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.

Honorable Mentions:
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.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 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.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 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.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 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.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 7) My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, directed by Jonathan Cuartas

Thomas, the youngest in a trio of siblings, is suffering from a mysterious and debilitating illness that prevents him from going out in the daylight. His sickness also forces him to drink human blood in order to survive. His older siblings, Jessie and Dwight, troll their small suburban town to get him what he needs. They lure strangers to their home, kill them, and drain their blood. Jessie understands that this is the only way to keep Thomas alive, but Dwight struggles with his actions. He loves his brother, but his conscience makes murder hard. This creates tension with Jessie. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To uses vampire mythology to tell the story of family drama. While it doesn’t shy away from violence and gore, the film plays more like an indie arthouse flick than a slasher or monster movie, impressively combining old genres into something new.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 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.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 5) The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam), directed by Kimo Stamboel

Directed by Kimo Stamboel (Macabre), and written by Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves), The Queen of Black Magic is a very loose remake of the 1981 Indonesian film of the same name. While the original was a wild, gross-out gem of revenge horror, the remake appoints a new queen with a more sinister tone. In this version of the tale, three friends bring their families to the orphanage they grew up in. The reunion was arranged to give final respects to the institution’s terminally ill director. But the past catches up with the present as the home’s dark history is revealed. Making effective use of traditional horror tropes, The Queen of Black Magic is loaded with frightening imagery and tense, supernatural scares.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 4) Come True, directed by Anthony Scott Burns

In this cerebral sci-fi horror that would appeal to fans of Philip K. Dick, a young teen named Sarah, desperate for money, joins a paid sleep study. It becomes clear that study isn’t what she thinks it is. Come True opens up as a twisty narrative that draws in elements of medical horror, paranormal mythology, and Jungian theory. It’s a lot to take in. But it works because of writer/director Anthony Scott Burns’s attention to detail. He takes all these seemingly random pieces and snaps them together into a calculated, if disorienting, narrative. The movie is set by its tonal quality. The imagery is stark, low-lit, and tinted with nighttime shades of purple, green, and blue. Underlined by a deep, horror-synth soundtrack, Come True unravels like a fever dream that stays in the dreamer’s head long after they awaken.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 3) Lamb, directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson

A childless sheep-farming couple living on a remote farm discover a newborn and raise it as their own. To go deeper into the plot would spoil the film. Lamb is a strange, horror-adjacent, modern folktale. There isn’t much dialogue between characters. Most of the narrative is told through visual language. And first-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson showcases quite a vocabulary. Lamb is a slow-tempo story that wallows in the haunting beauty of Icelandic landscapes. Ominous mountains cutting through clouds of white fog command the viewer’s attention. The shots around the animals are particularly alluring. Jóhannsson, along with cinematographer Eli Erenson, captures these creatures in a way that gives them as much potency as their human counterparts. And that’s exactly where this creepy fairy-tale unfolds.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 2) Titane, directed by Julia Ducornau

Alexia loves cars. She works as a showgirl, modeling on them for the male gaze. This goes beyond simple fascination. Early in the film, Alexia has sex with and is impregnated by a Cadillac. While this makes conceptual sense – objectophilia is the opposite of sexual objectification – the oddness of the scene is a signal, warning viewers to abandon their expectations. After a dark turn of events, Alexia, on the lam, disguises herself as a grieving father’s long lost son. From here, the narrative makes a dramatic shift, moving from surrealist horror to family drama. Titane weaves in themes of gender and identity. Steroid-addicted Vincent, who is Alexia's housemate and father figure, struggles to develop a healthy grieving mechanism due to his toxic masculinity. Alexia, posing as Vincent’s son, takes painful measures to hide her womanhood. Even the violence calls to gender; most of the murders are committed by object penetration. Loaded with visual metaphors that support the theme, Julia Ducornau’s (Raw) examination of bodily anxieties, vulnerabilities, and gender trappings in Titane is a brilliant, wild ride.

small-coverBuy from Amazon 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.

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Richie Corelli
Staff Reviewer
Richie isn’t ignoring you. He just can’t hear you over the music. He’s been plugged in to his headphones for decades, diving into the zine culture of the 90s, blogging relentlessly through the 00s and beyond. He knows more about certain bands than he knows about himself. His love of music is rivaled only by his love of horror. If it’s creepy and spooky, he’s into it. Horror DNA sutures his two passions together, giving him a platform to analyze and express his feelings on horror scores, soundtracks and live performances. It’s a celebration of all that goes bump in the night.
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