The idea of watching a horror movie in 2020 might seem redundant, but what was remarkable about last year’s fright fare was how relevant so many of the films were, especially since it was accidental in many cases. Themes of isolation, distrust and interfamily trauma were all over the genre scene, including a number of the features that made my best-of selection this year.
Even if the moviegoing experience was altered (some say irrevocably) since this past March, 2020’s list doesn’t look too much different from those of past years, as the majority of the films were independents that found the bulk of their audience in home media–and would have even under normal circumstances. As always, my top 10 is composed of movies that received commercial distribution this past year, led by one that found its very deserving exposure via Netflix:
HIS HOUSE: South Sudanese refugees in London confront personal demons and literal ghosts in Remi Weekes’ remarkably affecting and frightening feature writing/directing debut. Sopé Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku are heartbreakingly good as the tormented couple, each reacting to being strangers in a strange and inhospitable land in a different way, and Weekes marshalled a nothing-but-the-best behind-the-scenes team (including DP Jo Willems, composer Roque Baños and the DDT SFX group) to deliver a movie that’s as timely as it is chilling. (Reviewed in RM #197)
The rest, in alphabetical order:
AFTER MIDNIGHT: Writer, director (with Christian Stella) and star Jeremy Gardner follows up his zombie sleeper THE BATTERY with another finely wrought character study wrapped in genre trappings. He plays a Floridian trying to deal with his abandonment by the love of his life (Brea Grant, as impressive here as in the 2020 fest faves LUCKY and 12 HOUR SHIFT), and a monster lurking outside his house, which seems to be just a metaphor for his inner torment–until, in one heart-stopping moment, it isn’t. (Review)
BACURAU: Life in the titular small Brazilian town is starting to get a little strange, and its residents have no idea how dire their situation will become–but they will prove ready to handle it. Filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles take their time letting us get to know the villagers, then gradually and inexorably introduce the menace, masterfully building tension that explodes in a final act of startling violence. There’s potent political allegory too, plus a great role for Udo Kier. Undercelebrated on the genre scene this year, this one is well worth seeking out.
COME TO DADDY: Norval (Elijah Wood) hasn’t seen his dad Gordon (Stephen McHattie) since he was 5, and their reunion at the latter’s isolated house starts tense and gets a lot worse. New Zealand genre producer Ant Timpson, making his directorial debut from a script by Toby Harvard, keeps the twists and over-the-top bloodshed coming in this riotously entertaining horror/comedy, with all the insanity anchored by Wood and McHattie’s perfectly pitched portrayal of the ultimate dysfunctional father-son relationship. (Review)
THE DARK AND THE WICKED: A very different study of fraught parent-grown child dynamics, Bryan Bertino’s consistently eerie horror/drama takes us into a Texas farmhouse where two siblings (Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr.) reunite to take care of their ailing mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). But there’s more than psychological issues afflicting Mom, and the slow revelation of just what hangs over the home–and the inability of anyone or anything to dispel it–results in a seriously unnerving, beautifully performed experience. (Review)
DEAD DICKS: The year’s best microbudget genre feature is also one of 2020’s most original fright films on any budget. Set almost entirely in one apartment, it focuses on bipolar, suicidal Richie (Heston Horwin) and his sister Becca (Jillian Harris), who tries to help him deal with his psychological issues and discovers him caught up in a very strange phenomenon. The less you know in advance about what’s up with Richie, the better; just know that Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer have made the most of limited means via a script that keeps surprising you, a pair of strong leads and an oddball vision that’s sustained straight through to the end. (Review)
EXTRA ORDINARY: When different ghosts afflict a father and daughter in a small Irish town, who ya gonna call? Rose (Maeve Higgins), reluctantly picking up the mantle of her deceased TV-specter-hunting father, and the fresh and endearing center of Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman’s supernatural comedy. While Rose wins us over as she learns to accept and own her legacy, Will Forte brings the comic villainy as a washed-up rock star trying to get back on top by occult means. There are clever, idiosyncratic situations throughout, and amidst the laughs, the ghostly elements are treated just seriously enough to stick. (Reviewed in RM #192)
FREAKY: The best body-switch comedy in ages is also the best slasher-film variant since Wes Craven made us SCREAM. As an insecure teen (Kathryn Newton) switches bodies with “The Blissfield Butcher” (Vince Vaughn), writer (with Michael Kennedy) and director Christopher Landon explores themes of empowerment and gender identity that add meaning to a movie whose first goal is to provide a rousing, funny and bloody entertainment, and thoroughly succeeds. Vaughn is a hoot and surprisingly touching at times, Newton fully inhabits her role’s alternately vulnerable and dark sides and there’s tart comic support from Misha Osherovich and Celeste O’Connor as our heroine’s best buds. (Review)
THE INVISIBLE MAN: Leigh Whannell’s updated take on H.G. Wells and James Whale’s literary and screen sagas is a best-case scenario of rebooting classic material. Merging mad science and #MeToo, it makes its villain’s mania personal, and focused on his wife Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), whose inability to convince anyone that her thought-dead husband is alive and stalking her is exacerbated by his tech that has made him unseeable. Moss is terrific in the tormented and compelling lead role, fully allowing us to feel her terror and root for her to overcome it, and Whannell ratchets up the suspense and horror from the gripping opening sequence to the extremely satisfying conclusion. (Review)
RELIC: Like THE DARK AND THE WICKED, Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut (which she scripted with Christian White), spins concern for an elderly parent into deeply creepy territory. When her mother (Robyn Nevin) disappears, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her own daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) come looking for her, and what they find are increasing hints that something is seriously wrong. While serving as a metaphor for dealing with a mentally deteriorating parent, the story also becomes a transfixing, imaginatively conceived and presented journey into the paranormal, and in both areas, RELIC’s strength is built on three performances that elicit a rich family history. (Review)
There was lots of other good stuff creeping just below this list: Other noteworthy 2020 releases include AMULET, ANYTHING FOR JACKSON, THE BEACH HOUSE, COLOR OUT OF SPACE, GRETEL & HANSEL, THE HUNT, KINDRED, KOKO-DI KOKO-DA, THE LODGE, THE MORTUARY COLLECTION, POSSESSOR, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE, RUN., SEA FEVER, SHE DIES TOMORROW, SYNCHRONIC and THE WITCH PART 1: SUBVERSION.