The 13 Best Horror Movies of 2021 - IGN (2024)

This list contains spoilers for various entries.

In a year where horror finally returned to multiplex screens, streamers proved they’re still here to share some screams. A Quiet Place II may have welcomed moviegoers back indoors with familiar sensations of thumping theater audio and the underfoot stickiness of dried soda soaked into ratty carpets. However, terror remained prominent across platforms with horror movies on Netflix, Shudder, and more. Horror’s always been about supporting both mainstream and independent avenues — that was easier to forget before lockdown delays.

Hopefully we don’t forget about foreign or lower-budget slashers while bickering online about Halloween Kills as if the slasher subgenre hangs in the balance (for example). So many of the best horror movies in 2021 weren’t massive studio undertakings or carry the “stigma” of being an overseas import. My hope with this list is you’ll find some horror titles that are fresh, invigorating, and expand horizons, to be celebrated just as loudly as the latest Blumhouse remake or reboot of your favorite weapon-waving icon.

Celebrate Chucky, welcome Candyman back as a treat, but don’t miss out on some of the greatest gifts the genre has to offer this year just because they’re straight to video or — gasp — sold to one of the streaming giants.

The 13 Best Horror Movies of 2021

13. Initiation

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One of 2021’s biggest surprises — and one of its better slashers — is John Berardo's Initiation. It's a campus thriller with a masked killer who hunts athlete frat bros for an atrocious secret they keep hidden. That sounds, what … par for the course? How many 1980s or 1990s Pledge Night templates exist like this? I get the hesitation but allow me to confirm that Initiation executes on a higher level than infinite copycats. Actress and co-writer Lindsay LaVanchy plays more than just another slasher damsel grieving over a dead sibling. As exemplified by my legitimate shock over the slayer's identity, Berardo's narrative doesn't fumble suspense. Deaths are exquisitely gory, emotional throughlines are empowered, not forgotten, and the enduring message of exposing decades-allowed toxicity in what should be safe spaces lands with a thunderous impact. The future of slashers is bright, as long as you're looking in the right places.

12. Malignant

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James Wan’s Malignant — at least among horror crowds — became a viral internet sensation because any description sounded like an admission of insanity. It’s a throwback to 1990s and early 2000s wildness like FearDotCom or anything produced by Dark Castle Entertainment that drags nostalgia out of the 1980s. Contortionist Marina Mazepa portrays a dormant parasitic entity released from within another character’s subconscious that becomes a backward-crawling, cranium-crushing parkour machine, and that’s barely a taste of what awaits. Malignant is James Wan churning through corpses, toying with Giallo lighting, and leaning into enjoyable campiness for an extremely satisfying midnighter that goes for broke. It’s the most talked-about horror movie of 2021 for a reason — find out why, preferably with friends and maybe a few pints.

11. Detention

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Let’s continue with a video game adaptation set in 1962 Taiwan, during the White Terror martial law period. John Hsu’s Detention takes the framework of survival horror in a high school setting, with paranormal scares derived from national trauma turned into an otherworldly evil. Guards enforcing tyrannical practices become demons in an alternate reality, as two worlds collide like in Silent Hill. It’s about banned books, haunted hallways, children forced to behold the ugliness of society — and yet Detention remains hopeful in its overall message about how survivors will see to the end of unjust campaigns. One of the most rewarding subgenres of horror is at the intersection of historical trauma and cultural expressions, and Detention is no outlier.

10. The Queen Of Black Magic

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If you’re not privy to the recent wave of Indonesian horror crashing onto platforms like Shudder, use The Queen Of Black Magic as your introduction. Kimo Stamboel and Joko Anwar tag-team as director and writer (respectively), both of whom have introduced American audiences to overseas nightmares like Macabre and Satan’s Slaves. This particular collaboration returns three friends and their families to the orphanage they once called home after its caretaker falls ill. Memories of mischief and questionable treatment awaken secrets from their past, summoning supernatural attacks involving insects, flayed skin, and other ritualistic curses. It’s not a precise one-to-one remake of 1981’s original inspiration, but achieves the same goal of assuring audiences keep an eye on anything frightful coming out of Indonesia.

9. Sator

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If Sator were a dish in a three-course meal, it’d be an appetizer before The Dark And The Wicked and Relic. Jordan Graham’s low-budget heartacher is parts Krisha and parts The Blair Witch Project — never as terrifying, mind you — as a psychologically threatening glimpse of grief-driven horrors. Graham directs, writes, edits, gaffs, scores, and does just about everything else outside delivering a haunting performance from a place of corrosive sorrow — that’s Gabriel Nicholson’s job as Adam. It’s a quiet and subdued viewing experience, dependent on the woodland sound effects of crunchy leaves or whispery winds that make us feel as alone as Adam. Sator understands the hopelessness that lurks in the deepest, hidden away recesses of our mind, and unlocks them — along with a demon who may or may not be watching — with great emphasis.

8. Gaia

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Welcome to South Africa’s Tsitsikamma forest, where Jaco Bouwer‘s Gaia wages an environmental war against humankind. Two park rangers investigate a figure on their surveillance cameras during a routine check but find agitated survivalists and monsters born from vengeful soil. Mother Earth’s rightfully pissed about how we’ve poisoned our planet, so she unleashes spores that infect people with fungal growths. This presents a mix of creatures that could be cousins to the Clickers in The Last Of Us, as well as beautifully rainbow-colored mushrooms and mosses that grow from raw wounds on dying hosts. There’s no mincing commentary about keeping Earth clean lest she revolt, which flourishes within the flashy art design that brings a floral whimsy to an otherwise naturally dreadful apocalypse.

7. Candyman

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Nia DaCosta’s Candyman — say it five times — was worth the wait. It’s a reclamation of Daniel Robitaille’s story through a new perspective, modernized and recontextualized by Black creators. DaCosta is clever to hone in on “Candyman” as an ideology, not a sole slasher villain, as a commentary on the cyclical nature of the racial injustices suffered generation after generation. Graffiti and housing complexes dwell on the urbanization in Bernard Rose’s original; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s artist struggles in current bubbles to separate exploitation and appropriation from painted protests. There’s a lot to digest, as DaCosta is trusted to continue a legacy that comes with its blood sacrifices aplenty — spilled guts, smashed heads, and facial deconstruction makeup ensure the horror is not lost in this clever stealth sequel.

6. Slumber Party Massacre

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For those who haven’t humored my after-hours defenses of horror remake culture, let my praise for Danishka Esterhazy’s Slumber Party Massacre set the tone. The 1987 original lusts after co-eds pursued by the “Driller Killer” as a means of satirizing the prevalent male gaze in 80s slashers — a premise of the times that drew hesitation in terms of modernization. Esterhazy and writer Suzanne Keilly erase all doubts by honoring source perspectives via replication, only to scathe against the horror genre’s treatment of women as a whole through uproariously overt means.

You’ll get all the franchise throwbacks you desire — another “Driller Killer,” a famous guitar, so on — along with an even more emphatic take on perverse masculinity turned against its worst instincts. The camera drools over showering bros, won’t even name the studs playing beer pong (a hilarious gag), and allows sleepover sweethearts to peer through the window at pillow-fighting beefcakes for once. All that, and the kills still deliver well beyond the SYFY channel label that comes with Slumber Party Massacre. It’s an absolute hoot that heaps on subversive messaging while vibing with midnighter humor that rages onward as bodies mount, subplots veer out of control, and another remake shows the world how beloved franchises can respectfully reach new audiences.

5. Censor

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Censor is no one-trick pony, from its addressing of censorship in media — driven by the U.K. government’s enforced edits during the “Video Nasty” era — to a trippy transformation into the very type of movie its main character censors. Prano Bailey-Bond proudly keeps her video nasty in this satire turned slasher, one that stacks the ignored underbelly of our species against the “filth” fantasized on screens which draws curious protest. Better yet, there’s a WandaVision element as Niamh Algar’s main character goes from pre-screening Evil Dead ripoffs to living her own splattery, gruesome midnight movie mystery. It’s a rich narration that comes with thoughtfully exposed fear mongering tactics amidst sleazy studio producers and decapitations, sure to cement the talented Bailey-Bond as a must-watch talent with whatever comes next. A title that zigs and zags alongside historical relevance, all the more entertaining as reality blurs with scream queens and practical death sequences horror fans have welcomed with open arms.

4. Psycho Goreman

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“I do not care for hunky boys … or do I?” If you don’t know this quote or the many other delightfully unexpected lines of dialogue throughout Psycho Goreman, fix that immediately. Steven Kostanski takes the formulaic sitcom family and introduces an unstoppable alien executioner to their dysfunctional household. Littlest Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) snatches an amulet that in turn controls her extraterrestrial bodyguard “PG,” as the stoic and murderous assassin learns a few things about humanity, and himself, through Mimi’s orders.

Expect the energy of Power Rangers meets Harry And The Hendersons and a fixation on practical, do-it-yourself gore that would make the most successful Troma movies blush. Kostanski leans into schmaltzy life lessons you’d find on the Hallmark channel, all the while decapitating criminals or introducing detailed villains — actors in exceedingly imaginative costumes — like “Bucket O’ Body Parts Man” or the physical manifestation of what could be an anime guardian. It’s sweet, it’s sad*stic, and packs more of a lasting message than some of the titles you’ll see the Academy shower with votes. Psycho Goreman is something the whole family can enjoy (if you’re family’s rad enough).

3. The Medium

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I understand The Medium is a hard sell to American viewers. It's a two-hour-plus faux documentary that first focuses on a rural Thai village's resident shaman, which meticulously — read: slow burn — morphs into a culturally representative possession nightmare. The movie's first half doesn't scratch much of a thrill seeker's itch, which led me to claim The Medium will be the best movie at least half of Shudder's audience doesn't finish watching. I understand why, so I'll preach patience with Banjong Pisanthanakun's up close and personal take on Thai religious beliefs, villager commonality, and the depths of malice awoken by those who turn their backs on traditional safeguards.

Once The Medium engages its horrific second half, an assault of night vision scares highlights the usage of hybrid subgenres (creatures, exorcisms, found footage) before an ending that's as close to the culty-unholy high I've chased ever since V/H/S/2’s segment "Safe Haven." Stick through the necessary buildup, and you'll be rewarded by grotesqueness, nervy terrors, and the disturbing allowances of international cinema — all I ask is that you at least try.

2. Fear Street 1994

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Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy was the horror event of this past summer, no release better than Fear Street Part 1: 1994. Our introduction into Sunnyvale and Shadyside drama unleashes a horde of slasher villains against characters that cultivate quick connections with their audience. Netflix’s needle-drop obsession generates this nostalgic mixtape massacre vibe as Nine Inch Nails or Garbage rock the ‘90s, while Marco Beltrami and Marcus Trumpp compose one of the year’s top horror scores when chart-toppers aren’t appropriate. Janiak commands a universe full of neon-bright death, classist oppression, and supernatural threats that quickly becomes livable, drawing heavily from iconic favorites such as Scream or Halloween.

That best-of-the-year bread slicer death hits so hard not only because it’s flawless practical mutilation — the loss is gutting because there’s genuine empathy and care for the deceased victim. Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is the total package of horror genre callbacks, energetic storytelling, and heartfelt composition that welcomes viewers into R.L. Stine’s cursed world with a sense of dreadful inspiration.

1. The Vigil

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Keith Thomas introduces audiences of all beliefs to the Jewish practices of “shomers” — those who read scriptures to comfort the recently deceased and ward off evil spirits — along with his monster, dubbed a "mazik." Dave Davis' Yakov confronts the mazik while acting as shomer in a modest Hasidic Brooklyn rental, blending singularly Jewish traumas with The Exorcist wavelengths for an efficient gauntlet of tight-quarters scares. Its fundamentals are familiar due to New York City's real estate confinement. Yet, Thomas weaves heaps of cultural significance into an effortlessly frightening demonic battle as the mazik preys upon its target’s darkest past memories. Under the shadows of night, The Vigil shines as a triumphant collision of unforgettable agony, the price we pay to move forward with our lives, and formidable mazik aggression — golly, it feels good to be frightened out of your skin.

For more, check out the best horror movies of all time and the best reviewed movies of 2021.

The 13 Best Horror Movies of 2021 - IGN (2024)


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