The horror genre has always had a complicated history in cinema. While there is no arguing that some of the greatest films of all time fit into the category, it can sometimes feel as though the most incredible achievements are outshined by the thousands of titles that purely take advantage of the fact that horror often offers opportunities for high production values at low budgets. Still, every year sees the release of some new titles that you just know audiences are going to be enjoying for decades -- and it's those features that we are here to celebrate today.
Within the 21st century (which is to say going back to 2001), we've seen the release of some horror movies that are guaranteed to be considered classics in the long run, and we've decided to take a look back by ranking them. Below and across the next few pages are our picks for the 21 best horror movies of the century, so far. Can you guess our number one pick? Read on and find out!
#21. The Conjuring (2013)
Director James Wan has launched a number of horror franchises in his career, including the Saw movies and Insidious, but The Conjuring films are arguably the best he's ever made -- with the 2013 original standing as his greatest achievement. Even at a time when we are getting an endless stream of supernatural terror features, this one still managed to be successful haunting. A lot of it is Wan's direction, with his awesome moving camera consistently creating anxiety in a beautiful period atmosphere, but then there is the power of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga's paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who instantly solidify themselves as modern horror icons while trying to protect a family from a haunting specter.
#20. IT (2017)
Because of its immense length, Stephen King's IT was long thought to be totally unadaptable... but then director Andres Muschietti came along. Armed with a script that cuts the epic novel in half and focuses solely on the kids' side of the narrative of the haunted town story, the movie not only weaves a fantastic, self-contained scary story, but also immediately makes you start begging for the adult-centric sequel. Transplanting the story from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, the film is successfully both a nostalgia bomb and hilarious, while also being surprisingly scary and shocking (with a great deal of credit in that department going to Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise).
#19. The Host (2006)
As you'll discover reading the rest of this list, the 21st century hasn't been tremendous when it comes to giant monster movies, Bong Joon-ho's The Host is the notable exception. The Korean horror film is as inventive as it is exhilarating as it is devastating, and ultimately a rather powerful cinematic experience. The story of a family in search of a missing daughter during a kaiju attack along Seoul's Han River, it packs a serious thrills and a sharp emotional punch, while also notably featuring some seriously impressive CGI for the era.
#18. It Follows (2014)
Slasher films in the 1980s did their part to illustrate some extreme dangers of teenage sex, and it's with deep respect for and partial homage to that particular decade of filmmaking that we got David Robert Mitchell's It Follows. Establishing a creative metaphor for STDs, the story sees a young girl (Maika Monroe) have sex only to learn that it comes with a serious consequence. She is passed a condition that will see her constantly pursued by a supernatural force that A) can take any human form and B) wants to cripple and disfigure her body. It's a wonderfully inventive film that packs more than a fair share of big shocks and chills.
#17. The Loved Ones (2009)
We regularly hear about horrific things coming out of Australia, but most of those stories involve sharks or creepy crawlies. In the case of The Loved Ones, writer/director Sean Byrne brought us a wonderfully messed up features bursting with colorful psychopaths. Robin McLeavy is fantastic as the absolutely crazy teenager Lola, who has the habit of trying to find her perfect man by kidnapping and lobotomizing them. Between the foot-stabbing, skull-drilling, and bleach-injecting, this one is definitely not for the faint of heart.
#16. The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall's The Descent is a nice triple dose of fear. First there's the claustrophobia, with the audience trapped in a series of excessively narrow caves with the six main protagonists. Second is the intense darkness, with the bulk of the movie basically only illuminated by flashlights, flares, and glow sticks. And as if those two weren't enough for a terrifying experience, then the movie throws the flesh-hungry cave monsters at you, giving the last 45 minutes an impressive feeling of both constant paranoia and horror as the characters start yearning for the time when their biggest problem was just being lost. It's a scary and intense ride right up until the end.
#15. Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Filmmakers have been using creepy children to wonderful horrific affect for decades, but you'll find few better examples than Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz's Goodnight Mommy. Hailing from Germany, the story centers on a pair of twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) who harbor some deep suspicions about their mother (Susanne Wuest). She is recovering from face-altering plastic surgery in their new home, but the kids believe that it is not actually their mom who is underneath all of the bandages. It's an impressively unexpected and twisty-turny ride: just when you think the movie is about to turn right, it instead just punches you in the face.
#14. The Witch (2015)
There is a great deal to praise about Robert Eggers' The Witch, but we'll start with its impressive commitment. Even at a sacrifice of absolute clarity, the movie is remarkable in its deeply accurate depiction of life 17th century New England, and has the effect of entrancing you into its time unlike most period films. But then there are also its awesomely disturbing elements that firmly establish its place on this list. Because of the involvement of babies and children, there's a challenge to describe it without using the words "fucked up." It also provided us the breakout performance for emerging star Anya Taylor-Joy, whose current career trajectory will surely only improve The Witch's legacy.
#13. 28 Days Later... (2002)
Okay, so they may not really be zombies, instead just people infected with the Rage virus, but that's not going to stop us from giving Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... credit for helping to totally redefine the zombie subgenre in the 21st century. Audiences had become comfortable with the shambolic, cannibalistic walking dead of the Romero persuasion, but this one jumps their adrenaline 10000% and the terror follows suit. It's hardly a complex or unique premise -- man wakes up from a coma in a hospital as the world around him is falling apart -- but Boyle's intense vision and the tremendous character work from Cillian Murphy, Naomi Harris, Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns make this one of the best scare-fests of the modern era.
#12. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch is obvious a divisive filmmaker, with many either loving or hating his surrealist style. As a fairly pure extension of his style, Mulholland Drive elicits a similar reaction from audiences, as a good deal of it defies explanation, but can also be appreciated as a beautiful, complex, anxiety-inducing puzzle. Its bizarre structure demands constant attention and absorption, and within that leaves you open to serious apprehension and sincere shock (the king being the discovery of what exists behind Winkie's).
#11. Slither (2006)
Long before he was known as the man behind Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn was better known as a low-budget filmmaker with roots in the schlokiness of Troma Entertainment. His 2006 directorial debut, Slither, is a pure expression of this. While it's certainly as much a comedy as it is a horror movie, it blends the two gleefully with absolutely disgusting sensibilities, getting absolutely everything possible scare-wise with its slimy alien slug antagonists. Admittedly most of the titles on this list are more focused on straight up terror, but Slither comes with the bonus of being a ton of fun.
#10. The Ring (2002)
Fans may remember the period in the early 2000s when Hollywood became obsessed with all varieties of Asian horror, and began remaking titles left and right. As many as were made, however, nothing ever topped the trend-maker: Gore Verbinski's The Ring. Naomi Watts stars as a journalist investigating a mythical VHS tape that kills anyone who watches it in seven days, and it's not just a spine-tingling, scream inducing ride, but a well-crafted mystery as well. It's unfortunate that it's legacy must deal with two legitimately terrible sequels, but they still don't diminish our appreciation for the 2002 release.
#9. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Sam Raimi's career was born in the horror genre, but much like the Evil Dead franchise, the scares eventually started to get left behind in favor of more genre exploration. Thankfully, in 2009 he returned to it full-bore with Drag Me To Hell. Bringing back many of the amazing, unique aesthetics that made his early scary movies so special, he tells his own take on a gypsy curse story, and it succeeds in being both frightening and at times puke-worthy gross. Alison Lohman is fantastic as the kind but selfish Christine Brown, and it has what is certainly one of the best endings on this list.
#8. Let The Right One In (2008)
In the years before the modern zombie craze kicked into full gear, titles like Twilight and True Blood established vampires as the chic "in" monsters -- but no movie about bloodsuckers from this particular era surprised and shocked more than Tomas Alfredson's Let The Right One In. A Swedish import, this tale is a cute but also fairly fucked-up tale about a bullied young boy (Kåre Hedebrant) who strikes up a friendship with his new neighbor, who happens to be deadly, dangerous vampire (Lina Leandersson). It's one of the best modern takes on the mythos, and even inspired one of the best English-language remakes of recent memory.
#7. ParaNorman (2012)
Not all horror films need be totally terrifying, and Chris Fell and Sam Butler's ParaNorman is proof of that. The movie fits the genre through its spooky characters and premise (kid who can see and talk to the dead must stop an ancient curse from tearing his town apart), but its greatness doesn't come from scares. Instead, this stop-motion masterpiece from Laika demonstrates its genius through pure emotion and tapping into the feelings of isolation that come from feeling like an outcast -- something of which a lot of true blue horror fans are probably very aware. It's a remarkable piece of animated filmmaking, that is also definitely one of the best genre titles of the young century.
#6. Black Swan (2010)
Darren Aronofsky may not be the first name you consider when you think of "horror directors," but when you factor in the horrors that he makes you feel with his work, you totally get it. This applies to both 1998's Pi and 2000's Requiem For A Dream, but in the 21st Century conversation, it's all about Black Swan. The movie is a trippy and distressing venture into jealousy-inspired madness, following Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she clings to her lead role in her ballet company's production of "Swan Lake" and goes completely insane in the process. It's the kind of movie that makes you occasionally forget to breathe, and the Oscar that Portman won is one of the most deserved in recent memory.
#5. Get Out (2017)
Even months after its release it's still hard to fully believe the true story behind Jordan Peele's Get Out. Prior to making the movie, Peele fully established himself as one of the funniest comedic voices currently working in the industry... but then he revealed to the world that his true number one goal is helming horror films. That led to his directorial debut, and what he made is nothing short of stunning. Get Out is a spectacular commentary on race in America, and blending elements of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner meets The Stepford Wives it makes a stunning commentary about prejudice and cultural appropriation. Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams are both incredible in the lead roles, and with any luck, it will be the first of many Peele directorial efforts that eventually find their way on to this list.
#4. Stoker (2013)
A wonderful reflection of the protagonist's intensely enhanced senses, Chan-wook Park's Stoker is one of the most meticulously put together and beautiful films you'll experience -- inside or outside the horror genre. Based on an original screenplay by Wentworth Miller, it tells the story of a teen girl named India (Mia Wasikowska) who sees her world start to change following the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) and the arrival of her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). As India works to learn more about this strange relative, she begins to not only unravel a dark family secret, but also reveal new parts of herself that have laid dormant her entire life. It's a stunning, gorgeous piece of work that manages to simultaneously be both elegant and brutal, featuring some amazing performances and moments that stay with you long after the end credits have finished rolling.
#3. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
Similar to Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright is a pop culture filmmaker. He not only has an immense and deep cinematic knowledge, but expresses it through his work -- using each of his features as a love letter to genre with the addition of his own unique sensibilities. He's made some brilliant titles to date, but there is arguably none better than his ode to zombie horror, Shaun of the Dead. Yes, the movie puts comedy first and foremost, and the buddy relationship between Simon Pegg's Shaun and Nick Frost's Ed is an all-timer; but you also have to love its clear affection for the cultural contributions of George A. Romero, making the walking dead not only horrific, but also a reflection of modern society ("apathy" being the big target this time around). Thanks to Wright's blissful and scrupulous use of foreshadowing, it's also endlessly rewatchable, with each viewing revealing something new you never noticed before.
#2. The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is a film that came completely out of nowhere. Writer/director Jennifer Kent had never written or directed a feature before; and despite having some notable titles on her resume, star Essie Davis was hardly a household name. One amazing piece of work can leave quite an impression, however, and the reality is that their collaboration is not only one of the scariest movies of the 21st century, but rather one of the scariest movies of all time. The mother-son relationship between Davis and young actor Noah Wiseman is psychological torture enough (in a good way), but then the story introduces the titular monster and the whole thing just becomes a living nightmare that leaves you watching in the fetal position. It's an unbelievably terrifying cinematic experience, and would be #1 if not for one other title...
#1. The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
It's perhaps a bit strange for a film that deconstructs the horror genre to be the number one title on a horror movie list, but what can we say? Within the category, Drew Goddard's The Cabin In The Woods is the best film we've seen so far in the 21st century. Its release famously delayed for years and years due to the MGM bankruptcy, the film from the outside looks like your typical set-up (a group of college kids get terrorized by supernatural forces while vacationing in the woods), but there is just so much more to it than that. The script, co-written by Goddard and Joss Whedon, is an endlessly clever and meta analysis of what draws us to this kind of storytelling, and does a brilliant job of taking every notable trope and turning it on its ear. Add the totally unexpected yet genius turn the movie takes into the equation, and you have the title that we just had to give the number one slot.
What's your favorite horror film of the 21st century, so far?