It’s time to get freaky deaky! The Covid-19 pandemic definitely slowed down the film and TV industries for a time, and we’re still feeling those effects, of course. But luckily, the last year we’ve gotten a bounty of imaginative and provocative genre films ready to give us some much-needed catharsis.
Independent films (and especially independent horror films) have been a part of the movies from the very beginning of the history of film. Indie horror has been a thriving sub-genre for those who want to push boundaries, the limits of “good taste,” and find unique creative visions. Recently, the rise of “prestige horror” (whatever you think about the term), coincided with the glut of streaming services. And with the popularity of some trendy, name-recognizable independent studios (like A24 and Neon), indie horror is back at the cultural forefront in a major way.
The last two years have been hard on just about everyone, and since, sometimes, the best way to process the horrors of the world is to sit down, turn the lights off, and scream—I decided to make a list of the best indie horror films of the 2020s so far, with everything from zombies, to ghosts, to serial killers, to aliens! I capped the list at seventeen provocative genre gems from 2020 to the present (with two exceptions that technically premiered in 2019 but weren’t released until 2020), because there are just too many good options to choose from. If you have a favorite that missed the list, add your recommendation in the comments!
Barbarian came into close out 2022 with a bash! Written and directed by Zach Cregger (from the sketch comedy group ‘Whitest Kids U’Know’), Barbarian is one of the most entertaining and intelligent horror films to come out this decade. The less you know about it going in, the better, so let me just say that the performances from Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long as the unfortunate guests of an eerie AirBnB in Detroit are fantastic and surprising. The film tackles everything from gentrification, vacation rentals, “cancel culture,” to toxic masculinity, but it always in the way you least expect! It’s currently streaming on HBOMax and I can not recommend it enough!
Terrifier 2 (2022)
A true indie horror film in every sense of the term, Terrifier 2 (written, directed, produced, and edited by Damien Leone), was made on a budget of only $250,000 but it has proven to be an undeniable hit at the box office (earning over $11million). Following up on the adventures of its antagonist in the first Terrifier, we see Art the Clown resurrect and find a new batch of young people to slaughter in increasingly gruesome ways. It is light on plot but heavy on splatter, violence, and incredible practical effects. It is not for the faint of heart, but the gore is impressively achieved and the film feels authentic to the slasher video nasties of the 1980s. It is currently available for streaming on Screambox.
Blood Quantum (2019)
Zombie flicks aren’t just about blood, guts, and the undead. The best of the genre are also pointed socio-political commentaries (see: Dawn of the Dead and its critique of American consumerism), and Blood Quantum is no different. A subversion of the “Blood Quantum” laws imposed upon Indigenous people in North America, First Nations writer/director Jeff Barnaby tells the story of a virus that is turning white people into flesh-eating zombies. The film is darkly funny, violent, and bleak—and a scathing commentary on American history, capitalism, and “manifest destiny.” Here, you can see violent, all-consuming monsters who have done terrible things to the Indigenous populations in the Americas—and now they’re zombies, too! You can watch it on Shudder.
The Vigil (2019)
The Vigil is an intimate haunted house story steeped in Orthodox Jewish Mysticism. The directorial debut of Keith Thomas, it tells the story of Yakov Ronen, a man who left his Orthodox community in Brooklyn behind, but returns to be a hired Shomer (a man paid to sit Shiva after a death—if no one in the family is able to) for an elderly man who has died. But he soon begins to be haunted by a Mazzik, a malevolent spirit that had been feeding off of the pain and guilt of the deceased man. Yakov must now break his link to the demon, and face his own guilt, before sunrise or he will be linked to the Mazzik forever.
The Vigil is a terrifying and claustrophobic ghost story, helmed by a very strong performance from Dave Davis in what is, nearly, a one-man movie. And it’s packed full of some legitimate jump scares and truly creepy moments. The inventive twist of never being able to see the Mazzik’s face heightens the eeriness of the film. After all, there’s nothing scarier than catching something just out of the corner of your eye. You can watch it now on Hulu.
The breakout hit from Sundance 2020, Possessor is a dystopian, sci-fi body horror film from Brandon Cronenberg (yes, the son of David Cronenberg). In a world where corporate assassins can hack into people’s brains and control their bodies to take out nearby targets, no one is safe. Not even the assassins themselves. Things go badly for Tasya Vos, an assassin, when she loses control of her assigned body, with disastrously bloody results. A mix of low-fi tech and horrifying visuals (the moment when Colin Tate jumps into Vos’s mind is particularly upsetting), Possessor is a lesson in paranoia (with a very high body count). It’s available for streaming on Hulu.
His House (2020)
One of the few truly great movies on Netflix right now (I said what I said), His House was another breakout hit from Sundance 2020. It is both terrifying and heart-wrenching—telling the story of Sudan refugees trying to make their home in the UK, while, at the same time, awaiting the official approval of their asylum application. As they deal with several different forms of racism and xenophobia from their neighbors, they are also plagued by the ghosts of their past, and attacks from an “apeth” (a night witch). The ghosts are terrifying and the jump scares are intense, and the emotional performances from Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu are incredible. You can stream it now on Netflix.
Relic is part haunted house story, part monster movie. But at its heart, it’s a story about family, and the ways that we become (or repeat) our mothers. When Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam, move in with her ailing mother, Edna, things begin to go poorly. Edna is being consumed by a black mold, and she wanders in and out of secret, ever-changing passages in her spooky home. Inspired in part by the iconic horror-art novel House of Leaves and by her own grandmother’s struggles with dementia, writer-director Natalie Erika James has crafted a haunting look at family legacy, decay, and the terrors of age. You can rent it on Direct TV or buy it from Apple and Amazon.
A subversion of the Stepford Wives trope (that examines the tortured interior of a “perfect” housewife), Swallow follows a pregnant woman who develops pica—a psychological disorder that makes her feel compelled to swallow inedible objects. As her world becomes more and more tightly controlled by her husband’s wealthy family, Hunter swallows more and more dangerous objects. A sharp commentary on gender roles, class, and femininity, Swallow is not one to miss! Watch it now on AMC+ or buy it on Amazon.
In the Earth (2021)
My personal favorite from Sundance 2021 is the darkly comedic, Lovecraftian folk-horror film, In The Earth—from director Ben Wheatley. Refusing to ignore the pandemic while making the film, Wheatley incorporated it in subtle ways. In the film, scientists and trackers have just finished quarantining from an unnamed virus. They then enter an isolated forest, intent on tracking down a missing member of the larger team. While on the trails, the tracker and scientist encounter the mysterious Zach (played by the amazing Reece Shearsmith), who quickly captures them and uses them for strange rites in worship of a sacred stone. In the Earth is violent, strange, horrifying and hilarious. You can stream it now on Hulu.
Inspired by the real-life “video nasty” controversies of the 1980s, Censor follows Enid Baines—an employee of the British Board of Film Classification. Incredibly rigid and strict, Enid is responsible for watching horror movies that are ready for release, and then recommending that all inappropriate or violent content be cut or banned. However, she loses her grip on reality when one of the films has an actress that looks like her long missing (potentially dead) sister. As she attempts to track down the actress, and the elusive director of the film, things get weird. Niamh Algar is terrific as Enid and the film feels like a pointed commentary on the cycles of public uproar over what is considered “indecent” or “inappropriate.” You can stream it on Hulu!
A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)
If you love documentaries and want a wild, unsettling ride, then A Glitch in the Matrix is perfect. From director Rodney Ascher, A Glitch in the Matrix is about several people who believe that we are all living in a simulation. The film follows their stories, how they learned about this theory and fell down the rabbit hole, but also about the terrifyingly fluid nature of reality. The film gives the men CGI video game avatars instead of showing their faces, which only becomes more haunting when you see the violent repercussions of one man’s belief that reality isn’t real. You can watch it now on Hulu.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021)
Another documentary, this one for my history and film buffs! Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, from director Kier-La Jannisse, traces the history of the folk horror sub-genre. From fairy tales, to the seventies, to today, Woodlands looks at the fears that inspire folk horror and the cultural archetypes (and stereotypes) that populate these movies. It dives deep into classics like The Wicker Man and The Witchfinder General, it dissects our now decades old cultural anxieties about climate change, and the tensions that arise when colonizers and outsiders take over land that they don’t understand. It’s an incredible documentary, but the broad scope means that it has a running time of over three hours. You can watch it now on Shudder.
Psycho Goreman (2020)
What happens when two kids accidentally awaken a powerful, alien warlord? They make him their new BFF and take him on adventures! Psycho Goreman is a delightfully sweet, ridiculous, coming-of-age, horror-comedy. The practical effects and monster makeup are imaginative and fun (and make me nostalgic for the demons of Buffy and Angel). If you’re looking for something twisted, but lighthearted, Psycho Goreman is sure to delight. You can stream it now on Shudder.
The wildest feature out of the Cannes Film Festival this year, Titane is the sophmore film from French director Julia Ducournau (her first feature, Raw, is also incredible). I don’t want to spoil the film too much for those who haven’t seen it, because going in blind is part of the fun, but think of it this way: what if one of the car show girls from The Fast and The Furious was a serial killer? And also, was impregnated by a car? Yes, really. Titane goes 100 miles per hour from start to finish, with an incredible sense of play, questioning everything from gender, toxic masculinity, to parenthood, and leaving the audience to find the answers for themselves. You can stream it now on Hulu.
Part ghost story, part fairy tale, Nanny tells the story of Aisha, an immigrant who becomes the nanny of a wealthy, New York couple. She begins to be plagued by visions of spiders and mermaids. Are they hauntings? Or trying to send her a warning? Nanny won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and is led by the incredible performance of Anna Diop as Aisha. Nanny will be coming soon to Amazon Prime.
Resurrection (2022) – Shudder
A Cronenbergian, psychological horror film, Resurrection is surreal, nerve wracking, and deeply disturbing. Rebecca Hall stars as Margaret: a successful single mom who leads a seemingly ordered and predictable life. However, when her ex David (Tim Roth) comes back into her life, things begin to unravel. Margaret becomes increasingly paranoid, and we learn about David’s abusive, cult-like control of her when she was a young woman.
Hall’s performance as Margaret is extraordinary, as her all-business “boss queen” unravels into someone who can no longer trust any of her senses. It starts out as a slow-burn thriller but ramps up into a gory spectacle that is both shocking and satisfying. Resurrection is available to stream on AMC+ and Shudder.
I have to say, my second favorite (behind Barbarian) of all of these movies has to be the Finnish, creature feature meets coming of age story, Hatching. A satirical commentary on puberty, girlhood, and the pressures placed on girls by their family (and by society), Hatching tells the story of Tinja—a young girl struggling to live up to her mother’s (a popular mommy blogger) strict expectations.
One day Tinja finds an egg in the forest and nurtures it until it hatches. The creature that emerges becomes a mirror of her darker, more turbulent emotions and wish-fulfillment. The humor is dark and twisted. The production design is pink and frilly. But most importantly, Alli, the creature that Tinja hatches, is incredible. Horrifying and yet fragile, the design and special effects makeup create a monster that is both repellent, and yet, easy to love. And it is available to stream on Hulu!
(Images: Shudder, IFC, Netflix, Neon, MGM, Blumhouse, Amazon, Hulu)
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