From The Devil’s Backbone (2001) to Hereditary (2018), here are the best horror movies of the 21st century.
Horror movies reflect and provoke pop culture discourse, offering us a fictional space in which we can evaluate our collective fears. The first-ever horror film came in 1898, complete with animated skeletons, ghosts, and transforming bats. The 1900-20s saw creators turn to literature classics with the very first adaptations of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The next decade marked the first time in the industry that the word ‘horror’ was used to describe the genre.
The 70-80s was marked by a cultural obsession with religious evil and supernatural horror. Suffering from the exhaustion in the wake of a hundred formulaic slasher movies and rehashed sequels, the 90s was rescued by comedy as parodies like Scream that was met with overwhelming success.
Meanwhile, the 9/11 tragedy changed the definition of ‘scary’ with audiences fearing the very real horror that lurks in our world. Consequently, psychological thrillers stole the limelight featuring tropes like a protagonist racing against time or a killing force that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Yet another sub-genre that found a following is the found-footage category with the shaky-cam style of filmmaking taking over the conventional technique. This makes the material seem more ‘real’ to audiences. Also, zombies sprang back into life in the 2000s spurred on by the unprecedented success of World War Z.
With that said, let’s dive right in to the best horror movies of the 21st century:
1) The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Before making the Academy-award-winning fantasy films like Pam’s Labyrinth and Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro made a Spanish Gothic horror film worth mention. Set in 1939, during the year of the Spanish Civil War, this movie follows Carlos who discovers that the boys’ orphanage he’s been admitted to is haunted and hides many dark secrets of its own. Other than being extremely creepy, it was also surprisingly moving. Del Toro attempts to humanize a ghost story here, as the events unfold through the eyes of a 12-year old who doesn’t completely grasp what’s happening around him.
2) The Others (2001)
With an impressive seven Goya Awards (Spain’s national film award) to its name, Alejandro Amenbar’s supernatural horror film was a trailblazer of sorts. The much-celebrated director was even nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay which is rare for a horror film. Nicole Kidman’s arresting performance as Grace Stewart won over critics and fans alike. The film is immortalized in pop culture thanks to the Simpsons spoofing it in a segment and Scary Movie 3 referencing the popular “I am your daughter scene.”
3) Pulse (2001)
Screened at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Japanese techno-horror went on to gather a cult following. The plot revolves around two groups of people who discover strong evidence that suggests spirits may be trying to invade the human world through the Internet. Kurosawa’s movies deal with themes of loneliness that envelopes you despite living in a world that is teeming with life and this film is no different.
4) 28 Days Later (2002)
Starring Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders fame, this quintessential horror film was a raging box office success back in the day. Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle was credited with reinvigorating the zombie genre with its fun share of fast-running zombies. I personally loved that the focus was still on the characters and their personal journeys despite the post-apocalyptic backdrop.
5) A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Loosely based on a popular Korean fairy tale, Kim Jee-Woon’s psychological horror-thriller was the first South Korean picture to be screened in American theaters. The plot focuses on two sisters who return to the home of their father and cruel stepmother after spending years in a mental institution. In addition to their obsessive stepmother, they’ll have to deal with a ghost that seems to be impeding their recovery.
6) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The first of the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy, Shaun of the Dead is somewhat of a cult classic. Balancing scares and witty gags takes immense skill and the writing duo of Wright and Pegg are up for the task. Fans of the underrated British sitcom Spaced like myself would be eager to point that this is where the collaboration began. In fact, the idea for this movie came from an episode where Pegg’s character hallucinates as being part of a zombie invasion.
7) The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall’s horror flick tells the story of six thrill-seeking women who enter a cave system only to square off against powerful humanoid creatures. These creatures were called “crawlers” and were described to be cavemen who had never left their caves. They have acute hearing, are expert climbers, and capable of giving you recurring nightmares.
From the director who gave us Dog Soldiers, The Descent was hailed by critics as “one of the best horror entertainers in the recent years.” Go see for it yourselves for this is a nerve-jangling experience, unlike anything you’ve seen before.
8) Inland Empire (2006)
David Lynch’s experimental horror film explores the story of an actress who adopts the persona of her character in the fictitious film and slowly starts to lose her grip on reality. Her world suddenly turns hellish and surreal. Upon its release, viewer’s opinions were polarized, fans of the director calling it brilliant as others found it pointless and indulgent. I personally belong to the former category.
9) The Host (2006)
The Host may not be Bong Joon-ho’s most popular work, but it was the highest-grossing Korean film of all time. The film was so influential that Quentin Tarantino included it in his list of favorites. Part monster movie and part political satire, The Host undeniably makes for a riveting watch.
10) The Orphanage (2007)
Yet another Spanish offering,The Orphanage directed by debutante J A Bayona was received with thunderous applause and a standing ovation when it premiered in Cannes. Winner of a whopping 7 Goyas in total, this supernatural horror film revolves around a mysterious woman who brings her family back to her childhood home, which once used to be an orphanage for handicapped children. Soon, things go awry as her son starts to communicate with an invisible new friend. I loved that the movie respects the intelligence of its viewers by not relying on ‘cheap scares,’ but instead manufactures moments of pure terror.
11) Inside (2007)
Maury and Bustillo’s French horror film can best be summed as a traumatically entertaining experience. Concerning the attack of a young pregnant woman by an enigmatic stranger who seeks to take her unborn baby, this is a genuinely scary and unsettling piece of art. This one’s strictly not for the faint-hearted.
12) [REC] (2007)
Touted to be one of the best films in the found footage genre, this Spanish film later went on to spawn a successful franchise with three more sequels. The film centres on a news reporter and her cameraman covering an emergency assignment that escalates into a precarious situation involving a deadly virus. The dangerous virus spreads among the occupants, turning them into bloodthirsty cannibals.
An escape seems unlikely with the government’s attempts to contain the pathogen failing. Can the duo manage to escape in time? Watch this expertly made ‘shaky-cam’ film to find out!
13) The Mist (2007)
How can we possibly not have a single sci-fi horror film on this list? Stepping in to fill that void is The Mist. Based on a Stephen King novella of the same name, Frank Darabont after directing dramas like The Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile gave us something that is straight-up frightening. The plot focuses on a freak storm that unleashes a species of barbarous creatures who wreak havoc on a small town, where a small group of brave citizens band together to put up a fight.
14) Let the Right One In (2008)
Based on a 2004 novel of the same name, this Swedish romantic horror film narrates the story of a bullied 12-year old boy who develops a friendship with a vampire. In what was a done-to-death sub-genre, director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right one In is a breath of fresh air. The strange central relationship between the two leads drew me instantly. It’s a joy to watch an entirely original work that is unconcerned with horror vampire conventions.
15) Antichrist (2009)
Lars Von Trier’s experimental psychological horror film was the first in the Depression trilogy. It was followed by Melancholia in 2011 and Nymphomania in 2013. The film prompted several walk-outs and at least four people fainting in a screening thanks to the explicit violence. But, it can only be described as an unconventional and grotesque masterpiece that meditated on abstract concepts like sorrow, death, and the meaninglessness of life.
16) Kill List (2011)
This psychological horror film revolves around a British soldier turned contract killer whose disturbed past resurfaces when he takes up a seemingly easy task. The edgy crime caper which later morphs into a visceral horror movie was directed by Ben Wheatley and features Neil Maskell in the lead. Neil is best remembered for his delightfully unhinged portrayal of an assassin in Utopia.
17) Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Peter Strickland in what was only his second full-length feature film gives us an unsettling thriller that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. He said that he wanted to make a film where everything that is usually hidden in cinema, the mechanics of the film itself, is made visible. Peter certainly pulled that off, with the film even drawing top honors at the prestigious British Independent Film Awards. An icing on the cake, the soundtrack was also a thing of beauty.
18) The Babadook (2014)
Jennifer Kent’s psychological horror film based on her own 2005 short film was one of 2014’s best-reviewed movies. It follows a single mother and her child who fall into a deep well of paranoia after an eerie children’s book titled Mister Babadook manifests in their home. Made on a shoestring budget of 2 million dollars, this alt-horror flick went on to be a profitable venture grossing 10.3 million dollars.
19) It Follows (2014)
Debuting at the Cannes in 2014, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows enjoyed great success at the box office upon its release. The plot follows a young woman who is being chased by an unknown supernatural force after a sexual encounter. It was hailed to be a classic horror masterpiece and the best horror film in over a decade by critics and film aficionados alike.
20) The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers’ debut feature saw us getting whisked off into an eerie New England Farm. The film was appreciated for its technical excellence in writing, production design, cinematography, editing, and direction. Starring a ridiculously good Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead, this indie horror flick was picked up by the master of horror, Stephen King himself. He tweeted “The Witch scared the hell out of me. And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.” Do I need to say more?
21) Raw (2016)
Legend has it that during a 2016 Toronto International Film Festival screening, several viewers received emergency medical services after allegedly fainting from the film’s graphic scenes. This movie was Raw, a French coming-of-age horror film. The plot follows a young vegetarian’s first year at a veterinary school when she tastes meat for the first time and develops a craving for the flesh. Director Julia Ducournau’s gory work of art is sure to leave you squirming in your seats.
22) The Wailing (2016)
Shown in the Out of Competition section at the Cannes Film Festival, Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing garnered widespread critical acclaim. The Korean thrill-master infuses this film with every trope one can think of. Ghosts, zombies, Christian mythology, demonic curses, and cursed children. But, at no point does this seem like a messy mash-up. The best horror movie of 2016, The Wailing‘s rather masterful narrative keeps the scares coming.
23) Get Out (2017)
Who’d have thought that Jordan Peele, a man who’d made a career out of sketch comedy had it in him to write an Oscar-winning black comedy? Well, you better believe it. Other than being a deeply engrossing horror film, Get Out also works as a scathing commentary on racism speaking about the alarming lack of attention on missing Black Americans as compared to white females. Also, special mention to Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams’ superb performances.
24) A Quiet Place (2018)
Everybody’s favorite paper salesman and host of Some Good News on YouTube, John Krasinski turned director with A Quiet Place. The premise was simple, yet ingenious. In a post-apocalyptic world, a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from blind monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing. John and Emily turned in impressive performances as A Quiet Place ended its dominant run at the box office raking in a massive 341 million dollars. A sequel is also said to be in the works with Krasinski returning as director.
25) Hereditary (2018)
Ari Aster’s directorial debut was an unnerving supernatural drama that revolves around a grieving family who begins to be haunted by disturbing occurrences. Toni Collette gives the performance of a lifetime as Annie, a miniatures artist. Her screams are bound to give you sleepless nights. I remember being impressed by Aster’s writing which goes for scares that are emotionally justified instead of traditional ‘jump scares.’ Among the best indie horror movies in recent times, Hereditary is streaming on Netflix.
A self-proclaimed movie buff who swears he's funnier on the Internet than he is in real life. He also constantly makes sitcom references to make sense of a life that is slowly succumbing to entropy.