Stream it on Shudder.
This supernatural thriller from the writer-director Eskil Vogt, about children with powers they don’t know how to handle, is intensely creepy and atmospheric, but also humane and heartbreaking. It’s one of my favorite horror films of the year.
The movie begins as Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum) and her autistic sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), move with their parents into a Norwegian housing complex. There the girls meet kids with paranormal skills, including Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who can hear people’s thoughts, and Ben (Sam Ashraf), a bullied preteen whose ability takes a deadly form that sets up the film’s devastating final act.
It’s not often that a horror film brings tears to my eyes, but that’s what happened during a scene in which Ben wrestles with a horrific act he commits because of something within himself that he doesn’t understand. It’s a testament to Vogt’s empathy as a director that this scene, nothing more than a shot of a boy and his feelings, was the film’s scariest. As Vogt told me in an interview in May: “I don’t think I’ve been as scared as an adult as I was as a kid.”
‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’
Stream it on HBO Max.
Another of my favorite films this year is this strange adventure in slow-burn form-busting. Thumbs up to HBO Max for giving experimental horror a home outside the art house.
Casey (the assured newcomer Anna Cobb) is a troubled teenager who cocoons in her attic bedroom. Drawn to the macabre, she takes the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing game that, if players’ videos are to be believed, triggers physical and mental distress. As Casey develops an online relationship with an anonymous older man (Michael J. Rogers), she loses her grip on reality and terror creeps its way into her room — or does it?
In an interview earlier this year, the writer-director-editor Jane Schoenbrun told me they discovered they were transgender during the making of the film, their first feature. That’s a powerful voyage to make, but not surprising considering how deeply their unsettling film engages with questions of self-identity.
Schoenbrun pairs their stark, intensely personal story with a visual language that includes creepypasta videos, ASMR and found footage, and the results are otherworldly. Which is another way of saying: Stay away if your horror tastes stick to the traditional lane.
Stream it on Hulu.
In this Finnish horror fantasy, a gifted 12-year-old gymnast named Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) finds, nurtures and hatches an egg that becomes a giant ugly bird that becomes a demonic ugly bird-creature. Tinja loves it, and names it Alli.
Tinja keeps the winged goblin hidden in her bedroom, away from her overprotective blogger-mother (Sophia Heikkila) and the rest of her family. But Alli isn’t done growing, and even worse isn’t finished morphing, becoming a gruesome figure who looks an awful lot like Tinja herself.
Hanna Bergholm’s feature directing debut is on the surface a creepy modern fairy tale about a child and the monster she loves, like a Brothers Grimm reboot of “E.T.” But underneath, Bergholm and her screenwriter Ilja Rautsi have crafted a heartfelt body-horror creature feature about what happens when a mother’s aspirations collide with a daughter’s coming-of-age.
The film gets a stylish lift from Gustav Hoegen, who in addition to working on the new “Star Wars” films designed the monstrous Alli, and Paivi Kettunen, whose production design is an uncomfortable balance of organic modern and folk-horror macabre.
Rent or buy it on most major platforms.
Benny (Wes Dunlap) is a small-time Las Vegas YouTuber who makes videos ambushing suspected pedophiles, like a vigilante “To Catch a Predator.” For his latest video, he’s impersonating a teen named Lizzie to trap Jason (Lucas Neff), a high school math teacher who’s targeting underage girls, or so says Nicole (Lucy Urbano), a 16-year-old Benny groupie.
One night, Lizzie (really Benny) invites Jason over with the promise of a frisky night. But Jason finds Benny at the door instead, and not wanting to rock the boat, Jason agrees to play poker with Benny and his friends, who are in on the trap. As sleazy confessions emerge and the alcohol flows, Benny’s rage escalates, and the night takes a bloody turn nobody expected — especially not the guy outside with a mask.
Tyler Michael James’s feature film debut is a suspenseful thriller about the making of a modern predator and the perils of internet notoriety. Make that predators — almost every character in the film uses sex, fame and friendship as weapons of exploitation. Dunlap is a charismatic megalomaniac until the last shot.
Stream it on Tubi.
It’s a new school year at the quaint Starling University, and among the nervous newcomers is Brian (Jordan Ver Hoeve), a soft-spoken gay freshman whose eyes say jackpot! when he discovers he’s rooming with Jeremy (Andrew Matthew Welch), a wrestler who is hetero and flexible.
When Brian checks out a welcome-to-college flash drive, instead of maps and menus he finds videos of a young man (Colin Bates) — screen name WrestlerStud99 — having kinky bisexual webcam trysts. But when Brian watches a video of someone in head-to-toe leather gear assaulting WrestlerStud99, the discovery puts Brian and Jeremy in a psycho’s target.
I grew up loving ’80s campus slashers like “Final Exam,” but gay they were not. Which is why I’m glad to report that Jon Abrahams’s low-budget, frothy spin on the subgenre is not just one of the gayest horror movies this gay guy has seen in some time. It’s also a smarter-than-expected exploration of consent and the closet.
My fingers are crossed that a twist at the end means evil isn’t finished with the coeds of Starling University.