The Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)

Feature Don Kaye
10/31/2015 at 2:35PM

Our list of the best horror movies of the 21st century is downright scary.

Every once in a while, someone likes to declare that the horror genre is dead, and so far, every one of those predictions has been wrong. Horror movies have been around almost as long as filmmaking itself, and while the genre has always been cyclical in nature --dipping, sometimes drastically, in both quality and quantity from time to time -- all it usually takes is a well-timed box office hit, a fresh new angle or a hot young filmmaker to reanimate it again.

The 21st century has been, overall, an extremely healthy one for horror. There’s been the usual amount of dross, of course, but the genre has branched out in a number of interesting new directions as well. We had absolutely no problem tallying 24 movies for this article, and could probably do another 24 without breaking much of a sweat.

But for now, here are two dozen terrifying favorites that you can use for your own personal Halloween film festival -- and we promise that this lineup delivers. Brace yourselves for a look at the best horror movies of the 21st century. 

24. I Saw the Devil (2010)

Director Kim Ji-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) sends an intelligence agent (Lee Byung-hun) on a mission of vengeance against a sadistic serial killer (Choi Min-sik) in this shocking and stunningly depraved cat and mouse thriller in which all notions of morality go out the window along with numerous bloody body parts. Yet Kim keeps you invested in the characters as well, and this Korean epic has an undertone of sadness that’s hard to shake. Kim holds it all together masterfully, creating a horrifying experience like nothing else we saw the year it came out.

23. Martyrs (2008)

Brutal and almost unwatchable, Martyrs represented perhaps the apex of the French extreme horror movement. A young woman (Morjana Alaoui) finds herself the subject of vicious “tests” by a secret society, aimed at creating a “martyr” whose suffering can give them a transcendental glimpse into the afterlife. The ordeal she goes through is just the grand finale of a nihilistic exercise in depravity. Director Pascal Laugier’s plunge into unrelieved sadism is given context by its powerful, eerie climax -- if you can make it to the end.

22. The Others (2001)

Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes) wrote and directed this elegant ghost story. Nicole Kidman is superb as Grace, who relocates herself and her two small children to a remote country estate in the aftermath of World War II. Their highly structured life -- the children are sensitive to sunlight and must stay in darkened rooms -- is shattered by mysterious presences in the house. Amenabar relies on mood, atmosphere and a few well-placed scares to make this an excellent modern-day companion to classics like The Haunting and The Innocents.

21. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

This loving homage to the films of George A. Romero -- the father of the modern zombie movie -- and to the horror genre in general launched the careers of director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost outside of the U.K. And deservedly so: Shaun is a near-perfect blend of horror and comedy, energized by Wright’s visceral style of directing and flavored with clever pop culture and genre references that are even more delicious if you’re a fan.

Pegg and Frost are perfect as two slackers who must contend with a zombie apocalypse -- two of the least likely but most endearingly goofy heroes you’ll ever meet.

20. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s novel and directed by Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the perennial “evil child” story disguised as an arthouse film. But the combination works, thanks to Ramsay’s striking direction and imagery and two knockout performances by Tilda Swinton as the mother and a frightening Ezra Miller as Kevin. Swinton’s anguished portrayal deepens the film’s themes and – much like another film we’ll get to later – offers a searing and complex picture of a parent’s occasional ambivalence toward their own child.

Yet the movie doesn’t skimp on its horrors either, both psychological and physical, and stretches the boundaries of what can be considered a horror film.

19. Trick 'R Treat (2007)

Michael Dougherty’s Halloween-themed anthology sat on the shelf for nearly two years until finally (and criminally) getting just a direct-to-home-video release, but the wait was worth it. Dougherty wrote and directed a loving homage not just to the year’s most haunted holiday, but to horror movies and ghost stories in general, delivering four interconnected tales that each serve as a nasty, creepy and thoroughly entertaining exercise in traditional horror, with just the right amounts of atmosphere, scares and gore.

A lot of horror films of this century aim to get under your skin in an unpleasant way, whereas Trick ‘R Treat just wants to have fun – and does.

Get Trick 'R Treat right here!

18. 28 Days Later (2002)

Looking at Danny Boyle’s revisionist zombie film now, its grimy handheld video esthetic is getting perhaps just a wee bit dated -- but even that fails to dilute the sheer aggressive energy of Boyle’s take on the horror genre.

The movie, like its spiritual forefather Night of the Living Dead, is also rich in political and social subtext, while balancing moments of outright terror with passages of almost poetic reflection. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland expertly reinvigorated a subgenre that had been nearly moribund, paving the way for both the superb (The Walking Dead) and the silly (the film version of World War Z).

17. The Strangers (2008)

Whatever happened to Bryan Bertino? The writer and director of The Strangers made quite a splash with his debut feature, which relied more on a mounting sense of dread and escalating suspense than violence and gore. The story is a simple, straightforward home invasion narrative, but Bertino keeps it creepy and unsettling throughout thanks to some eerie imagery and his three terrifying antagonists. Bertino has directed one feature since – the direct-to-video found footage thriller Mockingbird – but The Strangers remains an impressively chilling calling card.

16. Kairo (2001)

Films like Ringu and Juon were the cornerstones of the Japanese horror explosion of the late ‘90s, but for my money, Kairo is the pinnacle of that era. Director/writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film is one of the most unnerving exercises in surreal horror ever made, with one frightening image after another washing onto the screen. Although the movie’s central idea - -that the realm of the dead is infiltrating our world through the Internet – is original and compelling, its presentation is somewhat murky. But Kurosawa doesn’t necessarily feel the need to spell things out: he wants to instead lure you into a living nightmare – which Kairo accomplishes over and over again.

15. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Debate rages (even now, between this writer and his editor) over whether Mulholland Drive is actually a horror movie, but the simple truth is that filmmaking legend David Lynch has incorporated elements of horror into many of his films. No one comes as close to capturing the essence of a nightmare on screen, and Mulholland Drive contains two of the century’s most skin-freezing scenes: the infamous diner sequence and the discovery of a decomposing corpse in a darkened apartment.

Even if the plot didn’t invoke the genre in other ways -- including a supernatural force at work in Hollywood and the Repulsion-like disintegration of a young woman’s mind -- those two scenes would be enough to earn a spot on this list.

Get Mulholland Drive right here!

14. Insidious (2011)

After one hit (Saw) and a couple of misses (Dead Silence and Death Sentence), writer/director James Wan and his writing partner Leigh Whannell scored with this tiny ($1 million budget) indie that became a huge hit (and sadly spawned two lousy follow-ups). But Insidious deserved its success: it’s a genuinely scary film, with Wan displaying a tremendous talent for utilizing the camera frame, darkness and silence to create an oppressive atmosphere of dread only enhanced by some truly bizarre manifestations.

In pulling tricks from all eras of horror, Wan came up with something original, terrifying and entertaining – a horror ride that all fans could enjoy.

13. Paranormal Activity (2010)

For better or worse, Oren Peli’s homemade, shoestring thriller kicked off a tidal wave of films using the “found footage” or “faux doc” style of moviemaking, an esthetic that has proven increasingly confining and exhausted. But there’s no denying the strength of a few early contenders, starting with this. Peli shows us almost nothing in terms of visual effects, which only heightens the experience: you can’t help but feel a powerful sense of dread every time his camera sits and stares into the shadowy abyss of the couple’s bedroom while they sleep.

Tons of sequels, rehashes and rip-offs later, Paranormal Activity remains authentically frightening.

12. It Follows (2014)

One of the best horror films of the past couple of years is, like all the genre’s standout entries, rich in metaphor and subtext – is the curse passed through sex among the movie’s characters a stand-in for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, or is the sex act itself a way to affirm life or at least postpone the inevitable onset of death? Writer/director David Robert Mitchell keeps it ambiguous – much to some viewers’ chagrin – and instead focuses on the movie’s overall atmosphere and tone, which is dream-like and full of dread.

Lead actress Maika Monroe is a star in the making, but the most unforgettable thing about It Follows is its implacable walking phantoms, who cause your flesh to crawl every time they enter the frame.

11. [REC] (2007)

This nasty shock to the system from Spanish horror specialist Jaume Balaguero uses the “found footage” style in logical fashion, as it’s told from the point of view of a news team that accompanies a fire brigade to a call at an apartment building. Things quickly take a turn not just for the bad but for the unspeakable as our heroes confront a zombie plague of a horrific nature, and [REC] rubs your nose in every nightmarish moment. The building itself is a spectacular, claustrophobic setting, and what [REC] lacks in meaningful character development it makes up in relentless terror and dread.

Take a good, stiff drink before watching.

10. The Orphanage (2006)

The debut feature from Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) was produced by his friend Guillermo Del Toro, and frankly feels like it. It certainly has many of the hallmarks of Del Toro’s own Spanish-language horror films, with its focus on children, its marvelously atmospheric setting, its short bursts of shocking violence and its ghostly apparitions.

Either way, it’s a rich, beautifully crafted film that becomes unexpectedly and powerfully emotional at the finish. Belen Rueda is sensational as Laura, who returns to her childhood home -- an old orphanage -- with her husband and adopted son, only to find that it is not exactly empty. An English-language remake was planned for a long time, but perhaps fortunately, it has not happened.

Buy the Orphanage here!

9. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Both a deconstruction of the horror genre and a cracking good horror movie in its own right, The Cabin in the Woods could only be the work of Joss Whedon (co-writer) and Drew Goddard (co-writer and director), whose love and understanding of both the genre and the wider pop culture context around it make this one of the smartest satires in recent memory. Proposing that the standard template for a horror film is what keeps the real horrors at bay, the movie turns that formula on its head yet works it to maximum effect.

Goddard is assured in his directorial debut, the cast (including a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth and a brilliant Richard Jenkins as one of the weary “technicians” pulling the strings) is game, and the movie nails its meta premise perfectly.

8. The Mist (2007)

A faithful and pretty great Stephen King adaptation, The Mist is terrifying not just for the macabre monsters that coming streaming out of the title cloud to lay siege on a small group of people trapped in a supermarket, but for the way those people turn so quickly on each other as well.

Writer/director Frank Darabont, nailing his third King-based adaptation after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, innately understands that King’s stories are often so disquieting because of the human monsters in them as well as the slimy, tentacled ones. In this case the threat is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a religious fanatic who quickly does her best to divide the supermarket into two hostile camps -- I’ll let you work out the metaphors. Beyond that, however, The Mist is a genuinely scary monsterpalooza, with one of the bleakest endings ever. When you go even darker than the King original, that’s saying something.

7. Session 9 (2001)

“Location, location, location” is what makes this tiny independent chiller from writer/director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) work so well and keeps its reputation intact. A five-man asbestos abatement team is hired to clean out the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts, but the crew, led by the stressed-out Gordon (Peter Mullan), soon finds itself at the mercy of both personal tensions and an unseen force inside the facility.

Anderson shot the movie at the real Danvers, and the empty treatment rooms and labyrinthine underground tunnels create an undeniable atmosphere of disquiet and uncertainty. The nearly gore-free movie is a model of how a fantastic setting, a solid cast and an almost complete lack of jump scares can make for a thoroughly haunting viewing experience.

6. The Ring (2002)

It was a foregone conclusion that the Japanese horror smash Ringu (1998), after becoming an underground sensation internationally, would be the subject of a big-budget Hollywood remake. But who imagined it would be this good? Director Gore Verbinski and writers Scott Frank and Ehren Kruger retain the original’s focus on atmosphere and creepy imagery over cheap scares, while Naomi Watts -- fresh off her sensational turn in Mulholland Drive -- is excellent as the reporter and mother who discovers the haunted videotape that causes viewers to die in seven days.

The American version fleshes out a few more narrative points that the Japanese film left ambiguous, but never wavers from its tone of quietly mounting terror. There have been plenty of J-horror remakes in the wake of The Ring, but it remains the first and the best.

5. The Descent (2005)

Six women go exploring an unmapped cave system, with tragic and terrifying consequences, in writer/director Neil Marshall’s (Dog Soldiers) riveting horror hit. Marshall subverts the genre with his strong all-female cast (not a male hero in sight), refusing to dumb them down, but then puts the screws to them by introducing the blind humanoid inhabitants of the caves, surely one of the most horrific monster creations of the decade.

The movie is unstoppably scary, showing no mercy to the characters or the audience (one shock early in the film makes this writer jump to this day), but also examines how far people will go to survive in seemingly impossible circumstances. The Descent is a harrowing, suffocating masterpiece.

Get The Descent here!

4. Kill List (2011)

With just one feature to his credit before this (Down Terrace), director and co-writer Ben Wheatley hits his second film clear out of the park, fashioning it into a mash-up of gritty crime thriller and chilling Lovecraftian horror tale. The result is a unique movie that’s not quite like anything else on this list and will you leave you shaken to the core. Two former British soldiers turned hit men (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) take a job in which they must kill three people -- a priest, a video archivist and a member of Parliament -- but soon find out that they have gotten involved with something far beyond their experience and understanding.

The somber mood, ambiguous plot (Wheatley deliberately and correctly leaves much unexplained) and almost unwatchable bursts of violence come to a boil in the truly horrifying and enigmatic climax.

3. The Babadook (2014)

An instant classic upon its release last year, this Australian shocker is, astoundingly, the debut film from writer/director Jennifer Kent, who retains the kind of complete and unwavering grip on her story, themes and tone that you would expect from a much more seasoned filmmaker. Essie Davis is outstanding as Amelia, a widowed mother still reeling from the loss of her husband Oskar as she does her exhausted best to raise their troubled six-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman), who was born the night that Oskar died.

Enter the Babadook, the subject of a frightening storybook that Sam finds and an entity that is soon terrorizing mother and child. Thoroughly frightening and unnerving, The Babadook is also quite profound as it touches on the nature of grief and parenthood, hinting that both can drive a person to the edge of madness -- or into the clutches of the Babadook.

2. The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Guillermo Del Toro has made several great movies in his career so far, but for our money this remains his best, scariest and most profoundly affecting work (Pan’s Labyrinth is a close, close second). The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story set during the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, at an orphanage for boys where an unexploded bomb is embedded in the courtyard and a spirit is wandering the halls at night.

The movie is drenched in both a heavy atmosphere of dread and a blanket of sadness; its mournful elegance counterbalances some of its more chilling scenes of terror. This is dark supernatural storytelling at its finest and a marvelous example of just how high the horror genre -- so often maligned by critics -- can reach.

Buy The Devil's Backbone (Criterion Collection) on Blu-ray

1. Let the Right One In / Let Me In (2008/2010)

In an era of endless bloodsucking YA hotties, leave it to an 11-year-old girl to create the best and eeriest vampire seen on the screen in years. Based on a novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist and directed by fellow Swede Tomas Alfredson, this is the story of the friendship that grows between lonely, bullied 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and the little girl who lives in the apartment next door, Eli (Lina Leandersson) -- an ancient vampire inside the body of a child. Let the Right One In is scary, funny, romantic and also quite mournful, tackling themes of youth, sexuality, loyalty, loss of innocence and love within a terrific and haunting vampire tale.

The two child actors are outstanding, with Leandersson projecting an otherworldliness and weariness far beyond her years. Credit is also due to the English-language remake by director Matt Reeves, who stayed largely faithful to the original while tweaking its meaning slightly (his actors, Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee, are fine if not quite as good as the Swedish cast).

That’s our list -- did we miss any of your favorites that you’d like to add? Let us know below!