The hellish landscape that has been 2020 pushed a lot of genre films out of their release window and into 2021. Some films like the Guerillmo del Toro produced, ‘Antlers,’ have been dropped from the release window all together and has yet to find a suitable home.
Even with the unconventional and tumultuous year that 2020 has been, it still delivered some great genre films. With new entries from ‘The Strangers’ director, Bryan Bertino to Nic Cage being Nic Cage in the Lovecraftian horror film directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, based on the short story “The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft. 2020 still had something to offer for every genre fan including several projects from first time filmmakers.
I feel great about what the genre had to offer us this year and 2021 is shaping up to be a blockbuster year for both large studio films and indie releases on the horizon. Until then let’s reflect on the year that was with my top 20 genre films.
20.) THE BEACH HOUSE
The feature directorial debut from Jeffrey A. Brown, THE BEACH HOUSE is a striking and timely eco-horror that offers up an alluring mix of claustrophobic isolation, mysterious contagion, and dreamy seaside setting with a show-stealing lead performance from Liana Liberato.
When you hear Liberato in the trailer say “Mrs. Turner where is Mr. Turner” in a deadpan voice followed by startling scene on the beach with worms crawling in her feet I was 100% ready for this to hit Shudder and it did not disappoint. It feels like a H.P. Lovecraft tale mixed with a pinch of ‘The Mist.’ The entire film puts you in a hazy mind state and makes you feel what the characters on screen are experiencing. That is why it landed in my top 20.
This probably flew under the radar for a lot of people, I know it did for me until I blindly watched it on Shudder. ‘Impetigore’ was allegedly based on a series of bad dreams from director Joko Anwar in 2008 and it wasn’t until 2019 when he finally brought those visions to life on screen before eventually releasing it in 2020. When you hear the origins of the story it is easy to see how ‘Impetigore’ is the thing of nightmares. From people being skinned alive to sacrifices it feels like sometimes you are watching something you shouldn’t be. Bringing folk horror to life on a low budget while putting its hands around your neck and refuses to let go until the very end. ‘Impetigore’ is a must watch for anyone seeking out more horror before the year comes to an end.
18.) COME TO DADDY
The film is the directorial debut of acclaimed producer Ant Timpson (The Greasy Strangler, Turbo Kid, Housebound, The ABCs of Death) that gave us the unlikely father / son combo of Elijah Wood and Stephen McHattie.
‘Come to Daddy’ is a thoughtful, character driven thriller spiked with uncommonly dark comedy and more than a few outrageous turns. Woods assumes the role of Norval Greenwood, a privileged man-child arrives at the beautiful and remote coastal cabin of his estranged father. He quickly discovers that not only is dad a jerk, but he also has a shady past that is rushing to catch up with both of them. Now, hundreds of miles from his cushy comfort zone, Norval must battle with demons, both real and perceived, in order to reconnect with a father he barely knows.
Things get….wonderfully weird as it lands at number 18 on our list. The mustache alone was cause enough for this film to land here.
17.) THE VAST OF THE NIGHT
With the recent boom in podcast in the last 5+ years it makes perfect sense for the ‘The Vast of Night’ to find an audience that it resonates with. Why am I talking about a sci-fi film like it is a podcast? That is because a large portion of the film revolves around the radio station WOTW from the 50’s. A nod to “War of the Worlds.”
Set in the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and charismatic radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.
There is something in the sky. This kicks off a 90 minute journey to figure out what it is.
This is the debut effort for director Andrew Patterson and boy does he make the most of it. Produced for under $1 million the film plays out much bigger than that. Playing out like an Amblin Entertainment Spielberg film intertwined at times with ‘The Twlight Zone’ it leaves much of the slick CGI behind and keeps things grounded by its surroundings and set design, which is also minimal. From the high school gymnasium that feels ripped straight from the 50’s to the tiny radio station with glowing neon call letters. While Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick deliver great performances as the duo carries the film throughout.
16.) TWO HEADS CREEK [PANIC FEST]
‘Two Heads Creek’ is to cannibalism what ‘Shaun of the Dead’ was for zombies. It is a damn good time and one of my favorite films from this years Panic Fest back in January. Back then it had not been picked up for distribution but since then The Horror Collective stepped up to release it and you are in for a real treat! The comedic timing is great and feels like it somehow fits into the same world as ‘Shaun of the Dead.’
A timid butcher and his drama-queen twin sister take a trip to Australia in search of their birth mother, but the seemingly tolerant townsfolk are hiding a dark, meaty secret. The townsfolk of ‘Two Heads Creek’ feel like they fit into the white trash Firefly Family from Rob Zombie’s ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ but instead of being insanely terrifying they just feel a bit off. Like something isn’t quite right. Stars Kathryn Wilder and Jordan Waller are fantastic leads but the family that surrounds them are the perfect compliment to round out the film.
15.) 12 HOUR SHIFT
Brea Grant is a genre treasure. From comics books, indie films and TV series like ‘Heroes’ she is a force to be reckoned with – and 2020 was no exception. She wrote and directed ’12 Hour Shift,’ ‘Lucky’ and stars in ‘After Midnight’ and ‘The Stylist.’ While some of those projects are not set to release until 2021, most have screened at festivals or have already been released in 2020.
’12 Hour Shift’ stars genre fave Angela Bettis from ‘May.’ This film revolves around a drugged up nurse played by Bettis, and her cousin, Regina (Chole Farnsworth) who are running a black market organ harvesting ring within a small town hospital. Where almost everyone seems miserable. The film is heavily character driven and each one is more intriguing and entertaining than that last. With strong performances from Bettis, Farnsworth and Nikea Gamby-Turner, they shape the film and its unique character set that was loosely based on people that Brea Grant knew in her life growing up in a small Texas town. We also get cameo appearances from David Arquette and wrestler Mick Foley as a drug king pin. If those names don’t do it for you then allow me to introduce you to Mr. Kent. (Tom DeTrinis) One of the best characters in the film who is only on screen for a total of 5 minutes. Watch and you will agree. The comedic timing for such a dark topic really makes this a blast to watch as it unfolds.
We can’t wait to see what Brea does next!
14.) SCARE ME
A writer goes on a retreat to a cabin in the woods to write his next book. Sound familiar? No, this isn’t ‘The Shining’ but ‘Scare Me’ does pay tribute to a lot of genre films that came before it and it does so in an incredibly jovial way.
Actor-director Josh Ruben’s feature directorial debut, ‘Scare Me’ is a low-budget horror comedy that packs a punch. Ruben strips down the classic cabin-in-the-woods trope and stages a fireside battle of wits with co-star Aya Cash. The film plays out more like a stage play that comes to life in your living room on Shudder.
While it takes place almost entirely in one location, a cabin, the chemistry between Cash and Ruben is incredible and you feel like you are just another person sitting around the fire. The duo is hilarious enough but then we get SNL’s Chris Redd in the third act.
With nods to such films as ‘The Shining,’ ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ and ‘Tales From the Crypt’ genre fans are in for a treat.
13.) BLOOD QUANTUM [PANIC FEST]
The dead are coming back to life outside the isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow, except for its Indigenous inhabitants who are strangely immune to the zombie plague. Jeff Barnaby‘s ‘Blood Quantum’ is a great example of inclusive filmmaking as almost all of the actors in the film have indigenous backgrounds.
The film features performances from Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Michael Greyeyes, Forrest Goodluck and Gary Farmer. Tailfeathers, whose father is Sami and mother is Blackfoot from the Blood reserve, said the cast was loving and supportive.
“I’ve never laughed so much on set,” Tailfeathers told CBC.ca
As much fun as the film is, it does have a political messaging that Indigenous people can relate to.
Director Jeff Barnaby said;
“Natives have been on screen for 100 years but have never controlled that image. In the age of representation, Shudder is putting their money where their mouth is and providing an opportunity for a whole new generation of indigenous genre filmmakers. They’re breaking that glass ceiling and opening the books on a whole new perspective. They’re making a genuine difference.”
A true example of adapting to the world around you, director Rob Savage proved that even if you can’t be on set together you can create something special and unique. ‘Host’ is a direct response to the call of the pandemic that we are currently struggling through. After months of many people sitting on ZOOM meetings, Rob Savage harnessed the everyday and mundane and turned it into something truly frightening in the most clever way possible. An online seance that goes wrong.
An exemplary exercise in filmmaking, he found a new way to take a found footage film and tweak it just enough to feel new and exciting. The best place to experience this is on your laptop, so pull up a chair and start streaming.
The classic idea of how awkward swapping bodies can be has been played out for years across many films. But rarely do we see it take place in a true genre film that doubles as a teen comedy. Throw Vince Vaughn andKathryn Newton into the mix and you have the makings of a clever fun flick from the creators of ‘Happy Death Day.’
“Director Christopher Landon’s horror-comedy is a clever cocktail of your slasher tropes and John Hughes growing pains.” (Read Danielle’s Review Here)
If you were a fan of the ‘Happy Death Day’ films you will certainly dig this film too. The opening scene alone pays tribute to several classic horror films like ‘Silent Night Deadly Night,’ ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ just to name a few. Keep your eyes peeled for more throughout the movie.
We have seen Vaughn appear in genre films in recent years but he has always been known more for his comedic performances, this is the rare chance to see him cross-pollenate genres to give us something fresh and fun with a great diverse supporting cast to boot.
10.) DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL [PANIC FEST]
Albert Shin’s ‘Disappearance at Clifton Hill’ plays out like an immersive experience come to life on screen as a complicated and intriguing mystery. With strong performances from Tuppence Middleton and a great cameo from David Cronenberg it keeps you engaged the whole way through.
Following the death of her mother, Abby (Tuppence Middleton), a troubled young woman with a checkered past, returns to her hometown of Niagara Falls and the dilapidated motel her family used to run. While there, she finds herself drawn once again into a mystery that has haunted her since childhood: what happened to the young boy she saw being violently abducted in the woods twenty-five years ago?
As Abby sets out to find out the truth, she must confront both a shocking, long-buried conspiracy that runs as deep as the falls themselves as well as her own inner demons. Bristling with an air of surreal menace, this mood-drenched thriller is a tantalizing psychological puzzle box that unfolds in the hallucinatory realm between reality and perception.
9.) THE COLOR OUT OF SPACE [PANIC FEST]
‘Color Out of Space’ is based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft. and brought to life by genre veteran, Richard Stanley. After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farmstead, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism as it infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.
Much like ‘The Beach House’ this Lovecraftian film puts you in a bit of a hazy state before going off the rails as the mind f*ck begins to take shape. With wonderful practical effects and cinematography the colors pop off the screen. As does Cage in one memorable appearance on the small screen during a local news segment where Nic Cage goes full on Nic Cage.
The fan success behind this film has spawn the demand for more Lovecraftian stories from Richard Stanley in the near future.
Brandon Cronenberg’s ‘Possessor’ is an arresting sci-fi thriller about elite, corporate assassin Tasya Vos. Using brain-implant technology, Vos takes control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets. The film is beautifully shot with tense and uneasy moments.
The writer and director opens up about where the idea for ‘Possessor’ came from:
“It was a time when things were changing in my life very quickly and I was waking up feeling this sense of absence of familiarity –like I had to scramble to form some kind of identity that made sense in that context,” explains Cronenberg. “I don’t think that’s an uncommon thing to varying degrees. I think a lot of people have those moments where either they feel like they need to play a character to present themselves or something shifts in their lives. So, on a personal and philosophical level, I thought that idea was interesting. I wanted to explore that in a sci-fi way.”
Possessor is ripe with fascinating sci-fi concepts and deeply frightening horror. There is fragility in the characters. The film’s unique exploration of the innate conflict between self-interest, family and responsibility is unlike anything we had ever seen.
7.) THE SWERVE [PANIC FEST]
Panic Fest favorite, ‘The Swerve’ has found a home with Epic Pictures earlier this year and received a ton of buzz on the festival circuit. Written and directed by Dean Kapsalis the film stars, Azura Skye, Bryce Pinkham, Ashley Bell, and Zach Rand.
With her riveting and acclaimed performance as Holly, Azura Skye effortlessly crafts a portrait of a struggling mother on the edge. So much so she took home the Best Actress Award at Panic Fest. Director Dean Kapsalis’s powerfully heart-wrenching feature debut explores a week in the life of a woman on the verge in this haunting meditation on mental illness.
“A woman’s happiness is often an afterthought and it’s something so beautifully captured in this film.” says Yulissa Morales of Epic Pictures. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Director Natalie Erika James ‘Relic’ is an unforgettable and auspiciously haunting journey.
When elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) inexplicably vanishes, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) rush to their family’s decaying country home, finding clues of her increasing dementia scattered around the house in her absence. After Edna returns just as mysteriously as she disappeared, Kay’s concern that her mother seems unwilling or unable to say where she’s been clashes with Sam’s unabashed enthusiasm to have her grandma back.
All three generations of women are brought together through trauma and a powerful sense of strength and loyalty to face the ultimate fear together. ‘Relic’ turns out to be much more than a genre film for most people that experience it and has a powerful message attached to it beyond the horror aspect.
5.) THE MORTUARY COLLECTION
Shudder’s ‘Mortuary Collection’ is a horror anthology film that moves seamlessly flows from film to film while maintaining an intriguing main story between cut scenes. The film is carried by fan favorite Clancy Brown and is complimented by his counter part Caitlin Custer that provide great banter that push and pull the story with each passing scene. It is rare that the storyteller mechanic in an anthology can prove to be just as interesting if not more than the stories that are being told. Brown and Custer were able to pull this off with the penultimate short that wraps everything up in a tremendous bow. The short stories are fun and the film itself was a passion project that was years in the making. As the short film programmer for Panic Fest I love the art of short form filmmaking and what it has to offer, but I did not expect an anthology to end up in my top 5 films this year. ‘The Mortuary Collection’ was the most effective film to blend together anthology storytelling since ‘Trick R Treat’ in my opinion.
‘Sputnik’ is a layered and nuanced film that deals with personal trauma, the way it haunts us, and how it cycles towards new and fresh trauma…and to top it off, it is a monster movie.
Once again a first time filmmaker lands in our top films of 2020 and it is well deserved. Egor Abramenko’s ‘Sputnik’ features a breakout performance from actress Oksana Akinshina in what I would consider the best sci-fi film of the year. It is a gripping piece of sci-fi filmmaking that has layers of storytelling that goes well beyond the intentions of a standard monster flick.
The supporting actor Pyotr Fyodorov portrays a heroic cosmonaut back from space. He is being held by the government to observe his vital signs and health but we soon find out he has much bigger issues. Fyodorov’s character is the perfect balance to play off of Akinshina’s performance. You constantly go back and forth between feeling sorry for him to not trusting a word he says every other time he graces the screen. As I mentioned before, the movie, at its core, is about trauma and questioning who you can really trust. The Russian government, a Scientist or yourself? I found Pyotr Fyodorov’s character to be a metaphor for a Russian nesting doll in both a figurative and metaphorical sense. This film will hit differently for everyone who watches it and how you interpret the story, but if you missed this film when it was released, I highly recommend it.
3.) THE INVISIBLE MAN
What you can’t see can hurt you. Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss stars in a terrifying modern tale of obsession inspired by Universal’s classic monster character. Trapped in a violent, controlling relationship with a wealthy and brilliant scientist, Cecilia Kass (Moss) escapes in the dead of night and disappears into hiding, aided by her sister (Harriet Dyer), their childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid.)
This was the perfect example of how to pull off a Universal Monsters classic by the way of a modern twist that is relevant to audiences and transcends the fan base that might have grown up with the original set films. It also blends together an important issue like domestic violence and mental health in such a way that is both terrifying and important. Elizabeth Moss proves once again why she is an Emmy winner.
2.) SWALLOW [PANIC FEST]
“Pica” is the consumption of substances with no significant nutritional value such as soil, soap or ice.
It is a term I learned growing up near the Glore Psychiatric Hospital Museum in my hometown. The museum features a tray of nails laid out meticulously on a metal tray. Not just one, but 453 of them that a patient once swallowed. They were retrieved from their stomach and are now on display.
So when I heard about IFC Film’s feature, ‘Swallow’ I was intrigued. Add to it beautiful art direction and first time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis stacked with an amazing performance by Haley Bennett who disappears into a bizarre and delicate role and you have a movie that people will be talking about for awhile. She is a force on screen without ever raising her voice. The creepiness (if you can call it that) lays in the curiosity of the character. The colors seem to jump off the screen and the modern setting are juxtaposing the old fashion 50’s house wife stereotype that Bennett’s character is forced to endure while her husband is consumed by his job.
Next to Azura Skye, and Elisabeth Moss, Haley Bennett is a contender for the best performance of the year.
1.) THE DARK & THE WICKED
You may know director Bryan Bertino as a director from such films as ‘The Strangers,’ ‘The Monster,’ and as producer on ‘The Strangers Prey at Night,’ ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’ just to name a few. His latest effort is ‘The Dark and the Wicked’ feels like a step back to his roots and the closest thing he has done to ‘The Strangers.’
‘The Dark and the Wicked’ was shot on his family farm the Panther Branch in Texas and has an isolated feeling from the very beginning that ‘The Strangers’ invoked – but the pacing of this film vs ‘The Strangers’ is much different and both are good in their own right. In my opinion ‘The Strangers’ was one of the best horror films in the last 10+ years because it managed to capture something that felt like it was a throwback while still being modern and relevant. The atmosphere and sound design on that film coupled with essentially one location and a small set of characters made it special and terrifying. The key motive being “because you were home” and it could happen to anyone.
In some ways Bertino follows some of that same formula in ‘The Dark and the Wicked.’ Instead of using home invaders he has something else invade a small Texas farm, demonic forces that play mind tricks on us throughout the entirety of the film in a very effective way.
The key characters in the film are Louise played by Marin Ireland (Umbrella Academy) and Michael played by the actor of the same name, Michael Abbott Jr. (Fear the Walking Dead) They go back to the family farm to tend to their sick and dying father to help out their mother played by Julie Oliver-Touchstone. They soon realize not only the weight of their father’s health situation has been taking a toll on their mother but something else much more dark is in play here to the point it drives her mad and they would soon follow.
These people feel like they have weight on their shoulders the minute you see them on the screen and they all seem to be dealing with issues in their own life while trying to deal with the sickness of their father and now the unexpected death of their mother all in the same week and that turns out not even to be the darkest thing they have to deal with that week.
Moody and atmospheric Bertino’s tends to lull you to sleep in a slow burn way and then hit you with suspense and horror slapping you across the face as if to say wake up, I am not done with you yet. The story is just beginning.
Bertino’s style of filmmaking is never over the top, but authentic to the audience to the point you feel like you are a fly on the wall looking over the shoulder of the characters.
The rope a dope style provides some comfort at times before a bright light and a bullhorn go off for brief moments that build tension and uneasy with each passing moment.
If you didn’t get a chance to check out ‘The Dark and the Wicked’ on a few festival stops this year I implore you to seek it out on Shudder in 2021 or pick it up on Blu-ray right now.
There are my picks for the best genre films of 2020. Tell me some about some of films that didn’t make my list that you enjoyed this year. I can’t wait to see what is in store for 2021.