Ted Hentschke’s Top 10 Horror Films of 2021

And so ends another arduous adventure around the sun. Hurray. Happy 2021 everyone. I’ll be honest, if not for this horror movie list, I might not be 100% on what year it even is. The hammer of COVID has truly hammered time into its flattest and most circular form. If you were to tell me that this was actually the end of 2022, I’d experience only momentary befuddlement before reflexively absorbing it like so many other previously shocking facts into the New Reality.

But hey, it wasn’t all bad. At least it seems most studios have gotten their shit somewhat together. With theaters more and more resembling the ones in Soylent Green in both function and demographic, studios have been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital streaming reality the rest of us have been living in for almost a decade. The results have been amusingly chaotic. Studios still aren’t really sure how to draw in a digital market. It doesn’t help that streaming services are built for consumption, not curation. Without the concrete walls of the cinema separating the “theatrical” releases from the “digital” ones, a film like Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin shares shelf space with Behemoth and Mojin: The Worm Valley.

What all of this means is that the lines between the horror “tiers” are blurring. It’s hard to get a pulse on what people are hyped about. Landmark releases and blockbuster sequels can’t hog the spotlight in the way they conventionally do. Which in turn leads to smaller films having more of a chance to shine. There’s never been a better time to jump into the world of indie horror. Which is great, since a lot of those are on my list. Alongside a James Wan film. Because if there’s anything you can count on from Ted, it’s inconsistency. And rambling. Enjoy.

1. The Night House

Despite what it might say on my college dating profiles, I’m not really that into artsy films. I guess it’s more accurate to say I like the idea behind most artsy horror films. I just lose interest if it’s revealed that the monster is just a metaphor. Which is pretty much the go-to move for artsy horror movies. The Night House gets around this by making the antagonist both a metaphor and an actual demon. I’ve had some debate with friends about whether or not the demon was actually real, but that’s fine. The murder is real and that’s enough to raise the stakes for me.

A more eloquent way to put it is that David Bruckner’s The Night House doesn’t sacrifice scares for the sake of being “art”. It’s a real testament to his skill as a horror director that he’s able to convey such a heartfelt story and deliver powerful scares by the same hand. There are few films that can both stretch the boundaries of what to expect from horror while staying true to its core rooted in fear. The Night House masterfully nails this balance and makes it look easy.

2. The Curse of Professor Zardonicus

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Found footage fans are a different breed. If you’re still sticking with it after the great Found Footage Flood of the 2010s, you’re likely infected with the kind of brain parasite that feeds on cringe. A parasite living rent-free in my skull. I made it a goal to see all the found footage I’d missed, which led to me watching over 200 found footage films this year. This is primarily done as a group activity with some friends on Discord. It’s your typical bad movie night: mostly shouting and booze. Maybe 1/20 films will get us to shut up and pay attention. The Curse of Professor Zardonicus was so good we watched it twice.

I expected to hate this movie. I honestly put it on as a joke. Seeing the same name for writer/director/star is generally a pretty good indication you’re in for some hurt. But Gabriel Theis isn’t your typical egotistical indie weirdo. The Curse of Professor Zardonicus has a lot of heart, in no small part due to Alec White’s stellar performance as Darren. It isn’t the scariest or most polished film on the list by a mile. But at times it delivers comedy gold on par with a Tim and Eric sketch. If you’re willing to meet the film on its level, The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is one of the most heartfelt found footage films I’ve seen.

3. Malignant

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I like how James Wan has the kinda cred where he can just walk into the New Line office, drop any horror script on their desk, and hold eye contact until they blink. Malignant has a Basket Case level plot with twice the budget of The Conjuring. It’s preposterously stupid, and the only the only real evidence of a caring divine overlord in these trying times. If you haven’t seen it… why? What are you doing? Go watch Malignant.

4. A Classic Horror Story

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Will Merrick as Mark – A Classic Horror Story – Photo Credit: Netflix

If you’re a fan of The Cabin in the Woods‘ horror homages but found it to be too silly, then A Classic Horror Story might hit the spot. The film follows a group of travelers that find themselves trapped in a mysterious, well, cabin in the woods. Soon after their arrival, several masked figures appear and begin to kill the group in increasingly grotesque rituals. What’s more, killers, the cabin and the forest itself might not be what it initially seems.

I’m staying deliberately vague. The plot has a few major twists that take the film in a completely new direction. I generally don’t like twists for the sake of twists, but A Classic Horror Story manages to use these to introduce new elements of horror without ever losing its core identity. It’s also just a fun watch with plenty of blood. Feel free to watch it with your brain either on or off.

5. The Deep House

The Deep House horror

I just think it’s cool they filmed a haunted house movie underwater.

6. The Boy Behind the Door

Lonnie Chavis as Bobby – The Boy Behind the Door – Photo Credit: Shudder

I was not fucking ready for The Boy Behind the Door. The title/poster combo makes it seem like one of those lame art films with no scares. The kind of film where you’re more supposed to like the message than the filmmaking. This could not be further from the truth. The Boy Behind the Door is a brutal 90 minutes, laser-focused on delivering a tight story with almost zero extra exposition. So many films fail in their “less is more” approach as a mask for low budget. The Boy Behind the Door absolutely nails it, forcing your brain to put the unsaid pieces together and assaulting you from within with the realization.

7. Psycho Goreman

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You have to be really smart to make a film this dumb. Psycho Goreman is a film that’s brewed from a vat of fermented nostalgia and filtered through two decades of irony and at least one midlife crisis. It is powerfully stupid, in a way we should celebrate. It chucks the rules of storytelling out the window in favor of the unbridled creativity of a child smashing toys together and making explosion sounds with their mouth. I’m glad this kind of movie isn’t the norm, as the charm wears off after a while. But on its own, Psycho Goreman is a healthy shot of whimsical insanity in a world overrun with misery.

8. No One Gets Out Alive

I know it’s going to get me a lot of shit, but I was lukewarm on 2020’s critically acclaimed horror, His House. It’s the same reason I stated in my blurb for The Night House: I don’t like metaphor monsters. Monster AND metaphor? Perfect. The monster IS a metaphor? I’m out. I bring it up because it’s largely what I expected No One Gets Out Alive to be. Following the undocumented Mexican immigrant Ambar, there’s plenty of trauma inherent in that experience to be manifested into some kind of apparition. However, No One Gets Out Alive goes in a different direction. Ambar’s non-supernatural struggles are less a focal point of the film. Meanwhile, more confounding factors further trap her in a dangerous situation.

What is threatening her is far more ancient and insidious. I won’t spoil anything, but the creature is just so damn cool. No One Gets Out Alive has just enough worldbuilding to make my mind linger on the creature well past the runtime without over-explaining it. It’s a great mix of elements, blending the message and entertainment into a potent package.

9. Son

I must be getting old. I’ve found in the past few years an increasing sentimentality towards parent/child films. Hell, I almost put Black as Night on this list because of the scene where a dad gives an emotional speech to his daughter. This is a big departure for the guy who used to openly wonder why the mom didn’t just drown the kid in The Babadook. So if you’re like me and like lame movies about people caring about their children, then you’ll probably dig Son.

Son is basically one of those “not a vampire” vampire transformation horror movies, with the twist being it’s a young boy turning into the monster. The film follows the boy and his mother as they try to evade authorities, figure out what is going on, and try to stop it. Many of the beats are what you’d expect, but the beats are strong. There are also a few plot complicators that will either really work for you or land flat. I’m not entirely sure they all worked for me. But it added enough intrigue to elevate the script beyond what I expected.

10. Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight 2

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I feel like Bartosz Kowalski’s 2020 masterpiece Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight went under the radar of a lot of horror fans. To be fair, there were a lot of other things to pay attention to in 2020. Plus the name rolls off the tongue like a frozen pole. That makes sense, since the film was made by a Pole in a country that’s frequently frozen. It’s a damn shame, because the film is an absolutely absurd slasher and celebration of excessive gore.

So does the second top the first? Well, not really. Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight 2 more sidesteps the first in favor of a new direction of insanity. It’s far more openly comedic than the first, and does cut some of the gore that made the original so much fun. It’s still there, but just less of it. Instead, we get a bizarre love story between two mutants that exist only to kill. The film also features a full-frontal mutant sex scene. It’s pretty fun.


See more of Dread Central’s favorites of 2021 here.

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