Most of us would rather forget 2020. But while the real-life nightmares that the year presented aren’t ones we’ll want to relive, the horror movies that came out deserve to be recognised—because many of them were simply fantastic.
With some of the most anticipated genre films of the year—from Candyman to Halloween Kills—getting bumped out of the release schedule, indie flicks and those released direct to streaming platforms had a rare chance to steal the spotlight. And steal it they did, providing some much-needed entertainment and catharsis while we were stuck at home. A few theatrical releases slipped through before the pandemic took hold, but for the most part, 2020 was the year of horror enjoyed from the couch.
To give you plenty to explore or revisit over the coming months, here are our picks for the top 20 horror films of 2020. This list only includes films that received a wide release (in some regions) in 2020, so expect to see some of our festival favourites on future lists!
After swapping bodies with a deranged serial killer, a high school student discovers she has less than 24 hours to get her body back before the change becomes permanent.
Released in the final months of the year, director Christopher Landon’s Freaky is the movie we didn’t know we needed—a bloody, fun slasher that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is perfect for blowing off some steam. Come for Vince Vaughn’s amusing turn as a teenage girl trapped in a middle-aged maniac’s body, stay for the over-the-top kills and gore.
19. Gretel & Hansel
A long time ago in a distant fairy tale countryside, a young girl leads her little brother into a dark wood in desperate search of food and work, only to stumble upon a nexus of terrifying evil.
The follow-up to director Oz Perkins’ superb The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Gretel & Hansel had a lot to live up to. While it’s certainly a case of style over substance, the beautiful cinematography and eerie score—not to mention the presence of the wonderful Alice Krige—provide a sumptuous feast, even if it will leave you hungry in a few hours’ time.
18. La Llorona
After being put on trial for genocide, a former Guatemalan dictator shelters in his opulent home with his family. Only one loyal housekeeper remains, until a mysterious maid arrives at their door.
Putting a new spin on the folkloric figure of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), director Jayro Bustamante’s film tells a quiet and emotionally resonant story about the ripple effects of oppression. A permeating air of unease hangs over every scene, underscored by the muffled chants of the protestors outside the mansion—trapping us in a world of sorrow and pain along with the characters.
17. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
As mutilated bodies turn up after each full moon and terror grips his small town, a sheriff’s deputy struggles to remind himself that there’s no such thing as werewolves.
Writer, director, and star Jim Cummings delivers an enjoyable take on the werewolf sub-genre with his sophomore feature The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Featuring a strong final film performance from the late Robert Forster and plenty of body parts strewn in the snow, this off-kilter horror comedy hits the target more often than it doesn’t, though Cummings’ idiosyncrasies won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
A same-sex couple moves to a small town seeking a better quality of life. But the picturesque neighbourhood isn’t what it seems, leading one of the men to suspect that they and their daughter may be in danger.
Haunting and genuinely upsetting at times, director Kurtis David Harder’s queer horror film Spiral is a hard pill to swallow. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman gives a truly outstanding performance in this painful tale of gaslighting and below-the-surface intolerance that features enough classic horror beats to please any fan—and a real gut-punch of an ending.
15. The Beach House
A troubled couple heads to their family’s beach house in the hopes of reconnecting. But their peace is disturbed by increasingly strange environmental phenomena—and the unmistakable signs of infection.
Tapping into a deep existential dread that we all have about our tenuous place on this earth, writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House pairs ecological and cosmic horror with some deliciously squeamish practical effects. An initial slow burn takes a sharp left turn into terror, resulting in a claustrophobic nightmare that will leave you winded.
Six friends hire a medium to hold a seance via Zoom during lockdown, but they get far more than they bargained for as things quickly go wrong.
Arguably the most talked-about horror film of the year, director Rob Savage’s Host is a testament to the ingenuity of genre filmmakers. Conceived, shot, and released within the first few months of the lockdown, Host was a right-place, right-time movie that everyone and their mum saw. Clocking in at just under an hour and featuring some impressive at-home stunts, it’s an infinitely snackable bite of pandemic horror that’s always fun to show to friends, preferably over Zoom.
Realising that she might inherit a large property from her rich family, the struggling Maya returns to the village where she was born, accompanied by her best friend—unaware of the danger that awaits them there.
Admittedly, this one did release in Indonesia in 2019, but since most audiences didn’t get it until 2020—and since it very much deserves a mention—we’re counting it on this list. Tara Basro and Marissa Anita play off one another perfectly in writer-director Joko Anwar’s gruesome and atmospheric Impetigore. Rooted in Indonesian folklore, the film is chock-full of interesting ideas and visuals, though the pacing—especially in the third act—leaves something to be desired.
12. The Lodge
A soon-to-be stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote holiday village. Just as relations begin to thaw between the trio, some strange and frightening events take place.
After Goodnight Mommy, we knew to expect something twisted from directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. While The Lodge doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it does deliver plenty of frosty chills and shocking acts of cruelty. You’ll see the twist coming a mile away, but that doesn’t stop the final act from stinging.
11. Color Out of Space
A secluded farm is struck by a strange meteorite which has apocalyptic consequences for the family living there—and possibly the world.
We were eager to see Nicolas Cage take on another strange and otherworldly horror movie after Mandy, and director Richard Stanley’s adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name is certainly both of those things. Blending Cronenbergian body horror with Lovecraft’s signature cosmic horror and spiralling madness, Color Out of Space is an audacious and heady shocker that might be a little bloated, but never fails to entrance.
10. Anything for Jackson
When a bereaved couple attempts to perform a “reverse exorcism” to bring their dead grandson back, they end up summoning much more than they bargained for.
Following a career helming light-hearted Christmas movies, Justin G. Dyck delivers a startingly fresh and creepy horror flick with Anything for Jackson. Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings slay as the Walshes, an outwardly sweet older couple committing heinous acts, while creature actor Troy James steals the show with his nerve-jangling performance as the Suffocating Ghost.
9. Come to Daddy
A man in his thirties travels to a remote cabin to reconnect with his estranged father.
Ant Timpson, producer of many a cult horror flick, makes his feature directorial debut with the wonderfully weird Come to Daddy, starring Elijah Wood and Stephen McHattie. Unpredictable narrative beats, a pitch-black vein of comedy, and sudden moments of brutal violence combine to make one of the most unusual and memorable films of the year.
8. The Dark and the Wicked
On a secluded farm, a man is slowly dying. His family gathers to mourn, and soon a darkness grows, marked by waking nightmares and a growing sense that something evil is taking over the family.
Oozing dread from every pore, The Dark and the Wicked is upsetting and unrelenting in the best possible way. Writer-director Bryan Bertino systematically strips away conventional lifelines, leaving his characters—and audience—stranded in a sea of suffocating grief and helpless terror, ready to be hit with scare after scare.
7. The Invisible Man
When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
Universal’s failed Dark Universe experiment left us sceptical about their plans to dust off their monster catalogue, but Saw writer Leigh Whannell swooped in to save the day with his fresh take on The Invisible Man, using the conceit to explore the trauma of gaslighting. Anchored by a raw and powerful performance from Elisabeth Moss, the film builds tension masterfully and looks much slicker than its relatively small budget.
A newly pregnant housewife finds herself increasingly compelled to consume dangerous objects. As her husband and his family tighten their control over her life, she must confront the dark secret behind her new obsession.
Centring around a very real condition called pica that sometimes causes pregnant women to crave nonfood items, writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow is a stylish and unconventional psychodrama with shades of wince-inducing body horror. Haley Bennett enthrals in this exploration of one woman’s repressed trauma and attempts to regain control of her life after becoming trapped in an outwardly perfect marriage.
5. The Mortuary Collection
An eccentric mortician recounts several macabre and phantasmagorical tales that he’s encountered in his distinguished career.
One of the best horror anthologies since the Amicus days, The Mortuary Collection has a little something for everyone—from cosmic horror to black comedy to some genuinely heartbreaking scenes. Clancy Brown is endlessly compelling as the imposing Montgomery Dark, and with a single writer and director (Ryan Spindell) at the helm and some gorgeous production design, the film achieves a sense of cohesion often lacking in recent anthologies.
4. Possessor: Uncut
An elite corporate assassin takes control of other people’s bodies using brain-implant technology to execute high-profile targets.
Brandon Cronenberg’s mind-bending and gory sci-fi horror Possessor is unlike anything you will have seen recently. A slick and unsettling spin on the idea of possession, the film is grounded by superb performances by Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbot, the latter of whom essentially winds up playing two roles. Between the flesh-melting visuals and blood-soaked final act, this is one of the year’s most unmissable genre films—and one which deserves to be seen in its uncut version.
A daughter, mother, and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
The debut feature of director Natalie Erika James, Relic will hit close to home for anyone who’s watched a family member succumb to a disorder like Alzheimer’s that causes a loss of self. Steeped in grief, the film is more concerned with atmosphere than it is with outright scares—though when it cuts, it cuts deep. Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, and Bella Heathcote all bring a wealth of depth to their roles, culminating in an emotionally devastating conclusion that will leave a lump in the throat.
2. His House
A refugee couple makes a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, but then they struggle to adjust to their new life in an English town that has an evil lurking beneath the surface.
Drawing on themes of xenophobia and survivor’s guilt, director Remi Weekes’ debut feature translates the refugee experience into a tale of chilling supernatural terror. Making expert use of its setting and delivering some jaw-dropping twists and turns, His House turns a place of supposed safety into a mouldering nightmare. It’s haunting in every sense of the word, and some of the best original horror Netflix has shared in years.
1. Saint Maud
A pious nurse becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.
Horrifying in its implications, Saint Maud is a film which refuses to give easy answers. Rose Clark’s direction is deliberate and disquieting, easing us into a world of shadows where devils or angels seem to lurk just out of frame, all while Morfydd Clark’s slyly sympathetic performance lulls us deeper into Maud’s mania. Tender and traumatic in turn, Saint Maud will weigh on the soul long after the credits have rolled.
What was your favourite horror movie of 2020? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter, as well as the titles you’re looking forward to this year.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)