It’s the end of a particularly surprising and eventful year, and there have been some… challenges. Due to obvious reasons, mass gatherings (and therefore audiences) have been hard to come by, so the arts industry has been forced to adjust. While missing out on live events, film festivals have gone digital, which opened up a whole new channel for films to reach audiences. We’d already seen distribution turn to streaming platforms, where indie horror festival favorites will get picked up by Shudder, Amazon Prime, or Netflix, skipping the limited theatrical release and jumping right into our homes. It’s a blessing and a curse, allowing more access to films than ever before, but taking away the magical experience of a great movie audience.
Part of the tricky pickle with this is that — since there are few films with official theatrical release dates this year — there are more films with a somewhat tenuous timeline. It may have first hit the festival circuit in 2019, but didn’t land distribution until 2020. But of course I’d like to include them, because they really should be seen. So as such, this list will include some films that were made in 2019 but didn’t see a wide audience until 2020. Cool? Ok cool.
Alright. After this whirlwind of a year, it’s nice to know there’s still some good in the world (in the form of some stupendous horror films). It’s time to wrap up with a list of some of the best** horror films to somehow find their way into 2020.
* *Disclaimer: Based on what I’ve seen so far this year, using an arbitrary rating system.
15. The Lodge
Synopsis: During a family retreat to a remote winter cabin over the holidays, the father is forced to abruptly depart for work, leaving his two children in the care of his new girlfriend, Grace. Isolated and alone, a blizzard traps them inside the lodge as terrifying events summon specters from Grace’s dark past.
Why you should watch it: The Lodge opens with a dramatic bang, then takes its dear time dragging your body through an inescapable, cold dread. Co-written and directed by Goodnight Mommy‘s Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, it’s got a bit of a slow burn, but it’s bleak as hell (and who doesn’t love that).
14. Anything for Jackson
Synopsis: A bereaved Satanist couple kidnap a pregnant woman so they can use an ancient spellbook to put their dead grandson’s spirit into her unborn child but end up summoning more than they bargained for.
Why you should watch it: Currently sitting at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, Anything for Jackson is the Canadian indie horror that could. Written and directed by two horror fans who have seasoned their skills working on family-friendly Christmas fare, Anything for Jackson is one of 2020’s more pleasant surprises. With creative, creepy ghosts and a complex range of emotions, it’s definitely worth a watch.
The film’s two leads — played by Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings — are absolutely delightful, despite their whole “kidnap an innocent pregnant woman” reverse exorcism plan. To learn more about the film, you should check out my special behind-the-scenes visit to the film’s set. I learned a lot!
Synopsis: After swapping bodies with a deranged serial killer, a young girl in high school discovers she has less than 24 hours before the change becomes permanent.
Why you should watch it: Freaky was co-written and directed by Happy Death Day’s Christopher Landon, and you can tell. It’s fun, it’s goofy, and it’s got a clever concept that’s the ultimate take on the Freaky Friday body swap. Vince Vaughn really has a great time with the role of a dorky teenage girl trapped in the body of a giant serial slasher, and it’s equally fun to watch him stumble through it all. It’s a real crowd pleaser!
12. The Hunt
Synopsis: Twelve strangers wake up in a clearing. They don’t know where they are, or how they got there. They don’t know they’ve been chosen – for a very specific purpose – The Hunt.
Why you should watch it: Initially set for release in September 2019, The Hunt was ultimately shelved until 2020 due to the (ridiculously projected) controversial nature of the film. It was scandalous, it was explosive, and no one had even seen it yet. Blumhouse later (very wisely) used some excellent pull quotes for the film’s poster, promoting the film by cashing in on some recklessly vocal opinions.
When audiences finally got to see the film, they were treated to a good ol’ fashioned body count bonanza, pitting liberal elites against right-wing deplorables in a culture-clash battle royale, cranked up with comical levels of violence. It’s a wildly fun film driven by an incredible performance by GLOW’s Betty Gilpin — the story of the tortoise and the hare has never been delivered with such intensity. Come for the controversy, stay for the satire, The Hunt is a clever, fun, violent film that’s sure to get folks talking.
11. Come to Daddy
Synopsis: A privileged man-child arrives at the beautiful and remote coastal cabin of his estranged father, whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. He quickly discovers that not only is his dad a jerk, he also has a shady past that is rushing to catch up with him.
Why you should watch it: Come to Daddy is very dark and darkly funny, with frenzied, unexpected violence that jumps in and shocks you when you least expect it. But all that aside, it has a really deep emotional heart. You can read my full review here and my interview with the film’s director, Ant Timpson.
10. After Midnight
Synopsis: Dealing with a girlfriend suddenly leaving is tough enough, but for Hank, heartbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time. There’s also a monster trying to break through his front door every night.
Why you should watch it: Written by and starring Jeremy Gardner (of The Battery fame), After Midnight is a real genre hybrid. It’s part romantic drama, part comedy, and part horror, and it’s an absolute delight, with my favorite use of Lisa Loeb’s Stay in recent cinematic history. It also features Henry Zebrowski (Last Podcast on the Left) as Hank’s comic relief best friend, so that’s a fun bonus.
Synopsis: A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
Why you should watch it: Relic is thematically reminiscent of The Taking of Deborah Logan with a splash of House of Leaves. It’s dark, twisting horror about the desperate tragedies we go through when watching a loved one in decline, as their mental and physical health deteriorates. It’s a heartfelt and deeply moving film driven by powerful performances.
Synopsis: Sarah tries to start anew in LA, but her neighbors are not what they seem.
Why you should watch it: 1BR is an awkwardly named but well made film that falls open in layers. It’s a great reminder of how, sometimes, simple horror can be the most effective. I fully believe this is a film you should go into as blind as you possibly can, so don’t watch the trailer (it reveals too much), just check it out. It’s on Netflix, so, yanno. Easy access.
7. Color Out of Space
Synopsis: After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.
Why you should watch it: This movie is kind of bonkers, and clearly took some practical effect inspiration from The Thing (which is a very good thing). It’s Nic Cage and Lovecraft, as directed by Richard Stanley. I feel like I can probably just leave it at that?
6. The Mortuary Collection
Synopsis: An eccentric mortician recounts several macabre and phantasmagorical tales that he’s encountered in his distinguished career.
Why you should watch it: I love a good horror anthology, and The Mortuary Collection is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Stylistically it’s stunning; the production design is the perfect blend of aesthetics from the 50s to the 80s, and each story is a lovely little morality tale tucked into a sweet scary package.
With an anthology, it can be tricky to tie each segment together in a way that doesn’t feel disjointed or slap-dash, but writer/director Ryan Spindell (read my interview here) cohesively weaves them all together in a way that’s both visually and narratively appealing. You can read my full review here.
5. The Invisible Man
Synopsis: When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
Why you should watch it: Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Upgrade), The Invisible Man takes the Classic Monster tale and defibrillates it with a jolt of too-relatable horror. It revels in the absolute terror of knowing that something is wrong and having no one believe you; the hopeless frustration of how isolating abuse can be.
It’s brilliantly shot and wonderfully acted (Elisabeth Moss, ladies and gentlemen), and its scares and action sequences pack a real wallop. But most importantly, it understands a fear that probably every woman has had at one point or another. That palpable feeling. The understanding that — for some men — cruel actions are invisible.
4. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Synopsis: Terror grips a small mountain town as bodies are discovered after each full moon. Losing sleep, raising a teenage daughter, and caring for his ailing father, officer Marshall struggles to remind himself there’s no such thing as werewolves.
Why you should watch it: The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a darkly funny small-town terror tale with an impressive lead played by the film’s own writer/director, Jim Cummings. Cummings plays a recovering alcoholic/overworked cop who’s… kind of an asshole, to be honest. But he’s so flawed and so very stressed, that you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.
Cummings skillfully turns what would normally be an unlikable character into someone sympathetic — all with perfect comedic timing. And that’s not even to speak on the merits of the movie as a whole, which has a unique tone that strings together a whole bushel of overlapping emotions. And while you’re riding that rollercoaster of feelings, it slowly crawls upwards, pulling you through tension you can feel in your gut. One scene in particular reminded me of that iconic basement scene from Zodiac (which is all I will say on the matter). It’s definitely a film that deserves as much attention as it can possibly get.
3. The Dark and the Wicked
Synopsis: On a secluded farm in a nondescript rural town, a man is slowly dying. His family gathers to mourn, and soon a darkness grows, marked by waking nightmares and a growing sense that something evil is taking over the family.
Why you should watch it: Written and directed by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers), The Dark and the Wicked is a masterclass in dread. It’s soaked in nerve-wracking fear and the apprehension of something terrible to come. Visually and emotionally, The Dark and the Wicked is inescapably bleak. It feels like a genuine horror film, one that builds tension and terror with a calm ease that makes it that much more unsettling. I could go on, or you can read my full review for all the nitty gritty details.
Synopsis: Six friends hire a medium to hold a seance via Zoom during lockdown, but they get far more than they bargained for as things quickly go wrong.
Why you should watch it: Host is the best thing to come out of 2020’s quarantine. Filmed over one dramatic Zoom chat, the film is intimate, compelling, and actually friggin scary. It’s fraught with tension and genuinely effective jump scares, and it brilliantly uses the COVID-19 lockdown to both create and encourage its plot.
Host is an impressive debut from director Rob Savage. Currently sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film was shot in chronological order and was mostly improvised, so it feels very genuine. Impressively, Savage managed to turn a viral tweet of the prank he played on his friends into a feature film, which — after the success of Host — has since landed him a three-picture deal with Blumhouse. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Synopsis: Possessor follows an agent who works for a secretive organization that uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies – ultimately driving them to commit assassinations for high-paying clients.
Why you should watch it: I said in my review that Possessor was possibly the best film of the year, and after circling through everything I’ve seen in 2020, I stand by that statement. Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore feature is complex, cruel, visual perfection, and it’s brilliant. The concept is fascinating and the acting is flawless, with nuanced micro-expressions that speak volumes. The cinematography by Karim Hussein — who also worked on Random Acts of Violence — vibrantly bleeds into the film and enhances every single frame. It’s heady, it’s ruthless, and I think it’s this year’s best.
Synopsis: Joel, a caustic 1980s film critic for a national horror magazine, finds himself unwittingly trapped in a self-help group for serial killers. With no other choice, Joel attempts to blend in or risk becoming the next victim.
Why you should watch it: I may be ahead of myself, as so far Vicious Fun has only been released as part of Sitges in Spain and Monster Fest in Australia, but I loved this film so I think it’s worth the early inclusion. Vicious Fun is an appropriately named warm embrace of the horror genre.
Made for horror fans by horror fans, it puts the classic tropes on blast and has a wild time while doing it. It’s wildly entertaining, on-the-nose funny with a synth-heavy score, and it doesn’t skimp out of the blood and guts. You should definitely keep an eye out for it, and you can read my full review here.