With the recent release of the highly anticipated Sundance hit and instant horror classic – The Witch (check out our glowing review), we got to thinking… what are the absolute best of the best since the dawn of the new century and millennium? We’re certain The Witch will eventually find a spot on this breakdown, but that film needs to stew and simmer a bit longer in our subconscious before a proper determination can be made. And with The Witch on hold (for now) , here’s our top 25 horror films of the 21st century (so far). Take a gander!
25) You’re Next (2011) An ‘80s slasher throwback (including a starring role for Scream Queen – and Her Royal Highness – Barbara Crampton), it’s hard to not completely surrender and fall in love with You’re Next. From the start, it’s all an obvious set-up for the final girl, but the audience just doesn’t care. It’s so nostalgic (and well done in its own right) that we’re willing to overlook that maybe, just maybe, we saw something like this a couple of hundred times, 30 years ago. Well-off married couple Aubrey and Paul Davison (Crampton and Rob Moran) invite their four estranged children (and significant others) to an anniversary celebration at their sprawling vacation home. It turns into a weekend of murder, mayhem and lots of blood. And it’s a lovely moment to see Ms. Crampton welcoming a new Scream Queen into the mix – in the form of Sharni Vinson (as one of the children’s guests). She is one of the most resourceful and bad-ass final girls this side of Haddonfield. The easy highlight of the film has something to do with piano wire and a hastily-opened front door. The film is just loads of fun, stars The Signal’s AJ Bowen and is directed by Adam Wingard. If this one passed you by, you definitely missed out. Remedy that – immediately.
24) The Mist (2007) The Mist has plenty going for it. It’s a Stephen King story. It’s produced by prolific filmmaker Frank Darabont. It boasts an impressive and talented ensemble cast (including Thomas Jane, The Walking Dead‘s Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn and Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden in the film’s flashiest role). And God love it, It’s a siege film (that’s built-in and guaranteed fun). And, of course, it has one of the biggest downer endings on record. So, there’s that. I’m a sucker for a group of rag-tag people stuck in a tense, powder-keg situation, while forces unknown threaten to destroy them from the outside, and from the inside their own paranoia and fear are tearing them apart. You don’t need the monsters carousing about in the mist to make things really bad. Just let human behavior take over. And therein lies the secret of The Mist and so many other films like it. It turns a mirror onto ourselves. It’s just this crazy situation the characters are facing which brings out the true beast – us. Great production values, impressive creatures and again – a sad and ironic ending not seen since the original Night of the Living Dead. Ouch.
23) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) A sequel has been discussed for several years now, and the sooner the horror movie gods can get their crap in order, the better. Behind the Mask goes, well… behind the scenes with an unstoppable serial killer named Leslie Vernon. He’s modeled his career after the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. He even has his own obsessed nemesis, Sam Loomis-type (Donald Pleasance in Halloween) in the form of Robert Englund’s Doc Halloran. The film skewers all of the good things we know and love about slasher flicks – from the point of view of an interviewer getting the inside scoop on Leslie’s life and the nuances of his bloody work. Joining Englund in the film is Poltergeist’s Zelda Rubinstein, The Walking Dead’s Scott Wilson and as Leslie — the incredibly charismatic and adorable Nathan Baesel. Behind the Mask is everything a meta horror-comedy should be.
22) Dawn of the Dead (2004) From the moment the trailer for this “remake” premiered, I was enamored. By using zombies, a shopping mall and a pregnant woman, I guess the powers-that-be figured they could call it a remake. But Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is its own beast, and deserves proper recognition. It’s action-packed, bloody and despite so many naysayers, an absolute treat to see zombies running. Would they really be running? Probably not, but it makes for some tense sequences and an underlying dread all throughout the picture. Are there some missteps? Sure. I would never have actually shown the baby (would have been far more terrifying to leave it to audience imaginations), but smart performances from the likes of Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, terrific zombie make-up and the almost unbearable tension of the first 10 minutes lift this film to near-greatness. And it goes to show that you can love an original film (which I do) as well as a modern re-imagining – both at the same time.
21) The Grudge / Ju-On (2004/2002) Frankly, I would give a slight edge to the remake with Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m not sure why that is, but it felt cleaner and perhaps more polished (or maybe I’m just too “Americanized”). Considering the same director (Takashi Shimizu) did both films, it seems like the original was a “dress rehearsal” of sorts, and the second go was the premiere performance. Introducing audiences to one of the most terrifying supernatural characters ever, I will never recover from Kayako’s “uhhhhhh” sound (not sure how that unnerving sound would be written) or the body contortions that unsettled spirit was so fond of showing. Rife with extremely effective “boo” moments and sporting an atmosphere that is the definition of unease and unrest (perfectly fitting the themes of the films), The Grudge also benefits from the addition to its cast of Grace Zabriskie – one of the best character actresses of our time. Bottom line: these films are genuinely unsettling.
20) Paranormal Activity (2007) From creator Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity became a horror juggernaut (now with 6 films in the franchise). But as fun as some of the moments were in the many sequels, nothing could compare to the power of the original. I was actually one of those folks to receive an invite to see a “special advance screening” of a new horror film – after just a few months of living in LA. It was for this film. I can’t for the life of me recall why I didn’t go, but life is life. Thankfully I did end up seeing it and it took me days to get over some of the images this film presented (the baby powder on the floor test and the subsequent “hoof-prints”? No thank you!) We all know how the story covering a 6-episode arc begins – young Southern California couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) experience strange events in their home and so they put up a camera to capture what happens in their bedroom at night. Katie sleepwalks, things move on their own and blankets are removed from atop the sleeping couple. And eventually, the camera captures Katie silently and with no motion, standing over a slumbering Micah – for hours on end. No, that’s not bizarre or disturbing! But nothing could prepare me for the absolute relief I would feel when the film would take us back to daylight hours, and in turn, the gnawing dread I would feel in the pit of my stomach – every time the couple turned off the light and turned on the camera before hopping into bed. Ugh.
19) The Strangers (2008) What could be considered the ultimate “home invasion” film, The Strangers is as simple in its story as it is complex in its execution. When James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) take a weekend breather at their rural vacation home following a friend’s wedding, they unexpectedly receive a visit from three masked strangers (the man in a burlap sack mask and the two women in “kewpie-doll” plastic masks) looking for “Tamara”. The couple are terrorized by the threesome, and well – if you’ve not seen it, I’ll refrain from spoilers. But what the film is most known for is its rumbling tension and amazing placement of things/people in the picture’s frame. The most notable moment is in the photograph above, as Kristen unknowingly shares the vast space of the vacation home with the burlap-sack dude. For what seems like an eternity, he just stands there in the background, staring at her. Unnerving doesn’t begin to describe The Strangers. And the phrase uttered by one of the intruders (unfortunately, over-used in the marketing campaign) when asked by the couple why they are doing this, the reply: “Because you were home.” That unbelievable response should produce shivers and fuels nightmares in even the most stalwart horror fans.
18) Isolation (2005) This very little known Irish gem is something you should immediately place on your must-see list. It follows a couple of young folks whose RV is randomly parked on the outskirts of a large cattle farm in rural Ireland. Taking the idea and panic of mad-cow disease as an inspiration, Isolation looks at a failing farm where the farmer allows some bio-genetics folks onto his land to conduct experiments on bovine fertilization. And since this is a horror film, we can automatically see that something is bound to go awry. A creature spawned from a test cow escapes the lab and the clock begins ticking – before the blood-thirsty creature can move from the area, thus spreading its violent pestilence. An early scene of a character performing a cavity examination on one of the cows, pulls back their hand in pain – to find some sort of bite through the rubber glove – well, that should properly intrigue you. The title perfectly captures the lonely atmosphere of the film… and the fact that it rains non-stop throughout, only adds to the squishy-ness and somber feeling already in place. It’s also a very bloody exercise, which will certainly gross you out, but also impress you with its brilliance. With effects by the Hellraiser make-up maestro himself – Bob Keen – there’s no way you can be let down in that category. And you’ll find in a supporting role, The Babadook’s Essie Davis.
17) Insidious (2010) Another franchise intro’d by the non-stop Leigh Whannell (who co-stars) – this one, a supernatural story. Last year, we saw the third installment hit theatres (it was on my top 15 list for 2015 – in the #14 spot), but the original is certainly the best. A family battles to keep evil forces and gnarly spirits at bay, as their young son tries to find his way out of a coma – all the while trying to avoid a descent into “The Further” (the film’s term for hell/the afterlife/purgatory and what-have-you). Clearly inspired by Poltergeist, Insidious is another one with tremendous atmosphere and “boo” moments which seriously warm my heart – or make it skip a beat – (Pictured above: the red-faced demon in the dining room, in broad daylight, directly behind Patrick Wilson? I mean, c’mon!) The film stars powerhouse actors Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Lin Shaye and the great Barbara Hershey. And despite the goody-bag of jumps and amazing visuals – for my money, absolutely nothing can compare to the appearance of the film’s title in the credits sequence and the accompanying music cue (so very The Exorcist) and so very upsetting. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it! You know this film. You love this film. It belongs on this list.
16) Cooties (2015) Check out my review for last year’s Cooties. I also placed it as the year’s best horror film for the annual round-up. Much like Shaun of the Dead, it gives us laugh-out-loud comedy, tense scares and dramatic (and authentic) journeys for the characters. It’s got it all! An all-star cast including Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Allison Pill, Cooties shows us how a group of rag-tag elementary school teachers would behave and survive when their young wards become infected by a mutated chicken nugget and turn into flesh-eating, unstoppable monsters. Leigh Whannell (creator of the Saw and Insidious franchises) had writing duties on Cooties as well as the easy task of stealing the show as socially awkward biology teacher Doug. The tricycle scene’s suspense is to die for and the long journey of the mushy chicken nugget must be seen to be believed. Despite mixed reviews for this gem, I hold out hope that it’ll one day find its audience and garner a deserved badge as “cult classic”.
15) The Reef (2010) Taking a page from the “based on a true story” set-up of the similar film Open Water, The Reef is far superior and far more terrifying. A group of 20-somethings become stranded atop their capsized boat in the middle of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And we all know that this is Great White Shark country. Realizing that they’ll continue to drift into the open sea, and not back to land, they decide to use some flotation devices and to attempt a difficult (but not impossible) swim for dry land. Thing is, there’s one pushy and insistent Great White who has other plans. If you’re an ocean- or shark-phobe, this film will take every bit of your strength and courage to sit through. If you’re not, you’re still gonna have a very tough time. Beautifully photographed with honest performances, there is barely a moment to catch your breath in The Reef. I’ve seen it only once, and even a revisit to the trailer some years later was enough to get my heart pumping. Writer/director Andrew Traucki previously did the similarly-structured, fun alligator film Black Water.
14) The Host (2006) From director Joon Ho Bong (also of 2013’s Snowpiercer), a giant monster (a result of chemicals being spilled into a local river) one day emerges from the water, wreaks havoc on a riverside park and eventually kidnaps a young girl. The girl’s father and family will stop at nothing (including defying government quarantine orders) to rescue her. The film is equal parts monster movie, family dramedy and cautionary tale. A strange combination for sure, but it works on every level. Strong performances, fantastic creature effects and a kooky and loving family unit at its center, The Host was critically acclaimed, landing on several critics’ top ten lists for that year. A bit of trivia – the creature was actually loosely based on a newspaper article which the director happened upon – regarding a mutated fish found in the Han river, with an S-shaped spine. Cautionary tale, indeed!
13) REC (2007) Remade as the better-than-it-had-a-right-to-be Quarantine and with 3 sequels of its own, REC is one helluva terrifying journey. Reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) joins a couple of firefighters on their evening shift – to let her viewers in on the inner-workings of a firehouse. When she goes with them on a call to an old apartment building – for some domestic disturbance – well things go from jolly and fun to bloody and deadly. Some sort of disease has spread about the building and Angela’s cameraman, the firefighters, as well as Angela herself are soon quarantined inside the decrepit and massive building, with panicked tenants and infected ghouls running amok. Shot from the first person perspective of the cameraman, you’d best take a Dramamine (or two) before you sit down to enjoy this. Perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the best choice of words, for REC is absolutely, 100% as scary a ride into hell as one could take. The infected (as in our #12 entry below, REC is for all intents and purposes, a zombie film) quickly spread their rot and filth and things get dire. Incredible make-up effects, a total sense of isolation and great performances add up to a very “get me out of this giant petri dish” scenario full of “boo moments” and suspenseful chase scenes. REC just works.
12) 28 Days Later (2002) Sparking a resurgence in the zombie sub-genre (yes, I’m aware that they are in fact “infected”, not the living dead – don’t argue that this is basically a zombie movie) Danny Boyle’s terrifying vision of the “rage” virus wiping out most of the UK, is an adrenaline rush of horror. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a deserted hospital in a deserted London – only to find that an infection has spread far and wide, and it turns those carrying the sickness into homicidal maniacs who spit out tainted blood. One bit of contact, and within seconds, you become one of them. A very good sequel, 28 Weeks Later, was released a few years later. The best scene in the picture? The flat tire in the tunnel as the rush of rats announce the arrival of a horde of the infected. Adrenaline rush indeed! An instant classic.
11) The Babadook (2014) Critically-acclaimed and uber-divisive (upon release and I’m sure with its inclusion on this list) The Babadook was certainly a creepy film with plenty of terrifying images, wonderfully delicious “boo” moments and oodles of suspense. But at its core, it’s a story about the bond between a frazzled single mother and her very eccentric little boy. Essie Davis delivers a star-making performance and her talents are equally matched by the young actor portraying her son Sam (Noah Wiseman). It’s a heart-breaking tale of love and family in the aftermath of crippling grief. I once recall a Fangoria cover of Pinhead – many years ago – around the release of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, proclaiming, “Move over Freddy, there’s a new horror hero!” And ever since I experienced the magic of The Babadook (the film and the character), I can’t help but play that headline over and over in my head. The character, The Babadook is frightening, intriguing and nothing can compare to the sound of his speaking voice. If you’re one of the folks who was disappointed in this film, following the mega-hype – I implore you to take another look, for you see, “If it’s in a word, or if it’s in a look… you can’t get rid of The Babadook.”
10) Lake Mungo (2008) Probably another film you’ve never really heard of, let alone seen, Lake Mungo shows us a terrifying tale of a family in mourning following the accidental drowning of their teenaged daughter, Alice. Shot like a 48 Hours crime documentary, the family tells their tale of grief and apparent supernatural activity in their home following Alice’s death. A psychic is brought in and attempts are made to debunk the various strange occurrences going on around them. This film inspired a list on my own personal blog, recognizing my preferences for the 21 most disturbing horror film images – and of course, Lake Mungo garnered a spot on said list. The image from this film is a real doozy, and chillingly lingered in my mind long after the screening ended. What’s amazing about Lake Mungo (it was one of the films under the umbrella of After Dark HorrorFest 4) are the performances. It’s so tough for a film to pull off a “documentary” vibe with actors. There are so often missteps which call attention to the “acting” and therefore ruin the delicate façade. Not so with Lake Mungo. It’s a perfectly executed mockumentary and the actors are flawless in their delivery and expert in their emotions. Alice’s cell phone is the key to this mystery and you won’t be disappointed.
9) The Ring (2002) I’ll just throw this out there, and prepare for the beatings which will inevitably follow. I’ve never seen the original Japanese version of The Ring. There. I am relieved. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the American remake from director Gore Verbinski (the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) and starring Naomi Watts, right? Right? Another introduction to a now legendary horror character, in this case, Samara, has made this an iconic film – with one sequel completed and another one currently on the burner. We all know the tale. Watch this uber-creepy and avant-garde video tape and you’ll then receive a phone call. Seven days later, you’ll be dead. It’s a helluva set up and this version of the film (I can’t speak for the other) is drop-dead gorgeous. It takes place in the rainy Northwest and so there’s always an over-powering dreariness – which perfectly matches the deep and moist well of Samara’s resting place, as well as the deep and moist reaches of her black soul. Of course the terrifying highlight of this film (it scared the crap out of me and anyone else with a functioning heart/brain) is the scene of Samara emerging – dripping wet – from the television set. Nightmares for weeks? Um, yeah. And I’ll just leave you with these two questions: Should the original film move up to the top of my screening list, or will this stunning remake suffice? Oh, and I received a strange VHS tape in the mail today. Should I watch it?
8) The House at the End of Time (2014) First screened at 2014’s Screamfest, this film became an instant love for me (see my perfectly-scored review here). In that original write-up, I called the picture a “mind-fuck”, and that is absolutely the case. As things come to a head in the chilling, thrilling and very emotional climax (I was sobbing uncontrollably for the film’s final half hour), you’ll revisit so many things you’ve seen before, as the film moves freely throughout time (as the title suggests). It’s an intelligently written (writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo explained that every time a new twist entered the script, he’d have to go back to the drawing board – the film’s that complex) and expertly acted film (the child actors will blow your mind, and as Dulce, Ruddy Rodriguez will astound you and break your heart). The unbearably unnerving sequence with the psychic will 100% terrify you. Inspirations from films like The Others and the #7 film on this list, The Orphanage, are apparent. As emotionally wrenching as it is scary, The House at the End of Time is a must-see. A US remake may possibly be in the works.
7) The Orphanage (2007) Praised by critics the world over and an award-winner to boot, The Orphanage had the added benefit at its release of being “presented by Guillermo del Toro”. And it certainly has the atmosphere and gorgeous production values of one of his own films. A young couple – Laura (the fantastic Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) – and their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) return to the orphanage where Laura grew up. She intends to refurbish and reopen the facility, to care for disabled children. As the orphanage’s secrets begin to unfold, strange events begin to occur (naturally) and Simon befriends a little boy named Tomas – who goes around wearing a very creepy burlap sack over his head – complete with sewed on buttons to form a face. The film takes several heart-breaking turns (I’ll again spare you any spoilers) and is truly the tale of a loyal, desperate and grieving mother. As beautiful in its visuals as it is in its story (the ending will leave a large lump in your throat) The Orphanage is a film whose images will rest in your memories for a good long while… and aside from the creepy Tomas, you’ll be okay with that. And Geraldine Chaplin (yes, that’s Charlie’s daughter) makes an appearance as a local psychic. Oh, and filmmaker Alejandro Hidalgo (director of The House at the End of Time, in the #8 spot above) cites this film as a heavy influence.
6) Let the Right One In (2008) I’ve not seen the US remake Let Me In, and despite all of the generally positive things I’ve read about it, I can’t see besmirching this fascinating, beautiful and heartfelt original, by taking in another of those wholly unnecessary remakes. This is the tale of a bullied young Swedish boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and his endearing friendship with a young androgynous girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson), who happens to be a blood-sucking vampire. The film leaves aside many of the vampire legend trappings (aside from the big one referenced in the title) and instead focuses on the remarkable bond between these two soulmates. Filmed in cold and stunningly dreary settings, the film’s lovely in story and in look. And the incredible swimming pool scene will genuinely warm your heart with Eli’s protective watch over Oskar as it also violently turns your stomach. Based on his novel of the same name, John Ajvide Lindqvist and director Tomas Alfredson create a world of blood, painful rules and a special love between two lonely outcasts.
5) The Cabin in the Woods (2012) Zombies. Vampires. Killer hillbillies. Giant snakes. Monstrous stalk-n-slash killers. And an ingeniously-devised system to keep all of these ghastlies in check – that is of course, until these specialty spooks are needed for a higher purpose. This ultra-meta horror triumph truly has it all – terrific makeup effects, ample scares, and more horror inside jokes and biting humor than you could throw a book of clichés at. With terrific performances from the likes of Bradley Whitford, Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins and even a voice-over appearance from the one and only Sigourney Weaver – this Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) gem will live on forever as a horror nerd’s ultimate wet dream.
4) It Follows (2015) One of 2015’s biggest (and most divisive) horror hits! Combining an expertly done ‘80s score by Disasterpeace and the look and feel of a period piece straight out of that beloved era of parachute pants and Aqua-Net teased hair, It Follows has an undeniable magic of tension, thrills and paranoia. The “It” of the title is some sort of spirit/demon which can only be transferred via sexual intercourse. And once you have “it”, at all times of the day and night, no matter where you are – “it” is always walking directly toward you – in the form of anyone. One night in a decaying Detroit, young Jay (the remarkable Maika Moore) is given this curse by a douche-y and desperate new boyfriend and thus begins a fight for her life and her sanity. A not-so-subtle metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, It Follows is not only terrifying, but endearing in its depiction of unquestioning loyalty between friends and the hardships of being young and naïve. This film is already considered “horror royalty” and absolutely deserving of such kudos. Check out my full review here.
3) The Descent (2005) I was first introduced to this film by a bootlegged UK copy from a long-time friend (shhhhh…) – meaning I went in totally blind. It was a good 6 months prior to the US release, and so I had seen no trailers, read no info and had no idea of what I was getting into. The only warning my bootleg-friend gave me was, “One of the scariest things I’ve seen in a long time”. And that was that. I immediately fell in love with the wonderful slow burn, the generous amounts of time to get to know and love these women, the absolute girl-power of the film and the amazing and terrifying first introduction to the “crawlers”. Top-notch performances (Shauna McDonald deserves high praise and Natalie Mendoza’s “Juno” quickly became one of my favorite bad-ass horror heroines) along with a stifling atmosphere, real claustrophobia and terrifying hopelessness — all straight out of Carpenter’s The Thing — The Descent has found a place in my own personal Top 40 Favorite Films (and that list is not just horror). And I said this immediately following my first breathless screening – “one of the juiciest films ever”. Sadly, a very lackluster sequel followed.
2) Shaun of the Dead (2004) I challenge you to find another horror/comedy from the past 16 years to so seamlessly intertwine side-splitting comedy with tearful emotion with expertly done zombie terror. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright would go on to make two more fantastic features in the “Cornetto” trilogy, Hot Fuzz and At World’s End – both keeping their one-of-a-kind, shared sense of humor well-intact. As fun as these features turned out to be, they can’t compare to the brilliance that is Shaun of the Dead. Loser buddies Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost) must battle their own sloth and boring lives when a zombie apocalypse sweeps through London. Shaun of the Dead is a buddy comedy, a romantic comedy, a road movie and a zombie siege film – and miraculously, it works on every one of those levels. With an insanely gifted cast (Bill Nighy as Shaun’s stepfather Philip is the first to come to mind) and spot-on dialogue, there’s not one miss in the entire film. In a bloody mass of brilliant lines, nothing can compare to Philip’s rationalization to Shaun’s mom Barbara (Penelope Wilton) after he was bitten by a hungry zombie, “Really Barbara, I ran it under a cold tap.” Zombie film inside jokes abound, and this film will forever endure as a horror classic.
1) The Others (2001) Bar-none, one of the best ghost story flicks of all time and worthy of this coveted #1 spot! Nicole Kidman gives what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance as Grace Stewart – a lonely mother of two, whose husband is off at war, leaving her to care for their children as well as their remote, decaying and sprawling home. By now we all know the big twist – and I was perhaps in the minority on this, but I didn’t see it coming. I was just too caught up in the nearly unbearable tension, the fantastic performances and glorious cinematography. Fionnula Flanagan also should have received Oscar recognition for her role as housekeeper Mrs. Mills – she herself hiding plenty of secrets. From the moment I saw this trailer in the theatre, I was sold. And the film continues to live up to that upsetting and spine-tingling initial promise – even after all of these years. Perhaps this will strike up a debate for its placement in the #1 spot, but I’ll happily go to the mat for The Others. Among the many lines from this film – frequently quoted in our household – “Sometimes I bleed.”, “That’ll do Anne.”, “This house is ours.” and “Are you mad? I am your daughter”. The Others is quite simply, a modern classic.