By Peg Aloi
It was the most terrifying of times, it was the most horrifying of times. 2020 was a year when all sorts of horror resonated: dystopian horror, body horror, folk horror. The fledgling horror streaming service Shudder attracted many new subscribers. Indeed, many people admitted they found watching horror to be soothing, insisting that it lowered their stress levels. It was a fairly widespread phenomenon that, interestingly, was particularly felt by women. That’s just fine, because women filmmakers are doing some excellent work within the multi-faceted horror genre.
Television’s new golden age is aglitter with horror and thriller offerings. 2020 saw the continuation or culmination of such excellent fare as the German series Dark, and the final season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which drops on Netflix on December 31st (stay tuned for my Arts Fuse review). I also enjoyed Netflix’s Luna Nera, a lush story of medieval witchcraft set in Italy that should have a second season coming soon. I expect more witchy and occult fare in 2021. The truth is, we find ourselves in the midst of a full blown occult revival, an explosion that we haven’t seen the likes of since the ’70s.
I’ve gathered some of my favorite horror movies and series from this year of plague and social upheaval. I’ve no doubt 2021 will produce some very high quality horror as well, but let’s hope we’re all feeling a bit less fearful some time soon.
- HOST ~ This clever little indie production was made completely digitally and, without mentioning quarantining or social distancing, reflected our current reality of getting together with friends and families via Zoom. In this case, a group of twenty-something pals decided to invite a psychic medium to a gathering. and she senses that a possessed demon may be on the loose. Then the fun begins. This is all the more spooky because most of us 1) can relate to its format, and 2) probably watched it on our laptops in the dark. (Now on Shudder and Prime)
- RELIC ~ A stunning feature debut by Natalie Erika James. Emily Mortimer plays a woman who brings her daughter to live with and care for her aging mother who has dementia. From my review: “In this old house, some of its hidden corners and crevices mouldering and collapsing, an ancient cycle is being played out, one that repeats from one generation to the next. It is a world filled with mementos: clothing, photographs, letters, dishes, jewelry, and toys. All these are talismans tethering us to times and spaces that are long gone.” (Available on Vudu)
- POSSESSOR ~ Brandon Cronenberg’s trippy, gruesomely violent speculative fiction about a high-tech assassins guild is compelling and often quite beautiful to watch. Andrea Riseborough is perfectly cast as a woman whose personal life is slowly becoming subservient to the mentally exhausting — and psyche-shattering work — she does. Her job: inhabiting other peoples’ bodies in order to perform murder-for-hire. (Available on YouTube Movies)
- LOVECRAFT COUNTRY ~ There is so much to love about Misha Green’s incendiary debut: the stellar cast, the beguiling visuals, the melding of history and the supernatural to create heart-pounding horror. A family living in the Jim Crow South embarks on a journey North to uncover their mystical occult legacy. This series is scary, sexy, deep, and superb on many levels. (Now on HBO Max)
- THE OTHER LAMB ~ A religious cult is ruled by a man who keeps a large flock of women and their daughters captive via psychological and physical manipulation. The plausibility and tone here is horribly resonant in these times of growing misogyny. Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska (In the Name Of) has crafted a gorgeous, moody film, weaving music, costumes and bucolic settings together in an elegiac and frightening folk fabric. (Now on Hulu)
- I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS ~ I find that all of Charlie Kaufman’s films have at least a slight horror edge to them. Certainly this existential tour de force has moments of deep terror, as when the “Young Woman,” played by Jessie Buckley, visits her boyfriend’s parents and finds herself seeing them aging in an instant, becoming frail, confused, and sick. It turns out life itself — with its missed opportunities, regrettable choices, moments of pain, and years of unhappiness — is an unending cycle of horror, should we choose to see it that way, and Kaufman hints that maybe we should. (Now on Netflix)
- SHE DIES TOMORROW ~ Who among us over the past year has not found themselves increasingly haunted by thoughts of our own mortality? The pandemic has contributed, but so have the wildfires, hurricanes, shootings, acts of terrorism and mounting societal brutality. This haunting little indie gem by Amy Seimetz follows a woman (also named Amy, played by Kate Lyn Sheil) and her circle of friends as they appear to find themselves sharing a strange contagious sense of doom, believing they will die within hours. (Now on Hulu)
- AMULET ~ I was mesmerized by this adroitly mysterious story, whose elements include ghosts, possessing demons, frightening folklore, and flat out evil. Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) plays an immigrant haunted by events from his past, who gets a live-in job fixing up an old house in London. A fantastic, artful debut by actress-turned-filmmaker Romola Garai. Watch for a quirky and terrifying cameo from Imelda Staunton. (Now on Hulu)
- THE THIRD DAY ~ A suspenseful series, part mystery, part folk horror, well acted (Jude Law, Naomie Harris and Katherine Waterson star), and nicely directed. The cinematography lends an otherworldly feel to this story of a man who discovers that his birthright links him to a strange cult-like community on a remote British island. Shades of The Wicker Man here…. (Now on HBO Max)
- COLOR OUT OF SPACE ~ Often absurd, but consistently fascinating, this hybrid horror-comedy by Richard Stanley stars Nicolas Cage as a goofy dad whose family is drawn to an alien presence that contaminates their big house in the country. (Now on Prime and Sling)
- HIS HOUSE ~ An unusual haunted house story that follows an asylum-seeking couple as they try to make their new residence in East London a home. Demons of their traumatic past make this a tall order. An impressive debut from Remi Weekes, with powerful performances by Sope Dirisu (His Dark Materials) and Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country), and a wonderful production design that merges realism and subtle horror. (Now on Netflix)
- ANYTHING FOR JACKSON ~ Gotta love a darkly comic satanic horror film. This story of an elderly couple who seeks to perform a “reverse exorcism” on a captive woman to resurrect their dead grandson derives its most exquisite episodes of terror from the efforts of these well-meaning Satanists to put on masks of normalcy that will fool the neighborhood. Great scenes of satanic rituals that feel both authentic and edgy. (Now on Prime)
- SATANIC PANIC ~ This brilliantly-silly story of a virginal pizza delivery driver who’s abducted to be used as a human sacrifice stars Rebecca Romijn in the role she was born to play: the high priestess of a satanic cult, dressed to the nines and oozing sensuality and attitude. Directed by Chelsea Stardust, Satanic Panic gets my vote for most entertaining horror film of the year. (Now on Prime)
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.