It’s been a deceptive 12 months, depending on where you get your information. Some narratives might suggest that 2020 is the year movies vanished, but I’d suggest quite the opposite by my view count. I bested my reigning new-release record in the horror genre alone by roughly thirty titles, noting how streaming and VOD dominated the genre. This made it relatively easy to assemble best-of recap lists since, well, there were so many options. Crazy to admit while theaters still have their lights switched off across the country.
Below, let’s dig into my favorite scares of the year. The freakish, the fiendish, and the forever stuck in my noggin. Horrors never subsided for a second, and what a saving grace their distractions remain. Without further keystrokes, let’s get to the goshdang point.
10. Weiner Mutilation (Porno)
I’ve been trying to honor a specific scene in Keola Racela’s Porno all end-of-year season, but it’s not a “Best Kill,” nor is it any other superlative, so here’s my case. All Heavy Metal Jeff (Robbie Tann) utters are four words. “She. Exploded. My. Nuts.” The cringe is already there, but Racela is like, nah, I’m going to make sure my sex demon is depicted as the merciless right-hand of Satan she is. As Jeff’s boxers are lowered, Racela gives us one of the most horrifying practical effects in all of 2020. Ricky (Glenn Stott) does his best to shove the lone surviving testicle into Jeff’s bloody scrotal flaps and tie the mangled dangly bits together with a shoelace, but the damage is done.
What scares us, what propels our fears, is like a snowflake inside each individual. For me? I’m shaken by the sight of a movie theater concession worker reassembling the projectionist’s package, which now resembles a castrati singers’ downstairs, but if the operation was handled by a bodybuilder crushing the patient’s nuts in-hand.
9. Karaoke Crash (After Midnight)
There is so much to appreciate in Jeremy Gardner’s mon-rom-dram (monster romantic drama) After Midnight. Gardner plays a heartbroken man defending his dilapidated Florida nowhere estate from creature attacks while he laments the “loss” of a special someone (Abby, played by Brea Grant). Then, the tone shifts as Abby returns, and Gardner’s Hank finds the strength to love unconditionally, culminating with a karaoke outpouring of emotion while singing Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Miss You)” to Abby over piss-quality wine and sincere vulnerability.
It’s tender, it’s warmer than a fleece blanket, and oh yeah, YOU FORGOT ABOUT THE PRIMAL BEAST THAT VISITS COME NIGHTFALL, DIDN’T YOU. It’s how you properly utilize a “jump scare,” because yes, jump scares are a tremendous weapon in any horror filmmaker’s arsenal when used properly! There is an art to jump scares, I assure you. After Midnight understands that.
8. Dental Damnation (Anything For Jackson)
In Justin G. Dyck’s rare deviation from his standard made-for-television Christmastime output, the filmmaker grants us his take on Insidious by using satanist senior citizens and a “Reverse Exorcism.” In Anything For Jackson, two grandparents (Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings) attempt to smuggle their dead grandson back into the world using an unborn vessel. Unfortunately, it’s not only Jackson who is trying to become human again. A host of demons flock towards the chosen one like moths to light, all vying for another chance at rebirth.
One such demon is an older woman, seen flossing in the afterlife. Not so bad, eh? Try again. Richings gazes towards his character’s bathroom, thinking the figure is his wife, only to find the vile spirit marching towards his mortified summoner as it flosses teeth out of bleeding gums with a maniac’s smile. The agonizing sound of molars hitting the floor coupled with the immense pleasure said demon takes from oral pain is maddening, and a vision of horror that is appropriately conveyed by Richings’ pale-white expression.
7. The Puppet (32 Malasaña Street)
As I’ve written about before on /Film, evil puppets are my eternal enemy. In 32 Malasaña Street, a small child is lured by a 1970s Spanish children’s show featuring an elderly dummy speaking directly to the suspicious boy. The film draws comparisons to the family-driven horrors of Poltergeist, especially this sequence, where the essence of the all-famous clown mixes with television abductions. That should be enough of a context clue, correct? Director Albert Pintó weaponizes innocence, you know what’s coming, the “calming” voice speaking from the television set asks “to play,” and wham – the consequences of a spinning top, rocking chair, and cackling muppet claim their prisoner. Heebie jeebies for realsies!
6. Bus Stop Banshee (Lingering)
While my feelings on Lingering are mixed, one scare did surprise me. Yoo-mi (Lee Se-yeong) falls into a dreamlike state while staying at a haunted hotel and is transported to a nearby bus stop well after sundown. With her smartphone flashlight bright, she approaches a woman turned backward, standing to the side. “Excuse me?” Instead of turning around like a mortal, non-terrifying entity would, the person’s shoulders stay square while their head turns like a screw from front to not-front, The Exorcist style. Cue a rapid succession of camera cuts that bring us face-to-face with the elastic woman and a sharp spike in background music that, admittedly, caused an audible yip while I watched this one alone in my apartment.
5. Ghosts In The Wall (His House)
The horrors of His House are primarily of the mind, psychologically rooted. That said, there is a vision that lives within the walls of Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial’s (Wunmi Mosaku) “fixer-upper,” aka the apartment without proper amenities or upkeep because that’s all refugees are awarded. Bol is chased by his past decisions to make matters worse, which manifest as a physical nightmare that presents itself in frantic moments of guilt-ridden withdrawals. Bol cannot escape from what he’s done, and once or twice when his pursuer emerges out of drywall rot between exposed beams, it’s quite the horrible sight. The kind of unnerving representation that stares you down, nestles deep, and clutches tight despite your protest.
4. The Labyrinth (Relic)
I can’t stress this enough: Natalie Erika James’ Relic is an anomaly. It’s so groundbreakingly sorrowful, taking the “easiest” route to metaphorical devastation, but is so accomplished in its visual storytelling. Look no further than the film’s closing act, where three generations of women are forced to confront their present, their impending curse, and their inevitable future. Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote reconcile so many emotions while stuck in a maze of their matriarch’s architectural nonsense, losing the image of their beloved. It’s so magnificently horrid, shown by sticky notes and the deterioration of “the image,” THAT IMAGERY. A depiction of watching someone you cherish become this unrecognizable husk you no longer recognize. Familiarity is eaten away, leaving only this “monster” left behind. Ms. James, I haven’t sobbed like this since Lulu Wang’s The Farewell.
3. Staircase Tumble (Z)
In Z, the better Come Home, an eight-year-old gains an imaginary friend who may be a demon and may influence his actions. Whether true or not, there’s a gasp-out-loud scene where the child’s mother (Keegan Connor Tracy) shares a beverage with another mother amidst some impromptu playdate. They discuss the woes of parental fears and how an innocent child couldn’t possibly deserve the ostracization enacted, but then the unpredictable happens. As the other mother, selective with her words, speaks about protecting the one she loves, the very son plummets down a staircase in the background, clearly thrown, slamming a banister and presumably injuring one’s self to a great degree.
It hits out of nowhere, is a jump-out-yelling moment, and sets Z apart as a horror film that isn’t afraid of demolishing audiences.
2. Reservation For Death (The Invisible Man)
Leigh Whannell earns his The Invisible Man praise. As a found footage defender, I’m obsessed with how he took notes of Paranormal Activity and “Universal Monster’ed” them. Even better? Emily’s death (portrayed by Harriet Dyer).
We are assured, as per longstanding horror tropes, that public spaces are safe sanctuaries for characters. In The Insibile Man, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) thinks she’s besting her translucent stalker by meeting sister Emily in a bustling, fully-booked restaurant. Instead, Cecilia’s pursuer sees an opportunity to gaslight and peg blame. The siblings are seated, hustle their way through small-talk, then just as Emily leans forward to hear Cecilia’s latest accusation, a polished knife levitates and slices through Emily’s throat. Cecilia watches in horror as her decision causes Emily’s execution, and you can sense the invisible bastard next to her smiling the nastiest, devilish grin since he’s just gotten away with murder in plain-view and placed the knife in Cecilia’s hand.
1. Headbanger (Host)
Call me a weenie, invalidate my phobias, but this is my list, and I’m awarding Rob Savage’s Host top scare billing. In specific, Caroline’s exit (acted by Caroline Ward). In a film punctuated by quick-jab scares with ghastly faces, why this one? Simple. Expectations.
Caroline’s character is the one who takes advantage of “.gif” technology as a Zoom background. Her likeness walks about Zoom’s virtual landscape window on a constant loop, suggesting a possessable feature for the film’s demon. Instead, the trickery works to cloak Caroline’s disappearance, and then when another character notices, helps to hide her face slamming into the keyboard over and over, quite brutally, while her doppelgänger strolls about unaware. Once again, I point back to the efficiency of jump scares when teased so expertly and how filmmakers can turn another “cheap” tactic (not cheap, quite essential) into an otherwise spectacular scream. Bravos all around.
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