Horror is history. Sometimes a better, more concise, and reflective history than what a textbook might provide. It’s a genre without barriers and line edits, where an artist or writer or filmmaker can get ugly, brash, and accusatory in an attempt to make sense of a world that can feel so senseless. Horror films have big things to say about societal unrest, in ways we’re not always aware of until we look back years later, with the knowledge of what comes next. Soviet panic in the ‘50s gave us body snatchers and giant bugs. Fear of hippies brought a wave of religious horror in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The “stranger danger” of the ‘80s conjured the Michaels and Freddys and Jasons, before a more humorous and meta strain of ‘90s teen slashers opened the door for post-9/11 torture porn.
This year, plenty of bold new horror films have had big things to say about the times we live in. It is a time after a culture-shifting pandemic and continued global unrest that affirms (as Timothée Chalamet puts it) one thing: societal collapse is in the air. It’s hard to say which trend might emerge as the defining feature. Nor do we know what new trends will spawn from these seeds and go on to define a generation. But the following titles gave us plenty to chew on in a year where reality feels unquenchable and horror, by proxy, feels at a peak. From big-name blockbusters to the quieter stuff in the corner, here are five horror movies from 2022 with particularly pointed and topical commentary.
Speak No Evil
The pandemic had a profound effect on how we interact with other humans—to put it lightly. Small talk is harder, communication warped; we’re so used to phones and Zoom that in-person conversations can feel stilted and awkward. But still, that human need to please and be amenable to others lingers, especially when we make new friends, and especially when we want nothing more than to feel normal again.
In Speak No Evil, Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup depicts the collision of two families on vacation: Bjørn and Louise, a Danish couple, along with their daughter Agnes, and Patrick and Karin, who are Dutch, with their son Abel. Drawn to one another, Patrick and Karin invite their new friends to their home. What begins as a normal gathering soon morphs into something far more sinister.
The boundaries and comfort of the Danes is constantly tested, in little ways that build into terror. We watch in horror as they ignore red flags in the name of being congenial—until it’s too late to go back. The result? One of the most disturbing horror finales of recent memory. And one that feels all too relatable in these linger COVID days, as we’re still figuring out how to be social again when the world has morphed into something unrecognizable, perhaps forever.
Jordan Peele’s third directorial feature was bound to be an event by virtue of his involvement. Peele’s name is now synonymous with a certain type of mainstream horror: the smart, satirical, and lingeringly creepy kind. But Nope stands out for how brilliantly it defies convention, existing in the puzzling in-between of horror and conspiracy thriller.
The film follows a brother and sister, OJ and Emerald. The duo work on a family ranch that trains horses for film and TV productions. After their father’s mysterious and untimely death, they are in charge of a business they weren’t yet ready to lead. Oh, and they are being haunted by an unidentified object in the clouds above their farmhouse.
Nope isn’t at all what you might expect. What unfolds is a fable about what we lose when we profit from tragedy. It explores how it peels away at our humanity and corrodes our morals. Nope is a film ripe for interpretation, but one thing lingers: how deftly this film comments on influencer culture, where we’re all just one Instagram photo away from unexpected fame and fortune. In this film, the price we pay as we hunger for relevance is as scary as that big shadow in the sky.
Julia and Francis are a young American couple who move to Francis’ native Bucharest. They settle into an ornate, colorful, and airy apartment that feels conjured from a dream. But that dream curdles into nightmare for Julia. She soon notices a strange man staring at her from a building facing her new home. She learns there is a serial killer on the loose in the neighborhood; a man called the “Spider” by press, who targets young women, decapitating them.
Julia, haunted by this information, feels like someone is watching her at all times: in her home, in the grocery store, in a movie theater. What’s worse is that no one believes her, not even her husband. Chloe Okuno’s Watcher has shades of Rosemary’s Baby, another film about a beautiful young woman gaslit by the people in her own gothic apartment building.
But the film feels firmly 2022, a year when misogyny went mainstream once again, with the erosion of Roe v. Wade, a domestic abuse case gone ghoulishly viral, and a never-ending cycle of learning nothing from what culture did to women like Britney Spears—the sins of the past bound to repeat in perpetuity. I’d like to think that Watcher is a relic of the past; instead, it feels utterly expected to watch a murderous madman run loose while a woman answers for his crimes.
Can you believe the new Scream film is meta? Who would have guessed? Lazy humor aside, the new film—the first in the series since Wes Craven’s passing—does the horror legend proud. Not everything works. The film is a little overstuffed with new characters. And some returning characters are carelessly weaved into the story in increasingly befuddling ways.
But the meat of the story, like all great Scream films, really gets its target generation. This time, the title itself is a meta-mockery of the “requel” trend; the soft reboots that keep popping up all over the place, borrowing original titles for full monetary impact. But this new Scream takes that commentary a step further. It offers a considered critique of weaponized fandom and cultish devotion to intellectual property.
As stan culture spirals out of control and entitled fans ruin literal lives in the name of fictional characters, it’s not hard to correlate this film’s killers with the people we see online every day, poisoning comment sections with chaotic menace behavior. Are we so far away from real crimes enacted by franchise fans pissed at how the latest Star Wars turned out? Probably not, and Scream reconciles with this culture we’ve created and continue to kindle.
The most divisive film on this list is actually the new Scream’s self-fulfilling prophecy, in a way. Fans were furious at this film upon release, their anger bulldozing Jamie Lee Curtis’s victory lap as Laurie Strode, a character she’s been synonymous with for 45 years. What could have been a tender farewell to the most beloved scream queen of all time turned into fan outrage campaigns and pithy contemptment. And doesn’t that feel so perfectly 2022?
A time when we can’t seem to sever the symbiotic link between franchise worship and self. When we take our negative perception of a film as a personal slight of some kind. It almost doesn’t matter what Halloween Ends is even about—it’s on this list mostly for what it conjured. And yet, it’s extra pertinent for what the text itself says about the cycles of violence our fury creates. How an inability to heal, forgive, and reflect breeds new monsters.
Just as this list presupposes what 2022 might be remembered for, Halloween Ends presupposes what violent figure of myth we might conjure next. It could be something we rush to judge based on whispers and lies and conspiracy—when the full-bodied truth deserves an empathy we might have lost hold of for good.