The 15 Best Horror Movies of 2021 – Paste – Paste Magazine

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If 2020 helped capture the isolating terror and binding racial tension that permeated that year’s terrible events, the frustratingly repetitive quagmire of 2021 only made its horror films reflective of its audience’s broadening anxieties. Sure, we were still freaked out and pissed off and scared for our lives in a more tangible sense than many have ever felt, but we were also exhausted and disillusioned by this sustained heightened state. And, maybe it’s just us, but stewing in that unprecedented stress led us to some weird places. Not “weird places” like Shudder, though the horror streamer had its best year of original programming yet, but “weird places” like poking and prodding at our fears so that even the normal tropes of horror—your slashers, your werewolf flicks, your creature features—were blessed by a tinge of madness. Though they didn’t quite make our list, two of the genre’s biggest names (James Wan and M. Night Shyamalan) released downright nutty studio horrors. The Empty Man, a movie completely buried by its studio in 2020 (so much so that it missed us completely), found its audience…and a way onto this list as our big exception. The best horror films of 2021 didn’t just reflect our year, they were ironically comforting reminders that even the deepest and darkest corners of the human psyche are not unique to a single sufferer. And, also, that sometimes all you need is a pair of killer jeans.

Here are our picks for the 15 best horror movies of the year:


The first film in Netflix’s trilogy of R.L. Stine Fear Street adaptations quickly announces itself as a far more vicious and bloody beast than any of the family friendly Goosebumps installments of recent years, successfully carving out its own place in the modern meta-slasher canon while hinting at an exciting conclusion to come. 1994 garbs itself in slasher history, being particularly referential of Scream while also including numerous allusions to much more obscure ‘80s slashers such as Intruder, but it simultaneously (and cleverly) distracts the audience from some of its deeper mysteries, to be explored more fully in Fear Street: 1978 and Fear Street: 1666. What we’re left with is a film that lays its mythology out nicely, buoyed both by engaging supporting characters and cinematic violence that is significantly more grisly than audiences are likely to expect. Suffice to say, the kills of Fear Street aren’t messing around, and once that bread slicer makes an appearance, your jaw is likely to drop. Sequels 1978 and 1666, meanwhile, keep up just enough momentum to complete the ambitious trilogy. —Jim Vorel


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Banjong Pisanthanakun’s faux documentary burns low and slow, taking you deep into the lives of its central figures—a medium (Sawanee Utoomma) and the family her deity Bayan matrilineally possesses—and the region of Thailand in which it’s set. The Medium’s lush look at the pressures of inheritance, and more specifically the pressures on women coming from all sides (para- or simply normal), might’ve been a bit too hands-off and moody without the impressive and intense performance of Narilya Gulmongkolpech. She plays Mink, the niece of the medium and the youngest woman of the family, who unwittingly draws the attention of…something. Bayan, perhaps? Or is this affinity to the spirit world more complex than it at first seems? Gulmongkolpech embraces the film’s lofty ambitions with aplomb, dialing things up just enough to keep you hooked—tempting you through the film’s dense jungle with guttural screams. A tragic, intense, and eventually thrilling horror that’s uneven found footage style swerves between Paranormal Activity and some of the better V/H/S entries, The Medium has plenty of highs and a few lows, but is completely worth taking a leap of faith on.—Jacob Oller


Did you know that pant zippers are the most common cause of adult penis injury? Thankfully, the fatality rate is pretty much nothing to worry about. Until now. In the vein of absurd inanimate antagonists ranging from Rubber’s killer tire to Killdozer!’s well…Killdozer, Shudder’s horror/comedy Slaxx is all about a pair of jeans out for blood. Director Elza Kephart (who co-wrote with Patricia Gomez) doesn’t hit below the belt with that particularly painful pinch, but her delightfully schlocky movie definitely ups the kill count contributable to denim—all stitched into a critique of the clothing industry, from the harvest to the high-end boutique. Now, when you hear “killer pants movie,” you might not really care about things like “plot” or “message.” You probably just want to know if it rules to see some empty jeans run, scoot and leap around murdering people. Well, if you’re looking for a movie that doesn’t sit around long enough to wear a hole in the seat of its extremely silly premise, with lots of gore and a few great deaths, Slaxx will fit like a glove. If the idea of killer jeans makes you crack a grin, and even if you’ve been disappointed by horror movies with similarly silly central conceits, it’s worth your time to try on Slaxx. You might be surprised how enjoyable this bootcut bloodbath feels.—Jacob Oller


Writer/director Corinna Faith has the touch. She’s got The Power. The Shudder horror film could skate by simply on the strength of its unique and gripping period setting—1974 London where miner’s union disputes led to electricity conservation efforts, namely blackouts—but doesn’t have to. Horror movies are always searching for new and creative ways to keep their subjects stuck, disoriented, away from the cellphones and bright lights that are so often antithetical to fear. Faith nails one. Nurse trainee Val’s (Rose Williams) first day (and night) on the job at a spooky, dilapidated hospital is a good enough premise to sustain a slight and schlocky fright night all its own. But Faith weaves an intimate and subversive script that makes The Power a far more enduring artifact than its fossil fuel foundations. While there’s no use in giving too much away with plot specifics, what you should understand from the start is that Faith’s title is as interested in the absence of power (the dark, the working class, the women) as in its alternative. Whether it’s the incredible double act of veteran nurses Comfort (Gbemisola Ikumelo, solid and straightforward) and Terry (Nuala McGowan, hilarious and take-no-shit) or Val’s interest in the connection between illness and poverty, The Power is very clear that those at society’s bottom are all too aware of those walking atop them. A too-charming doctor; a late-night watchman with a headlamp and a keyring; administrators too happy to avoid unpleasant realities. Some truths can’t be hidden just because the lights shut off. Much of the writing is nicely realistic, even dipping into a mix of mumblecore brogues that are indecipherable without subtitles. Its themes are clear and its spin on tradition meshes well with teased-out visual clues. But the third act loses some of that courage, that trust in its audience. Spending so much time making the expertly implicit clumsily explicit only makes the uneven use of its setting and scares more apparent. When The Power is on, it’ll have you white-knuckling a flashlight all night. When it starts flickering, well, even its least nuanced moments or most telegraphed turns still have a level of craft that make certain Faith will be able to keep the lights on as a filmmaker for a long time to come.—Jacob Oller


Well within the throes of summer vacation, best friends Amélie (Mathilde La Musse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi) fill their days with impressive street graffiti projects and the occasional fling with local boys. After tagging an abandoned building, Amélie notices the name “Kandisha” spray painted behind some moldy wallpaper. Morjana, whose family is from Morocco, fills her in: “In a nutshell, she’s the ghost of a beautiful woman who destroys men.” After the trio giggle over the incredulousness of the story, they each embark home in the wee hours of the morning with the careful intention of not waking their parents. On her lonely walk, Amélie crosses paths with an abusive ex-boyfriend who knocks her out and attempts to rape her. Miraculously managing to flee, Amélie decides to see if the legend is true. What the filmmakers achieve through their script and direction is a wickedly successful creature feature that highlights an underrepresented but widely-held fear among a considerable portion of France’s populace. The portrayal of Kandisha is incredibly layered and diverse, manifesting as mysterious, alluring and abjectly horrifying during different appearances. The viewer tandemly craves and dreads her arrival on-screen, which is an incredibly effective approach to keep the monster from losing its edge after multiple kills. The deaths are also cleverly fused with supernatural elements alongside the directors’ penchant for massive blood loss and bodily evisceration. When it comes to keeping the mounting body count compelling, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s twisted creativity ensures each kill is brutal, both in terms of gore and toying with established emotional stakes. —Natalia Keogan


Yakov (Dave Davis) has recently left the Hasidic Jew community after experiencing a trauma that dismantled his faith. He’s struggling to adapt to the outside world—particularly with money—and in the midst of this struggle, he’s approached to serve as a shomer, someone who watches over a body until it is buried. Typically a shomer is a family member, but in desperate circumstances, someone will be paid to serve this role. So Yakov takes up his post looking over the body of the deceased Mr. Litvak. But this isn’t going to be a night for easy money. As soon as Yakov settles in for his five-hour shift, strange things immediately start happening. He sees shadowy figures lurking in dark corners, he hears strange whispers and feels as if something is watching his every move. As the night progresses, he discovers that a mazzik, a type of demon, is haunting the home, its family and Yakov himself. It is feeding on them, using their grief and trauma to fuel its evil. Central to the power of The Vigil is Davis’ performance as Yakov, created by both Davis’ performance and Thomas’ writing. The film has a short and sweet runtime of 90 minutes, and with that short amount of time, Davis and Thomas are able to create a complex character that has gone through a life of both love and despair. Davis’ frustrated and sorrow-filled face tells a story of a man who just wants to live a life that is his own. Paired with those facial expressions, Thomas’ script quickly and effectively showcases both Yakov’s naivety in the world of technology and women—as he literally Googles “how to talk to women”—and his strength, as he prepares to face off with the mazzik. This is not a generic horror character that blends into the wallpaper, but someone worth cheering for until the credits roll. This is a story that, while following the expected story beats of possession films, still feels unique thanks to Thomas’ specificity and dedication to creating something lean and mean.—Mary Beth McAndrews


For anyone who has experienced sleep paralysis, the sinister sensation of a presence hovering at your bedside is an unparalleled nightmare. In writer/director Amelia Moses’ Bleed with Me, this hellish hallucination is taken to its most uncanny extreme as a wintry cabin vacation among three friends reveals a parasitic relationship—one that involves discreetly siphoning blood by moonlight. After a period of personal turmoil, Rowan (Lee Marshall) is pleasantly surprised when she’s invited to join coworker-turned-friend Emily (Lauren Beatty) at her family’s remote cabin in the woods for a picturesque snowy getaway. They’re also accompanied by Emily’s boyfriend Brendan (Aris Tyros), who is less enthused about an apparent third wheel on what was supposed to be an intimate romantic getaway. Though even Rowan herself suspects that her last-minute inclusion is nothing more than a sympathetic gesture, her presence on the excursion suddenly seems to fulfill a more ominous role. In the middle of the night, suspended in a state of groggy semi-consciousness, Rowan’s bleary eyes perceive a dark figure sitting by her bed. In the morning, she wakes to find a small incision on her forearm—so fresh that it still glistens with bright red blood. Night after night, new nicks emerge in neat succession like tally marks, and the figure at her bedside becomes harder to dismiss as none other than her beautiful blonde hostess. With a hinted history of trauma and instability, Rowan’s trust in her own perception remains rocky—particularly when her paranoia becomes palpable to those around her. With no possible way to escape, Rowan must confront whether the evil entity is indeed inside of the cabin or simply a figment of her own imagination. Equipped with all of the necessary hallmarks of a gripping no-frills horror debut, Bleed with Me heralds Moses as a filmmaker with a fresh perspective on the horrors of womanhood that will surely be espoused in her future work.—Natalia Keogan


Feeling down and need a movie to put a smile on your face? May I recommend Steven Kostanski’s Psycho Goreman? It is a lore-heavy, anti-religion, sci-fi/dry comedy/musical/horror film complete with its own intergalactic heavy metal dodgeball scene—in short, it is the perfect movie to watch when you need to forget about your woes and envelop yourself in the comfort of B-horror schlock. Siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) discover an ancient amulet while playing Crazyball (think dodgeball but with more rules). They mistakenly resurrect the Archduke, who wishes to kill everything and everyone. But that doesn’t bother Mimi. In fact, and much to his dismay, Mimi sees him as a new cool buddy. After a quick brainstorm session, the Archduke of Nightmares is now Psycho Goreman (Matthew Ninaber), or PG for short. PG learns to love and discovers a possible interest in hunky boys, a divided family is reunited, a young girl learns her lesson and a lot of heads explode. What makes Psycho Goreman so effective is its lightning-fast changes of pace, moving from intense sci-fi to dry comedy so quickly that you get whiplash. PG’s somber flashbacks to his home planet grind to a halt as Mimi loudly declares she’s bored. None of this film is meant to be taken seriously, so drama is quickly undercut with a snide remark to bring everything back to Earth. The dramatic rug is quickly pulled out from under you, making you land on your cinematic ass with a smile on your face. Melding two emotionally extreme genres with two extreme stories about alien societies and suburban family dysfunction, writer/director Kostanski makes a film full of heart (both literally and figuratively). It is a children’s cartoon given a gory makeover, appealing to the sugar-cereal-addicted kid that exists inside of us all. Fans of practical effects and over-the-top horror-comedy will instantly fall in love.—Mary Beth McAndrews


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With the release of his feature film debut Scare Me last year, director Josh Ruben put himself on the horror-comedy map with his tale about horror writers telling scary stories. With Werewolves Within, Ruben further proves his skills as a director who knows how to walk that delicate line between horror and comedy, deftly moving between genres to create something that isn’t just scary, but genuinely hilarious. The cherry on top? This is a videogame adaptation. Werewolves Within is based on the Ubisoft game of the same name where players try to determine who is the werewolf; Mafia but with shapeshifting lycanthropes. Unlike the game, which takes place in a medieval town, Ruben’s film instead takes place in the present day in the small town of Beaverfield. Forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) moves to Beaverfield on assignment after a gas pipeline has been proposed to run through the town. But as the snow starts to fall and the sun sets behind the trees, something big and hairy begins hunting the townsfolk. Trapped in the local bed and breakfast, it’s up to Finn and postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) to try to find out who is picking people off one by one. But as red herrings fly across the screen like a dolphin show at the local aquarium, it feels almost impossible. Just when you think you’ve guessed the killer, something completely uproots your theories. Writer Mishna Wolff takes the core idea (a hidden werewolf in a small town where everyone knows each other), and places it in an even more outlandish and contemporary context to pack an even funnier punch. While the jokes never stop flowing in Werewolves Within, Ruben and Wolff never lose sight of the film’s horrific aspects through plenty of gore, tense scares and one hell of a climax. This film full of over-the-top characters, ridiculous hijinks and more red herrings than you can keep track of is a great entry in the woefully small werewolf subgenre.—Mary Beth McAndrews


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If Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and Alexandre Aja’s High Tension had a kid and raised it on Vinegar Syndrome releases, that kid would grow up to be Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor. A demonstration of refined craftsmanship and a gleeful embrace of horror’s grimiest mores all at the same time, Censor is the ultimate “have cake, eat it too” film, being both exceptionally well-made and stuffed to the gunwales with everything that makes horror worth watching: Creeping dread, paranoia, gross-out violence and inspired fits of madness, with a side of smirking defiance for the conservative pitchfork mobs that have tried to pin all the world’s ills on the genre since always. Bailey-Bond’s film is in conversation with history, the era of Margaret Thatcher and cultural garment-rending over the proliferation of video nasties among impressionable Brits. Enid (Niamh Algar), a film censor, fills her days watching graphically staged dramatizations of brutality, then cutting down their countless offenses to an acceptable size. One such picture too closely resembles a horrible incident from her childhood, one resulting in the disappearance of her sister—or more specifically, it’s the lead actress in the picture who too closely resembles her sister. The encounter sets Enid on a quest to recover her long-lost sibling, which takes her on a descent into insanity…plus a few choice gore shots. But as much as Censor connects with Britain’s past, it connects with horror’s past, too, in keeping with the genre’s tradition of self-awareness and self-critique. When social forces come together to blame horror for the existence of darkness, it’s because those forces can’t stand their own self-reflections. They need an easy way out, and moral panic is easy. Horror knows who the real villains are, and so does Bailey-Bond. Don’t take that as a warning sign, though: Censor isn’t stuffy or preachy, not at all. It’s the reason we go see horror movies in the first place.—Andy Crump


The problem with writing about Candyman is that you will inevitably have to write “Candyman” five times. What if my monitor suddenly craps out, leaving me to see a paranormal entity rocking a full-length shearling behind my dark reflection? Unlike many of the white Chicagoans in writer/director Nia DaCosta’s slasher sequel, I’m not foolish enough to tempt the Bloody Mary of the Near North Side. I am, however, still drawn to her update of the legend, which manages to pick up the original film’s pieces and put them back together in a compelling, reclamatory collage. Ignoring the rest of the Candyman series in favor of a direct follow-up to Bernard Rose’s allegory-rich 1992 slasher, DaCosta introduces fancy-pants artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to the same urban legend that consumed lookie-loo grad student Helen Lyle. The original story adapted Clive Barker to U.S. racism and wealth inequality—particularly in Chicago, and even more particularly in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects. Now its homes and high-rises have been demolished or abandoned. A massive Target overlooks its northwest border, where you can buy athleisure and grab an in-house Starbucks before heading to Panera Bread. Gentrification may have neatly plastered over history, but that history cannot be so easily erased. “A story like that—a pain like that—lasts forever,” says Colman Domingo’s long-timer laundryman Burke. “That’s Candyman.” DaCosta makes it clear that Anthony’s pulled by the legend, by history, more intimately than Helen ever was, and updates her scares in turn. The nightmarish apartments and putrid bathrooms Helen crawled through and photographed neatly reflected the entity haunting them; but the projects have been paved over, and Candyman persists. DaCosta shoots the city accordingly, either in dividing straight lines, or fully warped: You never notice how Marina City’s towers look like beehives until they’re flipped upside-down. Spurred on by Anthony’s interest, Candyman’s now an inevitability in every reflective surface. You can’t look away from DaCosta’s inspired compositions and layouts, your eyes led from one dark corner to the next with an Invisible Man-like mastery of negative space. One of these days, you think, she’s going to run out of ideas about how to shoot a mirror kill. Not so, especially in her world of omnipresent, physically and psychically painful self-reflection. While the kills, perpetrated by a being mostly just seen in mirrors, are sometimes a bit too obfuscated by their gimmick to be viscerally satisfying, they slot in perfectly with the film’s themes and aesthetic even when they’re not dumping cascades of blood. The power of martyrdom, the cycles of economic exploitation, the blood price expected for progress—even if these ideas are imperfectly engaged with, they’re so compellingly introduced as to solidify Candyman as a must-see horror and a must-discuss tragedy.—Jacob Oller


Writer/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s film follows 12-year-olds Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), two best friends who get abducted amid a warm-up game of catch before a Little League bout. It opens on the pair begging for their lives as Kevin gets ripped from the car trunk where he and his friend have been held captive. Chavis undoubtedly carries the film. The part really puts the actor—who was the age of his character at the time of filming—through the wringer, as Bobby takes it upon himself to do what he can to save his friend. The power of friendship is what keeps the heart of this film pumping fresh blood until the very end. There is something so sweet and unbreakable about a true childhood kinship, and that treasured bond is ripe between Bobby and Kevin. They are each other’s rock, and their dialogue and character impulses solidify this important piece of the puzzle that aids them throughout. Their mantra, “friends till the end,” sustains them through their trials and tribulations, and it is beyond clear that their symbiotic connection is their greatest asset. It’s easy, as a viewer, to feel deep catharsis with this element and your mind will wander back to those idyllic childhood moments with whomever was your best bud. But it seems the filmmakers also made it a point to take those feelings a step further: Their story makes you so thankful for those times, amid the uncertainty of life and the insidiousness of humanity, that the feeling will unsettle you. And, like The Boy Behind the Door, it should. —Lex Briscuso


Come True, Anthony Scott Burns’ horror first, sci-fi second hybrid film essentially dramatizes what filmmaker Rodney Ascher gets at in his 2015 sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare. What if your worst fears manifested in the real world? What if you couldn’t tell the difference between the land of the waking and the realm of the slumbering? What if the difference doesn’t even matter because, whether the nightmares are real or not, they still smother you and deny you rest, respite and sanity? Conceptually, the movie is frightening. In more practical terms it’s deeply unsettling, a terrific, sharply made exercise in layering one kind of dread on top of another. “Don’t you ever feel like you’re seeing something that you’re not supposed to?” Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) asks Riff (Landon Liboiron), the scruffy Daniel Radcliffe stand-in conducting an ill-advised science experiment masquerading as a sleep study. The ever-present unnerving sensation that follows—that unspeakable terror is hovering over your shoulder—puts the film in close company with It Follows, another movie about disaffected youth on the run from evil they don’t understand and can’t fight. It’s contemporary, atmospheric and cuts deep—and more than that, it’s original. Burns conjures horror so vivid and tactile that at any time it feels like it might leap off of the screen and into our own imaginations or, worse, our own lives.—Andy Crump


From the start, everything about The Empty Man is misleading. Its title sounds like the absolutely terrible Bloody Mary-esque The Bye Bye Man or the botched adaptation of Slender Man, where spooky too-long shadow dudes creep up on some doltish teens. Those bad high school urban legend films (that the film’s trailer is cut oh-so-specifically to evoke) don’t usually stray from the 90-minute mark. Even Candyman, maybe the best and most ambitious example of this type of film, is barely 100 minutes. The Empty Man’s 137-minute runtime clearly has more to do than kill off a couple of kids for failing to be superstitious enough. Rather than falling into that traditional type of stock schlock, The Empty Man follows a troubled ex-cop investigating the root causes of an incident that could’ve been the entire plot of one of those movies. “We knew we weren’t making that movie and nobody wanted to make that movie,” said writer/director/editor David Prior. “But it turns out, the people who inherited the movie wanted that kind of movie.” It makes sense that the ever-expanding, ever-spiraling photos-and-folders paranoid conspiracy of The Empty Man can feel a bit like getting sucked into the kind of heady, hyper-specific hell that festers in the underbellies of Zodiac, Se7en or Mindhunter. That ‘70s thriller structure, dedicated to the paper trail, merges in The Empty Man with a downright otherworldly horror (used here in the literal sense, as opposed to terror) aesthetic that’s sheer scope makes a mockery of the movie’s shoe-leather detective work. But even The Empty Man’s start is a delightful little horror film all its own, a mythological amuse-bouche set on snowy Bhutan peaks where set design and naturalistic acting sell the scares. Great! Solid. Sold. And then the movie keeps going, as if to literally push past your expectations. Its narrative evolves into something increasingly strange and engaging. It’s like A Cure for Wellness, another cult favorite, in its dedication to piling on an investigator’s hallucinogenic obsession and repulsion as he finds himself suddenly so deep that climbing back out—or, perhaps, out for the first time—proves impossible. Prior’s grasp of tone and savvy subversion of different modern monster tropes, alongside a staggering and committed James Badge Dale performance, position the film as one that understands and appreciates studio horror movies, but has much bigger things on its mind. In short, it rules.—Jacob Oller


There’s something in the forest. But at the same time, there’s nothing much at all. A man, a cabin and maybe—maybe—something more. Sator, a mumblecore horror somewhere between a modern-day The Witch, The Blair Witch Project and Lovecraft, is a striking second feature from Jordan Graham. It’s the kind of horror that trades jump scares for negative space, one that opens with imagery your typical A24 beast saves for its finale. Sator’s dedication to its own nuanced premise, location and tense pace makes it the rare horror that’s so aesthetically well-realized you feel like you could crawl inside and live there—if it wasn’t so goddamn scary. Sator is a name, an evocation, an entity. He’s first described, by Nani (the late June Peterson, excellent), as a guardian. Nani’s known Sator (whatever he may be) for a long time. The film represents shifts in time, and the physical transportation to places soaked in memories, with an aspect ratio change and a black-and-white palette. Nani’s lovely longhand script is practiced well from a lifetime of automatic writing, with the words—including some of the opening company credits, which is a great little joke—pouring from her pen and claiming a headwater not of this world. That same paranormal river flows to her grandson Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), that aforementioned man in the woods, whose relationship with the voices in his head is a bit less comfortable. It’s a stark, bold, even compassionate film—which offers imperfectly planted details of a battered and bruised family at its core—with plenty to comprehend (or at least theorize about) for those brave enough to venture back into the forest for a rewatch. As scary as it is, Sator is an experience with enough layers and craftsmanship that its alluring call will rattle in your head long after you’ve turned it off.—Jacob Oller

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