Let’s get this out of the way. The “best” horror of 2020 was, of course, this deeply miserable year itself. Since March I’ve watched all the activities I love – travel, conventions, live theatre and the cinema vanish one by one while I’ve spent 99.9% of my time in my tiny flat very happy to have a job and a roof over my head while bitterly regretting my life choices (guys why didn’t I decamp to the country and build myself a mansion years ago?)
Cinema has had a terrible time of it with cinemas across the world having been shuttered for most of the year. Film festivals struggled to work out how to proceed but unsurprisingly horror lead the way. Horror has always been progressive and horror festivals rallied brilliantly providing their audiences with amazing on-line experiences. No, it wasn’t the same and I desperately missed seeing my friends at Frightfest but it was the best it could be under the circumstances. I was lucky enough to be press at Fantasia Festival. I had brilliant times watching the online versions of Frightfest, Grimmfest, Abertoir and SoHo Horror Film Festival and while nothing will replicate the true festival experience I was truly grateful to have these festivals to look forward to in an increasingly grim year.
Here’s my top horror films of the year in descending order:
18- Death of a Vlogger
British found footage horror from director and writer Graham Hughes. A Brit vlogger goes viral when he captures a ghost on camera. When he’s exposed as a fraud the internet destroys him but…is there something more going on?
I’m a big found footage fan and at its best Death of a Vlogger is genuinely unsettling. An interesting look at cancel culture and the very real harm trolls can do to normal people. It slightly lost me with the ending (the notion that any of his friends/family would let him go back to that flat alone is ridiculous) but this is a creepy ride and one of the scarier entrants in this list.
Death of a Vlogger is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.
17. – The Mortuary Collection
I love a good anthology tale and this one centred around Clancy Brown’s undertaker telling tales to his possible new apprentice is a riot. The wrap-around segment is strong and unusually for a horror anthology, there is not a weak entry in the bunch. The film does a hell of a lot on a small budget with some stunning visuals. The sheer beauty of the sequence in the lift in the “Till Death Do Us Part” section has stayed with me. Huge fun.
The Mortuary Collection is now streaming on Shudder.
If you’re interested in trying Shudder cheaply in the UK Amazon has a 99p a month for 3 months offer if you include it as an add on.
16 – Sea Fever
A marine biologist forced into the field takes a trip on a fishing vessel which ventures into prohibited waters. There they come into contact with a new organism which causes chaos killing the crew. Neasa Hardiman’s film is the perfect horror movie for our pandemic times as our heroine is stuck on a sinking ship with a potentially hugely infectious organism. A delicate, haunting, melancholy film that stays with you long after the credits roll.
You can watch Sea Fever on Sky Movies or buy it on Amazon Prime Video for £1.99
15. – The Stylist
A lonely hairstylist Claire becomes obsessed with the lives of her clients, scalping them and wearing their hair in a desperate attempt to be anyone other than who she is. When an old client Olivia (Brea Grant) asks Claire to do her hair at her wedding the two women are locked on a terrifying collision course. Najarra Townsend excels as Claire, the delicate, murderous stylist who is eternally looking for a life other than her own. Writer, director Jill Gevargizian directs a suitably stylish (Claire’s costumes are exquisite) and remarkably sad film. The Stylist’s themes of profound loneliness, self-hatred and mental illness hit particularly hard in these times. The film also has the absolute courage of its convictions – Claire’s interactions with Olivia are horrifying to watch – a visceral, slow-mo car crash. The wedding scene is as audacious as it is terrible.
The short the feature was developed from is available on youtube. No release date as yet for the feature.
14 – Anything for Jackson
A couple kidnaps a pregnant woman in the hopes of transferring the spirit of their dead grandson into the unborn baby. Unfortunately, the ritual they perform is like a clarion call for spirits leaving them haunted by terrible spectres. The charm of this horror is watching Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy, a seemingly benign, jolly elderly couple, as Satanists prepared to do unspeakable things to get their grandchild back. Richings’ glee at finding a single lonely pregnant woman ambivalent at having a child (ie someone he can easily disappear) is glorious. The hauntings are also genuinely spooky with a couple of jump scares that had me gasping in shock (the ice chipper!) Julian Richings effortlessly carries the whole enterprise and is surprisingly moving as the bereaved man who seems to know full well that the endeavour is doomed from the start but his love for his wife is so strong that he would fight hell itself if it would ease her grief.
Anything for Jackson is now streaming on Shudder
13. – Swallow
Deeply powerful film from writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (based loosely on his grandmother’s life) about a woman who develops Pica (a compulsive eating disorder where people eat non-food items). Hayley Bennett is stunning in the lead as a woman who seems to have it all – beautiful house, charming, successful husband, stunning wardrobe but the reality is more ugly – she’s married to a husband that barely notices her, surrounded by her husband’s monied, over-controlling family in a glorious house that is little more than a fancy prison. Hunter seeks control over her life by swallowing unusual things – little tiny acts of rebellion that plant the seeds of true self-determination. A scene with Bennett and a cameoing Denis O’Hare is burned into my memory months later. Has the absolute courage of its convictions. Exceptional.
You can buy Swallow on Amazon Prime Video for £3.99
12 – Freaky
A hugely fun take on Freaky Friday as Vince Vaughn’s serial killer The Butcher swaps bodies with would-be victim Millie (Kathryn Newton) after stabbing her with an ancient Aztec knife. Kathryn Newton is always good value although she is slightly short-changed here post switch as she gets to vamp around monosyllabically (this is one of those hilarious movies where everyone only notices the incredibly beautiful blonde is an incredibly beautiful blonde when she dons a stunning disguise of…a pair of high waisted jeans, black strap top, leather jacket and red lipstick but I digress). However, this movie entirely belongs to Vince Vaughn who plays against his macho conservative image as a high schooler trapped in a man’s body. He’s hilarious and commits 100% – just the image of him delicately running had me in hysterics. One of the best scenes in the film features the body swapped Vaughn sharing an adorable first kiss with Millie’s crush. Played completely straight (if you’ll pardon the pun) it’s a lovely moment in a fun film. Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovitch rock it as Millie’s friends.
Currently available to rent in the US only but on UK release on 19 February 2021
11 – The Block Island Sound
A marine biologist, Audry (Michaela McManus) returns home for a visit to her family who lives on Block Island. When her father and then her brother Harry starts to act very strangely, going on nocturnal trips that they have no memory of Audry finds herself in a battle against time to work out what is affecting them. Deeply unsettling film with a pervading sense of dread from the first frame. The film has a killer sound design which shreds your last nerve. Rarely I didn’t see where it was going – keeps you guessing until the very last.
No release date as yet
10 – The Beach House
Emily (Liana Liberato) and her boyfriend Randall (Noah Le Gros) visit his father’s beach house for a romantic getaway. Their romantic weekend is immediately disrupted by the unexpected appearance of Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) – old friends of Mitch’s father. Both couples decide to make the best of it by having dinner together which ends with them all wildly hallucinating. But come the cold light of day they realise that something is very, very wrong… Haunting, eerie cosmic horror with a final sequence that won’t leave you. When the horror gets going here it escalates brutally quickly. Jake Weber gives a soulful, melancholy performance as a man knowing that his life is crumbling around him.
The Beach House is now streaming on Shudder
9 – The Vast of Night
Criminally underseen this clever gem plays out like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Set in the 1950s on the night of a high school game a radio DJ and intrepid high school reporter become intrigued by reports of odd sounds being played over the airwaves. As they start to investigate they’re told tales of strange crafts and disappeared children. In one of the film’s most intriguing sequences, the tale of a man guarding a strange craft is played out in almost blackness so you are drawn in purely by the power of his voice. Hypnotic, clever storytelling with an ending that packs a punch.
The Vast of Night is streaming on Amazon Prime Video
8 – The Invisible Man
God bless Universal and their desperate desire to have a Dark Universe that literally no-one is interested in. That The Invisible Man’s daft story of an “invisible” abusive boyfriend stalking his ex works (and works exceptionally well) is due to Leigh Whannell’s slick direction and Elisabeth Moss treating the whole enterprise as seriously as a heart attack. Moss acts as if she is in a heavyweight Oscar pic rather than a glossier version of Hollow Man. Her commitment is key to making it work – without her, this could have come off as very silly especially as by his “invisible” nature there isn’t a strong antagonist for Moss to play off (Oliver Jackson-Cohen is suitably slimy but really his role is an extended cameo). Moss is so good that no back story for her character is needed (although Moss gets a killer speech) – one glance at this pale, cowed woman jumping at shadows tells you all you need to know about the hell she’s gone through. The restaurant sequence with her sister is extraordinary. A slick, cold look at abusive relationships with Moss giving one hell of a performance.
The Invisible Man is available to buy now on Amazon Prime Video for £11.99
7 – Possessor
Brandon Cronenberg announces himself as a major talent with this balletic orgy of violence centering on an assassin (a mesmerising Andrea Riseborough) who by way of old school technology can take over anyone else’s life. Christopher Abbott shines as the poor sap forced to be her unwitting assassin. This is a cold, cold, brutally violent piece that looks at shattered psyches and the ties that bind us.
Possessor is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video for £5.99
6 – Host
Host is the ultimate 2020 horror movie. A very clever found footage movie it features a group of quarantining friends who decide to hold a seance on zoom. When one of the girls doesn’t take it seriously she unwittingly unleashes hell on them all.
Host really, really, really shouldn’t work as well as it does. It has a guy in blue and black body paint for god’s sake. Chairs are obviously dragged along on wires. It is by no stretch of the imagination slick and yet none of this matters because it manages in its scant 40 minutes run time (the length of a zoom call!) to be something most feature-length horrors can only dream of – terrifyingly scary. Host is properly scary – I rarely jump at anything in horror movies and this had me so tense I was flat out screaming at one point for one of the characters to get out of the house. Probably the talking point horror of the year and deservedly so.
Host is available to stream on Shudder
5 – The Columnist
Femke (Katja Herbers) is a lifestyle columnist who has committed the ultimate crime of being a vocal woman on the internet. Fed up with every article she writes being flooded with terrible comments on social media and ancient stories/columns being twisted into accusations of terrible behaviour (ie the right-wing playbook to getting someone fired) Femke becomes completely obsessed with those who are obsessed with her. Once she realises that one of the cruel commentators is her next-door neighbour it triggers a terrible series of events that see Femke hunting down and killing her internet trolls.
Hilarious, pitch black satirical commentary on social media trolling with Katja Herbers brilliant as the avenging angel who neglects her family and squanders a real chance of happiness to massacre those who have wronged her. The movie does slightly frustratingly suggest Femke would be far better off just ignoring the comments (easier said than done) but everyone who has ever had some random insult them on social media will take a certain joy in Femke’s deranged quest. “Why can’t you just be kind?” Femke screams while standing over a man with an axe. The final sequence is as haunting as it is triumphant. Brilliant.
No release date as yet.
4- Benny Loves You
Watched with low expectations at FrightFest earlier this year British horror Benny Loves You became one of my fave films of the year and one I would love to watch again right now. Jack (Karl Holt who also writes/directs) is a man child who is forced into adulthood when his parents unexpectedly die in a hilariously awful accent. Bullied horribly at his job (at a toy company) Jack decides it’s time to put away childish things and stashes his plush toy Benny away in storage. But Benny does not appreciate being put away and promptly comes to life murdering anyone that gets in the way of his life with Jack.
Benny Loves You is downright hilarious and remarkably gory. Move over Chucky – Benny is an instant horror icon, an adorable orange cuddly plush who just flat out loves murdering people. He presents his horrific escapades to Jack with a triumphant “Taa Dah” while taking polaroids of his handiwork. You never stop rooting for Benny even when he does terrible things (don’t get too attached to the bosses’ cute dog). Slight markdown for a deeply dated AIDS joke but overall truly hilarious horror-comedy. I want a Benny plush!
No release date as yet.
3 – 12 Hour Shift
It is a testament to how much I loved 12 Hour Shift that I watched it at every horror fest it appeared at. Writer/director Brea Grant’s lacerating black comedy about a bungling black market organ ring is one of the films of the year. 12 Hour Shift follows Mandy (an extraordinary Angela Bettis) a nurse working the night shift at her hospital. When her very ditzy cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth) manages to mess up delivery of a kidney that Mandy had procured for her the bodies start piling up as Regina desperately tries to fix her mistake. Hilariously vicious with wonderfully stylised moments (the cast starts singing hymns at one stage) 12 Hour Shift is a dark comedy of errors. Set against the backdrop of Y2K and with some understated commentary thrown in about the opioid crisis sweeping middle America 12 Hour Shift is bracingly original. David Arquette pops up in a slightly dazed performance that doesn’t really fit with what anyone else is doing but oddly that makes it work. Huge fun.
12 Hour Shift is available to rent in the US
2- The Oak Room
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man walks into a bar….
The Oak Room is a masterclass of storytelling from writer Peter Genoway and director Cody Calahan. Steve (RJ Mitte) returns to his hometown to collect his late father’s possessions which are being looked after by the owner of the local bar Paul (Peter Outerbridge). Paul is openly hostile and Steve tries to placate him with a tale of what happened at The Oak Room. A neo-noir shaggy dog tale at its finest dripping with menace and dread from the very first frame. The cinematography is beautiful clashing neon-drenched bar interiors with the steadily falling snow outside. Mitte is superb switching between puppy-dog enthusiasm and barely concealed menace on the flip of a dime. It builds and builds to a hugely satisfying climax. An absolute gem of a film.
No release date as yet.
1 – The Dark and the Wicked
Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr) are siblings who have returned to their family farm to deal with the imminent death of their father. Their mother is curiously withdrawn and didn’t want them to come. (“She told us not to come” becomes an agonising refrain) When a tragedy occurs Louise and Michael realise that something truly terrible is living at their farm. And it wants their father’s soul…
Post The Exorcist so many films centering around the devil or demons have frankly shown Old Scratch to be a bit toothless. Demons have become almost cuddly and easily defeatable. The Dark and the Wicked changes all that. This one will haunt you my friends. Writer/director Bryan Bertino’s film is cold and bleak and merciless and it cares not that you find this all a bit much. Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot Jr act their socks off as the children who make a terrible decision in coming home to care for their parents while Xander Berkely pitches up for an unsettling cameo. The Dark and the Wicked is truly scary and relentlessly bleak. The perfect 2020 horror!
The Dark and the Wicked comes to Shudder in 2021 (exact date unknown) and can be rented now on Amazon in the US.