30. The Mist
For most of its runtime, Frank Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation is as faithfully adapted as his first two efforts. It is in this faithfulness where the film works best. While the effectiveness and necessity of the closing minutes’ vicious viewer attack can be reasonably debated by fans and detractors, there is no denying the power of the film when it focuses on the developing culture of panic within the grocery-store bound survivors.
29. Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky’s body horror ballet crafts a multi-level allegory that explores perfection, duality and the doppelganger, and feminine sexuality. Natalie Portman’s Nina has her sexual identity stifled by her mother, forcefully encouraged by an older man, and only comes to accept it through her darker half. Like a blend of Cronenberg’s The Fly and Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, there is horror and beauty found in awakening and transformation. Black Swan is a fever dream of becoming in the face of inevitable death and can be seen as a cinematic depiction of the French expression la petite mort.
28. A Tale of Two Sisters
A Tale of Two Sisters is a weird mix of absurdity and reserve. That strange narrative that’s built by what’s not being told but emphasize by the astonishing beauty of the way in which its secret-keeping story is being shown. Kim Jee-woon prefers here to touch nerves more than sever arms, and he obscures an epic family tragedy behind elements of the horrific in a way that allows the truth to hit with much more weight had it been presented straightforwardly.
27. What We Do in the Shadows
Perhaps the least scary film on our entire list, Taika Waititi’s vampire spoof makes itself impossible to exclude from any fair and joyful celebration of the genre. With a perfect ensemble cast to deliver its dry wit and understated levity, What We Do in the Shadows is a must for any fan of horror or comedy, and with one foot planted firmly in both circles, we would be remiss if we didn’t rank it among its most prominent horror step-peers.
26. El Orfanato (The Orphanage)
In its story’s modified version of redlight/greenlight, The Orphanage contains one of the most unbearably scary single scenes in horror movie history. Because of this, it might be easy for film fans to forget all of the film’s preceding tonal perfection. J. A. Boyana’s dramatic ghost story, about a young woman who loses her child upon returning to the orphanage that was once her home, is as precise on a note-by-note basis as films get. The drama is never out-weighted by the horror elements, and vice versa; it’s impossible to tell, even after finishing the film, which side was holding up the other.
William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play is psychological horror at its finest. Set loose by a performance from one of the masters of madness, Michael Shannon, Bug is a convincing argument that paranoia, and subsequently madness, are catching. The bugs that Shannon’s Peter and Ashley Judd’s Agnes are convinced have infested their residence and bodies are never seen, and Friedkin’s direction makes the film crawl with the possibility of them. The ending only raises more questions that burrow into the viewer’s head and ask them to doubt everything they’ve witnessed. Bug is cinema used as infection and the audience is tasked with finding their own cure.
24. The Babadook
The Babadook establishes itself as a fairly standard supernatural horror movie before shifting gears to become a complex psychological examination of a single mother and her child. In terms of surface horror, the Babadook, viewed at as a literal monster from the pages of a book, is well designed and executed but no more frightening than the many of other specters we’ve seen move across the screen. But the subtext, however un-subtle it may be, about the ever shifting darkness in the back (and eventually the forefront) of Amelia’s mind that make her sometimes want to harm to her son is staggering in its brutal honesty. Jennifer Kent explores these themes with a carefully maturity that creates a convincing statement that even thoughts have a form somewhere.
23. 30 Days of Night
So cold that you can almost feel your body temperature drop just from watching it, David Slade’s adaptation of Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s popular comic mini-series made vampires frightening again in a decade where their mystique had faded. Fueled by the rather ingenious idea of setting a vampire siege during Alaska’s month of darkness, 30 Days of Night does not let up on suffocating alarm. It’s an undervalued film that is blatantly hostile towards its audience’s nerves and remarkably generous in its R-rated handle on one of horror’s oldest figures.
22. House of the Devil
While many modern horror films cling to their ’80s influences, Ti West’s House of the Devil doesn’t just feel like an imitation but a true part of that era. While the finale seems lackluster compared to its buildup (less so with each viewing), the film excels in creating mounting tension punctuated by brief moments of subtle humor. Even when using the familiar horror tropes of satanic rituals and a mysterious old house, West creates a film that treats all of these elements like we’re encountering them for the first time, making every beat surprising in its careful pacing and placement.
It’s hard to believe that Xavier Gens wasn’t consciously borrowing from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with his 2008 film Frontier(s). Both films’ stories are rooted in the real world’s social unrest (though, Gens makes this contextualization explicit in his opening), and both place their unassuming characters at the mercy of a sadistic rural family whose murderous ways are tied to senseless rituals and inexplicable traditions. The difference in the two lies in the way Gens extends the suffering of his characters, making their trauma more jarringly felt, so much so that a scene in which a character’s hair is cut by a child ends up being one of the most upsetting scenes in contemporary cinema.
The 2017 cannibal horror film Raw from Director Julia Ducournau is an unshakable instant classic. Starring Garance Marillier as a vegetarian student who develops a consuming lust for flesh, the French feature is at once sexy, hypnotic, and downright disturbing, often all at the same time, a culmination of energies which lands it in unique company. Often, the sense of uneasiness dances with the more intoxicating sensuality of the exercise, mining into the base of the human condition in ways that are jarring and haunting right up to a bold sucker punch ending.
19. The Strangers
Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers takes a simple premise and creates a constant sense of terror that’s achieved largely through sound. Through understanding that our fear of home invasion stems largely from not knowing where the danger lies, Bertino surrounds Kristen and James’ remote home with the illusion of threats that are more frequently heard than seen. The solemn knock on the door, and cold voice asking, “Is Tamara home?” become frightening in their disinterest, non-threats made threatening. Even the soundtrack, consisting largely of indie folk music, feeds into this sense of unease in the unfamiliar with the skipping record becoming a warning. Once the mask-wearing antagonists appear, they remain silent until the end, stalking in the background, and providing no window for connection or understanding. Their masks not only give them anonymity but also a familiarity that is recognizable but meaningless, human faces devoid of emotion and made monstrous.
18. À l’intérieur (Inside)
Of all of the extreme French horror films of the 2000s decade, Inside established itself as the immediate fan favorite, partly through its familiar construction (a survivor is trapped in a house, stalked by a faceless killer) and partly because the innovative twist to that structure (the survivor happens to be 9 months pregnant) provides Sarah with a vulnerability that immediately establishes the audience’s desperate sense of sympathy and support. The cat-and-mouse tension is heightened by the eerie evidence of the killer’s one-sided familiarity with Sarah and the sadism that one must possess to aim to victimize a woman with child. When the tension gives way to bloody and brutal confrontations, Directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo hold nothing back, turning the audiences collectively held breath to gasping (and perhaps gagging) disbelief.
17. Paranormal Activity 3
Paranormal Activity 3 lands a little higher than its opening chapter because, even without the benefit of surprise and new-ness, even as viewers had grown familiar with the novelty of the series an tired of the worn-out found footage format, Direcors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman managed to sharpen the edges of everything that worked in Paranormal Activity one. While the story began to settle more succinctly around the extended Toby mythos and the families’ cult dealings, the technique became a little more inventive. Specifically, mounting the camera on the oscillating fan might just be the most terrifying perspective technique since Jaws showed us the shark’s point-of-view.
16. Shaun of the Dead
Like the other films in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun of the Dead is preoccupied with the canon of its influencing genre. The homages and nods come a mile a minute, and yet, because Wright’s affection for his characters and Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s onscreen comedy and dulled slacker wit, Shaun of the Dead is, in many ways, a better film than most of the ones that it openly adores. And even with all of its astute comedy and genre celebration, the movie still functions as a zombie film, one that would be the best zombie film of the 2000s, were it not for…
15. The Battery
With the smallest budget of any film on the list, Jeremy Gardner’s 2012 indie zombie film makes every dollar go a very, very long way by focusing earnestly on his film’s two central characters. There are indications of survival guilt, of waning strength-of-friendship, and of inconvenient mutual necessity between the two former teammates. In an era over-saturated in zombie material, The Battery is the best zombie-specific work. It is intimate and intense, personal and universal, all culminating in a spine-tingling final monologue/voiceover sequence that will make viewers hope for a sequel after Gardner’s inevitable rise to fame.
14. Evil Dead
Still the reigning champ for the most gallons of fake blood used in a movie, Evil Dead is a celebration of gore and practical effects driven horror movies. Instead of trying to follow in the footsteps of Sam Raimi, Fede Alvarez carves his own blood soaked, limb-strewn path. Opting against the cartoony levels of Raimi’s series, Evil Dead takes itself seriously without losing sight of the more ridiculous elements that gave the original such staying power. The humor is still present, but it’s much bleaker and it takes a backseat to the impressive production design that incorporates a sense of unease into every splintered floor board. With its strong sense of style, engaging performance by Jane Levy, and wonderfully disgusting finale, Evil Dead proves remakes are not always something to fear.
13. The Ring
Though it ushered in a wave of inferior J-Horror remakes, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring now stands as the only film in the trend to surpass its source material. While the closing act settles for somewhat less satisfying and more abrasive shock horror, the first rain-soaked three-quarters of this dreary 2002 film are the perfect mix of tone and implication, a story told just far enough to engage the viewer’s darkest imaginative ability. The narratively-central footage (out-of-context, more like an overwrought student film or muted NIN video) is, in itself, enough to influence dreams in the wrong direction. Throw in Naomi Watts’ now-expected powerful desperate performance and not one, but two very creepy kid characters, and you have perhaps the first stellar horror film of the decade.
12. Let the Right One/Let Me In
Both Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In and Matt Reeves’ Let Me In offer a character driven vampire story that’s horror is more evident in its subtext than its plot details. The idea of doing a vampire romance with children goes against the sexual fixations of most vampire romances, but by defining love as an emotional vulnerability instead of a sexual one, both films create a conniving portrait of people who need each other for both selfless and selfish reasons. While Afredson’s film managed to capture these attributes first, Reeves managed to follow the same story while adding his own touches that gave the film its own, distinctly American identity that’s more steeped in Cold War paranoia. Both films exhibit a craft in both filmmaking and acting that shouldn’t be seen as competitors, but as parallel personal expressions.
11. 28 Days Later
There’s a rawness and ferocity to Danny Boyle’s thinly-veiled zombie film, stylistically highlighted by the film’s intermittent use of Canon digital camera and the character’s frantic occupation of emptied London Streets. But beyond that, 28 Days Later is a film of singular imagery: The loaded metaphor of the running horses, the beady eyed and shifty occupants of the church into which Jim escapes, and perhaps most affecting, the wall of waving Missing Persons flyers, which wreaked of unintentional 9/11 symbolism (the movie was filmed before and released after the attack).