This list is exclusively the Top 20 horror movies of 2020. If you're looking for our Critic Top 10s, you can find them here.
As the bell tolls on another 12-month cycle, I direct my focus towards the horror genre. It’s been a certifiably odd year thanks to date delays, pandemic reactions, and shuttered cinemas, but let me assure you that horror never skipped a beat. I demolished my record of most new-release horror titles watched in a single year by about thirty. Typically I come in around 110-120, but in 2020? This self-isolating, shut-in, escape-through-screens year? A shocking, even to this critic, 150+ total.
No Candyman, no Saint Maud, no Halloween Kills. How could critics and general audiences scratch their horror itch? As you’ll notice, the strength of independent and international horror is not to be understated. Maybe, in future timelines, we’ll stop pretending that theatrical releases are inherently superior to VOD or streaming releases? In the meantime, let’s get to my picks for the bloodiest cream of this year’s grimmest, gnarliest, even funniest horror crop.
20. Extra Ordinary - Horror can be sweet and saccharine too, for lovers! Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman push Paranormal Activity and Ghostbusters through a Taika Waititi filter for an Irish rom-com featuring Will Forte as an aging one-hit-wonder who sells his soul for another chart-topper. Things get weird, satanic, and adorably hilarious elsewhere. A date night must!
19. The Hunt - The movie so incendiary our government feared its release! Too bad they didn’t see The Hunt before crying leftist mutiny, as this scorched-earth satire makes a mockery of both sides. Of racist influencers, of faux allyship, and most of all, the cowardice of internet trolls who help empower actual villains. Also, it’s wickedly violent, and Betty Gilpin nails her audition for her own action franchise.
18. The Lodge - From the creators of Goodnight Mommy comes something even bleaker and with its own Christmas spirit. Riley Keough stars as a step-mother who may or may not harbor a cultist-abused past that’s unlocked by children's’ treacherous mischief. Be careful who you brattily torture, especially when there’s no escape with miles and miles of snow outside.
17. Synchronic - Time travel. Dismemberment. Synthetic hallucinogenics. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead rope Anthony Mackie into an emotional journey about life, death, and newfound powers. Add in a missing person, and historical relevance as Mackie’s character traverses America through the eras? Benson and Moorhead continue to stimulate, invigorate, and bend genres with the utmost thoughtfulness.
16. Snatchers - Let’s cut to the chase: a high school student has sex and becomes impregnated by a Mayan curse that squirts a monster baby out in a matter of days. It’s comical, a bit reminiscent of Joseph Kahn’s style in Detention, and focuses on practical effects as bouncing-bonkers freakies roam free. Did I mention the lead character decapitates a gynecologist by blasting her brood from her downstairs like a cannon?
15. She Dies Tomorrow
From Amy Seimetz comes a vision of existential dread that is provocatively punchy and endlessly unsettling. What if you know, or thought, you would die tomorrow, and your anxieties were infectious? As characters begin to spiral and finality alters how lives are led, Seimtz prolifically ponders how anyone might react knowing their expiration is merely hours on the horizon. Maybe it’s true? Maybe it’s just an upheaval of subconscious fear? In any case, reactions are deeply paranoid but aptly honest, albeit humorous to boot. A testament to the freedom She Dies Tomorrow embraces under the crushing weight of mortality.
The “January Horror” defender has logged on! Also, the aquatic horror stan who keeps shouting, “Underwater is Alien but underwater...who cares?!” William Eubank gets the waterlogged atmosphere right, intensifies pressurized claustrophobia, and draws every ounce of Ellen Ripley from Kristen Stewart’s performance. No, Underwater isn’t as good as Alien. But you know what? It’s still a submerged creature-feature on a blockbuster budget that holds some Lovecraftian, gargantuan surprises. Also, everyone who’s like, “Ugh, but T.J. Miller!” Don’t worry; his character dies. Brutally. Figure that might help sway some opinions.
I don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll have to champion Monstrum on this here website, and yes, I just highlighted Sparkles’ rampage in my recent Shudder Originals hyper, but here’s one last toast. To a Joseon dynasty creature-feature that topples kingdoms and bashes feudal dictatorships. To a pair of best-friend monster hunters who earn their yucks and kick some ass. To the gigantic fantasy beast named Sparkles, abused as a pet, left for dead, and seeking vengeance on the lords who are now threatened by its very presence. Action is high-flying, and soldiers are chewed like squeaky toys: mysticism, magic, and massive excitement.
What do you get when the souls of a serial killer (played by Vince Vaughn) and a high school goodie-goodie (played by Kathryn Newton) swap bods? Christopher Landon’s Freaky, a sharply concocted transplantation slasher written by Michael Kennedy. It’s never a one-note gimmick. Vince Vaughn explores his body anew by feelin’ his teenage schoolgirl self, while Kathryn Newton is a stone-cold psychopath with more than looks that kill. As per my full review, the film is an “explorative slasher redefinition that earns its shrieks and knows how to get the party started.” Those gory deaths don’t quit either.
11. The Dark And The Wicked
Before we get to Relic (spoiler), let me recognize the title you should pair with Relic: Bryan Bertino’s The Dark And The Wicked. Offspring, now grown adults, return to their farmland homestead when pa falls ill. Ma ain’t doing well herself, and oh yeah, there might be a demon torturing both parents? Bertino doesn’t abstain from the unforgiving spectacle of death, nor should films of this thematic richness. As I previously wrote while covering Fantasia Fest earlier this year, the experience is “horror in its purest form, rooted in traumas and emotions no human can ignore.” Loss is hard, and even harder when we’re devastated by the figures of our past or entities that dare thrive on our discomfort.
“But Matt, you rated Peninsula at 4.5 in your review?” Sometimes critics undergo changes of heart. It’s inevitable. When I watched Yeon Sang-ho’s Train To Busan sequel, I was smitten beyond words (well, beyond the ones I wrote in my review). As I compare the film now to its other top-dog contenders? I admit there’s a little more fat when stacked against the following lean, mean, horror machines. Not much, as Peninsula still easily speeds into my top ten, with its “Fast & Furious meets zombies” mashup. Just a little insight into the creative process behind these lists, and an admission that, yes, your favorite writers are human, too!
Uh, I did not expect there to be anything Russian mentioned in my horror recap this year. Well, until I watched Egor Abramenko's Sputnik. A Cold War cosmic-creeper-feature about blind nationalism, outsider fears, and extraterrestrial experimentation. Even better, it's most confident about the latter. No smoke-and-mirrors cinematography that hides Abramenko's alien stowaway. Sputnik is a visionary wonder that bursts with potential and capitalized execution in terms of feature debuts. As we turn once more to one of my full reviews, it's a film "about worlds colliding and collaborating under a sterner sci-fi lens, questioning whether universal peace can be achieved when warlords are in charge."
Natalie Erika James does in Relic what the most talented filmmakers can boast. Take a familiar narrative (mental deterioration in someone beloved), then produce a narrative that feels wholly fresh and renewed. Relic is painful, Relic is compassionate, and most of all, Relic is so ruinously original. Multiple generations of women linked by the same hereditary condition, all forced to watch helplessly as those they cherish transform into something unrecognizable. How this is represented is James' chef's kiss moment, as our own Amelia Emberwing summarizes in her full review: "It's a masterful moment shared between [family] before the darkness takes hold, and Natalie Erika James and her three leads should be damn proud of it." Heartbreaking, terror-aching horror that still offers a helping hand in its most blackened times of need.
7. The Platform
Ah, social experimentation. In The Platform, classism gnashes its fangs as prisoners in a massive, floor-by-floor pillar are asked to act for the common good. A table filled with culinary delights, presumably enough to feed every starving belly, descends from top-to-bottom. The posed question is whether those served first will ration only what’s needed, or barbarically shovel as much frosted, juicy, or pan-seared decadence into their mouths before the opportunity vanishes. Since this is a horror movie roundup, you can presume how bunkmates and facility inhabitants act. It’s savagery unmatched, as a tyrannical system preys on the weak and hungry. Just remember, the panna cotta is the message.
6. Scare Me
I’m going to start this entry the same way I started my full review. No, Scare Me will not scare you. Josh Ruben explores the power of our imaginations, the command of spoken words, and the idea that you could damn-near get away with murder if you’re charismatic enough. It’s an exercise in storytelling between Ruben and Aya Cash, who trade spooky stories to pass a stormy no-electricity night. Competitive jealousies flare as the two creative writers - one mega-successful, the other struggling - amplify tales of werewolves, decrepit souls, and other bump-in-the-night suspects through nothing but their improvisational wits. It’s magnetic, if you’re into the art of oratory ensnarement.
5. La Llorona
Imagine a world where Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona is representing Guatemala, Shudder, and horror cinema in the Best International Feature category this coming Oscars celebration? It could happen, if the nomination shakes out favorably. Bustamante marries the “Weeping Woman’s” tale with Guatemala’s oppressive dictatorship past, telling a culturally ripe, politically damning commentary through famed Latin folklore. This isn’t The Curse Of La Llorona, throwing in some “secret spices” to score afterthought representation points. Still relevant is a quote from my full review: “A muted horror tale that speaks volumes about cultural violence, heinous international crimes, and how mythology can give a voice to the voiceless.”
Allow me, if you will, a brief passage to eat my words. When lockdown started, I rolled my eyes at the prospect of countless pandemic-reflexive projects forced into self-isolation boxes. “Psh, like anyone wants to see that.” Then Rob Savage filmed Host for Shudder and, welp, my knife and fork are polished. Thrillseeking screen-life horror that adheres to Zoom time limits, plays around with filter features, and is as natural a replication of digital terror you can imagine. Did I write a full review of this one, too? OF COURSE! Which you can read here, or acknowledge my snippet: “Host is an inspired evolution in possession horror that blends new-age scenarios with old-world demonics for a dreadfully horrific genre encapsulation of our current societal dynamics.”
3. After Midnight
After Midnight could be described as if Linklater’s “Before” trilogy got a creature-feature makeover. Jeremy Gardner writes, directs, and stars in one man’s moving reconnection with his life’s importance, through a lost romance that hits him hardest when some primal monster begins bashing through his Floridian estate doors each night. It’s a damp, hazy ballad about cheap booze, caged lovers, and how home is about who’s standing by your side. Brea Grant radiates sunshine next to Gardner, as this mon-rom-dram plucks sweet lovestruck chords to prove the ever-widening diversity of horror cinema.
2. Get Duked
What if The Most Dangerous Game was blasted with a Run The Jewels attitude upgrade? Enter Ninian Doff’s Get Duked, a UK manhunt that pits four underprivileged urban youths against a Highlands camping expedition dubbed “The Duke Of Edinburgh Award.” Reach the end, acquire community-favored skills, but what’s not billed is the elitist hunters who stalk participants. Can hash smokers, a DJ, and a social introvert take a stand against generational horrors in one of the year’s most off-the-wall watches? Quite possibly the most fun I’ve had with a UK genre film since Attack The Block.
1. His House
Remi Weekes, take a bow. Third, seventh, tenth features shouldn’t be as accomplished as this debut about Sudanese refugees living unpeacefully with the ghosts of their homeland. It is, on the surface, a haunted house narrative we’ve seen over and over. Why, then, is His House 2020’s must-watch horror showstopper? Because Weekes, like Jayro Bustamante in La Llorona, does a magnificent job unifying intense cultural significance with a tenderly tormented horror approach. Not to mention leads Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku lose themselves to dreams, escaping poverty, and what it means to trade one’s authenticity for another’s prosperity. One last time, I’ll link y’all to a full review. “His House nails the haunted house jolts, empowers its drama through cultural resonance and finds subgenre invigoration by giving a megaphone to the voiceless as horrors look no further than realities lived daily.
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