When you think of all the truly great horror movies that have smart storytelling and inventive scares and unique premises, you picture all the classic from the 20th century: Psycho and The Exorcist and The Omen and Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of these old movies. By the time the ‘90s rolled around, the tropes had become so ingrained that they were satirized in a meta way in Scream, and since everyone was then copying that, the genre seemed dead. So many 21st century horror films have gone for cheap jump scares and lazy storytelling and every cliché in the book. These days, it’s refreshing when an original and brilliantly crafted and genuinely chilling horror movie comes along. In the wake of A Quiet Place, one of the best ever made, here are the 10 greatest horror movies from this century so far.
10. The Ring
American filmmakers can never seem to go wrong when they adapt a Japanese horror movie for the Hollywood market, because for whatever reason, the Japanese filmmakers seem to not only come up with all the best ideas for horror movies, but they also know the best way to execute them. They know how to light it, where to place the camera, how to build suspense – all the tools for horror filmmaking! Japanese film schools must just have a very extensive horror movie module, who knows? But for better or for worse, Japanese producers make the best horror movies and then American producers plunder them and their remakes result in the best American horror movies. The best of these is easily The Ring, because the premise is so rich and Gore Verbinski’s execution is devilishly engaging. It’s about a video tape that kills you within seven days if you watch it. Naomi Watts watches it and dedicates her final days on Earth to getting to the bottom of it. So, you empathize with the lead character and root for her. The movie is thrilling – it’s a race against time! It’s spooky and supernatural – a video tape that kills you? Aargh!! It’s pretty much everything a horror movie should be!
9. You’re Next
Slasher movies are a dime a dozen. Most of the time, you can see who the killer is from a mile off and the murders never take you by surprise or shock you, because you know that they’re coming and all the other slasher movies have desensitized you to them, especially since the genre’s been around for decades now, dating back to a certain black and white Alfred Hitchcock film. But You’re Next is something else. It’s a tour de force of terror, from start to finish. First, it takes the setting of the cabin in the woods (okay, a clichéd setup, but it’s not your typical cabin in the woods – it’s a big, fancy, isolated, upper class cabin with the huge walls made entirely of window, out of which all you can see is the darkness of the night, so this is an even creepier cabin in the woods than usual). The villains in their animal masks are just terrifying – the juxtaposition of a maniac wielding a machete with the kind of mask that a kid would wear at a birthday party works impeccably well to unnerve you. And they’ve just showed up at this cabin in the middle of the night with the intention of slaughtering a whole family. As soon as the first arrow comes through the window and pierces someone’s head, the movie doesn’t let up until the end. There are plot twists to make the movie richer and develop the story more, but we won’t spoil them here! There’s also one final sick twist at the very end, but again, no spoilers here!
8. The Conjuring
Most of the time, when producers buy the rights to a true story with the intention of turning it into a drama, like Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave, and going for Oscars. But with The Conjuring, the plan was to turn the true story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played brilliantly here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, two of the most underrated actors working today) looking into the haunting of a family’s farmhouse in Rhode Island in the 1970s. The historical setting and true story help to add depth and originality to the overdone haunted house genre, while the direction of cinematic horror mastermind James Wan squeezes all the frights out of the script with inventive camera angles and movements that are used to reveal some pretty horrifying things to the viewer in the spookiest ways. This movie was so remarkably successful, both with the critics and the audiences (it grossed over $300 million at the worldwide box office, which is unprecedented for a modern horror film), that it has not only spawned equally successful sequels, but a whole shared cinematic universe of spin-offs, too. This is so far the only franchise to find unanimous success in this field since Marvel!
Saw was the movie that changed it all. Horror movie producers at the time had somehow gotten the idea that you had to sacrifice the plot and character development of ‘70s classics like The Omen and Halloween in order to make the movies more violent and gory. That’s where the horror movies of the 21st century started to go downhill, and why we need to list the ones that are good, since there are so many crappy ones now. But then Saw came along at a pivotal moment in this transition and showed us that, in terms of horror cinema, you could have your cake and eat it, too. The movie is infamously gory and violent, but without losing the element of smart storytelling, and at the end of the day, that’s what keeps you hooked. There’s so much mystery from the beginning. Who are these guys and why are they chained up inside a grimy little bathroom? And who is the dead guy on the floor? And who is the mastermind behind the curtain who’s pulling all the strings? So, with all of these questions in mind, we’re instantly hooked – and director James Wan reveals the answers little by little until you’re left with post-traumatic shock with the final twist.
6. The Descent
The genius of The Descent is all in how it’s set up. It’s like two different horror movies – one about the real horrors of like and another about the made-up movie horrors that still manage to keep us up at night – rolled into one. It starts off with some girls getting trapped in a cave-in, which isn’t terrifying enough, right? And then they’re looking around the cave in the pitch black with their night vision and notice a horrifying, snarling, bloodthirsty mutant in their midst. After that, the mutant’s friends come out to play and thus begins a freakish orgy of violence as these creatures will stop at nothing to slay all these girls in the most brutal fashion possible (lots of dismemberment and disembowelment). It is directed deftly by one of the great horror directors, Neil Marshall (aka the guy behind all the scariest and most action-packed episodes of Game of Thrones), who manages to squeeze in a horrifying shock just about every ten seconds. As soon as those mutants show up, the rest of the movie plows ahead in top gear at full speed for a no holds barred, adrenaline fueled thrill ride. If only more horror directors cared this much about scarring their audience for life.
5. It Follows
In a horror movie landscape where every movie’s premise is just a shameless rip-off of an earlier movie’s premise, It Follows came as a breath of fresh air. The idea of a sexually transmitted parasite that has you followed around by an invisible presence that only you can see is a brilliant idea for a horror movie villain. And the premise opens up all kinds of different themes and allegories – STDs, unprotected sex, all those conservative groups that condemn premarital sex, the idea of teenage girls feeling unsafe or being stalked by a creep, the list is endless. But it’s the execution that’s truly brilliant. Instead of just mindlessly following the lazy techniques used in modern horror movies, this one goes back to the ‘80s to see how the best were made. Some of the set pieces, like a urinating woman who chases our protagonist around the kitchen, are so inventive in how they’re shot that they echo the sheer cinematic essence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And the fact that the girl is constantly being followed by a monster that only she can see keeps us constantly on the edge of our seats. If she looks in one direction for too long, you just know that this thing is creeping up behind her. Ambiguous ending aside, this is horror at its finest.
4. Don’t Breathe
One of the most tired subgenres of horror cinema is the home invasion thriller. The mere mention of it encourages groaning and the rolling of eyes. But not Don’t Breathe. You may have been initially hesitant, but if you actually watched the movie, then hot damn, it’s incredible! It puts a fantastic and fresh spin on this tired premise in that the guy whose house is broken into is framed as the antagonist and the three robbers who have broken in are framed as the protagonists. So, already it’s a morally complex movie. On the one hand, the blind war veteran who has had his house plundered is simply trying to protect his land, but on the other hand, these three robbers are young and naive and terrified and they’ve got a soldier shooting at them and a vicious dog chasing them, so it’s hard to pick a side – until a girl is found tied up in the basement for the purposes of forced pregnancy. Then it’s pretty easy to decide who the evil one is. The plot is full of crazy and sinister twists that make a ton of sense, leave you totally unsettled, and develop the story in unexpected ways. Plus, while they did make the disabled man the bad guy, they also made him stronger and more powerful than the three able-bodied people who have victimized him, so that’s good.
3. Get Out
Who would have thought that Jordan Peele, the brilliant sketch comic who gave us Meegan and Barack Obama’s favorite impersonation of himself, would direct a horror movie for his feature filmmaking debut? And furthermore, who would have thought that this horror movie would go on to become a critically lauded cinematic masterpiece that changed the sociopolitical landscape and gave a voice to marginalized minority groups and won Peele an Oscar? No one! But that’s exactly what happened! Get Out tackled the issue of race relations in a way that was completely fresh that we had never seen before – because it was so real! It was also a revolutionary portrayal of the relationship between black people and white people. Normally, this depiction is of a bunch of southern rednecks who harass black people and call them racial slurs (usually complete with another white guy who rescues the black guys). But Get Out gave us a portrayal of the new kind of racism. The white people seem like well-meaning, forward-thinking liberals, but even in this crowd, we can see how Chris would feel unnerved and uncomfortable in this environment. Peele has the sharp eye and the passion and the vision to capture this on screen perfectly. Everyone in the audience – whatever their race is – is put in Chris’ shoes and it’s terrifying. This is a horror movie about the real horrors in the world. The whole movie – even the auctioning off of black peoples and the experiments on them, which are rooted in historical fact – is a powerful mirror being held in front of society. Amazing stuff.
Whoever said that a horror movie can’t be as well crafted a piece of cinema as an intimate drama or a historical epic had to eat their words when they saw last year’s beautifully shot big screen adaption of the classic Stephen King novel It. Well, the first part of what will be a two part adaptation at least. Rather than rely on cheap jump scares like a lot of horror directors, Andy Muschietti used suspense and camera angles and mise en scene to send a chill down your spine. And when did child actors get so darn good? The likes of Finn Wolfhard and Sophia Lillis can act circles around most of the adult actors working today. It may be adapted from a book, so the premise is nothing new, but still, it has to be mentioned that the concept of a vicious monster who terrorizes only the children of a small town and can’t be seen by adults and manifests itself as each child’s worst fear is just about the greatest idea for a horror story ever conceived. Trust Stephen King! Most horror movie premises go after just one of your fears – this one goes after all of them! The movie is wrought with deep themes and meaning – the fact that only the kids can see the monster is just about the best metaphor for the struggles of childhood and coming of age that anyone has ever come up with.
1. A Quiet Place
Just like with Jordan Peele and Get Out, who could’ve ever expected John Krasinski – better known for smirking at the camera in The Office – would direct and star in one of the finest horror masterpieces in recent memory, or maybe ever? All horror movies need to begin with a fantastic premise. Haunted houses and zombies and demonic possessions have been overdone at this point, and most writers and directors just lazily pick out of them out of a hat. But Krasinski and his writing team started off with a genuinely original premise – blind creatures have taken over the world using their acute sense of sound, and if they hear the slightest noise, they pounce out of the cornfield and eat you. But the premise isn’t enough – you need the execution, too. Luckily, Krasinski was prepared and considered every possible scenario and eventuality in this world in great depth. So, we see suicide by yelling, a deaf girl living in a world without sound, childbirth where the mother in labor has to remain completely silent, keeping a baby in a box just to keep it quiet etc. – but the greatest part about Krasinski’s execution of A Quiet Place is his use of silence. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg have shown us that silence can be used to build suspense in the most incredible ways. It gets the heartrate going. Krasinski built on this by giving us a mostly silent film that racks up the tension continuously from start to finish. So many horror movies these days are so loud and abrasive, so it’s nice to see someone deviate from that for once. A Quiet Place is truly phenomenal and unique.