The year may have been interesting, to say the least, but 2021 was actually a great year for horror movies. Small independent productions flourished on streaming services as audiences shied from theatres to provide some of the best horror movies of 2021.
Those that did feel comfortable popping into theatres were also treated during the Halloween period to some great genre mashups with Halloween Kills, Last Night in Soho, and Venom 2, which headlined October’s biggest horror movies—but did any of these big films turn out to be the best horror movies of 2021?
With the help of fellow KeenGamer author and horror fan, Emanuel Ortiz, I’ve put together a list of our personal picks for the best horror movies of 2021 below, in no particular order--including some honorable mentions.
For some other fantastic horror picks, be sure to check out these:
- The 10 Best Movies on Shudder
- 5 Great Horror Games on Xbox Game Pass
- The Top Five Movies Based On Real-Life Serial Killers
Director: James Wan.
Writers: James Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper.
Responsible for the mega-horror-hits Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, director and writer James Wan returned to the genre and delivered perhaps the most batsh*t crazy movie on this list.
Annabelle Wallis (Peaky Blinders, Annabelle) takes on the role of Madison Lake, a nurse who begins to see terrifying visions of grizzly murders in her sleep. It soon becomes apparent that she is witnessing real people dying, but is powerless to help. Maddie Hasson and George Young also star in the Giallo-inspired film.
Horror fans should stay well clear of any more information than this before pressing play on Malignant, as its head-scratching bizarre revelation in the third act is the highlight of the whole production. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it finale, yet it undeniably crescendos the ridiculous storytelling and acting showcased throughout. It all feels like it’s ripped straight from B-movie horror classics, if only they had received a decent budget.
It’s a huge departure from Wan’s previous ghost-leaning horror stories, but still contains some of his classic directorial skills. Malignant deserves a spot on anybody’s best horror movies of 2021 list, and you should at the very least watch it once. Just to see what everybody loves/hates about it.
The Boy Behind the Door
Directors: David Charbonier and Justin Powell.
Writers: David Charbonier and Justin Powell.
Centered on two friends, Kevin (Ezra Dewey) and Bobby (Lonnie Chavis), and their attempt to escape their kidnapper’s house. What makes the film so tense is the two boys’ age. They obviously can’t fight their way out, and they’re not crazy geniuses either. As a result, there are mistakes made. You’re basically following one of the boys and commenting the entire time “oh no, do this instead”, or “you’re going to get caught like this”.
Again, because of their age, it never feels like the characters are purposefully doing stupid things for the sake of the plot. Everything they do feels genuine, and the people they’re up against are incredibly disturbed.
Director: Julia Ducournau.
Writer: Julia Ducournau.
Titane is a body horror from French director and writer Julia Ducournau (Raw) that won the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top award. It’s the first horror film to ever win the prestigious title. Despite critically successful horror movies often leaning more on the psychological side of storytelling, Titane is unashamedly a body horror offering.
Agathe Rousselle stars as Alexia, who has a particular fascination for all things metal after a titanium plate is fitted into her head as a child. Now an adult, and working as a showgirl for a motor show, it’s her sexual obsession with metal that provides some of the most shocking and memorable scenes. On the flip side, there’s also a devastatingly sad tale of loss and unconditional acceptance weaved into the narrative that teeters on the edge of being heartwarming. However, there’s a disturbing scene just around the corner to slap audiences around the face with after these emotional story beats. There’s even some dark humor in the first act that almost feels wrong to laugh at…almost.
Along with an exceptional performance from Vincent Lindon, and some masterclass directing from Ducournau, all of these aspects of Titane undeniably make it one of the best horror movies of 2021. It’s going to make quite an impression in the horror community when it eventually hits streaming services--and I can’t wait to see the various reactions to it.
Directors: Simon Barrett, Steven Kostanski, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, and Timo Tjahjanto.
Writers: Simon Barrett, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, and Timo Tjahjanto.
Hail Raatma, is V/H/S 94 an insanely fun horror flick.
A sequel of sorts to V/H/S, it tells four short, creepy tales in its wraparound plot of a SWAT team investigating a mysterious VHS tape. It leads them to raid a remote warehouse where they find some disturbingly staged scenes, along with some suspect videotapes.
The horror anthology uses this premise to show off four different takes on the genre. “Storm Drain” is an eerie creature-feature mixed with The Blair Witch Project. “The Empty Wake” is a slow burn with some vampiric/zombie leanings. “The Subject” is a relentless body horror mixed with the crazy scientist trope and Doom-esque first-person visuals. “Terror” is the last story before the overarching plotline concludes. It combines the very real horror of racist extremist groups in North America with an interesting use of the vampire myth.
Basically, there’s something for everyone looking for the cinematic equivalent of a theme park ghost train.
A Quiet Place Part II
Director: John Krasinski.
Writer: John Krasinski.
A Quiet Place Part II continues on from the first film, not long after the home the family stayed at was raided by monsters. The family is led by Emily Blunt, who is as fantastic here as she was in the first film. The family feels more mature due to the events of the previous film--more seasoned, and capable of taking on these monsters. As a result, the sequel doesn’t feel as scary as the first entry.
It’s still as tense though, as these monsters that hunt only using sound are swift and merciless. This means the movie keeps as quiet as it can for the majority of its runtime. It makes you feel as though the characters’ lives are in danger with each little misstep they take. What I also liked about the film was the fact that they spent time revisiting the past, right before the aliens arrived. You see how quickly everything just completely burns and how terrifying these monsters are.
Last Night in Soho
Director: Edgar Wright.
Writer: Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
The most stylish and accessible dive into horror during 2021 was Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. It’s more of a trippy look into the particular horrors of 1960’s nightclub worker Sandie (Anya Taylor Joy) than it is a scare a minute.
That’s exactly what makes the movie so great. It slowly builds an eerie tone from the initial coming-of-age groundwork laid by telling Eloise’s (Thomasin McKenzie) story of relocation to modern-day London. Her fascination with living flashbacks of Sandie’s life doesn’t take long to turn into dread. It’s an interesting, slightly sci-fi tale, but it’s the beautiful cinematography, costumes, and score that makes Last Night in Soho one of the best horror movies of 2021.
With these winning production elements, a real love for the time period comes across just as strongly as Eloise’s. This adoration contrasted with the seedier aspects of vintage London is balanced so the audience feels just as uncomfortable as Sandie and Eloise. You might guess where the story is heading, but that doesn’t take away from the beautiful journey it takes to get there.
The Fear Street Trilogy
Director: Leigh Janiak.
Writers: Leigh Janiak, Phil Graziadei, Zak Olkewicz, and Kate Trefry.
During the summer of 2021, streaming juggernaut Netflix gifted horror fans with not one adaptation of R.L. Stine’s classic Fear Street books--but three. Part One (1994), Two (1978), and Three (1666) were released a week apart, telling their own individual horror tales, yet also delivering an intertwined narrative. Although darker than the more famous Goosebumps stories that made the author well-known, the three Fear Street films are a fun and accessible watch, even for those not too interested in the genre.
The Fear Street Trilogy was surprising for me as I honestly thought these films would be cheesy when I first saw the trailers. Although there are some Goosebumps-like elements in the trilogy, such as humor and a band of kids going against a greater evil, I really enjoyed how each one of them was set in a different time period.
I don’t think these films would have been nearly as interesting if they all took place in the present day. I found the first film to be an interesting mystery film while the second one had a cool slasher story. The third film then introduced magical elements. It never felt out of place either. Characters are likeable in each film (some of them were variations of others we’ve seen) and it was interesting to see how they all tied together. I don’t think the movies were all entirely too scary, but they had plenty of kills and moments that made the trilogy stand out from Goosebumps comparisons.
Director: Prano Bailey-Bond.
Writers: Prano Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher.
A horror movie about horror movies and their fans that manages to offer fascinating commentary without patronizing its audience, Censor is both a metaphorical and visual treat that simultaneously manages to tell the main character Enid’s (Niamh Algar) own personal story.
Set in the 1980’s at the height of the “video nasty” paranoia in Britain, Enid works as a censor, meaning she passes, fails, and suggests edits for movies seeking a specific certification. Her line of employment means she sees a lot of unedited, disturbing content. It’s the newest Frederick North picture that really gets to her, however, as it conjures up memories of her past that Enid does not want to tap into--or does she?
Its psychological horror will work its way into your brain through grimey 80’s visuals, and a gorgeous red and blue color pallet. You won’t be forgetting Niamh Algar either, as she provides one of the best (and expertly subtle) performances of the year. Any horror fan owes it to themself to watch Censor at least once.
Director: Scott Cooper.
Writer: Scott Cooper, Henry Chaisson, and Nick Antosca.
Antlers was finally unleashed into theatres after multiple delays due to the pandemic. It was released the same day as Last Night in Soho, which means it didn’t get an awful lot of hype generated, which is a shame because it’s actually a very good (if bleak) mix of examining folklore, modern drug issues, and dealing with trauma.
Guillermo del Toro produced, which should light up the eyes of any horror fan with an appreciation for his creativity when it comes to designing fantastical fictional creatures. Antlers doesn’t disappoint, giving audiences a grotesquely beautiful (and mostly practical) monster to gaze at while it tinges its antlers with blood. Keri Russell (The Americans, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), and Jesse Plemons (Fargo, The Irishman) both star, and Russell especially helps elevate the depressing material.
It’s not perfect, but Antlers is a classic example of a movie greater than the sum of its parts. It’s ideal for those wanting a slightly higher-budget horror offering with something to say.
The Night House
Director: David Bruckner.
Writers: David S. Goyer, Keith Levine, and John Zois.
The Night House is one of my favorite films this year. It’s a psychological horror that follows Beth (Rebecca Hall) after the death of her husband. She starts having strange visions which lead her to discover secrets that her husband may have had. Throughout the story, she is looking for answers, and as the audience, we are essentially just given what she gets. We’re trying to piece it together too.
The Night House is deeper than it initially appears, and fans of mystery horror films will absolutely love this movie. It’s one that also benefits from multiple viewings, and its last line has stuck with me throughout the year.
Director: Steven Kostanski.
Writer: Steven Kostanski.
Psycho Goreman‘s whole message is that it has no message--it’s just a ridiculously fun journey into horror-comedy with some excellent creature design. All the monsters, bar Psycho Goreman himself, are very clearly puppets and prosthetics, but this is what makes them so memorable. It’s like Power Rangers and Creature From the Black Lagoon got together and produced the world’s weirdest family.
I’m not usually a big fan of horror-comedy, at least not enough to list one as one of the best horror movies of 2021, so I can’t emphasize enough just how funny I found Psycho Goreman. The sassy quips between the creatures; the cheesy montage that serves no purpose; and the brilliant performance from young actor Nita-Josee Hanna will plaster a smile across any horror fan who enjoys a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously.
Yes, I’m cheating a little here, but with so many good horror films released in 2021, it’s hard not to spotlight more. The following picks may have some issues, but they still stood out in a year filled with memorable movies.
Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and Nia DaCosta, Candyman is a good movie that could have been great. It’s a tall order to even attempt a quality sequel to the 1992 classic however, and at the very least, audiences are treated to memorable direction from Nia DaCosta, and a great performance from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The story may rely a little too heavily on metaphors for some, but it still deserves to be watched for fans of slow-burn horror, and memorable kills.
Rose Glass directed and wrote this British psychological horror that serves as an examination of faith, mental health, and loneliness. It features an unsettling tone from beginning to end, and deploys the same sort of horror twists The Witch is renowned for. You’re never quite sure whether to root for Maud (Morfydd Clark) or not, or indeed where the plot is going. It may not have any singular stand-out moment, and might be more drama than horror for some, but Glass certainly knows how to establish an eerie tone. I hope she tackles the horror genre again.
Wrong Turn quickly developed into a cult classic when it was released in 2003, and I suspect its 2021 reboot could receive the same status if only more people would give it a go. Written by original screenwriter Alan B. McElroy, and directed by Mike P. Nelson, this reimagining subverts audience expectations, sending them on a strange, uneven journey into the Virginian woods. It’s not always a good film, in fact, it can be weird and cringey at times, and I’m not sure I even like the overall message of the film--but at least it tried to do something different for a reboot. It’s best to hit play with no more information than this and see if Wrong Turn‘s unexpected story is for you or not.
Did any of your favorites make the best horror movies of 2021 list? Do you want to give a shout out to something that might have been overlooked? Let me know in the comments below.