2021 was a year which, while less outwardly terrifying than 2020, posed a lot of daunting mysteries: Even with the vaccines, would we be able to leave the house? Would the live entertainment industry ever make a return? Would future variants prove more or less risky? While none of these had the same impact as COVID’s shocking 2020 debut, fear morphed into a curious ennui which left us searching for answers. Many of the year’s best horror films also grasp for the unknown, whether facing humanity’s fraught relationship with the earth, or religion, or even family members you might not know as well as you think. Variety has selected the 15 best horror movies of 2021, all of which you can watch from home, the better to dodge COVID anxiety altogether.
A Quiet Place Part II
The eagerly anticipated sequel to one of the biggest horror films of all time does its best work at the beginning and end, documenting the sudden arrival of the aliens and their immediate disruption of small-town life, as well as introducing the aliens to a previously idyllic island which had avoided attacks. In the middle, Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy elevate a retread of the first film through scared faces and mysterious motives, but seeing the world open up in new directions gives the most hope for the planned sequel and spin-off.
There’s Someone Inside Your House
A bare-bones slasher that benefitted from a prime October Netflix release, Shawn Levy and James Wan brought some high-level production to this throwback that evoked the best of late-’90s, post-“Scream” fare. The logline is simple — There’s a killer taking out high school kids wearing 3-D printed masks of their faces! — and the film is all the better for it: A lean, mean, 90-minute killing machine that dispatches teens in traditional sets, from keg parties to cornfields. Even if the ending is saddled with a mustache-twirling villain, “House” keeps things simple in the best way possible.
Weighed down by negative reviews and deadened by an April release date, “The Unholy” elevated a relatively routine possession and exorcist tale into something unique. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler and Cary Elwes bring a sinister energy to this adaptation of James Herbert’s “Shine,” in which a small town is rocked by a series of miracles that might be coming from something more wicked than divine. Although Mike Flanagan’s Netflix miniseries “Midnight Mass” took a similar concept and spun together the best horror story of the year in any format, there’s enough fun clue-gathering and small town politicking to make “The Unholy” a solid ride.
This remake of the 2003 franchise starter emerged from VOD hell with a nasty and brutish spin on a modern “Deliverance.” It all starts so simply — twenty-somethings go into the woods in a place they’re not wanted, and tragedy ensues — but elevates further once they stumble across a forest cult called the “Foundation.” Gory and jaw-dropping, with a believable main cast and a captivating B plot of Matthew Modine as the desperate father trying to find his daughter, “Wrong Turn” stands on its own instead of a forgotten seventh installment of an often-ignored shlock series.
The ‘Fear Street’ trilogy
This fun summer project from Netflix dropped interconnected movies — “1994,” “1978” and “1666” — three weeks in a row, bringing the R. L. Stine teen book series to life while galloping through horror fans’ favorite time periods. Director Leigh Janiak kept things moving at a quick pace, as ’90s teens investigating murders in town uncover secrets that point to a notorious ’70s summer camp and a 1600s witchcraft scare, mixing in bloodlines and reincarnation into a fun throughline. Despite sharing two key “Stranger Things” actors — dynamic lead Sadie Sink and stunt-casted Maya Hawke — there is a surprising amount of blood and tragedy in these films, dulling the spooky fun at times to appropriately grieve dead teenagers.
Employees of South Africa’s forest service meet a dark part of nature in this gorgeously evil movie where mushrooms start planting themselves on those who disturb their rest. Mixing natives with outsiders and people who are already too far gone, some stomach-churning practical effects and makeup elevate this tale visually over some of the CGI-dependent titles on this list. It’s the most down-and-dirty entry into the year’s dense “Don’t mess with Mother Nature” canon.
In The Earth
Ben Wheatley shook off the bad reviews of his ill-conceived 2020 “Rebecca” remake and went back to the folk-freak horror that gave him a name with this nightmare, produced during the pandemic. A small group of scientists are dispatched to study a new facet of the living earth, as fungi release trippy spores that render anyone in their path incoherent. Unluckily for the team, a fellow researcher has gone mad, and chase sequences and grueling amputation scenes follow. A cosmic, psychedelic third act played perfectly in emptied-out theaters, but horror fans will inevitably embrace the film with the substance of their choice at home.
The fourth installment in this handheld camera series is one of the strongest, with some hysterical and spooky segments that take advantage of the ’90s setting. Standouts include the gonzo local news-gone-wrong segment “Storm Drain” and the pseudo-prescient militia training video “Terror.” And although Timo Tjahjanto’s sci-fi nightmare “The Subject” doesn’t closely adhere to the timing or the previously-established grainy look, it’s a clear standout begging for a feature length adaptation.
Chris Rock took an unexpected turn into the “Saw”-verse by toplining one of the best installments yet. Spinning the conventional formula into a tale where a Jigsaw acolyte starts targeting cops, Rock’s hardboiled detective needs to corner the killer before he or his father (Samuel L. Jackson) is the next target. Obviously Rock and Jackson kick the acting up a notch, but there is a lot of style behind the lens as well, with some vomit-worthy gore and cinematic flair that could jump-start the series and win new fans.
This spooky minimalist piece features Dave Davis as a former Hasidic Jew who agrees to observe the traditional practice of watching over the body of a deceased man until burial — and make a little money in the process. The dark parlor of the house is the setting for countless bumps in the night which, while not reinventing the genre, creep in deeply and keep you on edge as Davis does the heavy lifting at selling fear. Bonus points for making the Brooklyn-set narrative feel as isolated as a cabin in the woods.
The Night House
Rebecca Hall goes through the wringer as a wife whose husband’s untimely death leads to a series of clues pointing to a mysterious house. This Sundance 2020 title dodged getting spoiled during a COVID-delayed rollout, and the intentionally vague trailers didn’t reveal the dark secrets lodged within. Thanks to Hall’s disquieting shock as she learns more and more about her husband’s secret life, this puzzling feature flies, aided by blinding twists and sharp blow-darts of humor.
Julia Ducournau, the brilliant director behind the minimalist cannibal drama “Raw,” threw everything at the wall with “Titane” just to see if it sticks, leading to a constant whiplash. Agathe Rousselle is fearless as Alexia, a woman who suffers an injury in a car crash early in life, which leads to a relationship with vehicles so sexual it would make David Cronenberg blush. She’s also an ice-cold serial killer who forms an unexpected bond with a lonely fire chief (Vincent Lindon) in order to outrun the police. Filled with death, longing and plenty of flesh writhing around in motor oil, this endlessly creative film is not for the faint of heart.
James Wan’s tribute to grindhouse sleaze had a slow burn release, as the HBO Max day-and-date title bombed due to a nearly full press blackout. But within hours of its debut, horror Twitter melted down due to the film’s all-time great third act reveal. Beyond the “you’ll never believe this shit” pivot, Wan made the film as deliciously extra as possible, with bold camerawork, eerie setpieces and weird details and fakeouts prime for rewinding. It’s a must-see for slasher fans that will only grow in cult status.