This beautifully shot film from writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi is ostensibly about Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennet) a housewife in distress. Though Swallow is not, as that descriptor might suggest, an iteration of a Lynchian mindfuck, nor is it your atypical genre film, some might even argue its placement on a list such as this, but what it is is an incredibly agonizing picture about emotional and mental decline set amidst a wealthy household the reeks of privilege and complacency. It’s psychological terror with a light touch but for a cast-iron stomach.
Swallow certainly owes more to Todd Haynes’s Safe than it does to the body-horror hospice of David Cronenberg, but there’s shades of the Baron of Blood here in tiny ways, too. As Hunter descends into her despair and her body and mind turn against her, the film becomes equal parts stylized elegance and upsettingly eerie. This disturbing arthouse psychodrama earns its unease not through gore (though numerous sequences are not at all for the squeamish) but by the embarrassing urges and uncontrollable drive our heroine has, suffering from pica, to consume so much that she should not. This is some powerful stuff that could have your anxiety levels at an all-time high, Swallow is also legitimately frightening and bustling with anarchic intensity.
9. Gretel and Hansel
Across two very startling, deeply atmospheric and lyrical horror films, director Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) has explored dynamic and disturbing aspects of pain, sorrow, and female agency, and now with what may be his finest yet, he shrewdly revises a classic fairy tale. Gretel and Hansel opens in an arcadian countryside besieged by plague and ruinous superstition.
Sophia Lillis (It, I Am Not Okay With This) is Gretel, who along with her young brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) are forsaken by their mother (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) after refusing to join a convent, and set forth to tame the dark wilderness. Facing starvation the pair stumble upon the sweet-smelling home of a witch (Alice Krige) and here so many more troubles begin.
In Perkins’ capable hands the familiar shadows of Gretel and Hansel transmute into a twisted and thorny tale of feminine force and freedom and the terrible price of both these treasures. Aided by DP Galo Olivares and production designer Jeremy Reed, Perkins inundates the viewer with evil imagery and symbols, creating a creepy climate both strange and chimeric, conjuring a powerful magical spell impossible to break and a visual feast that will more than fill you up.
8. The Invisible Man
Writer-director Leigh Whannel follows up 2018’s ultra-violent sci-fi sleeper Upgrade with a revisionist take on the H.G. Wells 1897 classic, “The Invisible Man”. Straight up, several aspects of this new iteration of the Invisible Man are flimsy and entirely predictable, so at least for us, it wasn’t the ultimate Classic Monsters update we’ve been hungry for. The villain, who we both literally and figuratively see very little of, isn’t that scary at all (though he’s a gaslighting pos, no doubt about it), and that’s why Elisabeth Moss is here; to overcompensate the plot’s many holes.
But let’s face it, Whannel treats us to a lot of ruthless fun as Cecilia (Moss) tries to convince the world at large that her abusive asshole ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is after her from beyond the grave because, you know, he faked his death so he can zip around in his invisible underoos plotting a pedestrian revenge instead of becoming the next Bill Gates.
Moss pulls you in, makes you care, makes you mad at the hand she’s been dealt, and definitely makes you marvel at many startling setpieces (the jailbreak scene really is the movie’s topper) and, despite the smoke and mirrors, makes you curious if an Invisible Woman sequel might be in the cards because, hey, Cecilia deserves a better turn, and after two hours of this, so do we. But despite the snarkiness here, this damsel in distress detour is familiar fun, and for a mainstream movie, Whannel proves his mettle once again.
7. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Well, this was a surprising, funny, frightening, simultaneously ill-tempered and heartwarming, treat. Following up his grief-laced dark comedy drama from 2018, Thunder Road, Jim Cummings offers us an unconventional lycanthrope tale set in a small ski-town in the Utah mountains. Every full moon seems to come with at least one grizzly death and Officer John Marshall (Cummings) is convinced there’s nothing supernatural about these slayings.
One of the more playful and enjoyably perplexing werewolf tales (the alcoholism as a form of lycanthropy metaphor was a stroke of mad genius) in many a full moon, The Wolf of Snow Hollow combines humor, pathos, and intrigue as the sheriff’s deputy tries to crack the case before he, himself, cracks.
Polymath filmmaker Cummings is two for two in our book and his latest also gets an enthusiastic recommendation for giving the late, great actor Robert Foster a suitable swansong.
The horror comedy is alive and well in 2020, just ask director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U), who here lands another fun, fast-paced, and enjoyably outrageous teen exploitation horror comedy, which is quickly becoming his trademark.
Without delving into too many details, Freaky is an iteration on Freaky Friday (here more of a “Freaky Friday the 13th” if you will), here focussing on Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a high school teen who inadvertently has swapped bodies with the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), a middle-aged serial killer who recently acquired an ancient mystical dagger.
The cast is uniformly strong and it’s a great vehicle for Vaughn (he’ll always be Trent to me, and I mean that with much admiration), in the best comic role he’s had in ages. Freaky is the slasher comedy you’ve been pining for. Don’t miss it!
The matriarchy meets with catastrophe, mental anguish and the estrangement of family amidst anxious and chillingly affective freakouts in co-writer and director Natalie Erika James’s startling feature-length debut from Australia, Relic.
Emily Mortimer is excellent (as always) as Kay, who has travelled back to her family home with her daughter Sam(Bella Heathcote) to be with her mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), who’s recently widowed and been showing troubling signs of dementia.
The only real issue we had with Relic, and this should serve as a trigger warning to those who may be sensitive on this topic, is that the emotional upset and guilt-riddled torment of losing a loved one to dementia is too painfully close to home.
That said, this eerie tale, full of creaking haunted house tropes and other Gothic allegory is sure to satisfy fans of slow burn horror and it certainly falls in line with a string of recent horror films dissecting similar themes and upsets (The Babadook and Hereditary spring immediately to mind).
The most audacious genre film we saw this year, writer-director duo Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli make a debut feature that’s occasionally hard to look at but even harder to look away from. Violation is that too rare a feminist rape-revenge film that actually IS feminist. It’s not just posturing and exploitation (the only nudity here is that of the rapist, and the crime itself is shot with surreal ferocity in a powerful but not at all gratuitous manner).
Over the course of a brief and already uncomfortable reunion with her sister, Greta (Anna Maguire), Miriam (Sims-Fewer) is drugged and assaulted by Dylan, her brother-in-law (Jesse LaVercombe).
As Miriam makes her play to out her assailant and the hypocrisy and ignorance in her midst, the fittingly shaky and drunken lensing of cinematographer Adam Crosby, brilliantly paired with Andrea Boccadoro’s moodily effective score, and the bold and brash narrative leaps of the sometimes obfuscated screenplay, all mount up to mental anguish and horrific mastery. Make no mistake, Violation is a disturbing, gutsy, tough, and rewarding experience that you’ll crawl away from and, as you recover from it, you’ll be both overwhelmed and ultimately very moved.
Here’s hoping this first-rate thriller gets a release in 2021, until then we can’t write enough praise for this harrowing masterpiece.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, this genre-bending weird Western/horror/thriller has a serious Sergio Leone vibe as it takes on numerous jet-black comic twists, an enormous body count, and a very lackadaisical pace.
Set in the eponymous village of Bacurau, a remote locale in Brazil’s north east, where the residents find themselves up against aggressive, possibly alien forces as this truly singular, “The Most Dangerous Game”-style iteration, unwinds with brio and volcanic splashes of gore.
Starring Sônia Braga and Udo Kier on opposite sides or perhaps each being manipulated by sinister forces, rest assured that all will be revealed to the driving synthesizers of John Carpenter, exposing not only geopolitical gestures, but some truly satisfying and horrific acts of bloody recompense.
However you classify this film is (sci-fi horror western?) it’s a gruesome gem you’ll be raving about and remembering for a long time. Bacurau resonates with brilliance, butchery, and cruel delicacy.
Filmed earlier this year while under quarantine restrictions due to the pandemic, there’s been a lot of buzz around Host, and if one can put such dizzying levels of hype to the side it’s apparent that such excitation is, in this instance, wholly warranted. Director Rob Savage, co-writing with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, take a bare-bones premise of a group of friends staying connected via a regular Zoom call and find new and all too relatable ways to bring the chills and upsets home while raising alarms.
This low-budget/high-concept post-quarantine genre film is economic across the board, and simultaneously it’s incredibly effective in more ways than one. It provides similar chills as when I first saw the Blair Witch Project on opening night back in ‘99. How far is this movie going to go? How safe is anyone? As Host barrels along, the scares and stakes escalate and evolve and never feel less than genuine as well as inescapable.
The cast of largely unknowns (no offense to the cast, but their relative anonymity make the strange goings-on all the more credible) are 100% believable and the truncated running time (barely an hour) makes the mad rush of panic all the more palpable.
Host is definitely the one horror film of 2020 not to miss, as most of us have lived what these disparate characters have lived, and if there’s any justice in the world it will be remembered come awards season (seriously).
A brilliant and brutal body-horror head trip from Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral), Possessor takes place in a world that is very familiar but also icy, alienating, dangerously on edge, and is unequivocally the horror film of 2020.
Futuristic technologies meld with a worn, vintage esthetic and contract killer Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a corporate agent working under Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who uses state-of-the-art brain-implant tech to assassinate her targets. A murderer for hire, Vos inhabits her subject’s bodies, against their will, committing the murders through them, before forcing said subjects to end their own lives in a perfect crime scenario, so to speak.
As the tale lurches forward, leaving many a grisly death in its wake, Vos is seen time and again watching her quarry whom she will soon possess, adopting their mannerisms and speech patterns for her dubious purposes. Does she show signs of struggle? Stings of conscience? Is there a conspiracy set to burst wide open?
Cronenberg directs with a deft precision, fully in control and unafraid of shocking his audience as his dark and deadly tale builds with the momentum of a freight train at midnight. Utilizing stylish yet often austere cinematography from Karim Hussain, who also lensed Cronenberg’s previous works, as well as gifted production designer Rupert Lazarus along with a bevvy of suitably brutal practical effects, Possessor is an uneasy but nonetheless awesome experience.
After Midnight (directed by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella), The Beach House (directed by Jeffrey A. Brown), Becky (directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion), Black Box (directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.,), The Dark and the Wicked (directed by Bryan Bertino), Fried Barry (directed by Ryan Kruger), The Hunt (directed by Craig Zobel), Hunter Hunter (directed by Shawn Linden), Koko-di Koko-da (directed by Johannes Nyholm), The Rental (directed by James Franco), Siberia (directed by Abel Ferrara), Sleep (directed by Michael Venus), Spontaneous (directed by Brian Duffield), The Stylist (directed by Jill Gevargizian), Vampires vs. the Bronx (directed by Osmany Rodriguez), Vivarium (directed by Locan Finnegan), 12 Hour Shift (directed by Brea Grant), 1BR (directed by David Marmor
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.