Richie's Top Ten Horror Movies of 2021
Written by Richie Corelli
2021 was supposed to be the year that everything got cleaned up. A vaccine was developed to help humankind recover from the worst pandemic in a century. Everything was finally back to normal… except it wasn’t.
COVID-19 mutated and evolved and scientists scrambled to keep up. The virus became increasingly politicized, deepening already divided opinions on how to respond. Meanwhile, the problems that have always plagued the globe continued to persist. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings, drug wars, riots, and environmental disasters raged as they always have; it’s the toxicity of human existence.
But there were bright spots. Not everyone was awful. And after a year of quarantine and isolation, people started going out again. They started socializing. Restaurants resumed dine-in services. Concert halls saw artists return to their stages. Theaters began reopening. Movies were back.
A few major studio horror releases, some of which were temporarily shelved due to COVID-19, finally lit the movie screens. A Quiet Place: Part II, Halloween Kills, The Conjuring 3, Candyman, The Forever Purge, Malignant, Last Night in Soho, and a host of other movies brought people out. Some of these films were quite good. Others weren’t. Either way, it was nice to be in a theater.
What follows is a summary of my favorite horror movies of the year. For the purpose of this list, I’m focusing on some of the smaller films. I’ve always had a tendency for what folks call a “slow burn.” I enjoy big-budget blockbuster pictures, but my heart gravitates to movies that are a little more intimate. And, like my 2020 list, I’m casting a wide net on what I’m considering horror. My picks of the year spread out and cover quiet character studies, scary cyberpunk, and traditional hauntings. I even have a violent fairy tale in the mix.
When I was putting this together, I had about 30 movies that I was considering. A lot had to be cut. That’s a good thing. It means that the genre is thriving. It means that, in 2021, when the horrors of real life became too overwhelming, the horrors of cinema gave us an exit.
Before we get to my favorites, here are some that just missed the cut.
Alexandre Aja’s claustrophobic sci-fi, Oxygen.
Natasha Kermani’s clever, feminist slasher, Lucky.
Corinna Faith’s shadowy atmospheric gem, The Power.
Sion Sono’s over-the-top vehicle for Nicolas Cage, Prisoners of the Ghostland.
Steven Kostanski’s silly, funny throwback, Psycho Goreman.
Ryan Kruger’s unscripted, hallucinogenic, alien mind-bender, Fried Barry.
David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s cat-and-mouse thriller, The Boy Behind the Door.
Ivan Kavanagh’s blistering maternal narrative, Son.
Banjong Pisanthanakun’s docu-style possession chiller, The Medium.
And now, here are my top films of the year; my favorite escapes.
|10) The Vigil, directed by Keith Thomas
Yakov is struggling. After a traumatic event, his mental and financial health are in ruin. He has lost his Orthodox Jewish faith. But when his former rabbi offers him $400 to act as a shomer – a guardian of a deceased person’s body until burial – Yakov reluctantly takes the job. The Vigil goes deep with its lore as it unearths an obscure demon from Jewish tradition known as Mazzik. The movie plays out as a typical bump-in-the-night story, but it is deepened by subtext. Themes of grief, guilt, and anti-Semitism give The Vigil layers. Imagery by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein (The Eyes of my Mother) gives the movie chills. Convincing acting by Dave Davis gives the movie emotion.
|9) Censor, directed by Prano Bailey-Bond
Enid works for the British Board of Film Classification during the Video Nasties era. She spends her days watching and studying horror movies on videocassette, deciding what is morally acceptable for public release. During one of her viewings, a scene triggers a flashback of a traumatic event from her own life. As Enid further explores this, she slips into the ugly side of grief and denial, leaving her to spiral down a horrific path. Censor is a smart slasher and a love letter to horror. The violence, the garish color palette, and the synth soundtrack by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, look back to horror classics while polishing them with a more contemporary feel.
|8) In the Earth, directed by Ben Wheatley
During a global pandemic, Martin travels to a remote government outpost to reconnect and work with a former scientist colleague named Olivia. Alma is a park scout who leads Martin on what is planned to be a two-day hike to Olivia’s location. But things don’t go as expected, leaving Martin and Alma to face unheard-of dangers. Director Ben Wheatley (Kill List) covers a lot of ground while moving with an unhurried pace. A sense of loneliness permeates while obsessions in faith and science coalesce with a common, horrifying goal. Supported by an otherworldly, bulbous soundtrack by Clint Mansell, and driven by tight-chested acting from Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia, this folk-horror creeper is one that continues to haunt after the movie ends.
|6) The Night House, directed by David Bruckner
Beth, a suffering widow expertly portrayed by Rebecca Hall, has been seeing and hearing strange things at night. She believes that her recently deceased husband, Owen, may be trying to contact her from the other side. During the day, against the advice of her friends, she begins to look into Owen’s secret past. As the film moves forward, these two plotlines converge in unexpected and terrifying ways. The Night House is a combination of character study, mystery thriller, and ghost story. It’s a look at depression and alcoholism brought on by grief. But more than anything else, it’s just damn scary.
|1) Saint Maud, directed by Rose Glass
Maud talks directly to God. She works as a caregiver, giving comfort to a terminally ill woman named Amanda. Maud can’t protect Amanda’s dying body, but through God’s word, she hopes to save her soul. Amanda’s reaction to Maud’s piety, and the relationship the two foster, sets the story up for what comes next. Saint Maud is a fascinating character study made stronger by an outstanding performance by actress Morfydd Clark (Crawl). It’s a look at religious zealotry entwined with regret, remorse, loneliness, and mental illness. It’s an impressive debut for writer/director Rose Glass, who keeps to a slow, balanced tone throughout the picture. The psychology of Maud dips and pivots while elements of body horror make the pain tactile. It culminates into a final chapter that audiences will not soon forget.
This page includes affiliate links where Horror DNA may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.