Horror, what would we do without you? Without exaggeration, 2021 provided fans with one of the greatest slates of horror movies we’ve ever gotten. Big studio films and indie releases alike, the entire genre came out to play, transporting us away from the cruelties of real-life 2021 for a well-deserved break. Instead of a numerical ranking, we unravel what each film meant to the horror genre and it’s audience this past year. With hopes 2022 can deliver the same amount of frightful film awesomeness, let’s break down the 10 films that defined horror in 2021!
The Triumphant Trip Back to the Theatre
Godzilla vs. Kong
The first big film out of the pandemic-locked gates happened to be a monster mash. Released in late March in theatres and HBO Max simultaneously, the sequel to Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivered the type of monster vs. monster action the premise promised. Sure, the character development may have been a little thin on this one, but the filmmakers wisely understood that audiences weren’t coming for the human dialogue.
Godzilla vs. Kong packed eye-popping special effects and some radical fight scenes between the two legendary beasts. A blast of a time, the visual spectacle that allowed us to shut our brains off from the outside world for awhile proved to be the perfect “welcome back” we were all looking for.
The One You Weren’t Prepared For
A step away from horror for superheroes and supercars couldn’t stop James Wan from brewing the biggest batsh*t surprise of the year. Stricken by visions of murders, Madison tries to cope with her traumatic past and the discovery that the killings are happening for real. Atmospheric horror at it’s best, a signature of Wan’s work, Malignant gave horror fans everything they came to know and love from the Saw director, particularly the shocking plot twists. However, “shocking” is a borderline criminal understatement for the level of crazy this film drops on us innocently naïve viewers.
It’s safe to assume that those who left the box office with ticket in hand had no clue what they were in for, and with how spoiler-y movie marketing is these days, that’s one impressive feat. Word of advice for those with weak stomachs, finish that popcorn before the third act.
The Night House
Turn out the lights, turn off your phone, and turn up your speakers for an atmospheric terror certified to give you some twisted nightmares. After the sudden death of her husband, Beth struggles to get her life in order. Going through her husband’s phone and other personal items unearth some red flags, and paranormal events begin to plague the widow in their recently built home. As these stories go, the situation devolves into some seriously scary territory.
A much less fun but much darker and disturbing depiction of “death” compared to, say, Final Destination, The Night House capitalizes on atmosphere, slick camera work, and a moving performance by Rebecca Hall as a woman desperate for answers yet entirely fed up with the bullsh*t life has thrown at her. While many movies are enhanced via the theatre experience, the intimacy of this film deserves a night at home with all the lights off.
The Creepiest Chemistry
Two veterans of the horror genre come together for a performance that delivers one mean bite. Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden team up as the neglected and suppressed wife Anne and her husband, pastor Jacob. After Anne nearly succumbs to the temptation of stepping out on Jacob just to feel a semblance of love and understanding within her uninspired life, temptation bites her back hard, transforming her into a vampire.
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Crampton’s work in Jakob’s Wife alone is phenomenal and worth repeat viewings, but the chemistry she and Fessenden share as an imperfect marriage injected with some new life (death?) crafts a back-and-forth unlike any other film of 2021. The more traditional depiction of vampires comes with the added bonus of hefty amounts of practical gore as well. Call it a drama, call it a comedy, but definitely call it a must-watch.
The Good Guy Wins
Chucky (TV Series)
I am aware I cheated here, but I’m ok with it! The creator of a beloved horror film franchise triumphantly transitions to the small screen, giving a big middle-finger to a big studio’s re-imagining of his beloved character. After the 2019 remake of Child’s Play stepped over Don Mancini’s very-much-alive series, which had most recently produced 2017’s Cult of Chucky, Mancini brought Chucky to cable television on the Syfy channel. To put it bluntly, Mancini delivered in spades.
Essentially a direct sequel to Cult of Chucky and the de-facto eighth entry to the franchise, Mancini and crew concoct the perfect mix of beloved characters and new faces. Chucky looks as good as ever, with the puppeteering on point and Brad Dourif back once again to voice him. Released to rave reviews from critics and, most importantly, the fans, Chucky has already been given the green light on season 2. Frankly, it’s great to see the Good Guy win. No pun intended.
The Side-Splitting Indie Horror/Comedy (aka the Uncle Peckerhead Award)
PG: Psycho Goreman
My annual award (which I created just now in honor of the aforementioned 2020 gut-buster) goes to an out-of-this world tale of gore and gale-force laughter. It’s hard to put into words the humor of PG: Psycho Goreman, but the best way I can describe it is the oddball nature of Napoleon Dynamite drenched in buckets of blood and violence.
A planet-conquering alien buried in siblings Mimi and Luke‘s backyard awakens, threatening total death and destruction of Earth. The “Arch Duke of Nightmares” has a weakness, and can be controlled via a gem that Mimi holds. With all of the psychopathy of a 12-year-old girl, the pair unleash the alien they dub PG into their town to the result of laughter so hard it’s painful. Writer/director Steven Kostanski brings along all of his practical effects expertise first flashed in his previous film The Void, coupled with performances completely in tune with the bizarre humor at every turn propel Psycho Goreman into must-watch territory.
The Hidden Gem
Yet to see a wide release, this synthesizer-soaked film festival gem cements a spot for a new masked killer/victim duo among horror’s slasher royalty. A sequel to Marcel Walz’s 2019 film Blind, the Pretty Boy killer carries his injured target Faye out of her home and right into the middle of an 80’s themed Valentine’s Day party.
Loaded with some awesome camera work, satirical portrayals of slasher victims from horror past, and enough 80’s synth to make your ears glow neon, Pretty Boy nails what so many indie slashers have failed to emulate – a memorable psycho-killer/target victim duo. Jed Rowen and Sarah French as Pretty Boy & Faye, respectively, shine as the newest slasher flick duo this side of Ghostface and Sidney Prescott. Walz’ directing chops shouldn’t be understated either. Keep an eye out for this one.
The Revenge of the Sequels
Amongst a plethora of terrific original ideas, the 2021 horror scene gifted three franchise follow-ups that dared to out-do their predecessors (and succeeded.)
Don’t Breathe II
Don’t Breathe II presents one of the wildest, absolute blasts of a time 2021 had to offer. A seeming continuation in story and tone of the 2016 hit film, we find The Blind Man living once again in solitude, this time with a (gulp) daughter. Having not forgotten the events of the original film, feelings of cringe stick like glue to the first act. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the switch to unexpectedly flip from suspense film to full-blown exploitation flick.
Equal parts side-splitting dark humor, over-the-top violence, and badass Stephen Lang action sequences, the sequel radically departs from the contained suspense of the first film in a bold move that absolutely works. Comparing the two films is akin to apples and bowling balls, but while Don’t Breathe certainly own the title of most suspenseful, Don’t Breathe II wins the title of wildest ride.
ADS ARE SCARY
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A Quiet Place Part II
One of the many qualities that make part 2’s so awesome in the world of film is the aggressive expansion of the world the original created. A Quiet Place Part II is a spot-on example of this. Kicked off by a fantastic flashback sequence of an alien invasion, viewers once again join the Abbott family immediately after the events of A Quiet Place. Having lost their patriarch Lee (John Krasinski), the family ventures out into the dangerous wilderness in search of help. Having found a weapon against the extraterrestrial creatures with a penchant for good-listening, the trio attempt to save the rest of humankind with the help of neighbor Emmitt, though he questions if there’s anyone left worth the effort.
The use of sound design, an interesting yet-borderline gimmicky plot tool in the original, remains important but takes a backseat to character development and the exploration of the vast new environment. Everything, from the set pieces to the suspense, is cranked up a notch, and to the film’s advantage. Adding Cillian Murphy to the mix proves never to be a bad decision, either.
David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are doing something seriously special with the Halloween franchise. It didn’t become abundantly clear until the release of Halloween Kills. We are transported back immediately following the events of Halloween 2018, while the Strode women tend to the injured Laurie, Michael Myers sets his sights on the rest of Haddonfield. The film reminds us that Laurie Strode is far from the only victim of The Shape. Having notably retconned almost all of the previous sequels, Green and McBride create a world where while the story ignores their existence, the audience can feel their presence permeate the film.
The result – four decades and twelve films of Halloween lore rain down upon the citizens of Haddonfield, as we watch the town tear itself apart in fear. Unlike many slasher films you’ve seen, Michael slaughters his way through legacy characters of the franchise and the townspeople trying to stop him, instead of unsuspecting promiscuous teenagers. The addition of one of John Carpenter’s finest scores serves as the perfect accent to this ultimate Halloween sequel.
What horror films defined your 2021? Which fright fests were your favorites? Drop your lists over on Nightmare on Film Street’s Discord! Or, share your thoughts with other horror fiends over on the NOFS Twitter and Facebook pages. Need more horror? Listen to this week’s episode of the Nightmare on Film Street podcast to hear our Top 10 Horror Movies of 2021.