No one is out here arguing that 2020 was a good year in most respects. But horror films (and novels) have been popping all year. We’re in a boom with horror auteurs stacking great movies one after the other. The boom arguably started in 2014-2015, when Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, and Robert Egger’s The Witch were released in a little over a one year period.
This boom, unlike previous periods of horror, has given more opportunities to women, people of color, and LGBQT people. Diversity in front of and behind the camera in horror has led to a better genre, which was demonstrated clearly by the excellent offerings of 2020.
1. Color Out of Space
Nicholas Cage has been having a renaissance. Mandy made it clear that for years, Cage has been miscast. His great strength is maximalism. He pushes his performances well-past the point of believability. While realism falls by the wayside, his performances crackle with an intensity that’s impossible to look away from.
He brings that and more to Richard Stanley’s first feature since being fired by fax from the set of his 1996 adaptation The Island of Dr. Moreau. In Color out of Space, an adaptation of a short story of the same name by unapologetic racist H.P. Lovecraft, a family is transformed by an alien creature after a meteor crashes on their land. It’s terrifying, and many are arguing, the best film adaptation of Lovecraft’s cosmic brand of horror. Stanley also manages to divorce the story from Lovecraft’s racism with how he handles the most prominent character of color, Ward Philips (Elliot Knight).
2. Skull: The Mask
Skull: The Mask is about a skull mask that’s found during an archeological dig. When worn, the mask either destroys or possesses the body of its wearer.
A lot of films try for a semblance of realism. Others, like Skull: The Mask, aim for something else entirely. In the case of this Brazilian B-movie, the aim is to make a movie as unimaginably cool as possible. In place of sensible character development, there are priests who fight with swords hidden in life-size Crucifixes, massive professional wrestlers powerbombing everyone, and a witch dressed like Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman fighting a living mask. All of it is tremendous fun.
Natalie Erika James’ Relic is an astounding directorial debut. The young Australian takes audiences into the lives of three generations of women as a daughter and granddaughter try to find a missing matriarch. Unlike the first two entries on the list, Relic thrives in its emotional nuances. These aren’t the throwaway characters of a slasher film waiting to be stabbed. They’re well-realized, fully fleshed out people .
While the film is quiet, the close-knit relationships between the characters makes the scary moments much more frightening. In fact, they’re so well-written and well-acted, Relic could’ve dropped the horror elements and still been a successful film. It’s the kind of movie that makes the Oscars ignoring horror such a disappointment year after year.
4. Scare Me
Scare Me might be the most experimental film on this list. In the movie, Fred (director-writer-producer Josh Ruben) rents a cabin to finish his novel. When he gets snowed in, another writer staying nearby, Fanny (Aya Cash), comes over and suggests they have a scary-story telling contest. Carlo (Chris Redd) joins in while delivering a pizza.
Scare Me’s excellent sound design breathes life into it’s dull-on-paper premise. While Fred, Fanny, and Carlo tell their stories, the sound effects and shadows around the performers bring the tales to life. Ruben, Cash, and Redd act the hell out of their respective parts, making some hilarious facial expressions throughout. Hopefully, Scare Me’s low-budget premise will inspire imitators. I need more films like this.
While Host (#10 on this arbitrarily ordered list) might be more timely, Amulet is a close second. It’s a film that explores the theme of forgiveness and feels extremely apt to this cultural moment.
Romola Garai, who is an experienced actress but first time director-writer, turns her attention to Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), showing us his life as a soldier in a war and the life he has after he immigrated to London. The two storylines eventually converge, which is when the monsters arrive. Like Relic, Amulet’s monsters are a bonus because the characters are so well-realized.
6. The Lodge
Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz co-directed the 2015 Goodnight Mommy, a terrifying film about two little boys torturing their mother as she recovers from plastic surgery. The Lodge is their first English effort, but they didn’t leave the creepy kids in Austria.
The Lodge follows Grace (Riley Keough) going on vacation with her boyfriend, who she met as he investigated the suicide cult she grew up in, Richard (Richard Armitage) and his children. When Richard leaves them alone, strange things begin to happen. The Lodge is a quiet, yet deeply unsettling film.
7. Vampires vs. the Bronx
There’s a new-ish trope that’s been showing up a lot in recent movies that always make me cry. When the heroes of a film are in danger and the community the friends they’ve made along the way shows up behind them (no matter how outlandishly quiet those friends are before they appear all at once), I cry. We’ll leave the reasons why that gets me for my therapist, but Vampires vs. the Bronx had me bawling.
Vampires vs. The Bronx is the feature-debut of veteran SNL director, Osmany Rodriguez. It tells the story of 3 teenage boys who discover that vampires are moving in to gentrify their neighborhood. Rodriguez gets great performances of his young cast, creating a hilarious, horror film for middle-grade viewers.
8. First Love
Takashi Miike is one of Japan’s most prolific directors, pumping out multiple films per year nearly every year of this century. What’s remarkable are how good so many of those films are: Audition (which debuted slightly before 2000), Ichi the Killer, Graveyards of Honor, and so many others. First Love is another excellent audition to Miike’s filmography.
It’s a wild film, where two rival gangs fight each other for a MacGuffin. The fly in the ointment is Leo (Masataka Kubota), a boxer who’s been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Because he thinks he’s going to die, he’s got nothing to lose. Like I said in my review of the film earlier this year, First Love plays like Guy Ritchie’s Snatch with sword fights thrown in for good measure.
Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott turned in one of the best performances of the year in Possessor, each playing Tasya Vos. Vos is an assassin who works with a syndicate that electronically hijacks the bodies of people close to their targets. Riseborough plays Vos in her own body, and Abbott plays Vos as she struggles to maintain control of Colin Tate. It’s a daunting task, and the two performers pull it off seamlessly.
The film has excellent special effects, which creates dreamlike sequences with wax melting and a horrifying, half-melted mask of Riseborough’s face for Abbott to wear. It’s Brandon Cronenberg’s second directorial feature, and he handles complicated subject material admirably.
Like many of the films I love, Host has a simple premise. A group of friends decides to have a seance over Zoom. While Haley (Haley Bishop) is taking it very seriously, her friends are not. Which leads to them inviting a demon into all of their homes simultaneously.
Host might have been 2020’s biggest surprise. Coming in at a little under an hour, it’s marketing bragged that it was shot entirely on Zoom. Even without those things though, Host is astonishingly good. It generates a tremendous amount of tension with quick pacing and rapid fire scares. Many of them work because director/co-writer Rob Savage and co-writers Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd do excellent work manipulating the common glitches of video chats.