Wow. Well, now that 2020 is finally in the rear view it’s safe to say that, as challenging and worrisome as the year was, it was an exceptionally strong year for genre films.
The following list of 20 horror titles rates and ranks what have been Taste of Cinema’s favorites for the year, but it’s worth pointing out that several anticipated fright films (Michael Chaves’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Scott Cooper’s Antlers, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place: Part II, and James Wan’s Malignant, amongst them) never got their promised release dates, owing to the pandemic, but hopefully will see some kind of safe release in ‘21
A few shoutouts also deserve going out to some excellent genre films that didn’t make this list but are still mentioned in the “Honorable Mention” section, all of which are worth a watch for horror junkies.
And now, without further ado, here are our fave fright flicks of 2020, and be sure to join the conversation in the comments section below (be nice!). Enjoy.
20. The Lodge
This American-British horror film from writers-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala had genre fans pumping their fists in anticipation thanks to their previously well-played full-on psychological freakout from 2014, Goodnight Mommy. And if you’re a fan of deep dark terror of the slow-burning variety, The Lodge does not disappoint.
Catalyzed by grief and the ghost of suicide, this twisted tale focuses on two siblings, Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) who are still reeling from the loss of their mother when their father (Richard Armitage) too swiftly pulls them into a new relationship with his new bride-to-be, Grace (Riley Keough, excellent).
Brace yourself for an unsettling stay in the titular abode as Grace and her stepchildren have it out in the most macabre of ways as the biggest and baddest disturbances and reveals are saved for the bitter end.
19. Scare Me
A delightfully droll horror anthology (of sorts) that had us grinning and guessing from the get go. This low-budget but highly creative indie earns bonus points for Aya Cash (The Boys) and costar Josh Ruben (who also wrote and directed) wringing laughs, derision and some very choice scares throughout.
During a power outage in a remote cabin in the Catskills, two recently acquainted neighbours, Fred (Ruben) and Fanny (Cash), who are also rival writers of horror fiction, have an opportunity to share their most unsettling tales with one another. What ever could go terrifyingly wrong?
Whatever Ruben does next we’ll be right there, as Scare Me so satisfyingly displays, he does the genre a lot of ingenuity.
18. The Bloodhound
Unsettling and strange, the Bloodhound is a cerebral chamber horror film that riffs on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” while slyly entertaining and provoking a patient audience in writer-director Patrick Picard’s ferocious feature debut.
Francis (Liam Aiken) visits his one time very close pal, Jean Paul Luret (Joe Adler) in his luxurious but forbidding mid-century home, after an alarming but aloof plea for help. What unfolds involves JP’s tormented twin sister Vivian (Annalise Basso), a crawling apparition, and more over the film’s scant but effectively utilized 72 minutes.
Picard composes many lovely and unnerving visuals compositions (cinematographer Jake Magee is also one to keep an eye on), with a highly effective production design from Arielle Ness-Cohn, suggesting that this eerie introduction is one full of promise and menace.
Horror is truly the director’s genre (which is to say true suspense horror like Hitchcock and De Palma, not tedious torture porn and simple jump scares), and for proof of that look no further than John Hyam’s latest, the excellent, upsetting and artful small scale survival thriller freakout, Alone.
With any luck this will be Hyam’s breakthrough film as he continues to show so much promise and poise in the director’s chair (check out 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning should you doubt his directorial chops).
Alone is definitely bolstered by remarkable performances from leads Jules Wilcox and Marc Menchaca (you thought he was creepy in HBO’s The Outsider, well wait until you get a load of him here!) as Jessica (Wilcox), a recent widow dealing with grief amidst a small cross-country trek, is kidnapped by a cruel, cold-blooded killer (Menchaca) who won’t give up the chase.
As far as the cat-and-mouse game goes, all the players here make Alone an outstanding, even breathtaking, feat. Not at all for the squeamish, Alone is a rewarding but deeply troubling cut of bucolic terror.
16. Come True
Writer-director Anthony Scott Burns serves up some imaginative ghostly imagery, a weirdly effective washed-out look, and another in a string of strong performances from Julia Sarah Stone (The Unseen, Weirdos) to elevate this “sleep study from hell” supernatural sci-fi shocker, Come True.
Genre fans will no doubt detect shades of Brian De Palma’s the Fury, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Wes Craven’s Elm Street films when Come True is working (which is most of the time), with citations to rehashed X-men films and lesser Elm Street slashers when it’s not (there are definitely some predictable situations and outcomes that don’t do anyone any favors). So yes, while many of the tropes here have been done many times before, there’s still more than a few fascinating new wrinkles to this psychic-teen-in-distress thriller and a satisfying finish that make it worth a solid recommendation and something of a genre standout for the year.
Sooner or later Stone will get the breakout role she deserves and that will certainly send fans back to this film where they will not be disappointed. You read it here first.
15. His House
Much has been made of director Remi Weekes’s feature length debut concerning a young refugee couple (Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, both excellent) who’ve barely, and not unscathed, escaped the horrors of the war-ravaged South Sudan (their daughter perishes during the hard journey), for a new life in the UK.
What follows is a well executed and rather chilling haunted house thriller with a suiting socio-political commentary weaved into the narrative (the screenplay comes from Weekes, Felicity Evans and Toby Venables), making it as urgent and up-to-the-minute as it is tried-and-true for fans of sweeping, gothic horror.
Our only real issues here are with the small disappointments that such a smart horror film as this still relies so heavily on the trite and too predictable jump scare (this trend needs to die) when there’s more than enough eerie upsets and intrigue to overshadow such manipulative gimmickry.
Otherwise His House gets a strong recommendation and is one of the year’s more notable and effective genre films.
14. The Mortuary Collection
Writer-director Ryan Spindell’s latest creation, The Mortuary Collection, is that too rare a genre treat: a horror anthology that is consistently creepy, creative and most importantly for this kind of movie, it’s also a shit ton of fun.
In fact, in all these sordid little tales, framed around a young woman, Sam (Caitlin Custer) being interviewed for a position at a local mortician’s office that evolves into a series of scary stories being shared with pep and panic, there ain’t a stinker in the bunch. The tales, each displaying layered and lush production design, gruesome practical effects, and suitably ironic and ruthless narrative twists, are as memorable as they are macabre.
An extra fist-pump goes out for the scenery-chewin’ Clancy Brown, who easily gives the Cryptkeeper a run for his menacing monster-hosting money. For fright fans, The Mortuary Collection will easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with similar omnibus terror tales like Creepshow (1982) and Trick ‘r Treat (2007), and like those genre mainstays, this one comes highly recommended. Satisfaction guaranteed!
13. Color Out of Space
If you want to see Nic Cage go full freak, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space delivers the goods. If you’re coming around the other side of things as an H.P. Lovecraft fan (for our money, his 1927 short story that inspired this film is the most terrifying thing he ever wrote) you won’t find this to be the most faithful of adaptations. But you will find that Stanley taps the weird fiction vein and cosmic terror nerve better than most who’ve approached Lovecraft’s work, and you probably won’t mind the liberties taken with the material.
Nathan (Cage) and Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson) are a happily married couple in rural America with three kids and a farm where they raise alpacas and grow juicy tomatoes. Their ridiculously precious domestic bubble is about to burst most brutally when a glowing meteorite lands on their front lawn. Their bliss blooms to a kaleidoscopic nightmare in no time flat as space madness consumes the family in viciously personalized ways (even the alpacas aren’t spared the cosmic lash), and of course Cage goes Force 10 shitstorm.
It’s nice to see Stanley confidently calling action again after a lengthy absence (his output was famously stymied after the Island of Dr. Moreau fiasco in 1996, with his scant work since then being inconsistent and substandard), but given Cage’s Nic Cage-iness, one wonders if he took much direction at all. His reactions, or rather, his overreactions, never seem to match the matters at hand. But space mania will do that to you so here he gets a solid pass.
12. Zombi Child
Provocative French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama) resurrects the dead, or rather the undead, for this slow-burning but deeply rewarding exploration of colonialism, slavery, and voodoo mythology, with a little teen angst added for extra zip.
A much more literate horror film than most, Bonello, ever the iconoclast, here channels Jacques Tourner, weaving an intricate, naturalistic tale that also pays tribute to such diverse genre benchmarks as Victor Halperin’s White Zombie and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Bouncing around from Haiti in 1962 to Paris in the present day, Zombi Child’s main thrust is with Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a Haitian teenager at a prestigious all-girls boarding school who harbors a family secret that her new clique of friends are keen to unriddle.
Carefully combining an outsider perspective of awesome beauty and the corporeal existence of voodoo, Zombi Child not only permeates the present, but the past as well.
11. 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 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.