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2020 Wrap Up: Ranking the highs and lows of horror

2020 has been an interesting year for cinema. With COVID-19 making going to the movies impossible for months, a lot of releases have been postponed or cancelled as production companies had to find new ways to create publicity. While the offerings may have been slimmer than expected, 2020 had some exceptional horror movies (along with some that were utterly terrible). Initially I planned to do a top ten best and worst list, however I felt that was slightly unfair since I couldn’t watch all of the horror movies offered up this year (I would need a second me for that!) and there may be some fantastic work out there I didn’t see. So instead, I’ve ranked the films that I did watch from the lows to the highs. Some were good, some were great and some were rage inducing in terms of terribleness.

Note: Some of these films may have been shown at festivals in 2019, but were only given a wide release in 2020 and are therefore fair game for the list

29. Brahms: The Boy II

2020 STX Films

Never has a film left me feeling quite so irritated as this one. Firstly, it’s a sequel to a film that was fairly average in its own right. Then it went and undid the bits of the first film that were actually interesting to create a by the numbers cursed item film. Maybe if you’re scared of dolls, the cursed angle is more terrifying to you but even Annabelle is scarier than Brahms. I really hope they don’t add another film to this because I almost destroyed my screen out of frustration while watching this one.

I can tolerate a bad movie, but what I find far worse is a disappointing movie. And this disappointed in all departments.

28. The Turning

2020 Dreamworks Pictures

This was a film I was really looking forward to. With good source material and recognisable talent, I thought it would be a great movie. No. No it was not. The Turning felt like it never really got going and the ending was just strange. Credit where credit is due, Finn Wolfhard makes a suitably creepy Miles and his interactions with Mackenzie Davis’ Kate do lead to some unsettling moments but they can’t make up for the rest. If you want an adaptation of Turn of the Screw, I’d suggest watching The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix instead.

27. Body Cam

2020 BET Films

Perhaps the worst subject for a film in 2020, Body Cam is about a police officer who begins investigating mysterious deaths of fellow officers. Turns out a vengeful spirit of a deaf boy is targeting the officers who killed him and covered it up… as well as anyone else in the way. Oh and it also removes video evidence of its presence despite not being visible. I think this film was attempting to make a point against vigilante justice and that things need to be dealt with the proper way, but I may be giving it too much credit. Any message it was trying to deliver was pretty badly managed, it feels half baked and generally it’s just not a very good movie.

26. Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight

2020 Akson Studio

A group of teens on a no-electronics retreat fall victim to a creature in the woods. It’s alright, but then so are a lot of things. Bread is okay but I wouldn’t want to watch a movie about it. This is kind of like the white bread of horror.

25. Dreamkatcher

2020 Taylor Lane Productions

This was a film that I feel had a lot of potential. Rather wasted potential honestly. Starting with a decent premise and some solid gore effects, I was very disappointed with how it petered out. Most of it was focused on the frayed step parent relationship as the stepson slowly fell under the evil influence of a malevolent dreamcatcher. I feel like it could have done a lot more than it did, either emphasising the gaslighting elements that it brought in near the end or going further with the outright malice of the child, as most of his actions were relatively benign throughout with little build up to his eventual snap.

24. Ghosts of War

2020 Miscellaneous Entertainment

This film was not terrible but not particularly good either. The main problem is it tries to be too clever and ultimately ends up failing. Essentially, a group of soldiers in World War 2 are tasked with guarding a French chateau. Or maybe not. Ghost stuff ensues, potentially involving a kind of Grudge-esque curse, black magic and vengeful zombies. That on its own would be an okay premise for a film but the haunting is fairly uninspired with a few predictable jump scares and then things just get weird. And not in a good way. The ending is especially odd. It’s like the filmmakers threw a bunch of ideas at a wall to see what would stick, making a muddled mess that’s not scary enough to be a decent horror and not thought out enough to provide any insight or theme. There are also some moments that look like a bad cut scene from a PlayStation game.

The only highlight of this film is the main group of actors, especially Kyle Gallner, who are clearly doing their best with what they have. There is also one moment of genuine horror in the last fifteen minutes but it’s not an enjoyable horror. It’s just… sad. And then it returns to the over complicated nonsense.

23. Fantasy Island

2020 Columbia Pictures

Oh Fantasy Island. Much like Ghosts of War, this is another film that tries too hard and ended up creating a story that manages to be both predictable and full of confused plot holes. They could have done anything with this premise and it reeks of missed opportunities. The characters are fairly lacklustre, some of the motivations make little sense and any explanation that is given just makes things more confusing rather than adding any clarity. If you don’t look too closely it’s a relatively benign popcorn flick but there are far better films you could be watching.

22. The Grudge

2020 Screen Gems

I’d not seen any of the Grudge films before this one but from what I’ve read the 2020 one represents events taking place in the US parallel to the events happening in the first two films of the American remakes. I didn’t really gel with the non-linear narrative although I understand it’s a feature of the series and it did mean that when one plotline was slowing down, another could step in. I wouldn’t consider it especially memorable but it was a decent film. It had some good gore which is one of the things that stuck in my head after, particularly a moment involving Lin Shaye’s character mutilating her fingers. I’m interested to see how it compares to the rest of the series as well as the Japanese originals.

21. His House

2020 Regency Enterprizes

This is an odd one on the list. It was not a bad film, in fact it was a pretty interesting one. However, it didn’t feel like it should be considered a horror. It’s labelled as a horror, it’s in the horror section on Netflix but it does not feel like a horror. Yes, there are horror elements like things in the dark and some kind of witch demon entity but they almost seem like they should be part of a different movie. The story it tells, of two Sudanese refugees settling into a home in the UK and being plagued by ghosts of the past, is well done and interesting but the tone just feels a lot sadder than horrifying.

If you’re looking for scares, I would give this a miss but I do encourage people to check it out when they’re in a less horror focused mood.

20. Black Water: Abyss

2020 Thrills and Spills

I’ve mentioned before that I am a big fan of creature features and crocodiles are one of the more frequently used animals. This film reminded me both of Crawl and 47 Metres Down: Uncaged, placing the characters in an underground environment with a ticking clock element to add to the peril. The animal attack aspect was actually limited in comparison to a lot of films from this subgenre, which meant that there was a great deal of it spent sitting in a dark cave waiting for something to happen. One area that these types of films often struggle with are characters and this was no exception. Of the five featured, most were fairly generic and the human drama just made me resentful of which ones survived. There are better creature features but then there are also much worse. It’s very middle of the road.

19. The Beach House

2019 Low Spark Films

After watching this film, I’m still not entirely sure what happened but between moments of confusion, I certainly enjoyed watching it. It had a few pacing problems going from nothing happening to everything happening all at once, and it wasn’t really made clear what was to blame for the horrors that ensued (fog? Some kind of water worm? Microbes?). Certain bits of the plot didn’t make much sense, like a character going into the sea and then just exiting the movie entirely. There were some strong visuals, both in terms of creating an eerie atmosphere through the use of colour and in terms of gross factor. It's vaguely similar to another 2020 film, Sea Fever, and of the two I feel that was the more solid work. For the patient viewer, it is worth watching but for those who need a bit more action I would choose something else.

18. Kadaver

2020 Motion Blur Films

This film has an intriguing set up, a starving war torn society leads to a family participating in a night of immersive theatre for the free food. Things spiral into confusion and bizarre visuals where the lines between fact and fiction blur. Much like immersive theatre, this film is a sprawling web of sights and sounds that place the viewer in a position where they are just as clueless as the protagonist, helplessly waiting for things to unfold. I think the emotional core of the film, the desperate love for a mother searching for her daughter in the nightmarish environment remains prevalent throughout and this really helps to keep the viewer grounded. Desperation is a key part of other elements of the film, the monsters are all strictly human operating the best way they can in order to survive. Despite the theatrics, it’s a very simple film at its core and definitely a captivating one.

17. The Hunt

2020 Blumhouse Productions

I enjoyed The Hunt. It had a good cast and some great fight choreography, as well as some enjoyable gory moments scattered throughout. I think the more political aspects of conservatives vs liberals was a bit strained, as it didn’t go far enough to make an actual point in either direction or to really be that funny. It was just a few jokes about PC culture and then some caricatures of conservatives. If you want a mildly amusing film with a well portrayed female lead and some enjoyable fight sequences, you could do a lot worse than The Hunt.

16. The Binding

2020 HT Film

This is an Italian film and it is very much a slow burn. It weaves a tale of witchcraft in an intricate manner that has the viewer second guessing who they should trust. It’s only when the actual threat is revealed that it begins to lose its impact a little. Despite this, there’s still a lot to enjoy. The motivations are kept simplistic, the depictions of magic rituals aren’t overly explained allowing them to retain some mysticism and the characters manage to create an uneasy chemistry between them. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of motherly love and while the mother character was not always the most rational, it felt believable. There were quite a few moments, even near the end, where I wasn’t entirely sure who was meant to be the good characters which made the desperate panicked moments as she tried to save her child feel quite real.

15. Don’t Listen

2020 Estudio V

Originally called Voces, this is a Spanish film that can be found on Netflix. It’s a captivating film with really good cinematography and a supernatural threat that manages to remain intimidating throughout. It’s also good at subverting expectations and while it doesn’t have many twists, the ones it does have only serve to make it more intriguing. I think it strikes the right balance of making the plot interesting without being overly complicated and the simplistic nature carries over to other aspects as well. It doesn’t overdo things, instead letting moments and images speak for themselves. Elements of it reminded me of The Conjuring but darker and I mean that in only the best way.

14. Mark of the Devil

2020 Hakuhn

This is a demon possession film and while those are usually fairly similar, this takes it in a relatively unique direction by having a drug addicted priest and a demon possessed man performing exorcisms. The make up used for the possessed characters was pretty good, if minimal, (although the demonstrations of their power was a bit cheesy) and there were some quite gory moments which i enjoyed. I liked the premise more than the actual story and it had some moments that invoked a 'what...?' reaction, as well as the standard frustration of people presented with a CLEARLY EVIL BOOK. Also, apparently invoking Cthulu and drinking too much tequila have the same result. I found that funny.

13. Underwater

2020 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Underwater is a film that throws you in at the deep end (sorry, couldn’t resist). With only a minute of quiet before the action starts, the abrupt beginning serves to capture the viewer’s attention right away. It doesn’t quite manage to keep up the same pace throughout and the slower moments feel particularly sluggish compared to the start. There’s also a section set at the bottom of the ocean where the dark location and the cumbersome suits everyone wears makes it a bit difficult to keep track of what is going on. The characters are a mixed bag, which may be due to the lack of set up. Kristen Stewart puts in a solid performance and I was intrigued by some of the quirks of TJ Miller’s character.

It’s worth a watch, I feel that the strong moments overshadow the weaker ones enough to remain enjoyable.

12. The Babysitter: Killer Queen

2020 Boies / Schiller Film Group

The first babysitter film was a stylized comedy horror. The second film is… basically the same thing. It knows its strengths and it takes full advantage of the. While I don’t feel that this one was quite as strong as the first it still offered an entertaining watch that featured fun references to the first. I appreciated the direction the set up went in as well, showing the consequences that the first film had for protagonist Cole as it’s not something that sequels often explore.

There were some definite weaknesses, particularly when it came to characters. A few of the new characters were just obnoxious to watch and the expanded roles for Ken Marino (Cole’s father) and Chris Wylde (Melanie’s father) felt completely unnecessary. I’m watching to see a film about a killer cult, not to watch two middle aged men get high. Despite its short comings, I do think fans of the first one will enjoy it.

11. #ALIVE

2020 Zip Cinema

Perhaps the most realistic look at life in quarantine, #Alive has its protagonist hiding out alone in his apartment as a zombie virus rages. He plays games, he drinks, he cries. If he had made a sourdough starter it would be inseparable from most people’s experience of the pandemic… with zombies. It was nice seeing a zombie film where for a lot of it the zombies weren’t the centre of everything. Far more attention was placed on the effects of isolation and the growing threat of starvation as well as dehydration. I really liked the deutoragonist Kim Yoo-Bin who was a clever survivalist, especially when compared to the less competent Oh Joo-woo. I’d have actually preferred if the entire film was focused on her as she was the far more interesting of the pair.

Overall it’s a solid film. The zombies, when they are present, have great make up work and look pretty scary, and the struggle against loneliness is one I think that a lot of people can relate to these days.

10. The Platform

2019 Basque Films

I wasn’t entirely sure if this counted as a horror movie but it is more horrifying than some of the films trying to be horrors so here it is. The Platform is a Spanish film with a simple premise and a small cast who act their socks off. It’s a social commentary film but it’s not one that focuses so much on its message that it forgets to be enjoyable. I enjoyed the minimalism of it and the way that the characters create their own downfall in a way. There are some moments towards the end that prevent it from being perfect but they’re relatively minor and it’s still a thought provoking film with some rather stomach churning elements to it.

This is definitely one to watch… although maybe not while eating.

9. Sea Fever

2019 Bright Moving Pictures

Hmm, a film about a parasitic infection, discussions around quarantining and paranoia from fear of becoming infected… does that remind anyone of anything? Sea Fever does have some similarities with the current COVID pandemic which may have contributed to the feel it leaves the viewer with but it is also a solid sci-fi horror taking advantage of a small cast in a confined location. We get to know the characters and that only adds to the tension as the party begins to dwindle. The movie works to build up the danger and while it starts as a slow burn, it throws itself in when we get to witness the first proper demonstration of how dangerous the parasite is. There are some moments in the film that prompt a very strong visceral reaction due to a combination of good effects and excellent timing.

8. Host

2020 Shadowhouse Films

Host takes advantage of present circumstances in order to create an interesting found footage style film. It’s similar to Unfriended, employing both a screen capture premise along with demonic influence that terrorises the participants. Unlike Unfriended, Host doesn’t let the screen capture set up falter even during the end credits and it’s only an hour long (the length of a free zoom call which actually gets used to set up a scare in the film). The shorter length works perfectly, preventing it from losing its atmosphere, and it makes use of simplistic but effective scares. The characters aren’t the best but they’re certainly less annoying than their Unfriended counterparts and it avoids using buffering/static as part of the screen capture set up (I understand it’s supposed to help the viewer get into the movie, but buffering is annoying enough in real life without adding it to a movie).

Definitely worth watching, it’s only short and it’s likely to be more interesting than any zoom calls you actually need to partake in.

7. La Llorona

2019 La Casa de Production

This is another film that doesn’t feel quite like it belongs in the horror genre. It’s more a political story about a retired war criminal with some vaguely supernatural happenings towards the end. It was still an engaging film that beautifully crafted an atmosphere and I really liked seeing a new take on the La Llorona figure. It’s a bit heavy for the more casual viewer and focuses more on suspense over scares, but it works perfectly as what it is. This was a really good piece of cinema and if you go in expecting cliché jump scares, you’ll be disappointed. But if you seek a melodic slow burn of a film that never falters in its dreamlike eerie tone, this is a must watch.

6. The Pale Door

2020 Paper Street Pictures

I was quite surprised by this one! The idea of a horror western with a ghost town and a coven of witches made me expect something a bit more generic and cheesy. This was a really good film. The main characters were morally complex and interesting to watch. There was some good unique kills (I’ve never seen someone be attacked by a heel spur before) and the gore was well done. The witches didn’t rely on the standard attack for horror movies (waving arms, things explode etc) and while they were undoubtable malicious, they weren’t altogether unreasonable. The burned effects used on them was a nice touch, although the ones that still had hair looked a bit silly (it reminded me of a bad Halloween wig), and most witches weren’t actually burned at the stake although I appreciate it presents a better visual. There were some slightly random moments but they were few and far between so easy enough to ignore.

5. Blood Quantum

2019 Prospector Films

This movie was great. It was gory in extreme but creative ways and used the zombies in an innovative manner to explore race, akin to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It still had the standard beats for a zombie movie (infection, safe place established, safe place becomes not so safe) but the plot was carried by strong realistic characters which kept the more human parts from feeling slow. It avoids the short comings of the typical zombie survivors, providing real emotional investment to their survival.

The atmosphere and cinematography were amazing. The first half hour built a steady sense of dread rather than just throwing the viewer in and the rest was set six months later allowing an exploration of despair rather than the wild panic that gets depicted in a lot of zombie apocalypse films. It’s great finding a horror film that balances horrific visuals with a bleak melancholic feel and I sincerely recommend watching at the earliest opportunity.

4. 1BR

2019 1BR Movie

This film was shown in a bunch of festivals during 2019 but only got wide release this year, which is when I saw it. It’s a tense movie with a terrific atmosphere of unease that lingers after the credits roll. The first time I watched this, I loved it. The second time I watched it, I had just moved into a new apartment and even though I knew everything that was going to happen, it still left me with the same unsettled feeling (I am now paranoid about my neighbours thanks to this film!) With very real morally complex characters and moments that leave the viewer slightly shellshocked, this indie film deserves recognition. The twitter account for this film also deserves recognition for how into promoting the film they get (this wasn’t a factor in its placement, I just love when marketing is done in an engaging way). Check them out, just don’t accept their dinner party invitations

3. Spiral

2019 Digital Interference Productions

This film was harrowing to watch at times. It’s the first LGBTQ+ focused horror I’ve seen and it masterfully weaved a web of paranoia and fear around the main characters. Only at the end do all the pieces fall into place and that’s also the moment when the first gory scene is shown… and it hits quite hard. Even without the supernatural elements that occur, watching the gaslighting and terror as a life is systematically dismantled is enough to make it horrifying on its own. I will say that people who have experienced homophobia and harassment because of their sexuality may find it a bit triggering but otherwise this is an emotional film and should not be missed.

2. The Invisible Man

2020 Universal Pictures

This was a strong candidate for the top spot and was only beaten because of the few plot holes I noticed. Still, I cannot fault the directing and cinematography. The acting is solid with Elizabeth Moss putting in an amazing performance. I also have to commend the movie for creating a villain that despite only being on screen for a short time, is still a solid character and not just a one dimensional threat. Whether intentionally or not it creates a really good visual representation of PTSD and employs an atmosphere of paranoia throughout. It’s a lesson in how subtlety can be just as effective in horror movies as in your face scares, which leaves the viewer desperately hunting for clues on screen as to what may be lurking out of sight.

1. The Honeymoon Phase

2020 Aspire Motion Pictures

I reviewed The Honeymoon Phase earlier in the year and was blown away by it. I still have questions and theories popping up in my head about it months after watching. It’s an impressive first time indie project that was well crafted and superbly acted. If The Invisible Man shows the viewer how PTSD feels, The Honeymoon Phase creates an experience which really allows the viewer to empathise with the female protagonist. It’s beautifully done and the characters are layered and nuanced. This was a clear candidate for the best film I watched in 2020 and I feel placing it any lower would have done it a disservice.

And that concludes my list of the 2020 horror films (that I managed to watch). I’ll see you all next year!


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