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.
4. She Dies Tomorrow
Alternately jarring and subdued, writer-director Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine) weaves a nuanced tale of haunting, emotional anguish in her latest film, She Dies Tomorrow. To watch this movie today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — and particularly if you’ve ever read Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Last Night of the World”, which must have been at least a thematic influence — makes the dread and fatalist certainty of Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) all the more palpable and distressing.
Like Rob Savage’s Host (which you’ll find further down this very list), Seimetz’s film is instantly identifiable as part of society’s present ambience of uncertainty, insanity and existential panic owing to civil and mental turmoil. Both horror films drive in different directions but share a rattling unrest
In Seimetz’s psychodrama a circle of friends quickly come to recognize that Amy’s odd surety that death is quickly approaching becomes something every bit as infectious as the novel coronavirus. The apprehension, anxiety and paranoia these characters stare down becomes a frighteningly believable contagion.
3. 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.
Filmed earlier this year while under quarantine restrictions due to the COVID-19 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), who’s definitely and beyond doubt a chip off the old block (it hardly needs repeating but for the few who don’t know, he’s the son of David Cronenberg). Possessor takes place in a world that is very familiar but also icy, alienating, and dangerously on edge.
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.
Honorable Mention: 12 Hour Shift (directed by Brea Grant), 1BR (directed by David Marmor), The Beach House (directed by Jeffrey A. Brown), Becky (directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion), Blood Quantum (directed by Jeff Barnaby), Come to Daddy (directed by Ant Timpson), Fried Barry (directed by Ryan Kruger), The Hunt (directed by Craig Zobel), Lucky (directed by Natasha Kermani), Rabid (directed by the Soska Sisters), The Reckoning (directed by Neil Marshall), Relic (directed by Natalie Erika James), The Rental (directed by Dave Franco), Sleep (directed by Michael Venus), VFW (directed by Joe Begos), Vivarium (directed by Lorcan Finnegan), The Wretched (directed by the Pierce Brothers)
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.