2020 as a whole has been a historic horror show, but which actual horror movies were the best? I’ve seen quite a few, and I reckon there are 50 horrors that I can recommend. First a top 20, and then a Best of the Rest.
What counts as a “2020 film”? Easy – anything that’s newly released that I saw for the first time this year.
What counts as a “horror”? Anything that felt like one, to me – from unsettling quasi-psychotic tales and gory stalker-thrillers to spooks, zombies, technological nightmares, frenzied murderous pursuits and melancholy tales of the hauntingly unknowable.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Pure Kaufman, existential dread meets epic-yet-hollow romanticism that’s happy to let the audience do the work; boasts a bravura performance from Jessie Buckley, and dreamy cultural references for days. A haunting horror of interiorisation and its collapse; of how the impossibility of knowing even yourself, let alone others, may make love an illusion. Plus: gags!
- Possessor. Dehumanising, derealising, incompatable with a family life… welcome to ‘work’ where you’re just not you any more. Amazing performance from Andrea Riseborough (simply remarkable in a scene where her character rehearses her small talk and indeed her very persona in front of her family home). Incredible FX too – stunning!
- The Invisible Man. Elizabeth Moss (superb) vs the stalker from hell. The best use of negative space and the best mainstream horror set-pieces of the year: the scene in the kitchen, the scene in the attic, and of course that scene in the restaurant. Grabs you by the neck from the opening scene.
- Black Bear. The first US indie I’ve seen to really wear its unabashed Hong Sang-soo influences on its sleeve; this faintly nightmarish relationship thriller takes a hard destabilizing swerve in the second half. The best Audrey Plaza has ever been. And another entry in the top 2 (with Possessor) for Christopher Abbott, here wonderfully toxic.
- Survival Skills. More de-realisation and fracturing reality, here in the initially cheery story of a Officer Jim’s (Vayu O’Donnell) first year in the Middletown Police Force. The conceit of the tale playing out as an instructional VHS tape is a masterstroke. Favourite moment – Officer Jim’s girlfriend, Jenny (Tyra Colar), telling him about her dream…
- His House. Remi Weekes’ masterful debut in which two recent immigrants to the UK are haunted by their past, by the spectre of deportation, and ultimately by a terrifying force out to harvest their souls. Incredible mastery of tone, setting, and staging. The one border you can’t police is the one between the living and the dead.
- Host. One of the great found footage horrors, and probably the great pandemic lockdown horror. Probably the greatest “screen” horror too – and I really liked Unfriended. This is better. A home run for creators Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley, and the entire cast.
- Run. A glorious throwback to the paranoid rollercoaster thrillers of the early 90s, lifting from Stephen King, Brian De Palma and countless domestic jump-scare mysteries from The Hand That Rocks The Cradle to Sleeping With The Enemy. Enormous fun, with Sarah Paulson on fire (not literally).
- Av: The Hunt. Almost feels like a rape-revenge movie in reverse – in contemporary Turkey, a woman is hunted by a pack of men, led by her husband, looking for revenge on her for her perfectly consensual (albeit adulterous) relationship. Once in the woods, it all goes a little bit First Blood. This one really stuck with me.
- The Dark and the Wicked. Just an all-round classic combination of ominous slow-burn dread and supernatural jump-scare feature, with a gorgeous modern A24-style rural aesthetic. As the family gathers at the homestead to oversee the dying days of their father, the distracted mother correctly warns them: “you shouldn’t have come.”
- Reunion. Another case of familial trauma unearthed upon a return to the family home, in this excellent New Zealand spook-tale. This one emphasises the tension between pregnant daughter Emma Draper and controlling mum Julia Ormond, but as increasingly intrusive memories and visions of a sister start to build, the film takes a sudden shift into the deranged.
- Jallikattu. A kind of action thriller about the competitive battle amongst macho Indian villagers to recapture an escaped bull, which takes a magnificent swerve into the horror realm in the final act.
- Gretel and Hansel. Oz Perkins’ takes a swing at a feminist deconstruction of the Hansel and Gretel fable. Absolutely beautiful.
- Relic. Another case of intergenerational trauma retriggered by a return home. Emily Mortimer and (especially) Bella Heathcoate are very good indeed. There’s wonderful House of Leaves vibes to this one.
- Shadow In The Cloud. Starts small and interesting and builds to a total romp; a midnight movie in the classic sense. I hope this gets a full cinema release once everyone is vaccinated. The best way to see this one would be while drinking – the climax is very silly indeed.
- Come True. A slippery, gorgeous dream-horror that benefits enormously from its bisexual lighting, electronic soundtrack, and standout central performance from Julia Sarah Stone.
- 12 Hour Shift. Breakout star Brea Grant writes, directs and stars in this nastily farcical comedy of violence. Chloe Farnsworth gives the standout performance with her ditzy, rubber-limbed, murderous antics.
- Synchronic (2020 Re-edit). The slight tweaks throughout definitely enhance this twisty, druggy, mystery horror, giving everything more space to breathe. But it’s the ending that has been radically improved, by simply chopping off the previous coda. A film reborn from its lukewarm reception at LFF 2019, this played at Frightfest 2020 to an uproarious crowd reaction. Fair play to Benson and Moorhead for making the fix.
- Death of a Vlogger. Terrifying found footage shaggy dog story for the Youtuber age. Alongside Host, this is another great example of how much more terrifying a simple effect is if it’s apparently achieved without a cutting away – this film’s attempted escape down a never-ending stairwell being a particular highlight for me.
- The Pool. A simple tale told well – the age-old story of being trapped at the bottom of a drained swimming pool, with an alligator eying you up. A taut, stripped-back creature feature from Thailand that boasts endless playfulness as it mines its basic setup for twists and turns. The Pool also boasts the years best good boy. Yes he is! He’s a good boy.
The best of the rest – thirty more horror features I loved this year, in alphabetical order.
- 32 Malasana Street – James-Wan-esque apartment chills when a rural family move to Madrid in the 1970s.
- After Midnight – an unseen monster as relationship breakdown depression allegory.
- Anything for Jackson – shades of Pet Semetary and Misery in this “reverse exorcism” spooker.
- Blinders – superior stalker thriller with a horror edge.
- Detention – Taiwanese horror video game adaptation mines political paranoia and guilt among persecuted 60s teens.
- For The Sake of Vicious – blood in the kitchen, the bathroom, etc. etc. in this housebound violence-fest.
- Freaky – aka Freaky Friday The Thirteenth; worth seeing for Vince Vaughn as a teenage final girl swapped into the body of her own psycho-slasher.
- Honeydew – taking a bad turn off the road into the sickly, sickening destruction of mind and body; features an jaw-dropping cameo.
- Impetigore – spooky Indonesian folk-tale, with one of the year’s best opening scenes.
- La Llorona – political ghosts come home to roost for the family of a Guatamalan general; a gorgeous slow burn, wonderfully acted; amazing use of negative space.
- Lucky – Brea Grant again as a final girl who has difficulty specifically identifying her slasher in Natasha Kermani’s intriguing allegory.
- May the Devil Take You Too – Moe Indonesian chills, in a post-Evil Dead 2 register. Lots of possession, cackling, and flying objects in Timo Tjahjanto’s sequel.
- Me and Me – Post-Lynchian reality games in this thoughtful Korean oddity – like a low-key Lost Highway.
- My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To – a particularly melancholy entry in 2020’s domestic vampire cycle.
- Rose: A Love Story – another entry in 2020’s domestic vampire cycle, set in a cabin amidst beautiful snowscapes, full of regret.
- Sea Fever – a very 2020 dilemma – should this fishing boat crew dock after they suffer a borderline Lovecraftian viral outbreak, or quarantine themselves and maybe die?
- She Dies Tomorrow – a faintly cosmic horror of entropy and existential dread in which a psychological outbreak of mortal resignation spreads through a desert town.
- Sleep – you can’t stop the Nazis coming back through your community, and you can’t stop the dead coming back through your dreams.
- Tailgate – the better car-based stalker of the year; a white knuckle spin on something like Duel.
- The Beach House – something’s in the water, and it’s going to infest your body and soul; some lovely misty photography in this one.
- The Block Island Sound – more incomprehensible terror out on the water – this time partially sonic in nature.
- The Colour of Madness (aka Sacrifice) – worth watching for Barbara Crampton’s wonderful Nordic accent.
- The Columnist – a feminist Falling Down, with a sly sense of humour.
- The Returned – once again it’s the return of the repressed in traumatised Latin America; this time – zombies!
- The Stylist – something like a sympathetic female-led Maniac, with our girl looking for sisterly friendship rather than love/sex.
- The Wolf of Snow Hollow – Jim Thompson gives another Thunder Road-esque performance, here as a small town sheriff looking for a serial killer and/or werewolf.
- Threshold – creative shaggy dog tale about how our bonds can save us, or maybe destroy us.
- Unhinged – another Duel-esque tale of vehicular stalking; fun nonsense with a good turn from Russell Crowe and a lovely payoff line.
- VFW – shades of Assault on Precinct 13 when gangbanger junkies lay siege to grizzled vets in a midnight movie massacre at the dive bar.
- Violation – this twisty, thorny desconstruction and (further) problematicisation of the rape revenge genre has a great set-piece in the middle.