Drew Tinnin’s Top Ten Horror Films of 2021
Dread Central's Drew Tinnin highlights his personal top 10 for 2021.
Doesn’t it seem like every year critics say there weren’t any good horror movies released? This seems especially true for 2021. Even though most of us, myself included, have probably watched more genre films this year than any other. Well, except maybe 2020. With massive tentpole releases like A Quiet Place 2 and Halloween Kills bookending what was actually a pretty great twelve months of horror, it was the smaller independents that stood out to me this year. The emergence of virtual film festivals allowed access to so many more films to be seen by a wider audience than ever before. Below, I’m highlighting the ten films that have stayed with me the most over the course of 2021. I couldn’t help adding a couple of honorable mentions though!
You might not expect an ultra-violent Taiwanese zombie film to be directed by a first-time director from Canada. But that’s exactly what you get with Rob Jabbaz’s crazed debut. The Sadness is essentially a frantic chase movie through the chaotic streets of Taipei during one of the most offensive zombie outbreaks ever put on film. It’s received almost universal acclaim from horror fans, somehow, even though it takes chances that few horror films dare to attempt these days. There’s a certain catharsis watching the perverse bloodbath on display in Jabbaz’s twisted film, and that’s still undeniably refreshing.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To
As somber as it is tragic, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To shines a spotlight on a family’s day-to-day desperation as they deal with the hard truth that they must kill to survive. Patrick Fugit gives a riveting, heartbreaking performance as Dwight. He’s forced to keep his ailing brother alive by luring vagrants back to their house and bludgeoning them to death. His sister is the sinister one, and Dwight must come to terms with his family’s misdeeds. There’s a brutal physicality to the movie even though it’s ultimately about the frailty of life, even if that life is eternal.
Sometimes in horror, it’s all about sticking the landing and Scott Cooper’s creature feature delivers. Everything is set up so well going into the final act and the ending actually pays off with some of the year’s best creature work. By the time Keri Russell goes toe-to-hoof with a modern-day version of the Wendigo legend, it feels like a battle of true heavyweights. Attention is also paid to the lore of First Nations in certain set-up scenes that don’t just feel like unnecessary exposition. Out of the mainstream releases of 2021, this was a true standout.
In the Earth
Any fans of Ben Wheatley’s previous efforts like Kill List and A Field in England will find plenty to like in his secretly shot pandemic movie In the Earth. Hulu picked up this psychedelic gem out of Sundance. It’s one of the most provocative films you’re likely to see on the streamer. The scientists in Wheatley’s film are also caught up in a global health crisis, holding up a warped mirror of our own world. They hurriedly attempt to create a cure amidst the supposed safety of a remote forest. What they discover tests their beliefs about the known world revealing just how cruel nature can be.
An ancient force called “Parnag Fegg” has possibly lured them to the middle of nowhere to slowly drive them mad. Wheatley, as seen in his other films, seems to love overstimulating the audience. In the Earth has so many ideas and blinding theatrics whizzing by that it can feel a little overwhelming at times. But it’s an experience you’re unlikely to have with any other horror film in 2021.
Valdimar Jóhannsson’s original story seems like it has to be based on an old tale from Icelandic folklore. A quiet film about a husband and wife tending to a sheep farm becomes a cautionary tale about loss. The reveal of a human and sheep hybrid is funny at first, then the familial relationship becomes endearing. From that point on, Lamb has a foreboding atmosphere that bears fruit in a genuinely jaw-dropping moment in the closing minutes. For me, it was the most shocking moment in horror this year.
Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub are the cutest couple in horror for 2021. Their chemistry in Josh Ruben’s note-perfect horror-comedy is undeniable even when they’re being chased by a small town werewolf. The central mystery of a monster in their midst is compelling enough. You might even be surprised at who steps out of the shadows at the end. Werewolves Within just has that instant horror-comedy classic feel. It also proves that a movie based on a video game can actually work.
The Queen of Black Magic
Inspired by the original Shaw Brothers film Black Magic, the original Queen of Black Magic back in 1981 took the bones of a kung fu revenge movie and built a fantastic, female-led horror film. Remaking the Indonesian classic into a harder-hitting, more visceral film was no easy task for director Kimo Stamboel. Still a revenge tale, this version never lets up and earns every graphic death it delivers. After debuting earlier in the year, Stamboel’s biggest accomplishment is shining more of a spotlight on Indonesian horror.
Everyone wanted to see Steven Kostanski’s ’80s-inspired horror fantasy the second they saw the first image of the titular character. PG for short, Psycho Goreman is essentially an alien wishmaster that any conniving kid would want for their very own. Receiving almost universal acclaim, the R-rated kids movie from Canada seems to be the odds-on favorite to wind up on the most top ten lists this year. If we count our blessings this holiday season, there might even be a sequel on the horizon.
How is the fourth film in the V/H/S franchise this good? Admittedly, there is an all-star group of talent joining forces here, including franchise newcomers Jennifer Reeder, Chloe Okuno and Ryan Prows. Every segment is solid entertainment, although a special acknowledgment for truly gonzo horror filmmaking has to go to Indonesian’s own Timo Tjahjanto (May the Devil Take You). Returning filmmaker Simon Barrett (The Guest, Seance) also has a positively macabre entry called “Wake” set in a funhouse funeral parlor. If you’ve been sleeping on this anthology, head over to Shudder to finally give it a well-deserved shot.
I Blame Society
L.A. comedian Gillian Wallace Horvat’s POV horror-comedy barely made the cut on this year’s list, only because it came out at the very beginning of January in limited release. I almost missed seeing this dark and murderous tale chronicling Horvat’s demeaning journey to indie movie stardom. I’m so glad I didn’t. The movie-within-a-movie format of I Blame Society makes her demeaning experiences and rejection just as palpable as the inevitable deaths that begin to pile up. At once a hilarious satire and a twisted fantasy, Horvat’s film shows what could happen if you really would kill to make it in Hollywood.
Although I missed seeing Bruce Campbell and Devon Sawa in Black Friday when it premiered at Fantastic Fest, it really delivers a healthy dose of retail therapy with a surprising amount of heart. It could have made the top ten if its original vision (and budget) could have been realized.
Remember Stephen King’s The Langoliers? Remember it being three hours long and made for TV? Now imagine a trimmed-down arthouse version that’s actually compelling and strangely beautiful. Timekeepers of Eternity is that movie. I wonder if director Tom Holland or King himself has seen it yet?
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a striking coming-of-age story about a lost teenager named Casey who becomes enamored with an online role-playing horror game. As she goes deeper down the rabbit hole, she has to decide how far she’s willing to go to finish the game. What could have been a generic slasher with a premise that’s becoming more and more common turns out to be a fairly moving commentary on intimacy and the toxicity of social media.
What were some of your favorite films this year? Let me know on Twitter via @DrewSTinnin! Feel free to tell me just how wrong I am with some of my picks above if you’re so inclined. I won’t take it personally!