As we put a sickly, stained bow on 2021 and cast it off into the ether, it’s time for an internet-friendly ‘Best Of’ listicle about the best horror movies I saw this year! In no particular order, here’s a rundown of the 2021 films I liked the most and which you should seek out if you’re a blood-and-gorehound like I am.
I wrote a whole lot about Steven Kostanski’s Psycho Goreman this year, and it’s distillation of pure joy onscreen was a refreshing tonic for a lot of 2021’s negativity, blandness, and general malaise. It’s bombastic and hilarious and every frame of it drips with Kostanski’s expert craftsmanship and love for genre film. In many ways, it coloured a lot of my movie-watching for the rest of the year because it represented a sort of measuring stick for both independent and big budget projects, and it was a tough one to beat. It was also one of a scant few titles I bought in physical media form, thanks to Raven Banner’s inspired “Hunky Boys Edition” which packed in trading cards for the film’s characters and tons of other goodies. More than any other film in 2021, Psycho Goreman was the movie I’d put on when I was feeling a little down.
Well, colour me baffled. For all the wonderful surprises at the Toronto International Film Festival this year I, for one, did not expect that one of my favourite horror movies at this year’s TIFF would be a Christmas movie (!) starring Keira Knightley (!!) that features Michael Buble on it’s soundtrack (!!!)
Silent Night opens in the fashion of so many Christmas movies. A family making their way to a communal space, while one sibling and her kids and husband frantically race to get dinner, decorations, and the rest of the festivities prepared. All of this is placed on the backdrop of an infuriatingly-catchy Michael Buble song about Christmas sweaters. Damn you, Buble – now it’s in my head again.
But there’s a darkness – a pitch-blackness, actually – brewing just underneath. It’s hinted at as normal family tensions give way to discussions of something far, more ominous. It’s revealed that Britain – and the rest of the world – is slowly being consumed by a pink cloud that causes anyone in it’s path to die horribly, bleeding from their eyes and mouths. Each character has their own explanations for why this is happening -a Russian plot, or the earth finally fighting back against humanity – but all agree that death is inevitable, and it’s not going to be pretty. The literal cloud hanging over the Christmas festivities doesn’t stop the stiff-upper-lipped clan from celebrating, though, and from pushing aside the certainty of their impending death in an effort to have one last Christmas together, no matter how dysfunctional.
Featuring great performances from an ensemble cast that includes Knightley, Roman Griffin-Davis, Matthew Goode, and Lily-Rose Depp, Silent Night plays as one of the best horrors of the year, whether it’s enjoyed during the holiday season or not.
As with Psycho Goreman, I’ve already written an awful lot about this year’s Palm d’Or winner Titane. Between my breathless anticipation in The Week in Horror and my review from the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was one of only a tiny handful of screenings I attended in person, you’re probably sick of hearing about it from me. But at the risk of annoying you further, I’ll say that Julia Ducournau’s mind-bending horror has stuck with me for months, and I can already tell that specific scenes from Titane have been indelibly seared into my brain. If you slept on this one this year and have any sort of affinity for horror, I think it’s damn near essential viewing.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched
Is it cheating to include a 3+ hour documentary about folk horror here? I don’t care, because as much as everything else on this list is a labour of love from the filmmakers involved, Kier-la Janisse’s love for horror shines brightly through this project in the way she’s thoroughly examined every corner of folk horror.
Woodlands winds its way through over 200 films and 50 interviews that connect the material to storytelling traditions from many cultures. From The Blood on Satan’s Claw to Midsommar, Janisse seemingly has an analysis for everything folk horror, and a way to connect it all together. If you’re a current or aspiring scholar of spookiness, there’s so much (seriously, it’s over 3 hours) here to love. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t feel half as long as the Snyder Cut.
Even before The Matrix: Resurrections and DUNE dropped this year, I was enamored with the creativity and rich visuals of Phil Tippett’s Mad God and felt it deserved every visual effects honour available for 2021. After having seen all three, I still think that Tippett’s stop-motion masterpiece sits at the top of the heap. I haven’t been able to watch it back, but I’m confident in saying that each viewing offers possibilities for new discoveries, some weird little creature just going about their business in the background of a frame. I wrote about this one plenty, but this wouldn’t be any kind of Best Of list if Mad God wasn’t on it.
Weirdly enough, even though I can count on a single hand my in-person outings to theatres this year, I saw a ton of great horror via the online film festivals and on-demand offerings available. While I didn’t get to experience most of it with an audience, I think it’s a testament to the films on this list and others like Brea Grant’s Lucky, Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman’s Skull: The Mask, and even tentpole films like David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills and Nia Dacosta’s Candyman that they hold up just as well, or better, at home as in a theatre. Even TV brought strong horror vibes this year, with Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, breakout hits from Korea like Squid Game and Hellbound, Don Mancini’s Chucky series for Syfy, and Showtime’s twisted Yellowjackets. Without making the cliched connection between ~ our uncertain times ~ and horror (something everyone, including myself, has done enough times already), this has been a pretty good year for movies of all types. Horror has a unique way of slicing through the bullshit, and in 2021 especially, it did just that for me.