THE BEST (AND WORST) OF 2020
It's been a crappy old year hasn't it? Lockdown affected us all at some point and movies provided a form of escapism for many but there's no denying that the industry has been hit hard, with many big releases being shelved until next year. Fortunately there were still some titles worth shouting about - and here are our faves from 2020 (and some we really didn't like)
Director: Craig Zobel
The Hunt was one of those films that had the odds stacked against it, even before the 'rona bit hard into the release schedules and started shutting cinemas down. Due to its fairly violent weapons-based premise, it's initial release was delayed because of more U.S. shootings, and even allegedly due to a certain President making some ill-judged observations on social media. It was also perceived to be an "attack on far-right" politics and suchlike. All wrong and unnecessary of course but when it was finally released in March, the publicity tried to play off this and labelled itself as, "The Most Talked about movie of the year… that no one's actually seen". This sort of hype was counter-productive and left cinemagoers expecting a different type of movie to what they got.
Which is a shame as this was one of wittiest, goriest, and just-damn-fun films of the year. This twisted and updated version of The Most Dangerous Game, mocks the far-left and the far-right, as well as action/horror genre films in general. It does all this by being a highly enjoyable romp that swerves between dumb comedy, witty banter, and some cool violence. Zobel does a great job of juggling all the different tones and plot swerves. But the film belongs to Betty Gilpin as Crystal, a simple country gal (or is she?) who says little but has an amusing set of mannerisms, and absolutely slays it when she does speak. Yes, there is some social satire, but it doesn't swamp the film, and the blood-strewn set pieces are superb (even if there is a smidgen too much CGI). Enjoyable, witty, and bloody. What more could you want?
The Invisible Man
Director: Leigh Whannell
When the Cruise version of The Mummy deep-sixed the ambitious plans for a new movie Universe (can all the studios stop doing that now please?), it looked like more updated versions of classic Universal Monsters would never happen. Luckily for us, Blumhouse studios and Whannell had something to say about and recruited sought-after actress Elisabeth Moss to their cause. The result was a film that found favour with critics AND the audience and became a huge hit. Even if that bloke had passed on the bat and eaten something less Coronary, this would likely still have been one of the biggest genre films of the year.
And rightly so! It is a cracking R-rated thriller that captivated everyone that saw it. Keeping only the name of H.G. Well's original antagonist (Griffin), it veers off into a mixture of technologically based updates, domestic abuse themes, and some jaw-dropping violence. Moss is perfect as Cecilia Kass, who is convinced that her ex-partner has faked his death and is now stalking her. But is he a ghost, is she mad, or is there something else going on? A canny mixture of paranoia and outright scares, this is exactly what a 21st Century update of a classic story/film should be. Moss is brilliant as the lead, veering from scared victim to righteous opponent. It is also the perfect follow-up to Whannel's frantic Upgrade and shares some of the same camera-styles. Great stuff, and it will be interesting to see how the (hopefully) upcoming version of Wolfman with Ryan Gosling will perform.
Director: William Eubank
This film isn't perfect, but it is hugely entertaining and has built up something of an (appropriate) underground following. It didn't perform well at the box office, had an awful promotion and advertising campaign, and reviewed poorly. A delayed release for some time, it garnered the dubious honour of being the last film distributed by 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios. Lame.). It had a director who made the interesting sci-fi "The Signal" and featured such notable actors as Kirsten Stewart and Vincent Cassel. Despite early images showing something BIG and Meg-like on the ocean floor, all subsequent pictures just showed Stewart looking queasy in a deep-sea diving suit. Way to undersell a movie, guys!
Because it's a freakin' Monster Movie, people! And a rather good one at that. Refreshingly it hits the ground running as undersea drilling operation… she go BOOM! And it pretty much never stops from that point. Sure, the characters are paper-thin, and whilst Stewart does a decent job as the main protagonist (Norah Price, jobbing mechanical engineer), any accomplished actress could have taken that role. The things that save it from obscurity are; the relentless pacing, likeable characters with no douche-bag-for-no-reason swerves, genuine scares and unease created by the settings (claustrophobic followed by expanses of dark nothingness), and the fact that it takes itself seriously. The genre cherry-on-top-of-the-slimy-cake is when the main menace turns out to be **Censored, in case you don't know**, which is genius! There are also some great moments which riff on "Alien" and suchlike. Especially the reverse chest-burst scene! A character is swallowed by a hinge-mouthed monster… only to eject from their chest! We see what they did there! Slightly hammy and generic in places, it nonetheless remains a fun underrated creature-feature and well worth catching.
Director: Rob Savage
You don't need us to tell you that making a film during a worldwide pandemic is problematic in a myriad of ways. In most cases physically producing a film is just not possible. However, ingenuity and creativity are still possible even in times of adversity. In fact, one film was able not only to work around the obvious covid issues but actually fully embrace them, That film went on to become perhaps the sleeper hit of the year and has propelled its film-makers towards big things. That film was techno found-footage flick, Host.
Host is a movie that really feels of its time. Although a bunch of friends sitting around talking on Zoom doesn't necessarily have to be set during the current Covid pandemic (films such as Unfriended and Friend Request have similar formats), this has become such a staple of most people's lives this year that it just feels so current. The touching of elbows between two characters at one point also means that there is no doubt it is set in the world we all currently inhabit. Will it mean that it ages a little faster than other horror movies? Perhaps – but then all techno horrors are resigned to this fate to some degree.
All of this cultural zeitgeist stuff aside, the reason Host is such a blast is because it's actually very good at delivering scares. The found footage genre has been a real boon for low budget film-makers and Director Rob Savage has a whole host of nasty little tricks up his sleeve. Host is actually under an hour long but by stripping away the usual superfluous stuff in the first act, we are instead treated to an hour or so of dread and tension. Also, the concept is a stroke of genius. An online séance. It's a perfect combination of old school supernatural horror through a modern lens.
Director: Natalie Erika James
A film that received its UK premiere at this year's October Frightfest, Relic is a film that was originally compared to Hereditary by those who managed to catch early press screenings. Whilst it doesn't quite have the nightmarish chops of Ari Aster's stunning debut feature, it is still a comparison worth making. Because Relic also manages to successfully combine family trauma (and drama) with a disquieting and deeply unsettling atmosphere.
After an elderly woman with dementia goes missing from her (large, decaying) house, her daughter (played by Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (played by Bella Heathcote) decide to back to the family home to try and see if they can help locate her. A couple of days later she miraculously turns up but the duo soon become concerned about her increasingly erratic behaviour.
The strength of Relic is found in its ability to deal with both personal and familial angst and pain, with unsettling surrealist horror. It's capable of scaring you one minute and making you want to cry the next. It's a delicate balancing act but it works partly because of its considered script but mainly due to the central performances of its three leading ladies. There are some really tough and gruelling scenes here, but the real horror is that of loss of memory and purpose. Something which a lot of us can unfortunately relate to in some way.
The Mortuary Collection
Director: Ryan Spindell
Netflix served up a number of solid genre features this year and horror anthology The Mortuary Collection was up there with the best of them. Horror anthologies seem to be making something of a comeback of late, what with the Creepshow TV series finding success on Shudder.
The film focuses on a young woman who turns up at a run down mortuary in the hope of gaining employment. The mortician is a rather ominous and creepy fella, but she doesn't seem too concerned. In fact, she's more interested in the tomes that he keeps on his shelves. He tells her that they record not just the 'how' the deceased have met their end, but the 'why'. He then relays several tales from the books, all of them disturbing and macabre in their own uniquely horrible way.
The Mortuary Collection feels like a bit of a throwback to the heyday of horror anthologies and thankfully it has been warmly received by both critics and general audiences alike. It's rather lavish and a bit campy but it's not afraid to get its hands dirty. Relying on body horror shocks and story twists, it's a grim little treat and it's propelled by a pitch black sense of humour too. It's grisly but somehow retains an almost carnival like atmosphere and as a result ends up feeling a bit lighter than it might otherwise. It also manages to successfully do that thing that most anthologies fail to to do – all the segments are all equally as good as each other.
Director: Rose Glass
Although for most of its running time, Saint Maud plays out like a tense psychological character study, it contains enough religious and body horror to be worthy of this list. Because although these moments are sparse, they certainly pack a punch. However it is the quietly oppressive atmosphere and stunning central performance of Morfydd Clark that will leave their mark on you.
Clark plays Maud, a meek but conflicted Christian twenty something who is assigned to care for a terminally ill woman called Amanda, a renowned choreographer, at her rather lavish abode. Although the two seem to forge a strained sort of friendship, Maud dreams of saving Amanda's soul, but the way to hell is paved with good intentions...
So much of this film is viewed through the prism of the mild-mannered Maud's fragile mind and the result is a mixture of comedy, paranoia, religious fervour, melancholy and madness. The film feels 'unsafe' almost, you're never quite sure what direction it is going to take. One moment we are full of sympathy for our downtrodden and devoted lead, the next we're frightened by her ever growing detachment from reality. What makes Saint Maud doubly impressive is that it marks the feature debut of Director Rose Glass. To make a film as assured and accomplished as this is quite something. And it all culminates in a climax that you won't be able to shake off for a few days.
Directors: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
If you haven't seen Franz & Fiala's debut feature Goodnight Mummy, then you need to get on that pronto. Then afterwards, you need to track down their latest terror filled offering – The Lodge.
Six months after the tragic suicide of their mother, Teenager Aiden and his young sister Mia are informed by their father that they are to spend Christmas at his girlfriend's remote Massachusetts lodge. The siblings are openly hostile to her but when their dad is called away for business leaving the three of them alone in the lodge, things take an even more sinister turn...
For some people, The Lodge is a film that they might not want to see a second time. It is perfectly ok to be thoroughly impressed with a film but never want to see it again. And when a film is as oppressive and heavy as this, I think that's forgivable. But for those who like ominous horror that gradually gets under your skin then this is the stuff of dreams (or nightmares). It's beautifully shot, steeped in religious iconography and Riley Keough is on top form too. The level of tension that The Lodge manages to build is suffocating at times but it's just so damn good that it's difficult to look away at any point. It may not answer all of the questions it poses but hey, who doesn't love a bit of mystery?
Director: Remi Weekes
Another debut feature film makes the list! This time it is British Director Remi Weekes, who brought us a film that tackles a subject that seldom finds its way into genre movies; asylum seekers. It's a bold move, considering a growing nativist sentiment in 21st century Britain. But one that pays off ultimately because a) it's a modern, relevant and tragic subject that deserves the attention and b) it's an extremely accomplished horror film.
The film follows a South Sudanese couple who are granted temporary asylum after the boat they are travelling on sinks en-route to the UK. However, their initial delight turns to fear and trepidation as they face prejudice from the locals and begin to realise that the ghosts of their past may be catching up with them.
The beauty of His House is its ability to fuse together the very real anguish and despair of our central pair and the asylum process with some genuinely unnerving and startling supernatural horror. The mix of traditional ghost story, politics and emotional family drama is a rather unique one but it works here so well. Propelled by complex but incredible performances from Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku, there may be plenty of (very decent) otherworldly shocks and jolts here – but it's the underlying sense of guilt and trauma that seeps from this films pores that lingers after the credits roll.
A Ghost Waits
Director: Adam Stovall
A Ghost Waits was perhaps the standout film from August's Frightfest Festival. If we're being totally honest, it wasn't the strongest line-up they've had but then this year has been something of a bastard so that may account for some of that.
The film follows Jack (MacLeod Andrews), a handyman, who is hired to fix up a house that seems to be abandoned by its tenants a bit too quickly. He begins to suspect that there is something weird going on and sure enough, the ghost of a woman (Natalie Walker) soon reveals herself to him. However, despite her efforts to scare him away, he refuses to budge and in fact, over time, the two of them begin to build something of a rapport.
A Ghost Waits is more of a comedy than anything else, truth be told. However, it's a film about a haunted house and ghosts, so it's worthy of a place on the list. And whilst it's never particularly scary at any point, the romantic and comedic elements work so well that it doesn't really matter. There's a quirkiness and irreverence to the film that takes a little while to get used to but once you've sussed out the tone the film is pitching, it really feels like a breath of fresh air. At its heart it is a film about loneliness and kindred spirits (literally) and although it won't have you on the edge of your seat, it will most likely have you grinning and giggling (and probably crying as well by the end). A really heartwarming and original horror comedy that deserves more recognition.
Honourable Mentions: The Swerve, Dune Drifter, The Vast of Night, Possessor.
Director: Nicholas Pesce
So, we're talking about an updated reboot of a U.S. reboot of a J-Horror that is generally thought to be past it's sold by date. This was either going to go brilliantly… or bomb badly. Guess what happened? To be fair, it looked very promising on paper. The director of The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing working with Sam Raimi, and a fantastic cast that includes; Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, and Lin Shaye. Under the working title "Grudge" (because removing a "The" makes all the difference in movie franchises these days), it was shot and then experienced some concerning delays in its release, before being dumped in the January movie graveyard (this is before you-know-what had really mwah-hah-hah-ed itself into existence of course). And neither critics nor horror fans reacted well to the results.
That's because The Grudge or Grudge or whatever, is an uninspired and dull continuation of the America plot strand of the "Ju-On" story. There is genuinely nothing here that you haven't already seen in a previous "Grudge" movie. Fingers in the hair, person in murky water, etc, etc. All been done before. In fact, the only thing that is missing is the iconic J-Horror ghost, croaky old rubber-limbed Kayako. She is seen only in a cameo before her role is usurped to that of the many undead Grudge-victims that stalk others that encounter them… although they still do that clicky thing with their throat. The cast is wasted, and the set-ups are annoyingly familiar, and it's not even a remake or reboot. The events slot nicely into the U.S. "Grudge" chronology as they stand, so it is The Grudge 4, and it shouldn't pretend to be anything else, Worst of all is that it is dull and unremittingly depressing. Nihilism is one thing, but constant doom-ridden situations get on your tits after a while. Definitely not recommended.
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Now, this might have worked. The premise of the cult 70s/80s ABC show (millionaire makes wishes come true on a tropical island) can work in pretty much any genre from comedy to an action film. But it does hold intriguing possibilities for an outright scare-flick. So, when it was announced that Blumhouse was rebooting the franchise as a standalone horror film, eyebrows were raised, but thoughtful chins were also scratched. The confirmed casting of talents such as Michael Peña, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, and Michael Rooker, also looked promising. Unfortunately, it turned out to be not such a good day at the beach, and one of those films that make you oddly angry as to how much of a hot mess it was.
To start with, it was saddled with PG-13 restrictions. Now, we're not going to be "those guys" who knee-jerk about PG horror and how it stops them from being scary. However, this is EXACTLY the type of film that needed some frenetic horror and nastiness to make the update worthwhile. The only concession to horror is the "revenge" wish that heads towards Hostel territory (before quickly turning into Home Alone), and the nebulous never-explained sentience of the island itself. Otherwise, the plot offers a lame collection of wishes like lost first-loves, fighting in a war, and becoming a celebrity. Seriously! You're offered a dream scenario, and that's what the script comes up with? A completely misjudged project that is almost completely bereft of horror with several last-minute "twists" that are either infuriating or just dumb… and smell like rewrites. Worst island destination since Lost….
Brahms: The Boy II
Director: William Brent Bell
The Boy is a surprisingly enjoyable little genre pic from 2016, that starred Lauren Cohan. It picked up a sizable following from home media and streaming, and an extra bit of publicity due to the titular doll bearing a resemblance to Jared Kushner (meme work is the dream work). However, the original film was mostly known for a nice lead performance from Cohan and the central mystery that lay at the centre of the plot; does the ghost of a young boy really possess the creepy porcelain doll? Without spoiling the story, that question was unequivocally resolved in the original film with a fairly good denouement that (sort of) made sense. So, what do you do with a standalone horror film that tells a complete story? Well, apparently, you go back to the same location and totally spoil the whole thing.
Although it's nice seeing Katie Holmes in a genre film again (after The Gift and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark), this is not great material to work from. The question of the nature of "Brahms", the "Boy" of the original film, was answered in the first story. But this unnecessary sequel just basically digs up the grave of that movie and asks the same question again. If there was something new and exciting or outlandish here, it might make for a better movie. Whilst life-like dolls are ALWAYS creepy in a film, repeated chills and ambiguity just become dull and annoying here. It's not helped by a dopey screenplay that relies on clichés to such a huge extent. Characters are bumping into local "experts", and that sort of thing. And don't even get us started on the crucial clue that a character missed because they held a piece of paper UPSIDE DOWN! Seriously! Catch the first film and forget this one even exists…
The Babysitter: Killer Queen
What makes TB:KQ doubly disappointing is the fact that its predecessor was so much fun. It's always a challenge for a sequel to maintain the highs of a successful first movie but boy, even taking that into consideration, TB:KQ is still a total suckfest. Sequels often feel as if they have to crank everything up a notch but the result in this instance is a film that is insufferable in its desire to be 'cool' and 'meta'. Jokes don't land, lazy references to other (and better movies), characters are poorly written (and annoying) and certain characters from the first film are criminally underused.
There are a couple of inventive kills but those aside, there isn't a whole lot to like about this. Unfortunately anyone that is familiar with McG's work will know that there is always a decent chance that his frenetic music video style and hit and miss sense of humour will start to grate. It tries too hard to force the laughs and whilst the first film had some great moments of black comedy, the jokes and humour here are really quite cringeworthy and there isn't much worse than sitting through an unfunny comedy. And although the first film was by no means grounded in reality in any way, the stuff in TB:KQ just enters the realms of absurdity. And it's a dull, uninspired absurdity at that. The ending is tripe too.
Director: Floria Sigismond
Now we didn't dislike Floria Sigsismondi's reimagining of The Turn of the Screw quite as much as a lot of others did but it makes the list largely because of a thoroughly frustrating final act and a finale that...well, you just have to wonder what they were thinking when they wrote the script. It's fair to say that it left pretty much everyone feeling cold (or hot with rage)
In The Turning, Kate takes on a job as a nanny to two troubled children at a gothic mansion in rural Maine. However, although the children's behaviour is a cause for concern, Kate soon starts to realise that she may have something more sinister to worry. There might just be a malevolent force at work within the dark corridors of the house, one that poses a real threat to everyone that lives within.
Half the problem here is that the film is effectively a remake of one of the best ghost movies ever made, The Innocents. It's also a story that is explored in Netflix's Bly Manor too. However, whilst The Turning does deserve some credit for trying to change things around a little, unfortunately the changes it makes don't really work and despite the best efforts of the talented leads (Davis, Wolfhard and Prince are all solid), the damage is quite severe and by the end, unforgivable.
It's a shame because for an hour or so the film manages to do the whole slow burn gothic ghost story thing quite well but the last thirty minutes or so, it just spirals out of control.
Directors: Andrew Mecham, Matthew Whedon
Sometimes a movie comes along that is so extremely generic and uninspired that it generates probably a bit too much negative feedback. Because there isn't much in Behind You that's utterly terrible, it's just that there is so much that's flat and bland that it has no real redeeming features whatsoever.
For those of you that are interested in the plot, it is about two sisters who go and stay with their aunt after their mother dies. They find that all the mirrors in the house are covered or hidden away. Sure enough, when one of them chances upon one in the basement, it unleashes a dangerous supernatural force!
Yes the plot is as derivative as hell but you can at least still eeek some scares out of that surely? Well there are none here unfortunately. The acting is a bit sketchy and characters do that super annoying thing where they make completely stupid decisions. And despite a number of chaotic story and character shifts, it still somehow manages to be predictable, with an ending that is as 'meh' as everything that comes before it. The film actually looks half decent thanks to some rather click cinematography from Benjamin Allred, however the script is a mess and the score makes it all feel like a TV drama. If you want to see a decent horror film about mirrors, seek out Mike Flanagan's Oculus instead.