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A Bloody Good Time: The Top 10 Horror Films of 2020

February 12, 2021 | Posted by Joseph Lee
A Bloody Good Time Possessor 2020

Woof. What a year. I’m not one who subscribes to the idea that a calendar change will automatically mean bad times end, but I’m still glad to have 2020 in my rearview. Not even counting the bad things that happened in my own personal life, the world in general either went to hell or the hellscape became more prominently displayed. Don’t worry, I’m not going on a rant, but I am definitely glad 2020 is no longer a thing.

And on top of all that, we at 411 lost Larry Csonka, a friend of mine who encouraged my work on this column. He enjoyed these end-of-the-year lists I do and particularly enjoyed it when I watched weird B-movies. I wrote about that, in the tribute we did, but not about how unusually hard it hit me because well, that column wasn’t about me. But yeah, Larry was a guy I got to know in the process of working with him seven or eight years, every weekday morning. I considered him a friend and for him to just suddenly be gone was numbing.

But you know? Larry loved horror, just as I did. So I’m going to dedicate this to him. Perhaps one day we’ll finally get to watch that stupid Children of the Corn movie and shout ‘OUTLANDER’ at the screen together.

One unique thing about tragedy, or particularly harsh times in the world, is how artists respond to it. It’s always interesting to me when people get mad at movies for “getting political”, because art is inherently political. A majority of the horror films of the 80s, even some of the cheesy ones, were a response to Reagan in one way or another. Before that, Gojira was a response to the atomic bomb. Shin Godzilla was a response to another nuclear disaster and the Japanese government’s inept way of handling it.

Horror, perhaps more than any other genre, is uniquely designed in such a way that it can both offer escape from the horrors of the real world and also reflect it.

I think 2020 horror was definitely a reflection of the times. Obviously a lot of these films were put together the year before, but it’s not like 2020 was an outlier. 2020 was a culmination. Things just kind of boiled over, and the timing worked out the way it did that movies were released to comment on that. Spiral had a message about people acting against “the other” with violence, whether that other was different because of race or sexuality or what-have-you. Possessor served as an allegory for dysphoria (among other things). The Hunt took shots at both sides of the US political fence, something that was lost in all the dumb controversy over its plot.

Those were just the more blatant examples. Even if a movie isn’t outwardly political, it can still serve as a reflection, because everyone will interpret things in different ways, depending on how their lives are going. And we all had a pretty tough time last year.

But as always, before we get to the best, we have to look at the worst. Because before COVID-19 hit, we still had Hollywood using January as a dumping ground for bad horror. During the pandemic, we still had movies getting abandoned to video that lacked any sense or quality, made solely for the purpose of a quick buck. Some of them were laugh-out-loud inept and some were just infuriating.

Here are the top three Worst Horror Films of 2020:

#3: Brahms: The Boy II

I remember The Boy getting “so okay it’s average” reviews at the time it came out, and not even that sat well with me because of the twist. It’s not that it was lame or uncreative. In fact, it’s very creative. I thought so when I first saw it in Housebound two years before. But the cat’s out of the bag now and everyone knows who Brahms really is. The writers of Brahms seemed to know that too, and decided to not only insult the viewer’s intelligence by dumbing down its characters and turning trauma into a plot device, but insult anyone that may have actually enjoyed the first film. I don’t care much for spoilers, but I will say that this is one big retcon that takes away the only “unique” thing the first film had going for it, making that one a waste of time by default. The movie is nothing more than a low-rent Annabelle knock-off (and Annabelle wasn’t even good), which is what everyone thought it was going to be when the first film’s trailer arrived.

#2: Castle Freak

If you follow me on Twitter (@JosephLee411), you might have seen me ranting about this one. It was a late watch and it’s not as if I wanted anyone to see me live-tweet, but I had to get my thoughts out there. I want to state up front that I don’t see the original Castle Freak as any kind of horror gem. It’s dirty, it’s low-budget and if it didn’t have Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton or Stuart Gordon, it might have ended up one of the forgotten bad movies in the Full Moon filmography. But that movie is practically Hitchcockian compared to its remake. Castle Freak 2020 is hilariously bad. It’s MST3K bad. It’s loaded with sex and gore, but offers no substance to go along with it. If I wanted to see a VFX reel, I could find one on Youtube. If I wanted to see porn, I could find that elsewhere. So many people are getting laid in bloody ways that even the Castle Freak gets some. And yes, I truly believe the gender was swapped on the monster solely because someone thought the rape scene would go smoother if it was a female monster doing it.

The movie, I should point out, ends with a tease of Herbert West. You gotta laugh at the guts of these people to assume people want to watch them attempt to remake that classic. Even more insulting, it’s dedicated to the memory of Stuart Gordon, whose original film they spent 90 minutes eviscerating. Castle Freak is absolutely horrible and somehow tarnishes a film that was, at best, a minor cult hit.

#1: The Turning

I came close to putting Castle Freak at #1 on this list, and I had watched it after The Turning. I ultimately decided against it, and I’ll try to explain why. The Turning is just as bad as Castle Freak. It’s equally inept in story, its performances, its pace, “scares” and everything else. The one difference is that I found Castle Freak‘s badness amusing. The Turning just made me angry. And on top of that, in addition to all of the problems it already has (nonsensical plot, not a single likeable character, being set in the 90s for no reason), it also lacks an ending. Or rather, it has two endings. It was like they couldn’t decide which to go with, so they shot them both and made one of them a dream. Neither one is any good, but to include both, to go with a “it was all a dream” ending in the year of our lord 2020, that’s just contempt for your audience. So because of that, The Turning ended up being worse than a movie where a mutated Lovecraftian monster has sex with a blindfolded guy after killing his girlfriend. It’s the worst movie of last year by far.

I hate being cynical, so I’m glad I got that out of my system. 2020 was bad enough without holding onto that negativity.

When it comes to the best of the year, I worked hard on this list. I watched a lot of horror, even delaying this column just so I could get it right. Normally I go for late December, and outside of 2019 (which was delayed by quite a bit), I never missed that. This time, I watched so much horror, even down to the wire (I just finished one before I wrote this), to make sure that this was as accurate as could be.

So with that in mind, and the knowledge that I don’t do honorable mentions, let’s get to the Top Ten Horror Films of 2020!

#10: Freaky

Director: Christopher Landon

Cast: Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Katie Finneran, Dana Drori, Alan Ruck

Story: After swapping bodies with a deranged serial killer, a young girl in high school discovers she has less than 24 hours before the change becomes permanent.

Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, various video on-demand platforms

So the #10 spot was always going to be a horror comedy, because when it came down to arranging my list, it came down to two movies: this and Scare Package. Ultimately, both experiences were affected by the way I saw them, so I watched them again to be sure. Ultimately, Freaky won out (although Scare Package is 100% worth your time).

The movie is absolutely hilarious and exactly the breath of fresh air I think horror fans needed in 2020. There were so, so so many bleak horror films last year that this one stands out. It’s incredibly fun, it’s gory, it features great comedic performances and it’s hilarious. It’s also a love letter, somehow, to teenage body-swapping movies and slashers in one go. It takes the horror-comedy blend Landon went with for Happy Death Day and perfects the formula.

Freaky works because it does everything it sets out to do right. It’s a smart slasher that doesn’t hit you over the head with how smart it is, while being very entertaining for its entire running time. Now let’s get that Freaky Death Day crossover movie going already.

#9: Sputnik

Director: Egor Abramenko

Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasiliev

Story: The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned back home alone – hiding inside his body is a dangerous creature.

Available on: Hulu

The best way I can describe Sputnik is that it’s a hodge-podge of other, better sci-fi movies that takes a little from each and makes them all work as a cohesive whole. It’s a little bit Arrival, a little bit Species and a little bit Alien, as well as others I’m probably forgetting. The ‘dangerous creature’ in the title has a symbiotic relationship with its host, which makes killing it a little tricky. Which is something that needs to happen because yes, this thing is dangerous.

The creature itself isn’t scary in execution, but I’m not sure it’s meant to be. I view it as an allegory for blind patriotism, something that was very likely common during the Cold War-era USSR this film is set in. See, even Russian movies can get political about their governments! But even if you ignore the message, you still get a tense little thriller where the horror isn’t so much from outer space, but how the people on Earth react to that threat. Sputnik doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does offer an engaging, stylish little sci-fi horror movie that’s worth watching.

Mark my words, Hollywood will remake this within the next five years.

#8: The Lodge

Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala

Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Story: A soon-to-be stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote holiday village. Just as relations begin to thaw between the trio, some strange and frightening events take place.

Available on: Hulu

I had a real problem with slow-burn horror movies and bleak endings this year. It seemed like so many horror films with the same pacing and same downer ending all arrived in 2020, which may have been the worst possible year for a series of depressing movies. So there are movies that aren’t on this list, that made others (even Jeremy’s end-of-the-year list), that are technically good but just didn’t resonate with me. It is a personal list after all.

I’m giving that caveat as a means to explain just how good The Lodge is. In theory, it reflected everything I hated about 2020. It was dark, it was bleak, it reminded me of how isolated everyone was. But somehow it still hit me with gut punches and enough twists and turns that I stayed on board. I think the best thing the movie does is present two possible directions for the story to take, with either one or both of them possibly being red herrings. It tries to stay a couple steps ahead of its audience, and never stumbles doing so.

Riley Keough is particularly good here in the lead, as is Jaeden Martell. Especially Martell. This kid has already been amazing in this, IT and Midnight Special. He just turned eighteen and he’s already got a hell of a body of work. Just imagine how good he’ll be when he has more life experience. But all of the performances were great, providing a solid emotional framework. That goes along perfectly with the existential dread and sense of foreboding as the movie reaches its eventually obvious but ultimately inevitable conclusion.

#7: Come to Daddy

Director: Ant Timpson

Cast: Elijah Wood, Martin Donovan, Stephen McHattie

Story: A man in his thirties travels to a remote cabin to reconnect with his estranged father.

Available on: Amazon Prime Video

It’s hard to really describe why Come to Daddy is such a good movie without spoiling it. Even talking about the plot is difficult, outside of the basics: Elijah Wood visits his father who previously abandoned him when he was a baby. Strange events ensue. It’s really the type of movie that you have to go in blind in order to get the most out of it.

What can be said is this movie is absolutely demented. The sense of humor is very dark, so much so that at first glance you wouldn’t think this is a horror-comedy. It is in the same way The Lighthouse is. You have to be in a certain mindset to find any of these things funny. The performances are also pretty good, as Elijah Wood really does have his niche as beleaguered guy caught up in increasingly bizarre situations. Even the Maniac remake, to an extent, had this in it. But here he’s kind of a pretentious dork who grew up in privilege and finally has to grow up and deal with some real stuff. Stephen McHattie is also here and he’s tremendous. That’s all I can say. The two play off each other really well.

As for the rest, it’s nasty, it’s depraved and yet it also has a thoughtful, introspective kind of vibe to it, if you can believe that. I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this, as it seems like it was made for me.

#6: His House

Director: Remi Weekes

Cast: Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Matt Smith, Javier Botet

Story: A refugee couple makes a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, but then they struggle to adjust to their new life in an English town that has an evil lurking beneath the surface.

Available on: Netflix

There’s a moment in His House where certain lines are said and they seem to take on a certain context, then later on in the film I had a startling moment of clarity as to why they were actually said. Obviously to explain would involve spoilers, so I’ll just let that thought sit there. The film deals with survivor’s guilt, at least at first, as two Sudanese people arrive in the UK as refugees and try to prove that they deserve to stay. In addition to the usual problems in their way (xenophobia, bureaucracy, a terrible living space), they also begin to realize that they are being haunted.

The movie continues along in ways that I didn’t really expect. The ghosts don’t behave as you would expect them to and they make demands that seem strange. That is until more elements of the plot are revealed and it’s all building to a stunning final act. To me, His House is a film not unlike Pan’s Labyrinth. It uses the fantastic to set up a story that exposes the horrors of the real world. It does so deftly and makes it look easy. I can’t praise this movie enough, as I’m probably going to watch it several more times to see what other bits of foreshadowing I missed.

#5: Color Out of Space

Director: Richard Stanley

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Elliot Knight, Madeleine Arthur, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong

Story: A secluded farm is struck by a strange meteorite which has apocalyptic consequences for the family living there and possibly the world.

Available on: Shudder

I’m not sure what I was expecting out of this movie, maybe a cheesy Lovecraft adaptation (as most are) with Nicolas Cage acting crazy (as he usually does). Only one of those things is true, though, because this was fantastic. The color is amazing, and while you would hope a movie like this would be colorful, I didn’t expect it to be this vibrant. The first movie that comes to mind to compare it to, visually, is Argento’s Suspiria. Maybe that but instead of slasher-style kills we get grotesque body horror.

Cage also acts insane here but like Mandy, it’s a role that calls for it. He’s not just doing it for no reason. I think it’s smart of him, or whoever is casting him, to get him for this sort of thing. He’s perfectly capable of playing a normal person, but why not play into the stereotypes with fun, out there roles? Otherwise he’s like Bruce Willis or Dolph Lundgren and making a series of boring straight to video dreck.

There’s not a lot I want to say here. It’s a fantastic movie that somehow manages to be both horrific and beautiful. Up there with Re-Animator and From Beyond as one of the best Lovecraft adaptations. This film looks even better after having seen the Castle Freak remake, as well.

#4: The Dark and the Wicked

Director: Bryan Bertino

Cast: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Lynn Andrews, Xander Berkeley

Story: On a secluded farm in a nondescript rural town, a man is slowly dying. His family gathers to mourn, and soon a darkness grows, marked by waking nightmares and a growing sense that something evil is taking over the family.

Available on: Video on-demand platforms, Shudder (on February 25)

There’s a lot of horror types that are getting played out. Ghost movies and demon movies are high up there, taking the spot of the zombie film now that people are trying new things with that. The Dark and the Wicked doesn’t really have anything new to say about demons, but the way it build scares and pays them off makes this an unnerving little film that sticks with you after it’s over.

Jeremy lumped this in with the other slow-burn horror films of the year but I have to say I disagree. I thought the movie was tightly paced and kept something creepy and unsettling happening enough that it earned its slow moments. More than that, it did something with those slow moments, settling on wide-shots that had me scanning the shadows expecting something to pop out at any moment. But no, it doesn’t produce the scare when you’re expecting it. That would be too easy.

This movie is dark, disturbing and at times, yeah, scary. I know that’s subjective, but I’m very jaded about that sort of thing and I had to look away once or twice, so that alone gets it placement on this list.

#3: Possessor

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Bean

Story: Possessor follows an agent who works for a secretive organization that uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies – ultimately driving them to commit assassinations for high-paying clients.

Available on: Hulu (Uncut version is available through video-on-demand)

As a note, each movie in the top three all topped my list at one point, and I went back and forth on what to make the top choice. I might regret my order tomorrow, so just watch all three. They’re all very different but equally great. As a second note, you probably want to find the uncut version of this to get the full effect.

Possessor is, at a casual glance, not a horror film. There’s no boogeyman jumping out to say boo, no masked killer stalking people. Instead, it’s a very psychological horror film with a body horror twist. A killer-for-hire jumps into others bodies, makes them kill people and then makes them kill themselves. So right away, you know that Tasya Vos (Riseborough, who is tremendous here and should be getting award nominations) is not a good person, no matter if she wants to be or not. And I had my doubts she even wanted to be.

She ends up in the body of a man and forces him to kill his fiancee, but when he proves resistant to her influence, she finds herself trapped inside of him while he loses his mind in his quest for answers. Somehow, it makes you feel for both, because it’s a horrifying situation either way. The body horror, such as it is, comes from the sensation of being trapped in someone else’s skin. It’s basically what happens to the people in Get Out, told from their point of view.

This movie is also very brutal in its violence. That’s why the uncut version is the preferred one, because I think the brutality is necessary for the plot. It shows just how inhuman and unfeeling Tasya is becoming, which is ultimately what the film is about. That said, it’s very brutal, with the final kill being especially hard to watch. But if you can sit through the violence, you will get an extremely rewarding experience.

#2: The Invisible Man

Director: Leigh Whannell

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman

Story: When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Available on: HBO Max

Ah yes, the last film I got to see in a theater before the world went to Hell. But what a film, huh?

The Invisible Man is a story that’s been around since 1897 and many people have told stories based on it over the years, most famously being the Universal version in 1933 starring Claude Rains. The story, about a scientist that makes himself invisible but begins to lose his mind and murder people as a result, is one that could have done with another re-telling. After all, the last attempt was Hollow Man and that was twenty-one years ago (how old do you feel?).

Leigh Whannell probably could have done something great with that premise. He showed he is fully capable of technohorror when he did Upgrade the year before. But instead, he went in a different direction. He used the story as a metaphor for gaslighting and abuse and boy did that ever pay off. Adrian Griffin is one of the best horror movie villains to come around in years, maybe even a decade. There is absolutely nothing redeemable about him. And yet, you don’t even see him for the majority of the movie.

This movie is spectacular for two main reasons. Well there are more, but these are two you’ve likely heard praised before. The first is Elisabeth Moss, who absolutely carries the entire film and not only makes you care for her character (pretty quickly, too, she’s very likeable when not fearing for her life), but makes the audience root for her. That’s important, because we’re going to see her fight with essentially nothing through most of the movie. The second are the special effects. This movie could have just made things float in the air on wires or act like they were being attacked, but no, they had a guy in a green suit doing the stunts. And then erased him. So there is physical weight to the titular character that really hadn’t been accomplished before. That, along with Moss’ performance, sell the threat of Griffin and make him a terrifying threat.

I’ve seen this movie multiple times now and it gets better on every watch. The dinner scene (you know the one) drew gasps when it happened. If you haven’t seen this yet, wait could you possibly be waiting for?

#1: Host

Director: Rob Savage

Cast: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Edward Linard

Story: Six friends hire a medium to hold a séance over Zoom during lockdown but get far more than they bargain for as things quickly go wrong.

Available on: Shudder

And now we go from a film with Hollywood backing to a film that practically had no budget. Host should not work. Found footage is more than played out, ghost movies are definitely played out and the idea of a film made entirely on Zoom with the actors all socially-distanced just sounds like disaster. But not only does Host come together to be a good film, it uses its simplicity to its advantage. A damn video filter somehow became one of the biggest scares of 2020. Imagine that.

The best horror, in my opinion, has always been the kind that stick to “less is more.” What you imagine will always be scarier than what is shown on screen. Host sticks to that with simply camera tricks and special effects that were created by the cast as they filmed their parts. It’s all about what isn’t there, lulling you into this little story about a group of friends besieged by something supernatural, until it’s time for things to go crazy.

I explained in my review last year that this would likely be the best horror film of 2020 and we’re now in 2021 and I still think it’s one of the best. Will it hold up five, ten years down the line when the pandemic is over and Zoom is a distant memory? I have no idea. But as a perfect time capsule for 2020, one that also shows what creativity and ingenuity call pull off in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, it’s terrific. Scary, fun, exciting, amazing. Happy Spookies!