Horror is as durable a genre as exists in moviemaking. Come rain, shine or real-life pandemic, humans loves being scared. And yet with the world outside the multiplex seeming increasingly unhinged, you might suspect that film fans would be wanting to seek their movie thrills from sources less disturbing or more hopeful. On the evidence of 2021, however, this hunch would be very wrong.
This was a year in which horror consistently entertained, more women were behind the camera and strange tales were seen by more eyes than ever. And while there were some reboots, they were mostly welcome reworkings of classic tales.
Here, then, are the 10 best horror films that NME saw in 2021.
Imagine a live action He-Man movie produced by splatter masters Troma, and you’ll probably arrive at something a bit like Psycho Goreman. Actually the work of Astron-6, the Canadian creative powerhouse who notably gave the world the excellent The Void in 2016, it’s true that there are more laughs than scares here. But this tale of an ancient extraterrestrial warlord being stranded on Earth fills every nook and cranny with ideas and ingenuity – and every character demands an action figure.
How scary is it? You will laugh more than you will scream. You won’t mind.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
The eighth – how did that happen?! – instalment in the Conjuring Universe riffs off the real-life 1981 trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson in Connecticut – the first known US court case in which the defence sought to prove innocence based upon the defendant’s claim of demonic possession and subsequent denial of personal responsibility. It is, by some distance, the worst instalment in the main series – too often silly rather than spooky – and yet we’re nowhere near bored of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The year is 2054, and we’re in the queue for tickets to The Conjuring 32.
How scary is it? Pretty scary, except when it’s silly. Use these moments to breathe.
Horror and social commentary are hardly uneasy bedfellows. Even so, this long overdue sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 adaptation of the Clive Barker short story The Forbidden suffers from sometimes forgetting that it’s a horror movie in-between the important rhetoric on BLM, urban gentrification and white privilege. And yet, this is a classy production: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s score is astonishing and the performances are bold (fans will be thrilled to see Tony Todd back in the titular role). But the real-life events Candyman riffs on are so atrocious, the film doesn’t need to lay the horror on so thick.
How scary is it? The first time Candyman floats into view? Nope nope nope.
Director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature – which tells the story of Enid (the ever-impressive Niamh Algar), an employee of the British Board of Film Classification at the height of the ‘video nasty’ moral panic of the ’80s – can be read as a mediation on grief, guilt or how much extremity the human mind can take before it breaks. It’s an unsettling watch, though it does leave the viewer needing answers that never arrive. But what’s more surprising is just how perversely funny the whole thing is, suggesting that the Welsh filmmaker has more colours in her directorial palette than you might find in the rainbow.
How scary is it? Quite. And what a delight to see the once-banned 1979 video nasty The Driller Killer in the opening moments!
From the writers of the pandemic hit Host, Dashcam sticks with the found-footage format that delivered so much acclaim last time around. This time, though, the frights are mobile: lead Annie Hardy – a name you might recognise from her work in cult 00’s indie rock band Giant Drag – is a revelation, essentially playing a turned-up version of herself as she livestreams an evening of COVID chaos spent ferrying the mysterious Angela around in her car.
How scary is it? Very. How dope? Well, you must stick around to see Hardy rapping during the credits…
Set during a night shift at the East London Royal Infirmary during the national power outage of 1974, The Power is a powerful tale of trauma with a twist that’s alarming, if a little bit overplayed. Rose Williams, as naïve newbie nurse Val, delivers a frenetic, physical performance that earmarks her as a new talent well worth keeping an eye on. It’s also a reminder that hospitals are terrifying places in of themselves… and we’re not just talking about the food.
How scary is it? Consistently. Wear a mask, you guys! You don’t want to be anywhere near a hospital right now.
It’s probably difficult to do so now three months on from its release, but the best way to experience horror kingpin James Wan’s latest work is to go into the film as cold as winter. Perhaps stop reading these words. Just stop. Go for a walk or something, or empty the dishwasher instead. Because, like a Trojan Horse, Malignant promises one thing, then delivers another. And that other is so batshit, so inventive, so messed up, surprising and weird that you need to experience it as nature intended, which is cowering with fear, confusion and delight.
How scary is it? Oh, you have no idea…
The Night House
An intelligent ghost story of some emotional clout, the performance of lead Rebecca Hall here as the grieving widow of a suicide victim scratting around in the couple’s lakeside home, uncovering the myriad of secrets her husband has left behind, is what elevates this good film to a really great one. If the Academy weren’t so uptight about horror cinema, Hall would join the similarly ignored Toni Collette (of Hereditary) in winning the biggest of acting prizes.
How scary is it? Extremely. When Hall screams, she screams for all of us.
Written by Valdimar Jóhannsson and sometime-Björk collaborator Sjón, this Icelandic folk horror concerns a human/sheep hybrid and only gets weirder from thereon. The too-often underappreciated Noomi Rapace stars as the creature’s adoptive mother, and while the ending to this slow-burn oddity shrugs when it should soar, you may well spend the running time of the credits – and this is some compliment right now – checking for the appearance of an A24 logo.
How scary is it? It’ll make you reconsider your Sunday Lunch options forever.
Last Night In Soho
Edgar Wright has said that his psychological horror was inspired by his “obsession” with 1960’s London. Not that his infatuation is especially wholesome, mind. “Something that I find truly nightmarish,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and I guess there’s an element where I’m sort of giving a sharp rebuke to myself – is the danger of being overly nostalgic about previous decades. In a way, the film is about romanticising the past and why it’s… wrong to do that.” There is much to criticise about the film: it’s often too sleek, there’s too many jump scares and the second half makes no sense. But most will find the depiction of Soho’s long-lost underbelly thrilling. Best of all, there’s not an Itsu in sight.
How scary is it? Jumpy rather than scary, and yet Wright’s tale will linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.