I’m not one to look back on a year and say the horror produced in it was a reflection of how bad things were. Every year finds its sources of fear, be it war or global pandemics or even economic strife. There’s no shortage of things that inspire terror.
What’s been a constant throughout time is how we turn to stories to work through our collective fears. This year saw no shortage of them, and so we recognize them.
Ahead you’ll find a list of horror across media that stands as some of the most impressive, surprising, disturbing, and downright scary that came out in 2021. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive or a definitive list nor is it in any particular order. It’s a look at the stories that got us to confront the horrors of everyday life, for that is what horror does best: create monsters and specters to helps us sift through the madness of reality. Oh, and it’s entirely subjective, as every list is.
Without further ado, the list for some of the most compelling things in horror in 2021.
1. Resident Evil 8: Village (PS/Xbox/PC/Stadia)
The Resident Evil franchise went through a legitimate transformation with the arrival of RE7, the entry that shifted from the third-person perspective into the first-person. It got the series to reconsider the places it could extract fear from. RE8 builds upon this by taking a more action-heavy approach, but like the classic Resident Evil 4 before it, the faster pace allowed the game to be infused with a more violent and visceral sense of horror, turning each encounter into a nerve-shattering experience. We once again follow Ethan Winters as his family drama extends into a village bursting at the seams with grotesque creatures and insidious conspiracies. The new werewolf villagers Ethan faces are superbly designed and they carry themselves with the same degree of doom and maliciousness as The Ganado did in RE4, but deadlier. It’s one of the best horror games in recent years and it foretells of an indulgingly dark and exciting future for the franchise.
2. Red Room (Fantagraphics)
Ed Piskor has the most macabre and twisted book to have come out in recent years in comics, period. Red Room is not for the faint of heart. It’s for those who don’t mind watching cruel individuals tearing those hearts out. The comic centers on an on-going dark web streaming show, supported by cryptocurrency, called The Red Room where serial killers dismember, disembowel, torture, and kill in the most creative ways imaginable, building a fanbase in the process. The more gruesome the kill, the more crypto tips the killer gets. In a sense, it’s a story about the depravity of creativity in things considered evil, but it’s also about how dangerous something like the dark web can be and how crypto figures into something like this. Piskor said he didn’t base the story on an actual red room-like website he knows about, but that he wouldn’t be surprised if such a place already exists. The thought of that alone is frightening enough and the comic pulls on the same strings. There’s nothing like Red Room on the stands. Nothing.
3. The Night House (TSG Entertainment/Dir. by David Bruckner)
Some of the best horror movies manage to find that well-worn formulas never truly reach a point in which everything is said and done with them. The Night House is one such movie. Beth (played by Rebecca Hall) is dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, a man whose departure hints at something darker lurking in his backstory. Beth notices her lake house is behaving strangely, possibly haunted, and that her husband might be back for a visit. The movie excels at making the house seem labyrinthian, a place where memories are dangerous and the architecture itself contains hidden images if looked at from certain angles. Rebecca Hall plays Beth with a sense of sadness and anger that sets her apart from the usual haunted protagonist, more of an active participant in her grief rather than a victim to it. All of the elements of a haunted house story are also there, but then the movie pushes every expectation down a different route to come out the other end as a more disquieting experience. It deserves to be talked about more.
4. Evil Dead Trap (Unearthed Classics 2021 Blu-Ray edition, originally released in 1988)
Okay, I’m cheating a bit on this one—being that it’s the Blu-Ray edition of a Japanese giallo-inspired horror movie from 1988—but that Unearthed Classics restored this gem and made it available for gore hounds in 2021 was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Evil Dead Trap follows a TV reporter that sets off with her team to an abandoned factory where a mysterious snuff filmed was shot. As they search for answers, the video’s creator starts in on the killing, one team member at a time. The movie’s director, Toshiharu Ikeda, who started out in the industry directing pink films (movies with risqué or explicit sexual content), takes a lot of inspiration from the Italian slasher genre and manages to craft some truly memorable death scenes. Unlike giallo films, though, Evil Dead Trap opts to pay more attention to story and character motivations. It all adds up to a brutal experience that’s unafraid to go far beyond concept to push the envelope on genre conventions.
5. Two Moons (Image Comics)
Given the controversies surrounding anything related to the American Civil War in today’s political climate, I found John Arcudi and Valerio Giangiordano’s Two Moons to be quite the surprise. It’s a Civil War horror comic about a Pawnee soldier fighting for the North and the procession of creatures and monsters that he meets along the way. Whether these beings are real or imagined is part of the story’s mysteries, but what’s certain is that Giangiordano’s designs are nightmarish and worthy of mention. Arcudi treats the subject matter in a very clever way, avoiding moralistic pitfalls for a more complex narrative that explores hatred, myth, and the types of violence war inspires. It’s an impressive example of horror storytelling.
6. Midnight Mass (Netflix, dir. by Mike Flanagan)
Religion and horror together is like a highly dysfunctional marriage that still manages to work. It gets at the root of some of the darkest aspects of faith and how people try to keep it even when that darkness starts seeping through. Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass is precisely about that, but then it also throws a terrifying creature into the mix. The story follows a small town with a waning sense of religious devotion with a few key personalities ready to turn that around. In comes a new priest that holds a terrible secret that he thinks comes with good intentions but is actually entirely the opposite. Hamish Linklater as Father Paul Hill keeps the tension on a razors edge, going from approachable spiritual guide to fire and brimstone orator. The promise of hope and salvation religion provides proves to be dangerous when it asks for blind devotion and Flanagan makes sure the sentiment comes across without it being overbearing. It’s thought-provoking horror with a creature that will haunt you long after you’re done with it.
7. Nothing But Blackened Teeth (Tor Nightfire)
Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth finds that haunted houses and destination weddings are pure horror gold, especially when the house is a Heian-era Japanese mansion with the bones of a dead bride in it. A group of thrill-seekers make their way to a mansion for their friends’ wedding and very quickly discover the ghosts that inhabit it like to torture their victims by bringing their past mistakes and personal misgivings come to the fore. Each character is confronted with themselves all the while a bride with black teeth roams the halls of the mansion. For such a short novel, the narrative feels dense and quite heavy tone-wise, but never to its detriment. Khaw gives readers enough information to get them acquainted with cast so that the haunting hits harder with each twist and turn. The book also invites repeated reading as it reveals layers upon layers of meaning the more time you spend between its tight and superbly crafted sentences. Truly a standout book you’ll want to keep on your permanent collection.
8. Magic: The Gathering- Innistrad Midnight Hunt/Crimson Vow (Wizards of the Coast)
MTG has had an impressive set of expansions in recent years despite the hardships of running a competitive card game during a global pandemic. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow stand as two of its best, both parts of a whole centered on werewolves (Midnight Hunt) and vampires (Crimson Vow). Wizards of the Coast made a great decision in bringing back the day/night cycle for its werewolf cards, which allows for dual-identity creatures on double-sided cards. They play differently based on whether the sun is out or the full moon is up. The mechanic is simple and fair and adds another layer of strategy that directly affects deck building in surprising ways. Crimson Vow is set in a decadent vampire wedding and its spells are based on that concept. Zombie waiters and vampiric guests of honor grace its cards, giving the game a touch of celebratory gruesomeness that’s also playful with its elements. The day and night cycle doesn’t impact the vampires as much is it does the werewolves, but they complement each other well and make for a very story-driven affair. The Crimson Vow bundle comes with a collectible invitation to the wedding that is worth the price of it alone.
9. The Nice House on the Lake (DC Black Label)
James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martínez Bueno’s The Nice House on the Lake is set to become one of the best horror comics of the decade. No surprise, then, that it makes the list. The story unravels like an apocalyptic puzzle box horror mystery with an exceptional cast of characters and an overall visual design that gives everything a hazy vibe not unlike the kind found in dreams. An odd man called Walter brings a select group of friends to a very well-stocked house that’s just outside the fiery apocalypse’s reach. Each entry in the series peels back a few layers, but what they really like to sink their teeth into is individual backstories that explain how each person made it to the house and how Walter figures into their lives. Each character houses volumes of story and not one reveal is wasted as their personalities clash and lean on each other as they try to figure out what’s going on. This year saw the first half of the series run its course, making 2022 the year we finally get to see what the nice house on the lake truly is.
10. The Amusement Park (Communicator’s Pittsburg, dir. by George Romero)
George Romero left behind a vast collection of scripts, posters, props, and unreleased movies when he passed away back in 2017. It’s so extensive, in fact, that the George A. Romero Foundation (who possess the majority of the legendary filmmaker’s collection) is still uncovering new material. Back in 2018, the GARF discovered a feature-length film called The Amusement Park, a movie about how people treat their older population and how they get left behind and forgotten. It’s presented in a kind of surrealist way that leans on psychological horror as we witness the mistreatment of older folk in a strange amusement park that is not only indifferent to them but also hostile. The movie has a dystopic feel to it that isn’t all-encompassing. Instead, it’s an imposed way of life dictated by age. The older you get, the more life starts to resemble a dystopia. It hits hard and there’s a sadness coursing through it that separates it from the traditional psychological horror fare. The iconic horror elements Romero is known for make it into the film in a variety of ways, especially in terms of how regular people can become monsters. It’s necessary viewing and I hope it continues to promote discussion.
And there you have it, a look at what Horror was in 2021. Here’s to making monsters out of the things 2022 will definitely give us to scream at, and then confront them.