anthology unlike any existence. The film still gives us various stories, and monsters, and ghosts, but in this case, stories are developed and manipulated through sound as our characters perform for one another, pulling us into the world of different stories while all taking place in the same space of the claustrophobic cabin.
Because of its minimalist style and near complete lack of any actual monsters/effects, Scare Me probably won’t hook everyone, but for those who enjoy the power of actors, well-written dialogue and filmic ingenuity, Scare Me is one of this year’s best, accomplishing a lot with a little.
While I wouldn’t call it the “best” film on the list, I can guarantee you that the film I’ll be revisiting most often from 2020 is creators Aaron B. Koontz and Cameron Burns' Scare Package. Not because it’s the scariest. Not because it’s the most well made. But because it’s the most shamelessly ludicrous, twisty, bloody, entertaining as hell horror film of the year!
This horror anthology centers around video store Rad Chad’s emporium, where we’re introduced to various meta horror stories that poke fun at the genre not with malice, but with pure love. Every one of the filmmakers involved in Scare Package has a passion for the genre, and it shows through a parade of hilarious references and homages that put a twist on the tropes we all know so well. Between werewolves, goo-people, unstoppable killers, and the unmatched energy of Rad Chad (Jeremy King), Scare Package may well make it onto my desert island list of movies that I could never quit, no matter how hard I tried. No film captured the gory fun of 80s horror better than this in 2020.
The appearance of horror icon Joe Bob Briggs is just the icing on the cake that cements the film as what will likely become a cult classic for years to come.
By Matt Konopka