Horror films are having a moment. The last few years have seen more respect go to the genre than ever before. This includes Academy Awards love, in addition to critical acclaim. Oscar voters are late to the game, as horror fans have known that the past two decades have seen some classics released into the world.
In honor of the release of “Midsommar” last week and “Crawl” this week, we’re going to run down the best horror films since 2000. The list was incredibly difficult to whittle down to just ten, as there have been scores of worthy offerings. A special citation should go out to “Audition,” which was released abroad in 1999 but hit U.S. theaters in 2001. As for runner ups, they include “The Conjuring,” “The Descent,” “Get Out,” “Let Me In,” and “A Quiet Place.” You could even throw in “The Mist,” “Paranormal Activity,” “Us,” “The Witch,” and “You’re Next” as well. The list goes on, which would look a whole lot different with more horror comedy hybrids like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.” This is just the tip of the iceberg too, proving that it’s easy to see how loaded the genre is.
“Wolf Creek” (2005)
dir: Greg McLean
Two of the major keys to quality horror are a good setting and a great villain. “Wolf Creek” carries both in spades. The Australian Outback is beautiful and desolate, offering a vacation spot that also could lead to your demise. Then, there’s John Jarratt as Mick Taylor, the pig farmer turned serial killer who preys on young men and women who stumble upon him. What sets this film apart is not just strong visuals, but the depiction of Mick. Initially affable and cheerful, he turns into a true monster, butchering vacationers in a particularly brutal manner. Too many imitators attempt to just be violent. Greg McLean found a style to transport the brutality.
“Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” (2006)
dir: Scott Glosserman
Another key to make a memorable effort in this genre is to upend it in some way. This mocku-mentary plays around with the staples of a genre flick, presented through a serial killer named Leslie Vernon allowing a camera crew to follow him around. It’s clever, smart, and original. While too many slasher endeavors are rote and wholly lacking in originality, this is absolutely chock full of it. “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” is under seen, though a perfect example of what sort of creativity the genre is fertile ground for. It’s a shame that more filmmakers haven’t tried to tackle horror in this manner.
“28 Days Later” (2002)
dir: Danny Boyle
Two words: fast zombies. That simple idea fueled Danny Boyle and Alex Garland‘s reinvention of the undead. Depicting an empty London at the start offers a compelling beginning, even before the undead speed on to the screen. Then, it’s an intense journey with Cillian Murphy and company as they try to survive this new world. A film that launched dozens of imitators, Boyle and Garland re-wrote the rules of the genre with “28 Days Later.” More than just a simple genre film (see “28 Weeks Later” for that), it’s a true exercise in the potential that low budget horror can contain.
dir: Pascal Laugier
There’s nothing wrong with a horror movie being gory, as long as there’s a reason for the brutality. “Martyrs” goes to some real extremes, though all the while presenting a philosophical bent that you rarely see. The French flick challenges how and why horror gore is necessary. There’s no skimping on graphic images, but it’s given a highfalutin sheen that audiences rarely see. Divisive, to be sure, this film does largely offer up something different from just senseless violence. More than any other entry on this list, it represents art house horror at its most uncompromising.
dir: Alex Garland
An example of classy horror, “Annihilation” mixes in a heaping dose of science fiction, for good measure. Alex Garland continues to leave his mark on the genre with this Natalie Portman vehicle. Full of captivating images and thought provoking ideas, it’s the kind of movie that demands discussion. Nightmare fuel from start to finish, it’s a heady work that the studio didn’t fully understand. The years will be very kind to this film, as it contains layers that few other genre offerings can aspire to. Garland throws a lot at the wall, but it’s a credit to his storytelling that it all sticks.
“The Strangers” (2008)
dir: Bryan Bertino
Silence and tension are used to tremendous effect in “The Strangers,” an incredibly unsettling experience. Home invasions can often be depicted in trashy horror. Here, however, it’s used as an exercise in suspense. Music/sound, and the lack thereof, is expertly deployed by Bryan Bertino, as well as danger in the background. The image of someone standing behind an unsuspecting Liv Tyler immediately seared its way into cinematic history as soon as it happened. As far as home invasion horror goes, this is one of the best examples to date. It’s incredibly simple, yet incredibly effective, nonetheless.
dir: James Wan
Before the franchise became a long running guilty pleasure, the original “Saw” was a creative success. Remember the aforementioned need for a compelling setting and villain? The locales of Jigsaw’s traps, not to mention the concept of the Jigsaw Killer himself, provides ample material for James Wan to gross an audience out. A high concept done right, this is solid evidence for why the phrase “torture porn” is a misnomer. Far more a morality play, this has become an underrated horror film since its debut a decade and a half ago. With a small budget and big ideas, Wan and company started a gory phenomenon that’s still a viable series in 2019.
“Black Swan” (2010)
dir: Darren Aronofsky
One of the most Oscar nominated horror efforts in history, Darren Aronofsky‘s psychological horror achievement rightfully won Natalie Portman her first Oscar. Portman, already featured on this list, took home Best Actress for this descent into madness. Even more of a fright flick than “mother!,” Aronofsky twists the knife again and again, putting audiences into Portman’s mind as she loses it. Armed with Matthew Libatique‘s cinematography as well as Clint Mansell‘s score, this is a technical achievement and prestige terror at its finest. Ballet has never been so terrifying.
“It Follows” (2014)
dir: David Robert Mitchell
The recent wave of artistic and auteur driven horror really kicked into gear with “It Follows,” a beautifully made high concept fright film. The movie features absolutely stunning cinematography, a brilliantly realized premise, with strictly adhered to rules, and a top notch scream queen in the making with Maika Monroe. David Robert Mitchell, like Boyle above, shows you what can happen when a filmmaker not entrenched in the genre tackles horror. Fresh eyes and fresh ideas abound; too often, horror films create and then discard rules. Mitchell sticks to them, elevating his movie in the process.
“The Cabin in the Woods” (2011)
dir: Drew Goddard
Few films over the past two decades have demonstrated as much originality as “The Cabin in the Woods,” the overall most compelling and enjoyable horror film in a long time. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon let loose with every scary movie trope in the business, stuffing their nightmare full of not just creatures, but wit and thoughtful commentary as well. In deconstructing the genre, they not only paid tribute, but crafted one of its best examples as well. It’s truly a masterpiece. In particular, the third act is literally a dream (or nightmare?) come true for all fans of the genre. Eager to make audiences chuckle but more concerned with being a smart meditation on what makes horror what it is, this is a special work. Nothing else like it exists, which is part of what makes it so transcendent.