With 2021 coming to a close, now is the time to reflect on the past 12 months – and for horror movie fans it was quite a year. Between major franchises delivering new sequels and indie films coming out of nowhere with all varieties of terror, audiences had plenty of opportunities to go to their local theater and scream their head off.
As we reflect, however, it’s always fun to single out what is the cream of the crop, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve looked back on the best and the worst of 2021’s contributions to the horror genre on the big screen and available streaming, and while some notable titles didn’t make the list, we’ve culled the collection and determined what we believe to be the Top 10 of the year.
10. Saint Maud
Compared to most of the titles you’ll read about in this ranking, Rose Glass’ Saint Maud is on the subtle side of the spectrum of horror, but it also perfectly illustrates the diverse palate of the genre by being successfully haunting in its own right. It’s a disturbing character study about the complexities of faith with Morfydd Clark doing some spectacular work as the titular Maud.
Saint Maud serves up a slow burn, but it’s made satisfying by a killer ending that inspires dissection and contemplation, and successfully brands a terrifying image into your brain.
Found footage horror made a modest attempt at a comeback in 2021, and while William Eubank's Paranormal Activity: Next Of Kin turned out to be a big swing-and-a-miss, the new anthology feature V/H/S/94 shows that there is plenty of insane juice left in the premise. All four chapters plus the wraparound story suggest some demented minds at work, and it’s excellent to see.
From Timo Tjahjanto’s insane body horror story involving cyborg experimentation, to Chloe Okuno’s tale of a sewer news report going horribly, horribly wrong, each segment of V/H/S/94 has its own special wake of shocking and appalling, and every second of it feels designed to specifically delight fans of hardcore horror.
8. Halloween Kills
Writer/director David Gordon Green pulled off something incredibly special with 2018’s Halloween – namely making the first legitimately great sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original – and while that seemed borderline miraculous at the time, it was also impressive to see what he accomplished with his follow-up. Though the story is set immediately in the aftermath of the last one, it successfully presents brand new dynamics, and unearths a special danger that exists in Haddonfield, Illinois on beyond the mask-wearing slasher: the terror of fear in mob form.
After being caught in a trap and nearly burned to death, Michael Myers is as brutal as he’s ever been in Halloween Kills, and the stakes only go up as the survivors of the killer’s past rampage rise up to try and take revenge at any cost. One can only hope that next year’s Halloween Ends proves to be as satisfying.
7. The Vigil
From The Exorcist to The Omen to The Conjuring movies (to Saint Maud), Christianity has long had a prominent place in the horror genre – which makes all the sense in the world when you consider the mythology involving the devil, demons, and hell. With few exceptions, horror movies based in the Jewish faith aren’t really a thing, but that’s a significant part of why I have so much appreciation for Keith Thomas’ The Vigil. Not only does it break new ground in cinematic storytelling, but it also features a remarkable authenticity and an atmosphere that grabs you by the brain and holds tight.
It’s a simple premise that sees most of the action play out in one location – with a young Orthodox Jew (Dave Davis) asked to spend a night keeping vigil over a recently deceased Holocaust survivor – and as it digs into mythological elements of the Jewish faith it broaches the subjects of personal and collective trauma in fascinating ways.
6. Fear Street Trilogy
When it was first announced, Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street Trilogy sounded like a project destined to be described as biting off more than it could chew – but unfolding across three weeks this past July, the three movies put any and all concerns to rest. The middle chapter (Fear Street Part Two: 1978) isn’t as strong as the one that precedes it (Fear Street Part One: 1994) or the one that follows it (Fear Street Part Three: 1666), but altogether it’s an ambitious horror treat that very much feels like a love letter to the genre as a whole.
Featuring three very diverse eras, the Fear Street trilogy has an overflowing toy box that it uses to great effect while riffing on classic slasher movies. Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is just how well it manages to stick the landing with the principal narrative that runs through all three films, as it successfully manages to be unexpected and thematically satisfying.
5. Werewolves Within
Is Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within the best video game adaptation ever? There’s a strong argument to be made that it is, but even if you don’t want to ascribe it that title, it is still among the best, and a delightful surprise in 2021. It’s a genre entry that definitely leans more into comedy than any other title on this list, but there is an excellent tonal blend that ultimately sees it satisfy in inspiring both laughs and screams.
It’s only a matter of time before Sam Richardson is widely recognized as the phenomenal talent that he is, and Werewolves Within gives him a great leading role opposite a wonderful supporting cast including Milana Vayntrub, Wayne Duvall, Harvey Guillén, Sarah Burns, Michaela Watkins and more. The movie makes terrific use of its small scale, creating an intimate atmosphere with a small cast in a remote setting, and it packs some excellent twists and turns.
There are few names in the horror genre right now as powerful as Jordan Peele, and in 2021 he helped bring back Candyman in spectacular fashion. In collaboration with director Nia DeCosta, who firmly proves herself as a brilliant up-and-coming talent, the sequel is a brilliant gore-fest that has a great deal to say about the legacy of the titular monster and impressive, deep themes about gentrification and systemic racism.
Yahya Abdul Mateen II, who previously had a small role in Us, further proves his skills as a terrific leading man who undergoes a horrifying transformation in Candyman – the film building on the cinematic urban legend is captivating and creative ways. Alongside the aforementioned Halloween 2018, it stand out as one of the best legacy sequels we've seen in recent years.
There was no better “WTF” scene on the big screen in 2021 than the holding cell scene in James Wan’s Malignant – and while I won’t explain why just in case any of you readers haven’t seen it yet, know that you are guaranteed the same reaction when you do get around to it. It’s a moment of cinematic horror that genre fans will be talking about for decades.
Following the insane success of Aquaman in 2018, James Wan surely had free rein to make any movie he wanted to make, and the fact that he chose to make Malignant says a lot about his love for the genre. It’s a movie full of pull-no-punches weirdness, and a fantastic return to the world of visceral horror for the filmmaker.
2. Last Night In Soho
What’s consistently incredible about the works of writer/director Edgar Wright is not just the fact that he is an awesome storyteller, but that every project he takes on has a special aesthetic ambition. It’s a reputation that is only further solidified with Last Night In Soho, a film that succeeds in building an effective mystery that is also a dazzling visual spectacle.
There are few shots in 2021 that can match the level of awe inspired by the extended tracking shot that follows Thomasin McKenzie’s Ellie/Anya Taylor-Joy's Sandie into and through the Café de Paris nightclub – and it’s the perfect level of glamour to set you up for the horror show that is to come. If you haven’t seen it yet, throw your hands over your ears whenever somebody starts talking about spoilers, and do yourself the favor of watching it immediately.
1. The Night House
Rebecca Hall had one hell of a 2021. She got to share the big screen with both Godzilla and King Kong, she made an amazing directorial debut with the Netflix drama Passing, and she delivered a blistering performance in the best horror movie of the year. Playing the lead role in David Bruckner’s The Night House, she unleashes a powerful, emotional turn and is at the heart of some of the best scares of the year.
The Night House instantly reveals itself as a meditation on grief, as the story begins with Rebecca Hall’s Beth coping with the sudden death of her husband, and it packs a big punch with that material. As it develops, though, it reveals itself as a supernatural horror story that delves into the terrifying unknown of what happens when we die, and what it accomplishes is jaw-dropping. Released in August, it didn’t get anywhere near the love it deserved when it played in theaters, but you can now help rectify that by discovering it and falling for it the way I have.
After seeing all of the killer horror movies that hit theaters and streaming services in 2021, it’s impossible not to be excited for what the genre has in store in the coming years – and you can keep track of what’s on the horizon with our Upcoming Horror Movies guide. For a deeper dive into the history of the genre, check out our ranking of the 30 Best Horror Movies Of All Time.