The 2021 Samhain Awards
There will, I often remind myself this time of year, come another drought. At some point down the line, the funding will disappear, the fickle fanbase will shuffle off to another fad, and horror cinema will start to suck again.
There were hints of it in 2021, but only hints, and everything has sloped gently downhill since the high water mark of 2018. Too many pretentious artsy fantasias faceplanting, a glut of found footage flicks treading the same bong water, the same industrial jump scare templates, and an endless proliferation of strident, clumsy message movies. And so what? As long as the money keeps coming, I'm fine with all that.
Overall, 2021 was another generous bumper crop of imaginative horror films. What follows is my favorite smart, strange, bleak and brutal oddball offerings of the past year. This year, the Samhain Awards is later than usual because rather than rush myself, I took the time to watch everything. I've put my top ten up front, but there was simply too much quality on tap in 2021 to stop there. Enjoy.
Anything for Jackson. I was completely unprepared for this one, so in retrospect, I have to put this first. It really was one of the finest genre films of the year, and it's also an indie production that won't get the respect it deserves from the critical herd. Full of brilliant twists and tonal shifts, it's funny and scary in equal measure. It mocks the occult yet embraces the truly demonic, and the three leads keep you riveted. And strangest of all, it's written and directed by two buddies whose previous resume is a litany of made for TV Christmas films.
Possessor. Technically this should have been on last year's list, but I didn't see it until later. It's fucking perfect. Despite all his talent, Brandon Cronenberg has always operated in the shadow of his father's work, and here he embraces that and makes it his own. Bookended by two unforgettably savage scenes, it's one of the strangest science fiction films of the past decade, carving out a visual language all it's own and digging deep under your skin in the process.
Psycho Goreman. I have always been a huge fan of the Astron-6 team, and Father's Day is my favorite NC-17 horror film of all time. This, however, is the movie that Steven Kostanski was born to make. It's violent, profane, juvenile and oddly sentimental. Anchored by corny but incredible practical effects and creature designs, delirious world-building, and deadpan humor, what really makes this great is Nita-Josée Hanna's work as the tiny lead character. She is by far the most terrifying thing that happens onscreen here.
The Night House. This is the second flawless victory in a row for director David Bruckner, who previously gave us The Ritual. (He's taking on Hellraiser next, which will likely break his winning streak, but I hope to be proven wrong.) The Night House is exceptionally well written, always showing more than it tells, and never making the point too obvious. It relentlessly subverts expectations and leans heavily on Rebecca Hall to carry the realism while the script takes care of the magic.
In The Earth. God damn, I loved this movie. Overflowing with cool ideas, packed with truly psychedelic visuals, this is one of the finest films Ben Wheatley has given us so far. Nobody else could have made this. It kicks off as an earnest dirge about pandemics, contagion, and pollution but quickly veers into far more fertile territory. I have seen this compared to Annihilation but this is the better of the two simply because it has no big message to hammer home. It is truly ineffable, a pure experience, eager to provoke thought but refusing to explain itself.
The Boys From County Hell. I am a sucker for Irish horror comedy, 'tis true. This, however, has a lot to recommend it aside from jovially dysfunctional alcoholic Mick hijinks. While this is surely heavier on the comedy than the horror, it's also got several key innovations on the traditional vampire mythos that make for great narrative devices, and even better visual effects. Also: jovially dysfunctional alcoholic Mick hijinks.
Son. Absolutely brutal. Much of the power this movie has comes from events we barely get to see; this is about the aftermath of the kind of cult horrors that preoccupied 70's fare, grounded in the mundane real world. It is almost irresponsibly realistic, in fact. The screenplay keeps you guessing, and in less certain hands, that would be grating or clumsy. Here, it just makes the closing thirty minutes even more of a punch to the gut.
The Mortuary Collection. Rarely, if ever, are horror anthologies this good. Generally, they exist to give young directors a chance and sandwich a couple brilliant shorts between a whole bunch of stale bread and dry lettuce. The latest entry in the V/H/S series was better than usual for them, but still a slop-bucket of mystery meat compared to The Mortuary Collection. This was cohesive, memorable and very fun. It's also smartly paced, continually escalating both the stakes and the darkness, and finally spilling over into a framing device that starts off feeling corny but clicks into place at the end.
The Boy Behind The Door. In general, Carpenter comparisons are unforgiveable sins of hype, blasphemies. In this case, it's kinda valid. The movie is about two young friends who get abducted by a pedophile ring to be sold for sex, and their efforts to escape over the course of one nerve-shredding evening. Despite that, it's hardly the grindhouse exploitation fare you might expect. This is pure cinema, heavy on silent tension, slow wide shots, and minutes that feel like hours.
The Dark and The Wicked. It's both true and fair to say that this film is mostly about magnificent camerawork and a masterfully consistent atmosphere. That's enough. It is so unsettling, so relentless, that it takes on an almost hypnotic weight that sustains itself into and beyond the final act. I am extremely curious to see what writer / director Bryan Bertino does next, because this was light years beyond his prior work.
I am also compelled to recommend Fried Barry. You can tell it's a debut film from a guy who directed music videos. Many extended bits fall flat. It's far heavier on wild visuals than visual storytelling. Yet it's also a wildly original take on the alien abduction trope that happens to feature one of the best performances I saw all year, an unforgettable ode to junkie love and urban decay.
Arthouse horror is a very forgiving genre, but like last year, auteurs who lean heavy on dream logic mostly delivered forgettable nightmares. Two big exceptions: The Pond was a superbly creepy folk horror pastiche that managed to tap something Jungian despite a discombobulated ending. It could have been far better, but fans of weird shit will appreciate it just the same. Censor was carried by Niamh Algar's lead performance and Annika Summerson's gorgeous photography work to far greater heights than it's shaggy dog story premise perhaps deserved.
When it comes to shaggy dog stories, though, nothing tops Titane. Almost pointless, oui, vrai, but I cannot help but recommend it just the same. The combination of cheeky audacity and technical execution makes it mandatory viewing for a certain of species of lunatic. If you're reading this at all, that is most likely you. Don't read anything. Just watch it.
Asian horror had an oddly slow year dominated by The Medium, a Thai tragedy that's a brutally ugly slow burn, and Roh, an atmospheric and glacially paced Malaysian creepfest. Good to see Korea and Japan getting some competition other than Indonesia. On the subject of Kimo and Timo: The Queen Of Black Magic and May The Devil Take You Too were basically the same film, both enjoyable, neither all that great. The 8th Night, despite a gruesome premise, is far less intense, but the great pacing and cast makes up for that. It was Korea's best entry this year. I am childishly disappointed that The Sadness, a Taiwanese ripoff of legendary and X-rated comic series Crossed, will not see a US release until next year.
Two decidedly B-movies that really impressed me: first up, Bloody Hell was something of a grindhouse classic, a fast-moving tableaux of horny gore with an exuberant cast. It also had a couple of truly genius scenes and managed to finish every bit as strong as it started. (And despite what that picture might imply: no rape!) Vicious Fun was a surprisingly great low budget mess, half tribute, half in-joke, but carried by clever writing and perfect casting.
Hollywood's billion dollar content factory managed to excrete a few great movie products, none greater than Candyman. It's the best project Jordan Peele has given us so far, but that's largely thanks to director Nia DaCosta and cinematographer John Guleserian. With almost zero jump scares, brilliant comic beats, and some of the best Chicago shots you'll ever see, it was the big studio triumph of the year, by many miles.
The other studio standout was The Empty Man, which despite being too long, too slow, and having too much going on, also mustered some of the best scenes of the year, and delivered a very clever mix of concepts along the way. Halloween Kills was an enjoyable enough slasher, and often beautifully shot, but a monumentally awkward letdown compared to how lean and primal the 2018 predecessor was. Same goes for Don't Breathe 2. Great performances and production can't overcome the fact it's just pointless. Which is funny, because both movies are desperate to hammer you over the head with their Big Message.
Most of the big money output this year was like that. Army of the Dead was merely aight. A Quiet Place II had a taut, harrowing intro and then promptly got back to being merely exhausting. That new Escape Room joint, that new Purge joint, and that new Conjuring joint were all the same flavor of nothingburger; visually impressive but a waste of time and space.
There were a few other glorious exceptions at the big budget level, though. The Wrong Turn remake / reboot was a highly enjoyable movie night, nothing super ambitious but superbly executed. The Netflix machine was wise to pick up Blood Red Sky, a vampire action joint rose far above the goofy premise and introduced some quality twists to the usual cliches. But nothing they dropped this year was better than the improbable triumph of the Fear Street trilogy, an energetic homage to trashy teen slashers. Was it stupid? Buddy, it was retarded. It was also a dumb ambitious blast.
James Wan has been delivering multiplex audiences with polished & professional Big Macs for over a decade, so I wasn't expecting Malignant to be as fun, weird or gleefully stupid as it was. It reminded me of the late 80's / early 90's wave of goofy, gory, single-gimmick adventures like The Brain, Society, or the Basket Case series. Only with a $40 million budget and some high gloss, headfuck stunt work.
I have to level a couple of formal complaints. I saw some dogshit movies this year, but none worse than Lucky, which was written like a high school play and filmed like a daytime soap opera. A distantly irritating second would be Werewolves Within, a bubblegum sweet horror comedy with nothing to recommend it save Sarah Burns having a blast as a horny redneck pothead. Honeydew, Meander and My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To were also, upon reflection, a waste of life.
Coming Home In The Dark was at least interesting. The opening act was pure murder, but from there it was just a lot of overwrought writing. And stunning camerawork, big props to Matt Henley. It reminded me of The Oak Room, a Canadian production with a script so bad it was often hilarious, but included one scene / story that was so damn good I can't completely write Peter Genoway off. It also reminded me of Nocturnal Animals, a film with immense pretensions that turned out to just be a gay man's extended diss track to womankind.
Prisoners of the Ghostland was widely hyped as a gonzo visionary genre mashup with a completely insane Nic Cage howling at the moon. Amazingly, though: it's just boring. How you could make a post-apocalyptic Samurai Western horror action movie (with a completely insane Nic Cage howling at the moon) and still deliver such a tepid, tedious piece of shit is beyond me, but I suspect film students will be studying this in the future as a cautionary tale.
Demonic was deeply disappointing, but nothing betrayed its own potential in 2021 quite like Come True. The premise was great, the design work and cinematography was brilliant, but from the 30 minute mark onward, it just falls apart completely. Like 2019's heartbreaker Head Count, it's painful to watch a talented creator destroy their own work, whether it's through bad decisions or simply running out of ideas. In the case of Come True, it was both.
Finally, I always try to end on a high note, because I'm a very upbeat, positive man. I like to highlight an indie joint that, while not great, punched way above it's weight class. This year, that would be Hunter Hunter, a writer/director type deal from Shawn Linden, who is clearly destined for great things. Much like Titane, the less you know going into this, the better. Just make sure you see it.