Jeffery X Martin’s Top Five Movies of 2021

Yes, I know. Every movie on the following list is a horror movie. I don’t watch many movies outside of that genre. Dramas and romcoms feel emotionally manipulative. Most modern comedies aren’t funny*. Scary is my brand so that’s what I stick with.

The Empty Man

Marketing for The Empty Man was a total botch. Previews for the movie made it look like a Slender Man flick or, even worse, an unneeded riff on The Bye-Bye Man. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Empty Man, based on the graphic novel from BOOM! Studios, is a deep metaphysical journey through urban legends, alternative religions, and the dark lands of memory and belief. Using the well-worn structure of the private eye movie, The Empty Man pushes the boundaries of the horror film with one simple thing: it never insults the intelligence of the audience. This is a movie meant for mature humans who don’t need to see boobs and blood every twelve minutes. With a delightfully twisted story and a devastating third act, The Empty Man is a tremendous example of how to make an excellent movie. Seek out The Empty Man and absorb it. You’ll be thinking about it for days afterward.


Slasher movies have largely denigrated into microbudget affairs with Halloween kiosk costumes and cheap effects. Initiation smartly reinvigorates that tired genre with an intelligent story, compelling characters, and wicked social commentary. A deranged serial killer wreaking havoc on a college campus is nothing new, but Initiation uses that old standby story structure to point a damning finger at the parasitic relationship between college administrations, university sports teams, and the Greek culture that feeds them all. It doesn’t hurt that the mysterious killer uses a wide variety of weapons, leading to some of the better kill scenes of the last few years. Social media also takes a drubbing as certain plot points are furthered by showing text messages on screen. By avoiding silly slasher tropes and lousy production values, director John Berardo has crafted a must-see for horror fans ready for a break from the standard slasher movie. Initiation is a gem.

Halloween Kills

Speaking of slasher movies, no other movie in the franchise has a higher body count than Halloween Kills. Michael Myers kills more than thirty people as he slowly storms his way through Haddonfield while a mob of angry townies forms to take the maniac down once and for all. Halloween Kills may be the most divisive film of the saga with many fans going online to voice their displeasure with the movie’s catchphrase, “Evil dies tonight.” Others were angry because Michael hacks and slashes his way through a group of first responders. These complaints do not retcon the fact that Halloween Kills is scary as hell. The return of characters from other Halloween movies, such as Anthony Michael Hall as Tommy Doyle, is a fascinating story concept. All in all, Halloween Kills is as single-minded as Michael Myers himself. The movie wants to shock and frighten the viewer in the most brutal ways it can. Halloween Kills succeeds, making it the most intense entry in the series since the beloved original. Your opinion may be different, and that’s fine, but Halloween Kills gets my vote as the scariest movie of the year.

Willy’s Wonderland

Nicolas Cage’s inexorable march toward sainthood continues in Willy’s Wonderland, a surreal movie set in the Chuck E. Cheese pizza restaurant from hell. As Cage struggles to clean the abandoned building from top to bottom, the animatronic characters that once entertained customers come to life and seek to slake their thirst for blood. Everything about this movie is twisted fun. The caricaturist design of the robot creatures is nightmarishly creepy. Cage’s methodical destruction of the monsters as they attack leads to some of the wildest fight scenes in recent memory. Cage holds the film together, keeping it grounded in a sense of reality, while never uttering a single word throughout the entire movie. It is a bravura performance which must be seen to be fully appreciated. Willy’s Wonderland also features the best birthday song since the original “Happy Birthday.” That in itself should be enough to inspire a watch. Watch it for a quiet version of Cage Rage and for the destruction of all those adorable critters. Willy’s Wonderland is fast-paced pure fun.

The Night House

What could have been a shallow exploration of grief turns into an atmospheric, labyrinthine mystery in David Bruckner’s The Night House. Rebecca Hall plays Beth, whose husband has ended his own life. Of course, her husband had a closet full of secrets which Beth begins to investigate. Architecture plays a large part in the story, as does the concepts of tricks and traps. Ideally, viewers should go into The Night House blind. Spoilers do the movie no justice. Suffice it to say Hall’s performance is stellar and the script provides more than the regular amount of swerves. Most importantly, The Night House doesn’t leave the viewer feeling hollow at its conclusion. There is substance to this film, a cinematic umami that doesn’t solely rely on jump scares and graphic violence to make its point. Deep and disturbing, The Night House leaves the viewer with indelible mental images and a yearning for more.

* That being said, I did venture outside my chosen genre and watched the Ryan Reynolds video game movie Free Guy. I unabashedly loved that flick. Free Guy was well-written, the visual effects were outstanding, and Reynolds is charming as usual. I highly recommend Free Guy, but don’t tell anyone I said that. I have a reputation to uphold, you know.

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