Best Horror Movies of the First Half of 2021

Wait, 2021 is half over already? But I think it started in March this year, right? Well, math be damned, here—in alphabetical order— is our list of the best horror films to reach us so far in 2021.

A Quiet Place Part II

For a few well-placed and important seconds, there it is: the much-discussed nail from A Quiet Place. And like most everything else in writer/director John Krasinki’s thrilling sequel, the nail’s return carries weight, speaking visually and deepening our investment in these characters’ terrifying journey.

There is no shortage of exhilarating, squirm-inducing and downright scary moments, but Krasinski instills it all with an impressive level of humanity. He gives the enterprise a welcome retro feel and his flair for visual storytelling has only strengthened since the last film.Paragraph

AQPII is lean, moves at a quick clip, thrills with impressive outdoor carnage sequences and yet commands that same level of tension in its nerve- janglingly quiet moments. Krasinski had a tough task trying to follow his 2018 blockbuster, one made even tougher now having to prove the sequel was worth saving for a theaters-only release. On both counts, we’d say he nailed it.

Caveat

The room is dark, decrepit. A wild-eyed woman with a bloody nose holds a toy out in front of her like a demon slayer holds a crucifix. The toy – what is it, a rabbit? A jackalope? – beats a creepy little drum. Faster. Slower. Hotter. Colder.

This is how writer/director Damian Mc Carthy opens Caveat and I am in. An expertly woven tapestry of ambiguity, lies and misunderstanding sink the story into a fog of mystery that never lets up. McCarthy unveils a real knack for nightmarish visuals, images that effortlessly conjure primal fears and subconscious revulsion.

Mc Carthy does a lot with very little, as there are very few locations and a total of three cast members—all stellar. You won’t miss the budget. Mc Carthy casts a spook house spell, rattling chains and all, and tells a pithy little survival story while he’s at it.  

Censor

It’s 1985, Thatcher’s England: an era when controversial films hoping to make their way to screens big and small found themselves more butchered than their characters. Writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher evoke such a timestamp with this film, not just in the look and style, but with the social preoccupation.

Censor is a descent into madness film, but its deep love and understanding of the genre play a central role in this madness. Niamh Algar’s performance as the video nasty censor in question is prim and sympathetic, deliberate and brittle. It’s clear from the opening frame that Enid will break. But between Algar’s skill and Bailey-Bond’s cinematic vision, the journey toward that break is a wild ride.

Fried Barry

Writer/director Ryan Kruger maintains an experimental feel throughout Fried Barry, although his feature does take on somewhat traditional cinematic structure. This primarily consists of Gary Green—looking disheveled, lean and imposing—wandering wide-eyed and silent through Cape Town. Oh, the adventures he finds!

The film offers insanity to spare. Kruger’s episodic fever dream blends frenetic editing and a charged soundtrack into something harsher and harder than a psychedelic trip, but the film lives and dies with Green.

It isn’t as if the actor performs alone. He stumbles into and upon a slew of wild, weird and sometimes insane (literally) characters. But it’s Green you cannot take your eyes off of.

Dude is fried.

Jakob’s Wife

Director/co-writer Travis Stevens (Girl on the Third Floor) wraps this bloodlusty tale of the pastor’s wife (Barbara Crampton) and the vampire in a fun, retro vibe of ’80s low-budget, practical, blood-spurting gore.

To see a female character of this age experiencing a spiritual, philosophical and sexual awakening is alone refreshing, and Crampton (looking fantastic, by the way) makes the character’s cautious embrace of her new ageless wonder an empowering – and even touching – journey.

With Crampton so completely in her element, Jakob’s Wife is an irresistibly fun take on the bite of eternity. Here, it’s not about taking souls, it’s about empowering them. And once this lady is a vamp, we’re the lucky ones.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

Making an unnervingly assured feature film debut, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas commingles The Transfiguration’s image of lonely, awkward adolescence with Relic’s horror of familial obligation to create a heartbreaking new vampire tale.

Many things are left unsaid (including the word “vampire’), and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To confines itself to the daily drudgery of three siblings. Dwight (Patrick Fugit) longs to break these family chains, but sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) holds him tight with shame, love, and obligation to little brother, the afflicted Thomas (Owen Campbell).

What could easily have become its own figurative image of the masculine longing for freedom mines far deeper concerns. Cuartas weaves loneliness into that freedom, tainting the concept of independence with a terrifying, even dangerous isolation that leaves you with no one to talk to and no way to get away from yourself.

Psycho Goreman

Endlessly quotable and boasting inspired creature design and a twisted Saturday Morning Kidventure tone, Psycho Goreman is a blast

Fans of writer/director Steven Kostanski’s 2016 breakout The Void (a perfect blend of Lovecraft and Halloween 2) might not expect the childlike lunacy and gleeful brutality of Psycho Goreman (PG for short), but they should. His 2012 gem Father’s Day (not for the easily offended) and his 2011 Manborg define not only his tendencies but his commitment to tone and mastery of his material.

His ensemble here works wonders together, each hitting the comedic beats in Kostanski’s script hard enough that the goretastic conclusion feels downright cheery. This movie could not be more fun.

Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma.

Ehle’s performance strikes a perfect image of casual cruelty, her scenes with the clearly delicate Maud a dance of curiosity and unkindness. Clark’s searching, desperate performance is chilling. Writer/director Rose Glass routinely frames her in ways to evoke the images of saints and martyrs, giving the film an eerie beauty, one that haunts rather than comforts.

Glass’s film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

The Retreat

The Retreat shows how satisfying it can be when cabin-in-the-woods horror is done well.

Director Pat Mills builds an air of dread and tension minus the usual gimmickry. Writer Alyson Richards pens a lean, mean, bloody survival thriller that boasts some welcome surprises and a smart social conscience. Realized via strong performances from Tommie-Amber Pirie and Sarah Allen, heroes Renee and Val’s relationship feels perfectly authentic, with a sexuality that’s never exploited by a leering camera. And while you may be reminded of 2018’s What Keeps You Alive, there is a critical difference.

The couple in that film could have been heterosexual, and it still would have worked. But here, the fact that it is a same sex couple being hunted matters very much to the story at work. It enables Richards and Mills to anchor a revenge horror show with a satisfying metaphor for the violent threats LGBTQ folks continue to face every day.

Werewolves Within

The nice guy is almost never a horror film’s hero, and this is where Werewolves Within really does depart from standard fare. Director Josh Ruben—fresh off the clever horror-comedy Scare Me—delivers a forgiving, even sweet tone.

Sam Richardson makes an ideal Mr. Rogers-esque central figure, his new hometown populated by a talented comedy ensemble: Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, Wayne Duvall, Harvey Guillen (TV’s What We Do In the Shadows), and fan-favorite, Milana Vayntrub. (You know, Lily from the AT&T ads.)

Mishna Wolff displays a flair for whodunnit fun that elevates the film high above 90% of the video game movies that have been made. A lot of that success lies in Wolff and Ruben’s investment in the nice guy.

Screening Room: Wrath of Man, Here Today, Fried Barry, Above Suspicion, The Oak Room & More

South African Mayhem

Fried Barry

by Hope Madden

So, Fried Barry then.

Four years ago, South African writer/director Ryan Kruger made the 28th short film of his young career, a quick and experimental one-man meth attack starring Gary Green called Fried Barry. On the merits of Kruger’s vision for harrowing realism underlying a scifi vibe, as well as the startling central figure (Green is quite something to gaze upon), the short film made a big impact.

It’s also a single scene of a profound reaction to a drug. Not a lot to build on, and yet that’s just what Kruger does in his feature of the same name, streaming this week on Shudder.

Green returns as a Cape Town low life whose latest high is complicated due to an alien abduction.

Or is he just really, really, really high?

Kruger maintains an experimental feel, although his feature takes on more of a traditional cinematic structure. This primarily consists of Green—looking as disheveled, lean and imposing as ever—wandering wide-eyed and silent through Cape Town. Oh, the adventures he finds!

Most of them involve different women who are curiously interested in having sex with this obvious junkie. He must just smell so rank! Suspend disbelief. The movie is nuts.

It’s not entirely unique, though, as it continuously calls to mind Rolf de Heer’s notorious 1993 film Bad Boy Bubby—another Huck Finn style adventure about a man-child and the curiosities he stumbles into.

And to be honest, de Veer’s film is far more of a mind f*ck.

Fried Barry also conjures Terry Gilliam and Panos Cosmatos (top-notch purveyors of drug-fueled mayhem), and maybe even an especially high-octane Lynch. Which is to say, the film offers insanity to spare. Kruger’s episodic fever dream blends frenetic editing and a charged soundtrack into something harsher and harder than a psychedelic trip, but the film lives and dies with Green.

It isn’t as if the actor performs alone. He stumbles into and upon a slew of wild, weird and sometimes insane (literally) characters. But it’s Green you cannot take your eyes off of.

Dude is fried.