The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (2024)

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TV & Movies

From a supernatural sucker punch out of Britain to a slasher-classic update — the highlights of our year in screen scares

The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (1)

You can’t expect a renaissance every 12 months; not all years will be banner years. We may have been a little spoiled coming off a bounty harvest or three of incredible modern horror movies, from the welcome new wave of female and POC filmmakers into the fold to the double-pronged attack on arthouse audiences (thank you, A24 and Neon) and Friday-night multiplex crowds (we see you, Blumhouse). The level of quality horror — don’t call it “elevated,” please and thank you — that die-hard fans of the genre and casual filmgoers alike have been able to lap up like blood from freshly opened jugular veins was beyond impressive in the late 2010s. Yet all waves eventually recede.

Throw in production and release delays caused by external circ*mstances and, well, you have a 2021 that delivered a decent enough amount of scary movies … but nothing along the lines of, say, a 2018 — think Hereditary, the Suspiria remake, the Halloween reboot, A Quiet Place, Upgrade — or the 3-2-1 mid-decade punch of The Babadook, The Witch and Get Out. It was a grabbag year, running the gamut from studio misfires and shrug-worthy sequels to a some indies that couldn’t get past high-concept, lo-fi throwback mode. (Say what you will about the Epstein-sploitation nugget The Scary of Sixty-First, it does conjure up the vintage spirit of the Forty-Deuce at least.) And even though some have gamely attempted to tackle our pandemic-driven moment, no one has quite come up with a definitive take on the real horrors still hovering outside our doors. It may be a while before filmmakers grapple with this 21st century plague.

Still, while you had to dig a little deeper than usual to find high points, there were some incredible films worth their weight in jump scares that slinked and slouched into streaming services and half-capacity theaters this year. From a supernatural sucker punch out of Britain to a mythological maternal nightmare courtesy of Iceland, a slasher-classic update to a longtime franchise’s best entry yet — these 10 horror movies represent the year’s best examples of screen-and-screen-again fear, fright and dread.

  • ‘Candyman’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (2)

    Maybe this long-awaited reboot/revisioning/semi-sequel to Bernard Rose’s seminal Nineties slasher flick about an urban legend haunting the Cabrini-Green projects — say his name five times while staring into a mirror, and you’ll see what his hook can do — wasn’t quite the horror-movie update that many thought it could, or should have been. Yet for all of its unrealized torn-from-the-headlines potential, director Nia DaCosta and producer Jordan Peele’s take on the material has its share of stylistic, razor-sharp touches (those eerie shadow-puppet sequences!) and gets a number of digs in regarding those who think that condos and chic art galleries balance out historical carnage. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II‘s painter decides to look for inspiration in the old stories of his gentrified neighborhood, and gets an earful about the presence that stalks the area. Soon, bees are buzzing, blood is spilled and we have what feels like a worthy chapter added to the title character’s mythology.

  • ‘Titane’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (3)

    How do you follow up a banger like the all-the-fine-young-cannibals masterpiece Raw (2016)? French filmmaker Julia Ducournau has your answer: You make an almost-unclassifiable mindf*ck of a movie featuring serial killers, stolen identities, sex with cars, and several other cinematic taboos. A chrome-plated body-horror parable that wears its Cronenbergian influences like music fans wear band buttons — the overall vibe might best be described as “hold my beer, Crash” — this story of an auto-show dancer (Agathe Rousselle) who responds to male aggression with sharp objects starts as a murderous middle finger to the patriarchy. Then, subversively, it switches directions and, once our heroine claims to be the long lost son of a fireman (Vincent Lindon), turns into something both moving and even more mind-melting. As for the coitus with a Cadillac, let’s just say that the third-act payoff is worth it.

  • ‘Last Night in Soho’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (4)

    “If I could live any place, at any time,” the wide-eyed young woman at the center of director Edgar Wright’s latest movie says, dreamily, “I’d live in London in the 1960s. It must have been the center of the universe!” Be careful what you wish for. Partially an ode to vintage Brit-horror and Italian gialli and partially a rebuke to rose-colored nostalgia, the Shaun of the Dead auteur’s colorful, clever psychological thriller follows Eloise (Thomasin Mckenzie), a country mouse who makes her way to London to study fashion. After she rents a room in a house in Soho, Eloise finds herself being transported back to the glory days of Carnaby Street, miniskirts and go-go boots. She also observes another young woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) who wants to be a singer, as well as inexplicable flashbacks to a grisly murder that happened in the very room she now occupies. Soon, the grooviness turns grotesque, and you can feel Wright getting giddy as he slowly turns the knife on the idea that golden ages are somehow immune to ghastliness.

  • ‘Censor’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (5)

    Enid (Niamh Algar) is a British film-board censor tasked with policing violent slasher movies in the early 1980s, one of a handful of people that stand between an innocent U.K. population and complete degeneracy. She has a reputation among her colleagues as someone who can’t be rattled by the hardest of hardcore horror flicks. Then Enid is assigned an older movie up for review, in which two young women get lost in the woods, which stirs some bad memories…and you can practically hear her psyche crack in half. Prailey Baily-Bond’s ode to old-school grindhouse fare plays like a variation of Alice in Wonderland, if your idea of a “wonderland” is drab filing offices, video stores that deal in under-the-counter contraband, a sleazeball’s bachelor pad and a backwoods film set. It’s as much a movie about genre fandom as it is a genre movie, especially for viewers of a certain age that find the ohrase “Video Nasties” doubling as Proustian Madeleine.

  • ‘In the Earth’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (6)

    Welcome back, Weird-as-f*ck Ben Wheatley — we’ve missed you. After his swing-and-a-miss adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the British filmmaker returns to more familiar grounds, following a scientist (Joel Fry) and a park ranger (Ellora Torchia) as they try to find a remote forest outpost that may have found a cure for, yes, a deadly virus that’s ravaging the globe. Then a mysterious stranger (Reece Shearsmith) crosses their path, and sh*t gets properly surreal and tres f*cked up. Fans of Kill List and A Field in England — the latter’s pagan-lysergic, Old Weird Britannia vibe is an especially big influence on this — will be please to see that Wheatley’s ability to infuse a genre with singularly unnerving, destabilizing touches has not dimmed. It’s an apocalypse-on-the-verge movie that makes you feel as if the film itself is coming apart at the seams.

  • ‘Surge’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (7)

    Or, Portrait of a Nervous Breakdown Already in Progress. Aneil Karia’s character study of a lonely airport worker (Ben Whishaw) who suddenly cracks might not sound like a horror movie on paper. Yet once you see how this no-filter look at madness uses the language of the genre to such nerve-racking effect, and how Whishaw’s extremely committed performance gets under your skin in a way that’s genuinely frightening, you realize it’s designed to push the exact same buttons — only in a far more personal, jolting way. The way his meltdown occurs seemingly out of nowhere initially makes you wonder if he’s been possessed, or is under the influence of aliens or a deadly virus. The answer is merely that he’s merely lost his mind thanks to alienation, isolation and a daily routine that seems existentially deadening to him. Having observed a society that no longer functions, this anonymous everyman concludes that he no longer needs to adhere to society’s rules. And once those shackles are off, he shows us a real monster — and it is us. This is definitely a work of horror.

  • ‘The Feast’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (8)

    Dinner parties can often be nightmares. The one at the center of the debut feature from TV director Lee Haven Jones feels like a literal bad dream, one fueled by dishes best served cold. A rich family is prepping for a soirée in their conspicuously modernist house in rural Wales. A mysterious young woman (Annes Elwy) shows up to help; the woman who usually serves guests is AWOL. You get the sense that there may be another, more sinister agenda at play, however — and that’s before someone casually mentions an old wives’ tale about a nearby area that’s home to an angry spirit. The use of silence, negative space and dread adds to the sense that something wicked has saved itself a seat at the table, aided and abetted by a central performance that’s downright unnerving. Remember, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature…as she has a way of paying back transgressions a hundredfold. Also, you might not want to eat beforehand.

  • ‘The Forever Purge’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (9)

    The Purge movies have been a surprisingly reliable franchise, leaning into its B-movie giddiness and central concept (a 24-hour pass to murder, maraud and generally f*ck sh*t up) to fuel scenes from the class struggle, American-style. And in many ways, this latest entry — filmed in 2019, originally slotted for a 2020 release and arriving in theaters six months after the Jan. 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol — somehow feels like the showdown this series has been leading up to for years. Pitting immigrant citizens and sympathizers against white surpremacists using a “reinstated” night of violence as an opportunity to create an ethno-nationalist state, it’s a pulpy-as-hell take on some real-life terrors that have been plaguing our nation for…well, centuries. You get folks in creepy masks indulging in torture-p*rn types of scenarios (watch out for that trick cage!), but you also get “patriots” stalking our heroes who, in a broad stroke of irony, are heading to the Mexican border in the name of sanctuary. It plays with so many frontier archetypes that it practically doubles as a revisionist Western, down to indigenous people saving the day from bloodthirsty buckaroos. By the end, The Forever Purge essentially deems the American experiment a failure. The series used to be grotesque escapism. Now it feels like it’s one bad night away from being a documentary. That’s frightening.

  • ‘Lamb’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (10)

    Kudos to director Valdimar Jóhannsson, who plays his cards close to his vest for the first act of his fable about a married Icelandic couple (Prometheus star Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) who toil away on their farm. One night, a sheep gives birth, and the husband and wife take a particular interest in the runt of the litter. As to why they seem so invested in this tiny lamb, well…that’s where a certain visual trick comes into play (kudos to the FX team that worked on this), which somehow makes this horror movie becomes a hundred times creepier, and a thousand times more poignant. What feels like an unusual metaphor for how parenting taps into an inherent need to nurture suddenly swerves into Grimms’ fairy-tale territory. It’s the sweetest, most touching waking nightmare you’ve ever experienced.

  • ‘Saint Maud’

    The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (11)

    A born-again Christian named Maud (Morfydd Clark) pines for a mission — and for her sins, she’s given one, in the form of a being a caretaker for a terminally ill choreographer (Jennifer Ehle). The longer she tends to her sick employer, the more she worries about saving this woman’s soul. But is Maud capable of offering salvation to the sick? Is she imagining these conversations with God, or does this pious heroine really have a direct line to divinity? Or perhaps that voice in her head belongs to some other, less heavenly messenger? Director Rose Glass’ feature debut can be savored as a welcome, disquieting new addition to that old time religious-horror canon. (There will be back-bending levitation shots.) Or you can look at it as a portrait of young woman finding a warped sense of empowerment in her madness… which makes this “possession” story twice as unnerving. No matter which way you look at it, the movie is a genuine revelation, and the sort of holy terror that restores your faith in a genre.

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The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021 (2024)

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