Year in review: 2020 Horror

Featured image from Possessor.

I used the last gasps of my grand 2020 movie binge to scrape up the rest of the horror new releases that were on my radar. I wanted to get as broad a view as possible of the state of the genre. I watched everything of note that’s currently available for home viewing and quite a few things not of note. I did skip a few titles that I expect are almost certainly a waste of time.

It’s not good news. The worst trends of 2010’s horror have taken over and things are getting worse rather than better. The horror genre is multifaceted and there are many different sorts of values that horror movies can achieve, but the most essential element is visceral emotional impact. This element is largely missing. The vast majority of horror releases are aimed at a crossover audience. It’s like a Buffalo Wild Wings where you can only order your wings mild.

Two formulas have taken over. The first and most prevalent is the mashing together of well-worn horror tropes with topics trending on Twitter. These movies typically have an overly literal context and dialogue that directly explains their thematic orientation. They are characteristically extremely safe and tame, so as to appeal to a broad audience of people who don’t necessarily like horror but do like having their worldview reflected back to them. The second is the horror family drama, where the real horror is trauma/loss/grief/secrets. These movies recycle the grammar of the haunting and possession subgenres but add an overly literal context and (usually) ugly CGI. There’s usually a black mold motif, and it’s usually a transparent metaphor for trauma/loss/grief/secrets. Category 2 is a little edgier than Category 1, but they’re both united in selling themselves as “not just a horror movie.” I don’t mean to say that all of these movies are bad. Some Category 1 movies are clever and inventive. Some Category 2 movies go far enough to work as horror.

There were no horror masterpieces. Nothing for the pantheon. That’s been par for the course in recent years, but it’s still disappointing. There were a handful of very good horror films, however, that deliver a visceral emotional experience while achieving something interesting with cinematic form. There were also a number of movies that I found enjoyable and/or interesting despite some shortcomings. Unfortunately, the largest cluster of the 2020 horror movies I saw were in the OK to Meh range (which is probably a generous appraisal because I have an easy time enjoying horror movies). And then there were a number that I actively disliked.

The list is divided into the above-mentioned categories and is very roughly ranked within each category (if I thought about it for a while I’d probably change my mind about some of the specific rankings). I’m not counting John Hyams’ Alone, because I consider it a thriller rather than a horror movie, but it would be in the “very good” category.

Great

[crickets]

Very good

Gretel & Hansel: Moody and refined, with an appealing abstract visual style and immersive score.

The Dark and the Wicked: Family loss horror done right. Light on narrative, heavy on Bertino’s deliberate framing. The horror is driven by a slow accumulation of nightmarish moments that build an overwhelming sense of spiritual desolation, like there could be no hope or love or brightness ever again. A rare movie that feels genuinely evil.

Possessor: Brandon Cronenberg takes up his dad’s legacy with exhilarating boldness. It’s a real horror movie with original ideas and challenging content. This is the kind of thing I would like to see the genre moving towards.

The Golden Glove: How did Fatih Akin get from Soul Kitchen to here in so few moves?! It’s a grisly, grimy, nasty portrait of a serial killer with Jonas Dassler turning in the horror performance of the year. The setting is vivid; no punches are pulled.

Hunter Hunter: I recommend going in cold but if you must: it’s a variant on Leave No Trace where something actually happens. It’s about a family of three living on the outskirts of civilization and is thematically concerned with hunters as predators and the way going off the grid makes salient the animal nature of human beings.

Enjoyable and/or interesting

Sputnik: Russian Alien– style sci fi horror. Excellent monster.

Run: Well-crafted but formulaic genre exercise with terrific acting and well-imagined suspense sequences.

VFW: It’s too dark and it’s hard to see what’s going on in some scenes, but it still works as a fun throwback splatterfest with old guys vs mutant punks.

The Beach House: Of the several vacation property-themed movies that came out this year, this is the most Lovecraftian. Alternate title: When the Edibles Hit: The Movie. The early expository dialogue is clumsy and the movie doesn’t do a great job sustaining its crescendo of tension, but the high points are very high and this is overall a refreshing example of low budget horror done well.

Antebellum: Wokesploitation! Between this and Ma, we’re starting to see a transition out of the initial moralistic phase of woke horror into an exploitation phase where the woke themes serve as pretext for trashy spectacle. Jena Malone chews scenery like an absolute boss, casually addressing a hotel employee as “puddin’” and using the most condescending possible tone at all times. Janelle Monáe is totally up for carrying this thing and her big slo-mo Daniel Day Lewis from Last of the Mohicans horseback ride is glorious.

Freaky: a mashup of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th. It’s underrealized but a lot of fun and many of the jokes land.

La Llorona:  Not to be confused with the Conjuring spinoff, this is a new release from Guatemala. I appreciate that it takes a different approach to the sprawling “haunting as transparent trauma metaphor” subgenre. This time it’s not the supernatural presence haunting the family that’s malevolent, but rather the family whose perspective we adopt. This pulls its punches, but it’s still one of the better recent examples of explicitly political horror.

The New Mutants: This is surprisingly out there. It’s sort of a Nightmare on Elm Street riff where Freddy is a teenage girl and the hero of the story. This has more of a slow burn horror vibe than a superhero origin story vibe. I always find Maisie Williams a little intolerable but Anya Taylor-Joy is delightful. Overall, I appreciate how unique this is. It’s not destined to be a crowd-pleaser, but there are enough crowd-pleasers already.

Deep Blue Sea 3: The production value is much, much higher than part 2 but the fun wonkiness is still there (“Water Blog!”). Frankly, it’s a lot better than a bargain basement smart sharks thriller needs to be. Bring on part 4.

The Grudge: The CGI is a bummer (are CGI maggots seriously easier than real maggots?) but every second of Lin Shaye is a treasure and I enjoy how old-fashioned this is. It’s fun to see Harold Lee married to Debbie Eagan.

The Invisible Man: This could have been much better if the villain weren’t so one-dimensional, but Whannell is great with high concept gimmicks and he finds plenty of inventive things to do with the premise. Elisabeth Moss is strong, as one would expect.

Zombi Child: Bonello’s films are always nice to look at. This has interesting moments scattered throughout and the boarding school material is mostly good. But it’s timid about its subject matter and wants to lead the viewer by the hand and as a result it has nowhere near the impact of previous attempts at zombie horror colonial reckoning (e.g., Tourneur, Fulci, Craven, Costa).

Ok to meh

Color Out of Space: This has a great list of ingredients, but they don’t really come together. I would have loved to see what Stuart Gordon could have done with it.

The Wolf of Snow Hallow: Deadpan black comedy/werewolf horror/police procedural/family melodrama. The family melodrama and about half of the black comedy falls flat for me but the werewolf horror and the other half of the black comedy are good.

Bad Hair: This is a frustrating movie, because it doesn’t play to its strengths. It’s a paradigm example of a perfectly good monster movie that is weighed down by an overly literal context and dialogue pulled directly from Twitter.

Relic: This is a very typical example of the contemporary wave of family horror dramas, complete with all the overdone tropes. It does have a few inspired passages, though, and it sticks the landing. It’s an ugly, unpleasant movie (in a good way) and it successfully leaves the viewer with a putrid emotional residue. 

Blood Quantum: I would be surprised if there’s ever another great zombie movie, but this isn’t bad. I like the gritty representation of the rez.

Impetigore: Indonesian supernatural horror. There is some good material and the high points are high, but I question the decision to let this drag for the long middle section and then tell the entire story in an abrupt three-minute info dump.

Come to Daddy: Decidedly stupid, but it has a strong supporting cast and it goes far enough to be exciting.

Becky: Very derivative (Home Alone meets Green Room) but it has its pleasures. The score from Nima Fakhrara is absolutely lit. Honestly, the score is too good for the movie. I like the idea of Kevin James playing against type as a violent white supremacist, but it’s mostly a cowardly performance.

She Dies Tomorrow: This is basically 4:44 Last Day on Earth meets Pontypool, mumblecore edition, as imagined by a David Lynch fan. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie—it’s half baked—but I found it fun to watch. Right away you get the sense that it’s capable of anything, and that’s an exhilarating feeling. The sound design shook my house pretty well.

Anything for Jackson: It’s very derivative and peters out in the end but it hits some offbeat notes and I appreciate that it keeps throwing twists and turns at us instead of getting bogged down in the drama.

The Babysitter: Killer Queen: Junk food. Indefensible, but in a way I mildly enjoy.

Fantasy Island: It’s too long and I wish it were rated R, but I do not regret it.

The Craft: Legacy: Campy fun for the most part. Making the nemesis David Duchovny as Jordan Peterson is a great idea. But the plotting is terrible and the second half fizzles.

Bit: Queer hipster Lost Boys/Near Dark. Aside from the main character the acting is unfortunate, but the movie is sort of endearing and a little edgier than I expected.

Spree: High concept satire where an Uber driver live-streams a killing spree in the hope of going viral. Much of it is presented as a social media story, with comments scrolling up from the bottom of the frame. Influencer satires are nearly as unbearable as influencers, but this is sometimes appealing in its chaotic energy. The humor mostly falls flat, except that the comment streams are HILARIOUS.

The Rental: Not terrible but I really hope that there are no more Airbnb horror movies ever, because it’s instantly played out.

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find: Dumb and thoroughly inept, but odd and erratic enough to be occasionally fun.

Host: I admire the concept. There are a few inspired moments—it’s at its best when it exploits the novel mechanics of zoom and when it manages to capture the chaotic rhythms of zoom socializing. But it doesn’t have enough ideas even for its short running time and devolves into well-worn clichés.

That’s gonna be a no for me, dawg

His House: On the nose political horror. When I finished it I felt less like I had just watched a horror movie and more like I had just read an opinion piece in the Atlantic. It’s reasonably well-done for what it is, but I really did not like it.

After Midnight: It feels about 10 years late for this sort of generic mumblecore lite-horror, but the punchline is good. I might not have minded it if not for the soundtrack.

May the Devil Take You Too: I liked the first one but this is basically generic CGI-heavy Sam Raimi pastiche minus the humor. And it needs the humor. The first one has a much tighter narrative and is more fun.

Scare Me: A waste of a great premise. I assumed from the description that this was going to be an anthology film about two writers settling in to tell each other scary stories. (Mild spoilers, stop reading if you want to go in cold). I was very surprised when we stuck with the chamber play format and the actors actually told scary stories in the range of 20-30 minutes. Cool. The problem is that the stories suck. And while Aya Cash and the actor who plays the pizza guy are very good, the male lead can’t stand up to them (I later learned that he’s the writer-director, which explains a lot).

The Platform: It’s trite, lacks for interesting images, and the ending is just godawful. I did appreciate some bits of nastiness, though.

The Lodge: Tortuously contrived to get someplace very uninteresting. The cold Austrian precision just magnifies how silly it is, and not in a good way.

Underwater: Awful, muddled action, everything looks the same, the monsters are garbage, and the acting is mostly generic. And then the public service announcement anti-drilling stuff infuses the whole mess with cringey moralism.

Beneath Us: Truly terrible topical immigration horror. I was bored out of my mind almost immediately. I was promised scenery chewing, but Lynn Collins is underwhelming in the Karen From Hell role that needs to carry the movie. She’s generically shrill and her sadism is uninspired. The thematic pronouncements at the end are beyond unbearable.

Corona Zombies: A re-edit and redub of parts of Hell of the Living Dead and a few other movies. It tries to spin a humorous zombie narrative about Covid-19. Complete and utter fail. It’s like the least funny possible undergrad improv team took one attempt at this and then just stuck with whatever they happened to end up with. I hated every minute of it.

5 thoughts on “Year in review: 2020 Horror”

  1. You identify two recent trends in the horror genre. For the sake of us who have neither surveyed the genre over the last ten years nor are connoisseurs of it, perhaps you wouldn’t mind supplementing your idea here. Would you provide some examples of films you see as belonging in Categories 1 and 2, giving a brief explanation of what it is about each film that meets the criteria for inclusion in its respective category?

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    1. Sure. The best examples of the family trauma horror trend are The Babadook and Hereditary, and then also stuff like the The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Family trauma is classic subtext for the haunting subgenre but these make the connection explicit. Their success led to many copycats (e.g., Relic is a Hereditary copycat that borrows imagery from The Grudge). And then the biggest trend-setters for contemporary topical horror were the Jordan Peele movies, and then also the wave of metoo horror (e.g., the black christmas remake). Again: I don’t think these movies are bad per se (some of them are, some of them aren’t), it’s just that they’ve fueled an overall trend that favors a crossover audience.

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      1. Thanks for replying.

        I’m getting the sense that I know neither what counts as family trauma nor what counts as being subtextual. You don’t just mean trauma visited upon a family over the course of the film, right? Because that’s overwhelmingly just part of the text, as it were, and not the subtext, no? I’m thinking, for example, of the trope of the family moving into the house they don’t know is haunted and getting terrorized. Sometimes a family member dies, sometimes at the hands of another family member, and that’s just part of the basic plot structure (shared by too many other horror movies to count). Or: Does The Exorcist count as having family trauma as a subtext or as text? Or does family trauma even figure into The Exorcist at all?

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      2. The Exorcist isn’t quite what I mean. In many haunting movies, the supernatural menace is something ostensibly disconnected from the family, like the ghost of someone who was murdered in the house generations ago, but then subtle connections are drawn between the supernatural menace and explicit or inexplicit elements of the family dynamic or the family’s past. Often some trauma (in the narrow, clinical sense) is involved but I think people use the term pretty broadly in this context. A fairly blunt example is The Shining, but I think something like this is true in the majority of haunting movies, and it’s often pretty subtle (possibly the exorcist, but that’s not really how I read it). In these newer “elevated” haunting movies, the trend is to shift the focus towards the family drama and make the relationship between the family drama and the supernatural element more direct and more explicitly thematic. There is often dialogue where the characters explain themes of the movie and the way the haunting reflects something about the family. I actually like the haunting of hill house but it is way over the top in this regard. Every Crane kid has taken on some role in the world transparently shaped by their mother’s mental illness/haunting.

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