It’s been another hell of a year. Though we might not put this year on the board as one of our greatest, and we wouldn’t dare “silver lining” a pandemic, there was some good that squeaked out from all the dread. “Stay home and stream movies” was a mantra for many of us, and as a result, lots of underseen gems managed to get in front of more eyes. So while not a banner year for much, it was a banner year for horror. Those of us chasing the highs of spooky or macabre were treated to a seemingly endless flow of entertainment. To whittle the studio mega-hits and festival favorites down to a brief top ten was a daunting task, but it served as a reminder of the gorgeous blood spilled across this year’s small screens. Cozy up, grab a hot chocolate and dye it red, then dive into the top ten horror movies of 2021.
Let’s start from the top with the front-running reboot-sequel, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman. The original franchise about the hook-wielding-sticky-sweet villain is a classic of horror canon that secured Tony Todd as a genre icon. Bringing something fresh to the 90s story based on Clive Barker’s tale, DaCosta teamed up with Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Win Rosenfeld to write a harrowing and terrifying continuation of the character. Her version put a mirror our frightening reality, mixing social commentary with stunning gore to create an emotional assault that’s every bit as distressing as it is cathartic.
Of the festival gems that finally made it to more viewers, The Vigil is the one that should perk up your ears. After its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, this spooky story was but a whisper for those who’d yet to be treated to the terror. Written and directed by Keith Thomas (of the upcoming Firestarter remake), this flick uses just enough real Jewish horror lore to twist the haunted house movie into something new. Setting it in Brooklyn’s Hassidic community, Thomas utilized elements of the culture from Yiddish words to the sorts of candies you might find at your bubbie’s house. The result is a gorgeous and frightening familiar scary movie that is splashed with Judaism, binging new religious horror into the fray. Anyone will be able to access the general terror of this haunt, but if I may get personal, for Jewish audiences able to see the Shema used to fight demons, it’s an entirely elevated experience.
F*** yeah, buddy, this bad boy is 2021 official. This genre mashup is just enough of a scary movie to be included here and consider yourselves lucky. If I may rip words from my own review, this movie takes Rambo and dumps him in We Are What We Are and it’s every bit as bat shit as that sounds. Ben O’Toole stars as Rex, the retired American soldier who’s just trying to blend in abroad. But the cannibalistic inhabitants of this sleepy euro town have plans for the internet famous Rex, kidnapping him and stringing him up in their basement. This action-horror-comedy is the kind of blast that will leave you yelling curses and push-kicking the wall. It’s so completely stupid while simultaneously doing a brilliant job of deconstructing action and horror tropes in a brand-new way. Also, someone uses a femur as a weapon.
James Wan is easily one of this generation’s horror giants, bringing us franchises like Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious. In my own Pajiba review, I described Malignant as “a self-aware James Wan doing an impression of his imitators, while still leaning on classic influences.” I stand by it. But that’s not what made this absurd story so special; it’s special because this one sneaks up on the audience and slaps them with horror magic before they see it coming. Malignant starts out as a familiar scary movie about a haunted woman in a sprawling greyish-blue-toned house and then becomes a zany horror romp filled with stellar monster design and endless meme-ability. This is the kind of movie that makes you ecstatic for rainy days and horror scores and is exactly the kind of energy you love to see Wan bring.
The ‘Fear Street’ Trilogy
Yeah maybe it’s a cheat to lump these three into one list item but there’s purpose. Better than the sum of its parts, these three movies made for one of the more magical moments of 2021. Based on the books by R. L. Stine, Leigh Janiak created three interconnected horror movies which were dropped in three successive weeks on Netflix. That “whole,” as it were, isn’t just how the movies worked together, but in the communal experience ignited by them, something somewhat lost in the era of streaming. Audiences all planned their successive Friday evenings around watching these cozy little scares and got to dip themselves not just into the 90s nostalgia of the music and outfits, but of the feeling of watching TGIF with all your friends over the phone.
The Night House
Greif has been an ever-present theme in horror moves, and there’s good reason for it. Horror fans often look to scary movies as a remedy to their angst, stress, and sadness, and these real-life instances are ripe inspiration for the genre. The Night House takes a delicate hand to exploration of grief through horror to gorgeous affect. Rebecca Hall leads as Beth, a woman grieving the loss of her husband, haunted by the energy he left behind. It gently uses the familiar allegory of ghosts standing in for mental illness and does so in a way that balances subtlety with fright. It’s beautiful and scary, and uses camera tricks to bury figures in plain sight, in a way that will leave you questions your own eyes even after you’ve looked away from the screen.
This unsuspecting found footage horror gem scrapes terror from Thai Isan lore. There’s a moment after pressing play where you’ll wince at the runtime, wondering what this possession story could possibly need more than two hours for, but once it gets going, you’ll be glad it demanded its space. The (handheld) camera follows the story of a Shaman believing to have captured the attention of a Goddess. It’s expected the Goddess will possess a member of the community, but as the ritual plays on, malevolence shows its wretched face. The dark possession beings passing itself on like a violent virus in a way that blends a possession story with a zombie one to make for a Blair Witch that spits blood. Using tricks from the found footage genre along with possession tales, this sub-genre mashup is a terrifying mess of fright that will leave you begging the characters to run.
The Boy Behind the Door
Another festival darling is this magical little scare from David Charbonier and Justin Powell. The duo went on to make The Djinn which was also released this year and promises the same balance of magic and terror. What’s brilliant about their first is that it keeps the story just simple enough to leave room for them to flex their muscles with horror tricks. The story follows Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) after he and his friend are kidnapped and trapped in a house. Kevin (Ezra Dewey) is chained behind a door and Bobby spends the runtime tiptoeing around the house to secure the means to escape without alerting the villain inside. It feels like a cinematic adaptation of ‘Little Nightmares’ (the disturbing side-scroller video game). Chavis does so much heavy lifting, the emotion and tension relying on his facial expressions and reactions, as the film is mostly devoid of dialogue. The hour-twenty-eight story never drops the tension, really making a case for the padding of the edge of your seat.
This is the kind of movie that makes you question what gets that sweet front page Netflix placement. Dropped with a whisper, this thrill ride banger will leave you gasping for air (none intended). Mélanie Laurent stars as Elizabeth Hansen, a woman who wakes up suddenly in a mysterious medical pod that warns her she’s running out of air. In a race against the clock, she desperately tries to remember who she is and how she got there, striving to use the resources in her pod to assist in her escape. It’s a frantic and intense blast reminiscent of Buried and some other films it’d be a spoiler to mention. Director Alexandre Aja is notable fore creating and maintaining tension in films like Crawl and this is no exception. The science fiction elements paired with the single location thrill-ride make for terrifying movie magic that will leave you breathless (okay okay I’ll stop).
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
This was hard. I can sense the eyelids tightening staring at this selection. There were so many other festival gems and sneaky hits worthy of inclusion. A year of Werewolves Within, Lucky, The Stylist, Agnes, Till Death … it was tough. These lists always necessitate the death of some darlings and while there are so many tiny hits that I yapped about all year, the truth is that the one I’m most likely to revisit is the third installment in the prime canon of this expanding franchise. The Conjuring-verse has been a steady stream of reliable horror stories that feel like (haunted) home. Though this one veered from the usual formula, it used stellar horror magic for incredible scares and created a rewatchable, comforting horror story that nuzzled us into the loving embrace of our horror mom and dad, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. Setting up comic spin-offs and who-knows-what else, this next round in horror’s MCU did just enough to wrap us in spooky warmth letting it take the last coveted spot as one of the best of the year.