What a great year for horror films! Although my top 10 and honorable mention films come from film festival viewings, some films are now available on VOD (my #1 and #9) or streaming services. I hope some of your current and future favorites are on my list!
The Feast ★★★★★ (Wales)
Director Lee Haven Jones’ Welsh shocker cemented its spot as my favorite film of the year, regardless of genre, when I saw it as part of SXSW Online 2021 in March. This amalgamation of folk, psychological, environmental, and supernatural horror stars Annes Elwy in a superb performance as a food server helping out a wealthy family for a dinner party. Go in as cold as possible to The Feast for maximum impact.
2. The Barcelona Vampiress ★★★★★ (Spain)
How can, as I stated in my review, “One of the finest cinematic achievements this reviewer has seen this year” not be near the top of my list? The Barcelona Vampiress is based on the true story and legends surrounding Enriqueta Martí, a woman suspected of being a serial killer of children but who may have been someone suffering from a mental disorder who committed only one kidnapping and no murders. Director Lluís Danés “uses an impressive array of cinematic techniques, including black-and-white punctuated by occasional shocking splashes of red; full, vibrant color in the brothel scenes; expressionist-style sets; and shadow-play backdrops, for starters,” as he “balances a dramatic search for the truth with grand guignol-influenced set pieces and breathtakingly artistic flourishes.”
3. The Execution ★★★★1/2 (Russia)
Director Lado Kvataniya’s Russian serial killer feature The Execution (2021) is one of the best films of 2021, regardless of genre. As I said in my review, it is “a gripping slice of cinema that left this reviewer running through a wide range of emotions and character allegiances as it weaved its twisted, twisting magic on me.” Director Lado Kvataniya “expertly ratchets up suspense and maintains a thick layer of dread throughout. His debut as a feature-film director is a masterful effort that cinephiles of every stripe should put high on their need-to-see list.”
4. Vurdalak Blood ★★★★ (Argentina/Singapore)
Writer/director Santiago Fernández Calvete “directs masterfully and elevates the proceedings from an initial sense of unease to constant dread to mounting terror,” as I wrote in my review of Vurdalak Blood. This is simply one of the best vampire films in recent memory, as strong in pathos as it is in horror.
5. On the 3rd Day ★★★★ (Argentina)
In my review of On the 3rd Day, I wrote that “There’s no shortage of tension and intrigue, and its combination of current filmmaking technology with a seventies Eurohorror vibe is a blast, giving the film a unique look and feel.” This is another one of those films that you need to go in on as cold as you can, because director Daniel de la Vega has crafted this chiller to “keep viewers wringing their hands and guessing what’s next, topping things off with a terrific third act in a film that offers stunning visuals and superb performances.”
6. It Hatched ★★★★ (Iceland)
Definitely the weirdest film on my list — and I mean that as high praise — is director Elvar Gunnarsson’s It Hatched, a horror comedy in which a woman gives birth to an egg that hatches, and her husband thinks that something is wrong with their offspring. That portal to Hell in the isolated home in which they have recently moved means he is probably right. Terrific, offbeat performances from Vivian Ólafsdíttir and Gunnar Kristinsson drive this insane outing.
7. Nocturna: Side A — The Great Old Man’s Night ★★★★1/2 (Argentina)
“If you think a film in the supernatural horror genre can’t move you to tears, the Argentinian feature Nocturna: Side A — The Great Old Man’s Night (2021) will have you strongly reconsidering your position,” I wrote in my review. Writer/director Gonzalo Calzada “puts viewers through an emotional wringer as it unfolds the story of Ulises (Pepe Soriano), a man in his nineties who may fail to remember what he is doing at a given moment, but who can’t forget some of his decades-long regrets.”
8. You Are Not My Mother ★★★★ (Ireland)
I was big on folk horror this year, and writer/director Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother is one excellent reason why. The film kicks off with one of the most harrowing scenes in recent memory and keeps up a constant air of dread throughout. It features traditional European folklore in a modern urban setting. Carolyn Bracken gives an emotionally raw and physically uncomfortable performance.
9. Post Mortem ★★★★1/2 (Hungary)
From my review: “Billed as Hungary’s first horror film, director Péter Bergendy’s Post Mortem (2020) is a fascinating slice of historical fear fare that boasts gorgeous visuals, engaging lead characters, and plenty of impressive supernatural set pieces.” Tomás (Viktor Klem) travels with a carnival as a post mortem photographer — someone who takes photos of the recently deceased for, and sometimes with, grieving family members — and meets young Anna (Fruzsina Hais). The pair become paranormal detectives as they uncover a series of hauntings in the little girl’s village, which was ravaged by the Spanish Flu.
10. The Turn of the Screw ★★★★ (New Zealand)
Writer/director Alex Galvin’s The Turn of the Screw sees last-minute replacement actress Julia (Greer Phillips in a marvelous performance) go through what her director Richard (Ralph Johnson) calls an unofficial dress rehearsal in a Wellington theatre. She finds herself becoming increasingly distressed and fearful as the night proceeds. Aficionados of classic and gothic horror will find plenty to love in this creative, brilliantly acted imagining of the classic Henry James novella.
Honorable mentions: Red Snow, Vicious Fun, Gaia, The Last Matinee, Honeydew, Off Season, The Vigil, and Son, and almost certainly something else that I will remember and can’t believe I left off as soon as I publish this article!