Share
List Inconsequential: The Best 13 Horror Films of the 21st Century (So Far)

List Inconsequential: The Best 13 Horror Films of the 21st Century (So Far)

antichrist13. Antichrist (dir. Lars von Trier)

Danish director Lars von Trier created the Dogme 95 movement to return cinema to a kind of pure state, free of special effects, special lighting and even genre. After mixed success with provocative films like The Idiots and Dogville, and while suffering a deep depression, he threw purity out the window for a divisive but unforgettable film. Antichrist veers wildly between psychological drama, torture porn and seemingly actual porn. From personal darkness came horrors real and imagined, internal and external. Von Trier is notorious for punishing his actresses, but Charlotte Gainsbourg keeps coming back, and she puts in a performance as real and terrifying as any in modern horror. And if the script drips with misogyny, Gainsbourg uses it as a chance to turn the tables on the old horror movie trope of the woman as victim. Poor Willem Dafoe. Fairly or not, Antichrist’s iconic scene belongs to a talking fox. Yes, it’s unintentionally hilarious, but it’s also part and parcel of a vision in which the natural world is as frightening and brutal as humanity. – Pat Padua

the-mist12. The Mist (dir. Frank Darabont)

The best Stephen King adaptations focus less on paranormal frights than the horrifying ways people behave when they’re truly, completely afraid. This allows the director to avoid complicated FX setpieces and has less risk of contradicting the vivid imaginations of King’s readers. Set almost entirely inside a grocery store separated from the outside world by a nearly opaque shroud of fog, The Mist derives most of its scares from the increasingly panicked patrons trapped inside. Thomas Jane’s voice of reason plays the everyman foil to Marcia Gay Harden’s terrifying religious zealot, and Frank Darabont’s script places the cast in the middle of a brutally suspenseful social experiment on the effects of claustrophobia, fear, powerlessness and unchecked ignorance. When the monsters do show up, it’s typically just a whipping tentacle or a brief play on the retail set’s entirely-glass front wall. For a film about monsters, The Mist spends less time showing us otherworldly beasts—or anticipating when the specters in the fog will strike next—than it does exposing the real-world monsters created by fear of the unknown. The Mist isn’t at all an uplifting survival story. It’s a dark film with an appropriately bleak ending. – Michael Merline

shaun-of-the-dead11. Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright)

The Cornetto trilogy recently came to a satisfying conclusion with a movie that took the horrors of growing up as a metaphor for the end of the world as we know it. But Wright’s 2004 breakthrough film redefined horror as comedy and supposedly invented the zombie rom-com, though it’s not a romantic comedy, and it has little in common with the kind of comedy-horror that followed in its wake. Shaun of the Dead isn’t just funny and clever; the reason we’ll likely remember this more than any other comedy-horror movie is the acting and the writing, all of which reinforce this tale of the undead as a story of what it means to be human. Wright’s zombies are terrifying because they want to eat your skin, sure, but also because they were your neighbor, your best mate, your mother. You knew who these people were when they were alive, and though they retain a grotesque version of their general human shape, the walking dead are strangers in the shape of someone you love. Is there a more human horror movie than this? – Pat Padua

the-descent10. The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall)

Only a few lines are uttered in the opening of The Descent before two members of a young, undeserving family of three are impaled through their heads with iron rods. This is your first clue of an atypical film. From there we descend both literally and figuratively from tragedy to dread to horror, eschewing any need for hope or redemption along the way. The second sign is the female cast who play real women—the kind we all know but rarely see in horror films. These are smart women of character and personal strength. These are women who convey a completely engrossing, genuine dread that comes from a place as deep as the caves in which they find themselves. The third sign comes just as things start to seem a little familiar. Ah, yes—a bunch of people trapped in caves. No, says director Neil Marshall, there are also feral, flesh-eating, underground bat people. In the hands of a less skilled writer it could have been a B-film. Instead it’s a wonderfully tense horror adventure that will make you gasp gratefully for air as you claw your way to the credits. – Darryl G. Wright

let-me-in9. Let Me In (dir. Matt Reeves)

Like it or not, there’s still a huge swath of the movie-going public that stays away from anything involving subtitles. Let Me In is that relatively rare Hollywood remake of a spectacular foreign film that actually works. Closely adhering to the tone and structure of its source material—both John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and the 2008 Swedish film adaptation, Let the Right One In—the American remake manages to be so effective that it’s nearly interchangeable with its predecessor and far more accessible simply for being filmed in English. The incredibly talented Richard Jenkins is an actual improvement over his child-vampire-caretaker counterpart in the original, and Kody Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz both shine in their respective innocent and innocence-lost roles. The few instances of CGI are a jarring enhancement of the original film, but are restrained enough to keep things on track, making Let Me In a worthy remake that even an illiterate monoglot moviegoer could appreciate. – Josh Goller

the-host8. The Host (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho litters The Host with the kind of pulpy critiques that horror best exhibits in the work of George A. Romero. The creature that emerges from polluted waters rests in a bat-like position that looks suspiciously like the device the U.S. military uses to pollute those waters in the first place, while the response of both the Korean government and U.S. military stresses self-preservation and bureaucratic dispassion at all costs. Beneath the social commentary, however, is a far more direct story of a father learning to take responsibility, an almost Spielberg-esque narrative stripped of the treacle that usually weighs Spielberg down. Bong’s film never spares its protagonist from criticism, nor does it shy away from depicting his journey with numerous stumbles that owe solely to his own asinine behavior. But that only makes his eventual heroism all the more satisfying, and in so many ways, The Host feels like a Hollywood blockbuster that shows up the genuine article time and again. – Jake Cole

the-others7. The Others (dir. Alejandro Amenábar)

To its great credit, The Others is all about mood, developing a sense of great foreboding as Grace (Nicole Kidman) leads new servants around her massive home, relaying the complex set of rules involving closed drapes and locked doors, all needed to keep her fragile children safe. The English-language debut of Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, who’d previously made the great Open Your Eyes (later savaged by Cameron Crowe in the remake Vanilla Sky), had the sort of stunning third act twist that was a necessity in the immediate wake of The Sixth Sense, but unlike other movies of the era, The Others has a clear purpose beyond the shockeroo ending. Amenábar means to explore grief and pain, showing how anguish can turn in on itself to devastating effect. The film is deeply unsettling, but less because of the creepy imagery or crafty plot mechanics and more because of the raw emotions Amenábar cracks wide open. – Dan Seeger
pans-labyrinth6. Pan’s Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro understands that the impulse to want an experience of fear is rooted in the same desire for an escape, and his best films combine a sense of terror with the rapturous pull of a childhood fantasy. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Pan’s Labyrinth, which sees a girl attempting to dream herself out of Franco’s Spain yet finds her imagination irreparably scarred by the violence around her. Lavishly adorned sets and intricately crafted costumes lend both fantastical storybook scale and sensual tangibility (you can practically smell the scented sap in the faun’s veins). Yet into this world of beauty come terrifying sights, most notably the rail-thin creature with eyes in its hands (subject of one of the tensest scenes of the aughts). Pan’s Labyrinth ends on a tragic note, but it does not indulge in the genre’s cheap nihilism, instead finding an unorthodox form of self-actualization in sacrifice that finds comfort and grace in death. – Jake Cole

this-is-the-end5. This is the End (dir. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen)

Films like Evil Dead II, Re-Animator and Dead Alive vaulted the obscenely gory horror-comedy to prominence a generation ago, ultimately paving the way for films like Shaun of the Dead. But never has a horror-comedy gone as meta as 2013’s This is the End. Starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, et. al. as skewed versions of themselves, This is the End tackles the absurdity of a biblical Rapture and subsequent Great Tribulation with the kind of blood-soaked irreverence befitting these masters of pothead dick jokes. Within the first act alone we see a coked-out sex fiend version of Michael Cera get impaled and the likes of Kevin Hart, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari eviscerated or otherwise plunging into the Lake of Fire. And that’s before a core group hole up in Franco’s mansion to ward off demons or Danny McBride eventually starts eating people. Really, the film is yet another bromance, this time between Rogen and Jay Baruchel, but by adding a bloody apocalypse and molten demons to contend with, This is the End raises the stakes of being super bad. – Josh Goller

frailty4. Frailty (dir. Bill Paxton)

Is it more horrifying to live in a world where demons exist to walk among us and a God tasks us to smite them or to live in a world where there’s no supernatural motivation for the violence of human insanity? Frailty finds ways to make both options equally disturbing. One day, a widower (played expertly by director Bill Paxton) tells his two young boys that angels have given the loving family a mission: to identify and destroy demons that look like humans. The father begins to bring victims home for the family to murder together. One boy, appalled as the film’s audience, fears for his father’s sanity, but the other son is enthralled and fully indoctrinated into his father’s agenda. The plot itself twists around an equally surprising frame story, but Frailty continuously returns to Paxton’s character, a man whose blind faith and sincere love for his family justifies the most terrifying of actions. Paxton keeps most of the carnage offscreen because that idea alone is unsettling enough. – Michael Merline

cabin-in-the-woods3. The Cabin in the Woods (dir: Drew Goddard)

From the opening scene, there’s something different about The Cabin in the Woods. Two middle-aged office workers (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) bicker in some kind of bland government building, absently running through the tired discussions of people who have worked in close proximity for years on end. Then out of nowhere, bloody red letters spelling out the title smash onto the screen, a jolt that has much to do with incongruity as it does horror. The Cabin in the Woods subverts viewers’ expectations just as much as it does the tropes of the horror genre, putting out signifiers only to invert them and dive back in. It’s a movie with genuinely horrifying moments (like a “zombie redneck torture family”) along with the laughs and teasers as you try to figure out just where director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon are going with this. While it’s not the first self-aware horror movie, it blows away the competition in sheer scale and devotion to its subject matter. It’s a loving homage to horror, a twist on horror conventions and simply a great horror movie all at once. – Nathan Kamal

devils-backbone2. The Devil’s Backbone (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

A sense of dread looms over every scene in Guillermo del Toro’s 2001 horror film The Devil’s Backbone, both physically and metaphysically. Set during the waning years of the Spanish Civil War, danger lurks everywhere in the remote orphanage where the young protagonist Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives after the death of his father. In the building’s courtyard, a live bomb sits waiting to explode; Generalissimo Franco’s men surrounded the isolated orphanage; the ghost of a boy murdered in mysterious circumstances haunts the basement. There is nowhere for Carlos (and by extension, the viewer) to escape to, no sense of safety to be found. It’s one of del Toro’s bleakest films, combining a beautifully awful cinematography with a sense of history that blends into disturbing magical realism. By hearkening back to a time period that still haunts Spain, he only imbues his ghosts with that much more power. – Nathan Kamal

let-the-right-one-in1. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson)

Adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel of the same name, Let the Right One In is that most unusual of genre blends: the romantic horror story. On the surface, it’s an almost sweet tale of a young human boy and an ageless child-vampire falling in love, learning to rely on one another in a cold world. But delve a little deeper and everything grows a little darker; does Eli (Lina Leandersson) really care for the abused, neglected Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) or is he just another in a long line of discarded human caretakers? Combined with the brutally sudden moments of violence throughout the film (including a teenage decapitation) and director Tomas Alfredson’s suffocating atmosphere of loneliness, it suddenly becomes a much grimmer movie. Though there are indelible images of people being strung up to have their throats cut like cattle, the real horror is all emotional. Even in romance, there’s no escaping the suspicion behind the love. – Nathan Kamal

        Leave a Comment