I can’t imagine I’ll be the first person to kick off their year-end favorites list by saying it was a dumpster fire. But while we’re all eager to put this Hindenburg-esque disaster of a year in our rearview, there were certainly some highlights in the world of horror. We squeaked in a few theatrical releases before we all had to go into involuntary hibernation, and while the disruption to major releases wasn’t ideal, we got a chance to give some love to smaller releases that may have flew under the radar in other years. Add to that some great genre television and virtual events that let us come together and celebrate horror without even having to put on pants, and there are definitely reasons to rejoice. Here are a few of mine in no particular order.
I’m a sucker for aquatic horror, so one of the biggest treats for me this year was getting not one, but two great sea monster tales this year (more on the second one in a minute). William Eubank’s Underwater is a ridiculously fun throwback to the ocean-set B-movie films of the late ’80s like Leviathan and Deepstar Six. The film kicks into high gear within moments of the opening credits, as a deep-sea research team’s lab collapses and a handful of survivors have to try and find a way to the surface... and of course fend off the creatures that caused the collapse in the first place. Eubanks pulls together a great ensemble and takes an interesting approach by exploring the group dynamic only after the shit starts hitting the fan. The ensemble is game as we get great turns from Vincent Cassel and John Gallagher, Jr. But the star of the show, of course, is Kristen Stewart who, as the team’s engineer Norah, gives us a vulnerable heroine who still manages to kick sea monster ass while rocking the hell out of a platinum pixie cut. Underwater is tense, fast-paced, and just a lot of fun.
If Underwater is the roller coaster popcorn aquatic horror movie of 2020, then Sea Fever is its more subdued Irish cousin. When an intelligent, but socially awkward graduate student joins a fishing boat to do research for school, she has trouble ingratiating herself with the crew due to her personality quirks and the fact that she’s a redhead (a big no-no for superstitious seafarers). Things go from bad to worse when a giant creature latches onto the boat and infects it with larva that we learn can also be passed from person to person. As the film takes a turn into an infection narrative, it becomes eerily prescient for this year, and while the pace is much slower than Underwater, it’s terrifically acted, beautifully shot, and melancholic in a way that really hits home in the final frames.
Prime Time Bitch: A Queer Tribute to a Nightmare on Elm Street
There was so much fantastic content that came out of Salem Horror Fest’s virtual platform this year including great new films, fantastic lectures, and delightful panels. But the highlight for me was Coco Cain’s Prime Time Bitch. Imagine a drag show broadcast from a UHF station in Freddy Krueger’s boiler room and you’ll have some sense of the show’s tone. Cain brought together a really talented group of local drag queens and burlesque dancers who leveraged the virtual platform to record some really innovative performances. It was almost like watching a batch of Nightmare-themed music videos, and it was an absolute ball. Please give Cain an outlet to do this on a regular basis, please and thank you.
The Mortuary Collection
An anthology movie framed as a batch of tales being told by Clancy Brown who’s channeling something of a world-weary version of The Tall Man? I mean, there’s no way this movie wasn’t going to make my list, right? And Ryan Spindell doesn’t just worm his way into my heart with the framing gimmick. The stories themselves have one hell of a mean streak without ever losing their sense of fun, and they feature some of the best gore gags I’ve seen this year (there’s a POV shot from a television that still makes me squirm). Cap it off with a delightfully twisted wraparound reveal and you’ve got the best anthology movie I’ve seen in quite some time.
My favorite vampire film of all time is The Lost Boys, so to see Brad Michael Elmore give us something that works in the spirit of glam rock vampires while also creating something wholly new was definitely a highlight of my year. The movie takes the coming-of-age vampire tale and weaves in some very interesting discussions about gender as a young girl fresh out of high school finds herself lured into a pack of take-no-shit women vampires whose only rule in life is not to give men the gift of vampirism. Since I’m really not the person to dive into the discussion of trans representation in the movie, I’ll simply direct you to Harmony Colangelo’s piece and say that from my end that it was a slick, bloody romp and I truly hope the movie gets a sequel or, even better, a television series, as there’s a lot more story to be told in this world.
Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson
I went into David Gregory’s documentary about schlockmeister Al Adamson knowing virtually nothing about its subject beyond what I read in some of the promotional material leading up to the film’s release. I think that actually enhanced my overall enjoyment of the doc, as it turned out to be a real crash course in Adamson’s brand of go-for-broke low-budget filmmaking, with my favorite tactic of his being his tendency to repackage the same film multiple times to try and get traction with whichever exploitation trend was hot at the time. Then, of course, there’s the pivot to the macabre story of Adamson’s final days, which felt like a story that would have been right at home in one of Adamson’s movies. It definitely made me want to check out some of Adamson’s films (not sure I’m ready to go for that full box set, though).
Anything for Jackson
Kudos to director Justin K. Dyck for his misdirect in Anything for Jackson, a film that starts off as a quirky dark comedy and then shifts into something much darker that scared the ever-living hell out of me. The film follows an aging couple as they kidnap a pregnant woman in the hopes of using her unborn child as a vessel to perform a “reverse exorcism” and bring back their recently deceased grandson. Things start off comedically (if not pretty macabre), but take a turn for the truly creepy after the botched ritual. Dyck has a knack for unpredictability in his scares, so you just don’t know when one will pop up from around a random corner. It’s a very satisfying demonic yarn from someone I think we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.
The Invisible Man
Stories about abuse and stories where nobody believes the protagonist are tough for me to get through, so I had to brace myself for a film that promised to deliver both of those narratives. But I also had a feeling this was going to be too good to miss, and damn if that didn’t turn out to be the case. Leigh Whannell has such a gift for crafting a story, and here he’s created a film that pulls genuine horror from the trauma of an abusive relationship without ever turning it into a cheap gimmick. Add to that Elisabeth Moss putting on a clinic, as I assume she’s often convincingly acting against either a guy in a green suit or a tennis ball, and you get a tense thriller that shows the true potential to take classic monsters into new directions.
I Am Not Okay with This
I’m still pissed at Netflix for cancelling this after just one season. Jonathan Entwistle and Christy Hall’s adaptation of Charles Forsman’s comic series manages to be both caustically funny and genuinely touching without losing its tone. And Sophia Lollis is perfect as Sydney, the curmudgeon whose constant irritation and sarcasm hide a young girl dealing with her father’s suicide and coming to terms with her sexuality (in Western Pennsylvania no less). And if that weren’t bad enough, she’s also learning that she’s got some very potent telekinetic powers that she can’t control very well as we learn in a shocking moment in the final episode that still caught me off guard even though it had been hinted at throughout the season. It’s a shame we won’t get to see where this one would have gone with additional seasons, but I’d say that the one we got is well worth your time.
I’ll admit I was a little nervous about this one, as the original was a childhood staple for me and the heavy CGI in the trailers didn’t instill me with much confidence. As it turns out, the CGI was a hint that Robert Zemeckis knew better than to try and duplicate the first movie and created what Horror Queers co-host Trace Thurman refers to as a “live-action cartoon.” This remake leans harder into something of a screwball comedy while still keeping the high stakes in play (these witches will still straight up try to turn children into a mouse and murder them if at all possible). At its center is Anne Hathaway, who is clearly going all the way in on the over-the-top villain vibe as The Grand High Witch and I’m all for it. Plus, Octavia Spencer and Jahzir Kadeem Bruno balance Hathaway’s shenanigans with a more subtle, bittersweet relationship that anchors the movie in a way that shows how to take a known entity and turn it into something interesting in its own right.
What We Do in the Shadows
Admittedly I was late to the game with this series, because (and I hesitate to admit this in public) I liked, but did not love the movie. I'm glad I took the dive this year, however, as What We Do in the Shadows is my favorite show on the air right now. Everyone in the ensemble is pitch perfect, including the lovably idiotic Nandor, the literal energy vampire Colin Robinson, and of course everyone's favorite put-upon familiar/vampire slayer Guillermo. But I've got to admit I've got a particular soft spot for Nadja and Laszlo, the house's resident married couple who are so abundantly self-centered and oblivious that they somehow become charming. And season 2 is proof that this won't be a one-note series, as all of the characters got time to shine and evolve (and of course as Jonathan mentioned in his favorites list, the Jackie Daytona episode is a masterpiece). I can't wait to see what season 3 has in store for these bloodsucking buffoons.
Check back here for more Favorites of 2020 lists from the Daily Dead team!