CHICAGO - There are countless reasons reasons people turn to the horror genre, but two of the biggest must be these: either they’re looking for bloody, adrenaline-fueled escapism, or for a heightened way to confront real-world fears and traumas.
Thankfully 2021 offered no shortage of films in both veins, which is fitting for a year with its fair share of real-world scares too.
Big blockbuster sequels like "A Quiet Place Part II," "Halloween Kills" and "Candyman" shared the spotlight with buzzy new films from horror auteurs like Edgar Wright, M. Night Shyamalan, James Wan, Guillermo del Toro and Julia Ducournau.
Plus smaller films like "Saint Maud" and "The Power" introduced exciting new voices to the horror landscape, giving immediate thrills with the promise of future chills.
Here, in no particular order, are the horror (and horror-adjacent) movies that defined 2021.
Time travel with the ‘Fear Street’ trilogy (Netflix)
FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994 - (Pictured) MAYA HAWKE as HEATHER. Cr: Netflix © 2021
The horror event of the summer, the "Fear Street" trilogy put its own spin on the ever popular cinematic universe trend. Adapted from R. L. Stine's teen book series of the same name, this trilogy centers around the town of Shadyside, murder capital of the USA. "Fear Street Part One: 1994" takes inspiration from "Scream" to deliver a classic teen slasher, while "Fear Street Part Two: 1978" pulls inspiration from "Friday the 13th" for its camp-set murder story. Finally, the finale, "Fear Street Part Three: 1666" mixes things up entirely with a new century and some major "Crucible" vibes. Taken together, this three-part nostalgia trip finds a clever way to take something old and make it feel fresh and relevant again. Rated R. 330 minutes (for all three films). Dir: Leigh Janiak. Featuring: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Gillian Jacobs, Fred Hechinger, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Ryan Simpkins, Ashley Zukerman.
WHERE TO WATCH: All three films streaming on Netflix.
Emily Blunt in ‘A Quiet Place Part II’ (Paramount+ and VOD)
Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds and Emily Blunt in 'A Quiet Place II'
The first "A Quiet Place" film was such an unexpected box office sensation in 2018 that there was never any doubt it was going to get a sequel. To his credit, writer/director John Krasinski mostly manages to keep what worked about the first movie without getting too bogged down in sequel bloat. The real highlight here is the unnerving opening flashback prologue that depicts the day the sound-sensitive aliens first crash landed on Earth. If the rest of the film never quite manages to match that high, it does give a stellar showcase to young lead Millicent Simmonds as she steps from supporting player into proper horror movie leading lady. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes. Dir: John Krasinski. Also featuring: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, John Krasinski.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Paramount+ and VOD.
Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman,’ starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (VOD)
Candyman, in silhouette, in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta. Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures.
The "Candyman" lore is as Chicago as Lem’s BBQ or pulling over to the shoulder of Lake Shore Drive to watch the Air and Water Show. An entire generation of Black Chicagoans grew up knowing not to take the Candyman legend lightly — even though it originated in a 1992 slasher. In that first "Candyman," writer/director Bernard Rose (adapting the Clive Barker short story "The Forbidden") tells the tale of an aggrieved soul wreaking seemingly indiscriminate vengeance in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green. Something about this story has always rung true with regard to the Black experience, in Chicago and in America writ large. It’s turned a fictional horror villain into an icon and a legend — one that, in 2021, has perhaps transformed into something very different from its initial form. ... [Director Nia] DaCosta, whose debut feature "Little Woods" earned much acclaim, has a second sense for building atmosphere and simmering tension. Through the use of methodical, slow tracking shots, she captures the beauty of everyday landscapes, finding just the right angle and balance in frame. Her mastery evokes as much of an emotional response as the actors’ performances. Rated R. 91 minutes. Dir: Nia DaCosta. Featuring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams, Tony Todd.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
Jamie Lee Curtis in ‘Halloween Kills’ (VOD)
Michael Myers (aka The Shape) in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green.
Is "Halloween Kills" a tongue-in-cheek satire? Is it a commentary on the failures of community policing? Is it an attack on nostalgia? Is it a critique of vigilante justice? "Halloween Kills" feints toward all that, but doesn’t really commit to any one thing. The film is easy enough to watch, but after a while, "Halloween Kills" has a pervasive sense of been-there, done-that familiarity. Michael Myers can’t be stopped, and Haddonfield’s police force is totally unprepared—well, what else is new? Rated R. 106 minutes. Dir: David Gordon Green. Featuring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak,James Jude Courtney, Will Patton, Anthony Michael Hall, Kyle Richards, Michael McDonald, Scott MacArthur.
WHERE TO WATCH: Available to buy on VOD; available to rent starting Jan. 11.
Julia Ducournau’s ‘Titane’: Body horror meets auto body (VOD)
Agathe Rousselle in 'Titane.'
Winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "Titane" is yet another provocative feature from body horror master Julia Ducournau. While her 2016 debut "Raw" followed a young vegetarian with a growing craving for flesh, "Titane" is about a woman who has a rather, er, unusual relationship with cars. Specifically, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has an erotic connection to a particular motor vehicle. And things only get weirder from there as this stylish French flick delves into topics including pregnancy, murder, false identities, parental connections and more. With an inscrutable tone all its own, "Titane" sits at the intersection of arthouse and grindhouse. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Julia Ducournau. Also featuring: Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
‘Saint Maud,’ starring Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle (Hulu)
Morfydd Clark in 'Saint Maud.'
Some of the best horror movies have placed religion at their center, and the thrilling debut feature "Saint Maud" aims to join their ranks. Set in a small English seaside town, recent Catholic convert Maud (Morfydd Clark) looks to find her godly purpose by taking up a job as a private caregiver for terminally ill dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). But Maud’s meekly devout exterior hides a complicated past, one that may or may not involve literally communing with God. Atmospheric and enigmatic, "Saint Maud" lulls you into a trance-like state of reverie before unleashing one hell of a climax. Rated R. 84 minutes. Dir: Rose Glass.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Hulu, Epix, Paramount+ and VOD.
Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie in ‘Last Night in Soho’ (VOD)
Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise and Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie in Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC
Edgar Wright’s stylish psychological thriller gave us one of the best trailers of the year. And it made for a pretty fun movie too. This ode to the Swinging Sixties follows modern day fashion student Eloise "Ellie" Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) as she moves to London and starts living a time-traveling double life in her dreams. As Ellie finds herself literally walking in the shoes of glamorous 1960s aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), she uncovers a decades-old murderous mystery. And though there’s room for debate about how well "Last Night in Soho" sticks the landing, there’s no doubt that its stylishly fun opening act is an eerie, dreamy blast — and even the debatable conclusion features a marvelous farewell performance from the late Dame Diana Rigg. Rated R. 116 minutes. Dir: Edgar Wright. Also featuring: Matt Smith, Michael Ajao, Terence Stamp.
WHERE TO WATCH: Available to buy on VOD.
M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’ (VOD)
Vicky Krieps and Thomasin McKenzie in 'Old'
M. Night Shyamalan is a divisive director, so it’s no surprise that "Old" is one of the more divisive horror-tinged movies of the year. For some, this thriller set on a beach that makes you old just feels silly and overacted. For others, Shyamalan’s heightened filmmaking approach complements his darkly funny, earnestly humanistic parable about aging. Either way, "Old" offers the sort of singular vision that only Shyamalan can deliver. And that makes this "Twilight Zone"-esque tale worth seeing for its lows as much as its highs. Rated PG-13. 108 minutes. Dir: M. Night Shyamalan. Featuring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, Aaron Pierre, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
Rebecca Hall is riveting in ‘The Night House’ (VOD)
THE NIGHT HOUSE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
The loss of a loved one never seems to make sense. What could have been done differently? What else could have happened? Death leads to all kinds of puzzling questions for which we can never seem to find answers. In the exceptionally unsettling "The Night House," directed by David Bruckner and written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, the inexplicability of death isn’t just cause for confusion, but a source of riveting existential horror. Actress Rebecca Hall grounds the ever-shifting film as it transforms from what seems like a straightforward ghost story into something murkier, more troubling and thoroughly unshakeable. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: David Bruckner. Also featuring: Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Evan Jonigkeit.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
James Wan’s magnificently dopey ‘Malignant’ (VOD)
ANNABELLE WALLIS as Madison in New Line Cinema, Starlight Media Inc. and My Entertainment Inc.’s original horror thriller MALIGNANT, an Atomic Monster production, a Warner Bros Pictures release. Photo Credit: Ron Batzdorff
James Wan’s impact on contemporary horror is undeniable. The director of "Insidious," creator of "The Conjuring Universe" and co-creator of the "Saw" franchise has also dabbled outside the genre with teeny-tiny little movies like "Aquaman" and "Furious 7," but he always seems to return to the realm of the jump-scare, where he speaks the language fluently. Enter "Malignant," Wan’s latest, which (after the traditional opening bloodbath, here in the form of a flashback) opens on a woman experiencing an all-too-common kind of nightmare: domestic violence. ... That’s the first of many turns in "Malignant," which journeys from horror trope to horror trope as it rambles and roams from one scene of carnage to another. To say much more is to spoil the fun — and if body horror, "bad seeds" and/or possession are flavors of the genre you enjoy, then there’s a great deal of fun to be had. Suffice it to say that Wan nimbly moves through several subgenres, even as the remarkably game Annabelle Wallis and Maddie Hasson manage to keep the film anchored in something like emotional honesty — for the most part, anyway. Rated R. 111 minutes. Dir: James Wan. Also featuring:George Young, Michole Briana White, Jean Louise Kelly, Susanna Thompson, Jake Abel, Jacqueline McKenzie.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
Bradley Cooper strolls down ‘Nightmare Alley’ (in theaters)
Bradley Cooper in 'Nightmare Alley'
A noir thriller with horror touches, "Nightmare Alley" lets writer/director Guillermo del Toro play around with the cabinet of curiosities he loves so much. Bradley Cooper stars as a man with a troubled past who literally runs away to join the circus. There he learns how to put on a great clairvoyant act, a skill he decides to put to devious use once he meets glamorous psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Based on both a 1946 novel and a 1947 film adaptation, del Toro brings his signature love of outcasts to this sordid tale of love, ambition and the rules of the side show. Rated R. 150 minutes. Dir: Guillermo del Toro. Also featuring: Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn.
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now.
Rose Williams is a force in ‘The Power’ (Shudder and VOD)
Rose Williams in 'The Power'
"The Power" takes advantage of a simple but effective premise: Rolling blackouts in 1970s London leave a young nurse to work a "dark shift" at a nearly empty hospital. Soon enough she’s haunted by both a supernatural presence and a much more human danger — one that parallels her own troubled past. Indeed, there’s a double meaning to the film’s title, which refers not only to electricity but also to those who wield great influence over the world only to abuse it. That makes this a horror flick with a pointed message. Not rated. 92 minutes. Dir: Corinna Faith. Featuring: Rose Williams, Emma Rigby, Charlie Carrick.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Shudder and VOD.
Rachel Sennott in 'Shiva Baby.'
For a comedy that often feels more akin to a horror movie, try this stellar debut feature from writer/director Emma Seligman. "Shiva Baby" locks you into the real-time experience of aimless college senior Danielle (Rachel Sennott) as she finds herself at a shiva with her parents, her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy — who she also discovers is a married man with a new baby. This one puts the cringe in cringe comedy, with an acerbic voice all its own. Not rated. 78 minutes. Dir: Emma Seligman. Also featuring: Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on HBO Max and VOD.
Krysten Ritter spooks in ‘Nightbooks’ (Netflix)
For the horror-loving kid in your life, "Nightbooks" is a spooky family-friendly watch from producer Sam Raimi. Based on the 2018 children's book of the same name by J.A. White, the film follows a creative young boy named Alex (Winslow Fegley) who has a passion for penning scary stories. When he's deemed odd for his taste, however, Alex swears off writing forever. At least until an evil witch (Krysten Ritter) captures him in her magical New York City apartment and demands he tell her a new tale every night if he wants to stay alive. As Ritter explained of the film's message in an interview with FOX, "Being different, being a little weird, the thing that gets you picked on at school, is actually what makes you great and awesome and special." Rated TV-PG. 103 minutes. Dir: David Yarovesky. Also featuring: Lidya Jewett.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix.
Lamb. Photo: A24.
The A24 Icelandic drama "Lamb" offers lightly horror tinged surrealism (read Roxana Hadadi’s full review).
"Werewolves Within" delivers horror-comedy of the snowed-in whodunit variety. "V/H/S/94" breathes new life into the found footage genre (and the "V/H/S" series). "Censor" finds horror movie fodder in the moral panic of the 1980s British "video nasty" controversy.
And "The Vigil" adds a supernatural horror angle to Jewish tradition, while Paul Verhoeven’s provocative 17th century lesbian nun drama "Benedetta" blends all sorts of different genres together into a transgressive hodgepodge with horror flair.
Our critics pick the best of the year
Top, from left: 'Saint Maud' and 'Malignant.' Bottom: 'Titane.'
Allison Shoemaker’s pick: "Titane." A part of me would really like to choose "Shiva Baby," which had me in a statefrom start to finish, but I must pay tribute to the latest from France’s empress of body horror, Julia Ducournau. Anchored by a riveting central performance from Agathe Rousselle, "Titane" grabs you by the spine, baldly and inexorably bending you into the fetal position. Ducournau’s superpower is her unsettlingly frank gaze, a quality that marries the unfathomable to the everyday in a manner that’s both repellant and riveting. But I have to admit that no scene in any 2021 movie brought me as much sheer enjoyment as the police station scene in "Malignant." James Wan, you magnificent creep — I salute you.
Caroline Siede’s pick: "Saint Maud." Horror doesn’t tend to be my favorite genre, but I do love suspense, mystery and stuff about religion. And "Saint Maud" delivered all that and more in a stylish, atmospheric debut from writer/director Rose Glass. Grounded by an impeccable tête-à-tête from Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, even a non-horror buff like me still found stuff to love in this eerie take on belief, possession and killer devotion — one with a final shot that genuinely sent shivers down my spine.
More horror — streaming for free on Tubi
I Spit on Your Grave (1978): In the years that followed its ban in countries like the U.K. (it was branded a "video nasty"), "I Spit on Your Grave" has been elevated to cult status while also leading to sequels and remakes (including Steven R. Monroe’s 2010 version). Many words have been dedicated to this film, including critic Roger Ebert famously calling it "a vile piece of garbage."
Paranormal Demons (2018): David Bruckner wrote, directed and appears in this "Blair Witch"-esque screamer, in which "a group of film students visit a sanatorium where a poltergeist supposedly resides and discover true horror while on the ghost hunt."
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About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.