By: Bradley Hadcroft
I understand the criticisms of publishing lists such as this one during such challenging times.
Do we really need a countdown of the most disturbing and fucked up fright films around when we are currently in the grip of a stealthy and indiscriminate killer?
Why fuel the waking nightmares of an already disturbed global population by recommending films specifically designed to quicken the pulse of paranoia?
Is what the world needs now a cavalcade of imaginary hardships and suffering to compliment the all too real tragic sequelae of a devastating pandemic?
However, there are conducive counter-arguments that have led to the decision to go ahead and write it.
Everybody deserves the distraction therapy movies can afford, and that includes horror junkies.
Escaping into a false reality for a short while is the principal birthright of ALL film lovers. If that alternate world includes intimate cavity violations with cattle prods, interchangeable golden dildo rape, delusional self-immolation down by the seashore, isolation and tragedy strangled in a labyrinth of mental illness and being belt whipped till your waters break…then so be it.
Catharsis is, after all, in the blackened heart of the beholder.
Independent cinema has been flushed down the same spiralling shit- spout as its mainstream counterpart and needs the fruits of its labours to be emphasised now more than ever before. Even if it means a tiptoe through a maggoty and rotten orchard when your own backyard is under siege from a seditiously creeping blight.
My press screening invite for the hugely anticipated A Quiet Place II lies unused in a drawer. A depressing testament to the cinematic gatherings I once took for granted, silenced by the embryonic siren calls of COVID.
Of course, the cremation of cinema as we know it is a triviality compared to the vast loss of human life, but we should at least display the ashes in plain sight. A positive reminder that this miasma of despair will eventually diffuse.
Horror is the home of the most grassroots moviemaking in the industry and the most potent petri dish for audacious rulebreaking directors and writers. Horror is also the most tolerant, progressive and inclusive of the genre strands and has earned the right to be showcased even aginst the cataclysmic backdrop of COVID – 19.
The fearsome domination of female performers, directors and writers in everything that was outstanding in horror this year is another reason for this list. 2020 will go down as the year a gender seachange became truly tangible, and that deserves to be documented.
Finally, and most exigently, horror has, and always will be the cinematic arena that showcases the fear and desperation of humanity with the purest depth and unflinching clarity. Nothing else comes close in terms of moral divination and humanistic accountability. As such, no other form of artistic expression is more vital and more unforgiving as we search for redemption in the widening blast radius of a worldwide meltdown.
The neglect of mental illness, the raw scars of racism, the cancerous domination of capitalism, the real-life horror of dementia, the theological minefields of fanatical faith, the stark futility of war and the savage brutality of gender politics are just a few of the societal clusterfucks that are deconstructed in the films below.
And so here it is.
Harvested from a punishing onslaught of online screeners and a frankly ridiculous schedule of virtual festival overload.
The 20 most heartbreaking, soul searching, blood-freezing horror flicks I saw in 2020.
Some of these films should be approached with more than a pinch of caution, and some others should be hunted down at all costs if you adore fantastic movies.
Thank you for the patience and kindness of the filmmakers, festival promotors and P.R. people that made this list possible, and my online festival learning curve decidedly less daunting.
Wishing peace and safety to everyone in the new year, and here’s hoping for a decidedly less traumatic 2021 that sees the triumphant return of packed cinema screenings and lashings of juicy genre havoc, but confines the pandemonium and paranoia to the flickering screen of fantasy.
Classy and gorgeously shot folk horror from Indonesia that ladles the gore on top of a tense cat and mouse game of murderous village superstition.
Two young women fall foul of a batshit community when they seek to better their lives through a possible inheritance.
Impetigore harbours some very bleak themes indeed. However, the cinematic execution is sensational, including stunning scenes of puppetry. So much so it is Oscar-nominated.
Dark Place is a new generation Australian Aboriginal horror anthology that serves up five spicy tales heavily influenced by the scars carved by colonial injustice. The film oscillates wildly in both texture and tone, yet the spiky motifs of subjection, comeuppance and recovered identity are constant components of a mutual agenda.
Entertaining, depressing and enlightening by turns, this spunky barrage of raw talent is a beacon of optimism for grassroots cinema. More tellingly, it is a rigged deck of calling cards from a fresh team of true cultural custodians poised to give Ozploitation an intellectual and artistic upgrade.
Deeply trippy and curiously affecting Ukrainian Sci-Fi mystery that harnesses many potent horror movie tropes.
A troop of synchronised swimmers goes missing during a routine in front of a crowd of shocked onlookers. An inspector with a perfect record of case solving embarks on an investigation that will lead her to a surreal water therapy clinic and a realisation that mankind is labouring under an illusion of autonomy.
The smart and spooky Stranger explores complex philosophical issues with a rich cinematic vocabulary that constantly surprises and challenges. The jaw-droppingly bonkers ending will have conspiracy theorists smiling broadly from the dark enclaves of the rabbit hole.
BENNY LOVES YOU
Ta – Daaaaa!!!
The resourceful and bloody Benny Loves You plays like a very early Peter Jackson biopic of a possessed Elmo.
Although fashioned within the confines of an obviously limited budget this rambunctious film replaces faceless finance with fun and enthusiasm.
Glowing with a heady homebrew warmth, Benny charmed the hard to please horror crowd at the recent Frightfest online event and it is easy to see why. Witty, imaginative and enterprisingly goofy it’s a film that knows embracing monetary shackles is better than struggling to slip them.
Very often films such as this implode under the weight of climactic expectation but not Benny. Its final reel is a horror showdown heaven that will have you punching the air in empathy with a murderous stuffed toy who just wants a cuddle.
Argentine road warrior flick about an organ trafficker who seeks gory revenge in the desolate wastelands of our future.
Everything about this seedy exploitation gem is grimy and grim apart from the vibrant cinematography. Derivative in the extreme it makes no bones about its Mad Max mimicry concentrating instead on making mincemeat of its cast members. In fact, Scavenger doubles down on the high stakes homage table by shamelessly aping the Italian apocalypse B-movie blueprint of yesteryear.
Horrendously rapey and disgracefully base the runtime flies by in a visceral shower of offal and sweat. Home to some of the juiciest practical gore effects and decadent drug binges of the year this is the film Mandy could have been if it had the courage of its convictions.
Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz follow up on the high brow horrors of Goodnight Mommy with more slow-burn chills from frosty hair-raiser The Lodge.
Opening with a jump shock scene for the ages this masterfully constructed thriller settles down into a more sedate but no less engrossing rhythm.
Two youngsters are forced into a secluded cabin holiday with their emotionally pragmatic dad and his new girlfriend after the death of their mother.
Riffing on the muddy motifs of identity and mischievous malevolence that peppered their debut the two directors have constructed another tour de force of terror. The twists are plausible without being obvious as the film builds to a devastating reveal that ensures its slow burn is worth the wait.
It is highly possible that this creative team have the first truly great horror film of the decade squirrelled away in their machiavellian locker.
Three generations of women from the same family converge in a deeply moving expose on the uniquely devastating tribulations of dementia.
If you are going to make this horrific illness the fulcrum of your fright flick then you had better possess the nouse to treat it respectfully.
Thankfully director Natalie Erika James does and draws upon her own distressing experience of dementia to form a delicately moving piece that hijacks the horror format for a higher purpose.
One of many breathtakingly confident female debuts this year James has struck a resounding balance between artistic meditation and full-blooded terror.
Sensitive, exquisitely judged and executed Relic is living proof that the horror genre is as intellectually flexible and resolutely empathetic as it is sensationalistic and exploitative.
A troubled Jewish man endures a five-hour shift of satanic panic when he agrees to watch over the corpse of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. Tormented by a sadistic entity, the kindly Yakov must find a way to unhook its delusory claws from his delicate psyche before it consumes his mind, body and soul.
A fascinating film that shines both as a relentless fright-fest and a rare glimpse into an ecclesiastical grotto uncharted by modern horror.
Jessica is returning to her hometown to help process the untimely death of her beloved husband. After an incident on a lonely Pacific Northwestern roadway, she triggers the bloodlust of a merciless psychopath. Disoriented, and utterly terrified, she must reassemble the fragments of her shattered resolve and escape the deranged madman that hunts her.
Hyams’ impossibly lean survival thriller is a triumph of cinematic craft and streamlined storytelling. A bare-bones masterpiece of unrelenting suspense, in a microcosm of primal savagery where every decision matters and every mistake potentially fatal. This stripped-back methodology echoes the finest work of Walter Hill and John Boorman whilst executing a coldly modernist take on the minimalist thriller.
THE PAINTED BIRD
Beyond bleak war horror that makes Schindler’s List look like Happy Feet.
Clocking in at an arse numbing 2hrs 49min and presented in black and white this tale of the struggles of a Jewish boy during WWII is one of the most technically accomplished films of the year in any genre. It will test your boundaries and your patience, however, its sombre message is more pertinent than ever.
Obvious comparisons with Come and See proved redundant as this nihilistic nightmare ploughed a much more existential furrow.
Be warned, The Painted Bird is riddled with shocking scenes and plays out like a distressing biopsy of the nature of true evil.
Michael Walker has turned his back on his Special Ops past and is about to start a family with his beautiful wife Claudia. However, a chance encounter with crime syndicate footsoldiers wipes out his future in spectacularly brutal fashion. Hell-bent on ultimate revenge, Walker reawakens the savagery that earned him the moniker “Angel of Death”, and unleashes an unrelenting wave of momentous violence.
A malignant Midnight Movie that welcomes any derivative guffawing during group viewings, before it kicks your snickering teeth straight down your throat. A heady celebration of the creative autonomy that only truly independent cinema can conjure.
Has more than enough genre tropes, revenge horror components and censor baiting practical gore to qualify for this list.
Horror resides deep within everyday occurrences in this elegant genre-spanning psychodrama from Argentina.
Inés splits her work life between singing in a prestigious choir and dubbing bonkers Japanese flicks into Spanish. Constantly at the mercy of the standards and demands of others, she is a talented but creatively enslaved young woman. Inés becomes embroiled in a seemingly arbitrary tragedy that destabilises her existence and ruptures her perceptions of reality.
A story about horror rather than a horrifying story, The Intruder transcends compartmentalisation, vaulting over the boring dividers of classification to deliver a revitalising burst of throat-clearing cinema. Yet another instance of a female director shredding the genre rulebook in 2020.
A small family of trappers are stalked by a killer wolf but something else lurks in the woods that threatens their safety even more.
Hunter Hunter performs the ultimate slow-burn before exploding in the most shocking ending in a very long time that challenges the legendary Red White and Blue in the brutality stakes. It seems this was the films primary intention from the start, and although shamelessly manipulative, you have to admire its sheer gall.
Beautifully acted, shot and scored this movie fights well above its budget bracket and will provoke a great many heated debates about the morality of extreme retribution.
The final frames of this film will ruin you.
THE DARK AND THE WICKED
Siblings Louise and Michael return to their isolated family farm to comfort their dying father in his final days. After a less than warm welcome from their clearly troubled mother, they become aware of a deeply disturbing presence wallowing in the dank wings of impending bereavement.
As the situation deteriorates down a heinous shit pipe of harrowing tragedy, they must face a palliative care nightmare of soul dredging proportions.
Occupying the middle ground somewhere between the arthouse slow burn of Hereditary and the jump scare depositary of Insidious, it could be the fright flick that finally unites the horror community in a cross-genre ceasefire of appreciation.
Genuinely creepy, unremittingly absorbing and emphatically frightening flicks like this do not come around that often and The Dark and the Wicked is all those things and more. Even the most jaded of horror hounds will treasure this oppressive plunge into the realms of the diabolical.
Brandon Cronenberg’s psychotronic Sci-Fi horror concerns the use of brain implants to force innocent people to perform assassinations for big money.
In a frequently surreal world of manipulation and body-swapping Possessor never loses its focus and drive with some remarkable performances, convincing backdrops and meaty gore effects.
Much has been made of the director’s lineage, however, this is a much more pragmatic approach to Sci-Fi than daddy Cronenberg’s often nebulous ponderings.
Engaging and entertaining with some truly ardent violence punctuating the intellectually intrepid narrative, Possessor is a shining example of imaginative shock cinema.
It’s Halloween and knackered nurse Romina returns home to find a sex case shitstorm raging in her crummy apartment. A literal kitchen sink courtroom drama ensues as she is forced to mediate between hostage and crazed abductor.
Just as she is reaching the end of her arbitrational tether, waves of masked killers launch an assault of unbridled violence. Romina quickly realises that if she is to survive she must punch her own batshittery button and wade into the tsunami of carnage that has invaded her home.
For the Sake of Vicious represents an unapologetic reclamation of grindhouse abasement from the glory boys of pretentious genre mismanagement. A mean and muddy shock troop, with no morals to preach and a scorched earth agenda of pure visceral entertainment.
As an artistic accomplishment, it is the cinematic equivalent of a Jackson Pollock, in the medium of erythrocytes and faecal residue. Splatter enough human matter across the canvas and iconic shapes will burst forth from the ruddy pustules of chaos.
Holly is barely treading water in a thankless domestic grind of debilitating mundanity. Her husband is obsessed with promotion, her two boys treat her servitude with dismissive contempt and her sister is a trolling timebomb of boozy spite. Juggling her roles as teacher, mother, wife and homemaker leaves her precious little time to safeguard her own mental health.
We become rubber necking voyeurs in Holly’s struggles just as fresh pressure waves cascade upon the shorelines of her sanity. A bitey piss-taking mouse, a sketchbook of eroticised images of her confiscated from a student and not least a nightmarish encounter with dickheaded road hogs.
As the dark circles around her eyes widen, her frame of reference shrinks exponentially and Holly’s fragile ties with reality unravel in a devastating helix of tragedy.
Anyone who has felt the crushing weight of depression on their shoulders will empathise with Holly’s pain, those that have not will gain a harrowing insight into the dense mechanics of abject melancholia.
Truly transgressive art rarely pulls punches and The Swerve is no exception as it aims squarely at the gut. Steel your sensibilities and board the cataclysmic anxiety ride of one of the most important and mortifying films of the last decade.
Private palliative care nurse Maud brings her next-level piety into the atheistic abode of Amanda, a dying dance diva. Convinced she is exercising a divine mandate from the Lord God himself, Maud becomes obsessed with salvaging Amanda’s endangered soul from the ruinous fleshpots of bohemian decadence, at ANY cost.
Is this devout young woman a comforting conduit of angelic purification, or a savage sociopath with delusions of ecclesiastical grandeur?
A truly shattering debut from the implausibly confident Rose Glass, Saint Maud is so assuredly intelligent and brutally candid, it was always going to be unstoppable. Its jaw-dropping set-pieces alone ensuring its gravitation towards classic status through the organic osmosis of word of mouth. Genre fans who prefer their intellectual horror to be sleek and linear whilst craving genuinely goosebump-inducing shocks and explicit violence are in for a traumatising treat.
Saint Maud rips the ugly heart of religious extremism from its desolate cavern in the human psyche and holds its quivering mass up to the searing luminance of culpability. In a global society that stoically dodges classing theological mania as a mental illness, it is an earsplitting wake-up call that left unchecked, untreated and underestimated its consequences can be soul wrenchingly cataclysmic.
Not only is Saint Maud one of the best genre films of an incredible year – it’s arguably the most thematically clinical debut since the icy detachment of Polanski’s Knife in the Water.
An affluent wedding in Mexico becomes engulfed in ultra-violent political upheaval as the underclasses rise up to redress the imbalance of a broken capitalist system.
Written some 4 years ago New Order is astonishingly prophetic in its depiction of the disenfranchised fighting back. Viewed through the lens of recent global events it is utterly terrifying.
Taking the blueprint of home invasion horror and using it to inject tension and brutality into a tale of revolution and social upheaval is masterly.
Trimmed of all fat this cyclone of a movie unveils its twists and turns with a streamlined menace that will leave you gasping.
The message of New Order appears to be that the revolution will not indeed be televised. Instead, it will unfurl in crammed processing hangers with an interrogation bulb in your face and a crackling cattle prod stuck up your anus.
Blood freezingly plausible, heartrending in its casual slaughter and doused in a topcoat of combustible irony this is a vital and spectacularly edgy film.
Not since Threads have real-world horrors been weaponised so effectively.
Mia is married to a sexually aloof businessman with his fingers knuckle deep in some very unethical pies. Suspicious of his activities she tracks him to a sinister facility where she is forced to witness and endure some of the most debasing misogyny ever committed to film.
Director Jens Dahl’s modernist survival horror is a mean spirited tale of biohacking that harks back to the notorious heyday of the ‘New French Extremity’. Clearly a castigation of the disenfranchisement experienced by many young people across the globe, it is also one of the most disturbing horror films of the last decade.
Like Martyrs, before it, Breeder has a stylish swagger that dares you to question its artistic integrity. With superb acting and crisply dynamic cinematography, it is a class act. Considering the overtly grim subject matter it retains a glossy sheen that disturbs further in the context of its full send mega violence.
Humanity is standing at a crossroads of decision making that will determine if it wants to allow the privileged few to continue to prosper unopposed at the expense of the vast majority of the population. This angry and barbaric film unleashes a primordial roar in the face of global apathy and dares us to pick a direction that will set us on a path of empathetic healing.
Savage, scathing and endlessly inventive in its relentless provocation it drags the women in chains picture to a new level of intellectually subverted neurosis.