The hosts of “Not Your Final Girl” celebrate 10 of the year’s best, most surprising, and most memorable indie horror films of 2021.
On the Not Your Final Girl podcast, we talk horror double features and interview guests from the horror world. But we’ve never done an end-of-the-year wrap up. In addition to our recent horror fiction picks of 2021, we’d be remiss if we didn’t celebrate our favorite indie horror films from the year as well. You won’t see much (or any) big box office horror on this one; as always we worship at the altar of independent film, and 2021 was a great year for it.
If you feel the same way, we guarantee you’ll dig what we’ve come up with (listed in no particular order):
1. Martyrs Lane (Candace’s Pick)
Once, while we were watching a certain paranormal movie on cable, my dad said, “Why couldn’t the ghost have just written ‘hey, your husband murdered me’ on the mirror?” Yeah, my dad is like that.
But that’s the trick about ghost stories; the horror isn’t in whatever is flashing the lights and rattling the dishes, not really.
In Martyrs Lane, Ruth Platt does her story’s mirror-writing at child’s height, in the form of secrets buried in the backyard and tucked away by the side of the road. Ten-year-old Leah’s alienation from her family feels as wrong as the little dead girl knocking on her window at night, and what lies beneath it all is more horrible than any incorporeal spirit could be.
Watch Martyrs Lane, now streaming on Shudder.
2. Caveat (Ariel’s Pick)
Like many battle-hardened horror fans out there, I’m pretty tough to scare. I keep seeking harder and harder horror drugs to give me that high. But it’s not very often something keeps me up at night, imagining a deranged face peeking out from the corner of my bed.
Like several of the titles on this list, Caveat is a directorial debut. Written, directed, and edited by Damian McCarthy, it has absolutely no business being so damn good.
I don’t even want to give you a plot synopsis for this one because the entire story moves and breathes like a living nightmare — not once do you feel like you have a grasp on what’s going on or what’s to come.
Watch it on Shudder now if you want to be completely unmoored with a good old-fashioned, low-budget scare executed to perfection.
3. Titane (Candace’s Pick)
Under violet lights at a firehouse party, Alexia watches Vincent, the man whose missing son she’s impersonating while on the run for her myriad crimes, dance to Light House by Future Islands, obviously the happiest he’s been in years. She smiles with what seems like genuine tenderness despite the cloud of suspicion hanging over them, despite the mysterious pregnancy she’s hiding by gruesomely binding her increasingly swollen belly.
If this sounds painfully enigmatic, you’ve got the feel of Titane, but you are in capable hands with Julia Ducournau (writer/director of 2016’s Raw), who mixes the mythic with the deeply human for something unique and affecting.
In other words, just watch it (available to rent on most VOD platforms).
4. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Ariel’s Pick)
As I watched this movie during the Chattanooga Film Festival, I couldn’t help but feel as though it had been made exactly for me — a modern coming of age centered around a girl who wades deeper and deeper into an immersive horror online roleplaying game until she can no longer perceive reality outside of it.
This may sound like a specific niche (and it is) but it speaks to so much more: to the nebulous landscape of internet cultures, the connections we make (and the ones we can’t), and the shittiness of needing to belong somewhere.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t a movie that will scare you like what you might expect of the genre, but it might keep you up at night for other reasons. I’m desperate to see it hit a streaming service so I can talk about it with more people.
Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun is one to watch, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from them.
Editor’s Note: Utopia will release the film in U.S. theaters early next year and HBO Max has licensed U.S. streaming rights.
5. The Sadness (Candace’s Pick)
I feel like I’m cheating by writing about The Sadness, which doesn’t seem to have a solid release date yet. But I didn’t have enough extreme horror in 2021 to leave out this delightfully cruel zombie flick.
The concept is familiar, though of course made new in some ways by current events (it’s technically Taiwanese, but it’s obvious that Canadian writer/director Rob Jabbaz is thinking of the US for much of the story): a virus spreads like wildfire, hijacking the brains of the infected to commit unthinkable violence on one another.
The violence in The Sadness, done by obscenely grinning zombies with blood-blackened eyes, is truly unthinkable, meriting a rainbow of trigger warnings. It’s also terrifying in ways that are rare for any movie to pull off.
Not for everyone by a stretch, but if you’ve made it this far and are still interested, check it out as soon as you get a chance.
6. The Amusement Park (Ariel’s Pick)
This one’s a bit of a cheat as well, seeing as it premiered at the American Film Festival in 1975 (and was shelved right after). But it hasn’t been widely released until its restoration was picked up by Shudder this year, and you won’t catch me not putting a George Romero film on a Best Of list if ever given the opportunity.
Originally commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania as an educational film on the realities of elder abuse, The Amusement Park wildly defies all of what it was commissioned to be and is better for it.
I like to imagine the scene that must have unfolded — the outlier George Romero fan who halfheartedly suggested they reach out to the filmmaker, and the rest of the group, not film fans at all who told him to go for it, not knowing at all what weird and wonderful world they’d gotten themselves into.
The film is beautifully shot, entirely relevant and poignant even now, and made with the characteristic low-budget genius Romero is known for. 54 minutes extremely well spent. Watch it now on Shudder.
7. Censor (Candace’s Pick)
By its title credits featuring grainy slices of exploitation movies, fluorescent blood splatter and distorted screaming faces set against news coverage from the video nasties scare of 1980’s Britain, I knew this was my kind of movie.
But Censor is more than a meditation on the mechanics of a moral panic; it’s also a brilliant character study, a fever dream of anxiety, repressed trauma, and the power and danger of art.
A lesser filmmaker would have made main character Enid a tiresome scold, but Prano Bailey-Bond (in another stunning debut, by the way) doesn’t settle for that, instead exploring her impulse to take hold of movies and try to twist them into a shape that somehow makes reality more bearable.
Beautifully shot and performed, this is required viewing for anyone who loves horror as a genre; check it now on Hulu.
8. Hunter Hunter (Ariel’s Pick)
Written and directed by Shawn Linden (and produced by my favorite production company for abysmally bad Christmas rom-coms, but that’s a story for another time), Hunter Hunter takes the lean body of a film and flays it alive in front of you.
Bare, bloody bones have never looked so good.
In a remote Canadian wilderness, a family (Joseph, Anne, and daughter Renee) resides quietly (and illegally) on their own means- hunting and living off the land and the furs they sell in town. When Joseph doesn’t come back one night from his hunting, a wounded man mysteriously shows up in his stead.
This is such a nasty and tight little movie, and I loved every second. See it for yourself on Hulu.
9. The Medium (Candace’s Pick)
This is another one I hesitate to summarize; I went in without knowing anything and was glad I did.
With a nearly 3-hour runtime, The Medium is a journey — and a thoroughly chilling one.
I will tell you that director Bangjong Pisanthanakun makes some of the most effective use of found footage I’ve seen (Noroi: The Curse came to mind), that its plot sprawls from contained to catastrophic, and that one sequence made Ariel scream and spill tea on herself.
Is that enough to go on? Aren’t shrieks and spiritual ruin what we’re all here for?
Discover it for yourself on Shudder.
10. Till Death (Ariel’s Pick)
I’m not sure why my theme of the year for horror movies seems to be “sparse, taut, and low budget,” but Till Death definitely fits firmly within those parameters.
Known by those who love to hate Megan Fox based on outdated and sexist rumors of her acting ability as “shockingly good,” S. K. Dale’s directorial debut Till Death is written by Jason Carvey and stars Fox in, yes, a role she plays incredibly well (but unlike the haters, we’re not surprised by it).
Emma (Fox) is whisked away by a controlling husband to a private getaway under the guise of rekindling their marriage, but she soon finds the plan he’s concocted is far from innocent. This one shows its cards pretty early and still confidently manages to surprise and entertain, in a fucked up thriller offspring of Gerald’s Game and Home Alone kind of way.
Don’t sleep on this one, streaming now on Netflix.
The Ones That Got Away (For Now):
Despite having watched 36 2021 horror movie releases between the two of us, we’d like to make mention of a few on our to-watch list that we haven’t yet seen: Violation, written and directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli; The Stylist, written and directed by Jill Gevargizian; and The Queen of Black Magic, written by Joko Anwar and directed by Kimo Stamboel. We’ll get to ya soon.