Top Ten Horror and Genre Films of 2020
A countdown of the best horror and genre films of the year as voted for by our writers
2020 has been a stinker of a year, and yet it has been a great year for horror and genre films, with some filmmakers using their ingenuity to produce films that speak to the moment. This year has also presented many challenges to the film industry and cinemas who have had to adapt to pandemic restrictions and social distancing measures. Virtual film festivals and Q&As have taken place with global audiences taking to social media to connect, critique and celebrate the films they've seen.
With that in mind, we've chosen to celebrate the top ten genre films that our writers have seen at home, in cinemas and at virtual film festivals. Some titles are readily available to watch now and some will be making their way to screens in 2021. Below you can find out who voted for what and some comments on their choices.
Watch: Top Ten Genre and Horror Films of 2020
1. The Invisible Man
3. Saint Maud
5. Scare Me
6. His House
7. I'm Thinking of Ending Things
10. The Pool
This year, horror fans have been treated to a bunch of cracking films, a few of which - like Vivarium, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Saint Maud, His House and Relic - are brimming with dread as they bend reality to examine real-life horrors, from societal expectations and relationships to identity and illness. Others were, simply put, great "monster" movies like The Pool or Underwater. Host, a surprise hit, knew how to deliver a good jump scare, too, but it's Leigh Whannell's super tense The Invisible Man that stands out the most (in my opinion). Anchored by an award-worthy performance from Elisabeth Moss, it manages to make the titular antagonist scary again as it grounds its bonkers concept in reality and explores what it really means to be haunted by a "ghost."
1.Me and Me
2. His House
4. Los Que Vuelven
6. The Swerve
This year has seen the release of some extraordinarily varied genre films. Damian Mc Carthy’s amnesiac ghost story Caveat, Brandon Cronenberg’s mind-transfer thriller Possessor and my favourite film of the year Jung Jin-young’s multi-personality parallel-universe (Z)enigma Me and Me all tackle the fragmentation of personal identity from very different angles. Natalie Erika James’s heart-rending mortality myth Relic, Dean Kapsalis’ intense drama The Swerve, Dusty Mancinelli & Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s ambiguous rape-revenger Violation and Laura Casabe’s colonial spirit house The Returned (Los Que Vuelven) all focus on the figure of a woman in crisis to trace broader societal frictions. Though they have little else in common, both the refugee revenants of Remi Weekes’ His House and the demonic zoom-invasion of Rob Savage’s Host manage to be entirely of the now in their portrayal of contemporary Britain. And Devereux Milburn’s Honeydew revisits themes familiar from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a highly crafted stylisation that is all its own.
2. His House
4. Extra Ordinary
5. Saint Maud
6. The Platform
7. The Invisible Man
5. The Invisible Man
6. Saint Maud
7. Colour Out of Space
8. His House
9. 12 Hour Shift
There’s nothing really left to say about Rob Savage’s Zoom-bound found footage horror, Host, about a séance conducted over a video call, but damn, it just works so well. Perfectly crafted and brilliantly performed, the film’s power goes beyond its sheer made-in-lockdown ingenuity: it’s a properly scary horror film. That raw fear factor and sharp wit will be what makes sure it endures beyond the pandemic. With Lucky, Imitation Girl director Natasha Kermani returns to direct Brea Grant’s script about a woman (Grant) caught in a Groundhog Day-esque loop where the same attacker breaks into her home every night. What begins as a high concept horror comedy reveals itself to be something much sharper and much angrier. It’s got real power and it’s such a clever film. With Shirley Josephine Decker brings her unique style to this fictional biography of the great Shirley Jackson. Elisabeth Moss gives a dazzling performance in the title role, ably backed up by a gleefully horrible Michael Stuhlbarg, and the twisted tale means the film avoids all the usual boring biopic nonsense.
I don’t know when or if the Ukrainian oddity, Stranger, will get a UK release but it was certainly one of the highlights of this year’s FrightFest. How does a missing swim team fit in with a waste plant, a water treatment centre, Lovecraft and nuclear physics? It’s so stylish, beautifully made and totally bewitching. It seems like years ago that Leigh Whannell’s take on the classic story came out, but thinking back to seeing The Invisible Man in the cinema is a reminder of why it’s so important to see horror on the big screen. It’s brutally tense and Elisabeth Moss is absolutely fantastic as a woman trying to convince her friends and family that her tormentor is still out there. Rose Glass’ feature debut, Saint Maud, packed one hell of a punch. Morfydd Clark is superb as a carer who believes that she has a divine purpose, and she’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen. Glass’ script avoids the expected twists and turns to deliver something that is stylish, confident, sharply witty and gruelling.
Richard Stanley returned with Color Out Of Space, and what better way to make a comeback than with a Lovecraft adaptation starring Nicolas Cage? The script by Stanley and Scarlett Amaris smartly updates the short story and perfectly conjures that air of dread, combined with some fantastic gooey mutant business. Remi Weekes’ feature debut, His House, follows a refugee couple who discover that their new home in Britain offers horrors old and new. The way in which the film depicts the harsh realities of life for resettled people and the endless failings of bureaucracy is powerful, but Weekes also shows tremendous skill in turning a run down suburban house into a living, breathing entity.
Brea Grant takes writing and directing duties in the gleefully nasty bad night dark comedy, 12 Hour Shift, as exhausted nurse Angela Bettis finds her organ theft side hustle disrupted by Chloe Farnworth’s forgetful but determined criminal. It’s full of wonderful weirdness but packs a mean punch. Brandon Cronenberg is back with another Cronenbergian sci-fi chiller with Possessor. Andrea Riseborough is sensational as a body-hopping assassin, and she’s matched at every step by Christopher Abbott as the man who unwittingly becomes her vessel. As the brutal violence begins, a tussle for control ensues with shocking consequences.
2. His House
6. The Intruder (El Profugo) (Natalia Meta)
7. The Invisible Man
10. La Llorona
My number one choice is Josephine Decker’s Shirley starring Elisabeth Moss as a version of accomplished horror author Shirley Jackson – minus the kids. It’s a dazzling and enticing portrait of madness, melancholy and the impact of patriarchal values on a brilliant mind. Likewise, Natasha Kermani’s Lucky, written by Brea Grant and Leigh Whannell’s reboot of Universal classic The Invisible Man deal with women’s pain and trauma in a world that devalues their existence. Daria Woszek’s Marygoround won the jury prize for best film and director at Fantasia Film Festival. It makes a stirring political point about women’s bodies in surreal and moving fashion as it follows a 50-year-old shopkeeper going through menopause. Natalia Meta’s The Intruder which showed at London Film Festival, takes a playful and seductive approach to desire in a similar manner to filmmakers like Peter Strickland and Brian De Palma. The female perspective sets it apart.
Remi Weekes’ His House is a remarkably accomplished piece of British horror cinema and a chilling depiction of the asylum-seeking process. Rob Savage’s ingenious found footage Host is not only incredibly scary it summons an atmosphere of unease and dread that spoke to the moment. With Relic, director/writer Natalie Erika James unearths the real-life horrors of adulthood and the emotional toll of that sudden shift when a child becomes carer to a parent suffering from a debilitating disease. Jayro Bustamante’s politically charged Guatemalan ghost story, La Llorona is equally confronting and deeply powerful filmmaking.
1. La Llorona
3. His House
4. Koko-di Koko-da
5. The Invisible Man
7. The Vast of Night
8. Little Joe
9. She Dies Tomorrow
In a way, La Llorona is a bit like Alfonso Cuarón’s awards-gobbling Roma, only if it told the truth about the class struggle and treatment of indigenous people in Central America instead of opting for a well-intended but misguided bourgeois guilt trip. This Guatemalan tale of terror makes all the right moves and aces every single one. Brandon Cronenberg proves he’s a chip off the old body-horror block, with his second feature, the insanely gory and mind-melting techno-thriller Possessor. If Dave Deprave isn’t going to make these kinds of freaky deaky pictures anymore, his son might as well take up the mantle.
In an awful year of far-right scaremongering and xenophobia stoked by Brexit, Remi Weekes’ stunning debut, His House, serves to remind us, no matter the media-whipped hysteria, migrants are human beings and they’ve been through horrendous experiences we could never begin to imagine. It works a treat as a scary horror film and a deeply sad portrait about overcoming trauma. Johannes Nyholm’s surreal nightmare, Koko-di Koko-da, is totally bonkers, intense as hell and, in the end, a profoundly moving look at the process of grieving and two people on a tough journey to reconciliation and forgiveness. The last movie I watched at the pictures before ‘The Fall’ was Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. Elisabeth Moss continues her climb as an absolute superstar, in this riveting and inventive spin on HG Wells’ classic novel. Bliss is a punk rock riot with a captivating lead performance by Dora Madison, here playing an artist embarking on a blood-fuelled trip into insanity. In-your-face filmmaking and so, so good.
Talk about a flick coming out of nowhere. The Vast of Night is a dazzling retro pastiche featuring virtuosic direction by newcomer Andrew Patterson. This alien abduction yarn set in 1950s small-town America is the definition of a calling card to greater things. Watch this space and keep watching the skies! Little Joe is a singularly oddity from Jessica Hausner, but I couldn’t – and still quite can’t – put my finger on why I found it so unsettling. Emily Beecham won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2019, but Ben Whishaw’s performance as a lovestruck colleague turned gaslighting creep was just as eye-catching. Amy Seimetz’s latest in the director’s chair, She Dies Tomorrow, captured and bottled 2020 anxiety. What was surprising, though, was the deadpan humour. Its mix of dread and palpable nervousness was heightened by economic storytelling and not really explaining the cause of the virus-like malaise infecting the characters. Natalie Erika James’ haunted house frightener, Relic, impressed me with its poetic visuals and heart-wrenching use of allegory.
2. His House
4. The Invisible Man
6. 12 Hour Shift
8. Concrete Plans
10. The Columnist
In Lucky, every night, the same man breaks into a woman’s house and tries to kill her. Every night, she fights back, but just when it seems he’s been defeated, he disappears – only to return the next night. And the next night. The spooky Groundhog Day-esque twist to Natasha Kermani’s slasher is an irresistible hook, and it only gets cleverer from there. Absurdist, feminist, sharp, challenging, and brilliant, this is absolutely my favourite of the year.
An excoriating portrait of the state of the UK's unhelpful, deliberately labyrinthine asylum system, His House is also probably the year's scariest haunted house story. Leads Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku are fantastic, giving complex, compelling performances - though Matt Smith also deserves some kind of shout-out for being the deeply unpleasant face of bureaucracy. More than anything else on this list, this is the one that's going to give you nightmares. Not quite a biopic, not quite an adaptation, Josephine Decker nonetheless manages to conjure up the spirit of Shirley Jackson in heady drama, Shirley. Elisabeth Moss’s portrayal of Jackson is terrifying, all barbed tongue and sharp claws, but also compelling, even sympathetic. She and Odessa Young, who plays the wife of a young college professor who gets ensnared in Jackson’s web, build an uneasy and intoxicating relationship where nothing is ever quite what it seems.
If The Invisible Man is anything to go by, Blumhouse should remake all of Universal’s classic monster movies, immediately. Writer/director Leigh Whannell somehow manages to make both the text and the subtext of this movie terrifying, and the way he works with negative space in this film is jaw-dropping. Stranger is stunningly beautiful to look at… and that’s about all I could tell you with any certainty. Set in a creepy health spa somewhere outside Kyiv, it’s a tangled metaphysical mystery where a pine and bubble bath might just be the answer to everything. Yet despite the evasiveness of the plot, it all resolves into a tender, sweet, moving conclusion. A workplace comedy about nurses who deal in human organs on the black market, 12 Hour Shift possibly has the darkest sense of humour of any movie released this year. Angela Bettis is hard as nails in the lead, but Chloe Farnworth’s agent of bleached blonde chaos steals the show.
Host was set during lockdown, written during lockdown, shot during lockdown, and released… well, maybe not quite during lockdown, but close enough. Director Rob Savage manages to capture the mood of a nation with his super succinct movie about a Zoom séance gone wrong. It’d be brilliant anyway, but when you consider the restrictions his team were working under here, it becomes a truly incredible achievement. A simple construction job goes horribly wrong in taut thriller, Concrete Plans. A lot of this movie is just about people talking to one another, or overhearing one another, and yet it’s incredibly compelling. Also, the Welsh landscape looks gorgeous. A haunted pair of jeans wreaks havok on a group of retail workers in the deeply silly, and yet also deeply political Slaxx. It shouldn’t be possible for a film to be this much fun and also have this much righteous anger packed into it, and yet, here we are. Katja Herbers is fantastic in satirical horror comedy, The Columnist, about a newspaper columnist who snaps after she gets one too many comments from misogynist internet trolls.