2020: The year horror came home

2020: The year horror came home first published by VODzilla.co, 27 December, 2020

A website like VODzilla.co would not even exist were it not for the natural drift, in this digital age, of all films onto the internet. Even titles that start with a big traditional theatrical release eventually end up online for downloading or streaming. More particularly, the ‘disreputable’ genre of horror, which has always been relegated to marginal zones of viewing like the grindhouse, the drive-in, the fleapit, the midnight slot, and of course straight-to-video (bootlegged or otherwise), is right at home in the private niche of cyberpsace, where no one can hear you scream. Even as, over the last two decades, horror has become increasingly acceptable to the mainstream, and has enjoyed more and more exposure in the multiplex, it is one of the few genres besides porn that comes with its own dedicated festivals – and now streaming services (like Shudder) – to keep the devotees satisfied without fear of offending the eyes of the innocent and the uninitiated. Meanwhile, more generalist services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have been quick to adopt horror as a genre whose low-budget indie end is relatively cheap to purchase, and whose fanbase is extremely loyal (not to mention unusually forgiving).

The plague year of 2020 has greatly enhanced horror’s status online. It is not just that Coronavirus has forced us all to stay mostly indoors, but also that this most claustrophobic of genres, where the domestic space is so often exposed as a locus of haunting, invasion or disastrous dysfunction, resonates uncomfortably with any home viewing, thus amplifying the effect of the horror. Probably the ground zero of 2020 horror, and one of the defining films of the year from any genre, has been Rob Savage’s Host, in large part because of its immediacy and its direct mirroring of contemporary anxieties. It is presented as a real-time Zoom meeting between six friends who engage, for a laugh, in a séance with an online medium, and end up getting much more than they bargain for. Here the very term ‘host’ reechoes Covidian concerns about admission, infection and alienation, while making the online ‘medium’ a literal part of the message. For while in many ways Host is a classic (g)host story, its Zoom format brings things right up to the present day when so much of our communication is being conducted remotely. Shot, set and released (via Shudder) during the first UK lockdown, Host brought us all out of our own isolation to eavesdrop on a digital chat between friends, before unsettling any sense of security we might have about both the domestic and the online spaces in which we were experiencing the film. It also comes with just the slightest hint that we, as invisible, uninvited guests in conversations and homes that are not our own, may in fact ourselves be the story’s demonic interlopers, as well as its terrified eyewitnesses.

Through an accident of timing, other horror home releases as varied as Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (Shudder), Lorcan Finnegan‘s Vivarium (Shudder), Phililip G. Carroll Jr.’s The Honeymoon Phase (FrightFest digital edition), Remi Weekes’ His House (Netflix), Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s Held (FrightFest digital edition), Natalie Erika James’ Relic (Signature), Mauro Iván Ojeda’s The Funeral Home (FrightFest digital edition) and Damian Mc Carthy’s Caveat (FrightFest digital edition) chimed with 2020’s lockdown vibe through their shared housebound themes, while Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House (Shudder), Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever (Prime Video), Amy Seimetz‘s She Dies Tomorrow (Curzon Home Video) and Francesco Giannini’s Hall (FrightFest digital edition) were all directly preoccupied with the fear of contagion. Of course, production on most of these features would have ended long before the Covid outbreak, making their apparent timeliness a matter of pure chance – but this just goes to show how the horror genre’s apocalyptic tendencies will always find a mirror in real-world crisis, so that their doom-laden outlook happens to match perfectly the view that we have all had from our window under this year’s specific circumstances. 

Spiral (2019)

The closure of cinemas for much of 2020 has also had an obvious effect on the distribution of genre films. Even bigger titles that under normal circumstances would have enjoyed a theatrical release – like Brandon Cronenberg’s dystopian thriller Possessor (2020), which indeed had been scheduled for one – have instead gone straight to digital download this year. Smaller horror titles tend to go straight to digital anyway, but usually the lucky ones first get big-screen play at one or more festivals. That changed too this year, as only Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams managed to keep their festival entirely live and in venue (with reduced capacity spread across two screens), while other festivals partially or wholly dedicated to genre cinema were forced by Covid to shift their programmes online in part (Mayhem, the London Film Festival with its Cult strand) or in full (the August and Halloween FrightFests, Grimmfest, Abertoir), and put in heroic efforts to keep making horror available in, well, horrific times. There were obvious, unavoidable cons to having the festival ‘experience’ reduced to a small screen in your living room, but one of the pros was that many people who normally would not be able to attend these festivals live could for the first time do so virtually. Meanwhile social media have come into their own for providing that sense of community that is normally fostered by in-person festival attendance. 

Special mention should be made of the Soho Horror Film Festival, a relatively new and small-scale festival which has made a big splash this year. Although its annual live November event had to be indefinitely postponed, organiser Mitch Harrod has gifted horror audiences the world over with not one but four weekend programmes of online horror scattered through the year. Offering a quarterly convention of low-budget weirdness (and some excellent UK premières like Konstantinos Koutsoliotas’ The Fear Of Looking Up, Max Werkmeister’s Danni and the Vampire, Justin R. Long & Powell Robinson’s Threshold and Misty Talley’s Santa Jaws), this was paid for through an entirely voluntary donation system, in a generous act that has opened up a bijou festival – and the genre that it celebrates – to fans otherwise starved of their favourite genre and the company of like-minded freaks.

The lack of reliable theatrical distribution this year has brought its own VOD dividend, making more titles available directly to streaming services. This is something on which Shudder in particular has capitalised, expanding considerably its range of exclusive titles (besides Vivarium and La Llorona, it has grabbed titles like Brandon Christensen’s Z, Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection, Joe Begos’ Bliss, Kurtis David Harder’s Spiral, Justin G. Dyck’s Anything For Jackson – and Elza Kephart’s Slaxx, Christopher Smith’s The Banishing, Neil Marshall’s The Reckoning and Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked are all soon to come). With these features under its belt, as well as Host (which the service wisely released fast upon its completion during the first lockdown), this toxic year for the world has proved a great year for Shudder – even as 2020 has, more generally, seen horror proliferate online, just like a virus. And who can yet know what tensions 2021 will exploit for our home entertainment?

Anton Bitel