As uncertain as everything might feel right now, we can always count on horror to overcome the odds and stay a part of our lives. The genre has been prolific in recent years, and 2021 was no different. This year alone saw a number of high-profile horror releases as well as smaller ones. Many of which were delayed or didn’t see domestic distribution until now.
With this year being so jam-packed horror-wise, it goes without saying a lot of releases got lost in the shuffle. Whether they came and went with no publicity, or they escaped attention regardless of their merits, these movies are considered my hidden gems of 2021.
Not to be confused with either of the Scare Me movies from last year, Scare Us is a completely unrelated anthology. The premise is simple enough; aspiring writers regularly gather at a bookstore so they can share their work. As they do this on a particularly tense night, they have no choice but to address the pink elephant in the room — a killer named Cutthroat is terrorizing the area.
Reviews have been especially hard on Scare Us, but unlike other horror portmanteaus coming out today, this one is not another mere “Frankenthology.” The multiple filmmakers involved all work toward a cohesive framing story. As expected, the plot threads vary in quality; Ryan Kjolberg‘s surreal offering “Untethered” has understandably gained the most attention. Yet, the other stories are no pushovers either. What Scare Us lacks in gimmickry and craved nostalgia it makes up for in artistry and consistency.
After screening at multiple film fests, Michael Nader‘s The Toll eventually came home in 2021. The movie is Nader’s directorial debut after penning another hidden gem, Headcount. In this one, a woman (Jordan Hayes) and her ride-share driver (Max Topplin) become trapped inside a supernatural anomaly with an entity known as the Toll Man.
The Toll is an atmospheric journey into darkness. Nader marries nightmarish imagery with emotional landmines. There is the occasional moment of overwriting, but it’s not too distracting from the overall story.
Due to bouts of isolation and distancing over the last two years, many people have become all too familiar with loneliness. The main character at the center of this creature-feature can relate, although his solitude exists for different reasons. Drew Matthews plays a closed-off locksmith named Ethan, who discovers a strange “insect” one day. As the residents of this rural community then start to disappear, Ethan goes to great lengths to protect his new companion.
Clayton Witmer‘s feature debut, co-written with Chelsey Cummings, centers on a man who has become detached from both his family and himself. The monster doubles as a tangible threat and a sort of avatar for Ethan’s frame of mind. As far as the creature goes, what little we see of it is impressive given the budgetary restraints. Don’t expect a lot of carnage or action in The Arbors; we catch only the occasional glimpses of death and chase. Even knowing this is a slow burn, the movie would have benefitted from a shorter runtime. Be that as it may, few monster movies coming out today are willing to be this vulnerable.
15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot (#1 Will Blow Your Mind)
Originally called The VICE Guide to Bigfoot when it played at film festivals in 2019 and 2020, Zach Lamplugh‘s movie was retitled 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot (#1 Will Blow Your Mind) once it was released for home viewing in 2021. The new name is a mouthful, yes, but the movie is a total treat for cryptid enthusiasts. In this mockumentary, a millennial reporter (Brian Emond) bites off more than he can chew when he visits the Appalachian foothills for a feature about Bigfoot. He and an amateur cryptozoologist (Jeffrey Stephenson) land themselves in trouble as they delve deeper into both the myth and the region’s more mysterious parts.
Lamplugh deftly satirizes clickbait culture while also delivering a unique Sasquatch movie. The humor leaves a sting, and the protagonists are likeable oddballs. The only thing more elusive than the most iconic cryptid is a quality Bigfoot flick. Well, look no further because 15 Things hits its target and then some.
Happy Little Bunnies
The line between horror and dark comedy is blurred in this British import. On paper Happy Little Bunnies sounds like a basic slasher, but the further you watch, it’s obvious something else equally sinister is at work. Patrick McConnell‘s movie focuses on a young man’s (John Scott Clark) rather unorthodox therapy session. His new counselor (Simon Manley) goes to extremes to “help” his patient. In the meantime, the city is on edge because of an at-large serial killer who wears a bunny mask.
Happy Little Bunnies is a quasi-slasher with a mean streak. The narrative style isn’t all that clear-cut, but the payoff is more than worth your time and patience. An appetite for transgressive stories and black humor makes this movie go down easier.
Anthony Scott Burns hit the genre scene with the “Father’s Day” segment in Holidays and the underrated feature Our House. The follow-up Come True sees Burns acting as both a director and a writer; Daniel Weissenberger helped conceive the story. With Burns being more involved in the writing, we get a better sense of his style and vision. Here, a young runaway (Julia Sarah Stone) incidentally invites an uncanny force into reality when she volunteers for a sleep study.
Come True is compelling in spite of a minor flaw or two, but it’s those imperfections that also make it memorable. So much of the film is gorgeous; the rich soundtrack and visuals keep you engaged. The dread unfolds in increments, and by the time the divisive ending rolls around, you’re already too consumed with everything that came before it.
Horror in the High Desert
While some might say found footage has gone out of fashion, others will attest the format is as alive as ever. Of course its mainstream visibility has dwindled since the heyday, but anyone who visits Tubi enough knows there’s still a yearning for first-person thrills. One of the better finds this year is Horror in the High Desert, a mockumentary about a missing man in Northern Nevada.
Three years after his disappearance, friends and family of Gary (Eric Mencis) come together to shoot a documentary about their loss. The case’s investigation is described in great detail before the startling reveal toward the end. Unlike other similar movies, Horror in the High Desert avoids the patent but overused “throw everything at the camera and hope it sticks” routine. On the contrary, Dutch Marich creates a hefty bit of tension by doing very little. The performances and scares all come across as authentic even if we know better by now.
From Fear Street to the upcoming Scream sequel, masked murderers are trending like it’s the late ’90s again. Some things about slashers never change; the killers still love their signature weapons and very specific motivations. John Berardo‘s Initiation is no exception, but what really makes this neo-slasher stand out is the incredible writing. Initiation wows with its acting and depictions of grief. In general, the meeting of drama and suspense here is exceedingly well done.
In the movie, a college campus is left in shock when a fraternity brother (Froy Gutierrez) is brutally murdered in his own house. His sister (played by co-writer Lindsay LaVanchy) has no time to mourn because the assailant has only just begun their killing spree.
Ecological horror has made a small comeback thanks to growing concern about the planet. On a smaller scale, the Welsh movie The Feast (originally Gwledd) examines the consequences of local avarice and absolute self-interest. An area known as The Rise is at stake in this beautifully shot morality tale. A wealthy family has no earthly idea of what’s to come as they plan their next — and possibly last — dinner party.
Bjørn Ståle Bratberg‘s eye for lavish scenery and opulent décor can be misleading, but director Lee Haven Jones fills every inch of this eco-horror with quiet, insurmountable dread. This languid approach to a theme as potentially farcical as “eat the rich” isn’t for everyone, but those who stay the course will feel sated by the outcome.
Two years after its release back in Malaysia, Emir Ezwan‘s Roh (Soul) is finally available in the U.S. This impressive debut is one of several homegrown horrors that’s managed to gain interest outside of Asia. Roh follows a single mother (Farah Ahmad) and her two children (Mhia Farhana, Harith Haziq) as they fend off a supernatural threat. This comes after they’re visited by strangers with vague intentions.
The confining forest prevents a quick and easy escape, and the dread is immovable. On top of all that is a merciless plot trajectory. Even though Roh never cares to explain itself, the movie is thoroughly unsettling.