Better late than never...
...2021 was overflowing with great horror releases, and as a result, I've been losing my mind in trying to narrow down a list of just ten picks for the best of the year. But here I am, a week into 2022, and I can finally present the below list of films that have been living in my brain rent free. 2021 saw a wide variety of horror. Werewolves howled during what was dubbed "The Year of the Werewolf". Folk Horror found new roots. R.L. Stine came back into our collective conscious in a big way. Both a nostalgia for the 90s and giallo coursed through the veins of the year, and horror indulged in the mad, the surreal, and the neon of it all.
Below is my list of what I enjoyed most. Keep in mind, these are just my favorites, so if you don't see one of your picks here, skip writing me hate mail and be glad that horror is so strong right now that we all have different lists of equally great frights!
With that, here are my top ten horror films of 2021, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
(Note: While I try to see everything, and I mean everything in horror, there were still a few I missed this year including Nightmare Alley and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, so if you're shocked either of those aren't included, that's why)
Best Documentary - Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
Directed by: Kier-La Janisse
Well-crafted and incredibly informative, Kier-La Janisse's Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is easily the best documentary of the year and a vital treasure trove of knowledge for fans of folk horror. Janisse’s list is so comprehensive, that even those who consider themselves well-versed on the subject will find themselves discovering titles that feel mystical in having eluded them for so long. Everything you’ve ever wanted to learn about folk horror, its origins and its impact on culture is in this documentary which somehow feels too short at just over three hours. Janisse takes us all around the world to cast light on this sometimes cruel, always enlightening sub-genre and how cultures everywhere deal with similar horrors. Folk horror is having a bit of a renaissance lately between 2021 offerings such as The Feast and In the Earth, and I can’t imagine a better symbol of our re-kindled fascination with folk horror than Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.
Honorable Mention - The Fear Street Trilogy
Directed by: Leigh Janiak
It would be unfair for the Fear Street trilogy as a whole to take a spot on the list below, and I didn’t find any one out of the three to be quite worthy of making the list on its own, but together? Leigh Janiak’s back to back to back release of the Fear Street series on Netflix was one of the most exciting horror events of 2021. Based on R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books, his more adult line of horror stories, none of us were prepared for just how brutal this tale of a group of kids who uncover the legend of a witch named Sarah Fier (Elizabeth Scopel) and other horrors in their small town would be. 1994, 1978, 1666…all of them hit, and they hit hard. Part of that’s thanks to well-written, queer characters who bring us into their horror through a lens that frames their love similarly to how the Church demonized and condemned women through witchcraft. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s tragic, but the series as a whole is also so goddamn fun. Each plays into their nostalgic periods with near perfection, the needle drops are complete bangers, and I’m not sure any kill has topped a certain someone’s introduction to a bread slicer. Fear Street cast a spell on many of us, and it’s no surprise that fans are already hoping more entries are brewing.
Directed by: Steven Kostanski
I’m a sucker for rubber suit monster movies, and writer/director Steven Kostanski’s Psycho Goreman is the hunkiest boy I’ve seen in years. At a time where we’ve been dealing with a pandemic and an overwhelming sense of everything is fucked, PG was a bloody bright spot of over-the-top gore, larger than life characters, and practical creature effects galore, washed head to toe in 90s nostalgia. Within this story of an insane monster of a child (Nita-Josee Hanna) who acquires a gem that controls an ancient being with literal mind-melting power, Kostanski set out to make the kind of movie we’d sneak behind our parents backs at sleepovers and crushed that goal the way PG crushes bones into dust. This movie is pure, silly joy. Where else can you see an epic battle between two monsters...playing dodgeball? I have no doubt that I’ll be revisiting this gory slice of pure entertainment more than anything else on this list for years to come.
Directed by: Prano Bailey-Bond
There’s just something about film editing and psychological horror that goes so well together. The Editor, Evil Ed and Berberian Sound Studio are all brilliant examples, and now Prano Bailey-Bond’s stunning debut feature, Censor, can be added to that list. I’d even go as far as to say it’s the best of them all. Centered around the Video Nasty era and a woman named Enid (Niamh Algar) who finds herself lost in the grotesque horror of the pictures she edits every day, Censor is a riveting descent into madness that perfectly captures the period it aims to recreate, right down to the grainy picture, colorful neon, and eerie synth score. Bailey-Bond seamlessly converges Enid’s reality and sub-conscious in such a way that it’s near impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t, making Censor the kind of surreal nightmare you love to get lost in. Not to mention, a finale that I’m certain is going to haunt me for a long, long time.
Directed by: James Wan
Psycho Goreman wasn’t the only horror flick to capture the buttered popcorn taste of the 90s. James Wan’s Malignant, a film about a woman (Annabelle Wallis) who forms a psychic link with a killer, plays out like a Dark Castle picture meets Stephen King’s The Dark Half blended together with Wan’s own take on Giallo, and the blood red concoction is one I couldn’t get enough of. The plot is nonsensical. The acting is at times laughable. And I nearly lost my damn mind when Sydney (Maddie Hasson) parked at the edge of that cliff by the asylum. The absurdity of it all is the point, and it’s what makes Malignant so wonderfully charming. Malignant is Wan letting loose and having fun (look no further than a killer caught in Matrix-esque battles with the police). Is it the “best” movie of the year? No. But is it entertaining? Oh hell yes. Look for this one to get another look and earn its place as a cult classic in the years to come.
Directed by: Nia DaCosta
With her first feature horror film, Nia DaCosta has already hooked into horror fans with her sumptuous sequel to the 1992 Candyman. Every frame of DaCosta’s Candyman is honey for the eyes. Just as the film’s protagonist painter Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), DaCosta paints a portrait of the pain that exists in the black community, while taking the lore of Candyman back for that same community and giving it an extraordinary power. The passion poured into this film from every angle buzzes all throughout, deafening. The marionette puppet sequence by itself is stunning. No wonder it's my pick for the most visually beautiful horror film of 2021. Artfully crafted, deeply moving, and utterly terrifying in the all too real horror it presents onscreen, DaCosta’s Candyman is quite simply a masterpiece that stands out from the original with its own unique reflection.
Directed by: Julia Ducournau
Between Raw and now Titane, Julia Ducournau has established herself as a unique talent that attacks your senses with a vicious style. Following Alexia (Agathe Rousselle in a, er, raw performance), a model by day and a killer/car enthusiast in ways you can’t even imagine by night, Titane is not for the faint of heart. Drenched in colorful neon, this film is simultaneously a beautiful and ugly experience that takes viewers on a wild, weird journey unlike anything you’ve ever seen. There is a rage to Titane that roars like a V8 engine and rattles you to the core. While this film is a flavor that requires a very specific taste and maybe a little bit of gluttony for punishment, it’s one I won’t soon forget. I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll never look at my car’s gear shift the same.
Directed by: Josh Ruben
You all know I have a deep affection for werewolf movies, and in the so-called “Year of the Werewolf,” Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within was the lycanthropic gem of them all. Within a year where division has torn us apart and the near-term future stinks like a wet dog, Ruben unleashed this howling good time and gave us a bit of warmth in all of the darkness through this tale of a small-town that finds themselves possibly snowed in with a werewolf. On the surface Werewolve’s Within is a delightful horror comedy with a witty script from Mishna Wolff and a cast with pitch-perfect chemistry, but underneath is a meaningful film about kindness, understanding, and not letting that beast of hatred consume us. Do I have a bias love of werewolves? Yes. Is Werewolves Within still one of the most important horror films of the year because of the message, laughter and all around joy it transformed us with for an all too brief ninety minutes? You bet, neighbor.
Directed by: Simon Barrett, Steven Kostanski, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder and Timo Tjahjanto
Remember that Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle running joke with the guys who always shout “EXTREME” at the top of their lungs, eyes bugged out and veins bulging as if they’re about to overdose on Monster energy drinks? That’s the vibe of V/H/S/94 in a clamshell. Extreme gore. Extreme creatures. Extreme insanity. Extreme everything. The franchise has always proudly touted itself as that intense horror geared towards those of us that love our movies mean and nasty, and V/H/S/94 may be the meanest and nastiest of them all. Each segment delivers thrills and chills from a talented team of directors allowed to let loose and get their hands dirty. Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” is already the stuff of legend (Hail Raatma), and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more satisfyingly bonkers horror short this year than Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject”. Love it or hate it, V/H/S/94 is an energetic compilation of nightmares that makes you want to immediately rewind and watch it again.
The Night House
Directed by: David Bruckner
Did director David Bruckner, along with writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski slam the most poignant film of 2021 centered around loss into our collective guts? That’s always debatable, but for me, The Night House was 2021’s Hereditary. Following Rebecca Hall as a woman who begins to discover the secrets her recently deceased husband was hiding, The Night House is a devastating free-fall into terror. Nearly every moment of The Night House hurts, and in a year filled with so much loss, it was one of those films that captured that despair in a way that felt relatable, thanks to a powerful performance from Hall that portrays grief in a way that is painfully palpable. I was already excited for Bruckner’s Hellraiser, but The Night House is the film that proves he’s the right man to open the box again.
Last Night in SoHo
Directed by: Edgar Wright
We toss out the word “visionary” like shitty beer at a frat party, but Edgar Wright is truly that, and Last Night in SoHo is the horror film I’d always hoped he’d make. Elegant, tragic, and hauntingly beautiful, this tale of an aspiring fashion designer who moves into a new place and finds herself inhabiting the body of a woman from the 60s while she’s dreaming (both played brilliantly by Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, respectively), has Wright firing on all cylinders. The music is magnetic. The noir-inspired imagery is dripping with neon and a sinister beauty (lots of neon this year). And the core theme of a burning female rage screams loudly across decades. Part fairy-tale, part noir ghost story, Last Night in SoHo was one of the most stunning pieces of art I laid eyes on this year.
The Last Matinee
Directed by: Maximiliano Contenti
Are there “better” horror movies from 2021 than Maximiliano Contenti’s Neo-giallo gorefest The Last Matinee? Sure, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this film about a killer that loves to behold (and eat) eyeballs while stalking a movie theater hits every mark for what I’ve been craving from the genre lately. Playing out like a modern version of Anguish (1987) with inspirations from the likes of Argento and Bava, The Last Matinee would make the Italian masters proud. Contenti paints the screen red with bloody, eye-popping kills while commenting on the magic of the filmgoing experience and the frustration in having it interrupted by rude viewers. Each and every scene is dripping with a sinister atmosphere. The Last Matinee may also low-key be one of the best shot horror films of the year, in which Contenti infuses the scene with subtle background colors and a blaring neon that creates a surreal sense while also keeping the film grounded and frightening. The Last Matinee is one of the most vicious, stylish, all around fun horror flicks of 2021 that indulges in a rising nostalgia for Giallo, which I can fully get behind.
By Matt Konopka