There were so many great films this year, and given the bizarre circumstances of planet earth, you may have missed most of them. So, while we’ll focus mainly on the top 10, there are others: Blood Quantum, Invisible Man, Relic, Amulet, Host, La Llorona, Get Duked!, Rent-a-Pal, Luz: The Flower of Evil, Swerve.
And please, if you have not sought it out yet, a film that made our Best of 2019 list—Devil to Pay—is finally available. So, while we won’t add it to this year’s list, please do watch it!
In the meantime, here are our picks for the ten best horror films of 2020.
10. His House
A remarkable braiding of human tragedy, global political peril and traditional ghost story, co-writer/director Remi Weekes’s His House was one of 2020’s great surprises. Two powerful lead performances from Sope Dirisu and Lovecraft Country’s Wumni Mosaku pull you into the story of South Sudanese refugees Vol (Dirisu) and Rial (Mosaku). You ache for them as they try to find a way to fit into their new life in London—a life where so many other refugees have failed.
Tension builds quietly but steadily as the two navigate their new community and the rules good refugees must follow, but worry for them and their security leaps to new heights as certain horrors bring about risky behavior. You never know whether you’re more worried that they’ll be sent back or they’ll have to stay.
Mosaku’s stare is weightier and more powerful than anything else you’ll encounter in this film, but it’s balanced by the vulnerability Dirisu brings to Bol. The two deliver an urgent and profound message about guilt, tragedy and forgiveness.
9. She Dies Tomorrow
She Dies Tomorrow is a horror film that’s one part Coherence, one part The Beach House, one part The Signal (2007, not 2014) and yet somehow entirely its own. It helps that so few people have seen any of those other movies, but the truth is that writer/director Amy Seimetz (creator of The Girlfriend Experience) is simply braiding together themes that have quietly influenced SciFi horror hybrids of late. What she does with these themes is pretty remarkable.
Her film weaves in and out of the current moment, delivering a dreamlike structure that suits its trippy premise. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) believes she is going to die tomorrow. She knows it. She’s sure.
She calls her friend Jane (the always amazing Jane Adams), who senses that Amy is not OK but has this obligation to go to her sister-in-law’s party…whatever, she’ll stop over on her way.
By the time Jane gets to the party, she’s also quite certain she will die tomorrow. It isn’t long before the partygoers sense their own imminent deaths; meanwhile, Amy is spreading her perception contagion elsewhere.
8. Gretel & Hansel
Sophia Lillis (IT) narrates and stars as Gretel, the center of this coming of age story—reasonable, given the change of billing suggested by the film’s title. The witch may still have a tasty meal on her mind, but this is less a cautionary tale than it is a metaphor for agency over obligation.
Alice Krige and her cheekbones strike the perfect mixture of menace and mentorship, while Sammy Leakey’s little Hansel manages to be both adorable and tiresome, as is required for the story to work.
Perkins continues to impress with his talent for visual storytelling and Galo Olivares’s cinematography heightens the film’s folkloric atmosphere.
There’s no escaping this spell. The whole affair feels like an intriguing dream.
7. The Other Lamb
The first step toward freedom is telling your own story.
Writer C.S. McMullen and director Malgorzata Szumowska tell this one really well. Between McMullen’s outrage and the macabre lyricism of Szumowska’s camera, The Other Lamb offers a dark, angry and satisfying coming-of-age tale.
Selah’s (Raffey Cassity) first period and her commune’s migration to a new and more isolated Eden offer the tale some structure. Like many a horror film, The Other Lamb occupies itself with burgeoning womanhood, the end of innocence. Unlike most others in the genre, Szumowska’s film depicts this as a time of finding your own power.
The Other Lamb does not simply suggest you question authority. It demands that you do far more than that, and do it for your own good.
6. The Lodge
Several Fiala and Veronika Franz follow up their creepy Goodnight Mommy with this “white death” horror that sees a future stepmom having a tough time getting to know the kids during a weeklong, snowbound cabin retreat. Riley Keough is riding an impressive run of performances and her work here is slippery and wonderful. As the unwanted new member in the family, she’s sympathetic but also brittle.
Jaeden Martell, a kid who has yet to deliver a less than impressive turn, is the human heartbeat at the center of the mystery in the cabin. His tenderness gives the film a quiet, pleading tragedy. Whether he’s comforting his grieving little sister or begging Grace (Keough) to come in from the snow, his performance aches and you ache with him.
There’s no denying the mounting dread the filmmakers create, and the three central performances are uniquely effective. Thanks to the actors’ commitment and the filmmakers’ skill in atmospheric horror, the movie grips you, makes you cold and uncomfortable, and ends with a memorable slap.
5. The Dark and the Wicked
Bryan Bertino is not a filmmaker to let his audience off the hook—if you’ve seen The Strangers, you know that. Like that effort, TD&TW is a slow burn with nerves fraying inside an isolated farmhouse as noises, shadows, and menacing figures lurk outside.
Bertino and cinematographer Tom Schraeder work the darkness in and around a goat farm to create a lingering, roaming dread. But where Bertino, who also writes, scores extra points is in crafting believable characters.
Too often in horror you find wildly dramatic behavior in the face of the supernatural. One character adamantly denies and defies what is clearly happening while another desperately tries to communicate with “it.” No one would do either, but this is the best way to serve the needed action to come in lesser films.
4. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Two years ago. Thunder Road was a pretty fantastic breakout for writer/director/star Jim Cummings. A visionary character study with alternating moments of heart and hilarity, it felt like recognizable pieces molded into something bracingly original.
Now, Cummings feels it’s time to throw in some werewolves.
Cummings is officer John Marshall of the Snow Hollow sheriff’s department. John’s father (Robert Forster, in his final role) is the longtime sheriff of the small ski resort town, but Dad’s reached the age and condition where John feels he’s really the one in charge.
John’s also a recovering alcoholic with a hot temper, a bitter ex-wife and a teen daughter who doesn’t like him much. But when a young ski bunny gets slaughtered near the hot tub under a full moon, suddenly John’s got a much bigger, much bloodier problem.
At its core, The Wold of Snow Hollow is a super deluxe re-write of Thunder Road with werewolves. I call that a bloody good time.
Liberation isn’t always the good time it’s cracked up to be. In his strangely hopeful tale Werewolf, writer/director Adrian Panek offers a different image of social rebuilding.
Werewolf is beautifully shot, inside the crumbling castle, out in the woods, even in the early, jarring nonchalance of the concentration camp’s brutality. Panek hints at supernatural elements afoot, but the magic in his film is less metaphorical than that.
The film is creepy and tense. It speaks of the unspeakable – the level of evil that can only really be understood through images of Nazi horror—but it sees a path back to something unspoiled.
Putting a relevant twist on the classic “horrific mother” trope, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis uses the rare eating disorder pica to anchor his exploration of gender dynamics and, in particular, control.
Where Mirabella-Davis’s talent for building tension and framing scenes drive the narrative, it’s Bennett’s performance that elevates the film. Serving as executive producer as well as star, Haley Bennett transforms over the course of the film.
When things finally burst, director and star shake off the traditional storytelling, the Yellow Wallpaper or Awakening or even Safe. The filmmaker’s vision and imagery come full circle with a bold conclusion worthy of Bennett’s performance.
Brandon Cronenberg’s created a gorgeous techno world, its lulling disorientation punctuated by some of the most visceral horror to make it to the screen this year. There is something admirably confident about showing your influences this brazenly.
Credit Cronenberg, too, for the forethought to cast the two leads as females (Jennifer Jason Leigh playing the remarkable Andrea Riseborough’s boss). The theme of the film, if driven by males, would have been passe and obvious. With females, though, it’s not only more relevant and vital, but more of a gut punch when the time comes to cash the check.
Possessor is a meditation on identity, sometimes very obviously so, but the underlying message takes that concept and stabs you in your still-beating heart with it.