I’ve written before how I used horror films to cope with the existential dread of the pandemic. Not only has watching people fight monsters and other evils made me fee a vicarious sense of control and triumph, but the practice has allowed me to really bathe in what has been a golden age of horror. This year saw some really incredible scary movie releases. Here’s some for you to check out as we move into the darkest part of the year.
Dir. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia
In an age where social commentary is expected of horror, The Platform still stands out. Goreng (Iván Massagué) finds himself in a new vertical prison with a ghoulish feature. A platform set with a feast starts at the top of the prison and works its ways down so that the prisoners above get the most and those below get increasingly less. Each month, the prisoners are randomly moved to a new cell so that no one has any control over their lives. It’s a rather blatant condemnation of capitalism, but watching Goreng try to fight against the cruel and inhuman conditions while retaining his humanity is mesmerizing. There are few actual scares, but the dread is almost unbearable.
Dir. Remi Weekes
All houses are haunted if you bring the ghosts with you. That’s theme of this squalid, yet beautiful ghost story. Two Sudanese refugees (Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu) settle in an English flat as they wait for their citizenship, but they find that sins they committed in fleeing their country have manifested in a vengeful spirit that tortures them from inside the walls. The nondescript flat is often replaced with fantastic dreamscapes that are breathtaking before jerking the viewer back into mundanity. The frights are solid, and the look at how we treat people escaping from violence is unnerving in its own right.
Dir. David Cronenberg
The critical horror darling of 2020 is Possessor, Cronenberg’s latest take on identity. A convoluted film about assassins who download themselves into other people to carry out murders while also risking their own sense of self in the process, the horror of Possessor is mostly psychological. However, it is also peak Cronenberg, with bizarre shots of industrial machinery and gruesome body trauma that will haunt you for days afterwards.
The Invisible Man
Dir. Leigh Whannell
When Universal’s dream of the Dark Universe fell, it freed Whannell up to craft the best classic monster update that isn’t The Shape of Water. Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with a mad scientist who is perfecting a suit that grants invisibility. After he fakes his own death, he dedicates his time to driving her mad as a way to gain revenge for her leaving him. The parallels to the struggles of people caught in the webs of violent narcissists in every day life are clear, but Whannell brings his gift for taut horror storytelling to make the film truly, viscerally terrifying. More than that, Moss captures the idea of a classic horror protagonist in ways so many modern retellings fail. She is a solid base for the film and a character you root for instead of endure while the monster becomes the star. I don’t know what the future holds for Universal reboots, but they should all emulate The Invisible Man.
Dir. Justin Simien
Evil weave sounds like a bad Wayans Brothers idea, but Simien commits hard to the bit and ends up making something that is truly original. Set in the ‘80s, Anna (Elle Lorraine) is a young producer at an MTV knockoff focused on Black culture. A corporate shakeup leads her to getting a weave to fit in with the good hair-having new boss played by Vanessa Williams. Desperate to finally rise up the corporate ladder, Anna visits a special weave shop known for catering to the rich and powerful. Turns out, the hair is a bloodsucking parasite that must kill to survive. Think Little Shop of Horrors if the shop was Visible Changes.
My white ass is not going to sit here and try to deconstruct everything that Bad Hair says about Black experiences in corporate exploitation culture. Instead, I want to point out the Simien has a real gift for making going to get your hair done look like a nauseating and traumatic experience. Once the hair reaches its full power, it is actually pretty frightening. There’s this scene where Anna stumbles into a room full of people at a board table all being consumed by the hair that rates as one of my top five horror dens of all time. Bad Hair is definitely a film not afraid to be different.
Dir. Romola Garai
The first time I watched Amulet I sort of wrote it off as a worse version of The Lighthouse. While the two films are remarkably similar and I do think Garai still has a lot of room to grow as a filmmaker, I now believe Amulet might be the better movie of the two. Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is a former solider and immigrant who is haunted by things he did in an unnamed war. He agrees to become the on-site handyman of Magda (Carla Juri), who lives with her invalid mother. It becomes clear that the old woman in the attic is more than just sick person.
It’s very hard to describe the film without giving away important plot points. Suffice to say that it tackles ideas like lost pagan gods, the corrosive effects of rape on the soul as well as what justice and forgiveness truly mean. The film also contains the greatest toilet scare in history, so there’s that. I highly suggest that if you watch this film you keep this link to an interview with Garai by Perri Nemiroff handy to read after because I gained a far better understanding of Amulet from it.
Dir. Cho Il-hyung
At this point, I’m starting to think only Koreans should be allowed to make zombie movies for a bit. While #Alive lacks the awesome action sequences of Train to Busan, it makes up for it with its astounding chronicle of an average person trapped in an undead uprising. A video game livestreamer (Yoo Ah-in) is alone in his apartment when the zombie plague start, and all he can do is chronicle his life as power, supplies, and electronic infrastructure start to fade. There are a few harrowing sequences to keep you on your toes, but it’s mostly a character study in the tradition of Night of the Living Dead. It’s also a rather perfect analogy for being stuck in your apartment while a plague rages around you.
Dir. William Eubank
I don’t care what anyone says, Underwater is a solid horror outing with an incredible undersea setting that is legitimately terrifying and well-acted. Kristen Stewart is perfect as a scientist on a research station who is dealing with grief even as she tries to hold it together when unseen forces attack. The monsters are a little pedestrian, but the nods to the Cthulhu mythos are nice. The ending especially is a masterpiece of empowerment and catharsis, with stunning visuals I am really sorry I never got to see on the big screen. It delivers where very few big budget horror outings do, and I encourage everyone to give it a second look.
Dir. Egor Abramenko
This Russian period piece set in 1983 is basically Alien but on Earth in the Soviet Union. Cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) returns home only to find that something murderous and hungry has hitched a ride. The army brings renegade doctor Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) in to figure out how the entity can be removed without killing a Soviet hero as well as how it can be used as a weapon. To be honest, the movie is not scary at all after the first half hour. In a way, it’s as if Alien and Aliens were condensed into one really tight film, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The creature effects are remarkably well done, and the larger context of the industrial military complex during the Cold War does up the stakes considerably. As far as horror action movies in 2020, Sputnik is hard to top.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Dir. Jim Cummings
Werewolf movies are really hard to do well, and most of them are extremely bad. Cummings overcomes that partially by focusing on the farcical. Wolf of Snow Hollow is as much about a small town police force slowly falling apart due to its own incompetence as it is giant girlfriend-eating monster. The snowy setting is stunning, but it’s the deadpan humor of Cummings himself as Officer John Marshall that really turns this into a rare horror comedy hit. The monster isn’t just an unstoppable killing machine ruining the town, it’s the personal white whale of a man slowly coming apart in humorous ways. It’s Fargo meets Jaws, and it’s the best thing to happen to werewolves since stretch pants. Make sure to settle in with some hot cocoa when you watch it, or any of the other great horror films from this year!
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