The Next Generation of Terror: GenreSquad's Top 10 Horror Films of the 21st Century
Since the inception of cinema, creators and film makers have tried their best to scare you to death. While there's some debate on the subject, the general consensus is that the first horror film was directed by A Trip to the Moon's Georges Melies, titled Le Manoir Du Diable (aka The Devil's Castle) in 1896. At only 3 minutes long, the short packs in an encounter with the devil, several phantoms, and contains the first filmed vampiric transformation from a bat. 120 years later, we still love it when movies try to terrify us.
Along with action, horror stands as one of the genres you can count as being the closest to pure cinema. So many of the great horror films take minimal setup and dialogue and simply use images to frighten you out of your seat. The best horror actually hits you in the back of the mind, awakening subconscious primal fears you never even realized you had, and creating images that will never really leave your mind. While horror as a genre keeps evolving, the things that really scare us deep down are still those basic fears that humans have always cowered away from. Those are the films we're trying to celebrate today, as this list hopefully represents a batch of horror that will last down the line and keep scaring audiences for decades to come.
Inspired by the recent release of the BBC's Top 100 Films of the 21 Century, we here at GenreSquad wanted to take a look at the 10 best films of one of our most beloved genres. To come up with a consensus list, we polled our writing and editorial staff (though some protested the act of having to rank these films), and had each person submit their top 20 films from this century. We then awarded points based on the rankings (20 points for #1, 19 points for #2, and so on), and the movies with the 10 highest point totals are the ones you'll see on this list. Each writer's personal top 20 will be seen as an addendum to the end of the list.
I would like to take this opportunity thank all of the GenreSquad staff for taking part in this project, and helping it come together. I'd also like to extend a huge welcome to Kevin and Stormy Watts, who recently joined our ranks. Last, but certainly not least I'd thank you guys for continuing to read our stuff! It's been a fun journey so far on the site and we've got many many things to come!
So, without ado, I am proud to present our site's first group feature,
GenreSquad's Top 10 Horror Films of the 21st Century
10. The Ring (2002)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, and Brian Cox
Directed by Gore Verbinski
I watched The Ring opening night during a solo trip to the local theater. Even though I was raised on horror and devoured as much of the genre as I could throughout my teenage years, I was not prepared for the particular brand of horror I was about to see on screen that night. You see, The Ring was my introduction to the wonderful world of J-horror. I know, I know -- The Ring is the American remake of Ringu -- but this remake succeeded in encouraging me to seek out the Ringus and Ju-Ons of the world, along with older films like Onibaba and Jigoku.
The imagery in The Ring stuck with me for weeks afterward. The girl in the closet, the horse suicide, the static, the video, and of course, the intensely unforgettable, climatic scene with Samara. After leaving the theater that opening night I could not shake what I just watched. Once home, I got ready for bed and began to drift off. Back in those days I had a habit of falling asleep while watching a show or a movie. Sometime during the night I woke up and and shifted in bed and glanced at the TV screen. By fate or by chance I was met with a screen full of static. Needless to say, I stopped sleeping with the TV on.
9. Martyrs (2008)
Starring: Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï
Directed by Pascal Laugier
The human brain is a finite structure, perhaps capable only of comprehending finite concepts. Despite this, the human species has always longed to expand its knowledge beyond what can be empirically understood, presumably because we are the only species cursed with awareness of our own mortality. For centuries, we have attempted to explain the unexplainable through faith in a higher power. Holding so fast to the belief our god, gods, or afterlives must be the correct ones, we argue, pass law, or sometimes even kill to prove to others and maybe ourselves we are right. Still others succumb to or even embrace the existential dread that haunts us all. Maybe there is nothing waiting for us after this life. Maybe the life we know is intrinsically meaningless. Maybe there is meaning in this life, but it is still the only one we will ever know.
These are the questions posed by Pascal Laugier in Martyrs as we follow Lucie and Anna into the house of a family Lucie believes abused her years before and watch helplessly as she slaughters them all. In this moment, the viewer steps into Anna’s shoes and remains with her for the duration of the film. We witness Lucie commit suicide as she fights a hallucination—a shadow from her past, perhaps. Still later we discover a hole in the wall and a secret chamber where we’ll find ourselves chained up, flayed and left near death by a group led by “Mademoiselle”, seeking to create living “martyrs” to discover what lies beyond the mortal realm and finally quench humankind’s age-old thirst for such metaphysical knowledge. Laugier tortures us for an hour and 43 minutes and when he is finished, asks us:
“Can you imagine life after death?”
“No,” comes our haggard reply.
8. Insidious (2010)
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, and Angus Sampson
Directed by James Wan
There's a reason that everyone still loves going into funhouses at the carnival. Walking through a tight, dark maze and having things jump out to scare the wits out of you is a special kind of thrill, and that's exactly the type of experience that James Wan has in mind with Insidious. Playing like an update of the 80s classic Poltergeist, Wan simply throws the unsuspecting Lambert family (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and Ty Simpkins) into a spooky house, and just let's the scares rip. With a bag of old school tricks up his sleeve, the director throws everything he can at you, filling the screen with nightmare visions such as an old ghost bride and the film's infamous Lipstick-Face Demon. At the end of it you'll never want to be in an old house by yourself again, and you'll definitely never want to hear Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" ever again.
7. You're Next (2010)
Starring: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, and Joe Swanberg
Directed by Adam Wingard
You're Next did something that hadn't been done since the end of the 1970's. It showed us that slasher movies do not have to be just fun or guilty pleasures, but that they can be simply great movies, and they can surprise us as well. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are at the top of the horror movie game and this is their masterpiece. It has humor and a vision that is rare in the genre, but the thing that separates it from all others is its protagonist. Sharni Vinson is the real deal, and honestly, she is the true horror movie monster in the film. She's an action movie star in a horror movie setting and simply a force of nature, and it is a truly awesome thing to behold.
6. The Conjuring (2010)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, and Ron Livingston
Directed by James Wan
To say something is the best in its given category is often called hyperbole, and rightfully so, but I say this without question or hesitation; The Conjuring is the greatest haunted house movie I have ever seen. Film nerds often have a tendency to look down on movies that are popular or have mainstream appeal, thinking something that is popular is "less than" is a pretty common opinion among us horror movie social outcasts. But the social acceptance of The Conjuring only lends to the fact that it is a fantastic movie, and not just a scary one.
The film, starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, has everything going for it, from direction, to acting and everything in between. For a horror movie to be considered great it needs all of the things that a drama needs plus scares. The Conjuring has that and then some, which is why it is near the top of my list for best of the decade in any category.
5. It Follows (2014)
Starring: Maika Monroe, Lili Sepe, Keir Gilchrist, and Olivia Luccardi
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Sex and death are united in a strange dance. An act meant to conceive life, to celebrate living, subtly acknowledges its inevitable cessation. Bram Stoker's classic Dracula is virtually obsessed with the overlap of the two. The french phrase ''La petite mort'', or "the little death", is commonly used to describe the similarity between the altered state of being that follows orgasm with a feeling of death, or loss of life force. The transition to Sexual maturity marks the death of youth. David Robert Mitchell's It Follows assails this concept with stunning imagination, eerie ferocity and bleak power.
Jay and her friends spend lazy suburban days in the pool, or watching old B movies on television. One summer night, Jay has sex on a date with a boy from out of town, and is plunged thereafter into a nightmarish struggle against the unknown. He has transferred to her a condition in which a nameless, silent, being in human guise will pursue her, and if she is caught, she will die. The only way to rid herself of this follower is to pass it to someone else, again through physical intercourse. Whether we want it to or not, sex leaves its mark, tiny imprints on the soul given and received.
Given the concept, the film wisely avoids exploitation, focusing instead on the casual boredom or all too human desperation behind its sexual encounters, and the deadening reality that awaits afterward. The movie is too stylish to do anything less. The sumptuous gloom of its natural cinematography and the moody, languid synth score by Disasterpeace create an intoxicating retro/modern vibe. It is a world of cool tinged with threat, one that I long to inhabit. We are all mortally doomed, and like Jay, have a need to connect with someone as a way of enduring the burden of this knowledge. No one wants to face the follower alone.
4. The Host (2006)
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Doona Bae, and Ah-sung Ko
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Bong Joon-ho's masterpiece works to frighten you on so many levels that it's like a pyramid of fear that tries to work it's way down through your psyche. At each level is another element that attempts to unsettle you in some way, either viscerally or in a deeper sense that makes you question the very society around you. At every turn, safe havens become dangerous and death seems always around the next corner. Of course, at the top of this pyramid is The Host's giant amphibious monster; a grotesque force of violence and destruction reeking havoc on all that it comes into contact with.
The creature's asymmetrical face, and what seems to be an extra set of lips should be enough to agitate most viewers all by themselves, but then the film delves deep into institutional fears as well. While this horrible monster is on the loose, the very government, military, hospitals, and police that should be protecting its citizens in this time of crisis instead act only in their own self interest. Add possible infectious disease scares and possible collusion in all of this with the U.S. government and the film manages to cover a lot of basic fears hounding a lot of Asian populations.
Where The Host really shines though, is that it doesn't just rely on it's monstrous sequences of annihilation and bureaucratic nightmares, but also on how it completely works as a family drama. The core of this film is a dysfunctional group simply trying to find their youngest child, snatched up during the creature's initial rampage. The funniest film on this list by far, this ragtag bunch bumbles their way through trying to save their missing loved one, desperately attempting to snatch triumph from this awful tragedy. Bong Joon-ho's mix of gruesome horror, black comedy, and sweet sentiment is one of the most human films in the horror genre and an absolute wonder to behold.
3. The Witch (2006)
Starring: Anya Taylor-Jo, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Directed by Robert Eggers
I was a preacher’s kid. Growing up, I was taught Satan was real, demons were real, we were all born into this ongoing spiritual war between good and evil, and we must protect ourselves from becoming entangled in the many snares left for us by the evil one. As one might guess, I grew up to be an irreligious Wednesday Addams –looking fangirl of witches and the occult. Witches symbolize, at least for me, the pinnacle of female empowerment. How awesome it would be to become the devil’s handmaiden and harness powers mere mortals fear and cannot know. That’s why Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a spiritual experience.
In old folktales regarding witches, women would take flight in the night and attend Sabbat in the woods, where they would dance, drink, and pledge loyalty to Satan, who would often appear in the form of a goat. The Witch takes inspiration directly from these stories, but the real draw here is the depiction of the spiritual war I learned about as a kid, represented by the light of a Puritan family vs. the darkness of witchcraft. However, as the movie progresses, the line between righteousness and unhinged superstition becomes blurred among Thomasin’s family and when confronted by Black Phillip, we, like Thomasin, wouldst prefer to live deliciously.
2. Let the Right One In (2008)
Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, and Per Ragnar
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
You’re a child. You are picked on relentlessly at school. You are a product of a broken home. What life do you lead in the secret depths of your mind? Your imagination is perhaps a moving picture of conquering bullies and transcending the bitter hand you have been dealt, though you know this is only a dream. That is what life is like for Oskar--a roller coaster of short, insignificant highs, and long, deep lows. That is, until he meets Eli, a girl his age who lives in the apartment next door with a man named Hakan. There is something strange about Eli. She’s twelve, but she has been twelve for a long time. She appears to be a girl, but she is genderless. She is a vampire, and Hakan, her guardian, has killed his last victim for her and is no more.
Let The Right One In is at the same time a childhood love story and the harrowing tale of a boy so alone and filled with inner rage, he is vulnerable. We last see Oskar riding a train with Eli in a box beside him, the pair innocently tapping “kiss” to one another, and as the viewer, I can’t help but wonder if the next time we see Oskar, he will be sharing Hakan’s fate—a thrall’s fate--born from his love for Eli.
1. The Descent (2005)
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone
Directed by Neil Marshall
So often we hear about what's commonly referred to as the "sophomore slump". It's that moment when we see the debut of a new artist or director or musician or athlete, and their initial efforts display an incredible amount of potential and promise, only to let us down with their subsequent efforts. In terms of film making this can all too often be the case. For instance, think about how excited you were when you heard that Richard Kelly was making a followup to Donnie Darko and then think about how disappointed you were when that movie ended up being Southland Tales. This is also why it needs to be celebrated when a film maker actually blossoms on his second time out, like when a director who puts out with a no budget cult film like Dark Star turns heads with Assault on Precinct 13 and then blows minds with Halloween.
Along with lots and lots of fear, that's the feeling I get when I watch The Descent. While Neil Marshall broke onto the scene with his super entertaining werewolf-siege movie Dog Soldiers in 2002, The Descent shows a director in complete control of his powers. Building on his previous film's themes of personal loss and claustrophobia The Descent is a complete marvel from it's opening moments and absolutely one of the scariest films I have ever witnessed.
In fact, Marshall is in such control that most viewers are already on the edge of their seat during the movie's setup. I would advise any viewers with claustrophobia not to watch this film, which finds a group of female friends experiencing a cave-in during a spelunking expedition. The setup is so harrowing all by itself, that you're caught completely unawares when the group stumbles upon a horde of cave-dwelling monsters, making for one the all-time cinematic nightmare scenarios. The Descent is a film working with some of our most basic, yet potent fears, and in the hands of Neil Marshall we see how that mix can add up to a horror film that will endure like these monsters; waiting in the dark until it's next victim happens to come along.