Monday, January 11

Favorite Horror Films 2020

Favorite Horror 2020

By: Monte Yazzie


In early December 2020, after months of social distancing, stay at home orders, mask ordinances and a general separation from movie friends, concert buddies, and convention colleagues, I was standing in front of an eager audience in a parking lot ready to screen a special outdoor presentation of Alejandro Jodoworsky’s “The Holy Mountain”.  It was cold and my thoughts were oddly sentimental. The first time I watched this cult classic was in an old theater, on 35mm film, with sticky floors, uncomfortable chairs, and stale popcorn. As I looked out into the crowd, most sitting in lawn chairs with blankets on their laps and masks on their face, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the pieces that came together to form the year of 2020.


My movie year began in Baltimore, Maryland. The first film I watched, after traveling on crowded public transit to an enormous and packed outlet mall, was the superb creature feature “Underwater” in a completely sold out theater with two strangers sitting right next to me. 

Mid-year, pandemic in full tilt boogie, and I found myself scanning the movie theater seating charts waiting for that perfect moment when 5 or less people were in a theater. I watched “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula” and worried more about my safety than the raging zombies. 


Even though I watched fewer movies inside a theater, 2020 was my biggest year for movie watching ever. 500+ films sitting on my couch, watching every Severin, Shout Factory, Vinegar Syndrome feature. Streaming festival films, Criterion Channel curated programs, and Shudder TV programming. But one thing came clear very quickly, home streaming will never replace the movie theater experience.


And back in that parking lot, at my beloved FilmBar Theater in downtown Phoenix, standing in front of a portable film screen, the glow of Jodoworsky’s brilliant movie illuminating the faces of movie fans, I grew so happy to have, for a fading moment, the opportunity to share the experience of movie watching with strangers. To escape the news, the low hospital bed alerts, and the sorrow that the virus had taken on relatives and friends. It was moment to drift away into the screen.  I will never take that feeling for granted ever again.  


It’s been a strange and difficult year but cinema still had some exceptional offerings through numerous genre outlets. Here are 15 of my favorite horror films of 2020. 


Top Fifteen

15.  Blood Quantum


Zombie films will never go away. “Blood Quantum” blends bloody zombie gore with social commentary and weaves in a few ingenious twists. The Mi'kmaq community of the fictional Red Crow Indigenous land find themselves immune to a zombie plague, forcing them to setup resistance forts on tribal land. Director Jeff Barnaby focuses the film through a strict Native lens, showcasing a film that feels completely genuine in its understanding of culture. It’s a beautiful thing to see representation of Indigenous people on screen, the fact that it’s a horror film is just icing on the cake.

14.  Swallow


Pica is a psychological condition characterized by an irresistible urge to ingest inedible objects and materials. A young housewife (Haley Bennett) in a seemingly perfect marriage develops this disorder, and what starts with ice cubes quickly escalates to more confounding objects. Director/writer Carlo Mirabella-Davis crafts a film that is richly composed and led by an engaging performance from Haley Bennett. It grows more disturbing but it’s impossible to look away.  

13.  Anything for Jackson


From the beginning moments “Anything for Jackson” sets up an intriguing premise about a couple who try to resurrect their dead grandson through a pregnant woman. It’s a creative horror film with great characters that produces some of the best images and scares of 2020. Director Justin G. Dyck made a career crafting holiday romantic comedies, but his try calling may be in the realm of horror. Keep an eye on this director. 

12.  She Dies Tomorrow 


A film that relishes and transfixes you on the topic of existential dread, in the time of a global pandemic where everyone is forced to live in separation of one another and within their own thoughts, is easily the scariest premise of any film this year. Writer/director Amy Seimetz continues to prove an interesting creative, both with her acting choices and with her filmmaking pursuits. “She Dies Tomorrow” is funny, thoughtful, intoxicating, and uneasy. 

11.  Scare Me 


Take two people and put them in a cabin on a snowy night in front of a fireplace and make them tell scary stories…that’s the simple premise of “Scare Me”. This absolutely fun and funny story is directed/written by the talented Josh Ruben who composes a script that is filled with infectious comedy and some great characters. It’s a small concept executed with exceptional skill. “Scare Me” may be light on horror but it delivers on everything else.

10.  La Llorona


“La Llorona” takes folklore of the Weeping Woman and turns it into political commentary as the sins of the past come back to torment a Guatemalan General (Julio Díaz) who committed atrocious war crimes. Writer/director Jayro Bustamante layers the film with culture while slowly pulling the viewer further into the story of Alma (María Mercedes Coroll), a maid who enters the General’s home and family life. Most impressive is how Bustamante maintains steady control on the focus of historical horror that shapes the film, the truly frightening horrors that history tries to hide. “La Llorona” is elegant and engaging genre filmmaking. 

9.  Freaky


Sometimes an idea just falls in the right hands at the right time. “Freaky”, a body-swapping slasher film playing on the “Freaky Friday” motif, fell in the capable clutches of writer/director Christopher Landon who’s catalog of films have consistently embodied a pitch-perfect blend of horror and comedy. Landon’s voice as a filmmaker grows stronger with every film. Kathryn Newton is fantastic and Vince Vaughn gives a committed and often hilarious performance. “Freaky” is fun, plain and simple. 

8.  His House 


It would be easy to call Remi Weekes’ film “His House” a simple haunted house story, but the fact is that it’s so much more. The film centers on a refugee couple who narrowly escape their war-torn home in South Sudan and are relocated to a new life in a new home in an English town. For first-time feature director Remi Weekes the ghosts examined within “His House” are both remnants of the past and a conjuring of present-day fears and anxieties. It’s a fascinating balance of scares and social commentary about the dehumanization and historical trauma for people who survive the atrocities of violence and injustice found throughout the world.


7.  Alone


“Alone” is a stripped-down thriller that finds a cold-blooded killer chasing down a woman who barely escapes from a remote cabin she was being held captive. It’s a simple premise executed with a wealth of filmmaking flair and impressive grasp of the tone of the film. Jules Wilcox gives an emotional performance that ranges from grief-stricken to enraged. Director John Hyams creates suspense and tension with simple camera movements and never opts for the easy answers for the characters. “Alone” pushes its simple premise to its absolute limits.   

6.  Host


Just when you thought the first-person horror film was over, the safety protocols proposed during a world-wide pandemic bring it back with a unique and well-executed scary movie. “Host” was filmed during quarantine restrictions; director Rob Savage was tasked with directing actors remotely and actors had to set up cameras, lightning, and perform stunts. The vessel for storytelling was composed through the social meeting application “Zoom” where a group of friends come together to have a séance with the help of a medium. The result is innovative filmmaking that offers a horror movie with some of the best scares of the year. 

5.  The Invisible Man


The beloved Universal Monsters have found their share of updated renditions; so many new Dracula tales and even entire franchises surrounding the Mummy. Director Leigh Whannell cleverly updates “The Invisible Man”, separating itself from the past story and instead crafting a premise that is far more thrilling and creepier. Whannell’s skillful strokes within the narrative structure and intriguing filmmaking style make “The Invisible Man” one of the best updates of the original icons.

4.  Underwater 


I love a good creature feature, especially one that is committed to trying to scare you. “Underwater” doesn’t spend much time developing a complicated narrative, instead, it focuses on being a fun, mostly thrilling, sometimes scary, monster movie that has some interesting creature designs to watch development and eventually consume the screen. Kristen Stewart, who continually proves how exceptionally gifted she is at her craft, holds this film together with her interesting and committed performance. “Underwater” is one of the better additions to the aquatic horror genre of the last decade.


3.  Spontaneous 

Writer/director Brian Duffield takes the teen romantic comedy model and infuses it with pitch-perfect satire of familiar tropes, sharp comedic elements that run both dark and delicate, and bloody horror explosions by the gallons. However, most impressive amid these admirable elements, is the wonderful heart the film is able to compose with a great lead performance from Katherine Langford and a story that never sits comfortably with familiar choices but rather explores social aspects with metaphor and character. 

2.  Possessor: Uncut


There is so much to unpack with Brandon Cronenberg’s futuristic, genre-busting feature, so much that every person I’ve discussed the film with has taken something different away about the shifting narrative tone, the use of violence and gore, and the themes of fear proposed in different forms throughout the film. The premise is over-the-top, purposefully complicated, and the use of genre is startling, bizarre, and provocative throughout. “Possessor: Uncut” is dystopian fiction done exceptionally, uncompromisingly well. (**Note: There are two versions of this film. You will want to watch the UNCUT version.)

1. The Relic


“Relic”, from first-time feature director Natalie Erika James, is a film that still lives in my mind nearly half a year after watching it. The haunting imagery, the beautiful performances, and the use of genre to tackle the devastating health condition of memory loss and dementia. “Relic” is a great conversation horror piece for adults, one that displays why the genre of horror can be so fluid in how it tackles subject matter both simple and difficult, using monsters and scares to portray an understanding of real-life trauma. It's scary, devastating, beautiful filmmaking.

Honorable Mentions: 


16. The Vast of Night

17. Wolf of Snow Hallow

18. Hunter Hunter

19. Bad Hair 

20. The Wretched 

21. Sputnik 

22. Zombi Child 

23. After Midnight

24. VFW

25. Sea Fever

26. Vampires vs The Bronx

27. The Dark and the Wicked

28. The Mortuary Collection 

29. Koko Di Koko Da

30. Impetigore

31. Come to Daddy

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