Following a year where studios shelved most major horror releases, 2021 saw theaters slowly re-open across North America. Even if things weren’t back to normal, horror rewarded patient fans with an exceptional year for new releases. But in somewhat of a surprising turn of events, the highly anticipated movies didn’t universally live up to the buzz. Yes, A Quiet Place II, Malignant, and Candyman impressed critics – and mostly impressed audiences. Other big name releases didn’t live up to the hype. Halloween Kills, The Forever Purge, Spiral From The Book of Saw, Old, Don’t Breathe 2, Army of the Dead – like them or not, they all underwhelmed to some degree. Instead, this Best Horror Movies of 2021 list boasts a lot of smaller movies.
Just a Brief Note
Undoubtedly, some very good movies don’t make the list. In some cases, it’s simply a matter of not getting a chance to see every movie. Lamb, The Beta Test, The Feast, Separation, False Positive – they’re all still on a ‘to watch’ list. Other artistically exceptional movies – including The Green Knight and Titane – were impressive achievements, but not necessarily movies I’d watch a second time. Other movies that made the Halfway to Hell list at the end of June had to make room for more recent releases. It was that good of a year for horror.
10 – TIE: Caveat (D: Damian McCarthy) and The Power (D: Corinna Faith)
Okay, I’m cheating fight off the bat. But Shudder originals Caveat and The Power are truly among the Best Horror Movies of 2021. Moreover, both movies are indicative of the quality of releases platformed by Shudder this year. True, Caveat’s premise of an amnesiac drifter agreeing to be chained in a house on a remote island with a disturbed woman stretches credulity. But Damian McCarthy’s directorial debut is just so damn scary, it’s easy to forgive the premise. Some audiences will grow frustrated with Caveat’s ambiguous storytelling. Still McCarthy effectively blends atmosphere with disturbing imagery and a handful of excellent jumps.
One of several strong feminist horror movies from 2021, The Power represents director Corinna Faith’s feature-length debut. On her first day a new nurse works the night shift in a nearly empty hospital during a city-wide power outage as an unseen force haunts her. All in all, Faith accomplishes quite a feat with this extremely confident horror movie. Rather than relying on telegraphed jump scares, Faith sets an ominous tone that she maintains throughout the movie. For its first half, The Power trades in a quiet sense of unease, making full use of its decrepit hospital setting. Simply put, The Power soaks itself in haunting atmosphere from its opening scene. All of the scares run deep. And as a writer and director, Faith delivers a satisfying resolution that doesn’t betray the build-up.
9 – Psycho Goreman (D: Steven Kostanski)
When a brother and sister dig up a mysterious glowing gem, they gain control of an evil galactic monster that must do their bidding. Yes, the premise sounds stupid. And it’s supposed to be goofy. Simply put, Psycho Goreman is the horror-comedy you didn’t know you needed. Yes, it’s a little long. And no, not all the humour works. Fortunately, Kostanski avoids beating a dead horse with some of the more spotty jokes. Besides Psycho Goreman is so insanely fun that you won’t really mind spending the time with its title character. In fact, Kostanski’s bizarro creation begs for a sequel. Though horror and comedy are tough genres to mix, Psycho Goreman nails it perfectly. Come for the over-the-top bloodletting, stay for the 90’s-infused rap song over the credits.
8 – Candyman (D: Nia DaCosta)
When news broke that a new Candyman movie was in the works, speculation focused on whether it would be a sequel or reboot. While it’s definitely a sequel with direct connections to the 1992 original, Nia DaCosta re-imagines and re-contextualizes much of the Candyman mythology. In addition to re-claiming and re-contextualizing the original racial allegory, DaCosta ensures her version is still an inventively scary and brutal movie. Specifically, DaCosta proves to be inventive in the staging of the sequel’s scares. And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II more than capably steps into the role. But don’t fret horror fans – Tony Todd makes an appearance.
7 – Censor (D: Prano Bailey-Bond)
A horror movie about horror movies and the UK Video Nasty moral panic of the 1980s – how did it take so long to happen? Writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond’s story of a video censor whose obsession with her missing sisters mixes disastrously with her day job was one of the more affecting horror movies in recent memory. Maybe Censor works slightly better as psychological, surrealist horror. And Censor’s themes may prove to be a little too ambiguous for some viewers. But the movie’s exploration of Enid’s lingering grief, guilt, and obsession proves to be haunting. Her descent into full-fledged madness alongside Bailey-Bond’s striking visuals makes for atmospheric horror.
6 – Fear Street Trilogy (D: Leigh Janiak)
Yes, I’m cheating again. But I am counting all three Fear Street movies as one movie. After all, Netflix released them across three straight weeks. Based on RL Stine’s (Goosebumps) teen horror series from the 1990s, the Fear Street trilogy are teen slasher flicks in the vein of Wes Craven’s Scream series. Unlike his Goosebumps series, Stine’s Fear Street novels had a bit more teeth as they were intended for teens. In spite of a few flaws – including a bit of nostalgia overload – the Fear Street movies are fun, clever, and fast-paced additions to the slasher genre. Even if Part II suffers a bit as a middle act all three movies work well as standalone entries as well as part of a trilogy. In particular, Fear Street Part Three 1666 is one of the most fun horror movies in recent memory.
5 – Saint Maud (D: Rose Glass)
Once again A24 Films puts another movie up on a ‘Best of’ list here. Saint Maud tells the story of a disturbed nurse who slowly believes that God has tasked her with saving a terminally ill patient’s soul. While there’s no doubt it’s an A24 movie, Saint Maud presents a more urgent story with almost relentless tension. In true slow-burn fashion, writer and director Rose Glass allows the audience to see where things may go. There’s also a sense of dread to the movie’s story. And this is where Glass’ use of an ‘unreliable narrator’, provision of limited background information, and tapping into deeper themes widens Saint Maud’s impact. Bottom line, that last shot is one of the more disturbing images in recent horror movie history.
4 – The Vigil (D: Keith Thomas )
Back-to-back entries on our Best Horror Movies of 2021 list that root their horror in religion and faith. Except this one’s rooted in Jewish theology. Though he is estranged from his Jewish community, Yakov agrees to keep a vigil over a recently deceased over whom a demonic presence lurks. As Keith Thomas’ directorial debut, The Vigil is a triumph of horror filmmaking. Straight out of the gate, The Vigil establishes a tone of increasing dread that’s omnipotent throughout the movie. The soundtrack, cinematography, and performances transcend a limited budget. Moreover, a steady grasp on atmosphere alongside a ‘less is more approach’ ensures The Vigil succeeds as pure horror, even when some elements feel familiar. One trip into the basement and a FaceTime call should have audiences squirming.
3 – The Night House (D: David Bruckner)
A handful of horror movies re-visited the haunted house trope with slight twists. Though it’s not on the list, The Deep House was still one one of the better genre movies this year. And David Bruckner’s The Night House offered more proof that the old subgenre just needed some re-modeling. On one hand, The Night House is a tightly paced, atmospheric haunted house movie buoyed by a strong leading performance. Brunker shows you can conjure up scares without expensive CGI effects. Yet The Ghost House successfully reaches beyond standard haunted house tropes. This is a fully realized emotional drama that also happens to be a supernatural horror movie. Both innovative storytelling and filmmaking prove that old formulas can be re-packaged in new ideas.
2 – A Quiet Place Part II (D: John Krasinski)
Now here’s one highly anticipated release that hit all the right notes. As far as sequels go, A Quiet Place Part II exceeded expectations. John Krasinski expands his world and increases the monster action without losing the original’s tension or emotional core. Rather than re-hashing what worked the first time around, A Quiet Place Part II feels like a natural extension of Krasinski’s story where his characters continue to grow into their respective arcs. And Cillian Murphy’s character never feels like a superfluous addition. Instead, Krasinski gives Murphy a fleshed out arc that compliments the Abbott family and parallel’s the sequel’s story and themes. Bottom line, A Quiet Place Part II delivers more tense monster thrills alongside a moving story about survival.
1 – Malignant (D: James Wan)
Undoubtedly, Malignant sitting at the top of this Best of 2021 list will be divisive. Nonetheless, James Wan’s colorful, wildly irreverent homage to the Giallo gave horror fans something original. In a world of shared cinematic worlds, remakes, or soft reboots, Malignant offered a rare movie-going experience – it’s familiar and totally different at the same time. Like Giallo movies from the 1970s and 1980s, this is mystery-heavy affair mixing police procedural, slasher, and supernatural elements. Few movies in recent memory have been so good at keepings audiences off balance. Malignant’s story twists and turns, making it difficult to figure out where it’s going. And as it twists and turns, Malignant teases different horror sub-genres. Wan gives us a memorable horror villain and one of the most insane twists/scenes in horror history. Fortunately, Gabriel may be returning to our screens in the near future.