Four months into 2020 and we may have only one true horror blockbuster — thanks to a slow winter followed by the onset of a full-blown global pandemic. But behind Invisible Man is an impressive lineup of genre titles just begging for your attention. Before the novel coronavirus threw the world into a panic spiral, the horror genre was enjoying a series of grand returns on a smaller scale: of filmmaker Richard Stanley, of some classic 1980s screen heavies and B-movie legends, of the art-house horror darlings Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Given our uncertain times, we’re not sure if we’ll see another horror blockbuster this year, so in the meantime, we’ll relish the little things we have: a bad vacation with Riley Keough, a deep-sea dive with Kristen Stewart, a blood-soaked gathering at a local VFW chapter. Here is the best horror of 2020 so far.
The “just moved to town” character in a horror movie always has high potential for peril, and 1 BR really drags that to the extreme. But the star of this movie, Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom), doesn’t make the mistake of going to the wrong party or doing the wrong drugs. She just moves into the wrong building and doesn’t realize that neither management nor the other tenants intend on letting her leave. In this pared-down thriller from writer and director David Marmor, a young woman moves to L.A. to get a fresh start and thinks she’s lucked into an ideal little apartment community, but wow is she wrong, and the very human, very real-feeling terror of Sarah’s experience makes 1 BR a bracing little indie gem.
You won’t see the long game of After Midnight coming, and that’s what makes it so much fun. Jeremy Gardner wrote, co-directed, and starred in this humble creature feature that is also a pretty inventive breakup movie. When Abby (Brea Grant) walks out on Hank (Gardner) after a decade-long relationship in their small southern hometown, Hank spirals into a depression and maybe starts going a little crazy, staying up late every night to fend off the mysterious monster that keeps banging on his front door. Is Hank’s grief pushing him to imagine some outlandish terror, or is there really something coming to his porch every night? And will he and Abby ever reconcile? The answers will surprise you.
Supergirl’s Nicole Maines stars in this queer transfeminist vampire dark comedy, and honestly, how often do you get to describe a movie that way? From writer and director Brad Michael Elmore, Bit follows a recent high-school graduate from a small Oregon town who is ready to make a new life in Los Angeles. On her first night out, though, she meets a group of vampires and ends up getting jumped into their brood. It’s a great little “Fuck the patriarchy!” twist on your classic creatures-of-the-night tale, and a good example of how movies can smoothly fold progressive gender politics into a story that’s just a damn fun time. Everyone wins!
The first zombie movie is widely considered to be White Zombie from 1932, in which the titular characters were Haitian drones working a white owner’s sugar plantation. Zombie movies have always been a subgenre rich with metaphor, and Canadian writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s take feels like a great punch up to the form. Centering on the residents of the Mi’gmaq reserve of Red Crow Native Americans, Blood Quantum depicts a zombie-virus outbreak to which indigenous people are immune, leaving them to battle back the amassing hordes of white undead that threaten their land and their lives. It’s bloody. It’s pissed off. And it’s well worth unpacking.
Color Out of Space
After a decades-long absence from the director’s chair (at least in the context of narrative features), Richard Stanley finally returned in the weirdest, wildest way with the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space, for which he also wrote the screenplay. Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson star as a married couple living in a beautiful rural home with their three kids. Their pleasant little life is rudely interrupted when a glowing meteorite strikes down in their front lawn. Soon, the surrounding area starts to resemble Area X in Annihilation, and each member of the family starts deteriorating in a uniquely disturbing way. (Plus, Cage goes absolutely nuts in this movie, which is a gorgeous sci-fi nightmare you can’t miss.)
Come to Daddy
A great thing about Elijah Woods is that if he’s starring in a movie it will almost certainly be strange or terrifying or gory or a combination of all three. In Come to Daddy, Wood plays Norval, a Los Angeles soft boy whose estranged dad has written a letter requesting a reunion at his remote coastal home. Since Norval knows almost nothing about his dad and yearns to connect, he agrees and schleps through the woods into semi-isolation, where he finds a real bastard of a man waiting to greet him. But maybe his dad is just uncomfortable with his feelings when it comes to family? Well, the situation takes a truly bizarre turn for the worse, and things just keep getting crazier and bloodier from there.
Gretel & Hansel
Director Osgood Perkins specializes in slow-moving tone studies that immerse the viewer in haunting environs, and his update of the Hansel & Gretel fairytale pays proper homage to its twisted Brothers Grimm origins. When the two kids are cast out of their home by an unhinged mother, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) knows it’s up to her to provide for and protect her little brother. One day deep in the woods they find a cottage with a beautiful bounty on the table, and hungry Hansel (Samuel Leakey) can’t help breaking in to steal a few bites. That, of course, is when they meet the witch of the house, who takes the siblings in to shelter them and fatten them up. Except this time around, the witch (named Holda, played by Alice Krige) takes a liking to Gretel and enlightens her about the truth of her feminine power and the secrets of the Earth. Sophia Lillis is having a moment, so get onboard.
The Invisible Man
The year’s first horror blockbuster is a new spin on a classic. Writer and director Leigh Whannell conceived of this take on Universal’s The Invisible Man by making the title character a domestic abuser and the hero his girlfriend who is trying to escape him at any cost. Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) swore to Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) that she’d never be able to leave him, and if she ever tried he would find her and walk right up to her without her ever even noticing. Well, Adrian makes good on his promise after Cecilia breaks free, but he makes his presence very, very known — but only to her, dragging her back into his cycle of abuse and gaslighting alone. Moss gives a major performance, and Whannell threads the needle of mass-appeal cinema and vital social messaging with deftness, while still making a movie that hits like an 18-wheel truck.
The Lodge is a polarizing experience, and certain shocking narrative choices by co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are just as likely to alienate some audience members as they are to cast an unbreakable spell on others. We sit in the latter camp. Riley Keough stars as Grace, a young woman going on a winter holiday with her fiancé and his kids, who are outraged he was able to replace their mother so quickly. To make matters worse, the dad (Richard Armitage) has to stay back in the city for work while the three of them hole up at a snowy cabin where, one morning, everyone wakes to find basically all of the household objects missing. No food. No Christmas stockings. No nothing. And they’re too snowed in to leave or get help. The mystery is, are the children having some insidious fun at Grace’s expense to punish their future step mom, or is there a supernatural menace manifesting from her mysterious past to terrorize them all? The directors behind Goodnight Mommy will make you question the fundamental innocence of children once again.
There have already been a few serendipitous horror releases this year that feature people being trapped and/or tortured in one place. For the best of this group, Vulture selects The Platform, a Spanish movie that takes place in a vertical prison composed of concrete cubes stacked one atop another. The only food available is served on a platform that descends from level one down to the bottom, hundreds of cells below, forcing inmates to eat only what the people above them have been “generous” enough to leave behind. It’s brutal and grotesque, and the central character is a man who refuses to conform to the barbarism of the system — until desperation and hunger push him to the brink. The Platform debuted in the month social-isolation orders brought the country to a halt, and it couldn’t be a better feel-bad movie for the moment.
Although the movie Swallow features a main character who develops a compulsion for eating dangerous objects, the real horror of the movie is existential. Haley Bennett plays a beautiful housewife named Hunter who has landed a rich man and lives in a rich home filled with rich things. She is utterly comfortable, and increasingly miserable as the paint-by-numbers life she married into starts crushing her under the weight of family expectations, shame, and imposter syndrome. Hunter’s desire to swallow what is forbidden sparks the beginning stages of a rebellion against the person she’s become. Carlo Mirabella-Davis wrote and directed this movie inspired by the life of his own grandmother, and it will haunt you long after it’s done.
The fact that Underwater was made years ago and rather unceremoniously just dropped into theaters this January with little fanfare is a shame, because it is a fun and relentless thrill ride that stars Kristen Stewart saving lives and fighting sea monsters. When a humongous oil-drilling rig unleashes hordes of extremophiles (and one super-beast that looks uncannily like Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), the only remaining crew members in the facility must make their way across the ocean floor in hopes of reaching undamaged escape pods, and it’s just a cascading series of terrors for about 90 minutes. Even T.J. Miller is a good, welcome addition to the cast, and how often are you hearing that in 2020?
Fire up that time machine, because we are going back to the 1980s. Director Joe Begos follows the excellent achievement that was Bliss with this rip-roaring story of a bunch of hard-ass service veterans caught in the middle of a feud between a sadistic drug dealer and a thief who steals his stash. The story is set in a nearish future in which a new, extremely addictive drug has turned huge swathes of the population into junkies, and when the local supplier loses his product to a young woman seeking revenge on him, he sends an army of tweakers into the bar where she seeks refuge, and where she is being protected by the likes of Stephen Lang, William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and David Patrick Kelly. Heads will be split open. Limbs will be severed. And the blood will keep on flowing.
We Summon the Darkness
You know what? Let’s just fucking party! We Summon the Darkness is a charmingly cheeky 1980s throwback movie that takes the Satanic-panic craze and gives you a hair-metal horror comedy. Alexandra Daddario, Maddie Hasson, and Amy Forsyth star as a trio of rock chicks headed to a concert where they end up snagging three men eager to go home and have an after-party with them. There’s tension in the air, though, since a mysterious group of occultists have been ritualistically murdering people across the country. So really, who can you trust? Johnny Knoxville guests as a televangelist in this fun little rager.