The Highest Grossing Horror Movies of the 21st Century, Ranked
Note: Collider’s Halloween horror month continues this week with a look at horror’s most iconic, enduring franchises. So far, we’ve looked at the Halloween movies ranked, Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Movies, Friday the 13th movies and the Alien franchise. Today, we’re taking a look at the biggest box office players of the 21st Century so far — and we’ve updated with the biggest box office sensation in horror history; IT! Stay tuned a monster mash next week and full-tilt Halloween horror content as we round out the month.
Here’s the movie industry’s dirty little box office secret: horror movies make studios a whole heck of a lot of money. They may always get the short shrift come awards time and A-list actors often treat their early horror roles like a dark mark on their resumes, but audiences love horror movies and there’s so many sub-par theatrical horror releases in any given year, that when catches a word-of-mouth buzz, genre enthusiasts will turn out in droves. Sure, horror films don’t measure up to the international tentpoles and box office juggernauts — superheroes, grand adventures, and space epics — but they also are made for a fraction of the cost. Get Out reportedly cost $5 million to make. Even if the advertising budget was double that, the film makes an utterly unreal profit.
There’s also a fascinating phenomenon that often happens when a genre film reaches a certain level of success — it’s pried out of the hands of horror and rebranded as a blockbuster, an awards contender, a prestige thriller, a dark drama, or any other number of subgenres people can re-categorize horror films into when they need to take them seriously. It’s how we get phrases like the dreaded buzzword of the summer “post-horror”, or why Get Out is being billed as a “social thriller” now that the film has dominated at the box office and conjured early awards buzz. Stranger still, we see it from horror fans as well, a certain amount of the audience who turns their nose up at genre-bending films and says “that’s not horror”. We saw it last year with The Witch, and again this year with It Comes at Night, though I can’t imagine how either of those films could be seen as anything else.
That said, I’ve obviously thought a lot about what counts as horror when putting together this list and, ultimately, decided to cast a wide net. It seems to me that we’ve become much more exacting and specific when it comes to what we consider horror these days. It’s not exactly a new debate. There are long-running academic discussions about the distinction between horror and terror (though oddly enough, that distinction is rarely a matter of contention when it comes to the debate over horror films), but when you get down to it, genres have always bled through the lines into one another, especially horror. Is Frankenstein science fiction or horror? It is, of course, both. Is The Witch horror or period drama? Again, both. Touching another genre doesn’t immediately drain the horror out of a story and drawing hard lines in the sand only detracts from all the ways creators can find to entertain us and freak us out.
Now before we get to the ranking, let’s take a look at the biggest box office horror hits order of how much they grossed. (Note: This list was crafted according to the highest grossing film at the domestic box office of each year since 2001, not total worldwide box office.)
- IT ($314,929, 521)
- I Am Legend ($256, 393, 010)
- War of the Worlds ($234,280,354)
- World War Z ($202,359,711)
- Get Out ($175,484,140)
- Split ($138,141,585)
- The Conjuring ($137,400,141)
- The Ring ($129,128,133)
- Shutter Island ($128,012,934)
- The Village ($114,197,520)
- The Grudge ($110,359,362)
- Paranormal Activity ($107,918,810)
- Paranormal Activity 3 ($104,028,807)
- The Conjuring 2 ($102,470,008)
- The Others ($96,522,687)
If you’re like me, you look at that list and look for the trends. If there’s one that’s immediately clear, it’s that supernatural movies have reigned supreme as the box office champions of the 21st century. Seven of the top fifteen are paranormal horror. Despite their genre dominance in the early aughts, zombie films and so-called “torture porn” barely edge their way in — I am Legend and War of the Worlds fared well, but also boast some of the most famous actors of all time. Saw II was on a previous version of this list, but got knocked from the Top 15 when IT dominated the box office. Slashers have seen little love since the Scream franchise fizzled out. Sequels are also surprisingly underrepresented, proving once again that studios don’t give audiences enough credit for their interest in original films.
Another box office champion of the 21st century? Blumhouse. Jason Blum‘s low-budget horror studio has been wildly successful in the seventeen years since it launched, landing four spots in the top fifteen. If we were to expand the list to the top twenty-five, that number would nearly double. Looking at what creators put butts in seats, there’s also the draw of prestige — awards contenders and big-name directors sell tickets. Then there are the household name horrorsmiths, and both James Wan and M. Night Shyamalan have been a driving force at the box office. But where Shyamalan has built his career primarily on standalone films and often dipped out of horror territory, Wan has launched three hit horror franchises (Insidious: Chapter 2 was only about $5 million shy of earning a spot on this list).
Now that we’ve looked at some of the industry trends over the last sixteen years, let’s see how the highest-grossing horror films of the 21st century stack up.
15) The Grudge (2004)
Total Domestic Gross: $110,359,362
After the breakout success of The Ring, J-Horror remakes swept through the studios like wildfire and while many of them were downright dreadful (and disappointments at the box office), The Grudge was one of the rare few that’s more entertaining than derivative. But it is derivative. Director Takashi Shimizu, who also helmed the Japanese series of films on which The Grudge is based, returns for the American remake cannibalizing his to mixed effect. While the edges of his original Ju-On films are dulled for the American Studio rendition, Shimizu still conjures plenty of scares, but they’re never as good as the source material from which they’re borrowed. The Grudge is more or less a series of vignettes showing off all the spooky ways the vengeful spirit hunts down its victims and there’s not much plot to speak of and the characters don’t do a lot to make you invest in their fates, but if you came for spooky ghosts, you get what you paid for.
14) World War Z (2013)
Total Domestic Gross: $202,359,711
Max Brooks‘ fantastic anthological book proves that zombies by way of natural disaster is a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the World War Z movie missed the boat on culture-rich visions of an international nightmare that made the source material so special and focused instead on the adventures of Brad Pitt‘s vaguely defined ultrahero instead. They also took the natural disaster aspect way too literally with high-speed hordes of zombies crashing through the streets like waves, which is just so goofy. All told, however, World War Z is way better than it has any right to be. The film was famously plagued by pre-production and filming turmoil, an aimless and creatively disjointed production that turned out to be a bit of a nightmare for those involved. It’s all over the map; equal parts zombie horror, superspy thriller, disaster epic, and family drama, none of them finessed together in any meaningful way. It’s structurally insane –literally half the film is just Brad Pitt boarding bigger and bigger vehicles in increasingly stressful situations followed by one prolonged zombie sequence and then… it just ends. It’s a mess but despite the odds, World War Z is a pretty darn entertaining film, even if it is definitely not a good one.
13) The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Total Domestic Gross: $102,470,008
The Conjuring 2‘s biggest sin is that it’s so utterly forgettable. With James Wan back in the director’s chair, the sequel is unarguably a competently made horror film that thrills in the moment, but unlike its predecessor, there’s very little that sticks with you when it’s done. Weirder still, the film’s standout scare — the perspective-bending crooked man set-piece — seems weirdly out of place amongst the grounded, classical scares that made The Conjuring such a hit. As is so often the case, the deeper we dig into a great horror, the less horrifying it becomes, and the more we learn about the trauma that devastated Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), the less power it holds. That said, with Wan behind the camera, The Conjuring 2 still delivers plenty of thrills as the Warrens, Famiga and Patrick Wilson continue to give the Conjuring films a vital emotional heartbeat. But ultimately, The Conjuring 2 is just pretty good, a fun ride whose impact ends the moment you walk out the door.
12) Am Legend (2007)
Total Domestic Gross: $328,956,000
There is a better version of Francis Lawrence‘s I Am Legend. Unfortunately, for this list, we have to look at the sloppy theatrical cut, which undermines the intent of Richard Matheson’s classic story in favor of a test-screening approved ending that strips the film of its soul. It’s a damn shame too, because Lawrence otherwise transforms Matheson’s essential horror story into a beautifully shot blockbuster drama that’s rich with emotion (I don’t even want to talk about Sam because I’m still not OK) and led by a commanding performance from one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. That would all be enough to make you forgive the subpar CGI effects, which were disappointing even for the early aughts, but the theatrical ending is like a slap in the face and it sucks the film dry of meaning, right down to the marrow. Fortunately, the alternate cut is out there — with that intact, it’s a fine film, but considering this list is ranking the highest grossing films, we have to look at the cut that earned all that money.
11) The Village (2004)
Total Domestic Box Office: $114,197,520
Remember when everyone turned on M. Night Shyamalan? Yeah, it was right about here with the twist heard ’round the world. While the marketing team for The Village definitely miscalculated when they billed the film as a straightforward horror film, Shyamalan also leaned a little too hard into his penchant for third act surprises with a big reveal that was either too obvious or too silly depending on who you ask and in either case, pissed off a major portion of moviegoers. Which is a shame, because The Village is a pretty good movie. Not great, but pretty good. Lensed by the legendary Roger Deakins, The Village is an absolutely beautiful movie, all vibrant color and swirling shadows. James Newton Howard‘s Oscar-nominated score is also gorgeous, the performances are first-rate, and there are moments of genuine pulse-pounding tension. The problem is just the darn script, from the stilted dialogue to the exposition dependent twists. Even with the flaws, The Village is a worthwhile horror-tinged romance and if you’re still carrying a grudge against this one, you might be surprised to find on a rewatch that it’s not the complete misfire you remember.
10) Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Total Domestic Gross: $104,028,807
Paranormal Activity 3 undeniably falls short on the plot side of things, but what it lacks in cohesive narrative, it makes up for in pulse-pounding scares and clever use of the found footage format. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the duo who would oddly enough go on to direct the abysmal fourth installment), Paranormal Activity 3 has a crackling ambiance of things that go bump in the night, infusing every scene with the paranoid sensation that something is standing right behind you. In a clever found footage idea, Joost and Schulman make excellent use of an oscillating camera, panning between two rooms of the house, making you dread what’s around the corner as much as you wonder what’s happening just out of view. The characters can be frustratingly dense and the third act reveal leaves a few too many questions unanswered, but overall Paranormal Activity 3 is an intense, effective haunted house film that furthers the franchise mythology in interesting ways while getting creative with the found footage perspective.
9) Paranormal Activity (2007)
Total Domestic Gross: $107,918,810
Paranormal Activity is unequivocally one of the most influential horror films of the 21st century. Nearly ten years after The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli‘s microbudget film sparked an industry-wide found footage trend and soared at the box office to become the kind of low-cost, high-profit films executives dreams are made of. It is, however, not all that enjoyable to watch, especially so many years later when the tricks of found footage filmmaking have been dried up, reinvented, and dried up again. The film is defiantly slow, and the quivering houseplants and self-closing doors do little to conjure terror. Until the end, that is, when Paranormal Activity truly earns its place in the history books of horror. It takes a lot of patience, and you have to tolerate an ungodly amount of Micah, world’s worst boyfriend, but the payoff is in the film’s chilling final scenes, which set hair on end by putting the limited verite perspective to good use. Katie Featherson, who somehow hasn’t gone on to a bigger acting career, carries the film with a vibrant, energetic performance and she carries you through to the end. It takes patience to get there, but the end is a real zinger with interesting perspective on the futility of hypermasculine posturing.
8) Split (2017)
Total Domestic Gross: $138,141,585
After making a return to form with the delightful camp horror The Visit, Shyamalan delivered his best film in a decade and possibly his best twist ending of all time with Split. Split follows a trio of young women who are kidnapped by a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka split personalities), who is host to 23 different identities. We don’t meet them all, but we meet quite a few, and James McAvoy dives into camp territory with relish, delivering a fantastic and consummately entertaining performance as Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig, and his other various inhabitants, all of whom he embodies with flair and scenery-chewing charm. A blast of a B-movie with studio sheen, Split has a refreshing current of empathy for its characters, including McAvoy’s villain, and it’s a fantastic return to form for Shyamalan.
7) The Conjuring (2013)
Total Domestic Gross: $137,400,141
The Conjuring is a good old-fashioned horror movie, no bones about it. The vintage-inspired trend has been sweeping indie horror for a few years now, but with The Conjuring, James Wan got a proper studio budget and the result was a film that felt, not as if it was homaging the horror films of yore, but almost as if the film itself was pulled from another era. Classically constructed, with an emphasis on character drama and well-crafted scares over concept and shock-factor, The Conjuring hinges on the heartfelt performances from its core cast, especially Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, and Patrick Wilson, who keep the film grounded in realism no matter how otherworldly the paranormal action gets. And it gets intense. Wan directs exorcism like an action movie, and he treats his scares like a good action set-piece — set-up, follow-through, and clean shots. It’s “keep the lights on” creepy, executed with technical precision, and filled with character and creature creations that have launched a lowkey shared universe of horror at New Line.
6) The Others (2001)
Total Domestic Gross: $102,470,008
Alejandro Amenábar‘s English language debut is a classy, creepy paranormal thriller that puts a welcome spin on the haunted house genre with methodical pacing and poise. Elevated by a tremendous performance from Nicole Kidman, who is the tightest she’s ever been laced in a career of playing tight-laced women, an exacting mother of two photosensitive children who fears her the darkened halls of her home are being invaded by paranormal threats. Kidman lets the mania show through the cracks as Grace’s carefully controlled world unravels around her, and Amenábar delivers hair-raising moments with elegant restraint, conjuring scares with carefully placed cameras and breathless pauses. While the film’s 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.
5) The Ring (2001)
Total Domestic Gross: $129,128,133
4) IT (2017)
Total Domestic Gross: $314,929,521 (estimated and still rising)
Anticipation couldn’t have been higher for the long-awaited, R-rated film adaptation of Stephen King‘s beloved novel IT, and Andy Muschietti’s film did not disappoint. Easily one of the best King adaptations of all time, IT captures the heart and spirit of King’s best works, and by bisecting the narrative to focus on the kids’ arc, IT becomes a focused coming-of-age tale with just enough time and space to make you fall in love with the Losers Club and learn to fear their hometown of Derry, Maine. And then, of course, there’s Pennywise. Muschietti and actor Bill Skarsgard wisely steer clear of any imitation of Tim Curry’s iconic performance in the 1990 miniseries, creating something entirely new, but equally terrifying. Beautifully shot by Chung-hoon Chung with a haunting score from Benjamin Wallfisch, IT is a technically impressive film on every level and Muschietti directs the hell out of every moment. Energetic and scary, and elevated with earnest sentiment, IT doesn’t just float, it soars — and so has the box office.
3) Get Out (2017)
Total Domestic Gross: $175,484,140
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is the undisputed horror breakout of the year, and deservedly so. Any fan of Key and Peele could have told you that the comedy star also had a knack for genre, but no one could have predicted that he would have such an assured hand as a director and feature-length screenwriter. Get Out winds up in a familiar spot for any horror fan (a blood bath), but its greatest moments of horror are far removed from the traditional cinematic violence of final act. The best horror films have something to say. They use monsters and madmen as allegories for subtler real-life horrors. With Get Out, Peele merges the text and the subtext, digging into the uncomfortable and all-too-recognizable deceptions and cultural denial in our so-called “post-racial America” and transforming them into Twilight Zone style terrors.
2) War of the Worlds (2005)
Total Domestic Gross: $234,280,354
I will always go to bat for Steven Spielberg‘s War of the Worlds. Seen as a minor entry in the filmmaker’s remarkable canon, the adaptation of H.G. Wells‘ classic story is mired by an uneven second half, but when Speilberg’s film hits the right notes it’s lowkey some of the best horror filmmaking of the century so far. Wells famously caused a national panic with his 1938 radio broadcast and Spielberg captures that chaotic terror and translates it through a powerful post-9/11 allegory. The first time I saw War of the Worlds, I had no idea what I was in for. Expecting a classic Spielberg blockbuster, I spent the first hour of the film white-knuckle gripping the arms of my seat with the pang of panic twisting through my gut. It’s Spielberg, so of course the film is visually commanding and the director had the brilliant stroke of casting Tom Cruise deliciously against type, subverting his action hero image in the role of a falsely inflated deadbeat dad who constantly makes the wrong move. Working from the story by a master of weird tales, Spielberg fuses horror, science fiction, and blockbuster filmmaking in a way that’s rarely seen and while the results are less than perfect, they’re still spectacular.
1) Shutter Island (2010)
Total Domestic Gross: $128,012,934
I know I just made this whole big thing about how we shouldn’t get so hung up on genre labels, but it honestly blows my mind that there are people who don’t consider Shutter Island a horror film. Whether you’re looking at the cinematography, the narrative, the performance, soundtrack, or sound design, every technical element of Martin Scorsese‘s madhouse drama is designed as a love letter to not just noir, but Weimar expressionist horror and Val Lewton era low-budget shockers. Heck this movie has more imagery of dead children than your average slasher flick would dare. Scorsese steeps Shutter Island in dread from the opening frame and he never lets up, turning a seaside insane asylum into a nightmarish purgatory, blurring the lines between the sane and insane, the monsters and heroes.