The best 2021 horror movies to watch for Halloween

·9 min read
A television.
A television. Illustrated | iStock

As the box office mounted a comeback in 2021 following pandemic theater closures, horror movies are pretty consistently turning out audiences. And that makes sense, as there's nothing quite like that communal experience of being petrified while surrounded by strangers, all tensing up together before letting out screams in unison.

That demand resulted in some major horror hits this year, and there have also been plenty of under-the-radar releases ideal to watch as spooky season nears its end. A few more intriguing films are still to come, too, including Antlers, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin, and Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho, all of which debut this Friday. For now, though, here are some of the best viewing options for Halloween 2021.

Halloween Kills (Peacock + theaters)

Halloween Kills is a messy — and at times unintentionally silly — follow-up to its superior 2018 predecessor. But there's nothing like a Michael Myers movie to set the mood for Halloween, and this one still ranks above much of the series. The second chapter in a new trilogy, Halloween Kills' main problem is that it fails to focus enough on any particular character, sidelining Jamie Lee Curtis and jumbling together various threads and protagonists thanks to its obsession with bringing back minor players from the 1978 movie. The premise that average townspeople would fearlessly volunteer to hunt down Michael Myers is also a bit ridiculous, and the film generally feels like it's spinning its wheels to put off more substantial developments until the trilogy's finale, Halloween Ends.

But Michael remains terrifying, and slasher hounds will be pleased by some shockingly gruesome deaths — though the violence may go too far in a few scenes. At the film's core is also an interesting, albeit heavy-handed, thesis about mob justice. Kills works best when it extends a key point the 2018 movie made by retconning Michael Myers and Laurie Strode to no longer be siblings: The lack of a specific reason for Michael to attack Laurie only makes his killing spree more haunting. Here's hoping Halloween Ends brings these themes home in a satisfying way, and that Kills being less refined than the last film doesn't mean this series is again heading off the rails.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (HBO Max)

This third installment in the main The Conjuring series, centered around paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, is the trilogy's first without James Wan directing, and the result is its scares never fully wow us with their creativity the way countless moments did in the previous two films. Yet this chapter still works by leaning into Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga's dynamite chemistry, and the love story of Ed and Lorraine remains refreshingly pure in an often cynical genre.

The sequel also admirably mixes things up, playing out more like an episode of The X-Files instead of offering another haunted house story, as the Warrens attempt to prove the innocence of a man who claims he was possessed when committing a murder. Stick to the first two Conjurings for something that will truly induce nightmares, but for those invested in the Warrens, hanging out with these crazy kids as they unravel a mystery is a ton of fun.

V/H/S/94 (Shudder)

After an awful third entry in 2014, V/H/S/94 breathes life back into the horror anthology franchise. This fourth installment follows a SWAT team as it raids a cult's warehouse filled with televisions playing a constant stream of disturbing and bizarre videos. As usual, that frame narrative is just an excuse to present a series of standalone found footage stories, and, also as usual, some segments are better than others.

The first two are by far the strongest, making the greatest use of the fact that the footage is made to look like it's being viewed on VHS tapes; the poor video quality often enhances the scares by obscuring what lurks in the darkness. But the series still hasn't quite figured out how to make worthwhile the wraparound narratives, and this one feels particularly unnecessary. Still, two great horror stories and two pretty solid ones isn't a bad balance, and with a fair amount of variety in its scares, V/H/S/94 is an enjoyable haunted house attraction.

The Stylist (Video on demand)

The Stylist certainly knows how to grab the audience's attention. Its opening scene follows a casual conversation between a woman and her hairdresser, who then brutally cuts off her client's scalp and wears it on her own head. This psychopathic hairstylist lives vicariously through other people, so much so that she pretends to be her victims while wearing their bloody scalps. After helping a bride-to-be before her wedding, she develops a disturbing obsession.

The film's scalping scenes are delightfully grisly, and Najarra Townsend excels in the lead role despite often having to act with no one else around. The plot gets a little repetitive, but gnarly kills and strong performances elevate it, as does a darkly hilarious ending. As the closing moments arrive, we realize so much of the movie seems to have been a long setup for one killer punchline.

A Quiet Place Part II (Paramount+)

John Krasinski's original A Quiet Place was an unbearably tense monster movie that refused to let up for even a second. The follow-up doesn't function at that same rhythm, instead slowing down to flesh out its world — a post-apocalypse filled with creatures who kill anything that makes a sound — and examine questions about whether people who have done whatever it takes to survive are still worth fighting for.

As Emmett, Cillian Murphy adeptly fills the void left by Krasinski's character. The relationship between him and Regan (Millicent Simmonds) anchors the film, which also boasts one of the most heart-stopping opening sequences of any movie this year. Plus, what's not to love about a monster film that knows exactly the right moment to wrap up without overstaying its welcome?

The Night House (Video on demand)

Rebecca Hall gives one of the best horror performances of the year as a woman spiraling after her husband's shocking suicide in The Night House. Grappling with questions about the cryptic note her late partner left behind, Beth grows suspicious that he was leading a double life after discovering a photo on his phone of a woman who looks weirdly like her.

The movie thoughtfully delves into the existential dread and pain that comes with the knowledge that there may be nothing after death, and director David Bruckner crafts some inventive scares by tapping into the way our minds can play tricks on us, seeing faces in empty spaces. While functioning as a metaphor for grief and depression, The Night House isn't afraid to be somewhat ambiguous, shying away from explicitly spelling out the mechanics of what's happening more often than not. Dark and emotionally resonant, The Night House might not be packed to the brim with jolts, but it lingers in the memory all the same.

Malignant (Video on demand)

If any film on this list looks set to become a cult classic, it's James Wan's Malignant, a movie difficult to describe without using the word "bonkers." Annabelle Wallis stars as a woman experiencing visions of horrifying murders. Beyond that premise, the pure insanity of its plot is difficult to convey without spoilers, but suffice it to say the film is by no means another The Conjuring or Insidious-style chiller.

From its over-the-top opening sequence to a deranged third-act reveal, Malignant is the kind of wild horror flick only someone with Wan's industry pull could even convince a studio to fund. It's clear he's very much in on how silly the plot is, playing things straight before finally letting loose at the end — though getting to that fun takes some patience. But if you've managed to avoid Malignant spoilers, make it a priority. Watch with friends ready to go nuts during a final half hour that must be seen to be believed.

Censor (Hulu)

In this eerie psychological horror-thriller, amid public outrage over violent "video nasty" exploitation films in the 1980s, a British film censor whose sister mysteriously disappeared loses her grip on reality after viewing a movie evoking memories from her past. The movie appears to be based on real events from her childhood, and on seeing it, Enid (Niamh Algar) heads down a disturbing path. In a brutal final act, Censor cleverly shifts its aspect ratio to bring us into the world of a film shoot, contrasting the fictional world being created with a much grimmer reality.

The intriguing mystery keeps us hooked during a slow burn initial two acts, and the payoff is more than worth it. Censor packs in ideas about grief, unresolved trauma, and how we tell ourselves stories to deal with painful truths we wish not to face — all in less than 90 minutes.

Candyman (Video on demand)

Nia DaCosta's Candyman is the ideal franchise revival, extending its mythology to modernize the original's main themes while maintaining the spirit of what came before.

In the original movie, Candyman was the vengeful ghost of Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave killed in the 1800s. But in DaCosta's update, there are multiple versions of the Candyman legend, including a more modern one in which the killer was an innocent Black man beaten to death by racist police officers. DaCosta emphasizes how racist violence against Black people is an unending cycle, rather than one singular event. Sure, the film is at times too blunt in conveying that idea. But it's still a powerful experience filled with haunting imagery, gut-wrenching body horror, and effective scares making great use of reflections. Let's hope DaCosta doesn't get too busy with Marvel superhero blockbusters in the coming years; we need a horror follow-up from her, pronto.

Saint Maud (Hulu)

A Catholic hospice nurse begins taking care of a dying woman whom she attempts to convert in this slow burn nightmare from A24. Director Rose Glass builds an engrossing atmosphere of dread while exploring the potential horrors of extreme religious devotion. She draws inspiration from Taxi Driver while following Maud's (Morfydd Clark) descent into madness, and much of the film thrives on the ambiguity over whether Maud is simply going insane or if an otherworldly presence could legitimately be involved.

While usually more interested in maintaining a sinister mood than in hitting us with overt scares, Saint Maud still delivers quite easily the most bone-chilling single scare of the year so far, as well as hands down 2021's most nightmare-inducing, brilliantly edited ending. It's a film you could only watch once and still have its closing moments stick with you for a lifetime.

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