In which I return for the one annual tradition that's worth maintaining.
Every year I put off watching the new releases in horror until—September, if I’m feeling ambitious, but more likely October, and sometimes even November, when it’s almost too late. (This habit of delaying is also how I approach writing my newsletter, which I haven’t touched for a full calendar year.) The end result of my procrastination is that I end up cramming a staggering amount of horror into the last month or two of the year: a challenging, stressful, sometimes downright distressing way to wrap things up.
It was especially hard in 2021. All told, 2020 was a worse year—the combination of the pandemic and the election, both of which I paced about endlessly in a studio apartment, made it almost impossible to watch anything, let alone horror. But 2021 was the year my frayed nerves reminded me that they hadn’t healed, when I felt like I was always teetering on the edge of a spiral, and the inevitable setbacks and traumas landed with surprising force even though I’d been expecting them. I marathoned the year’s genre offerings feeling, at times, physically ill with a sense of dread crushing me between the horror onscreen and the horror outside my window. On the other hand, I live in a one-bedroom now.
Somehow, I still found a lot to enjoy. These were my favorites.
21. The Last Matinee. A Uruguay-set slasher film that’s also an Italian giallo. Generally speaking, I roll my eyes at ‘90s period pieces because they don’t feel true to the era, but this movie reads like it emerged directly from 1993. Speaking of eyes, there’s a literal jar of them.
20. Coming Home in the Dark. I said on Twitter that all New Zealand horror is “either charming and funny or brutal, depraved, ungodly shit.” Guess which side of the spectrum this movie falls on. Great performances really elevate this, but you do have to take a shower when it’s over.
19. PG: Psycho Goreman. It feels so much like one of those Troma movies I don’t actually care for (sorry!), but I was very quickly won over by the fact that it’s actually very funny. Pretty sure the pitch was Mac and Me if the alien were Pinhead. Once you get on its level, it’s great.
18. There’s Someone Inside Your House. Remember when everyone was talking about Fear Street and how it was Scream for a new generation, and then I suffered through an entire trilogy that I hated? Anyway, There’s Someone Inside Your House is what I wanted Fear Street to be.
17. Come True. I’m just going to go ahead and say Come True has one of the worst endings of any movie I saw in 2021. Up to that point, however, I found it to be compelling and deeply unsettling, with some nightmare imagery I still can’t shake. Cut the last shot and it would zoom up in my rankings.
16. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions. My biggest complaint about Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is that it isn’t Escape Room, a perfect film. It’s still a blast, though. These movies are Saw with a sense of whimsy. Why aren’t you stanning?
15. Wrong Turn. A surprisingly strong horror reboot that repeatedly subverts expectations. I really never know where this movie was going to go next, and while I wish its politics were a little less muddled, there were a lot of gloriously gross moments and a stunning final shot.
14. V/H/S/94. Anthology horror set in the ‘90s is two red flags for me, but it’s nice to see the V/H/S series reclaiming its former glory. It doesn’t all work—would you believe the frame narrative is the weakest part?—and that’s OK. The high points are up there with V/H/S/2. Hail Raatma.
13. The Feast. Definitely a slow burn with a payoff that might not be worth it for everyone. Personally, I thought it was just the right level of stomach-turning, and even moments I knew were coming (Chekhov’s piece of glass in [redacted]) still made me scream. More Welsh horror, please.
12. Saint Maud. Is it demonic possession or religious delusion? Mercifully, Saint Maud comes down pretty clearly on one side. Who needs ambiguity when you’ve got a truly unnerving performance by Morfydd Clark and a killer climax.
11. Shadow in the Cloud. This is a movie about WWII flight officer Chloë Grace Moretz, who cons her way onto a B-17 bomber with (spoiler alert) her secret baby and then does battle with a gremlin. It’s actually somehow dumber than it sounds, and I had an amazing time watching all 83 minutes of it.
10. Till Death. Scream queen Megan Fox is an automatic yes. The plot is very Gerald’s Game, which is fine. The point is that she makes it work, reminding us once again that we owe Megan Fox an apology and whatever career she wants, preferably including more movies where she kills men.
9. Son. Andi Matichak starred in my least favorite horror film of the year, Halloween Kills (also my least favorite movie of the year), but it turns out she is fantastic! There’s nothing all that surprising in Son, but her performance and an ending that really goes for it make this one a standout for me.
8. The Night House. I think people were divided on The Night House, in large part because the reveal of what’s actually going on is less interesting than what seems to be going on. Once again, it’s all about the lead performance: Rebecca Hall is phenomenal. Add to that some gorgeous visuals and Evan Jonigkeit being hot.
7. Caveat. This movie has one of the creepiest props I’ve seen in a horror film. It’s a little toy rabbit with eerily human eyes, and I was honestly happier before I’d seen it. That aside, Caveat is a tense little thriller. Its aims are modest, but stressing me the fuck out is an admirable goal, and mission accomplished.
6. Violation. There have been so many films that claim to be a subversion of the standard rape-revenge format. Violation truly turns the genre inside out. Both the rape and the revenge are far more restrained and grounded than expected, and somehow that makes it even harder to stomach.
5. In the Earth. I watched a lot of eco-horror this year, and much of it hits the same beats: humans are the real monsters, mankind is basically doomed, and fungus is fucking weird, man. In the Earth wins thanks to the strongest performances of the lot, and some nicely gruesome moments. (Gaia gets points for best body horror, but didn’t work nearly as well for me overall.)
4. The Humans. Is it horror? Yes, and there’s even a jump scare. Really, though, Stephen Karam’s adaptation takes all the dread and unease of his play and translates it effortlessly to the big screen, cranking up the noise and the feeling that the walls are closing in.
3. The Vigil. In many ways, The Vigil feels like the kind of spooky demon movie we’ve seen a million times before, and in other ways—particularly how deeply it’s steeped in Jewish culture—it feels rich and distinctive. Really got under my skin. Dave Davis is so good (and unbearably hot). It’s a Jewish thing, what can I say.
2. The Power. Though not exactly subtle, The Power is a harrowing and ultimately satisfying ghost story. Who cares if it ends a little too cleanly? Sometimes the revenge half of things is all we really have the stomach for, and this movie packs a powerful punch in that capacity.
1. Shiva Baby. Are you telling me this asshole included The Humans on his list of the best horror of the year, and then had the audacity to make Shiva Baby number one? Yes, and you’ll just have to deal. In the grand tradition of Krisha, anything filmed in the style of a horror movie that gives me a panic attack counts as a horror movie. And yeah, OK, again: it’s a Jewish thing.