The 40 Best Horror Movies of the 2000s
Note: We’re kicking off Collider’s Halloween month with a trip through horror history — so far, we’ve explored the roots of the genre from 1900 through the 1950s, the 1960s, the1970s, the 80s, and the 90s, and today we break into the new milennium with the best films of the early aughts.. Stay tuned throughout the week as we make our way through the decades and look for more killer horror content every day this month.
Much like the 1970s before it, the decade between 2000-2009 was a particularly fruitful era in the horror genre spawned by a climate of international turmoil and rapid technological advancements in the filmmaking industry. In the post-9/11 era, America was thrust into a paranoid, war-fuelled anxiety and grief, and with the internet fully emerging as a dominant force behind modern culture, those anxieties were shared globally as each and every new horrific worldwide event was broadcast in crystal clear detail onto the computer screens of international households.
The flipside of that technological advancement was the emergence of digital filmmaking, laptop editing software, and rapid-fire communication that allowed for an unprecedented number of unique voices, who might never have had a chance before, to get their films made and distributed.
At the same time, a number of international trends were sweeping the genre, with inventive emergent subgenres popping up the world over. Riding off the late ’90s rise of J-Horror, Asian cinema emerged at the forefront of genre filmmaking with a consistent string of eerie supernatural chillers — a trend that unfortunately led to the string of derivative American remakes that had half the heart and none of the edge of their predecessors. In French-language cinema, the sadistic hyper-violent stylings of the French New Wave swept through the horror community like a brash, invigorating force, while a string of Spanish-language filmmakers turned to the old-fashioned chills of lowkey, character-driven ghost stories.
Stateside, a number of trends also swept through the genre. Slasher films were out, but the impending zombie craze was in its nascent stages. Thanks to the rampant success of Paranormal Activity, the found-footage subgenre became the order of the hour for low-cost thrills, a format that was notoriously grating in the hands of the wrong filmmaker, but offered plenty of opportunities for inventive perspective for others. And of course, the early aughts were the era of “torture porn”, the much-maligned genre that focused on carnage and mutilation over narrative. Home invasion and survival horror also became particularly prominent genres in an era where audiences and filmmakers seemed to grapple with the fact that the scariest part of the human experience is the humans.
As I said before, it was a pretty spectacularly abundant decade for horror and there’s a ridiculous wealth of movies I love that didn’t find a spot on this list, so here’s a rather lengthy list of honorable mentions: Paranormal Activity, Calvaire, The Signal, Stuck, Frontier(s), All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Marebito, Suicide Club, Them, Versus, The Children, Silent Hill, The Cottage, Exte, The Ruins, Ju-On: The Grudge, Bug, Wolf Creek, Teeth, Hostel, 30 Days of Night, Sauna, Slither, Frailty, Severence, and to be honest, probably a few more that I’m forgetting.
And now, without further ado, check out the 40 best horror films of the 2000s.
Despite the reputation it earned as shock-factor torture porn thanks to the increasingly reductive format of the sequels, Saw is essentially a horror-grown thriller with hints of outright violence and shockingly little gore. James Wan and Leigh Whannell‘s nasty little puzzle box introduced one of the most iconic modern horror villains in Tobin Bell‘s Jigsaw, a murderer of ideals and dastardly creativity. Setting his sights on victim’s who take their life for granted, Jigsaw constructs a series of puzzles and challenges designed to test the victim’s grit and will to live. Jigsaw’s essential credo is that if one doesn’t value life enough to do whatever it takes to survive, then they are undeserving of it. The film’s main action is set against two unlikely allies, chained together in a room with scant clues on how to escape. Jigsaw gives each of them pieces of the puzzle, turning them against each other despite their bet efforts to collaborate on an escape strategy. It’s a chamber-piece meets noir detective thriller that, along with Eli Roth’s Hostel, became the progenitor of the torture porn craze. But while Jigsaw’s grisly traps became the calling card of the franchise, Wan and Whannell were up to something much more clever and Saw is no parade of graphic perversion, but a twisty murder mystery that values narrative surprise over shock value set-pieces.
Session 9 (2009)
Brad Anderson‘s spooky little tale of encroaching madness is all about the atmosphere. There’s not much that’s inherently terrifying about the film – there’s almost no gore, the pace is slow and the action low, and much of it is just a bunch of dudes talking as they go through the paces of their daily grind. But Anderson masters a slow-burn tension that creeps up on you as the boundaries of sanity and civility dissolve within the confines of a decaying abandoned mental hospital. The film follows a group of asbestos control experts, a real red-blooded masculine bunch of working everymen who badger and belittle each other in their unglamorous high-pressure gig. As those tensions fester and deepen, a parallel narrative unfurls via the disturbing audio recordings of a split-personality patient who underwent hypnotherapy in the decrepit hospital. As the horrors of the past unfurl through the session tapes, a Lovecraftian descent into madness sweeps through the crew, who turn on each other, vanish, and reappear in a perplexing, slight narrative that rides on its thick, creeping mood to carry the film to its chilling conclusion.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
In a genre as tried and true as the exorcism film, it’s a challenge to come up with a new spin that manages to make the threat of the devil feel fresh and dangerous. With The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Scott Derrickson pulled off just that feat with a mature, heartfelt drama that also chills to the bone when the moment calls for it. Were it not for the heavy horror overtones, The Exorcism of Emily Rose would have probably been positioned as a prestige drama. Supported by an A-List cast that includes Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson, the film dramatizes the real-life death of Anneliese Michel, a woman who was diagnosed with Epilepsy after a series of visions and fits. Uncured by conventional medicine, her family turned to the church in a brutal exorcism that ended her life. Telling the concurrent stories of Emily, the priest who was charged with negligent homicide (Wilkinson), and the Lawyer defending him at trial (Linney), The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a pensive portrait of faith and the chilling reality that, if you believe in god, you must also believe in the horrifying power of the devil.
As Emily, the fresh-out-of-Julliard Jennifer Carpenter delivers a career-making performance; contorting and screeching with the frenetic panic of an animal caught in a trap, and Derrickson utilizes these piercing moments of performance horror with a wise restraint. With one foot in the realm of reality as we know it and one firmly planted in the reality of biblical horrors, Derrickson interweaves the dramatic and the terrifying with a measured hand.
Final Destination (2001)
Like so many originals that spawn a franchise, Final Destination isn’t nearly as goofy as the films that followed. Directed by James Wong, who would amusingly enough cement the franchise status in the realm of the silly with the delightful Final Destination 3, Final Destination, in its original incarnation, is an effective horror thriller with just enough self-aware humor. The story follows a group of teens (and one horribly ill-fated teacher) after they escape the fiery deaths that awaited them on flight 180. Thanks to the premonitions of the young, awkward Alex Browning (Devin Sawa), the band of teens exit the flight just before it explodes. And everyone who stepped off the plane with him, whether against their will or not, become the targets of death – an unembodied, relentless force that is constantly setting the wheels in motion for Rube Goldberg-esque death machinations.
It’s broad and cheeky, but never more than it is disturbing as the victims are picked off one-by-one by a force they are all but helpless against. There’s a blatant goofiness to the ultimate discovery of how Death chooses the order of its victims and how it can (at least temporarily) be defeated, but like Nightmare on Elm Street before it and It Follows after, Final Destination deals in the ultimate and unavoidable fact that we will all perish. And in the Final Destination world, if we try to skirt that inevitable doom, we just become the target of an invisible, whatever-it-takes form of death that will have it’s bloody vengeance.
Paranormal Activity may have been the found-footage revivalist that launched a thousand imitators, but Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza‘s news footage-style descent into a hellish house of horrors was the most kinetically-charged and outright horrifying found footage film of the decade. Following TV host Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) on a routine assignment for her series “While You’re Sleeping” with a plan to spend the night on patrol with the local firemen. Rec spins that night out into a nightmarish journey through a building under siege when those firemen respond to a distress call that leaves them trapped in a lockdown with a mysterious deadly virus. A virus that also happens to turn people in to cannibalistic monsters. Along with her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso), Angela makes it her mission to document the truth of the events as they unfold. Rec is economical and calculating with its scares, proving that the found footage format can reap great rewards when its in the hands of clever filmmakers, and as the green-tinged faces that light up the screen throughout, the performers deliver face-first terror with completely convincing immediacy. Rec is the rare horror film that makes good on the promise of the found footage medium, and even rarer, it’s one genuinely scary.
Eden Lake (2008)
The 2000s were a decade filled with horror films about ordinary people doing extraordinary bad things to good people, but Eden Lake may well be the most wrenching. The feature directorial debut from My Little Eye scribe James Watkins follows a young couple Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) on a planned romantic lakeside getaway that goes horrifically wrong when they confront a gang of unruly teenagers (including a young Jack O’Connell, who has always had a gift for menace). What should be a casual, if confrontational, conversation rapidly escalates from contentious to deadly serious when the local teens reveal themselves as a sadistic force of violence. The consequences for the unsuspecting couple are harrowing, and Watkins ditches flashiness and shock-factor gore for an unflinching and all-too-effective presentation of violence. The film cleverly avoids the classist bent that threatens at every turn, and while the young villains are never quite sympathetic, Watkins leaves room to explore peer pressure and the dangers of group-think. Eden Lake isn’t quite the endurance test that marked some of the decades most depraved offerings (looking at you, Martyrs), but it’s a chilling experience that leaves a pit in your stomach for days.
Juame Collet-Serra is one of the cheekiest filmmakers in the genre, so it’s fitting that he’d be the one to be the one to take the tired “Evil Child” trope and turn it into something completely bombastic. The movie follows a married couple, Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) recovering from the loss of a child in labor. To help the healing process, the two set out to adopt a new member of their family and they’re instantly taken with the well mannered and all-too-precious Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman); a Russian orphan with remarkable artistic talents and a sugary sweetness. Naturally, that saccharine charm belies deep and despicable capability for evil that Kate almost immediately discerns once Esther is welcomed into their home. If there’s an aggressive failing in Orphan, it’s the way that John absolutely refuses to believe his wife at every turn, but the film is devoted to such a schlocky, sensationalist reinvention of the demon seed child that it’s impossible to take such squabbles too seriously. Collet-Serra takes the film in all manner of twisted and unpredictable directions, and once you figure out where it’s all headed, it’s impossible not to marvel at the work the young Fuhrman delivers in the dastardly role. Orphan is pulpy melodrama that’s dripping with psychosis, neurosis, and all kinds of damage, and it’s an absolute blast from start to finish.
Antichrist is such a viscerally disquieting and disturbing movie, it’s hard to translate the film’s image-heavy effect into a quick blurb, but I’ll do my best. In the hands of Lars Von Trier, who never seems to run out of new forms of torment for his characters, Antichrist is something between shock schlock and arthouse cinema. It’s vile and unapologetic, getting up close and personal with rotting corpses, genital mutilation, and sex scenes so lurid and lengthy they border on pornographic. And did I mention the genital mutilation, because hoo boy, it’s a doozy. Von Trier sparked some bonafide controversy with his explicit, hellish trip down the rabbit hole of guilt and grief, and with two fearless performers like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe carryingthe film, he had a pair of powerhouse talents willing to see the gruesome tale to its brutal, bitter end. Antichrist is mean-spirited and cynical; an unflinching look at the worst of the human experience and the greatest indecencies in man, but it is also the singular vision of a forceful auteur that’s to be admired for its audacity and the efficiency with which it displays the disgusting depths of human evilness.
A descendant of The Thing‘s lineage, Splinter is your classic practically-scripted limited-location starter film with an extra edge thanks to first-time director Toby Wilkins background in visual effects and a scene-stealing performance from Shea Whigham, who somehow still hasn’t become the industry-leading name his talent deserves . Set almost entirely in a gas station, Splinter follows a believably worn-in-but-still-in-love couple Polly and Seth (Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo) who are taken hostage by a pair of deadly fugitives (Whigham and Rachel Kerbs). When they stop at a gas station, the group is besieged by an amorphous, infectious organism that inhabits and reconfigures the bodies of its victims into grotesque malformities.
The concept is lean and elegant, and it’s executed beautifully, but the film’s greatest strength the faith it has in its characters, who are given the opportunity to defy expectation at every turn. Splinter gleefully plays against gender tropes, introducing Polly as the tough, outdoorsy type in contrast to Seth’s reticent intellectualism, and celebrates the individual strengths that come with those traits. Meanwhile, Whigham’s Dennis Farrell, who is introduced as a violent antagonist, ultimately becomes the film’s standout character. It’s the type of movie that regularly turns up on a lot of “Best Movies You Haven’t Seen” lists and the kind of directorial debut that makes you sad Wilkins hasn’t turned out another original film since.
The Ring (2002)
For a generation of moviegoers, Gore Verbinski‘s 2002 remake of the J-Horror classic Ringu was one of those formative terrifying movie-going experiences that leaves you too afraid to turn off the lights. An old VHS video tape changes hands. An unsuspecting innocent hits play. What follows is a stream of haunting, skin-crawling imagery. The video ends. The phone rings. “Seven Days.” And before you know it, the specter of an ashen, stringy-haired dead girl is hot on your heels, claiming you for the dead. In Verbinski’s hands, The Ring is classy and slick, carried by the impeccable Naomi Watts, and infused with his signature dash of weirdness that leaves a squeamish dread that leaves you looking over your shoulder (over covering your TV set with a sheet) for days. No doubt, part of The Ring‘s effect when it first arrived was thanks to the fact that Western audiences were widely unfamiliar with the eerie stylings and ghoulish nightmares of the budding Asian horror scene, but unlike the slew of J-Horror remakes that would follow, The Ring stands on its own as a chilling, impressively executed accomplishment of stifling unease that actually honors the source material instead of just cribbing from it.
Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo nightmare of maternity and grief is a sticky, gruesome affair that’s splatter-painted with thick, hard-earned torrents of blood. Four months after the horrific car crash that killed her husband, Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is in mourning and about to give birth when a mysterious and malicious woman creeps into her home with the intent to cut the baby from her belly with a pair of scissors. From the moment La Femme (Beatrice Dalle) slips those shears into Sarah’s navel, the movie descends into frenetic in-your-face chaos caked with blood that spatters, sprays, drips, drops, jets, explodes and oozes absolutely everywhere on screen. Sarah escapes La Femme’s initial attack to a pristine white bathroom, gleaming with white tiles, white towels, a white shower curtain, and Sarah herself in a white nightgown. Then we watch as minute by minute it’s desecrated and defaced by unending torrents of bloodshed.
The film suffers from some logic issues, especially near the end, but what it lacks in plot, it makes up for in a ferocious, breathless battle of attrition. The two women go at each other with primal rage, and Inside transforms everyday household items into objects of terror through a series of escalating set-pieces; scissors, knitting needles, hairpins, toasters, teeth, and air freshener are all used to inflict maximum damage. Absolutely anything and everything that can be used as a weapon is brought to bear as an instrument of destruction in this war. Because what this film boils down to in its final act is an all-out, no prisoners, guerilla war between two badass bitches determined to keep this baby; a savage battle that leaves the house awash in a waterfall of blood and viscera.
After putting a delightfully cheeky spin on the backwoods slasher genre with his 2006 films Severance, writer-director Christopher Smith got really creative with his next film, the time loop mind-bender Triangle. Centered on Melissa George‘s Jess, a woman with an undisclosed source of agony behind her surface-level calm, Triangle sees a group of friends on a yachting trip through the Bermuda Triangle as they escape to a passing ocean liner in the midst of a terrible storm. Once aboard, they find that the massive ship is abandoned, and what’s worse, they’re being stalked by a hooded murderous figure who appears to be the only other inhabitant on the vessel. It’s difficult to talk about Triangle without giving away its many clever twists and turns, but as the group of friends are repeatedly thrust into this nightmare through a vicious time loop, Jess emerges as the central figure at the heart of the mystery who holds the keys to unlocking their escape. Smith makes the most of his twisty concept with an intricately designed narrative of overlapping timelines, and a number of strikingly original set-pieces born out of the horror of being doomed to an infinite repetition of a nightmare scenario.
Trouble Every Day (2001)
Denis took a big risk by following her most acclaimed work with a confounding horror film. Trouble Every Day is so brutal and realistic—there is a moment where it does feel like you’re watching an actual snuff film and hearing the real screams of unspeakable and unimaginable pain—that it was hard to stomach for many art house fans but also too minimalist and observational to be championed by many horror fans. This is the bloodiest valentine ever delivered, and I’d never re-open it, even though the film-y part of me is glad I did.
Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle are honeymooners with an unfortunate affliction: they feed when they fuck. So their honeymoon consists of sacrificing the lives of others in order to love themselves and have moments of marital intimacy and spiritual closeness without the threat of devouring one another. Denis doubles down on the savagery to such an uncomfortable and look-away degree as to entirely remove any romanticism of becoming afflicted and instead shows the immense loneliness that comes from being unable to experience intimacy. Trouble Every Day pushes beyond any decency that exists in the horror genre and is actually truly horrific. If you see this once, you’ll (likely) never want to see it again. Every Day also shows that when Denis enters a new genre, she won’t play by its rules, but will bend it to her own. – Brian Formo
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
For some reason, this one never quite caught fire with audiences the way it deserved. Maybe it’s because of the slight budget and lack of household names, maybe it’s because the film caters so specifically to horror fans, or maybe audiences were just over self-aware horror by the time Behind the Mask dropped. Whatever the case, Scott Glosserman‘s spin on the well-worn slasher genre is an underseen gem that manages to dance through horror and comedy with a precise tonal awareness.
A documentary-style horror, Behind the Mask never feels like it’s playing by any found footage rules, but maybe because that’s not the subgenre under inspection. Instead, the film digs into the tropes of the slasher genre (in a way manages to thwart obvious Scream comparisons), while still presenting a compelling narrative beyond the pithy deconstruction. Through the documentarians lensing the rise of a new slasher icon, Leslie Vernon, who Nathan Basil plays like a nightmare version of Jim Carrey, we see all the clever spins on a slasher killer’s preparation. And then we see the brutality of watching those well-laid plans unfold. The core of the film is the relationship between Vernon and his chosen “final girl”, the hungry young journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), who is a much more morally complicated and ambitious spin on the classic slasher character than we’re usually afforded. The intimate bond forged between them offers a fresh tonal shift when shit hits the fan, and through a mid-point stylistic shift, Behind the Mask deftly navigates from the self-effacing comedy into an effective third act slaughter.
Pascal Laugier‘s theological, spiritual, and carnal freakout film Martyrs has become infamous for taking the already extreme aesthetic of the so-called French New Wave and pushing it to its ultimate, deeply disturbing limits. Martyrs boasts perhaps the most disturbing opening scene of all time as we watch a picket-fence domicile gunned-down by Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), two young women on a mission of revenge. Where it goes from there is completely unprecedented and unpredictable in a deranged display of abuse and cultish faith that finds expiation in the most gruesome and unholy of acts. Martyrs takes every one of those horrific acts to their ultimate extreme, dragging the audience through a nightmarescape of inescapable torment and suffering, but there is a resonant emotional throughline for those who can endure the grueling journey, and Laugier makes fascinating work of his fascinating moralistic concept. Martyrs is deeply divisive, a genuinely controversial slice of cinema that proves an endurance test for even the most hardened of horror fans.
The Others (2001)
Alejandro Amenábar‘s English language debut is a classy, creepy tale that puts a welcome spin on the haunted house genre with a rare maturity and poise. And it’s carried and elevated by a tremendous performance from Nicole Kidman, who is at her most stuffy and elegant as Grace Stewart, an exacting mother of two photosensitive children who fears her darkened home has been invaded by paranormal threats. Kidman brings a tightly-laced mania to Grace as her carefully controlled world begins to unravel around her, and Amenábar delivers hair-raising moments a plenty with an elegant, old-fashioned restraint that doesn’t rely on shock or effects, but carefully placed cameras and well-paced moments of pulse-pounding suspense. While the film’s big tragic reveal may be a bit too telegraphed for the keen viewer, The Others offers the best kind of twist — one that doesn’t undermine the drama that came before, allowing the film to hold up surprisingly well on repeat viewings.
Trick 'r Treat (2007)
Michael Dougherty‘s Trick ‘r Treat is perhaps the finest ode to Halloween spirit ever created. An anthology film consisting of four expertly interwoven stories, Trick ‘r Treat follows the residents of a small town where no one is quite what they seem; the local principle is a child-murdering sociopath and the nubile virgin, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Along with the flawless autumnal production design, Trick ‘r Treat‘s greatest strength is Dougherty’s obvious love and expert knowledge of the holiday’s lore, tradition, and superstition, which saturates every moment of the film. That spirit is perfectly embodied in the impish menace, Sam, a pint-size terror in a burlap sack who pops up throughout the segments, exacting punishment on those who fail to honor the rules of Halloween. With all due respect to John Carpenter’s slasher masterpiece, Trick ‘r Treat is perhaps the quintessential Halloween film that perfectly encapsulates the holiday’s dark magic.
Turning the final girl convention on its head before All the Boys Love Mandy Lane did the same a few years later, Lucky McKee’s stylish, mind-bending debut May is a misandrist horror dream wrapped in a gory nightmare. Bearing the name of its central, tragically misfit protagonist, the film is easily carried by the brilliant Angela Bettis, whose stormy and mystifying temperament stands in stark relief with her character’s sunny name. Marked as an outcast early in her childhood thanks to a lazy eye, May grew up with little human contact beyond the pseudo-nurturing provided by a cold and unyielding porcelain doll. Now grown up, striving for normal at the veterinary hospital where she works and beset by rejection from both the boyishly handsome, darkly minded Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and the flirty, raven-haired receptionist (a fascinating Anna Faris), May’s sense of alienation continues to grow until her perceived displacement brings her wavering sanity to the edge. Desperate for a friend and tempted by the partial perfection she finds in her passing flings, May can’t help but take matters into her own hands, embarking on a gory mission to create her own friend – with the body parts of those who have rejected her. Tragic, a little funny and deeply disturbing, May earns its gruesome horror stripes in the casual and convincing way it takes the “crazed killer’s” side. You might just find yourself doing the same. — Aubrey Page
There were no shortage of found-footage movies in the 2000s, but few of them managed to utilize the format to such pulse-pounding effect. By using the POV camera, Cloverfield puts you directly in the thick of a giant monster attack, sending shrapnel past your periphery and dust into your face as it ducks and weaves through the action with an unwavering urgency. The feature film directorial debut from Matt Reeves, who helmed from a script by Drew Goddard, follows a group of twenty-something Manhattanites through the streets of the city as a gigantic alien beast lays waste to the world around them. It’s an impressively commanding debut from Reeves, who makes the found footage format feel bigger than ever, using the unconventional viewpoint as a source of scale for the monster massacre, and Goddard’s script cleverly introduces new challenges and threats at every turn.
As Godzilla was a response to the nuclear bombings in Japan, Cloverfield is a manifestation of widespread American fear in the wake of 9/11, and viewed with the perspective of time, it can be an absolutely chilling portrait of that attack’s devastation. But with a hulking monster for an allegory, Cloverfield is also a total blast that rockets you through the adrenaline-packed fight for survival on the ground-level of an epic horror adventure.
Battle Royale (2000)
Battle Royale is a bit of a genre-bender so I imagine some will take issue with its placement on this list, but the dystopian fits just as comfortably in horror as it does in action, drama, or any other genre that welcomes it. Set in a futuristic Japan where teenagers are seen as the scourge of society, Kinji Fukasaku‘s adaptation of the Koushun Takami novel of the same name follows 42 teenagers as they’re placed in a government mandated battle-to-the-death where only one can walk out alive. Isolated on an island arena rigged with traps and hidden means of murder, the teens struggle with their friendships, loves, and enemies as they form temporary alliances and wage deadly deals as a means of survival. If that sounds a little like The Hunger Games, it’s actually a lot like the The Hunger Games and Suzanne Collins has faced her fair share of criticism over the originality of her concept (though I’d argue she takes the story far enough in its own direction to earn its keep). But Battle Royale is also much more refined and much, much more R-rated story, focusing on the in-game experience of the characters rather than the world around them. The result is an impressive blend of character drama that manages to fulfill an impressive number of arcs, blended with rapid-fire, hyper-violent action. It’s a film that will stick with you thanks to the rich attention paid to its characters and an engaging high-concept horror story that satisfies on a visceral, emotional, and intellectual level.
House of the Devil (2009)
After his well-chronicled struggled on Cabin Fever 2 (which he disowned), Ti West became an instant genre director to watch in 2009 with House of the Devil, a delightfully old-fashioned tale of satanism that remains one of the best things to come out of the vintage-tinged horror throwback trend. West wrote, directed and edited House of the Devil, which ultimately becomes the film’s great strength. The film feels like the force of a single creative vision, an intimately and exactly articulated homage that never feels beholden to the subgenre it’s homaging because of the obvious delight it takes in playing by those rules.
Centered on a good-natured college student Sam (Jocelin Donahue) who’s desperate for some cold hard cash, House of the Devil follows her to the titular house of horror’s where she’s recruited the vaguely eerie, though charming Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) for a high-paying babysitting gig. Eager for a sum of cash that could turn her life around, Sam ignores all the red flags along the way until it’s far too late and House of the Devil delights in withholding the big scares as those creepy clues add up until the moment of maximum impact. It’s a beautiful movie that’s not afraid of the slow-burn and the nostalgia never suffocates the smoldering atmospheric dread that is occasionally punctuated by moments of blunt violence.
Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Sam Raimi‘s absence from the horror genre was sorely felt in the near decade he spent away after 2000’s The Gift, but when he returned, he returned in style with one of the best and most bananas films on his resume. Drag Me to Hell follows an unassuming, generally kind young woman, Christine (Alison Lohman), who chooses the exact wrong moment to act in her own self-interest when she denies a wretched old woman (Lorna Raver) a bank loan, effectively evicting her from her home. That woman turns out to be a powerful gypsy who can lay down one hell of a curse, and sics a Lamia demon on Christine that torments her for three days before dragging her alive into the pits of hell. Raimi’s return to horror is some of the finest work in his career, his trademark gross-out gags and skewed cinematography perfected by his years of experience behind the camera, and his knack for kinetic horror amplified by his time at the helm of the action-packed Spider-Man franchise. As a result, Drag Me to Hell is an oozing, ass-kicking thrill ride that’s silly, gruesome, visceral, and raucously entertaining.
Jennifer's Body (2009)
Jennifer’s Body might just be the most unfairly maligned horror film of the decade. Directed by Karyn Kusama (who finally made a triumphant return to the genre with this year’s The Invitation) from a razor sharp script by Diablo Cody, Jennifer’s Body is a cheeky, sexy spin on the demonic possession subgenre drenched in teen angst. Centered on two life-long best friends Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried), Jennifer’s body takes on toxic teenage friendships through the lens of demonic ritual when Jennifer is possessed by an unholy spirit that feeds on the flesh of her horny young suitors. As Jennifer, Fox proves that she’s capable of a lot more charm than her litany of hot girl roles usually allow, and while it’s a stretch to buy the painfully beautiful Seyfried as a weirdo outcast, the actress goes full-out in the role, relishing in the offbeat humor. And Jennifer’s body is full of subversive wit, a gutsy spin on familiar territory that evokes hints of Heathers with its pitch black humor, but always manages to go dark and grosser with the gleeful trail of entrails Jennifer leaves in her wake.
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
There are lots of folks out there who consider Alexandre Aja‘s bullet-train home invasion horror High Tension his greatest achievement of the decade, but for me, that film can never recover from a twist that depends so deeply on deceiving its audience. Though High Tension has a number of great set pieces and a healthy dose of style, it all fall apart when revisited in light of that goofy final reveal. But with his follow-up film, The Hills Have Eyes, Aja brought his French New Wave splatter-shock to American shores to remake one of Wes Craven‘s most disturbing films, and somehow managed to make it an even tougher watch.
Following the big, bustling Carter family on a road trip through the vast remoteness of American geography, The Hills Have Eyes pits the spirited if woefully outmatched bunch against a clan of cannibalistic mutants in a war of attrition that never shies away from its inherent nastiness. The remake is slicker, better acted, and decades worth of advancements in gore effects make for a brutal, bombastic spin on the mutant carnage. And The Hills Have Eyes is deadly serious about it all, offering no reprieve from the breathless onslaught of survival horror that grips you by the guts and rips some out along the way. It’s a grim, grisly affair that looks unflinching into the darkest possible outcome of the human experience, but it also channels the primal fight-or-flight survivor’s spirit to rousing effect.
The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Guillermo Del Toro‘s Spanish-language supernatural chiller represents all the best the beloved genre enthusiast has to offer. Stylish and striking, The Devil’s Backbone is a thoughtful political allegory rooted in a big, beating-heart humanist story. A beautiful gothic ghost melodrama, the film takes place at an orphanage set against the last days of the Spanish Civil War, where the ghastly pale spirit of a murdered student, Santi, ever-stalks the grounds. As the boys go about their daily business, scared but sympathetic to the dead boy they dub “The One Who Sights”, an unexploded bomb rests in the courtyard of their school — an unending and uncertain threat of consequence from the war unfolding around them. Del Toro puts a shatteringly human spin on the horrors of haunting, understanding that there is a tragedy and sadness to the lore of a tethered spirit, and the greater earthly horrors of war and mankind’s propensity for violence with a heartfelt tale about country torn and ravaged by war told through the mournful ghost of a lost orphan boy.
Lake Mungo (2008)
Lake Mungo has no right to be as scary as it is, and yet through a series of still images, docu-style interviews, and slow zooms, it somehow manages to be one of the few films over the last decade that has kept me up at night. Filmed documentary style, Lake Mungo abandons nearly all the flourish of the found-footage trend in favor of a lowkey realism. The feature film debut from writer-director Joel Anderson (and sadly his only to date), Lake Mungo is a quiet and contained portrait of grief that follows a mourning family experiencing signs of the paranormal after their daughter tragically drowns. The faux documentary horror drama unfolds their tale through a series of unexpected twists that turn genre conventions and audience expectations on their head without ever dropping the suffocating atmosphere of grief-tinged terror. What makes Lake Mungo so special is the honesty and purity of the emotions it exploits, making for a ghost story that is appropriately enbued with a rich, complicated sadness. And while the film has a few unexpected turns, the final big reveal is unlike anything else I’ve seen on a film, a devilishly clever concept that earns pure existential dread.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
John Fawcett‘s spin on the werewolf mythos should be considered a modern horror classic, but outside “horror circles” it too often goes unmentioned. A tale of coming-of-age through lycanthropy, Ginger Snaps is an intimate story about two deeply connected, death-obsessed, co-dependent sisters who are slowly torn apart when the older sibling is bitten by a werewolf. While using the werewolf transformation as a strikingly effective metaphor for female pubescence, Ginger Snaps is also a downright well-made horror film. The effects are on point, the characters are relatable and sympathetic (even those like the high school mean girl, the local drug peddler, and the horny teenage boy are treated with a dose of empathy), and the actors all committed in their pulpy roles. Credit to Kris Lemche, who turns what could have been the “cool guy” role into something much more honest and compelling, but most of all to the leading duo Emily Perkins (Brigitte) and Katharine Isabelle (Ginger) as the bonded but warring sisters dealing with two different sides of Ginger’s transformation, each deeply devoted to the sister they swore they’d never abandon, but equally torn apart by Ginger’s newfound affliction and desire to “tear everything to fucking pieces.” Ginger Snaps puts a clever spin on a lot of themes — sexuality, sisterhood, loneliness, outsider pride and the desire to belong — and in doing so, it puts a fresh spin on one of horror’s most long-standing genres.
The Orphanage (2007)
Produced by Guillermo Del Toro, J.A. Bayona‘s directorial debut follows Belén Rueda, in a stunning and wrenching performance, as Laura, a woman who returns to the abandoned orphanage where she was raised with the intention of transforming her traumatic childhood memories into something good by opening a home for disable children there. With her husband and her son Simon in tow, Laura soon comes to suspect that the halls of her home are filled with the spirits of dead children, and one of them – a particularly spooky boy in a sack mask – has befriended her son. When Simon goes missing, Laura is driven to a primal momma bear frenzy that leads her to her darkest truths. It’s easy to see why Del Toro was taken with Bayona’s vision, which shares his affection for character-driven gothicism and emotionally-packed classical thrills. Bayona eschews bloodshed and bombast for well-orchestrated slow-burn thrills, in a creepy and heartfelt ghost story about a mother’s love for her son.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
It’s funny that a filmmaker who has become known for his characteristically dark (both in style and tone) spins on genre material started with a film so bright and full of humor. Zack Snyder‘s feature film directorial debut, which sees him working from a script by none other than James Gunn, is a fantastic modern spin on George Romero‘s classic zombie film that’s full of personality and energy, though noticeably lacking the original’s keen social satire. Instead, Synder delivers pretty cut and dry monster madness, swapping the classic slow-shambling undead for predatory, sprinting flesh-eaters in an action-packed gorefest equipped with chainsaws, shotguns, and… a zombie baby? OK, so that part was kind of garbage. But if Dawn of the Dead is a little over-packed with side characters and sub-plots, it absolutely delivers on the characters it cares about most as they seek sanctuary and find a surrogate family in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Dawn of the Dead never dives too deep, but it’s a playful romp through the end of days with a stylish flourish and a cheeky affection for the genre it’s playing in.
28 Days Later (2002) / 28 Weeks Later (2007)
Yeah, it’s a little bit of a cheat to sneak two movies into one spot, boo hiss, but they’re both great and it was a good decade for horror so every spot is valuable. Danny Boyle crafted a new image of the viral apocalypse in 2002, set to the tune of rage. Following Cillian Murphy‘s Jim after he wakes up in a post-apocalyptic London, ravaged by the “rage virus” that turned the civilians into bloodthirsty savages, 28 Days Later set an intimate character drama across the downfall of society, playing expertly with zombie and doomsday tropes (and no doubt helping to spark the resurgence of both genres that followed) with a healthy dash of Boyle’s signature cinematic stylings. 28 Days Later is so successful because it is as tender as it is terrifying, matching moments of horror with humanity, and a healthy spattering of cultural commentary along the way.
Like all the best sequels, 28 Weeks Laters honors all the best qualities of it’s predecessor, while also stamping out a value of its own. A somewhat more conventional spin on the zombie/viral apocalypse genre, 28 Weeks Later gives us the outbreak the first film skipped, along with the ruthless and desperate government attempts at containment. 28 Weeks Later was a hell of an English-language debut for director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who confidently kept the film in line with the stylistic approach Boyle established in the original while putting his own spin on the material, and managed to line-up a cast of dramatic actors as impressive as the first. Together the pair make for some of the best viral horror cinema of all time, two sides of the same coin that complement the beset qualities in the other.
There’s something inherently terrifying about the idea of a deadly threat you can’t see that’s right in front of your face, and Shutter exploits that to full effect through the mechanism of photography. Capturing spirits on film is no recent invention, but Shutter is a carefully-constructed play on that old-school concept that lines up a series of horrifying set-pieces and knocks them down with a sure hand. Directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom turn a polaroid camera into an object of terror and transform the red-washed confines of a photo developing room into a hellish den of supernatural torment. While the entirety of the early 2000s surge in Asian horror films tends to get crassly brushed under the rug of “J-Horror”, this particular entry comes from Thailand, and while it trades heavily in the tropes of that genre – the pale girls with the stringy black hair and the gravity-defying specters who creep into frame from every angle – Shutter delivers some of the most rousing, spine-tingling imagery in that lineage.And it backs it up with a twisted final act reveal that elevates the film beyond a mere spectral spookfest to a much more intimate and disturbing tale of comeuppance and consequences.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Don Coscarelli is a master of strange magic, and Bubba Ho-Tep may be his strangest. Based on a novella by the prolific genre author Joe Lansdale, Bubba Ho-Tep‘s action takes place in a convalescent home where two unlikely heroes unite to take down a deadly Egyptian mummy. The horror comedy stars Bruce Campbell as Sebastian Haff, a man who believes he is Elvis Presley and Ossie Davis as Jack, a man who believes he is the consciousness of John F. Kennedy, transplanted into another body. The obvious assumption is that the duo is senile and Bubba Ho-Tep certainly flirts with that possibility, but it also indulges the alternative as the pair squares off against a soul-sucking ancient evil. As Sebastian, Campbell is as charming and shamelessly goofy as he’s ever been, and seeing Davis indulge in such ridiculous humor is an unwavering delight. But while Bubba Ho-Tep may veer closer to the comedy than the horror, there’s a constant undercurrent sadness that comes with themes of mortality and Coscarelli certainly knows his scare set pieces, allowing for a surprising intimacy and chill beneath the nasty and ridiculous humor.
The Strangers (2008)
In a decade filled with home invasion horror, Brian Bertino‘s blunt, simple, and honest entry has stood the test of time as one of the best. The Strangers is bleak. There’s a haunting randomness and pointlessness to the violence that is beset upon our heroes Kristen and James, played by the painfully sympathetic Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. We find the pair at moment of peak emotional pain, partially wrenched apart, as their romantic weekend getaway turns south after Kristen turns down James’ marriage proposal. Divided as they’ve ever been, though obviously, earnestly still in love, that’s when a trio of masked assailants shows up on the porch of their remote vacation cabin whispering threats, silently stalking the halls of their home, and doling out calculated moments of all-too-realistic violence. The secret ingredient that makes The Strangers so effective is its humanity – the victims are so bare and honest, you want to reach through the screen to protect them, but the fiends hunting them down are also defined by their embodiment of humanity’s worst impulses. They don’t have super strength, they’re not aliens or ghosts or monsters or mutants, they’re just bad people with a taste for blood. And they’re all the more terrifying for it. That heightened realism, combined with Bertino’s commitment to silence over spectacle, creates a piercing atmosphere of dread and the dawning realization that this could be happening next door, or worse, to you, should you be unlucky enough to be at home when sadistic strangers come calling.
American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is one of the greatest pieces of social satire in modern American history; a skewering takedown of preening Wall Street excess and self-indulgent vanity that lambasts the hollow wholesomeness of the 1980s with a derisive glare. Tongue ever in cheek, American Psycho centers on Christian Bale‘s Patrick Bateman, a wealthy and successful (but not the most wealthy and successful) New York banking executive who presents a flawless facade by day and unleashes his homicidal side at night. Tormented by his own greed and insatiable desire for impossible-to-get reservations, the perfect business card, and the highest high-rise, Batman’s thinly veiled contempt for humanity translates into a manic bloodlust as he chops his way through the hookers and homeless of Manhattan, his grasp on reality slipping further by the second. Bale is legend in the role, cementing his status as one of our generations finest performers early in his career, and Mary Harron directs with an equal eye for the horror and the humor, making for one of the darkest, most disturbing comedies in recent memory.
The Mist (2007)
A classic B-movie through the lens of three-time Academy Award-nominated writer-director Frank Darabont, the feature film adaptation of Stephen King‘s novella hits all the beats of a retro monster movie, but opts for candor over camp and fully-drawn characters over archetypes. When a mysterious mist rolls into a quiet East Coast town with giant insectoid monsters in tow, the patrons and employees of the local supermarket are trapped together in a woefully outmatched fight for survival. Despite some unfortunate digital effects (which the excellence of the practical effects on highlights), The Mist is one of the genre greats thanks to its impeccable cast, Darabon’t firm command of the content, and the good sense to make the men and women as frightening as the monsters eating them alive. Plus, you got a love any movie that has the good sense to let Toby Jones play the unexpected hero.
Pulse, or Kairo as it’s titled in Japan, is a masterclass in terror through sound design. As a whole, Pulse can be hit and miss, falling into lapses of stagnant dialogue and slow-moving action, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, Pulse delivers some shit-your-pants horrifying set-pieces that are, for my money, some of the scariest moments in horror history. A none-too-subtle metaphor for the isolating effects of technology, Pulse finds the human world invaded by spirits from the internet. It sounds goofy. It’s not. Elevated by an unnerving, wailing score from Takefumi Haketa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s terrifying tale of supernatural invasion plays with your senses, using light and shadow, sound and music, and eerie, unnatural movement to create otherworldly menace, using the surreal and the suggestive to evoke fever-pitch fear and despair. It’s one of the best and most original films to come out of the J-Horror boom, and while the tale of techno-doomsday occasionally threatens to overstay its welcome, the moments of feverish dread make the lulls well worth the wait.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
From a script he penned with long-time collaborator and star Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright‘s joyful horror comedy goes straight for the guts with horror, humor, and a healthy dose of heartfelt character drama. Shaun of the Dead stars Pegg as the titular hero, an affable if under-accomplished young man who’s jarred out of his stagnant day-to-day when the zombie apocalypse spurs him to reunite with his estranged girlfriend and sort out his issues with his mom. With his crass, foul-mouthed best friend in tow (played by the hilarious and endearing Nick Frost), Shaun sets out to save the day and prove his worth in the midst of the “zed-word” plague. Wright directs with his signature vibrancy and pop culture reference, striking a razor-wire balance between homage and reinvention, and the script is packed with cheeky dialogue, pithy one-liners, and generous heaps of visual comedy along the way. But if Shaun of the Dead can be gleefully silly, it also has real characters and real stakes that make the zombie action as engrossing as the laugh-out-loud comedy, and escalate the film beyond in-jokes and witty banter to something a more soulful and enduring.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Kim Jee-Woon‘s chilling mystery A Tale of Two Sisters is an expertly crafted investigation of family dysfunction through the vehicle of supernatural horror. A sumptuous, gorgeous film, A Tale of Two Sisters follows a troubled pair of young sisters who return to their family home after a period of hospitalization in a mental institution. Devastated by their mother’s death and enraged by their father’s marriage to an uptight young step-mother they obviously hate, the close-knit duo faces unexplainable terrors when they return a haunted home. In addition to gorgeous cinematography from Lee Mo-gae, which exploits every unturned corner and ominous bump in the night for its full effect, the bright light of day offering no reprieve, A Tale of Two Sisters is a beautiful psychological achievement, exploring trauma, guilt and intimate familial bonds that border on dependent. The film is genuinely scary throughout, knocking out one hair-raising set piece after the next, but the harrowing truth behind the supernatural menace elevates A Tale of Two Sisters to resonant tragedy and cements it as the kind of groundbreaking horror drama that escalates the genre.
The Descent (2005)
Equal parts tense thriller and badass gorefest, The Descent, a film about a group of tough spelunking women trapped in a cave full of ancient humanoid monsters. Following the grief-stricken Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) after the death of her husband and child, Neil Marshall‘s The Descent follows Sarah and her group of badass spelunking daredevil pals as they head into dark, underground adventures on a mission to pull Sarah out of her despair. Naturally, that all goes to shit. The exit path caves in and the women find themselves trapped in a monster-infested, off-the-map cave with no clue how to get out and no one on the outside who knows where they are.
Marshall has the good sense to refrain from jumping straight to the bloody action, and the movie is damn freaky long before the creatures show up. As the women search for an exit, we are given time to explore the intricacies of their relationships. The sense of claustrophobia and tension between the women increase in tandem, bringing the overall atmosphere to a peak of piano-wire tension. On top of the emotional tension, Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy mess with our heads, playing on some of our most primal fears: the dark and entrapment. The women descend deeper and deeper into a shadow world lit only by headlamps, glow sticks, and camcorders; a palate of reds and greens. It’s a disorienting trick of color and light that ratchets up the sense of unease, creating a disquieting otherworldly realm. When the panic reaches its peak, Marshall drops the monster bomb and the pure carnal Darwinism begins. It’s a bloody, gruesome affair that layers the scares through a series of escalating frights to a crescendo of viscera-drenched, kinetic horror.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Thomas Alfredson‘s 2008 masterpiece is an adolescent vampire film only in the most literal sense. Adapted from the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the screenplay), Let the Right One In is a staggeringly mature and intellectual spin on immortality, bloodlust, and the need to belong told through the contrast between first love and ancient longing. The story focuses on an outcast and disturbed 12-year-old boy Oskar, who bonds with his new neighbor, Eli, an enchanting immortal in a child’s body with an unquenchable thirst for human blood. As the oddball duo connects over their shared macabre obsessions and deepest secrets, they learn to trust and love each other with a complicated but earnest devotion. Let the Right One In is an absolutely gorgeous film that showcases remarkable work from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, but it’s deeper beauty lies in the tender and terrible emotions it evokes, vacillating between the heart-warming and horrific with a rich, soulful sadness. A vampire film unlike any before it, Let the Right One In is one of those rare cinematic blessings that pushes the boundaries of genre and escalates it to new heights.