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The Scariest Movies of 2020, from ‘The Assistant’ to ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

From visceral horror stories to real-life dramas terrifying for other reasons, 2020 has given us enough scary stories beyond the daily news cycle.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “The Assistant,” “Black Box”

For much of the world, 2020 has embodied the exact traits of a well-crafted horror movie: twisted, uncompromising, and something nobody really saw coming. If nothing else, the unsettling nature of a year that has been hobbled by both a global pandemic and a divisive election cycle (among other eerie twists) is a reminder that scariness comes in many forms, and the traditional horror formula that many of us celebrate on Halloween is just one piece of the equation. Many of the movies released this year are scary in unexpected ways, either because they tap into timely anxieties or illustrate the precise nature of terror in these uncertain times.

Here are 13 recent disturbing highlights. Don’t watch them alone.

“Antebellum”

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s feature debut may lack subtlety, but often makes up for it with a bone-chilling terror that suggests everything onscreen is very real. The Janelle Monae-starring film is built on a relatively simple story, one partially obscured by chopped-up storytelling (once you’ve seen “Antebellum,” it’s relatively easy to rearrange the pieces into one coherent timeline, though the film itself does no such favors) and a handful of unnerving sequences that serve to throw both the audience and Monae’s character for big loops.

Its twists and turns are best left discovered within that framework, but suffice it to say, the film follows Monae as two characters (maybe…?), one of whom is an enslaved woman in the deep South, and the other a modern striver with a successful career and wonderful family. How these two sides of the same role intersect is the movie’s big trick, and also what makes the movie unsettling as a whole. The past, it seems, is never very far away, a lesson that Monae’s Veronica has to learn in the most literal of terms. While that might be a blunt thematic instrument, Bush, Renz, and their stars never flinch at the concept; when they’re deep in a world in which slavery isn’t just the reality, but the chosen one, the horror is visceral. —KE

“The Assistant”

Kitty Green’s first narrative feature is replete with all the get-under-your-skin detail of her documentaries, and bolstered by her audience’s shared knowledge that while what they are watching on screen isn’t exactly a true story, its real-life parallels are unmistakable. Recent Emmy winner Julia Garner stars as Jane, the very junior assistant of a powerful film executive (no one ever says the name “Harvey Weinstein,” but the aim is clear) stuck in an increasingly unwell working environment.

"The Assistant"

“The Assistant”

Bleecker

Green and Garner lull their audience into the mundanity of an everyday routine as Jane goes about a seemingly regular day at her new job, though it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong. It’s not just that everyone treats her as if she doesn’t exist (though that’s true) or that the two senior assistants who claim to be on her side very much aren’t, or even that there is a steady stream of gorgeous young women keep parading through the office. It’s that no one else seems to care. As Jane (and the audience) start to realize the true nature of both her position and her profession, she attempts to engage in the quietest of coups. The result is a chilling real-life revelation. —KE

“Bad Hair”

Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” follow-up doesn’t always add up, but there’s enough adventurous tonal shifts and bleak satiric implications to make the bizarre journey worthwhile. The plight of Black women and their hair has birthed enough cinematic investigations to yield its own subgenre, from Chris Rock’s astute 2009 documentary “Good Hair” to the 2020 Oscar-winning animated short “Hair Love.” Simien’s ’80s-spiced supernatural B-movie revolves around a demonic weave and the poor young executive assistant (Elle Lorraine) possessed by it, but it’s really a high-minded corporate satire with a lot on its mind — from the sexism of the music video industry to the specter of slavery that casts a shadow over modern-day work culture.

Roll with the unusual twists and Simien’s passionate Brian De Palma homage carries the movie along as the weave’s harrowing agenda overtakes the hapless young woman’s life. As ludicrous as that premise may sound, “Bad Hair” ultimately abandons its sillier conceits and charges through to a disturbing finale that suggests the plight of Black women — and Blackness in popular culture — continues to face a murky kind of oppression few understand well enough to set straight. That’s enough of a revelation to make the strange trip worthwhile. —EK

“Black Box”

“Black Box” has a twist so good it salvages the cheesy B-movie that led up to it. This Blumhouse-produced debut from director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour blends the psychological uneasiness of an amnesiac’s plight with the ravings of a mad scientist, and the full premise suggests a clever marriage of “Total Recall” and “Get Out.” It lacks the inspired lunacy of the former and the fiery social commentary of the latter, but Osei-Kuffour (who co-wrote the movie with Stephen Herman) has constructed an enigmatic lo-fi thriller with just enough intricate mind games to make the eerie journey worthwhile.

Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) survived a debilitating car accident that killed his wife and left him in a perpetual state of confusion, constantly forgetting details about his everyday life as his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) does her best to give him reminders to get through the day. Nolan keeps experiencing strange signs that he’s still not himself, none more shocking than a hole in the wall that suggests he’s prone to blackouts and rage spirals. Eventually, he turns to an experimental brain scientist (an enjoyably over-the-top Phylicia Rashad) to help him sort out his confusion, as she uses a VR-like technology to guide him through memories that may or may not be his own. The eventual revelation sets the stage for a new kind of identity crisis, a thrilling meditation on fatherhood, and an unsettling dive into the shadowiness of the subconscious that would do Hitchcock proud. —EK

“Come to Daddy”

“Come to Daddy” begins by quoting Shakespeare and Beyoncé in the same frame, and it only gets loopier from there. But no matter its oddball turns, Kiwi director Ant Timpson’s wild, unpredictable debut manages to deliver a gory father-son reunion saga with a surprising degree of confidence in the silly-strange nature of the material — a sentimental story about death and rediscovery that explodes into violent mayhem even as it maintains an earnest connection to the conundrum at hand. It’s an absurd gross-out romp that turns into a tearjerker. Timpson, whose producing credits include the grotesque midnight whatsit “The Greasy Strangler,” certainly has a handle on his lurid material, but star Elijah Wood helps give it heart.

“Come to Daddy”

As a baffled pariah named Norval, the actor delivers one of his most endearing characters in recent memory: a wide-eyed, mustachioed hipster who obscures his insecurities with high fashion and fancy lies. When Norval shows up at his estranged father’s remote seaside mansion, he finds a very different person than he had expected. When tragedy strikes, “Come to Daddy” enters into a spooky new chapter as Norval finds himself alone in a house riddled with mystery and ominous threats he can’t fully understand. As a metaphor for the rollercoaster ride of the grieving process, “Come to Daddy” builds to shocking finale both poignant and disturbing at once. —EK

“The Hunt”

Even before 2020 became the most traumatic year of this young century, American discourse was headed toward disaster. With the country divided over virtually every major issue, extremist views dominate the news cycle, and internet conspiracy theories dictate belief systems. All that noise often obscures the hard truth even well-meaning progressive viewpoints sometimes get a little carried away. That’s the bloody revelation of “The Hunt,” director Craig Zobel’s anarchic story of liberal maniacs who kidnap right-wingers and kill them for sport. Though co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof certainly have fun mocking the lunacy of the redneck victims who believe every deranged word that Fox News and Alex Jones feed to them, the movie’s central villains are the batty left-wingers led by a disgraced executive (Hilary Swank) whose murderous instincts were caused by resenting the other side so much that it destroyed her.

The movie’s wry approach to all-inclusive satire was a little too subtle for right-wing media to comprehend, and when word of the movie leaked early, the confused backlash culminated in no less than an angry Trump tweet and a delayed release plan to distance itself from a pair of mass shootings in Texas last summer, all of which just served to enhance the point of a movie designed to show the very real dangers of a mob mentality. The irony of “The Hunt” stems from its deft heroine Crystal (a ferocious Betty Gilpin) who’s caught in the literal crossfire of a demented world in which she never wanted to pick a side. By the end of the movie, we feel her pain, and it’s terrifying to consider how the state of the country inspired a horror-comedy with social commentary both ridiculous and familiar to all. —EK

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” might not be easily classifiable as a horror movie (or anything else, for that matter), but in its own knotted and maddening way, it clarifies how everything that Charlie Kaufman has ever written and/or directed is absolutely drenched in existential dread. From “Being John Malkovich” to “Anomalisa,” Kaufman’s work has always careened around the cracked echo chamber of human consciousness; his characters are defined by their (often literal) attempts to break free from their own shells and bridge the divide that isolates us all into islands. Cronenberg he’s not, but Kaufman is nevertheless a master of body horror in his own right.

Told from the uncertain perspective of a woman (Jessie Buckley) whose soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) is driving her through a wicked snowstorm to meet his parents for the first time, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is another of Kaufman’s bizarre and ruefully hilarious trips into the rift between people, but this one isn’t about someone who’s trying to cross it — it’s about the rift itself. A surreal, erratic, and strangely moving experience that circles around a realization it can’t put into words, Kaufman’s latest traces the invisible border where one person ends and another begins in the hope that he might be able to capture it on screen for even just a moment, like someone conducting a séance for all the dead space between us. The notion that we all exist in each other’s minds is frightening enough, but Kaufman churns that abstract idea into skin-prickling terror by filtering it through the lens of a ghost story, complete with a haunted house, rotting animal corpses, and even a spooky basement full of old secrets. You’ll never look at your boyfriend’s parents the same way again. —DE

“The Invisible Man”

Less invested in the classic Universal monster from which the film takes its name and better billed as “Gaslighting: The Movie! The New One!,” Leigh Whannell’s finely tuned thriller is both an unsettling parable of domestic abuse and a damn fine “gotcha!” horror film. Elisabeth Moss turns in another predictably great performance as Cecilia, trapped in a relationship with smooth-talking abuser Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has long been able to keep her caged by virtue of his deep fortunes. Cecilia’s attempts to break free — very “Sleeping with the Enemy,” and that’s how this thrill ride starts — are terrifying enough, but the movie’s creepiest moments come from what happens next.

"The Invisible Man"

“The Invisible Man”

Universal

Every moment of relief is beaten back by another horrifying revelation — like Adrian’s apparent suicide, which only leads Cecilia to believe she’s been haunted by his vengeful spirit — that no one else seems eager to accept. As the details of the “haunting” become more vivid, so do Adrian’s tricks, as they wear down Cecilia and drive home the legitimately terrifying idea that the scariest forces in life are the ones we can’t see coming right at us. Whannell has a hell of a time playing with Adrian’s “invisible” figure, from a hallway-set fight sequence in which he takes out just about everyone to a particularly ill-fated dinner that turns into an act of violence both heartbreaking and stomach-churning in its implications. —KE

“La Llorona”

The first thing you need to know about Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona” is that this quiet and trembling phantasmagoria about the ghosts of the Guatemalan Civil War has virtually nothing to do with Michael Chaves’ “The Curse of La Llorona,” the schlocky jump-scare machine that Warner Bros. released in 2019. Aside from their shared roots in the same piece of Latin American folklore, these two films couldn’t have less in common. Much like Bustamante’s masterful “Tremors” (and “Ixcanul” before that), “La Llorona” is a slow-burn séance of a movie that shudders with spiritual trauma. This time, however, that residual pain comes for the guilty, and the guilty know full well it’s coming for them.

One of the men responsible for the genocide of Guatemala’s native Mayan population, General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) has avoided prison on a technicality, and returns to his family’s mansion in the face of a public outcry. Meanwhile, an indigenous woman named Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) begins her new job as a maid at the Monteverde estate; when the rest of the staff flees after a string of ghostly occurrences, Alma only makes herself more at home. A reckoning is at hand, and this time we’re rooting for the dead.  Bustamante’s wickedly entombed domestic chiller repurposes familiar genre tropes in a number of fascinating ways. For all of the heartbreak at its core, “La Llorona” might thought of as the rare feel-good horror film: Even when man’s justice falls short, monsters like Monteverde will always have to answer to a higher authority. —DE

“The Lodge”

Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s “The Lodge” might not live up to the spine-tingling spookiness of their breakout “Goodnight, Mommy,” but this wintery tale of a woman (Riley Keough) who’s snowbound in a remote cabin with her fiancé’s kids is convincing proof that the Austrian filmmaking duo are experts of atmospheric horror. The first 10 minutes of “The Lodge” — in which Alicia Silverstone makes one hell of an impression as the children’s tortured mother —  are an unforgettable masterclass in how to shiv a profound sense of dread into the stuff of daily life, and the rest of the movie is at its best whenever it lets the anxiety of its ambiance do the talking.

The plot gets a bit silly as it goes along (and the big twist is a total groaner), but the tension that Fiala and Franz are able to milk from that house in the tundra is more than enough to keep up at night. Sometimes watching a well-made horror movie can be such a heart-in-your-throat experience that it almost doesn’t matter if it doesn’t hold up in hindsight. —DE 

“Possessor”

“Possessor” is a queasy and intriguing techno-thriller that finds Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott engaging in ultra-gory psychic warfare over control of the latter’s body in a future where assassins can hijack their targets à la “Ghost in the Shell.” Above all, Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature offers by far the year’s most gonzo body horror (David Cronenberg’s son is keeping the family brand strong). “Possessor” is at its best when viscerally peeling a soul out of its body, and Cronenberg has a lot of fun visualizing the absolute mind-fuck of two ghosts competing for control over just one shell.

"Possessor"

“Possessor”

Neon

Whatever logistical questions might be raised by the process of implanting Riseborough into Abbott’s body are snuffed out by the raw spectacle of it all, as Cronenberg stretches the transfiguration into a gruesome symphony of in-camera lighting tricks and nightmarish practical effects courtesy of prosthetics supervisor Daniel Martin. Bodies melt into liquid flesh; a thousand faces yell a single primal scream; the camera zooms through a tunnel of pink organs. It’s the digital experience of our own avatar-ized society made agonizingly physical, and the poetry of seeing that transference in motion is expressive enough to pave over any shortcomings in the film’s plot. As with all of the best scary movies, the most frightening thing about “Possessor” is the fear of not knowing what sort of madness will come on screen next. —DE 

“Relic”

When it comes to matters of monstrous kin, modern horror movies tend to turn on the “bad seed” angle, viewing demonic or killer children through the eyes of their feckless parents. But rarely do we see the opposite — an elder parent’s devolution into madness through the eyes of their adult brood. Enter “Relic,” the feature debut from Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James co-written by Christian White, which shows an 85-year-old matriarch’s descent into otherworldly insanity from the points of view of her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote).

“Relic” exists firmly in the realm of allegory, and if you’re looking for answers to the film’s spooky ambiguities and uncanny set pieces, you won’t find them. James is more concerned with creating an atmospheric rumination on intergenerational trauma, death, and dying that also happens to be a striking horror movie. In that sense, “Relic” belongs on the shelf next to “The Babadook” and “Hereditary” as highbrow, female-led horror movies that dwell in the slow burn. The movie concludes with easily one of the most disturbing, enigmatic, and strangely touching final scenes you’re likely to experience all year, a real showstopper that finds mother, daughter, and granddaughter coming together to bridge an ineffable gap. It’s a tacit way to embrace of the transformative power of death, and what waits on the other side. —RL

“Sputnik”

Cold War paranoia may have waned after the eighties, but the specter of Russia’s ambition to become the leading global superpower never really waned. “Sputnik” provides a fresh entry point for exploring that dread. Director Egor Abramenko’s first feature is an slick and spooky “Alien” homage that blends B-movie chills with legitimate conspiratorial dread. It’s 1983, and after a trio of cosmonauts slam back to earth under dubious circumstances in the dark of night, one winds up dead, another in a coma, and a third can’t remember what happened. That’s Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), who’s locked up in a lab where troubled young doctor Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina) finds herself carted off to the secretive military compound for murky reasons.

Sputnik

“Sputnik”

IFC Midnight

Once there, she gets the full creepy picture: During the day, Konstantin sits in quarantine, confused about his off-planet experiences and why he’s been detained; by night, the truth comes out — literally — as a slimy, spindly creature climbs out of his body, gnashing its sharp teeth in search of a late-night snack. That’s just the first revelation in an unnerving saga that keeps revealing new layers to its plot as it moves along. Eventually, “Sputnik” settles into a run-and-gun routine that feels like business as usual, but not before it captures the shadowy chills of a government less inclined to rely on its scientists to do their jobs than to exploit them for personal gain. That’s a real-life fear that extends well beyond Russia’s borders, especially now. —EK

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