The 13 Best International Horror Films of 2021

2021 hasn’t concluded in a complete return to cinemas, but it’s been a wildly more uplifting year that’s allowed the entertainment industry to finally get back on track. The degree of catch up and cinematic holdovers that have fallen into 2021 have practically spoiled horror fans with an overload of highly anticipated content like Malignant, The Night House, Last Night in Soho, as well as new installments in the Halloween, Candyman, Paranormal Activity, and Saw franchises. It’s encouraging that the state of domestic horror and genre franchises are very much alive and well, but there’s just as much challenging material being produced outside of North America and the United Kingdom. 

2021 has been an excellent year for international horror movies and while some of these pictures are still restricted to the festival circuit, streaming services like Shudder have helped make foreign horror more accessible than ever before.

The Advent Calendar
Directed by Patrick Ridremont; France, Belgium

The Advent Calendar is a co-production between France and Belgium that taps into the comforting energy of a low-budget Blumhouse splatter picture, but with an attempt to bring something greater to the formula. The methodical and surprising nature of an advent calendar is absolutely perfect material for a horror film and it’s honestly surprising that it’s taken this long for this holiday vestige to receive a horror makeover. Patrick Ridremont’s Advent Calendar doesn’t try to over extend itself and gets a lot of mileage out of its concept in a way where it never becomes repetitive. The rules that get established for this haunting holiday item are reminiscent of The Ring or Gremlins and the film’s fascinating lore is one of its most rewarding elements. The film’s protagonist, Eva, is also bound to a wheelchair for the duration of the film, which introduces an extra level of vulnerability to this entertaining movie that’s currently streaming on Shudder.

The Medium
Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun; Thailand, South Korea

There are an abundance of found footage horror movies that operate under the guise of documentaries that are meant to shine a light on some form of exorcism or possession. This is well-trodden territory at this point, but movies like The Medium show that an overdone idea can still be effective when it’s brought to life with the right level of intensity. Banjong Pisanthanakun’s The Medium pulls heavily from Thai folklore and shamanistic rituals for its inquisitive look at demonic possession. The movie truly feels like a descent into madness that becomes more uncomfortable with each passing minute. The Medium highlights the evils of mankind and reinforces that there are grounded forces that can be even more disturbing than the supernatural. It’s a bleak, creative spin on the genre.

The Last Matinee
Directed by Maximiliano Contenti; Uruguay, Argentina

2021 has been an excellent year for giallo horror between Malignant and Last Night in Soho, and The Last Matinee is a glorious throwback to the bloody, stylized, old-fashioned brand of horror. Set in the 1990s, this Spanish horror film follows a gloved killer who picks off his victims from the sparse crowd of a late-night movie screening and it’s the young projectionist who gets reluctantly forced into the role of final girl. The Last Matinee gives audiences exactly what they want, but it also understands to not take itself too seriously. It truly feels like it’s a horror film from another era and it effectively uses its lower budget to create its charming retro aesthetic.

Directed by Damian Mc Carthy; Ireland

Caveat is a masterpiece in minimalism that may not work for everyone, but those that are enchanted by its gothic horror and suffocating atmosphere will be left thoroughly disturbed. Damian Mc Carthy’s debut feature is one of the strongest psychological horror films of the year. A desperate and vulnerable drifter takes a job to look after a psychologically fragile woman in a secluded environment, but it’s not long until he feels like he’s the one that’s losing his mind. Caveat is the perfect type of nesting doll horror where it begins in a tense place, only for the sense of dread to become progressively overbearing. Caveat culminates in such a terrifying place and it highlights how the human mind is so susceptible to influence.

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury; France

Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury are two prominent names to come out of the French extreme horror movement from the early 2000s. Inside and Livid are all-time horror classics and even though the duo have struggled to find the right projects, they did very well in 2021. Kandisha allows Bustillo and Maury to flex their slasher muscles with a thoroughly bloody affair that has a sizable body count, compelling characters, and a predatory force that’s actually frightening.

Kandisha comes from France, but it breaks down a supernatural creature from Moroccan folklore. The vengeful Kandisha works like a violent mix between Bloody Mary and a monkey’s paw, which leads to some gory and memorable kills. Kandisha offers a greater level of artistry than the standard teen slasher as well as turning to a piece of supernatural folklore that hasn’t become overexposed.

Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović; United Kingdom, France, Belgium

Sometimes a ridiculous premise is all that’s necessary to sell someone on a horror film. This is very much the case with Earwig, a movie about a girl with ice teeth. Earwig is a mystifying haunted fairy tale that tells a story about control and obedience through some uniquely flawed characters. Albert works hard to make sure that Mia’s ice dentures are properly maintained as she’s made ready for the outside world. Earwig doesn’t worry about the broader details and instead narrows in on this specific slice of horror. 

All of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s films present powerful, iconoclastic ideas, but Earwig’s tough subject matter is delicately approached. While technically Hadžihalilović’s first English language film, Earwig is almost void of dialogue and it’s a movie that thrives through its powerful visuals and the oppressive themes that it explores rather than the specifics of conversation. While still working its way through the festival circuit, Earwig should reach wider audiences in 2022.

Directed by Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas; Spain

Dating sites and social media apps have become rich territory for horror movies that are interested in dissecting questions about identity through a modern lens. Following in the footsteps of recent horror films like CAM, Ego explores an increasingly fractured identity through the form of a virtual doppelgänger. Paloma is shocked to find a double of herself on a dating site, but her surprise morphs into terror when she learns this isn’t some sick catfishing exercise and is something a lot more sinister. Set during the COVID-19 lockdown, Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas’ Ego addresses the recent state of the world in a way that feels natural and takes advantage of its small-scale scope. Ego unlocks brave, raw truths and Maria Pedraza rises to the occasion with her double duty performance as both Paloma and Goliadkin.

Mosquito State
Directed by Filip Jan Rymsza; Poland, United States

Mosquito State, which is currently streaming on Shudder, feels like a lost work by William Burroughs or David Cronenberg. The slow burn tone poem chronicles the decay of an obsessive data analyst who finds a strange comfort and affinity in the ecosystem of mosquitos. Those that are triggered by insects shouldn’t go anywhere near Mosquito State, which bombards the audience with upsetting images where mosquitos reign supreme. Beau Knapp’s performance details a painful dissolution of sanity that’s only enhanced by the incredible make-up effects that make it painful to even look at Richard Boca’s bite-covered face. Mosquito State may seem simplistic to some and fall flat for others, but it’s ripe with haunting images, stark cinematography, and incredible uses of color that guarantee that the movie never stops being a visual delight.

The Deep House
Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury; France

The second film on this list from French horror filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, The Deep House is easily the most ambitious movie from a production standpoint. 95% of The Deep House is filmed underwater as two YouTubers investigate a haunted house that’s located at the bottom of a French lake. The Deep House isn’t perfect, but it’s perhaps the best version of an “underwater haunted house movie” that’s possible. There’s a strong and believable story that’s anchored by likable characters and some groundbreaking visuals that take advantage of the ridiculous premise. A movie like this could be a complete disaster, but The Deep House is a satisfying ride that’s actually scary rather than a movie that’s only notable for its technology or ambition.

Directed by Mathieu Turi; France

Meander is pure bliss for horror fans that get excited over closed room storytelling and claustrophobic stories that forces individuals to use their intelligence to survive morbid scenarios. Meander is a spiritual successor to intimate trap-filled horror movies like Cube and Saw, only it manages to be more aggressive and isolating. Meander excels when it comes to “show, don’t tell” storytelling and the only information that it gives the audience is that this perplexed protagonist is trapped in a series of tight tubes that will fill with acid and other horrible forms of torture if the victim doesn’t advance forward quickly enough. Meander doesn’t cheat its way out of this premise and the majority of the movie is without dialogue as its trapped lead character struggles to stay alive and understand what’s happening to her. Meander delivers visceral scares, but it doesn’t spoon feed answers to the audience. Its allegorical conclusion might leave some frustrated, but will inspire debate in others.

After Blue (Dirty Paradise)
Directed by Bertrand Mandico; France

After Blue (Dirty Paradise) needs to be seen to be believed. It’s honestly like if Alejandro Jodorowsky made a movie out of the Bayonetta video game series. In a desolate post-apocalyptic world where only women are left to survive, a mother-daughter hairdresser-gunslinger team travels across the galaxy to get vengeance on a bounty known as Kate Bush. After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is a delirious cocktail that blends together the horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and western genres with a healthy dose of visual mescaline. It feels like a feature-length music video that the audience will never want to end. While not necessarily frightening, After Blue presents a flurry of radical ideas as it tells this spooky lullaby from another world. After Blue won’t receive a wide release until 2022, but it’s an experience that will stay with the viewer for the entire year.

Directed by Julia Ducournau; France, Belgium

French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s Raw was one of the most provocative movies of 2016 and her latest effort, Titane, is an incredibly worthy successor that’s gone on to win the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Titane is like if Ducournau watched Cronenberg’s Crash and Glazer’s Under the Skin and said, “Okay, but let’s make this creepy.” Alexia experiences a car accident as a child, which leaves her with a titanium plate in her head, but also a growing sexual fascination with cars. Alexia continues to blur the lines between man and machine as Titane delivers a string of unbelievable sequences that will satisfy fans of body horror and slasher cinema. Alexia’s transformation is painful, but Titane has such a beautiful beating heart and at its core it’s a movie about acceptance. It’s a true masterpiece and Agathe Rousselle’s feature film debut as Alexia is a performance for the ages.

The Sadness
Directed by Rob Jabbaz; Taiwan

The zombie genre has reached a point of oversaturation and it frequently feels like everything that could possibly be done with the living dead has already been explored. The Sadness, a Taiwanese horror film, riffs on a lot of familiar ideas like a viral pandemic and a rage-fueled infection, but it’s such a burst of adrenaline that’s one of the scariest movies to come along in years. The level of physical and sexual violence that’s showcased in The Sadness will make even the most seasoned horror viewers uncomfortable. It’s the first time that I’ve felt anxious and like I needed to get out of a movie theater during a horror film in years. It’s absolutely bonkers that the movie is Rob Jabbaz’s feature directorial debut, who will hopefully go on to have a lengthy career that’s full of absolutely gruesome movies.

The Sadness follows two separated lovers who yearn to reunite during this chaos, but The Sadness introduces a whole roster of rich characters who all face horrendous tragedies. The Sadness is truly terrifying and a special effects revelation, but it’s also just a strong piece of cinema and storytelling on top of everything else. There’s a strong case to be made that it’s one of the best zombie movies of the 2000s, if not all time. 

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