And so we enter the final stretch of the most sacred month in the horror calendar. We hope you haven’t yet had your fill of frights, because here, in no particular order, is the final instalment of our rundown of the 31 best horror films released this year.
Based around the traditional Latin American legend of the Weeping Woman, Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona juxtaposes supernatural chills with real world horrors. Guatemalan general Enrique (Julio Diaz) escapes prosecution for war crimes only to find himself haunted in his own home by the sound of a woman’s sobs. Under siege by protestors in his palatial mansion, the general soon comes to realise that the deadlier threat lies within the walls of his home. The real-life brutality of Guatemalan genocide plays off against far more subtle horror tropes, the latter adding a mournful edge to the senselessness of mass political violence. The drama that unfolds explores the possibility of restorative justice and vibrates with righteous anger.
A cracking monster movie with an unexpectedly gripping political thriller at its heart, Monstrum draws a lot of comparison with The Host. While it may not quite have the satirical edge of that film, Monstrum’s central creature still stands as an interesting allegory of political corruption and environmental degradation. At a time when plague ravaged the land, and reports of a giant monster are creating a nationwide panic, King Jungjong sends for a disgraced former general to find out if the monster is real or merely a fabrication by one of his political rivals. Monstrum has a surprising historical pedigree, being based on actual contemporary historical documents from the 16th century Joseon Dynasty. With its mixture of political intrigue and monster mayhem, Monstrum is an enigmatic and engaging beast.
Sure to be remembered as one of the standout films of 2020, and the horror lens through which we view a lot of the events that have happened this year, Host was our first horror film to be conceived and shot entirely in lockdown. A group of friends are having a drink on Zoom and decide to host a séance. When one of the friends gets bored and decides to play a prank on the others, she inadvertently opens a doorway to something truly malevolent. It’s an endearingly simple setup, but the performances are so strong and naturalistic (and the situation so recognisable for pretty much everyone who saw it) that it effortlessly draws you in.
We’ve had films set on computer interfaces before (Unfriended being the most obvious example), but none have quite nailed the feel of those online interactions quite as well as Host. With a lean runtime, Host doesn’t outstay its welcome, delivering a plethora of expertly crafted scares in a gruelling barrage.
In an age of societal atomisation and housing insecurity, 1BR asks: how far would you go for a sense of community? A young woman moves into an apartment block in Los Angeles. It’s home to a welcoming group of residents, but there are strange sounds coming from the walls, and a neighbour with an eyepatch is giving her some uneasy vibes. The set-up is generic horror fodder, and we were prepared to zone out for the remainder of the screening, but once the true nature of the horror is revealed, 1BR becomes a different beast entirely. The block is actually home to a utopian cult, who will go to any lengths to maintain social cohesion among the residents.
Playing to our current obsession with brainwashing and group control, the film’s most shocking moments are not in the gory punishments that he cultists mete out. Instead, the frank depiction of how mental indoctrination takes place is where the true horror resides. No physical trauma on screen here is as unsettling as the sense of the individual being broken down and personalities being abandoned to become cogs in a nightmarish utopian machine.
Come To Daddy
Generational divides can be tricky to navigate, but are rarely as tense as in this genre-defying oddity. Elijah Woods‘ character is a privileged man-child with a haircut that screams Brooklyn hipster so loudly it probably has its own blog about kale. He comes to his father’s secluded beachside cabin to reconnect with him after 30 years apart. Not only is his father hostile and openly contemptuous of his DJ son, but he has a sordid and violent criminal history that is about to catch up with them. Veering wildly between genres and tones, from low-key indie comedy to Grindhouse gorefest and back, is quite a feat of brinkmanship. First-time director Ant Timpson proves that he is more than up to the challenge, however. While it doesn’t always hang together as a cohesive whole, Come To Daddy is a white-knuckle ride.
This British offering was a much-needed shot in the arm for the flagging possession sub-genre. In fact, the film is arguably an anti-possession narrative. A young woman (Morfydd Clark) has been hired to care for a terminal cancer patient (Jennifer Ehle). Her role is dull, and the decaying town of Scarborough provides a dreary backdrop. But soon she is falling into rapturous states, states that can be wonderful, almost orgasmic, but also terrifying. She believes that she is being visited by God, but this is proper old testament stuff: a version of God that is too terrible to behold, much less be contained within a fragile human frame. Her body begins to contort and transform, leading to some of the most shocking body horror sequences 2020 had to offer. Like The Exorcist, and unlike so many of its imitators, Saint Maud is a real exploration of faith and self-sacrifice. It also focuses on the relationship between depressive self harm and religious flagellation, and the material and spiritual worlds.
Someone somewhere is thinking of writing an extended essay on why so many big horror titles in 2020 have centred around caring for the elderly and particularly end of life care. We’re stumped if we know, but Relic, alongside Saint Maud, Amulet and The Dark and The Wicked, is absolutely one of the true standout movies to come out this year. Three generations of women are brought together when the widowed family matriarch disappears. The family pile is a decrepit, crumbling house infested with a black mold, and strange notes seem to indicate that the missing woman was convinced that dark forces were haunting her. When she reappears, she is far from well. However, is it simply her dementia influencing her bizarre behaviour, or is there something more sinister going on? Like Hereditary, Relic expertly weaves supernatural elements into what is, at heart, a harrowing family drama about loss. Director Natalie Erika James is brilliant at finding the unsettling in the mundane, and the film is a deeply unnerving experience, juxtaposing the real life of losing a loved one to dementia against cunningly executed scares.
Boasting a truly terrifying opening sequence, this Malaysian folk horror was one of the breakout hits on Shudder this year. Two young women travel to a rural village hoping that one of them has family inheritance to claim. As is usually the case, the inheritance proves to be a little bit more than she bargained for. Director Joko Anwar is expert at conjuring the kind of creeping distrust and isolation that is integral to these “city dwellers in the countryside” tales. The village is under a horrifying curse, and the villagers will go to any lengths to lift it. Like all folk horror, Impetigore draws its terrors from the landscape and the alienating otherness of local folk customs. In this case, sumptuous visuals capture the intimidating, hazy density of jungle foliage. Meanwhile, traditional puppet shows add that all-important local flavour to this tale of tragedy and terror.
The Invisible Man
While Universal repeatedly fail to get their ill-fated cinematic universe off the ground, Leigh Wannell proves that it’s not the iconic monsters that are important – it’s the stories you tell with them. Elizabeth Moss is captivating as Cecilia, a woman who flees from her abusive husband in the middle of the night. He is an expert in optics, developing the ability to be completely invisible through the use of a sophisticated suit (an ingenious bit of production design that both looks somewhat feasible and has the added bonus of completely terrifying anyone with trypophobia). The invisible man terrorises her, destroying her relationships with those closest to her and eventually driving her into a mental institution. It’s an expert metaphor for the lasting scars that emotional abuse can leave, and a takedown of society’s failure to believe women about their abusers.
Color Out of Space
The news that Richard Stanley was returning to filmmaking was greeted by genre fans with rapturous applause. The news that his latest project was an adaptation of the most unfilmable of Lovecraft’s famously unfilmable stories from the team that brought us Mandy pretty much drove us insane. The resulting experience is as explosively psychedelic as you might expect. A meteorite crashes into a farm owned by a couple of ex-hippies and their children. One of the children is a practicing witch, because this film is directed by Richard Stanley. The meteorite soon has the family trapped in its glowing tendrils, remaking all that it touches according to a strange, terrifying and weirdly beautiful design. Like Mandy, this is a real head trip, but with enough B-movie grit to keep you engaged.
Is there a monster more terrifying than entitled, mediocre white men who want to be writers? This deconstructed anthology film is a fun romp with a biting satirical edge. The set-up is as conventional as they come. Two people are in an isolated cabin in the woods and decide to pass the time by telling each other scary stories. One is a staggeringly successful horror novelist and one is a hack without two original ideas to rub together. Instead of this dynamic being the framing narrative for a series of shorts, the film instead has the two writers act out each story, providing only sound effects and lighting to enhance their effects. The two writers provide some incisive commentary on stale horror tropes, but the tension really mounts as Fred (Josh Ruben) allows his rage and frustration at Fanny (Aya Cash) to bubble over. Her successes throw his failures into sharp relief, and his fragile masculinity threatens to get the better of him.