Chalk 2021 into the history books! And, every year that I do this, I find it hard to separate my favorite films, and this year was no different. There were really good films from both the festival side and the studio-wide release efforts from the past year.
Our festivals pretty much stayed virtual this year, with a few opening their theater doors, but almost always have a digital option. Our local favorites, The Portland Horror Film Festival and H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival continued their tradition of providing awesome indie films and the best assortment of horror shorts. Some festivals, like Popcorn Frights and Another Hole in the Head, had loaded rosters, while last year’s merger Nightstream really seemed to miss the train this year. And, The Scariest Things had a major achievement by getting press credentials to the legendary SXSW festival.l
Thematically, surprisingly the genre didn’t seem to be heavily influenced by the pandemic. The political environment did deliver a few notable entries, particularly The Forever Purge and Candyman. Where last year it was Indonesia making a splash in the genre, this year it was the Patagonia region of South America. Vurdalak Blood (Argentina), Apps (Chile) , and The Last Cinema (Uruguay) were all notable festival darlings that will be worth your watch next year when they get their streaming distribution rights.
And, we got the delivery of some big delayed studio properties, with mixed results. These are what you guys know about and look forward to, as much as you appreciate the little indies, the health of the horror genre is often defined by its big studio hitters:
- A Quiet Place 2 lived up to its pedigree as a continuation of the original.
- Halloween Kills was a pointless and gory slog, but mage huge bank.
- Spiral: From the Book of Saw showed some promise to the old warhorse, but fell into cliche too often.
- The underappreciated The Night House got lost in the shuffle.
- James Wan’s return to horror with Malignant was a wild messy ride.
- Candyman brought a black perspective for the definitive black horror film.
- Last Night in Soho received mixed opinions for the smart and showy Egar Wright homage to Giallo.
- Escape Room 2 was a passable rehash of the previous idea.
- And Antlers… well read below for Antlers.
OK. Less Talk. More Rock. Here are Eric’s top 10 for 2021:
10. Candyman (USA)
Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, Nia DaCosta
Directed by Nia DaCosta
People tend to forget what a political firecracker the original Candyman was. Fans also tend to forget that it was a story about the urban black experience in the USA written by a British white man (Clive Barker) and directed by a Brish white man (Bernard Rose) as well. To Have Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele come back to this story, and respect the original with the perspective of urban Black America, then you have something special. It tackles upward mobility, gentrification, legacy, and neglect in a powerful way, and provides all the needed horror as well. The twist makes sense. And yes, there are overtones of Black Lives Matter, and there SHOULD BE. A great cast, featuring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, and Colman Domingo who are all riveting in their roles.
Clara Kovacic in the wraparound “Date Freak” in Apps (2021)
9. Apps (Chile)
Written and Directed by Sandra Arriagada, Diego Ayala, Camilo León, Lucio A. Rojas, and José Miguel Zúñiga.
Powerful, punchy, gory, and exciting explains the Chilean anthology Apps. It belongs right along with the V/H/S series, Southbound, and XX as the best horror anthologies of the past ten years. The best thing about this collection is that they understand the nature of the horror short. Condense the idea into a clearly thought-out thesis and hit it fast and hard. Jab…jab…jab… HAYMAKER. The segments “Manada” and “Eden” in particular get you into the plots quickly and hook you into the tales, with just enough suggestion to allow some interpretation. Patagonian horror has been on a roll this year and Apps shows that Chile is a country with something terrifying to tell as well.
8. Vurdalak Blood (Argentina)
Written and Directed by Santiago Fernández Calvete
Speaking of Patagonian films, this Argentinean vampire movie takes a very different take than Apps. This is a melancholy and very personal tale of family bonds, trust, and the infusion of a vampire curse that threatens to destroy the already strained relations of a veterinarian and his family. It is also a coming-of-age film for our central protagonist, Natalia (Alfonsina Corrocio), who desires to break away from the family farm and see the world. Her protective father, Aguirre (Germán Palacios) has hidden his family away in this remote farm because of the curse, but he has not told his children of the Vurdalak bloodlines that will soon find them. This is a slow builder that allows you to feel the worry and dread as the protagonists fret over whether to follow their hearts or their heads.
Sara Canning and Osric Chau in Superhost (2021)
7. Superhost (USA)
Written and directed by Brandon Christensen
The grand prize winner of Popcorn Frights 2021 is the funny and intense story of Claire (Sara Canning) and Teddy (Osric Chao), a young blogging couple who YouTube about vacation stays, and run into the worst type of host imaginable. At first, their host Rebecca (Gracie Gillam) is an oddball eccentric who makes a great central figure for a Vlog post, but when eccentric turns to psychopathic, the plans change in a hurry. The story keeps things light with some fun dramatic tension, but when Superhost flips the switch from slightly strange to scary, the violence meter goes through the roof. Great pace, great characters.
6. The Night House (USA)
Written By Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski
Directed by David Bruckner
The Night House is a starring platform for a powerhouse acting performance by Rebecca Hall, in what might be the best acting performance by an actress in a horror movie in 2021. She plays Beth, a recent widow who lost her husband to suicide. Beth copes with it by steeling her will and trying to uncover what drove him to his end. As she uncovers the truth of his horrific secret life, his ghost comes back to torment her. Hall plays both a very strong and tough woman who gets worn down by the emotional and physical toll of dealing with the ghost of her ex, and you feel her torment. This studio release also has some astonishing special effects, used in sparing, but stunning results.
5. The Feast (Wales)
Written by Roger Williams
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
This will likely be one of the more remembered and impactful films of the year. It is a stunningly simple, but pretty Welsh movie (spoken in Welsh, so you’ll almost certainly need the subtitles) that unfolds a folkloric curse upon a dysfunctional family on the evening of an important dinner event. MP Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) is hosting his long-time business partner Euros (Rodri Millir) to convince a recalcitrant neighbor into allowing drilling rights into their property. His wife Glenda (Nia Roberts) really runs the household, and has prepared a feast for the guests, but requires temporary help from a quiet local girl, Cadi (Annes Elwy) who has some hidden secrets and plans that get revealed through the movie. This has the feels of some of the great slow build movies of recent memory. Movies like Audition, Hereditary, and Goodnight Mommy come to mind. The opening two acts are deliberately slow but are fantastic table setters for the explosive third act as the secrets are revealed, and you won’t forget this movie anytime soon.
4. Val (USA)
This was my favorite film from the expansive Popcorn Frights Film Festival. It had the best dialogue of any of the movies I watched this year. Misha Reeves plays Val, a prostitute, who is really the devil in disguise in this Faustian Deal movie. Val comes to life like a 1950s pin-up girl with wisdom and wit far beyond her appearance. Zachary Mooren is a great foil as the hard-luck criminal on the run who stumbles into Val’s lair, and after thinking he was in control of the environment sees the tables turned on him slowly as Val orchestrates the conditions and terms of his stay in her mansion. Come for the sexy wickedness, stay for the terrific script!
3. Bumperkleef (AKA Tailgate) (The Netherlands)
Written and directed by Lodewijk Crijns
Quite literally a thrill ride of a movie. Tailgate is a nail-biting chase movie, where Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger), a man already stressed to his limits is traveling to see his demanding parents, and with his family packed into his car, engages in some very aggressive freeway driving. He’s an alpha male type but meets his match when a white package van that he has been tailgating turns out to have a psychotic killer (Willem De Wolf) who uses insecticides as his weapon of choice. At first, you know what a dick Has has been, but he and his family certainly don’t deserve the fate that the killer has planned for them. Toe-curling thrills from the beginning of the movie until the end, as the chase is on, and the killer is oh-so-hard to evade.
2. Squid Game (Netflix) – (South Korea)
Written and directed by Hwang Dong-Hyuk
This one, you know. It is the worldwide phenomenon and the most binge-worthy series on television that created overnight stars of a bunch of previously little-known Korean actors into the public consciousness. Is it horror? If you think Battle Royale, Escape Room, and Suicide Club are horror, then yes, absolutely it is! This is tricks and traps horror taken to exponentially interesting levels. It is also so much more than that though. Hwang has hit upon the worldwide sense of falling behind economically, and the desperate ends that normal people will go to in order to save their own ass(etts). Maybe the most important episode in the series is the second one, where given the opportunity to leave the Squid Games, almost all of the contestants were so desperate that they were willing to risk life and limb for a new start. Deeply empathetic, it succeeds hugely in my personal requirement for “Do I care about the Protagonists?” Just watch the reaction videos of people breaking down sobbing uncontrollably after the marble challenge. Bloody mayhem, artfully crafted.
1. Antlers (USA)
Written by Henry Chaisson, Scott Cooper, based upon a short story by Nick Antosca.
Directed by Scott Cooper
It was worth the wait. Antlers is a dark folkloric slice of horror from the Pacific Northwest, that tells the story of a Wendigo spirit infecting the residents of a small Oregon mountain community. It effortlessly weaves in themes of bullying, child abuse, opium addiction, PTSD, economic ruin, and Native American spiritualism into one well-focused package. Keri Russell is fantastic as Julia, the concerned teacher of a disturbed student of hers, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who shows signs of family trouble. It turns out that Lucas’s dad, Frank (Scott Haze) has been inhabited by the evil Wendigo spirit, and Lucas has been killing small forest animals and harvesting roadkill to satisfy his father’s burgeoning appetite. Great supporting performances by Jesse Plemons, Amy Madigan, and Graham Greene give the story real heft. Every scene feels consequential, and the entire movie resonates with a dread of serious importance.
Best Short Film: “The Altruist”
The most horrifying film I saw this year was a short film that I saw at the Portland Horror Film Festival. For anyone who has gone through trying to take care of someone they love as they slip into mental and physical decay, this hits like a ton of bricks. It is body horror to the extreme and is a very hard watch. More poo than you can possibly imagine. And severed limbs. And severed limbs in poo. Yikes! Matt Smith directs and stars as a man taking care of a woman/creature who he is willing to go to extremes to care for. And yet, the rewards seem so not worth it. Sad and compelling, this short film took the air out of the theater that I saw it in. It is an experience that will hollow you out.
Aliens on Stage (Would have made the list, but I decided it wasn’t horror)
Turn of the Screw
A Quiet Place 2
The Forever Purge
Take Back the Night