2021 may have been a real-life horror show, but at least the onscreen horror was strong; here are 30 of our favorites you may have missed.
2021 was a year punctuated with long-awaited, COVID-delayed theatrical releases, including Nia DaCosta’s extraordinary reimagining of Candyman and David Gordon Green’s follow-up to the box office smash Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills. In addition to these two, the ten most profitable films of the year were all new entries from familiar properties save for one (The Unholy). These included A Quiet Place: Part II, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, The Forever Purge, Don’t Breathe 2, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, Spiral, and Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City.
With a few exceptions, including the buzzworthy James Wan-helmed Malignant (coming in at #11 of the year’s most successful horror films), a vast number of truly exceptional independent horror films flew under the radar. So, the Morbidly Beautiful writing team came together to share 30 of our favorites from 2021. It’s highly likely many of these films will be undiscovered gems for you — films you didn’t quite get around to watching or ones you missed hearing about.
Our hope is that this list introduces you to some remarkable new horror films you’ll consider seeking out while you wait for some of 2022’s most anticipated releases.
PART 1: 1-10
1. Last Night in Soho
Last Night in Soho is a visually stunning masterpiece. It is delectable for the eyes and ears featuring, rich-color expression and a fantastic throwback to the music of the 1960s. The seamless transition between time and space adds to the fantasy element. Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a naive dreamer with a heart of gold, toggles between an alternate universe she enters in her dreams. While in this altered reality, Eloise meets Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow creative who inspires and ignites her passion for retro fashion design.
Adding to the intrigue is how unevenly time shifts during the sleep segments. It’s unclear how much time Eloise is spending in this other reality. One night of sleep could be days or weeks. This device moves the story and maintains the audience’s interest as one is left to piece events together. The movie is a unique undertaking, which can still be appreciated for its other qualities, if not for its loose storytelling.
(Recommended by Kara Grimoire)
Last Night in Soho tells a story that zips and zigs and zags as the hopeful present-day of Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is crashed into by the dark past of Sandi (Anya Taylor-Joy), unfolding as a slick supernatural-mystery time hopper. The story of Sandi grows darker by the scene and blossoms like a flesh wound, her world showered with equal parts glamour and grit, the seedy characters dulling the shine of the flashy city lights of 1960s London. When Eloise gets sucked into Sandi’s world, director Edgar Wright unleashes a spectacular bleeding neon, a bump-in-the-night playground that grips and thrills and jolts at every turn.
While Anya Taylor-Joy is superb and striking as the doomed dreamgirl Sandi, Thomasin McKenzie is as real as it gets. She absolutely crackles and lights up the screen, and watching McKenzie in total command of a demanding lead role is as thrilling as the film itself. Working as both a coming-of-age and loss of life story, the question at the center of Last Night in Soho isn’t “do you believe in ghosts,” it’s “have you already become one?”
(Recommended by Jason McFiggins)
2. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is an emotional and bleak horror film about the strain of familial obligation. Director Jonathan Cuartas fashions an investing story that follows a trio of siblings. The youngest sibling, Thomas (Owen Campbell), is suffering from a mysterious illness that requires him to drink human blood. The two elder siblings, Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), are forced to desperate measures to keep their delicate younger brother alive.
There’s sorrow in every inch of this film and a palpably beautiful gloominess. It revels in human complexity and explores the messy nooks and crannies of sibling relationships. Patrick Fugit’s Dwight is a harrowingly sad character who becomes the film’s empathetic core, while Ingrid Sophie Schram’s Jessie is devoted and possibly a bit unhinged herself. Fugit and Schram play off of one another beautifully, creating a toxic microcosm within the three-person family that is utterly fascinating.
Cuartas gives us a horror that doubles as a meditative family drama that is worth going all-in on.
(Recommended by Jamie Alvey)
3. Saint Maud
A taut, suspenseful, and unnerving tale of a young woman’s spiritual crisis, Saint Maud is remarkable in every way.
A home care nurse for the terminally ill, Maud is an intensely devout young woman struggling to save the soul of her dying patient, Amanda. A former renowned dancer and vivacious beauty, Amanda just wants to embrace her final fleeting days on Earth with as much joie de vivre as she can muster. But her hedonistic tendencies conflict with Maud’s narrow view of saint vs sinner.
Recovering from some unspoken trauma, Maud has turned to religion and devout devotion to make sense of her pain. She desperately clings to the belief that her life holds some greater purpose than the tragic cards of misery and loneliness she’s been dealt in life. Soft-spoken and reserved, she conveys a quiet intensity that hints at the dark storm brewing beneath the ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Fathers’.
Maud is straddling the delicate line between religious fervor and psychosis, and that line is beginning to blur in increasingly devastating ways.
With spellbinding performances from Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, this startling directorial debut from Rose Glass is beautiful, harrowing, and uncompromising. A female-driven tour-de-force, it’s the kind of haunting revelation that lingers long after the shocking gut-punch of an ending.
(Recommended by Stephanie Malone)
4. The Night House
What would you do if you found yourself at the apex of centripetal darkness? The Night House poses this very question through the eyes of its bereaved protagonist, Beth. Every act of the film exposes a different wound of the human condition, from grief and betrayal to loneliness, confusion, and finally — to the most dreadful concept of them all — nothingness. The Night House deftly subverts the tropes of a typical ghost story at every turn, offering a new perspective on the many ways in which grief and the great unknown can haunt us.
The beauty of this film is in the many ways in which it terrifies viewers, inspiring cautious over-the-shoulder glances and existential dread in one fell swoop. It’s not enough to simply elevate the heart rate. The Night House, fueled by nuanced writing and exceptional performances, is here to tap into primal fears with fresh and stylized execution. When it comes to this movie, the less you know the better. Experience this haunted house alongside Beth so you can witness and conquer, the power of unresolved trauma and uncontended fear in real-time. You certainly won’t regret it.
(Recommended by Maggie Stankiewicz)
5. Little Fish
Little Fish is as terrifying as it is romantic, showing the most devastating way to lose a loved one: right before your eyes through memory loss. Like memory itself, the film is fragmented with one main storyline surrounded by glimpses of the past that construct the relationship of two people living through a memory loss pandemic. Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell excel as the leads, with O’Connell earning every ounce of our empathy and Cooke projecting her deep heartache onto the viewer in a stunning performance.
Emotional, scary, intense, and thoughtful, Little Fish is a beautifully crafted unconventional, gut-punch romance that lingers in your thoughts. Not a conventional horror, the film instead frightens from within each individual viewer as they contemplate what it would be like to witness friends and loved ones forget who you are, and you them. And then forget who you are yourself. It’s a premise that is both heartbreaking and alarming, but one that oddly and beautifully leaves splinters of hope. The emotions and themes of Little Fish are layered, complex and powerful, yet its presentation of the essence of humanity is miraculously simple.
Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Memento written by Nicholas Sparks. Seek this film out, before you forget.
(Recommended by Jason McFiggins)
6. Till Death
Megan Fox is making her second go-round of being the “it girl” this year, so it was a nice surprise that she made her way back to horror. We all first fell in love with her in Jennifer’s Body; Till Death was a complete departure from the horror-comedy role, and instead gave us a very straightforward survival thriller that was nearly as bloody.
Emma is stuck in an abusive marriage. On her anniversary, her husband chains him to her in their isolated cabin in the dead of winter. When she wakes up the following morning, she finds herself at the center of the world’s most harrowing revenge plot. The creep factor of winter horror is underrated, and you’ll fall in love with the resilience of Emma as we’re shown what a person is truly capable of in order to survive in S.K. Dale’s impressive directorial debut.
(Recommended by Guest Writer Jessica Gomez, @writerjessicagomez on Instagram)
7. Willy’s Wonderland
Killer animatronics in a children’s amusement center and an overnight employee trying to survive may scream Five Night At Freddy‘s to some, but this film is a different kind of a spook. No predictable jump scares here, but an action-packed night during which Nicolas Cage disembowels, breaks and utterly destroys possessed animatronics, all while trying to be a good janitor.
That set-up already sold me on the flick, but there is something extra that tickled the gamer in me. This film is like a video game, and it is not FNAF. Rather, it’s a film constructed like a video game: it has a silent protagonist, it has a backstory that no one really cares about, and it has new enemies arrive in a way that feels like boss fights on a level. In other words, it feels like a video game in the best way. And while it is not a film you rewatch to find hidden meanings, it does not need to be deep. It is fun, fast, and has a great theme song that you will be checking out on Spotify.
And have I mentioned it has Nicolas Cage grunting his way through the movie? It’s just another proof that Cage’s career renaissance is happening and making horror if not better, then certainly more amusing.
(Recommended by Dax Kurowska)
8. The Power
Set in 1970’s London, nurse Val (Rose Williams) spends her first day working a shift at a nearly abandoned hospital while enduring the scheduled electricity “blackouts” that were enforced at the time. While navigating the delicate politics of internal staff, Val struggles to protect a young child from a mysterious, vengeful force that destroys everything in its path.
This aptly-named film reflects again and again how the vulnerable are preyed on by societal structures, allowing for abuse and violence while those in power turn a blind eye (The fact that the blackouts were themselves a political ploy to avoid paying coal minors can not be overstated). Val encounters predators of every kind her first night on the job, each struggling against and warped by their own predetermined rung on the social ladder.
While this may sound preachy, Val’s role as a lonely, friendless woman of indeterminate race makes her vulnerability clear. Everyone she encounters, be it childhood bully, rapey electrician, or supernatural, murderous spirit, becomes a potential threat.
The human interactions here are just as terrifying as the supernatural, combining the heightened anxiety of walking to your car at 3 am with the breathtaking horror of fighting off an eye-gouging specter. Every moment is filled with menace.
(Recommended by Alli Hartley)
9. Jakob’s Wife
It took four years for Travis Steven’s Jakob’s Wife to translate from the script to Shudder, as Barbara Crampton was insistent on not rushing the creative process. I think the years and patience it took to find the right story proved that some methods are worth waiting for. What Crampton brings to her character Anne Fedder is a soul-opening treat: emotional, identifiable, and one of her best roles to date.
Anne’s encounter with “The Master”, a vampiric creature, in an abandoned warehouse one night brings an unusual twist of fate — turning her from the dormant dutiful housewife to a blood-thirsty middle-aged woman searching to reclaim what she so long ago abandoned: her self-identity. Soon her husband, Pastor Jakob Fedder (Larry Fessenden), is forced on this journey with Anne in a series of mishaps and dead bodies for better or worse as Anne struggles to maintain her humanity.
After thirty years, both husband and wife battle the light and the dark of their preconceived notions related to their traditional marriage roles. There is no more perfect pair — with fiery chemistry and magnificent power play of the sexes — than Crampton and Fessenden.
This film really resonated with me as it explored the societal challenges women have with putting the needs and expectations of others first. Jakob quickly learns he needs to let Anne demonstrate her independence while reflecting on his own role in taking her for granted. Both have been alienated. Within their new unconventional marriage, this couple will have to redefine what their union now means in sickness, health, and immortality.
Jakob’s Wife is an absolute must. It may not be heavily saturated in elevated horror themes, but it touches you at the soul level.
(Recommended by Laura A. Sloan)
There are some movies that you watch and enjoy, then forget. Scott Cooper’s Antlers is not one of those.
This is a movie that stays with you. Antlers is full of juxtaposition. Its dark, really dark, subject matter and story are in stark contrast with the absolutely beautiful way the movie is shot. It looks stunning, but its heart is dark and corrupted, which makes this an incredibly unsettling watch. In parts, it reminded me of the old X-Files episodes — you know, the good ones, the ones that pulled heavily from folklore and urban legend.
The creature design in Antlers is superb, it has a reasonably high gore count, and the acting is pretty damn good throughout. But the abiding thing that will stay with you is the atmosphere of the film. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but when it works, it makes for a great horror film. And Antlers is a great horror film.
(Recommended by Mike Wrigley)
PART 2: 11-20