Yes, 2021 was an awful year full of genuine human horror, so it’s understandable some folks don’t want to soak up all the great horror films this wickedly cruel year has had to offer in spite of restrictions placed on film crews and sets. If you do dig horror and find the genre a nice escape from the horror of reality, even when certain horror films are taking on important social issues, then this is the list for you. 2021’s offered plenty of nasty treats, and on this list are tales of love and loss, stories with social and political weight, plots involving folklore and witches and queer issues; really, there’s something for everybody.
Six of these titles also appear on FSHG’s other year-end list which looks at general favourites from 2021 in all genres, so apologies to those who’ve already read that list. Everything else is fresh. So get reading and let everyone know below what your own favourite horror last year was—let’s all embrace the terror together!
The Night House
Directed by David Bruckner
David Bruckner’s The Night House looks at the life of Beth (Rebecca Hall), a widower living in the house her late husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) had been obsessively constructing before his death. She keeps seeing and feeling Owen everywhere around the house. The more she explores her grief the more she also uncovers about her husband. Owen had secrets; dark ones. The deeper Beth digs the less she misses her husband. Instead she fears him and all the secrets he was hiding.
Bruckner’s films have all been interesting, and The Night House returns to his more sentimental territory, somewhat similar to the romantic inclinations of The Signal. While this latest film is dark and disturbing in ways it’s just as much a story about the depths of grief and the capabilities of our love. Hall has given a bunch of great performances over the years, and just offered up a solid directorial debut; she’s near her best in Bruckner’s film, making the audience feel every last goddamn difficult emotion. For horror fans this is a treat, and the film’s just as great for those who like a dark, absorbing drama, too.
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond
Prano Bailey-Bond expanded and adapted one of her own short films into the full-length feature Censor—a surreal, terrifying descent into the mind, and a ride through the world of the Video Nasties. Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) works for the British Board of Film Classification and she’s under a lot of pressure lately because of a man who committed a murder then blamed it on one of the so-called Video Nasties. On top of that, Enid’s working on cuts for a film when she sees somebody she believes to be her long missing sister which sends her off searching for answers. Only most of what she finds is abject horror.
There’s a lot to love about Bailey-Bond’s film because what Censor does is sift through the personal and political via the Video Nasties. The whole sociopolitical context of setting the film in 1985 and including snippets of Margaret Thatcher makes the story all the more compelling. And the film gets at the heart of the idea that one group can determine people can’t watch something while they have to watch it themselves in order to censor it. The whole notion implies that they, the Conservatives, are strong enough to handle such horrifying imagery while the rest of us, especially the lower classes, are so weak we’d instantly go mad from watching such films. Brilliant horror packed with social commentary.
A full essay here.
Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, & Toby Poser
The first Adams-Poser family film, The Deeper You Dig, was a homegrown work of horrifying art, and after seeing it I made sure to keep my eye on anything else they’d go on to do later. Their new film, Hellbender, is another surreal and emotional story that explores how women, especially young powerful ones, have been repressed, even by other women. It’s also a coming-of-age tale in that the protagonist, Izzy (Zelda Adams), is entering a new phase of her young life, from discovering Gothic secrets about her family to exploring her own budding interests whether romantic or witchy.
The Adams-Poser team proved in The Deeper You Dig they were capable of creating unique imagery and again in Hellbender they show a singular vision of horror. In this new film, the family of director-writers draw on the historical misogyny tied to perspectives on witchcraft, but take witch history in their own direction. Hellbender is a Gothic story worth standing up next to some of the best witch-related films of the past decade or more, and it shows that John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser are voices in the horror space to whom you should be paying lots of attention. Not only is the film good it shows how people can make exciting genre films outside the studio system, giving more freedom and life to the ideas themselves. Hellbender is as good as it is because it was made by a group of passionate individuals wanting to tell the best story possible.
A full essay here.
Directed by Julia Ducournau
Julia Ducournau’s becoming a giant of body horror in cinema between Raw and her new film Titane, exploring different aspects of the human form with a disturbingly keen eye. Titane is the story of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a young woman who was in a car accident as a child that affected the rest of her life. The accident left her with a metal plate in her head, and a fetish for cars. But when life goes off the rails violently, Alexia must run away, and she does so by assuming the identity of a boy who went missing years ago. She goes home with the boy’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), and he’s desperate to make up for lost time. The only question is, can it last?
Ducournau’s Titane can be read a lot of ways: body horror about being transgender, or body horror about the thin line between eroticism and violence, and the list goes on. The point being, it’s a film capable of producing many readings because it’s filled with intriguing images and themes. For me, Titane is about accepting oneself and accepting others, about finding love and family wherever we need to in order for us to keep on surviving. In spite of the at times gruesome horror, Ducournau’s film is a beautiful one underneath the nasty bits, brimming with sweetness and joy, believe it or not.
In the Earth
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a smart horror film that touches on the pandemic, but it’s much more than inspired by COVID-19 in the sense that it’s really a film that takes on human hubris in general, especially when it comes to our ignorance of how we’re affecting the Earth negatively. The story involves a scientist and a park guide heading into the forest expecting they’re just going to check on some equipment. What the pair discover is somebody living isolated out there. Not only that, a woodland figure called Parnag Fegg might be much more than a myth than either of the two had anticipated, and it may be out there somewhere, watching and waiting.
Wheatley’s filmography is a delightfully varied bag of tricks, and I personally love all of them in their own ways. In the Earth is a perceptive smack on the head of humanity because it explores how nature can give us many wonders but it’s also a force not to be trifled with because it gives us life and can also bring us death. As the world continues to burn because of capitalist industry and other forces, In the Earth is a timely work of horrors that gives us our just desserts.
Directed by Rose Glass
While this entry’s technically not a 2021 film it did take until this year for the film to release to a significant number of people and countries; that makes it just as much a part of 2021 as any other title on this list. Saint Maud has seldom left my mind since the first time I saw it six months ago. And while a lot of that effect is the final act of the film, it just as much rests on the film in its entirety, as the story explores sexuality and repression with unbelievably heavy emotional power.
Glass’s film follows a hospice nurse called Maud (Morfydd Clark), a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, who spirals into dangerous madness while taking care of a sick woman, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud becomes obsessed with trying to ‘save’ Amanda, leading to a terrifying conclusion. The way Glass twists the cinematic knife into the audience, especially in the final half hour, is impeccable horror, some of the best in the last ten years. There are few movies in this day and age that explore sexuality, repression, and religion together the way Saint Maud does, and with such terror.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
Directed by Jonathan Cuartas
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is as sweet as it is both bloody and tragic. Cuartas tells the tale of Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), a brother-sister pair who’ve had to take up the care of their younger, sickly brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) in the absence of their parents. The older siblings have to do terrible things in order to make sure Thomas has what he needs—considering the fact that Thomas needs blood to survive. After Dwight starts to stray from his secretive family, he begins to wonder what a life might look like elsewhere. When Jessie sees that Dwight’s dedication to the family is waning, she does something that drives the two further apart instead of closer. And Thomas makes a simple mistake that puts everyone in jeopardy.
Jonathan Cuartas’s film is beautiful, bleak, and brutal. The subverted ideas of family and home are compelling, and the way vampirism facilitates a discussion about them is no less interesting. Most of all, the parallels between vampirism and capitalism ring strong for me. Often vampires are portrayed as upper class, bourgeois monsters, and this works quite well. Cuartas, intentionally or not, shows vampirism—and, in turn, capitalism—through a working class perspective, depicting how monstrous a force it can be even within the family unit. It might not be more evident than when Jessie bleeds out in the bathtub and offers up the pooling blood to her sickly vampire brother: “We shouldn‘t waste it.” Even when Jessie’s at death’s door she’s still trying to feed the monster, just like so many real people working themselves to death to feed a monstrous market that’s never satisfied, always hungry, always feeding.
A full essay here.
Directed by Pat Mills
The Retreat follows Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen), a lesbian couple headed to a pre-wedding retreat with their soon-to-be married gay friends. The lovely weekend’s interrupted by a group of terrifying serial killers bent on using psychological torture and brutal murder to feed online right-wing hate against queer people. Except these maniacs come up against something they didn’t expect, as Renee somehow manages to fight back against her captors and would-be killers. She and Valerie fight for their lives to survive the homophobic horrors of a backwards, backwoods town.
What a lot of straight people simply can’t comprehend is that though the scenario of The Retreat is amped up for cinematic sake there are constantly people out there wishing death upon those of us who live non-heteronormative lifestyles. The biggest, scariest problem is that those real people are out in the world spouting their hate, and just like the homophobic murderers in the film they’re organised, online and offline. Plus, horror, as well as exploitation films, has always touched on serious issues, unless you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard.
And, oh, will the straights ever hate this one!
A full essay here.
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Something I love even more than when horror draws on already established folklore is when horror creates its own folklore. The Feast feels like it should have roots in Welsh folklore yet it’s an original tale from the mind of writer Roger Williams. The story’s focus is a young woman called Cadi (Annes Elwy) who’s been hired on to help serve for a bourgeois family’s dinner party. Cadi navigates the tense relationships between the family, as well as the invited guests. There’s also something she seems to be hiding, and the more the evening wears on the more obvious it becomes. While the family and most of their guests revel in the mining industry that’s affording them all their precious material objects, Cadi’s brought a darker, more ancient force to dinner with her.
As a fan of slow burning horror I loved The Feast, and if you’re not one who likes to sit through a slower paced film then you’ll likely find this an exercise in patience. If you’re willing to sit with the dread and the folklorish, dreamlike atmosphere, then you’ll find yourself rewarded by this film and its plot. The screenplay combines environmentalism, folklore, and a somewhat Marxist perspective to create a chilling horror film with sharp teeth. Just wait until the final 20 minutes or so hit; an unforgettable, haunting conclusion.
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
Lamb is the surreal story of a childless couple, María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), who are gifted the miracle of a child, only it’s in the form of a half-lamb, half-human infant. Still, María and Ingvar, though shocked, decide to take the child home and look after her. Almost immediately things start to get difficult, especially after María sees the child’s real mother, a sheep, turning up on their property. The situation escalates and eventually darker things happen, threatening to swallow this would-be happy little family whole.
Admittedly there are moments in Lamb that, to me, are unintentionally hilarious just because of the sight gag that is the lamb child, Ada. That being said, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb—co-written with author Sjón, who also co-wrote the upcoming Robert Eggers film The Northman—is likewise full of striking imagery and symbolism that make it far more than a surreal piece of folk horror. This film could be, in different hands, a somewhat silly concept. Jóhannsson crafts Lamb into a powerful allegory about the way human beings treat the natural world around them. The story of Jesus Christ’s birth here becomes a surreal horror story, combined with a subversion of religious artwork and imagery, all of which acts as a confrontation with our own hubris and the misguided belief that we, as humans, are the centre of life, love, and happiness in the universe.
A full essay here.
The Last Thing Mary Saw
Directed by Edoardo Vitaletti
The Last Thing That Mary Saw, from director-writer Edoardo Vitaletti, is set during 1843 in Southold, New York, centring on a girl named Mary (Stefanie Scott) and the oppressed lesbian relationship she has with a housemaid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). The girls live in a community under a religious stranglehold, led by the Matriarch (Judith Roberts). The film begins after the death of the Matriarch, and Mary’s the one being held accountable. The first we see of Mary, the girl has a blindfold around her face and she’s obviously been bleeding from the eyes. She’s held at gunpoint and forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer, for fear she may be possessed by the Devil. We’re soon taken back in time a little to see how the relationship between Mary and Eleanor was discovered, forcing increasingly brutal physical and mental punishments on the pair, right up to the day the girls fought back violently.
Vitaletti’s debut feature is a powerful story about queerness under pressure from religious forces in the early half of the 19th century. There are strong, dark Gothic and supernatural elements in The Last Thing That Mary Saw, but the beating, ugly, violent heart of this tale is 100% human. As a queer man I appreciate seeing a lesbian story set in the mid 1800s, because—regardless of the fact it’s a tragic one—it shows two young lesbians fighting, by any means necessary and no matter how vicious, to be free, to live on their own terms and love each other. All queer stories need representation but occasionally, especially the mainstream ones, get bogged down in over-sentimentality or in trying too hard to make every queer character morally perfect. Vitaletti allows Mary and Eleanor, through the horror genre, to try and claim their identity without worrying about them being angels, or devils; they’re just two girls in love under the thumb of violent Christian repression, and, frankly, they’re sick of that shit.
A full essay here.
Directed by Mark O’Brien
I am Newfoundland and Labrador proud, so when any artist from the island does something in the film industry I’m always willing to boost it, regardless of how good or bad it may be in the end. When it comes to Mark O’Brien’s feature film debut The Righteous there’s nothing bad whatsoever, only Gothic greatness.
O’Brien’s film centres on Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny), a former priest whose mind is burdened with a dark past. Frederic and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) are surprised one night when a mysterious man called Aaron Smith (O’Brien) turns up wounded outside their home. Frederic tries to help Aaron, but soon is disturbed by his presence. However, Ethel seems comforted by Aaron being there. At night, Aaron talks with the couple, and soon it’s like he’s their adopted son. Yet something dark has come to the couple’s home with Aaron, and it’s far too late before either of them realise the truth.
O’Brien’s film is ultimately about one man confronting the horrible things he did in the past, a microcosm of the Roman Catholic Church and its dark sins. Frederic becomes a vessel for allegory and O’Brien examines the patriarchal power of the church, as well as how it creates wreckage in its wake everywhere it moves. The black-and-white cinematography adds a chilling touch to the story; in general, O’Brien captures all the slow burning terror of his film well.
The Righteous is an existential, psychological horror rather than outright traditional horror, and it’s a well-told Gothic story that eats at the heart of faith and the idea that the faithful are automatically superior. Watch this one with the lights on. There may not be blood and Gothic ghosts or other cliched imagery, but there’s plenty of humanity to frighten you here.
A full essay here.
The Deep House
Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Even if I feel The Deep House is a bit thin on plot the film remains one of my favourites during 2021, simply because it takes the Gothic haunted house story underwater and that scenario alone allows Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo to try innovative things, with what amounts to a ghost story, outside of the traditional framework. In the film, Ben (James Jagger) and Tina (Camille Rowe) are adventurous YouTubers who want to take their subscribers on an exciting ride for their latest video. In the southwest of France, the couple hear tell of a mansion below the water in an isolated lake, so, naturally, they head off to explore it. When they get to the house and make it inside, they find all manners of creepiness. Except after a while they’re not sure if they’re alone in there anymore.
Again, the plot of The Deep House isn’t what you’d call meaty or complex. But the creeping terror of an underwater haunted house, and imagining all the things that could go wrong for Ben and Tina while down there, is enough to make the film worthwhile. A frenetic energy sweeps the film up after a while and it never really lets go, pulling the viewer along through the watery abyss with the curious couple. The final act of the film is an intense haunted house experience revealing one Gothic scare after another. The technical aspects of the film make it so special, bringing together underwater adventure and horror, even when it doesn’t knock every pitch out of the park. Maury and Bustillo tell many stories that feel like they’re dark, gruesome, and terrifying folk tales or urban legends. The Deep House fits into the duo’s filmography well as, if anything else, a great instance of Maury and Bustillo’s power as storytellers.