During an exceptionally scary year, genre fans were able to find solace in a creative batch of horror movies. In a sign of the times, many titles mimicked the isolation of quarantine, with protagonists trapped deep in the ocean (“Underwater”), at a snowy retreat (“The Lodge”), in an Airbnb from hell (“The Rental”) or even in their own minds (“Possessor,” “Relic”). Variety has picked 18 of the best titles of 2020.
Mild spoilers ahead.
See the best horror movies from 2021.
Do countless blocks of urban sprawl and faceless facades of towering apartment buildings creep you out? Have you ever stood looking at street, after street of unremarkable apartment complexes and wondered, “What’s really going on here?” This is the premise of director and writer David Marmor’s horror flick. Nicole Brydon Bloom plays a new-in-town protagonist just looking for a safe place to set up her Ikea furniture. We promise you’ll never look at a plaster the same!
Justin Simien’s satire is a sprawling look at late-’80s Black pop culture, examining media, music and hairstyles in the workplace — and that’s before weaves start murdering people. Equal parts fable and “Tales From the Crypt,” this fantastical blend of ideas is held together via a cast of comedic ringers, including Jay Pharoah and Lena Waithe, as well as a vulnerable lead performance from Elle Lorraine. From a chilling confrontation with a lecherous landlord to a bonkers showdown against a game Vanessa Williams, Lorraine keeps things grounded enough for the audience to stay with her on this wildly ambitious ride.
“Blood Quantum” makes full use of the audience’s familiarity with the zombie to bring something new to the undead genre. The premise is simple: the Red Crow Indian Reservation is under attack from the shambling, hungry-for-flesh hordes. But in writer and director Jeff Barnaby’s apocalypse, the region’s Miꞌkmaq tribal citizens are immune to the zombie bite, while an ever-growing herd of growling, snarling zombies is amassed by legions of white people. All the trope trappings you love to see are there including heroes, safe zones, teeth-baring walkers and all the survivor politics that go with outliving the end of days. A fantastic spin on a splatter-forward zombie flick.
Gretel & Hansel
In a year where witch chic took over pop culture, Oz Perkins’ fable pulsed with actual dark magic. In this remix of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey star as the title siblings, once again facing an evil witch (Alice Krige), but with much bloodier spells in store. Yet the dynamic visual work of Perkins and his cinematographer Galo Olivares is the true alchemy. Using gorgeous natural light, elegantly framed shots underlining forest enchantment and close-ups on actors as the walls close in, “Gretel & Hansel” is a visual wonder which would work even as a silent film.
This psychological thriller follows a refugee couple as they escape the war-torn Sudan only to face a new evil in British public housing. The horror debut from writer and director Remi Weekes’ centers on the struggles of Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) who are subjected to one nightmare after the next as they look for a safety and security. “His House” is not just a haunted house film, it’s a gripping look at the dehumanizing process refugees face in the modern world, and how that lingering pain and abuse can build.
This miraculous microbudget experiment winningly updates classic haunted house tropes for the COVID era. Set entirely on a Zoom call, director Rob Savage conjures more bumps, spooks and scares in under an hour than most full-length features. Running in real time, a group of friends convene for an online séance, and shit goes down very quickly. Handling quarantine anxieties more effectively than movies with 100 times the budget (here’s looking at you, “Songbird”), “Host” matches the original “Paranormal Activity” in lo-fi effects played for maximum impact. It’s no surprise that Savage was quickly scooped up by Blumhouse for a three-picture deal.
The Invisible Man
Gaslighting, the movie. This innovative and updated spin on the Universal Monsters classic tells the story not from the monster’s POV but from that of his victim. Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia Kass, a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. When her longtime abuser suddenly disappears, seemingly dead, the world moves forward as if the threat is gone. But Cecilia’s suspicions only grow as she’s slowly harassed by a mysterious presence – her ex or something else? Naturally, her paranoia is written off as a mental imbalance and the fight to survive against an unseen, oppressive force begins.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman is a master of unease in his latest creation. Cringing through awkward car rides and a family dinner with a new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons), an unnamed protagonist (Jessie Buckley) notices little things feel increasingly off: his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are out of sync in their social cues, the dog shakes dry for a bit too long, a door is haphazardly taped shut, family photos are a bit too familiar. The film’s suffocating 4:3 aspect ratio creates a backdrop of dread as Buckley figures out what’s going on in this strange house, and although the ending is divisive, horror fans looking for a heady trip will find plenty to enjoy.
Do NOT confuse “La Llorona” with “The Curse of La Llorona”; despite an overlap in the name and subject, these are wholly different films. True, both films deal with with the iconic Latin American lore of La Llorona (the weeping woman) but Jayro Bustamante’s film is an absolute top horror film of 2020. “La Llorona” (co-written with Lisandro Sanchez) diverges from the past La Llorona retellings, “granting it striking new political subtext: In this case, the curse of La Llorona is really a trauma-induced reverberation of patriarchal war and violence,” as Variety’s review explains. The film centers around a dysfunctional family with a withered, aged war criminal (Julio Diaz) at the head. The general is finally on trial for his years of torturing, imprisoning and murdering his political enemies. Protected by his defiant wife (played by Margarita Kenéfic) and questioned by his liberal daughter (Sabrina De La Hoz) the old general must face not only the crowds of furious protestors and victims but also the ghosts of his past.
A snowy vacation transforms into an ice box of torture. After the tragic loss of their mother, two kids (Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh) look for a fresh start at their snowy family retreat with estranged father (Richard Armitage) and his new girlfriend (Riley Keough). The foursome hopes to spend the holiday week making merry in their isolated cabin in the wilderness, but after the father abandons his family to attend to pressing business in town, the remote vacation spot becomes an icy hellscape. Watch for the snowy scaries, but stay for the twisted plot that you will 100% not see coming from directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz.
With a premise evoking “Don’t Breathe” but twisting into different dark corners, Maisie Williams is the emotional center of this nasty little thriller. As a group of young, dumb thieves push their luck on a life-changing haul, they’re stopped by the elderly couple who lives in the house, and ever-twisting mind games grow more and more insidious. Even as some of the character choices veer towards Grand Guignol insanity, the “oh shit” moments would have played well in movie theaters. With some unpredictable twists and disturbing gore, “The Owners” shows the power of horror between a few strangers stuck together.
Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s claustrophobic sci-fi parable concerns a massive vertical prison where a culinary feast is lowered down level by level, with prisoners at the top gorging and leaving meager scraps for those below, and nothing but broken dishes for the doomed people stuck at the bottom. Much like the dirty politics behind this setup, the film is pure filth: chewed-up slop mixes with blood and grime in nearly every frame. But Iván Massagué’s heroic Goreng is pure passion, bringing light to his confines by searching for hope, unity and a way to find justice. This Spanish film is not an easy watch, but dynamic performances, including standout antagonist Zorion Eguileor, demand attention.
Brandon Cronenberg’s mind-warping thriller is one of the year’s most creative and confident cinematic visions. In this color-drenched alternate past, assassins can hop into other bodies in order to execute high-end contracts. As Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott fight for control of the latter’s body, horrifying visions are urgently rendered. Abbott is a particular standout, first playing a woman operating a man’s body like a spaceship, and then as a neural super-ego fending off a violent, intruding id. Gorgeously shot by Karim Hussain, nightmares are washed into every second of the film, from the dizzying Toronto architecture to the geysers of gore.
The classic and beloved art of telling a scary story is put to the test in Shudder’s horror movie “Scare Me.” The premise is small, so small the Variety Sundance review called it an “experiment in minimalism.” Aya Cash, director Josh Ruben and Chris Redd make up the three-person cast. It starts off with Cash and Ruben, who both head to the wilderness looking for solace so they can finish their horror masterpieces, but instead wind up sharing a cabin and trying to out-do the other with their best, impromptu scary stories. As the night moves forward, their stories — and the lengths of which they’re willing to go to get their scares — grow bigger and bigger. It’s simple, it’s often silly – but more importantly it’s something new for this genre, grounded in the simple act of storytelling.
This intimate gothic drama, in which three generations of women manage the hastening decay of dementia, uses the metaphor of a decrepit house and the monsters in it to devastating effect. Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote are heartbreaking as women watching the matriarch of their family fall away mentally. Mysteries and mazes abound as traditional bumps in the night turn into even deeper dread. Director Natalie Erika James keeps a tight grip on the ambitious screenplay, and gentle touches of impressive special effects makeup serve to tell the story rather than distract from it.
Dave Franco’s chamber piece about two brothers and their love interests spilling wine and secrets in a gorgeous rental house features a marvelous mid-movie shift from mumblecore to slasher. It’s a breath of fresh air that the script, co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg, keeps things simple, setting up three-dimensional characters just to watch them run and shriek. Indie darlings like Dan Stevens and Alison Brie are turned into lambs for the slaughter in sequences screaming for drive-in revivals. The ’80s video store vibe continues through the end credits, which begs for an even bloodier sequel.
“Underwater” is effectively one sustained third act blowout, immediately full of action and chaos thrown at a group of deep sea workers. A down-and-dirty creature feature, Kristen Stewart taps into a new gear of intensity running around in a high-tech diving suit at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Borrowing plenty of DNA from “Alien,” it won’t win any awards for originality, but it strikes just the right tone of B-movie madness in a tightly-plotted package. Some might say Stewart is overqualified for this mayhem, but once the Lovecraftian monsters start wreaking havoc, it’s impossible not to enjoy the ride.
Vampires vs. the Bronx
This frothy film is equal parts “Scooby-Doo” and gentrification cautionary tale, as three teens realize their borough is being bought up by bloodsuckers. Although the scares are mostly of the family-friendly variety, there are plenty of character notes which bring a lived-in warmth to the proceedings. Co-writer and director Oz Rodriguez is a “Saturday Night Live” veteran, so the jokes land well, which is often a difficult tightrope for horror-comedies. Gregory Diaz IV is a standout as the Jamie-Kennedy-in-“Scream”-esque vampire expert, who schools his friends in all things “Blade” and “Salem’s Lot,” but the whole cast offers a lived-in familiarity which brings the city block to life.