As we collectively face down the end of 2021, it is also time for the annual exercise of looking back on the best film and television of the year. Throwing my metaphorical hat into the digital ring, the editors have entrusted me with the task of pulling together my favorite horror projects of the year. What follows is a list of 10 entries, spread across film and television, that in my opinion represent the best that horror gave us in 2021. Join me as I slash, bite, and bleed my way through 365 days of horror that kept us screaming from sunup to sundown.
Yes, this is sort of cheating. Arrebato originally came out in 1980, but 2021 saw its first stateside theatrical release with a magnificently restored print. Revivals and restorations are an integral part of horror each year, and so Arrebato is my stand-in pick for the joy that is experiencing classics and genre treasures in a new form. Ivan Zulueta’s surreal tale modulates the relatable quest for the high of peak creativity into a story of what happens when a pair of Spanish filmmakers treat that buzz like any other drug. The title translates to “rapture,” and with a plot that parallels heroin addiction with filmmaking, Zulueta makes an unsettling statement about the mingling of obsessions and addictions. Arrebato is best enjoyed knowing as little as possible. Simply know that Zulueta delivers a beautiful and bizarre nightmare vision of creative compulsion.
I must admit, my first viewing of Malignant left me somewhat cold. This is James Wan, I thought to myself, wondering where or where the meticulous scares of Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013) might be. Then I revisited the film, dropping my exacting expectations, and found that beyond my initial disappointment lay a delicious truth: Malignant is preposterous and grisly fun. Over two decades removed from a mysterious childhood in a research facility, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) begins experiencing gruesome dreams after her abusive husband smashes her against a wall. Before long, she discovers that the dreams are in fact actual murders, and she must uncover the cause before more people die. From this rather simple concept, Wan lets lose an exquisite vision of Giallo-drenched insanity packed with secret pasts and carnage. Malignant is not Wan’s best movie by any metric, but even after, or maybe because of, repeat viewings it is in the running for his most delightfully unhinged.
8. In the Earth
The early days of movies reckoning with COVID-19 in real-time have resulted in a string of mostly passionless and creatively deadened movies, the major exception being Host (2020). Ben Wheatley joins the swelling sub-genre with In the Earth, a trippy slice of folk-horror that imagines what a remote research base at the edge of a dark and massive forest might contend with if the world around them was overrun by a pandemic. Martin (Joel Fry) arrives at the base and treks off into the forest with resident guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). Martin is in the forest to take readings on the expansive fungal colony growing under the trees, and also to search for his former mentor who went into the woods to conduct research but has not been heard from in weeks. What greets Martin and Alma in the woods is a combination of survivalist thrills and mushroom-induced delusions flanked by the knowledge that there is no outside world functioning well enough to save them. In the Earth is a chilling reminder that sometimes the scariest place is the dark and lonely woods.
7. Werewolves Within
Just like some of the greatest monsters in horror, many of the best horror films are hybrids, marrying terror with another genre. Of these hybrids, horror-comedies are often poised to take chief advantage of the natural tense and release rhythm that both genres share; one sets you up for screams, the other for laughs. Werewolves Within fits marvelously into the hybrid sweet spot, unraveling a small town, werewolf-flavored, whodunnit over a brisk 97 minutes. Freshly transferred forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) attempts to be the voice of reason when he and a group of Beavertown residents end up trapped in the local inn during a snowstorm and are suddenly confronted with a murder that bears all the markings of lycanthropy. Werewolves Within shares as much blood with Knives Out (2019) as The Howling (1981), and has an absolute ball doling out clues to the murder and broader mystery, all with a heavy dash of Edgar Wright thrown in that makes this film a promising double feature with Hot Fuzz (2007).
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The first TV show on my list is an animated gem that aired its final season in 2021, and currently has my vote for the cleverest variation on the Dracula story in years; Castlevania. I was, admittedly, a latecomer to Netflix’s video game adaptation, catching up with the first three seasons just before the final batch of episodes aired earlier this year. Formally, animation allows for such levels of control that Castlevania took full advantage of to sketch balletic sequences of carnage, such as one where vampiric queen Carmilla (Jaime Murray) bathes her throne room in blood fending off demons galore. Yet, it is the friendships and romantic strands running between Trevor (Richard Armitage), Sypha (Alejandra Reynoso), and Alucard (James Callis) that anchor the final season. After 32 episodes of battling Dracula (Graham McTavish), fending off invasions from Hell, and mourning the family they lost, our lead trio has much emotional business to wrap up before the final credits roll. In all, it is a superb final season full of heart and havoc.
5. What We Do in the Shadows
When FX first announced a TV spin-off of What We Do in the Shadows (2014) I was skeptical. Now, only a few months removed from its third season finale, What We Do in the Shadows ranks among my favorite shows on television. The show’s blend of vampire horror and raunchy sitcom-style comedy is a heavenly treat. Season three dug further into lore, exploring the inner workings of the Vampiric Council, and offering insight into how energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) operates. It’s angles like those that situate the show in the lineage of history and folklore-heavy vampire tales fleshed out with cannily executed stretches of gross-out humor and bloody feasting. However, what makes this show so exceptional is how the creative team spins out situations for roommates Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadya (Natasia Demetriou), Lazlo (Matt Berry), Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), and Colin to muck about in. The cast can turn anything from a health-club cult to a Hudson River siren into comic brilliance. The result is easily the best horror-comedy of the year, and one of the gold standards on TV today.
I spend an unruly amount of time ticking through streamers, searching for pearls the algorithm has not seen fit to slot into my suggestions. It was on one of these jaunts that I stumbled across the marvelous mind-fuck that is Censor. Set in 1985 England, Censor centers on Enid (Niamh Algar) who works for the British Board of Film Classification during the “video nasty” era when Brits were terrified of what damage explicit horror films could wreak on impressionable minds. Enid spends her days watching gruesome movies and suggesting edits needed for release. It is one of these videos that shakes Enid to her core when she starts to suspect that it may contain clues to her long-standing personal trauma: her sister’s disappearance in the woods when they were young girls. Coming in under an hour and a half, Censor has not an ounce of bulk, and dashes along as Enid’s desperation and separation from reality grow in equal measure. Director Prano Bailey-Bond fashions an ethereal and stomach-churning film bursting with color, experimental sequences, and a bananas-good lead turn from Algar.
3. Midnight Mass
Mike Flanagan’s partnership with Netflix has wrought a string of poignant and spine-tingling projects, and the limited series Midnight Mass embodies the best of them all. Set on rural Crockett Island, Midnight Mass explores the various traumas, repressions, and secrets frothing amidst the small community. The show may not have an eponymous haunted house like Flanagan’s previous two limited series, but the location and the ensemble’s relationship to it are as vital as the relationships Flanagan’s other characters have with their cursed mansions. Islands by definition are sequestered, forced unto self-reliance because any storm or mainland disturbance could mean total isolation. With this backdrop, it is rather unsurprising that the islanders flock to St. Patrick’s, the island’s small Catholic church, for a sense of unity and community. However, as is traditional in horror, faith and religiosity often harbor monsters in the cloisters. For much of its runtime, Midnight Mass is quieter horror than anything else Flanagan has produced, but that allows for an existential exploration that makes the final, explosive episodes all the more horrifying.
Well well, David Cronenberg, Julia Ducournau has come for your body-horror crown and she hath not missed. Ducournau’s hotly anticipated follow-up to her feature debut Raw (2016), Titane picks up the former film’s thematic threads and rushes with them into a new abyss. Centered on dancer and part-time killer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), Titane steadily evolves into a hallucinatory deconstruction of gender and self through the lens of Alexia’s progressive loss of control over her body. Launched by a human-inhuman sex scene that renders The Shape of Water practically infantile, Ducournau riffs on the classical horror motifs of cursed pregnancy, painful bodies, and blood-soaked kills. Yet, within those twisted confines she also manages to craft a poignant story about grief and the love one can find with chosen family, regardless of blood relation. In her sophomore feature, Ducournau solidifies herself as a directorial force to be reckoned with and makes one of the year’s best horror pictures in the process.
1. Saint Maud
Horror is, in my mind, at its best when it is able to seep through your pores and settle up somewhere between your nerves and bones. Somewhere that pricks and throbs at your senses and thoughts. If it can drive you to that unnerving sweet spot of being repulsed yet transfixed, the piece has taken you over and, in my mind, there is no more rapturous feeling in cinema. That is precisely how I felt throughout Rose Glass’s Saint Maud. Branching out from the same nexus of faith and horror that propels Midnight Mass, Glass, who wrote and directed the movie, opts for ghastly claustrophobia. Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a devout and unattached nurse assigned to provide hospice care for former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), now crippled by cancer. Maud grows obsessive over Amanda, fixating on the need to “save her soul,” compelled by what Maud believes are holy visions. In navigating the audience through a traumatized and fractured psyche that may or may not actually be seeing God, Glass spins a film brimming with tension and wholly committed central performances from Clark and Ehle. In short, Saint Maud is the best horror I saw in 2021 by a wide margin.
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Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared in publications such as Filmhounds Magazine, Film Cred, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.