It’s been a difficult year for films as some frankly incredible cinematic entries compete for attention between a vast array of streaming services and theaters beset by waves of closures and viral variants. At the same time, challenging times are often great inspirations for horror. It should thus be no surprise that the year has also seen some truly incredible additions to the horror canon, movies which experiment, shock, and successfully pull at our heart strings. Amazing films that clearly have something to say. Stunning antagonists, rich struggles, and incredible monsters—all the things that make horror great. Here are ten of the year’s best horror films.
10. In The Earth (dir. Ben Wheatley)
In The Earth takes place in the context of a world beset by a massive pandemic. Two researchers set off to a research site deep in the Arborial Forest, before finding their camp ransacked. They find evident help from a local man living off the grid, and eventually discover that something woefully wrong happened during the former research expedition, and its all connected to a stone at the forest’s center that has something oddly mystical about it. Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia deliver excellent performances in a film with a larger than life premise and some high concept horror vibes. At times you feel the limits of budget and the real life pandemic they shot within, but Wheatley gets credit here for largely pulling off a high concept horror entry under unenviable conditions.
9. Antlers (dir. Scott Cooper)
Julia Meadows (a wonderful Keri Russell) returns to the small town of Cispus Falls, Oregon, settling in as a local teacher and living with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons, also great). The pair survived a terrible childhood until Julia left, so her return is both welcome and bittersweet. Her childhood has made her particularly attuned to signs of abuse, however, so when young Lucas Weaver (a wonderful Jeremy T. Thomas) begins to show the signs, she takes notice. Complicating situations is the fact that he’s begun to draw monsters, and no one has seen his father in some time. Antlers boasts gorgeous cinematography and one of the absolutely best creature designs in recent years, alongside some impressive central performances. It muddies some of its most interesting themes, but altogether Antlers is still an impressive horror entry altogether.
8. Gaia (dir. Jaco Bouwer)
Gabi (a charismatic Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) both work for South Africa’s forestry service, travelling along a river deep into the heart of the Tsitsikamma forest. Gabi walks off-path to retrieve a drone, soon finding herself under attack by two men, a survivalist and his young son, whose mysterious faith puts them in a deep and odd relationship with a force in the woods. They’re all at threat by a menace of a very different stripe, something that could change our very relationship with nature. Gaia boasts strong performances, a massive menace with a big impact, and incredible tension throughout. The realization of the threat in question, namely its effects on human bodies, is one of the most haunting images of the year in ANY horror entry.
7. Candyman (dir. Nia DaCosta)
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) lives with his art gallery partner Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) in Chicago. He finds himself faced with a creative block in deciding his next exhibit, so Anthony turns to a local legend for inspiration: the strange happenings at Cabrini-Green and the legend of the Candyman. He becomes obsessed, and soon strange killings occur that resemble the Candyman attacks of old. Anthony discovers that the legend is much more real, and more complex, than we’ve been led to believe. It’s a visually stunning and well-performed evolution of a classic horror property, one that spins it into much larger and more contemporary directions. It’s harrowing and wonderful, and easily one of the best horror entries this year.
6. Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau)
Many films this year were good but few were an absolutely novel experience… Titane is one of them. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has a titanium plate in her head following a childhood car accident (of which she’s a contributing factor). As an adult, she’s a showgirl by day with a less than legal hobby by night. After a particularly harrowing night, she comes home and has sex with a car. Soon afterwards her illegal nocturnal habit sends her on the run from the authorities, and Alexia ends up on the run and pretending to be Adrien, the long-lost son of a local fire captain, while she deals with having been impregnated by said car. It’s a stunning film you really can’t predict, and there’s nothing like it. A definite must-see.
5. Come True (dir. Anthony Scott Burns)
Sara Dunn (Julia Sarah Stone) can’t sleep. Nightmares. Visions of a surreal, frightening world surrounding a darkened figure with bright, haunting eyes. She participates in a sleep study working to explain a set of nightmarish phenomena, and everyone gets so much more than they bargain for. Ok, this is a controversial one on account of a challenging ending. There are many points at which you can slice it where you get a different interpretation, which is exciting and adds considerable nuance to the film. Julia Sarah Stone is excellent and raw as the mysterious Sara, and the film’s nightmare logic–and the threat at its center–becomes more menacing to great effect as it goes along. Most central of all, however, is that the film’s surreal dream landscapes are terrifying and magnificent throughout. A can’t miss experience overall.
4. Censor (dir. Prano Bailey-Bond)
Enid Baines (an incredible Naimh Algar) is a mid-1980’s British censor working in the middle of the Video Nasty controversy. She’s one of their strictest censors, obsessed with removing violence, and we soon discover her younger sister went missing when the two were children. Meanwhile, a man ends up killing his family, and that unfortunate crime becomes linked to a film Enid had approved. When a controversial horror director reaches out, it leads to a tangled web of experiences while Enid’s mind comes under increasing stress. Even in a year so full of spectacular horror entries, Censor is a wonderful, complex, and novel journey into the mind of a woman unraveled. It’s something truly special.
3. Lamb (dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson)
Trying to define the genre of Lamb is a fool’s errand. It’s a drama, it’s a fantasy, it’s horror, it’s many things… it’s probably best to imagine it as the cinematic equivalent of an old European folk tale. A couple who lost their child to a terrible tragedy find a strange, inexplicable newborn on their farm, one that brings their family together before giving them a truly horrific experience. Lamb definitely doesn’t feel like a standard horror film, but the film boasts novel body horror elements and an ending that… just watch it. It’s gorgeous, well performed, and it fully feels like a beautiful yet unsettling dream.
2. The Night House (dir. David Bruckner)
David Bruckner’s The Night House, based on an original screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, is a stunner. Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a grieving widow living in a large, open, sterile house following the death of her husband. She starts having frightening supernatural experiences she can’t explain, and in her investigation she discovers that he had some inexplicable occult ties… things are not what they seemed. It’s a gorgeous, tense, high concept film (honestly, the premise is absolutely terrifying cosmic horror insanity if you really think about it), anchored by a stunning and emotive performance by Rebecca Hall. Altogether, The Night House is a great, mysterious film with a very novel horror concept at its heart.
1. Werewolves Within (dir. Josh Ruben)
I’ve always been a big fan of both werewolf films AND whodunits, so a werewolf whodunit is precisely my speed as long as it’s good… and it really, really is. Werewolves Within follows Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson), a forest ranger who moves to Beaverfield to survey the consequences of a controversial pipeline. He meets charming postal worker Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub), who gives him the lay of the land until a blizzard overtakes the town and traps everyone in a local lodge.
With everyone trapped together it would be extremely inconvenient if a werewolf attack were to happen and everyone had to figure out who the werewolf was… and of course, that’s what happens. A solid horror comedy is hard to pull off… nearly impossible, in fact, which is why the number of great ones is so notably small. This is on that list. It’s funny, the werewolf horror lands, the whodunit mystery is well written, and Richardson and Vayntrub are exceptional. It’s hands down one of the most fun films of the year.
1. Midnight Mass (dir. Mike Flanagan) (*tied, and also not a film)
Okay, I’m cheating. Midnight Mass is clearly a Netflix limited series and not a film… so why is it on this list? Quite simply, it’s one of the year’s most emotionally and thematically rich (alongside most frightening) works of horror of the year in any medium. Troubled protagonist Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) heads home to Crockett Island after completing his sentence for a tragic drunk driving accident (for which he was very much at fault). Soon after we meet Father Paul (an exceptional Hamish Linklater), a young face replacing the town’s former priest after the latter’s trip to Damascus. We discover that, like many horror entries, something isn’t quite right with Father Paul, and something dangerous has befallen the tiny, isolated island.
Midnight Mass is an ambitious, emotional, adeptly written and performed entry in the horror canon that takes huge swings and asks big questions, somehow managing to land them all. Its central threat is frightening, it makes the viewer think about Big Picture questions like death, faith, redemption, and one’s place in the Universe… it’s incredible, frightening, and moving all at once, and I couldn’t imagine making a best-of horror list without its presence… so here we are.