Well, here we are…we’ve reached the end of a very, very wild year and I don’t think that any of us will be sad to see the door hit 2020 on the ass on its way out. Obviously, one of the biggest blows of this pandemic, business-wise, was dealt to movie theaters. However, in a year where a lot of big-ticket horror films got pushed to 2021 (Halloween Kills, A Quiet Place Part 2, etc.), there were, thankfully, still a ton of excellent horror films released.
One note on that: when I first started writing for Horror News Network, we had to rely mainly on screeners sent from indie film companies in order to discover the real gems of the genre. Films like 2011’s Midnight Son and 2012’s Excision and American Mary, which were all my favorites of those years, weren’t available for streaming and they certainly weren’t in my Connecticut theaters. My point is, thanks to streaming services like Shudder, Netflix and Amazon Prime, damned near every genre film that we want to see is right there for the watching – that’s certainly something for us horror fans to be thankful for.
Okay, now the disclaimer: while I know that the title of the article is “Top 20 Horror Films…”, keep in mind that these are just my favorites, so I’m sure that you’ll disagree with some of my choices – as well as some of my intentional omissions. And as always, the order of the below films is alphabetical, not ranked…but if you absolutely MUST know, I will say at the end which 2020 horror film was my absolute favorite.
Written and directed by David Marmor, 1BR is a film that I’d been hearing about for a while as it was one of the darlings of 2019’s Fantasia Film Festival. Thankfully, Dark Sky Films scooped it up and got it released this year. While you may have had a bad roommate or landlord at one time in your life, I hope it wasn’t as bad as poor Sarah’s experience in her new apartment. Check it out.
Anything for Jackson
A late edition to the list, Anything for Jackson could have easily slipped into silly-mode but director Justin Dyck managed to balance the few funny moments while amping up the terror – a real treat of a film that teaches pregnant women to stay away from old couples.
I have to admit that I think I was about an hour into Bacurau when I found myself wondering if this was even a horror movie but I never considered shutting it off because it was so damned interesting! From the crazy cast of characters to the beautiful, if barren, Brazilian landscape – I was hooked from the start AND THEN it got fucking nuts. Give it a go.
Color Out of Space
An early addition to the list as it got its US release in January of this year, Color Out of Space marks the directorial return of Richard Stanley after the debacle that was 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (please watch the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau if you’ve never seen it; it’s bat-shit crazy). Also, Nick Cage knocked it out of the park in this amazing H.P. Lovecraft adaptation.
Don’t Listen (Voces)
A ruthless little ghost story with some evil twists, Don’t Listen will make you question what you hear.
All the yes! Freaky is a twist on the old body-swap comedies like Freaky Friday, 18 Again!, Like Father Like Son, etc. Writer/Director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) takes that old formula and turns it on its ear and gets stellar performances from leads Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn – a TON of gory fun.
I think that maybe first-time feature film writer/director Remi Weekes sold his soul to make such a perfect film so early in his career. But seriously, this haunted house/refugee film is so hard-hitting and emotional that it was one of the easiest additions to this list.
A Korean family moves to a giant new home that they purchased cheaply at auction (never a great sign). They’re trying to get away from the people who know that the family contains a priest who lost a girl during an exorcism but the family must soon face the same demon that took the girl. Korea always seems to scare me, dammit.
Upon first watch, you’ll realize that there is no doubt that Possessor came from the mind of a Cronenberg. A truly messed up, gory mind-fuck of a film.
I first saw the subject of dementia/Alzheimer’s tackled in a horror film with 2014’s splendid The Taking of Deborah Logan; anyone who has seen firsthand how horrible a thing it is, knows how sad it is to witness. Relic really takes it to the next level and creates a terrifying/sad experience for the viewer. Another incredible first-time writer director to watch here in Natalie Erika James.
And another first-time writer/director here in Jon Stevenson who conjures up a perfect tale of a nerd named David in 1990 trying to find love via a video dating service but instead stumbles upon a tape of a guy named Andy offering friendship – something that David needs more than a girl and something that he’s willing to sacrifice for. Great turn by Wil Wheaton as Andy. This one’s a gem.
Honestly, is Sarah Paulson ever not amazing? The film’s star Kiera Allen matches her in this, her first feature film, about a young disabled girl who wishes to go off to college but is slowly realizing that maybe mom (Paulson) doesn’t want her to leave. Very creepy and incredibly well done.
I don’t know if this is a horror movie as much as it is a love story? Or a dark comedy? What I do know is that it’s gory and it’s great. Katherine Langford as Mara is just awesome and Spontaneous is a hell of an emotional rollercoaster ride through a really screwed up situation. Loved it.
Ten Minutes to Midnight
Okay, okay…some of you are going to say that I put TMTM in because I have a background appearance in it but to that I say nay! Other than the pleasure of getting to see my mug in the movie for a few seconds, you get a hell of a movie. Scary? Yes. Bloody? Definitely. But what you’re really in for is an incredibly well-told story about what it’s like to dedicate your life to something just to have it unceremoniously stripped away from you when you’re deemed “too old” to cut the mustard. The brothers Bloomquist show again that their stories are much deeper than cheap scares and gore (see: Long Lost).
The Call (Kol)
Another one out of Korea, The Call had me pausing to think and rewinding to catch stuff that I missed. A really top-notch premise that had me yelling out “oh shit!” several times. Don’t sleep on this one.
The Dark and the Wicked
Maybe the scariest film of the year for me? There’s just something about well done paranormal films that really get to me. From Bryan Bertino (The Strangers), The Dark and the Wicked uses Bertino’s own family farmhouse as the backdrop for this evil tale. Marin Ireland as Louise turns in one of the best performances since Toni Collette in Hereditary.
The Invisible Man
I admittedly went in with a lot of skepticism and ire. I don’t like remakes, especially ones of classic films that don’t need to be remade. But Leigh Whannell (Saw, Upgrade) went a completely different way and Elisabeth Moss’ final girl was just awesome. On the strength of this adaptation, Whannell is now getting a crack at remaking The Wolfman (grrr).
This one holds a special place in my heart as it was the last film my wife and I got to see in the theater before the world came to a crashing halt last Spring. While I did have some issues (can kids really be that mean?) – Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala proved that the suspense that they were able to create with their first film Goodnight Mommy was no mistake.
We followed this one closely at Horror News Network as we’ve been fans of Jill Gevargizian’s work since her first short film Call Girl. I was a proud backer of the short film for The Stylist that was released in 2016 (and screened to a receptive audience at Connecticut Cult Classics‘ Texas Chainsaw Massacre double feature) and was thrilled to back the project when she decided to make it into a feature film. As a backer, I was able to screen the film this year and…wow. An excellent story that looks beautiful on film and an incredible job by Najarra Townsend reprising her role of Claire. Don’t take my word for it, Arrow Video acquired the distribution rights so you’ll see it for yourself in 2021.
Being a punk rock guy myself, I’m always a sucker for any punk-related films. I totally marked out when I saw the Minor Threat and Dead Kennedy shirts in Green Room as well as the Black Flag and Blood for Blood stickers in High Fidelity. So, that said, of course I’d fall in love with a film as looney as Uncle Peckerhead. A young punk band quits their jobs to go on tour for the first time and end up recruiting a roadie who turns into a flesh eating demon at midnight. Sound ridiculous? Well, it is but it’s also a blast and one I totally recommend.
Alright kids…that’s twenty! But wait, there’s more! I had two documentaries that I really, really, really wanted to include in my “top 20” but I had a hard time going back and forth in my head and ultimately decided to keep the “top 20” locked down to straight films. BUT, since this is my list, I’m going to give them to you anyway:
Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street
If you’ve ever seen A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, you’ve undoubtedly caught on to it’s (unhidden) homoerotic-ness. Scream, Queen dives right into it along with the film’s lead actor (and CT HorrorFest alumni) Mark Patton. Easily one of my favorite documentaries on the horror genre.
Tales of the Uncanny
What horror fan doesn’t love anthology films? I cannot count how many times I see a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram post with someone asking for a recommendation on a good horror anthology that they’ve never seen. This doc, put together this year by the team at Severin Films, does a deep dive into the history of the anthology discussing literally everything from Kwaidan to Dead of Night to V/H/S. Interviews such genre greats as Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Jovanka Vuckovic and Brian Yuza AND includes, as a special treat, 1919’s Eerie Tales and 1949’s Unusual Tales in full!
Alright, that’s really it. You got my “top 20” plus a bonus of 2 incredible documentaries. I did promise that I would tell you which were my favorites of the year and I won’t disappoint you: it’s Color Out of Space with His House coming in at a close second; although I obviously love all of the “top 20”, those two are the standouts for me. I do have to mention that there were a lot of awesome films this year that deserve your attention: After Midnight, Love and Monsters, Open 24 Hours, The Owners, Swallow, The Rental…I could keep going but I won’t.
Onwards to a healthy and happy 2021!