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Thursday, December 24, 2020

Bloody Disgusting’s Head Critic Meagan Navarro Picks the Top 15 Horror Movies of 2020

Previous Year’s Lists: 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020

The biggest and scariest horror to emerge from 2020 was the year itself. What an insane year it’s been. At the start of the new year, 2020 held so much promise. At least in terms of theatrical horror. CandymanSpiral: From the Book of SawThe Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and Halloween Kills were among the notable franchise releases to ensure horror continued its domination at the box office. That didn’t even touch upon original horror releases like James Wan’s Malignant, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, new A24 titles, and many other movies bumped to next year and beyond. As all of our anticipated films slipped through our grasp as the pandemic continued to eat up time like a black hole, horror still thrived.

As we were all forced to navigate unprecedented times, streaming services and VOD markets stepped up to fill the release void in a staggering way. It’s impressive just how many genre offerings we received this year, or even in October alone. Even film festivals became more accessible than ever with virtual editions. All of which to say that it’s been a weird, weird period, and horror delivered the much welcome catharsis, comfort, escapism, and chills needed to carry us through. Sometimes where you least expected it.

That means narrowing down the top ten of the year’s best, when the very definition of horror feels more pliable than ever, proved a tricky task. So, instead of ten, here are my top fifteen.

15. Hunter Hunter

Everything about Hunter Hunter seems like your average survival thriller. Save for a few plot details; you think you know exactly what to expect. Writer/Director Shawn Linden wants you lulled into that false sense of familiarity to make the harrowing final act hit so much harder. With a deceptively simple setup, Linden presents a harrowing pressure cooker for Anne as all the red herrings, plot threads, and dangers slowly converge to create one of the most intense third acts to come along in recent memory. Within the familiar survival thriller setup lies a film unafraid to get savage, delivering one of the most hardcore endings in recent memory. It’s as brutal as it is strangely cathartic, but boy, is it grim as hell.

14. Scare Me

Fred (Josh Ruben) is an aspiring writer who rents a snowy cabin for a weekend as an attempt to end his writer’s block. It so happens that his cabin neighbor is a best-selling horror novelist, Fanny (Aya Cash). When a storm causes a blackout in the neighborhood, Fanny shows up at Fred’s door and challenges him to tell a scary story. As the pair embark on a battle of wits and storytelling, Fred’s insecurities come to the forefront as he’s forced to acknowledge that Fanny is far better at spinning yarns. As a result, the tensions between them continue to mount over the evening, leading to a dangerous confrontation. Ruben pulls triple duty, starring, writing, and directing this razor-sharp horror-comedy, making his feature debut. Scare Me makes for a shining example of minimalism done well. It’s a cozy movie for those who love wisecracking dialogue, witty writing, and a complicated dissection on writing fiction conventions.

13. Breaking Surface

The setup for the aquatic Breaking Surface sounds familiar; two sisters on a diving excursion find themselves facing a grueling race against the clock when one of them becomes trapped on the ocean floor. Instead of sharks and a required suspension of belief, writer/director Joachim Hedén opts for realism and ingenious situations, creating one of the most intense and propulsive survival thrillers in recent memory. It never struggles to find new ways to prolong the answer to whether these sisters will make it out alive. It’s lean, simple, and focused solely on the survival component, with a sharp focus on realism and an apparent depth of knowledge for diving. Hedén demonstrates that mother nature doesn’t need sharks or aquatic beasties to kill you; it can knock you out in several ways with alarming ease.

12. Anything for Jackson

Grieving elderly couple Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) and Dr. Henry Walsh (Julian Richings) abduct pregnant Shannon Becker (Konstantina Mantelos) with the intent to transfer the spirit of their recently deceased grandson into her unborn child. The only problem is that the Walshs are novices in Satanism, and their attempts to perform the ritual wind up acting as an open invitation to ghosts and malevolent entities. Director Justin G. Dyck delivers on creepy atmosphere and memorably unnerving apparitions, but he also injects plenty of dark humor into the mix. Throw in a core group of infectiously likable characters, and you have the perfect spell for a wickedly fun horror-comedy.

11. Spontaneous

The romance between seniors Mara (Katherine Langford) and Dylan (Charlie Plummer) has barely begun when students in their high school inexplicably start to explode. Literally explode, like human water balloons. Without rhyme or reason, or any answers by authorities, this afflicted class has no other choice but to live each day as though it’s their last. Because it very well might be. It proves to be a catalyst for love, loss, and bloody mayhem in this coming-of-age tale, unlike any other. What starts as a teen rom-com full of tense moments, shocking splatter, and horror movie references becomes something much more poignant. It’s not a horror movie, but the copious use of blood, splattering brain matter, and bone makes for a horror adjacent coming-of-age story that has a blast killing teens.

10. Underwater

Underwater is a grand spectacle film that feels explicitly tailored for the horror fan, one that doesn’t bother with pretension and dives straight into the horror. There’s not even a first act. The inciting event that knocks out an entire underwater drilling station and leaves its handful of survivors scrambling across the ocean floor to safety happens within the first few minutes. While director William Eubank (2014’s The Signal) does borrow from some obvious influences, it doesn’t make it any less fun or nerve-fraying. And it surely doesn’t prepare you for an epic third act reveal. It’s the perfect popcorn movie, full of splendor and chills.

9. The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion

As a child, Ja-yoon escaped from a facility and passed out at the edge of a farm. Years later, she’s been adopted by the family and has no memory of life before them. When dangerous people from her past threaten everything that she holds dear, she’ll have to uncover the truth. First and foremost, the one thing to know going in is that this was written and directed by Hoon-jung Park, the screenwriter behind the excellent and disturbing I Saw the Devil. While The Witch: Subversion is nowhere near as bleak, it has a biting edge of darkness. It also has an insane amount of visceral violence packed in, especially in the third act.

8. Swallow

Haley Bennett stars as Hunter, a newly pregnant housewife who finds herself increasingly compelled to consume dangerous objects. The more her husband and his overbearing parents remove control from her life, the worse her newfound obsession grows. Carlo Mirabella-Davis takes an unconventional genre approach in this psychodrama that begs the question of why Bennett isn’t more of a star. A moody, psychological exploration of the sometimes-harmful ways people cope with trauma and repressed darkness, Swallow makes for one of the bigger surprises of the year.

7. His House

Husband-and-wife Sudanese refugees Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) have been through more than most endure in a lifetime. They’ve fled their war-torn village, crossed the ocean, survived a degrading stint in a U.K. detention facility, and have been finally granted an opportunity for housing in their new country. The home may be large, but they face hostility in and outside its moldy walls. Remi Weekes’s feature debut transforms the refugee experience into a terrifying haunted house horror film, with expertly crafted scares. For all the existential terror that Bol and Rial face in their new lives, the director keeps a firm grip on the supernatural, too.

6. Get Duked!

Ninian Doff’s feature debut defies easy classification, blending a coming-of-age comedy with a survival thriller. It’s violent, hallucinogenic, and downright hysterical. A bumbling foursome of delinquent teens, Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben), and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), and homeschooled loner Ian (Samuel Bottomley), embark on a trek across the Highlands for an award, yet find themselves dealing with the locals. Some want to party, and others are determined to hunt them down for sport. The genre elements become harder to identity until its bloody third act because of its emphasis on stoner hijinks and wacky humor. Still, this innovative little genre mashup will worm its way into your heart and leave you grinning from ear to ear.

5. Come to Daddy

Written by Toby Harvard (The Greasy Stranger) and directed by Ant Timpson (producer of The Greasy StranglerTurbo Kid, and Deathgasm), Come to Daddy offers a surefire trip into the bizarre. Elijah Wood stars as Norval, a troubled thirty-something desperate to reconnect with his estranged dad. To his horror, though, he finds dad (Stephen McHattie) a contemptuous drunk. When you think you have your fingers on the pulse of this thriller, Timpson pulls the rug out from under you. There’s no accurate way of predicting this narrative’s trajectory and what insanity is in store; this is a genre-bending poster child of a thrill ride. All of it is tied together by one peculiar, macabre sense of humor. It’s an absurd journey full of twists and thrills, best suited for a midnight crowd.

4. The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of the Universal Classic Monster is a masterclass in suspense from beginning to end. He wields negative space like a weapon to maximize the terror, training the viewer to follow the camera’s gaze and fill in the emptiness with the invisible threat stalking Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss). In this update, the mad scientist relies on technology to pull off his invisibility, and the high-tech new suit might induce trypophobia. Moss delivers a powerhouse performance as a woman struggling to break free from a psychotic and abusive lover, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Whannell delivers a potent psychological thriller that maximizes the suspense and violence in ways that leave you breathless.

3. Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg’s long-awaited follow-up to Antiviral was well worth the wait. In this mind-bending sci-fi thriller, Andrea Riseborough stars as Tasya Vos, a high-tech assassin who takes over other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets. When she inhabits the body of her latest host, Colin (Christopher Abbot), his soul isn’t quite as willing to let her take over thanks to her weakened mental state, and the war over control threatens to obliterate them both. It’s insanely gory and violent. Matching the glorious gore and intricate character/actor work is the slick production. Cold, slick sci-fi meets a Grand Guignol aesthetic, and it’s stunning. That sterile coldness means it’s a little bit tougher to acclimate to this world and its detached characters, but it’s a must for fans of cerebral thrillers. While the film stands on its own, no matter the cut, you should opt to watch the Uncut version if you can.

2. The Dark and the Wicked

Bryan Bertino, a filmmaker with a reputation for bleak horror, creates unrelenting dread and evil in the vacuum of loss here. The result is the most terrifying film of the year, rife with suffocating dread, disturbing visuals, and a haunting atmosphere. Siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return to their childhood home to say their final goodbyes to their dying father, much to their mother’s disappointment. She’d warned them not to come, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why; a wicked presence has taken root on the family’s rural land, and it wants them all. Ireland and Abbott Jr. deliver tremendous performances. The horror is intrinsic to a family coping with grief and loss, but it’s heightened to a horrifying degree thanks to Bertino’s distinct style and twisted vision of evil. It makes for a volatile, frightening viewing experience steeped in nihilism.

1. Relic

Natalie Erika James’s feature debut uses haunted house horror tropes to relay a haunting, melancholy rumination on dementia’s devastating effects on the afflicted and their loved ones. When Edna (Robyn Nevin) mysteriously goes missing, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive at her home to find her. Edna pops back up without a hint of where’s she’s been, though there’s something off about her mental state. Worse, she seems to have brought something back with her. James isn’t interested in hand-holding audiences through her evocative and metaphorical tale, but for those who have ever lost a parent to illness, be it cancer or Alzheimer’s, it hits close to home. And the stages of grief are universally recognizable. 

Relic is 2020 horror at its most powerful.


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