It was no easy task, but since many of my peers and colleagues have made similar lists, I figured it was time for me to tackle a big challenge: Ranking the 25 best horror movies of the 21st Century. After much soul searching, and more than a few internal conflicts, I was finally able to assemble what I consider the best of the best. Not only are these the most entertaining genre films of the past 16+ years, they are the most important.
If you are relatively new to horror fandom, I would consider every film on this list a must-watch. Have a read, and let me know what you think in the Comments section. Do you think there are any films on my list that don’t deserve the recognition? Do you have any favorites that didn’t make the list? Let’s discuss!
American Psycho (2000, Directed by Mary Harron)
Official Synopsis: In New York City in 1987, a handsome, young urban professional, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), lives a second life as a gruesome serial killer by night. The cast is filled by the detective (Willem Dafoe), the fiancée (Reese Witherspoon), the mistress (Samantha Mathis), the coworker (Jared Leto), and the secretary (Chloë Sevigny). This is a biting, wry comedy examining the elements that make a man a monster.
The first truly excellent horror movie of the 21st Century American Psycho is brutal, disturbing, and socially relevant; a time-capsule of 1980’s era greed culture that skewers opulence and excess—and more than a few jugulars!
The Others (2001, Directed by Alejandro Amenábar)
Official Synopsis: Grace (Nicole Kidman), the devoutly religious mother of Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), moves her family to the English coast during World War II. She awaits word on her missing husband while protecting her children from a rare photosensitivity disease that causes the sun to harm them. Anne claims she sees ghosts, Grace initially thinks the new servants are playing tricks but chilling events and visions make her believe something supernatural has occurred.
Gothic as hell and scary as fuck, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others is a reimagining of The Turn of the Screw that remains unparalleled for its gloomy aesthetic, engrossing storytelling, with a shocking twist that puts anything produced by M. Night Shyamalan to shame. Like all amazing horror movies, this one gets better with repeat viewings.
28 Days Latedays-later-2002-reviewr (2002, Directed by Danny Boyle)
Official Synopsis: A group of misguided animal rights activists free a caged chimp infected with the “Rage” virus from a medical research lab. When London bike courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma a month after, he finds his city all but deserted. On the run from the zombie-like victims of the Rage, Jim stumbles upon a group of survivors, including Selena (Naomie Harris) and cab driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and joins them on a perilous journey to what he hopes will be safety.
28 Days Later isn’t technically a zombie movie, but its impact on the zombie subgenre in the 21st Century cannot be understated. 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, for example, obliterated established tropes by turning the undead shamblers into rabid scramblers.
Cabin Fever (2002, Directed by Eli Roth)
Official Synopsis: Bert (James DeBello), a college student vacationing with friends in the mountains, mistakenly shoots a local man (Arie Verveen) with a skin infection while hunting in the woods. Panicking, he abandons the scene and leaves the man for dead. When the man stumbles into a reservoir, he infects the water supply, and soon one of Bert’s friends becomes infected. The friends struggle to stop the contagious, flesh-eating disease while on the run from a group of ornery backwoods locals out for revenge.
While Hostel remains an elite entry in the torture porn subgenre, Eli Roth’s first film remains his best. The combination of body horror, cabin in the woods motifs, and raunchy college stoner humor makes for a perfectly gruesome and irreverent romp. The 2016 remake, on the other hand, is totally unnecessary.
Saw (2004, Directed by James Wan)
Official Synopsis: Photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) regain consciousness while chained to pipes at either end of a filthy bathroom. As the two men realize they’ve been trapped by a sadistic serial killer nicknamed “Jigsaw” and must complete his perverse puzzle to live, flashbacks relate the fates of his previous victims. Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon’s wife (Monica Potter) and young daughter (Makenzie Vega) are forced to watch his torture via closed-circuit video.
Launched in 2004, the Saw franchise is one of the strongest of the 21st Century, and the first entry remains the best of the batch. Though deceased since Part 3, Saw fans can look forward seeing the Jigsaw Killer back in action when Saw: Legacy, the 8th installment, arrives in US Theaters this October.
Related Article: Latest Casting News for “Saw: Legacy”!
Shaun of the Dead (2004, Directed by Edgar Wright)
Official Synopsis: Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a 30-something loser with a dull, easy existence. When he’s not working at the electronics store, he lives with his slovenly best friend, Ed (Nick Frost), in a small flat on the outskirts of London. The only unpredictable element in his life is his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), who wishes desperately for Shaun to grow up and be a man. When the town is inexplicably overrun with zombies, Shaun must rise to the occasion and protect both Liz and his mother (Penelope Wilton).
I’ve often hypothesized that Shaun of the Dead paved the way for The Walking Dead, and, therefore, the popularization of zombies for mainstream audiences. With Shaun, even those who would never consider themselves horror fans realized that zombies are exciting and fighting off hordes with a group of friends seems like a swell way to spend an apocalypse.
The Descent (2005, Directed by Neil Marshall)
Official Synopsis: A year after a severe emotional trauma, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) goes to North Carolina to spend some time exploring caves with her friends; after descending underground, the women find strange cave paintings and evidence of an earlier expedition, then learn they are not alone: Underground predators inhabit the crevasses, and they have a taste for human flesh.
Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic masterpiece taps into primal fears of darkness and the unknown. When a band of spelunkers runs afoul of a tribe of ancient humanoid troglodytes, it’s a battle for survival you won’t soon forget. It’s also a poignant examination of insurmountable grief.
Slither (2006, Directed by James Gunn)
Official Synopsis: Wheelsy is a small town where not much happens and everyone minds his own business. No one notices when evil slips in quietly but, when people find mutilated livestock and a woman goes missing, Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) discovers an alien organism that threatens to devour all life on Earth.
Before James Gun was the driving force behind the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, he had an excellent career ahead of him in horror. If Slither had gotten more studio support, I think horror comedy would have had a major resurgence in the mid-2000s. Slither sports incredibly disgusting alien creature FX, a crackling script, and pitch black comedy.
The Mist (2007, Directed by Frank Darabont)
Official Synopsis: After a powerful storm damages their Maine home, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head into town to gather food and supplies. Soon afterward, a thick fog rolls in and engulfs the town, trapping the Draytons and others in the grocery store. Terror mounts as deadly creatures reveal themselves outside, but that may be nothing compared to the threat within, where a zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) calls for a sacrifice.
Though it boasts one of the most depressing and divisive endings of any horror movie, The Mist is a paradigm of terrifying and unnerving Lovecraftian horror; it’s also an examination of how people make decisions when they are blinded by fear.
Martyrs (2008, Directed by Pascal Laugier)
Official Synopsis: A young woman’s quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity.
Though I stated in the introduction that all the films on this list are entertaining, Martyrs may be the exception. It’s not so much a film to be enjoyed; rather it’s an exercise in endurance. Those who can stand the assault will be stunned by an unprecedented examination of revenge, suffering, and the search for an afterlife.
Let the Right One In (2008, Directed by Tomas Alfredson)
Official Synopsis: When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a sensitive, bullied 12-year-old boy living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved with each other, Oskar and Eli slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.
A coming of age horror movie with as much heart as blood, Let the Right One In stunned audiences as much for its portrayal of vampire terror as its genuine human drama. The pool scene is unforgettable.
The Strangers (2008, Directed by Bryan Bertino)
Official Synopsis: Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) are expecting a relaxing weekend at a family vacation home, but their stay turns out to be anything but peaceful. First, a mysterious and dangerous woman arrives at the door while James is out on an errand. When he returns, he accidentally kills his friend Mike (Glenn Howerton), mistaking him for an intruder. And then real danger does show up — in the form of three masked torturers, leaving Kristen and James struggling for survival.
We may finally see a sequel to Bryan Bertino’s home invasion horror masterpiece; if the production stays on schedule, The Strangers 2 is aiming for a 2018 release.
Related Article: “The Strangers 2” is Actually Happening!
The Loved Ones (2009, Directed by Sean Byrne) [Featured Image]
Official Synopsis: After a classmate (Xavier Samuel) declines her invitation to the school dance, a teenager (Robin McLeavy) kidnaps him and makes him the guest of honor at her own twisted prom.
Equal parts horror comedy and torture porn, The Loved Ones is the best genre offering to come out of Australia, far superior to the Wolf Creek films.
Trick ‘r Treat (2009, Directed by Michael Dougherty)
Official Synopsis: Interwoven stories demonstrate that some traditions are best not forgotten as the residents (Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker) of a small town face real ghosts and goblins on Halloween. Tales of terror reveal the consequences of extinguishing a Jack-o-Lantern before midnight and a grumpy hermit’s encounter with a sinister trick-or-treater.
Michael Dougherty is a hero of indie horror and Trick ‘r Treat is responsible for launching the horror anthology resurgence of the 2010’s. Dougherty is currently lending both writing and directorial talents to Godzilla: King of Monsters, slated for a 2019 release.
Related Article: “Godzilla 2” is Shaping Up to Be a Horror Fan’s Wet Dream!
Drag Me to Hell (2009, Directed by Sam Raimi)
Official Synopsis: Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has a loving boyfriend (Justin Long) and a great job at a Los Angeles bank. But her heavenly life becomes hellish when, in an effort to impress her boss, she denies an old woman’s request for an extension on her home loan. In retaliation, the crone places a curse on Christine, threatening her soul with eternal damnation. Christine seeks a psychic’s help to break the curse, but the price to save her soul may be more than she can pay.
Sam Raimi’s exploration or karma and curses is as hilarious as it is disgusting; a great-group watch and a guaranteed good time.
Pandorum (2009, Directed by Christian Alvart)
Official Synopsis: Astronauts Payton (Dennis Quaid) and Bower (Ben Foster) awake in a hypersleep chamber with no memory of who they are or what their mission might be. While Payton stays behind to monitor the radio transmitter, Bower ventures out of the chamber into the seemingly abandoned spaceship. The men quickly realize that they are not alone and that the fate of mankind hinges on what they do next.
Pandorum is the only example of horror/sci-fi on this list and the best example of the subgenre released in the 21st Century… so far. Obviously, we all have extremely high hopes for Alien: Covenant, set to invade US Theaters on May 19th.
The Last Exorcism (2010, Directed by Daniel Stamm)
Official Synopsis: After years of gulling the faithful, cleric Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) feels remorse and decides to expose his chicanery through filming a documentary. With a crew in tow, Marcus arrives at the Louisiana farm of devout Louis Sweetzer, who believes that his daughter, Nell, is possessed. When the usual stunts fail, he realizes that he is face-to-face with real evil and must summon true faith to protect Nell, the others and himself from demonic power.
One of the best upending of established possession/exorcism tropes and examples of found footage presentation in the 21st Century is The Last Exorcism. The found footage style works in terms of adding authenticity and a documentary feel to the fiction. The cast has amazing chemistry.
Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010, Directed by Eli Craig)
Official Synopsis: Two scruffy pals’ (Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk) backwoods vacation takes a bloody turn when ignorant college students mistake them for a pair of murderous hillbillies.
Best quote of the film: “Oh hidy ho officer, we’ve had a doozy of a day. There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started killing themselves all over my property.” Classic!
The Cabin in the Woods (2011, Directed by Drew Goddard)
Official Synopsis: When five college friends (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams) arrive at a remote forest cabin for a little vacation, little do they expect the horrors that await them. One by one, the youths fall victim to backwoods zombies, but there is another factor at play. Two scientists (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford) are manipulating the ghoulish goings-on, but even as the body count rises, there is yet more at work than meets the eye.
The Cabin in the Woods is the best send-up of the entire horror genre since Wes Craven’s Scream. It’s smart, funny, and culminates in an Everything vs Everything battle royale between just about every nightmare creature you can imagine.
American Mary (2012, Directed by Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska)
Official Synopsis: The allure of easy money sends Mary Mason, a medical student, into the world of underground surgeries which ends up leaving more marks on her than her so called “freakish” clients.
The Soska Sister reinvented body horror for the 21st Century with American Mary, a film that challenges societal norms with brutal violence and unabashed sexuality. American Mary is one of the more extreme entries on this list, but it’s also one of the most important.
Evil Dead (2013, Directed by Fede Álvarez)
Official Synopsis: Mia (Jane Levy), a drug addict, is determined to kick the habit. To that end, she asks her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) and their friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) to accompany her to their family’s remote forest cabin to help her through withdrawal. Eric finds a mysterious Book of the Dead at the cabin and reads aloud from it, awakening an ancient demon. All hell breaks loose when the malevolent entity possesses Mia.
The only remake to make this list is Fede Álvarez’s Evil Dead, a film that properly respects its source material while delivering some truly unique and horrifying innovations.
It Follows (2014, Directed by David Robert Mitchell)
Official Synopsis: After carefree teenager, Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), for the first time, she learns that she is the latest recipient of a fatal curse that is passed from victim to victim via sexual intercourse. Death, Jay learns, will creep inexorably toward her as either a friend or a stranger. Jay’s friends don’t believe her seemingly paranoid ravings until they too begin to see the phantom assassins and band together to help her flee or defend herself.
Part of a wave of metaphorical horror that included The Babadook, It Follows is a unique spin on the slasher/stalker subgenre, a beautiful enigma where dream-logic rules.
Housebound (2014, Directed by Gerard Johnstone)
Official Synopsis: A would-be thief (Morgana O’Reilly) is remanded to the custody of her estranged mother (Rima Te Wiata), who turns out to be correct in her assertion that evil spirits are afoot in their family domicile.
A deadpan comedy that will make your pulse race and heart swell, Housebound delivers thrills and poignant family reconciliations. This sleeper out of New Zealand has an amazing twist you won’t see coming in a million years.
The Attica Institute (2015, Directed by Chris Sparling)
Official Synopsis: In the early 1970s, Dr. Henry West creates an institute to find people with supernatural abilities. When Judith Winstead comes to the facility, she exhibits amazing abilities that the military wants to turn into a weapon.
This one is the most underrated film on my list; The Atticus Institute meshes conspiracy theories, demonic possession, and docudrama for an arresting combination.
Get Out (2017, Directed by Jordan Peele)
Official Synopsis: Now that Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), have reached the meet-the-parents milestone of dating, she invites him for a weekend getaway upstate with Missy and Dean. At first, Chris reads the family’s overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship, but as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he could never have imagined.
This one is getting Oscar buzz, meaning Get Out could be the first horror movie to take home a Best Picture Oscar since The Silence of the Lambs.