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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Wakefield

Top 20 films of 2021 (FEATURE)

A year where horror was not far from everyone's doorstep, when the zombie apocalypse was practically among us and we were all living in THE ROAD. A year that saw new talent, returning franchises and more importantly, the return of BloodGuts UK Horror after a 3 year hiatus. What a year to return and heck, there's enough genre bending, blood splattered goodness to satisfy all audiences of the horror spectrum.

2021 has been a beacon of life to many, and no genre has shone brighter than horror.

"Just a little off the top" takes a whole new meaning in Jill Gevargizian's stylish thriller that sees Najarra Townsend's hairdresser get a little closer to becoming the woman she wants to be by killing her clients. Released on physical format earlier this year, the premise seems pretty generic but rather than going full MANIAC though, this little gem actually plays to a more personal note and delves into why she would go to extreme lengths to pursue such a murderous craft. Accompanied by a pulsing soundtrack, THE STYLIST is not for the squirmish but a film that really balances horror and personal trauma.

Shudder gave us some pretty big exclusives this year too. THE DARK AND THE WICKED was the scariest film of the year bar none. Where the big studios delivered in fantastic set pieces, Bryan Bertino's debut gave an unnerving sense of dread that ramped up and up to devastating effect. A film of grief and loss, this was truly a film to be seen with the lights off for full effect, even if that means leaving them on forever after. It's always a pleasure to see Barbara Crampton on screen (I still think she hoards a picture in her attic that ages instead of her) and JAKOB'S WIFE sees her grab something to really sink her teeth into. Married to Jakob, a pastor, her mundane life becomes a little more exciting in the presence of vampires and she clearly had a lot of fun with portraying a vampiric wife who finally gets to wear the trousers.

SEANCE and SLAXX both gave some fun to the genre, SEANCE coming from Simon Barrett and feeling like a true nostalgic throwback to high school horror that dominated the 90s where SLAXX literally is about a pair of killer jeans. SEANCE really takes its place on this round-up for a gripping whodunnit with a few scares along the way. One scene in particular gives a grizzly end to one of the teens but it's the rivalry with Suki Waterhouse and the clic of girls who are a little less welcoming of here. When the girls perform a seance to bring back their dead friend, things go south pretty sharply. Where Barrett's film is fun with a great cast and production, SLAXX puts it's killer at the front and centre with some impressive death scenes that nobody saw coming. The film doesn't take itself too seriously and yet commits to what it sets out to deliver and what might seam (yes, I went there) like a low budget b-movie is something much more fun than it should ever be.

THE MEDIUM also made it's debut on the streaming service and what a feast it was. The prospect of a found footage film over 2 hours long may be daunting but it is an experience to be endured. The film, from Thai director Bangjong Pisanthanakun, is a powerhouse of cinema. A slow burn of events that culminate in a chaotic, but well orchestrated, adrenaline rush of horror proving there is still life in a sub-genre many thought was dead. THE MEDIUM was one of many films that proved even further what great focal point Frightfest is for new and emerging talent. The festival returned to London after a years hiatus due to the pandemic but also gave a lifeline to showcasing many of the films via an online pass. 2021 was the best line-up of films for the festival in many years with keen highlights being BLOODTHIRSTY, a musical drama that was so abstract from horror that when the presence of a werewolf came about, it came more as a surprise than a chill however with a well written script and a star turn from Lauren Beatty and a song list worthy of being in anyone's end of year list, really made this a fresh injection for the genre. Not content with showing one music centric movie, the festival also showcased the brilliant SOUND OF VIOLENCE. Alex Noyer's journey of descent fairs similarly with BLOODTHIRSTY's themes however goes about it in a much more macabre manner with Jasmin Savoy Brown going through a downward spiral in search for euphoria through others pain. One scene with a human drum machine is both painful and somehow pleasing to watch.

While Frightfest manages to show some big name releases (to differing effect - here's looking at you Neill Blomkamp) it also nurtures audiences to become film makers. This fortunate support network that the festival provides gave us two of this years highlights. BRING OUT THE FEAR and DAWN BREAKS BETWEEN THE EYES. The former showcased how to make a tense, butt clenching horror with minimal budget and a good script. While very little is shown on screen, the nervous battle of wits between broken couple Ciara Bailey and Tad Morari is enticing and worthy of critical acclaim. DAWN on the other hand was a genre masterpiece that honed in on 70s European horror and Giallo and reminded us of a time when blood and gore were front and centre the attractive feat of horror. While it doesn't hide it's inspiration, the film set in a German castle transcends more than an era as two lovers cross eternity.

Speaking of Giallo, our next film took heavy inspiration from the sub-genre and yet went full gonzo. Not only does MALIGNANT deliver the biggest WTF moment of 2021 (the same year a woman has sex with a car and gets pregnant - more on that later) but it also comes from the beautiful mind of one of horror's modern heroes, James Wan. No film surprised audiences more as the film sets out as a CONJURING clone in tone and suspense only to revel in a second act that literally throws a stick of dynamite in the room and hopes someone survives. It's violent, very, very violent and could be compared closer to JOHN WICK than the Warrens as Annabelle Wallis reaches new heights as a genre favourite. Wan's return to horror after a stint on the Hollywood mainframe was certainly welcome and the fact that Warner Brothers signed this off tells us there is hope yet for new and original horror on the big screen and speaking of returning modern greats, Ben Wheatley also popped by to give us IN THE EARTH.

Filmed during the pandemic, IN THE EARTH is a stripped back film and one that takes Wheatley back to his roots (pun intended) mixing hallucigenics and great British talent (Reece Shearsmith, Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia). The film takes us back to the likes of KILL LIST and BLAIR WITCH stripping right back to a basic narrative and putting together a taut and well tested formula together to bring a satisfyingly horrific tale of terror.

In the summer, we got an event series based on the books by R.L. Stine. FEAR STREET PART 1-3 was something new to streaming, 3 films set in different time periods that all overarched into a single story, the catch being that audiences didn't have to wait years between chapters but rather weeks. The 3 part series gave one clear story arch that satisfying pieced together events in 1994, 1984 and 1666 and each entry pivoted itself around the films that made the era so we had SCREAM, FRIDAY THE 13TH and THE WITCH all rolled into two weeks of viewing.

What was more riveting was that despite being based on YA novels, these weren't shy of horror and gore, giving us a new recognition for bread slicing, and in doing so cemented a whole new era of horror loving audiences something to cherish.

With a lot of inspiration taken from films gone-by, the year wasn't abundant in refreshing old franchises either. We won't talk about the average Michael Myers sequel but refreshingly. the return of another series that was given new life, SPIRAL. The tenth entry in the SAW series that is a standalone film not involving (directly) the Jigsaw killer. The film went back the the series roots by being a detective story first and gory horror second. Bringing in Chris Rock could have turned the franchise into a badly made comedy but instead, alongside Samuel L Jackson and Marisol Nichols, the film is quite grounded and strays away, but never too far, the madness that the sequels exploded into. Hopefully there's more where this left off and the two series can align at some point in the future. CANDYMAN also gave us a sweet new look in a franchise that died in the 90s. The new look never abandoned the original but does give an interesting, and relevant, reflection of a killer who has always had more depth and plausibility than the usual evil villainy of horror as such, 2021 seemed a fitting year to bring him back and Nia DaCosta certainly gave us something fresher than a stock sequel.

Of films that we weren't expecting to see on this list was a remake of FREAKY FRIDAY but alas here we are. FREAKY (not a direct remake but loose adaptation) sees serial killer Vince Vaughn and high school student Kathryn Newton switch bodies in a bloody and often hilarious cat and mouse chase to return to normality. Vaughn hasn't had this much fun in a long time and it's great to see him alive again.

CENSOR gave us one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Prano Bailey-Bond's horror centric piece is a charismatic journey that uses the video nasty era as a focal point for an unsuspecting mindfuck for a censor. Blending BERBARIAN SOUND STUDIO with a visual lens, this masterpiece of cinema is truly the pinnacle of horror for the modern era. Like many films before it, the blend of fact and fiction interweave to give some impressive visuals and Niamh Algar gives a truly convincing portrayal of a woman driven to the edge by the nastiness and overloading terror of cinema. And the madness didn't stop there...

Edgar Wright made his first foray into a serious horror film after giving us the gift of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and the remainder of the Cornetto Trilogy. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO was truly a gift; perfect cast (Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp), a time travelling plot device and a new love for the 60s that made us want to grab the mini-skirt and get a bob. The film was just a gift and really was a well written thriller that paid off big time giving us one of the best performances in modern cinema to one of its all time greats.

In 2016, one of the years best films was RAW. The cannibal coming-of-age drama was well grounded for a film that featured a very graphic bloodthirsty cannibal. In 2021. Julia Ducournau returned with TITANE and it went even further. A year that's given us the madness of James Wan it's very difficult to see how the rest of modern cinema's greats could get any more crazy but it seems there was something in the water during 2020. TITANE not only goes full blown bonkers, it also should not have been as upsettingly grounded as it was. It's not every year we get a film that blends THE SKIN I LIVE IN with TETSUO and succeeds as car model Alexia has sex with a car and falls pregnant.

Werewolves, check. Possessions, check. Serial killers, check. Sex with cars, check. A year that has given us everything and been good at it all is a year to be praised but one thing that has not been mentioned - animation. That's where CHUCK STEEL: NIGHT OF THE TRAMPIRES fits in. The stop motion animation harks back to a golden era of action films and turns full John Carpenter if he had met the makers of morph. A film that is balls-to-the-wall action packed and still manages to give us some effects to scream at as the physicality of CHUCK STEEL reflects back when practical effects were key, also Jennifer Saunders!

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