We have officially made it to the halfway point of the year, and compared to 2020, it feels like time has flown by. In most countries, the COVID virus has settled down and people are starting to return to some state of normalcy. The shadow of last year still looms, but it still feels like a fresh start for the most part.
Like always, a new year means a new selection of films from various genres. As 2020 taught us, horror releases feel right at home in a person’s living room thanks to services like Shudder and Hulu. Although this year has given us our fair share of theatrical releases, streaming originals peacefully coexist next to their higher profile counterparts. The pandemic couldn’t kill a genre with such a rabid fanbase, and now we’re lucky to have a mix of different styles of horror.
That brings us to this list. Below, you will find the ten best horror films of 2021 so far. Despite the ease of streaming, you will find a combination of budgets, subgenres, and release models. Basically, readers should be able to find something to indulge in whether they enjoy vampires, ghosts, or monsters.
10. Jakob’s Wife
Jakob’s Wife revolves around a woman named Anne, who begins to feel sick of the same routine after years of marriage to the town Minister. When Anne begins to develop certain abilities, her life is dramatically changed. Her boring marriage is invigorated and her life finally has purpose, but there’s one condition: she craves blood.
Travis Stevens, who previously directed the well-regarded Girl on the Third Floor, takes a fairly simple premise and has fun with it. It’s basically Santa Clarita Diet with vampires instead of zombies, and it works. Clever dialogue mixes with a consistently charming cast to give viewers an experience that’s easily digestible and highly entertaining.
While Jakob’s Wife does have things to say about the monotony of marriage, it’s not as thought-provoking as some of the other films on this list. Entertainment seems to be the goal of this occasionally goofy vampire flick, and entertainment is absolutely provided.
Jordan Graham’s breakthrough horror film wasn’t always as experimental as the final product would leave you to believe. Originally, Sator was going to be a straightforward cabin in the woods horror flick with supernatural elements.This all changed when the director started having conversations with his grandmother, who spoke about an entity known as Sator. Graham decided to ditch the traditional narrative in favor of a hybrid film that combined real-life interviews with an overarching fictional story.
After reconfiguring the central premise, Graham did all the heavy lifting, which resulted in a motion picture that was almost entirely a product of his own filmmaking prowess. He wrote, directed, edited, scored, and produced the film. In other words, this film could not exist without one man and his grandmother.
While the story behind the film stands out, it should not take away from the quality of actual viewing experience. Sator is a well-made slice of horror. Due to the fragmented nature of things, the storytelling can feel a tad jarring, but that can be forgiven if you’re willing to just roll with things. Sator is a far cry from mainstream horror, so don’t go in expecting linear storytelling and jump scares.
Instead, you will be greeted with an overwhelming sense of dread that lingers until the final moments. Atmospheric chills take precedence over traditional scare tactics and storytelling, and while this can certainly be off-putting, it should not be a deal breaker. By design, Sator is bound to be polarizing. However, those willing to give it a chance may wind up with a new favorite.
8. The Night
2021 is winning when it comes to diversity in horror movies. Multiple entries on this list feature diverse casts and settings, and they use this to their advantage. For example, The Night revolves around an Iranian couple that gets trapped in a hotel where strange happenings occur. These strange happenings ultimately test their love for one another and their willingness to move on from previous tragic events.
The first half-hour of the film appears to be an average supernatural movie. One might assume that it’s another attempt to replicate the success of similar haunted hotel movies, but The Night quickly separates itself from its contemporaries by exploring nuanced topics that are both rooted in Iranian culture and relatable to a wider audience. The overarching themes are universal, but there are also parts of the story that rely on the international backgrounds of the protagonists.
To top things off, the scare factor is definitely present. While the pacing can be a bit sluggish, the latter half of the film features plenty of disquieting moments. This isn’t quite a nightmare-inducing spectacle, but it’s hardly a slog. The horror works in conjunction with the wider story to create something that comes off as perfectly balanced.
7. The Queen of Black Magic
By now, horror fans may recognize the name Joko Anwar. The Indonesian director and screenwriter is responsible for some of the most underrated horror flicks of the decade. Satan’s Slaves, Impetigore, and The Forbidden Door are some of the most well-regarded contemporary Asian horror movies. Anwar’s knack for building tension consistently results in indescribably nightmarish scenarios that stick with the viewer after the credits roll.
With The Queen of Black Magic, Anwar only has a screenwriting credit, but this is still very much reminiscent of what you would expect from the gifted filmmaker. Like his previous efforts, the horror goes beyond the supernatural. Supernatural elements are present, but they work alongside the horrors of humanity. Rather than scaring viewers for the fun of it, the horror has purpose. The bumps in the night cannot exist without some type of backstory.
As is the case with several other recent horror movies, The Queen of Black Magic focuses on the long lasting effects of trauma. The central themes aren’t completely innovative, but thanks to a perfect combination of horror and drama, they don’t need to be. The Queen of Black Magic is bold, brutal, and brilliant.
Sometimes it’s best not to meddle in a family’s affairs. Ask Isaac, the in-over-his-head protagonist of Caveat. After suffering from partial memory loss, Isaac decides to take an unconventional job watching over a mentally unstable woman in a secluded island home. He quickly reveals his concerns about the job being too good to be true, but that doesn’t stop him from accepting the position.
From the moment he steps inside the building to the very end, Isaac uncovers all kinds of family secrets. His assumptions were correct; the job was not what he anticipated. As he learns new information, he puts himself in increasingly dangerous situations. By the end, it becomes a fight for survival where anything could end his life.
Caveat does a stellar job of keeping the mystery alive. Instead of featuring one massive plot twist, small reveals are sprinkled throughout the brief runtime. These plot points seek to enhance tense cat-and-mouse chase scenes rather than to distract from them. There’s a cause-and-effect relationship between revelations and scares; they exist codependently.
Like most indie horror releases, this is a slow-burn. As previously stated, there aren’t any enormous bombshells. The twists are minor and the scares, while effective, are somewhat subdued. This does not take away from the quality of the film. Caveat benefits from intentional pacing and storytelling. Everything has a purpose, and when it all comes together, the results are impressive.