It’s been a fascinating year for the horror genre. In many ways, it felt like a continuation of 2020, not least of which in how many great offerings there were on streaming services and through VOD. The year also saw a return to traditional theater screenings, with many of last year’s major studio films like A Quiet Place Part II and The Forever Purge finally getting a release. By and large, horror held firm in the mainstream spotlight. There was a healthy mix of indie efforts and big-budget fare, crowd pleasers and niche oddities. As such, there was a lot to choose from when looking at our top films of the year. As Miss Mel notes, this is probably one of the more diverse lists, especially since there are a few films here that some will bemoan as being “not horror.” The genre is blurring and stretching and redefining itself before our eyes, with lots of experimentation and work being done outside the bounds of “traditional” horror.
Before we get into our respective Top 10 lists, a few honorable mentions for films that nearly made the cut. First, The Green Knight, a dark fantasy that was visually amazing, creepy, and tense throughout. The same can be said of The Empty Man, with its broody update on urban legend chills, and of Come True, a rich, dread-filled spectacle that delves into the world of nightmares. Some good laughs were also had with The Beta Test, a black comedy with some gnarly kills and great American Psycho callbacks, and Vicious Fun, a witty, retro subversion of the slasher genre. Finally, suspense thriller Katla had a number of freaky moments throughout, while The Advent Calendar took a kitschy premise and mined it for some genuine creeps.
Additionally, we wanted to note that there were a few films neither of us got to see before the year expired so folks aren’t scratching their heads by their absence here, either on the list or mentioned in passing. We both haven’t gotten around to Titane or Last Night in Soho, and Miss Mel has yet to see the film Mr. Craiggors ranked No. 1. Meanwhile, Mr. Craiggors is convinced that if he had seen The Night House before today, it would have a place somewhere on his own list. C’est la vie. There is always time next year! As for now, let’s dive into the Top 10 of 2021:
10. Candyman (Mel) / Boys From County Hell (Craig)
MEL: This was a great follow-up to the original but lacked a lot of the textures in the screenplay in its predecessor. After the initial setup, the plot moves whip quick which serves to really drain the tension that could have been there and loses the thread of racial identity and the context of Cabrini-Greene that was so potent in the first film and that could have made it so powerful here. Still, it has some brutal kills, excellent direction and use of light, and great acting.
CRAIG: This vampire horror comedy certainly has its flaws, but it was so charming and entertaining that it slid into my favorite films of the year regardless. It’s silly, bloody, and surprisingly heartfelt thanks to some likable characters and solid performances. Plus the effects are great, and the tweak on vampire mythology adds a fun wrinkle to the toothy sub-genre.
9. The Humans (Mel) / Candyman (Craig)
MEL: While not a traditional horror film (and many people probably wouldn’t consider this horror, especially with the prestige label of this one so you might call it a psychological drama) it’s a very Shirley Jackson-esque piece filmed with tension from both space and atmosphere and what the characters aren’t saying to each other. The final sequence is what really cements this as a horror film for me and one down incredibly well and in an engaging way. It’s low on my list simply because I felt there was more “true” and traditional horror on the list.
CRAIG: From a production standpoint, this film is a standout. Stunning visuals, bold colors, trick shots and deep framing with lots of mirrors and reflective surfaces that unnerve and mystify the viewer. It’s a very artful, thoughtful film, but like Miss Mel said it lacks a little in its narrative structure and rushed plotting. Still a treat for the eyes and a respectable addition to the canon of a horror legend.
8. Superhost (Mel) / There’s Someone Inside Your House (Craig)
MEL: I definitely liked the first half of this film better than the second half. I felt it was trying to pull too many twists off of a tense first act. But Gracie Gillam as the titular superhost carries this film, if nothing else, with her unnerving presence and ease with which she slips between her different personas and phases of her character. I’m also pretty turned off on things that try to tack on umbrella criticisms of social media, which felt unnecessary in this one. But a very creepy scenario that pays off pretty well.
CRAIG: A lean 90-minute slasher that evokes all the best of the post-Scream boom, this is simplicity at its best. This film reminded me that it’s not always about shocking and wowing the audience with the latest and wildest narrative devices. Sometimes it’s just about telling a good story, having some sick kills, and bare bones yet high quality production. As the slasher continues its renaissance, future efforts should look here for how to do the stalk-and-slash right.
7. V/H/S/94 (Mel) / The Power (Craig)
MEL: I loved the concept and execution of the first V/H/S and the franchise’s schtick feels a little tired at this point, especially with the weak frame story on this one. But it’s always fun to see some directors get a chance to showcase some creepy stories and my favorite from this bunch was “The Wake.”
CRAIG: What starts as a somewhat familiar period ghost story quickly evolves into a psychological horrorfest all about claustrophobia, dread, and darkness. Rose Williams’s astonishing performance as the vulnerable, earnest young nurse in 1973 London brings an emotional weight to the story that left me feeling gutted after the credits rolled.
6. Censor (Mel & Craig)
MEL: This was a very interesting concept set in a fun world for horror buffs, the age of the “video nasty,” where it takes an ironic look at the long-held moral panic over the effect of horror films on crime rates. It’s a little hard to follow at times and the pace can really slow but it has some effective scares and a good overall message for those who blame horror films for crime.
CRAIG: I quite enjoyed this nightmarish plunge into the realm of censorship and moral scrutiny during the 1980’s Video Nasty era in the U.K. It was very atmospheric, lots of neon color clashing with the drab, muted palette of reality as Enid (Niamh Algar) loses her sanity. It was an excellent performance in a gorgeous film that was both love letter to the genre and a warning to those who attempt to edit their pasts to better suit their presents.
5. The Djinn (Mel) / Caveat (Craig)
MEL: This is a good old-fashioned survive the night style haunted house story. It takes some cues from films like Insidious and It Follows, all to great effect, as it paints a sinister sort of Home Alone situation. Ezra Dewey is engaging which is the bare minimum to carry us through such a contained film. But, sometimes not even his charisma can work through the slower bits that were bound to come from a suspense horror film in such a closed space and timeline.
CRAIG: Nothing is what it seems in this atmospheric haunted house movie with vibes for days. One of the eerie and unique films I’ve seen in recent years, I did not know what to expect and was thoroughly surprised. The film is a masterclass is slow burn dread, and I had chills running down my spine from the opening scene on. Very ominous, very dark, and one of the few films to actually make me yelp out loud during one particular scene.
4. In the Earth (Mel) / Werewolves Within (Craig)
MEL: Not what I expected when I went in (I went in expecting supernatural woodsy horror). This is a nice bit of isolationist horror meets a dash of splatter porn meets folk horror. It had a pretty interesting concept once the story opened up a bit and had some fun use of light and sound (important to the mythology of the story) that felt inspired by Annihilation. While the story was a clear metaphor for pandemic paranoia and that was effective, I could have done without the half-assed pandemic reference in the early parts of the film but it wasn’t enough to detract from the story.
CRAIG: A wacky, charming whodunnit with equal parts laughs and scares, this slight horror comedy has all the camp, gore, and suspense I wanted going into director Josh Ruben’s follow-up to last year’s Scare Me. It’s always entertaining and never takes itself too seriously while still managing to surprise and draw you in further. The ensemble cast is committed and excellent, hilarious over the top bunch that really sells the story in the third act. It’s Clue meets Fargo meets Knives Out with werewolves…how could I not love it?
3. Seance (Mel) / The Boy Behind the Door (Craig)
MEL: This was an interesting one in that it mixes Mean Girls with a slasher with a ghost story which, for the most part, comes across as fun and effective, though it probably could have just picked one and ran with it. It also has a couple of late twists that come a little too late to really matter, but this was a fun ride.
CRAIG: A dark, unrelentingly exercise in suspense that flips the home invasion film on its head and left me clenching my bun-buns for the entirety of film’s runtime. Sound and scene work flawlessly together to create white knuckle tension that keeps the viewer glued to the screen despite a nagging desire to hide behind a pillow. Young lead Lonnie Chavis is marvelous, particularly given the bleak subject matter–the heart and the hope that shines through the darkness.
2. Halloween Kills (Mel) / The Vigil (Craig)
MEL: I think the Twitter user who said this film was a lower tier on the better sequels hit the nail on the head with this one. The direction, production design, and music were all incredible but the screenplay was a bit of a mess–strung together sequences and kills without a through-line. What it sets up for will be exciting though.
CRAIG: A familiar tale of demonic possession that is brought fresh perspective by writer/director Keith Thomas. The atmosphere is ominous and seeps through the screen in this one, and there’s some truly chilling moments throughout. The film uses religion and folklore to explore concepts of grief, guilt, and generational trauma. I was equal parts mesmerized and frightened.
1. Fear Street Part Two: 1978 (Mel) / Malignant (Craig)
MEL: I broke the Fear Street trilogy up because the only one I truly enjoyed on its own was 1978. I think it functions pretty well as a stand-alone film and is one of the few middle films in a trilogy that acts as the important cornerstone it needs to be. It’s slasher summer camp horror on steroids with fun characters, gruesome kills, and a fun mythology. The Fear Street trilogy as a whole is fine, good horror fun but this was the strong one for me and something I see myself returning to often as a summer horror staple.
CRAIG: This polarizing effort from James Wan was bonkers in the best sense of the word. From that mad opening sequence through the wild ride that follows, I was captivated if confused at times. Relentless and outlandish, I found myself thinking about this film the most out of everything I watched in 2021, and that alone said something to me. The 90’s Dark House and giallo references alone made me giddy, but I think it’s the fact that this film did something I had never seen before that led to me giving it my number 1 spot. We’re gonna be talking about this one for a long time to come.
Well, that’s a wrap on 2021, Chatterers–and good riddance, we say! Drop your favorite genre offerings from this year in the comments below, or let us know what you’re looking forward to next year. Here’s to keeping up the creep in 2022!