Favorite Horror Films of 2021
30 December 2021
It’s been a strange year for watching movies. Film release schedules and regular theater going were interrupted. When new releases were available to me, I didn’t always have the bandwidth to take them in. But when I did, horror managed to provide distraction and often some sort of catharsis. These are my favorite examples of it.
I had a ticket to watch this film in the theater with the director, Rose Glass, in attendance … in March of 2020. Which is to say the emergence of the pandemic made sure that event did not happen. I ended up not seeing the film until more than a year later. I don’t know if the time in between, a time of mental/emotional uncertainty, difficulty and isolation, particularly enhanced themes of the same—but it certainly didn’t detract. The perception of reality is fragile and faith is sometimes just another just as fragile perception.
Coming late to this one meant that I had already absorbed a lot of descriptions of its weirdness, its wildness and its extreme body horror. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that while I did find it weird, wild and extreme, I also found that, underneath, it made a lot of sense to me. Recommended for travelers who like to explore the map edges of gender, sex, identity, body and family.
You can crawl into this film one of two ways: through the meta commentary on horror film’s relationship to society or through the personal journey of its central figure who is still suffering from past traumatic loss. Either way, you’ll run into the other, and the intersection of the two makes Censor stick. It also gets clever with perspective and technical detail. Ultimately, I appreciated how the film works on both levels without committing to the complete reality of one or making any unambiguous statement about its subject matter.
The Night House
I’m not 100% sure what happened in The Night House, which is a quality I generally value in a film. It walked the middle path between supernatural conspiracy and hallucinatory grief, and I think it walked it successfully enough that I found it intriguing rather than muddled. Rebecca Hall, always the MVP, brings enough force totie the threads together.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
Essentially an indie family drama with a genre twist, this film finds the horror in quiet misery, emotional isolation and the realization that “doing the right thing” is a luxury not all families have.
This is the film that scared me the most this year, in a simple, visceral “something is going to get me” way. Usually films that operate on that principle entertain me but don’t compel me. The Medium worked for me because it doesn’t bring out the demonic cliches until the final act, by which time it has already thoroughly grounded you in the world of the fake documentary’s characters and stakes, not to mention the beauty of Thai folk beliefs and practices. This one gets under your skin.
I watched the short film of the same name from which this film was expanded some time ago and I was impressed with how well the full-length film handles the expansion of the concept. It’s carried by a consistent emotional logic, a confident style and a frighteningly sympathetic performance by the lead, Najarra Townsend. Recommended for enthusiasts of the monstrous feminine.
This is one of the more straightforward horror films on my list, but what it lacks in structural originality it makes up for in thematic courage and a terrific lead performance from Barbara Hershey. The fear of aging and especially losing one’s mental faculties in old age hasn’t been explored much in horror and The Manor takes it head on. I’ve read a lot of disappointment with the ending, but I disagree. It’s a slap in the face for those who take youth, health and ability for granted and for those who would deny the lengths we would go to to keep them.
The Amusement Park
Speaking of the horror of old age, George Romero’s long more-or-less-lost film on the same topic was freshly released this year on Shudder and it’s terrifying. The Amusement Park, focuses on how we neglect the aged and their needs through the metaphor of a man trying to navigate a busy, confusing world not designed for him. We’ll all get there eventually. If we’re lucky.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
A loving, detailed and comprehensive look at folk horror on film that is more than worth is lengthy running time. Of course, if you’re predisposed to folklore and mythology, you’re already in, but I think the appeal of this one is pretty wide. It makes a solid, clear case for why humans have always told dark tales and what the era of dark tales on film can mean for us.
I also enjoyed: Jakob’s Wife, Lucky, The Power, Bloodthirsty, Lamb, Caveat, Seance, Slaxx, V/H/S/94, and Fear Street: 1994.
I put all of these films into a Letterboxd list, if you’re into that sort of thing.