EJ Moreno casts his eye back over the year in horror…
The landscape of cinema was forever changed by 2020. From the global pandemic to streaming’s rapid growth, it seems like everything was rocked for better or worse. But something thrived in the rockiest of times, a genre that lives on the margin of indie and mainstream; horror was in one of the best spots all year, with nearly every month offering up delightful scares.
When the cinemas felt unstable, the home experience allowed horror to take on a larger life. And the ones who still get to see the latest offerings like Saint Maud and Freaky on the big screen, the magic is still alive for them. It’s a great year for the underdog genre, and it’s our time to shine in the world with little blockbusters.
Every year, the best work in horror is largely ignored by the mainstream, with the film’s finding a place on streaming or video-on-demand services. Though, you do have a rare mainstream smash that gathers the whole film-loving community. This year, that outing was The Invisible Man. Released before the world went topsy-turvy, it feels like this came out years ago now but nope, this is a 2020 release. And regardless of when it came out, the film still has an impact on every viewing.
Universal Horror went through a rocky few years as they tried to find their voice as a brand in this new age. While the ‘Dark Universe’ Mummy reboot with Tom Cruise didn’t plan out, this new take on The Invisible Man could be the launch of the brand’s new golden age. As Universal regularly partners with Blumhouse, the legendary studio offered up one of their most iconic names to a Blumhousr regular, Leigh Whannell, and made something for a whole new generation.
Universal Pictures needed to reshape their iconic resume of horror icons in a new way for this generation, and The Invisible Man feels like a step in that direction. The same studio giving us films like Get Out and Happy Death Day is now putting that same unique spin on the names that originally made them famous.
Elizabeth Moss throws herself into Cecilia’s role, offering up one of her best performances in a year that included an equally good turn in the bizarre Shirley. The titular character re-invented more chillingly than ever before, becoming a force even when he isn’t sneaking about…Oliver Jackson-Cohen made just the word “surprise” scary. And you are invested in every turn in this film.
That shows the care director Leigh Whannell has for his leads, even the one never on-screen. Like his 2018 action-horror debut masterpiece Upgrade, there’s a genre-bending style that still feels deeply rooted in the genre.
Speaking of debut films, 2020 has felt like the “coming out” party for many new filmmakers. Given the extreme focus on independent cinema this year, newer voices are heard, and horror has a lot to say. Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz entered the feature film game with their controversial Antebellum, while Rose Glass kicked down the door with her powerful religious horror, Saint Maud. Sadly, Glass’ Saint Maud hasn’t been seen by a wide enough audience as the release date was hit hard by 2020’s craziness.
Two filmmakers really stood out with debuts, and that’s Natalie Erika James with Relic and Dave Franco with The Rental. These two filmmakers offered up incredible style with their films, but both pack emotional and dramatic punches that feel wise beyond their years as artists.
Franco has long-worked in the industry, and his turn as a director isn’t shocking. But a sleek, modern slasher like this is not what people expected from the young artist’s debut. The Rental is one of the year’s more divisive entries, with viewers either love the mumblecore stylings or finds themselves hating the dialogue-heavy slow burn. I stand with the former as I was mesmerized and terrified by this romantic drama meets 80s slasher hybrid.
Now, Relic, on the other hand, is a near-perfect masterpiece. It’s a bold look into what makes writer and director Natalie Erika James tick as an artist, baring her soul with this striking film. Following three generations of women dealing with a terrifying physical manifestation of the mental illness that consumes their family’s home. The film’s finale carries one of the most haunting images in quite some time and feels like a must-see for anyone who loves artful horror.
A common theme throughout this list is the focus on independent horror. This feels like the perfect time to talk about another great debut film with Remi Weekes’ His House. Holy hell, Netflix acquired one of the best indie horrors in quite some time here, offering up a powerful film that feels so unique compared to anything else on this list.
Dropped on the streamer for Halloween, this sadly got overlooked, but the 100% on Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t lie when it comes to the film’s quality. While it’s the wonderful work from Weekes that gives the actors their material, there’s no denying that Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku are what makes this so special. These actors give everything for His House, turning some of the best acting performances all year.
Another independent film hasn’t been quite as overlooked but still deserves mention, and that’s Possessor. Brandon Cronenberg gives a sci-fi horror film for the ages here, offering us the decades first seriously great entry. Once you see this film, you’ll never be able to forget the imagery and its bold story.
Cronenberg’s Possessor is another film that’s brought to life by its fantastic acting. Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are all at the top of their game here, the trio working together to scare me away from VR for the rest of my life. The digital age has never seemed scarier than in this terrifying world.
When you talk about the current digital age, it’s hard to ignore the rise of streaming services. Everyone seems to be getting into the game, and horror isn’t to be left out to just a category on some streamer. While Shudder, a horror-themed streaming service, has been around for quite some time…2020 seemed like the moment that the streamer came into its own.
One of Shudder’s best things is that they focus on horror films that we wouldn’t normally see in the mainstream. Spiral is a horror film focused on a gay couple, rarely seen in pop culture, let alone the horror genre. While not a personal favorite of mine, it was still compelling to see. Same with Blood Quantum, a zombie movie centered around a First Nations community in Canada. The indigenous community is rarely given an honest depiction. Seeing them get their own horror film, where they are the main focus and not supporting white characters, is incredibly fresh.
Though, Shudder had two huge hits this year: Host and Scare Me. The former, Host, is an inventive digital-age horror where our main characters are all seen on a Zoom call. In the era of social distancing, this felt so relevant and really captured the pandemic’s early days. Scare Me is another isolated little horror film, though it adds a unique flair to it and embraces a more comedic tone. A must-see for fans of horror comedies, and if you love Aya Cash on The Boys, she’s equally great here.
When people focus their streaming arguments on just things like Netflix, HBO Max, and Disney Plus, make sure to add Shudder into your conversations. It’s a must for any genre fan and the future of horror.
In a year where you’ll have countless people telling you that no movies came out, point them to this collection of future classics. While blockbusters may struggle, we may fear theaters never opening again, but we will ALWAYS have the power of horror.
If it’s a big-screen release or something you can only find on Shudder, know delightful scares are awaiting you.