Shot during lockdown over Zoom, and largely watched on laptops, Host has captured the zeitgeist better than any other horror film of 2020.

Pinned to a corkboard above my desk is a prime piece of 2020 memorabilia – a ticket for the multimedia screening of A Quiet Place Part II on Friday the 13th of March… issued when the film was due “in cinemas and Imax March 19”. In the event, the screening was cancelled, among the first films to be put on hold as a result of the pandemic (it’s currently scheduled for April 2021).

Also in limbo are Nia DaCosta’s Candyman and Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s The Lodge, although Emily Harris’s Carmilla was freed from purgatory and released on 16 October. Along with Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor, a production interrupted by the coronavirus but now moving towards completion, these will eventually appear in a world their makers couldn’t have foreseen, though – working in a genre that’s supposed to deal with the darkest possibilities – they could certainly have imagined.  

Sight & Sound November 2020 issue

One or two films made last year which have popped up on streaming services or the festival circuit get points for apparent prescience. Charlie Buhler’s Before the Fire (aka The Great Silence) and Francesco Giannini’s Hall are set during pandemics that parallel the Covid-19 crisis – but also differ significantly, making for the occasional jarring absence (no one foresaw the mask issue) or presence (the deadly virus in Hall has more cinematic make-up effects symptoms). In both films, the plague and consequent Dawn of the Dead-style breakdown of civilisation are backdrops for personal stories of women forced to become survivor types in hostile situations.

This model is well-established in horror, and fits Emily Blunt in the Quiet Place films too, though Before the Fire and Hall present heroines in a general pickle because of ongoing large-scale crises who are specifically, actively threatened by oppressive, violent, possessive male family members.

Again, this is a pre-Covid trend, and has bubbled up a lot in the last few years. Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the last pre-lockdown horror hit, has Elisabeth Moss persecuted by her controlling, now transparent ex-boyfriend.

Carmilla (2018)

It’s tempting to comb through the theatrically released horror films early in the year, looking for premonitions or unexpected relevance with what came next in the real world.

Appearing in the months before cinemas closed were Richard Stanley’s Color out of Space, Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium, Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning, Nicolas Pesce’s The Grudge, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, William Brent Bell’s Brahms: The Boy II, Jeff Wadlow’s Fantasy Island and Craig Zobel’s The Hunt.

The winter months are often a dumping ground for slightly defective product, so there are more than a few abortive stabs at franchise fare here – along with the odd arthouse/horror hybrid

Of course, there are many lockdown-appropriate tales of confinement – in deeply ordinary ghost stories The Turning and Brahms, as well as ambitious, ambiguous pictures like The Lighthouse and Vivarium.

Monstrous infections of various types run rampant in Color Out of Space, Little Joe and The Grudge. But these themes are horror film staples in any era. To take cases at random, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) involve cowering indoors while plague ravages the outside world and monsters scratch at the shutters.

In lockdown, the streaming figures for apocalyptic fictions increased. That’s perhaps surprising, though maybe Charlton Heston battling robed albino cultists in The Omega Man (1971) served as escapist fare for viewers whose major real-world concerns were getting an Ocado delivery slot or sourcing a fresh bottle of hand sanitiser.

The New Mutants (2020)

When cinemas reopened in July, the first new film on release was Derrick Borte’s Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe as a road-rage psycho. A couple of unconventional, tentative horror films followed – Keith Thomas’s supernatural drama The Vigil, set within an Orthodox Jewish community, and Josh Boone’s delayed horror/superhero crossover The New Mutants. Normality is still as far off as the current release date for A Quiet Place Part II, but anticipatory interest stirs for films that hope to be in the first wave of post-Covid horrors.

In Candyman, a franchise built around a rare African-American bogeyman (Tony Todd’s hook-handed spectre of the housing project) has passed into the hands of African-American creatives; inevitably, Jordan Peele is involved as writer-producer.

Christopher Landon’s Freaky looks to repeat the canny trick of his winning 2017 Happy Death Day (a horror spin on Groundhog Day) by mashing up a well-remembered family-friendly fantasy premise (in this case, 2003’s Freaky Friday – itself a gloss on 1988’s venerable Vice Versa) with slasher horror (the pitch must have been Freaky Friday the 13th).

Relic (2020)

Natalie Erika James’s Relic (read the feature here) is a family curse story, set in another claustrophobic, though disturbingly labyrinthine haunted house. One thing that might play in favour of these films is that they are about something else – though, as with many films delayed by Covid, there’s a risk their genuine, deeply felt concerns will seem almost quaint when they’re eventually released.

The logline for Candyman is that it’s set against the gentrification in the haunted Chicago slum from Bernard Rose’s original 1992 film – but when the movie comes out, it’ll seem to be set in a future that didn’t pan out that way or inextricably linked to a past that’s been all but obliterated. Given that below-the-fold headlines about authoritarian government and climate change aren’t exactly reassuring, the plague isn’t even the only horror-movie-ready subject in the news.

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt, which had its arthouse-horror doppelganger in Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau, is a handy illustration of the perils of chasing the zeitgeist and might well make a useful case study for all those toiling now on their lockdown/pandemic horror scripts. A spin on the often adapted short story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, The Hunt addresses the culture war in pre-Covid America, playfully positing that there really is a liberal elite prepared to go to war with ‘the deplorables’.

The release was delayed from August 2019 to March 2020 when a couple of real-life mass shootings made a black-comic take on the issues seem tasteless; then the film attracted condemnation from commentators (including President Trump) who, inevitably, only had bullet points to go on, and wildly mischaracterised the movie.

Like The Invisible Man, Get Out, Ma, Happy Death Day, The Vigil, Freaky and many other mid-budget genre films, The Hunt was produced by Blumhouse, which has a policy of balancing commercial savvy with thematic risk that has often paid off.

Blumhouse makes so many films it can afford to sweep its disappointments (Visions, 2015; The Veil, 2016; The Gallows Act II, 2019) under the carpet – or release them straight to VOD, as they are doing with the ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’ series, produced by Blumhouse TV in conjunction with Amazon Studios; the first four films in the series (The Lie, Black Box, Nocturne and Evil Eye) debut on Amazon Prime this month. But the company stuck by The Hunt, even if it came out after its moment had passed and wound up playing smaller screens, to thinner audiences than the company’s hardly well-received reboot of Fantasy Island.

Blumhouse probably saw the yield from Invisible Man as a way of balancing the Hunt write-off. It has furthered its relationship with Universal Pictures by scheduling similarly scaled reinventions of the studio’s other monster franchises (Dracula, Wolfman), replacing the proposed ‘Dark Universe’ versions of the characters that was scuppered by the botch of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy (2017).

Blumhouse has also signed Rob Savage, creator of the fast turnaround zeitgeist-riding Host (read the interview here), to a three-picture deal. And it can claim to have seen the whole mask war thing coming in its The Purge (2013-) franchise, which continues to interrogate the daggers-drawn state of the nation via slasher-action quickies.

Host (2020)

Made for Shudder, a speciality horror streaming service, Host is an interesting case in all sorts of significant ways – though it’s squarely in traditions that are as old as horror itself. Its 56-minute running time would have made a theatrical showing unlikely before lockdown – though its success probably means it will get selected cinema screenings when cult venues reopen.

Indeed, one thing it proves is that streaming services don’t need to remain so rigidly attached to formats like the feature film or the TV miniseries when their on-demand model allows space for works that might no longer fit into cinema release or broadcast schedules. Host, a horror film set during a lockdown zoom séance, might once have been a one-off TV play, a form persecuted to extinction by a medium that ceased to see the point in satisfying an audience without hooking them to tune in again next week.

Its success will most likely encourage imitations, rather than inspire other innovations – which, sadly, has generally been the way cinema works, especially in horror. Still, imitations occasionally become mutations – Host is itself in a line of descent from previous found-footage horrors. Among the host of Host knock-offs will be a few gems.

How horror films treat 2020 has yet to be determined. It’s possible we’ll have a raft of movies of all types that acknowledge the Covid crisis the way Spider-Man Far from Home deals with ‘the blip’, the five-year-long period between Thanos wiping out half the population of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and the Avengers bringing all the dissolved people back in Avengers: Endgame (2019).

We’ll get lip service to the narrative/societal shake-up, with moments flagging heroic losses, and then press on with the story that was always on the cards. Or we’ll just ignore the whole thing – Covid, Trump, Brexit, Black Lives Matter, Zoom calls, mask wars, law-breaking in a limited and specific way, social distancing, working from home, climate change, Cats – and tell ghost stories. Horror films that try for topicality risk being The Hunt, after all.

It’s instructive to look at another season when the world was changing rapidly, and note how that filtered into horror films in terms of production and release. A horror mini-boom began with Son of Frankenstein (1939), a sequel-reboot that ended a drought caused by our friends the British Board of Film Censors.

In the non-specific middle European region once ravaged by the Monster (Boris Karloff), villagers are terrified that Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) will resume his father’s experiments – but no one mentions the small matter of imminent world war.

In The Wolf Man (1941), released the week Pearl Harbor was bombed, American-raised Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) is cursed by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi) when he returns to Wales, where nary a Welsh accent is heard and you can’t tell there’s been a war on for two years. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), revived Larry crosses Europe to meet the Monster – and, again, no Nazis, no rationing, no bombing.

These films have ‘contemporary’ settings and can’t easily be placed as pre-war stories, but they avoid mention of topical events. Eventually, reality became too big to ignore: an Invisible Man aids the war effort in Invisible Agent (1942) while the Blitz unearths Bela Lugosi in The Return of the Vampire (1943). The war is a backdrop but famous monsters outweigh the passing Nazi menace.

Early-in-the-war horror films set aside the big everyday problems everyone was thinking about so audiences could concentrate on worrying about being mauled by the Wolf Man. Blumhouse has a new Wolfman in development – perhaps the shape of post-Covid horror is already apparent.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.