Horror is a genre predicated on pushing the boundaries of one of the most essential and revealing of human emotions: fear. The category’s penchant for toying with societal taboos and visceral antagonisms might make it, for some, a strange one to explore in 2020, what with so many parts of the world still ravaged by the very real, panic-inducing effects of COVID-19: death and unprecedented isolation, among other things. What does it mean to choose fear in a year already dominated by it?
Film itself has also experienced a strange run. In the midst of a pandemic, movies have quietly premiered in a handful of open theaters, been rushed on demand, or, if they’re lucky, found footing on some streaming platform. Horror fans, like the rest of cinephiles, were deprived of the ability to sit in a darkened, crowded theater and let a story envelop them. Would horror movies have the same pull on our small screens, with the realities of quarantine not exactly out of frame? According to our critics, the answer is: Without a doubt. The films on this list — curated by Alison Willmore and Angelica Jade Bastién — represent ten of the best horror offerings of this surreal year, each, in their own ways, capable of captivating a distracted audience largely confined to their homes. They explore everything from the pull of the ancestral to the slipperiness of identity to the rattling depths of seclusion, revealing just how haunting and delightful a scare can be, even in the worst of times.
Rob Savage’s videoconference horror movie was entirely conceived of, shot, and released during the pandemic, and one of the reasons it’s so deliciously enjoyable is that it works within its own limitations. Host, which takes place on Zoom and which was directed remotely, is centered on a group of friends that accidentally summons a demon when they participate in a digital séance in an attempt to alleviate lockdown boredom. The film borrows freely from lo-fi predecessors like the Paranormal Activity films, The Blair Witch Project, and Unfriended while being sparing with its clever DIY effects. But the real secret to its success is the way it taps into the contradictions of online socialization. Its characters may feel like they’re hanging out together, and their gathering certainly counts enough to call up a malevolent entity. But when awful things start happening to them, and they’re picked off in their individual squares onscreen, you become acutely aware of the physical distance between these characters and the degree to which they’re all actually alone. (Available on Shudder.)
9. His House
His House is far from a perfect film, but it intrigues. The film centers on the couple Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu), who make the treacherous journey from South Sudan to find a new life in an English town, meeting prejudice and sorrow along the way. His House is ultimately a haunted-house tale, as the couple brings ghosts along with them that infest the government-subsidized house they’re able to get and are struggling to keep. The loss of their daughter hangs between the duo, infusing the story with both dread and longing. Director Remi Weekes makes capable use of our expectations about what can fester in the dark, drawing together a tale that blends the deeply felt with the starkly horrifying. (Available on Netflix.)
Everything goes quiet the first time Hunter (Haley Bennett), the meek housewife in Swallow, disturbs her immaculate universe. She holds up a marblelike holy Sacrament and then eats it. And then she does the same with a thumbtack, and a battery, and more things that weren’t meant to be inside a person and that tear her up inside and on their way out. Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s film is a kind of body-horror liberation story in which Hunter’s compulsion perversely awakens her to how unwanted the stifling life she has accepted actually is. Bennett, sealed away behind glass in a Hudson Valley house that’s like a display case, gives Hunter the dreamy affect of a sleepwalker, but when she becomes pregnant, her pica starts to seem like a disturbing assertion of agency — an unconscious way of reclaiming her own flesh by mistreating it, even as everyone around her starts treating her as merely a means of incubating a fetus. (Available on Hulu.)
Freaky is utterly ridiculous in the best way possible. This horror-comedy focuses on a somewhat timid teenager, Millie (Kathryn Newton), who switches bodies with a serial killer, the Butcher (Vince Vaughn), setting off a deranged tale that mines its premise for maximum humor and gore. Co-writer-director Christopher Landon excels at building out this world and its characters, quickly but precisely sketching out the dynamics Millie has with her mother (Katie Finneran), cop sister (Dana Drori), and best friends, Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich). Sure, the teenagers speak in a stylized way that seems hyperaware of so-called woke expectations. There’s also a very strange moment between Nyla and Millie’s cop sister that I’m not sure the filmmakers realize is strangely weighted. But overall, Freaky is a delight that perfectly balances its humor with the gory kills that shape its approach to horror. (Available to rent on Amazon.)
6. The Dark and the Wicked
No explanation is given for the demonic force menacing the farm in The Dark and the Wicked. It’s only ever referred to as a “devil” and takes different forms, including those of neighbors and loved ones. If it’s infernal in nature, it also feels like an incarnation of guilt — for leaving a dead-end town, for not wanting the same backbreaking life your parents had, for opting to save yourself at the expense of your loved ones. When siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return to the remote Texas region in which they grew up, what’s clear is how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, much less their dying father (Michael Zagst) and worn-down mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). Bryan Bertino builds from this bleak reunion toward the terrifying collapse of a household, in which trusted figures turn out to be monstrous doppelgängers hovering around a patriarch preparing to meet his end. (Available to rent on Amazon.)
5. La Llorona
Jayro Bustamante’s film is haunted by ghosts and by genocide. The latter — a campaign of executions, torture, and rape carried out by the Guatemalan military against the Indigenous Maya population — is something that retired dictator General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) denies happened, even as he’s put on trial for his crimes. The former comes in the form of a mysterious maid, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who shows up to work in the general’s house, where he’s hiding away from the sea of protesters outside. La Llorona weaves in themes of complicity and suppressed history to create an incendiary take on a well-known folklore phantom. But Bustamante’s tableaus are just as haunting as the film’s justice-seeking specter — exquisitely composed shots the camera slowly pushes into or pulls away from, an unseen hand guiding the audience to look at what the characters would prefer not be seen. (Available on Shudder.)
In co-writer-director Joe Marcantonio’s first film, the nature of inheritance powers a sickly claustrophobic tale. Kindred is anchored by Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance), a young woman who learns she’s pregnant and then tragically loses her fiancé and her home in quick succession. As a result, Charlotte finds herself trapped in the home of her late partner’s controlling mother, Margaret (an excellent Fiona Shaw). The walls are closing in on her. She has no one to turn to, save for Margaret’s leering stepson, Thomas (Jack Lowden). All aspects of the filmmaking here — from the direction to the editing on down — feel exceedingly assured. But it’s the subtle suggestions, just under the movie’s surface, about how the maternal is shaped by race — and an unsettling final image — that cements this as a provocative film. (Available on Amazon.)
Natalie Erika James’s debut exists in that twilight zone where mundane nightmares, like an aging parent’s dementia, overlap with supernatural ones, like that same parent’s possible possession. It’s a film filled with slow-drip dread, as mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) and daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) return to their old family home to check on widowed grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin), who hasn’t been seen for a few days. They fear the worst, but what they find instead is a situation that’s more insidious — while it’s no longer safe for Edna to live alone, she also increasingly seems like a frightening stranger to them. In Relic, a familiar space makes a chilling transformation into a haunted one that’s infested with a black rot that seems to represent the threadbare ties between the three women. But that only makes the final turn toward the tender more stunning — an affirmation of love and filial duty at the film’s darkest moment. (Available to watch on Amazon.)
Sometimes it’s all about that rush of adrenaline that comes with watching a character you connect with in an impossible situation. This kicks off early on in Impetigore, when Maya (Tara Basro) is hunted down and nearly killed with a machete by a stranger during her toll-worker job. “We don’t want what your family left behind,” the stranger says before getting shot in the head by an officer. What they left behind, Maya learns in this Indonesian tale, is a grand estate and a curse. When Maya brings along her good friend Dini (Marissa Anita) to reclaim the estate and transform their lives with the financial windfall, she is met by a rural community intent on skinning her alive in hopes of breaking the curse that leaves every baby born in the village without skin. It’s wild! Things turn left quickly. Ghosts! Arch flashbacks! More tension than you can handle! Writer-director Joko Anwar sketches his world and the character’s relationships to it with sly sincerity, using familial heartbreak as a pivotal backdrop for fright, while Basro makes for a compelling lead, easily embodying both the longing and fear that snakes through the story. (Available on Shudder.)
Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature, does what all great horror movies should: it haunts, with both its images and narrative takeaways staying with you long after the credits roll. The film’s focal point is corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who is hired to possess the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) in order to kill his high-powered boss and sort of father-in-law, John Parse (Sean Bean). Colin ultimately proves to be a combative host, making Tasya’s sci-fi job all the more difficult. What amounts is a bloody, full-bodied saga — powered by an uncanny visual environment not that far removed from our own world and a keen interest in the mercurial nature of gender and the self — that excites and unnerves in equal measure. (Available to rent on Amazon.)
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