Well, it’s been a year, but unlike 2020, at least this year we had vaccines, booster shots, and a way out of the pandemic. There was some return to normalcy, and for genre fans, horror movies again provided the escape we all needed to deal with the terrors of the real world
When students ask me for horror movie recommendations, something they haven’t seen before, I often turn to Shudder’s content. It’s the place to go to find innovative features by up-and-coming directors. You can also browse their library, featuring genre classics like Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre and plenty of international films.
A lot of Shudder’s exclusive and original content made a tough year feel a little better. I’m especially grateful that I had the chance to launch Shudder Secrets, a column devoted to the network’s newest content. Thanks, editors, for the opportunity!
Here’s the best of Shudder 2021. Most of the list includes feature-length films, other than the honorable mentions. Keep in mind that these choices are based upon the writer’s own personal taste, which is subjective.
The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula: Season 4
No show entertained me this year as much as “Dragula.” I laughed. I cried. I rooted for my favorite contestants to make it to the final round. Everything about “Dragula” is unique, inclusive, and original, be it the fright feats, the costume contests for the runaway, or the insane amount of talent among the contestants. Seriously, how the heck do they come up with a costume design so quickly for something like a ghost ship theme or killer clowns? This show challenges what drag is while offering plenty of drama and scares. Shudder renewed “Dragula” for a fifth season, so look forward to more of the Boulet Brothers in the future, uglies!
Behind the Monsters
This documentary, which appeared in the form of weekly, hour-long installments near the end of the year, gave us the stories behind the most iconic slashers: Michael, Candyman, Chucky, Freddy, Jason, and Pinhead. It’s worth the watch for the interviews alone. But the series also explores the broader pop culture influence of these slice and dice icons. Stream this over the holidays if you haven’t yet.
Writer/director Damian Mc Carthy’s Caveat is a film to stream during the cold winter months. It’s heavy on atmosphere and mood and follows the story of lone drifter Isaac (Jonathan French). He suffers memory loss and agrees to look after a young, troubled woman, Olga (Leila Sykes). Olga’s mom is missing, and her dad committed suicide. Because Olga fears someone attacking her, Isaac must wear a medieval vest attached to a chain leash and stay out of her room. This Irish film has a few frustrating plot points and unanswered questions, but it’s unnerving nonetheless. Oh, and it has one creepy toy bunny. I can’t wait to see what Mc Carthy does next.
Now, on to the official best-of list.
Lucky isn’t just one of my favorite Shudder movies of the year, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year, period. Directed by Natasha Kermani (Imitation Girl) and written by/starring Brea Grant, Lucky is as tense as it gets. It takes the slasher genre and uses it to address everyday horrors that women face. The killer wears a plain mask and could be any man who stalks a woman in a parking lot or downplays her work at the office. At its core, Lucky is very much a film about the terrors of everyday misogyny at the micro and macro levels. Just when you think the slasher genre has been overplayed, along comes a film like this.
A Nightmare Wakes
Directed/written by Nora Unkel, A Nightmare Wakes retells the story of the Frankenstein mythos. Except, instead of focusing on the men, specifically the poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, it props up the author responsible for the birth of the horror genre, Mary Shelley. This is a film about creation, writer’s block, and the difficulties women face to be heard and taken seriously, especially in the 19th Century. It uses birth as a metaphor for artistic struggle, and it works. This is a surreal, nightmarish vision of the Frankenstein story, one that’s finally female-centered. Even still, today, there are debates about how much of a role Percy Shelley played in writing and revising Frankenstein. This movie reminds viewers to take female artists seriously. After all, one of them birthed the genre we all love.
If there’s one thing the French do well, it’s creating innovative and bloody good horror films. It’s why the New French Extremity is one of my favorite genre movements of the last few decades. It’s had a resurgence lately with films like Raw, Revenge, and most recently, Teddy. Like its contemporaries, Teddy is transgressive and goes places you don’t expect it to go. It’s a gory good time that breathes new life into the werewolf genre. Directed and written by Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma, Teddy contains smart humor, splatter, and a solid lead performance by Anthony Bajon. Oh, and there’s plenty the film has to say about class, too. A proletariat-type werewolf? I’m all for it!
Writer/director Brandon Christensen’s Superhost makes the cut for Gracie Gillam’s performance alone, one of my favorites in any horror movie this year. She plays Rebecca, host to two travel vloggers, Claire (Sara Canning) and Teddy (Osric Chau). They stay at her secluded house in the woods and rarely stop filming. The couple doesn’t initially realize that Rebecca is the host from hell, until they learn she’s filming their every move. Superhost is a rollercoaster ride, one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had with any film this year. Oh, and it’s also a clever commentary on vloggers and influencer culture, too.
As far as horror anthologies go this year, it doesn’t get much better than Horror Noire. This project features six segments, all based upon stories by Black authors, including Victor LaValle, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, among others. This is also worth watching for some of the performances, including by genre heavyweights Tony Todd and Rachel True. It’s tough to pick a favorite out of the six segments. Each is smart. Stream this now, and if you haven’t yet, watch the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, also on Shudder.
PG: Psycho Goreman
Few movies felt as fun this year as PG: Psycho Goreman. Writer/director Steven Kostanski’s film sometimes feels and looks like a Kaiju movie, except with more space monsters and way more intentional comedy. The practical effects in this look so cool, especially for the titular character/monster. Major kudos to Matthew Ninaber for such an outlandish, funny performance and to the kids, Nita-Josee and Owen Myre, who play Mimi and Luke. What kid wouldn’t want their own big-time space baddie to boss around after a powerful stone falls into their grasp?
Horror royalty Barbara Crampton plays Anne, a housewife who turns into a ferocious vampire who finds her power once she’s fanged. Need I say more? Oh, and Larry Fessenden plays her husband, Jakob, a conservative preacher. Crampton and Fessenden’s performances alone are reason enough to stream this. Like a lot of the films on my list, Jakob’s Wife manages to take a familiar monster/subgenre and do something interesting with it. This is a vampire story with a powerful feminist bite.
It’s hard for me to watch any new film by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury and not compare it to Inside, their gory, hellacious 2007 film that’s a pinnacle of the New French Extremity movement. But Kandisha is a strong movie in its own right. It features a gnarly monster based on a Moroccan legend. The vengeance creature doesn’t relent after it’s summoned by Amelie (Mathilde Lamusse), who’s assaulted by her ex. Kandisha has some of the best kills of the year and really arresting visuals. This film is another classic tale of being careful what you wish for, especially as the kills grow closer and closer to home for Amelie and her friends.
The Advent Calendar
Another French film makes the list. This one is a retelling of sorts of “The Monkey’s Paw,” but with a demonic holiday twist. The Advent Calendar is so good for so many reasons. It has a rad prop, an advent calendar that becomes a character unto itself, and a cool creature/demon. The calendar falls into the hands of Eva (Eugénie Derouand), a paraplegic desperate to walk again. Each door that opens contains chocolate and a note, which deepens Eva’s obsession to walk again, no matter the cost. Derouand gives a strong performance here, and this is a holiday movie I plan to stream each year. It’s that creative and entertaining. Be careful what you wish for!
Once again, Shudder killed it with original and exclusive content in 2021, so if anyone tells you that there’s no life left in the genre and they’re tired of Hollywood remakes, point them to Shudder. Look for more of my Shudder Secrets columns in the New Year!
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.