Never has there been a better time to watch horror movies.
Not only can the genre provide relief during a terrifying year by allowing us to face our fears and emerge at the other end unscathed, but when so many traditional Halloween festivities can't go forward, we'll need horror movies more than ever to fill the void. In fact, watching movies at home this Halloween is one of the CDC's officially recommended "safer, alternative" ways to celebrate. You heard them, folks.
The pickings are slimmer than usual, but since a number of new movies have gone straight to video on-demand or streaming this year, there are still some excellent, spooky options. Here are the must-watch horror treats for Halloween 2020.
Scare Me (Shudder)
When two writers who retreat to cabins in the woods to work on their latest projects lose power, they entertain one another with scary stories in this clever minimalist horror-comedy. Scare Me demands an imagination from its audience thanks to one surprising decision: Never does it cut to the stories the characters are telling, remaining in the cabin from start to finish. As Fred and Fanny dramatically act out the spooky tales, playing all characters involved, director Josh Ruben makes use of an array of sound effects and inventive staging to bring the situations to life. What we ultimately get is a celebration of the art of storytelling and the collaborative creative process, with an endearing let's-put-on-a-show kind of spirit throughout. A few bits overstay their welcome, and the ending is somewhat disappointing. But Scare Me's ability to keep us entertained with nothing but dialogue in a single setting is a laudable accomplishment.
Snatchers (HBO Max)
We didn't get a new Edgar Wright movie this year like we were supposed to, but Snatchers is a fine substitute. Another horror-comedy, this one follows a teen girl who has sex for the first time, only to wake up immediately looking nine-months pregnant — with an alien baby. Deploying well-timed editing and quick zooms for comedic effect, the film clearly draws inspiration from Wright's Shaun of the Dead, though it can't quite replicate that film's heart nor its clever meta take on the genre itself. Still, Snatchers is consistently funny, and the creature effects and kills are surprisingly well done for a silly comedy. What elevates the movie more than anything is the natural chemistry between its leads, Mary Nepi and Gabrielle Elyse. If there's any justice in Hollywood, both will be going places.
A young woman moves into a new apartment complex and is welcomed into its friendly community, but it doesn't take long for her to suspect something is not quite right. If that seems like an overly vague description, it's only because 1BR is best seen knowing little going in, as it does a nice job surprising us with an unexpectedly early escalation that most movies would save for near the end. After this shock opening pivot, it still manages to go to some further unexpected places, although it's a bit disappointing when 1BR wraps up with an ending lifted directly from another popular horror-thriller. But if the theme of 2020 is feeling hopelessly trapped, the film taps into that, effectively exploring Stockholm syndrome with a strong performance from Nicole Brydon Bloom while also hammering home the especially bleak helplessness of being stuck not in the middle of nowhere, but in a bustling city, where salvation is just a few walls away — yet still so far.
The Beach House (Shudder)
One of a number of 2020 horror films that mirror the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lovecraftian The Beach House follows a young woman who goes away for a relaxing trip with her boyfriend at his parents' beach house, but strange microbes soon envelop the area, leading to increasingly bizarre and disturbing situations. The film draws its horror out of the knowledge that you're gradually losing control over your body and there's nothing you can do about it, as well as the claustrophobic feeling that comes with being unable to simply go outside and safely breathe the air around you, making it perfect — maybe a little too perfect — for this year. There's some unforgettable, but not too over the top, body horror, including one involving a character's foot that will be hard to shake for quite a long time. Think of The Beach House as a more restrained, leaner Color Out of Space, albeit with a glaring lack of Nicolas Cage screaming about alpacas.
Sea Fever (Hulu)
Speaking of timely movies, it doesn't get more prescient than this. Sea Fever follows a scientist who heads aboard a fishing trawler for research purposes, only for her and the crew to encounter a horrifying sea creature that unleashes parasites infecting those aboard. And if that sounds a little too close to home right now, just wait until you get into the sequences in which Sea Fever thoughtfully explores the moral obligation one has to consider the greater good, and not just their own personal needs, in order to prevent the spread of the infection to others. Some might selfishly refuse to self-quarantine despite being exposed, but as one character puts it, "We have to take responsibility." It's a tense, well-constructed piece that may have been made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but if it were written later as a metaphor for the coronavirus crisis, it probably wouldn't look a lot different.
The Mortuary Collection (Shudder)
In this horror anthology, a woman goes to interview for a job opening at a mortuary, whose owner proceeds to tell her frightening tales about the death of several of those who have passed through. The result is a rollercoaster ride of gross-out gore, delightful practical effects, and twisted, laugh-out-loud gags galore. Though it's a streaming release, it's the kind of movie you can imagine seeing in a theater on opening night with an audience that would go wild erupting in laughter and screams of "oooooohh" fairly consistently. It has trouble knowing the right time to wrap up the frame narrative, and certainly don't expect The Mortuary Collection to give you any nightmares. But if it's a series of darkly funny, Tales from the Crypt-style stories you're looking to enjoy this Halloween, you can't go wrong. Just don't watch it alone — it’s too much fun not to share (safely) with others.
The Lodge (Hulu)
If there's any 2020 horror film that deserves to be preceded by a Rod Serling Twilight Zone monologue, it's The Lodge. In this horror story that plays out like one long nightmare, two kids wind up isolated at a lodge with their dad's suspicious new fiancé. All throughout, The Lodge makes us feel like we're losing our grip on reality along with the characters, as it builds an overwhelming, almost nauseating sense of dread. It's a bit of a magic trick, relying on shifts in perspective in order to pull the rug out in its last act, and your opinion of it may largely depend on how much you believe the ultimate reveal; it's shocking, but the explanation for some of what came before is a bit of a stretch when you think about it. But given that this makes for one of the year's most brutally chilling endings — which comes after one of the year's most brutally chilling beginnings — suspending a little disbelief is worth it.
It's hard to overstate how impressive it is that Host exists. Director Rob Savage's low-budget horror film takes place entirely over Zoom, and it was made from home in just a few months during COVID-19 lockdown. It boggles the mind how Savage was able to pull off some of these set pieces, and the film, which follows a group of friends who hold a seance amid the pandemic, visually rivals a conventionally produced studio film. Even more than its scares, though, Host's secret ingredient is its cast. This group of friends is genuinely likable, and the realistic, improvisational tone of their conversation sucks us right in. As one of the first movies to take place during the pandemic, Host slightly misses an opportunity to speak more to this moment in time, something that might have been accomplished with a runtime that cracked an hour. But overall, especially with the limitations in mind, Host is jaw-droppingly well executed, and it might just leave you itching for more Zoom horror.
Relic (Video on demand)
Natalie Erika James' excellent directorial debut Relic is this year's The Babadook. In the same way Jennifer Kent's masterpiece used its central monster as a metaphor for grief, Relic tackles the horrors of dementia, with Emily Mortimer's Kay returning home to confront not just a spooky haunted house, but the devastating reality of caring for her ill mother as she nears the end of her life. James takes a less-is-more approach to both the story and to the scares, choosing in numerous instances to let the visuals speak for themselves and not burdening us with unnecessary backstory or laying on the metaphor too thick. It builds to a devastating, wordless final sequence, one of the most powerful in any recent horror film. When it comes to all-time great horror directorial debuts, Relic is up there with some of the very best.
The Invisible Man (HBO Max)
Now that's how you reboot a classic monster movie. After the disastrous The Mummy reboot in 2017, Leigh Whannell's brilliant The Invisible Man breathes new life into the Universal monster franchise, retaining the appeal of the classic story while offering an ingenious modern twist. By telling the tale from the point of view of the invisible man's victim, Whannell turns this into a fresh, terrifying story about gaslighting and domestic abuse. Elisabeth Moss gives one of her all-time best performances, and the film knows exactly how to keep things fresh with clever scares built around the invisibility conceit. Even if the film's closing act at times leans a bit too heavily into action-thriller territory in a way that feels like it's leaving some scares on the table, it ultimately ends in a place that is thoroughly satisfying and properly cathartic. Based on The Invisible Man alone, Universal better be planning to bring Whannell back for many more reboots to come, as he has easily earned the keys to the Universal monster kingdom.