The best fictional horrors with which to take your mind off the year's real-life terrors.

By Clark Collis
Updated December 16, 2020 at 02:50 PM EST
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Credit: Universal Pictures

We can all agree 2020 has been a horror show. But it has also been a good year for the horror movie, despite both Halloween Kills and the new Candyman not making it to cinemas for COVID-related reasons. Here at the best films of the year that did come out.

Credit: Mark Rogers/Universal

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Writer-director Leigh Whannell's skilled reimagining transforms the Universal monster movie into a metaphor for gaslighting as Elisabeth Moss' heroine Cecilia Kass is stalked by her controlling and abusive ex-boyfriend (The Haunting of Hill House's Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

“The interesting thing was that I was constantly shooting these empty rooms, and empty corridors, and there’s something a bit uncinematic about that,” Whannell told EW last year. “I mean, when you make a movie, the idea is that you put people in the frame — you put something in the frame. When you’re shooting nothing, it goes against the grain of every cinematic instinct you have!”

Credit: RLJE Films

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Nicolas Cage leads the cast of this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation about a meteor which warps a family, both mentally and physically. Hardware director Richard Stanley's return after an almost thirty-year hiatus is an unforgettable slice of reality-melting mayhem.

“I didn’t find him rusty at all,” Cage told EW about Stanley. “Richard was totally on point, and I felt like he was more than enthusiastic to be back on set as director, and I think he enjoyed that role, and I think he handled it in a perfect way. He’s my favorite sort of director in that he doesn’t fix things that aren’t broken. He lets the scenes find themselves, and he goes with them, and he’s very supportive.”

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You've got to love an aquatic horror film whose entire first act consists of Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth for a minute and a half. An inexplicable box office bomb, Underwater is a very fun mix of The AbyssAlien, and — well, let's just say there's a big surprise at the end.

Fans of aquatic horror should also check out The Beach House and Sea Fever.

Credit: Cranked Up Films

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The team behind 2012's terrific micro-budget zombie film The Battery are back with a movie that's half-romantic drama and half-creature feature. Co-director Jeremy Gardner plays a bar owner named Hank with two big problems: his partner Abby (played by Brea Grant) has gone missing and every night a monster tries to break into his house.

“Hank is this small-town, good-old-boy hunter, about 10 years into a long-term relationship,” Gardner told EW. “He wakes up one morning and his partner, Abby, has just gone, [leaving] just a very cryptic note. Around the same time she leaves, something starts coming out of the swamp at night and scratching at the door and trying to get in. You don’t know if he’s losing his mind, because he doesn’t know where she is, he doesn’t know what this thing is, people don’t believe him. So it’s kind of a creature-feature romance.”

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When Kay’s mother Edna goes missing she moves into mom’s remote house with her daughter Sam and begins the search for her missing parent. But it’s when Edna returns, unable to say where she’s been, that things get terrifying. Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote star in this skilled, atmospheric nightmare from first-time filmmaker Natalie Erika James.

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The reliably amazing Andrea Riseborough stars in this sci-fi thriller as an assassin who takes over other people’s bodies to commit her crimes. With his second film, filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg proves he is a major genre voice, delivering hard science fiction with a painterly eye.

Cronenberg recently revealed to EW that he got the idea for the film on the publicity tour for his previous movie Antiviral.

"When you travel with a film for the first time it’s a very surreal experience," he said. "You are, in a sense, building this public persona, either consciously or unconsciously. You end up performing another version of yourself, this kind of media-self that then goes off and has its own weird life online without you. So, between that and a few other things, I was finding it hard to see myself in my own life. I was getting up in the morning and feeling like I was sitting up into someone else’s life."

Credit: Shudder

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Clancy Brown is a sinister mortician regaling a potential employee with a series of grotesque tales about the recently-deceased in this Shudder horror anthology. Writer-director Ryan Spindell achieves the perfect mix of fun and frightfulness with his debut, which nods to everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to John Carpenter while having a tangy flavor very much its own.

"My manager sent the script to me," Brown told EW. "He said, There’s no money in this, but see if you like it. So, I read it, and I was completely captivated by the format, and by the character. I just thought I could have a lot of fun camping it up, if they were serious about makeup and stuff. And they were! They didn’t have any money, but they got some great craftsmen, some great artists, and turned them loose and, boy, it really looks spectacular!"

Credit: IFC Midnight

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An astronaut returns to earth with, let us say, some serious medical issues. Watch this slice of Russian sci-fi horror now so you can be ahead of the game in talking about the inferiority of the inevitable U.S. remake.

Credit: Shudder

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A group of friends decide to take part in a remote online séance in Brit up-and-comer Rob Savage’s shot-during-lockdown film. Given the year we’ve had, it was inevitable we’d see Zoom call-based horror, but it was not inevitable it would be this damn scary.

"Hopefully, touch wood, it’s never going to happen again in the history of the world, [but] everyone is living the same reality," Savage said of his film, another Shudder movie. "So, we looked at that and were like, we could probably find a way to make this scary. If we can make people more unsafe in their own homes, all the better for it!"

Credit: Daniel Power

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If you haven’t seen this movie, feel free to stop reading and do so now away before it is spoiled for you. If you have seen this tale about exploding high schoolers feel free to agree it is a blood-drenched charm with utterly terrific turns from Katherine Langford, Charlie Plummer, Hayley Law and everyone else involved.

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Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country) and Sope Dirisu (Gangs of London) give two of the genre’s best performances of the year as London-dwelling refugees who are horribly haunted even before the ghosts start turning up.

Credit: Orion Pictures

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As usual, 2020 saw the release of several great movies which would have to be described as horror-adjacent, rather than out-and-out terror tales, yet still feel worthy of shouting out on a list like this. The best of the year’s sort-of genre movies include Swallow, The Hunt, the Elijah Wood-starring Come to Daddy, and this terrific yarn from writer-director-star Jim Cummings about a cop determined to prove that his small town is not being terrorized by a werewolf. 

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Director Christopher Landon reimagined Groundhog Day as a slasher movie to make 2017’s Happy Death Day and performed a similar trick on Freaky Friday to give us this body-swap horror-comedy. Vince Vaughn is a serial killer while Kathryn Newton is an innocent high-schooler — and, of course, vice versa.

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