The best horror of 2020
In which I offer a completely accurate but also subjective ranking.
Hello, it’s me. I started writing my newsletter again, and then predictably got distracted by something else — the pandemic, the election, the sad ongoing coup attempt, who can say — and forgot to keep updating. (Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I simply couldn’t find the will to keep updating, which sounds dire, but is really just my way of articulating that my motivation has been limited in 2020.)
It has not been a great year. Some would call it an exceptionally bad one, and they would be correct. Others would quibble that years are arbitrary designations of the passage of time, but those people are fucking annoying and we don’t need to listen to them. Besides, if we can’t look forward to 2021 because we’re too traumatized by the preceding 12 months, we can at least use this transitional period as an excuse to toss out some year-end lists.
At the risk of being too ambitious, I decided I should just focus on one: the best horror of 2020. When I was at BuzzFeed, ranking the year’s best horror films was my favorite annual task, even if it forced me to spend November and December cramming a ton of nightmare fodder. I didn’t get around to putting anything together last year, but somehow, amid the real-life horror of 2020, I watched a whole lot of scary movies, several of which were quite good.
I narrowed my list down to 20, which is still too long, but brevity is… wit (I stole this joke from The Simpsons) and I will keep my write-ups short. I should probably note that many of these movies are films I felt were good but not great, flawed endeavors that I liked enough to recommend to others. One of the things I love about horror is the way the genre lends itself to wild swings, so I’m always more accustomed to include some noble misses on lists like these.
20. Hunter Hunter. Everyone talks about the ending of Hunter Hunter, and with good reason — it’s the climax that propels this film from survivalist thriller to full-on horror. It’s solid all around, but those final moments are what will keep you up at night. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
19. The Dark and the Wicked. On the one hand, it feels a little too evocative of Ari Aster at times. On the other hand, it has the always phenomenal Marin Ireland and some of the most disturbing visuals in any film this year. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
18. Scare Me. An anthology film that’s not really an anthology film, and a horror-comedy that’s maybe not actually that funny. It works in large part because there’s nothing Aya Cash can’t do, and she’s paired well with writer-director-star Josh Ruben. Stream it on Shudder.
17. La Llorona. Not to be confused with The Curse of La Llorona, this movie has far fewer jump scares. In fact, some might not even consider it horror. But even before things take a turn for the supernatural, it’s haunting in its exploration of historical trauma. Stream it on Shudder.
16. The Beach House. Maybe it’s because I watched it amid a pandemic, but The Beach House’s depiction of a rapidly spreading infection got under my skin. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s effectively stress-inducing body horror. Stream it on Shudder.
15. The Wolf of Snow Hollow. There are definite Fargo vibes in this horror-comedy that isn’t afraid to get messy, whether in terms of graphically violent werewolf attacks or sharp tonal shifts. Jim Cummings is great. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
14. After Midnight. When there’s a monster in an indie relationship drama, you can bet that monster is a metaphor. But what After Midnight lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in strong performances and a killer conclusion. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
13. Sea Fever. It’s a little bit Alien (though not as good) and a little bit Sphere (though considerably better). OK, this movie about the crew of a fishing vessel and the underwater creature attacking them owes quite a debt to the former, but it has its own tricks up its sleeve. Stream it on Hulu.
12. His House. Like La Llorona, His House explores real-life atrocities, and it’s those elements that end up leaving the most lasting impression. The horror of this film is not so much the less-than-impressive demon, and more... everything else. Stream it on Netflix.
11. The Mortuary Collection. The rare anthology horror film that works all the way through, thanks to a keen sense of humor, some memorably gross moments, and a wraparound story that actually ties the whole thing together. Stream it on Shudder.
10. Vampires vs. the Bronx. Honestly way more fun than it has any right to be. Think Stranger Things if that show took a page from Buffy, and if vampires were a very obvious stand-in for gentrification. It’s a total delight. Stream it on Netflix.
9. The Invisible Man. I didn’t really think we needed another adaptation of The Invisible Man, but writer-director Leigh Whannell and star Elisabeth Moss proved me wrong. This is one of the first new movies I screened at home after theaters closed, and it still managed to keep me on the edge of my seat (read: bed). Stream it on HBO Max.
8. #Alive. Zombie survival horror has also been done to death, but Yoo Ah-in is someone you feel compelled to root for, especially when he’s playing a hapless gamer just trying to reunite with his family. Tense and surprisingly moving. Stream it on Netflix.
7. Extra Ordinary. A driving instructor who can communicate with spirits falls for a man haunted by his dead wife, all while a washed-up rock star is trying to sacrifice the man’s virgin daughter. Irish people just do horror-comedy better, what can I say. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
6. Impetigore. Terrible English title, really good movie. I’m not familiar with a lot of Indonesian horror, but this made me want to seek more out — Joko Anwar’s dark fable is spooky, thrilling, and occasionally quite funny. Stream it on Shudder.
5. Swallow. Never has pica been more terrifying. Actually, Swallow isn’t a traditional horror film, but its depiction of a woman trying to escape her empty marriage by swallowing inanimate (and often sharp) objects is both wildly distressing and stunningly shot. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
4. Host. Am I annoyed that I accomplished next to nothing in quarantine, while Rob Savage made a remarkably effective found footage horror film that perfectly captures the moment? Yes. Is this the scariest movie of the year? It just might be! Stream it on Shudder.
3. Relic. Though Relic isn’t the first movie to link aging with possession, few have managed the delicate balancing act that this film pulls off. To say too much about the ending would be giving it away, but it captures that perfect blend of poignance and repulsion that makes the whole thing so compelling. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
2. Possessor. It’s hard to emerge as your own distinctive voice in the genre when your last name is already an adjective for a certain kind of body horror, but if Brandon Cronenberg keeps cranking out movies as slick, gripping, and, yes, gorgeously brutal as Possessor, he’ll be in good shape. Rent it on Amazon Prime.
1. She Dies Tomorrow. Another movie that hits that much harder during a pandemic. There aren’t a lot of answers in Amy Seimetz’s deliberately open-ended film — just a colorful, dizzying, sometimes overwhelming exploration of paranoia, infection, and that 2020 stand-by, dread. Stream it on Hulu.
Photos via Neon, RLJE Films, Netflix, and Shudder.