The 20 greatest horror films of the 21st century

At the turn of the 21st century, horror fans were still recovering from the onslaught of violence that emerged from the slasher craze of the 1980s, particularly as many of the icons of the infamous decade were still lurking in the shadows. Freddy Krueger had his final ‘90s outing with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, whilst Michael Myers enjoyed his final outing in 1998s Halloween H20 until his character’s reboot years later.

Though, it was once the horror genre had been slapped across the face by the financial success of The Blair Witch Project that there was no going back. Cropping out from the darkest corners of small-town America and cinema worldwide came replicas and rip-offs, some of which were great, most of which were almost unwatchable. The era of found footage had begun. 

New technologies saw a horror ascension, giving many outside the studio system the chance to create and explore the genre without the need for large budgets and effects. Though despite this, the bizarre cinematic zeitgeist of the new millennium was for gore in extremity. James Wan’s Saw franchise rolled out seven films across the decade whilst the short-lived Hostel, inspired by new wave French extremity, was also proving popular. 

More recently, independent distribution company A24 has brought eerie low-budget psychological horror into the mainstream, elevated to be more than just cheap gore. Instead, horror is now a tool for Jordan Peele to make a statement about modern America in Get Out or by Jennifer Kent to speak of the burden of depression in 2014’s The Babadook.

Horror, as a genre, had to wade through quagmires of found-footage junk in the early 2000s and supernatural Insidious lookalikes of post-2010, it has continued to innovate and inspire behind the scenes. Horror films of late seem to be an amalgamation of different tones and style, with each new great shining new light on horror’s darkest corners.

With that, let’s take a look into the very best from the 21st century so far. 

The 20 best horror films of the 21st century

20. The Borderlands (Elliot Goldner, 2013)

Hindered by a very limited cinematic release, The Borderlands has since enjoyed a quiet cult following, with director Elliot Goldner using the limited tricks at its disposal to bring English folk horror to new contemporary heights.

Set within a church sat on a mound in rural England, the film follows a team of Vatican investigators looking for signs of genuine paranormal activity. Lovingly handmade, The Borderlands is simple found footage filmmaking, utilising the desolate English countryside to create a fragile atmosphere consistently capable of disruption. It all leads to a final climax that well bookends the terror with a surprising, disturbing resolution.

19. Slither (James Gunn, 2006)

Better known for his recent adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn was once a more altogether bizarre writer and director, with his debut feature film a loving ode to the gooey body horror of Sam Raimi and David Cronenberg. 

Bringing body horror back to the contemporary fold, Slither is an ode to the ooze and gunk of the Evil Dead trilogy and 1989’s Society, perfectly fusing intense horror and gross-out comedy for a highly enjoyable, stomach-churning watch. Starring James Gunn mainstays, Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker, Slither remains a self-contained alien romp that takes clichés of old and mutates them into fresh new concepts. 

18. Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)

A director almost solely responsible for the sharp rise in J-horror popularity throughout the late 20th century, along with Hideo Nakata’s ‘90s classic Ringu, Dark Water would bring a bleak tale of Japanese terror to Western audiences. 

Based on the novel of the same name by author Koji Suzuki, 2002s Dark Water follows a mother and her young daughter who move into an eerie apartment that appears to be falling apart due to water damage. Creepy and atmospheric, Dark Water is spiked with a terrifying narrative backbone that gives the film meaning beyond its surface scares and leaves several particularly memorable images burnt into the retinas. 

17. Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

Ari Aster’s second feature film, following his breakout success of Hereditary, fits into the folk horror sub-genre whilst eliciting subtle nods to the pain and torment of a classic romantic breakup movie. 

Fitting this subtext within the realm of folk horror acted as the perfect conduit to tell such a story, with Aster stating: “I just wanted to write a breakup movie, and I saw a way of marrying the breakup movie that I was having at the time with the structure of a folk horror film,” whilst in discussion with YouTube channel Birth.Movies.Death. Following a group of friends who head for a Swedish retreat in the countryside, Midsommar spirals into a terrifying claustrophobic horror that messes with the mind and twists the perception of reality. 

16. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

The most infamous film of the new wave French extremity movement, Martyrs brings untold nastiness to the mainstream fold, encased within a story that is inarguably original and strangely insightful.

Starting off as a good old revenge thriller, Martyrs quickly descends into something far more deprived at around the halfway mark once a girl seeking payback for her disturbing childhood finds herself in an inescapable trap. A truly unique and remarkable narrative turn, Martyrs does something that few provocative horrors ever dare to do, contextualising its madness within a surprisingly contemplative ending.

15. Climax (Gaspar Noé, 2018)

Horror spans many subjective definitions and whilst Climax may not adhere to traditional blood-splattering themes, the environment of hopelessness and dread it creates is truly impressive.

With a background in new French extremity, Gaspar Noé brings similar themes of futility to this strange image of a psychedelic hell. Climax is the definition of a bad trip, following a group of energetic, drug-fuelled dance students to a world of psychological torment. Punctuated with a dark, intense soundtrack, Gaspar Noé continues in his ability to seize the attention of his audiences with provocative and stunning idiosyncratic filmmaking. 

14. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

An independent filmmaker with an intense interest in the psychological side of horror, Ben Wheatley’s breakthrough horror Kill List was later followed by the equally engaging A Field in England and In the Earth.

Unbearably intense, Kill List is a puzzle largely left unanswered, following two hitmen, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) who undergo a gruelling, sinister ‘last job’. An ode to The Wicker Man’s occult themes with the mood of something far darker and more modern, Kill List is an enthralling cinematic enigma that leaves you on the edge of a feeling you can’t quite describe. It’s a truly unnerving viewing experience. 

13. Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Equal parts horror and dark coming-of-age drama, Raw is a disturbing vision of the adolescent struggle as it follows a girl newly enrolled in veterinary college who develops a cannibalistic taste.

Directed by the recent Palme d’Or winner for Titane, Julia Ducournau, Raw is a surprising film in that, despite featuring such animalistic gore, the main takeaway at the film’s conclusion is its deft touch and insightful approach to adolescence, with little to no indulgence in excess. At its very best, Raw is a smart and enthralling take on growing up with shades of horror sprinkled on top to well contextualise the horrors of change.

12. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016)

Mixing the genres of war and horror to provide a strong political backbone, Babak Anvari’s directorial debut is a captivating Iranian horror film that is as much a critical analysis of the terror of war on innocent civilians.

Focusing on 1980s Tehran, Under the Shadow follows a mother and young daughter who are struggling to cope with the terror of a war-torn city, whilst a separate ancient evil plagues their home. A creepy, atmospheric chiller, Anvari’s film provides a genuinely fascinating perspective of war by heightening the horror with the curse of the djinn, supernatural creatures rife throughout Islamic folklore. Winning Outstanding Debut by a British Writer at the 2017 BAFTA Film Awards, Under the Shadow is available on Netflix and is worth your undivided attention.

11. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

The critically acclaimed feature by writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a moody, monochrome film set in a grim, industrial town with the distinctly comic-book name of Bad City.

Inhabited by thugs, drug dealers, prostitutes, junkies, and beggars, the city also happens to contain a young female vampire. Amirpour gives the film the look of a spaghetti western incongruously set in present-day Iran, with generous hints of other film genres, from classic horror to anime. The imagery is striking, from the dreamy close-ups of ordinary objects to the wonderful use of the vampire girl’s flowing chador as a parallel to Dracula’s cape.

10. Pulse (Kairo) (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

A spiritual spin-off to 2000’s Ringu, Pulse played off similar fears of technology at the time, focusing on PC’s and the internet, lumbering pieces of bewildering equipment connected to an ethereal ‘otherworld’.

The film follows a group of young Japanese residents when they believe they are being tailed by dead spirits, and haunted through the screens of their computers. Like many Asian horrors, Pulse brings ancient evil to contemporary life, unsettled spirits terrifyingly realised as malevolent forces, formed together within a gripping mystery of genuine terror.

9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 201)

Jennifer Kent’s fairytale gone wrong follows a single mother’s journey into despair whilst taking care of her autistic child when a mysterious, insidious book appears in her house, joined by a malevolent demon.

Terror lingers and builds to insurmountable dread in this terrific debut feature utilising simple monster production design and practical effects. Injecting horror through the context of the torment of depression and grief, The Babadook is more than a generic monster affair, with even horror legend William Friedkin commenting, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me”.

8. The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

Having only directed two feature films, following a trio of short film projects, it’s truly impressive to acknowledge how much of a following that filmmaker Robert Eggers has gained following 2015s The Witch and The Lighthouse starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. 

Bringing traditional folk-horror to the mainstream, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a dread-filled countryside fairy-tale, perpetuating solitary paranoia in 1630s New England. Where folk-tales of witches were once shot in muddy, cheap grain, Eggers adopts a sharp resolution with fantastic cinematography making use of the limitations of natural light. Dreadful in the best sense of the word.

7. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

Part monster film, part a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, The Descent is a cinematic achievement on the smallest scale. Shot in very limited, tight spaces, the underground world of the film was shot largely on a set, though this is never made obvious.

Horror is at its best when it’s at its most simple, with The Descent playing on the same fears as the unknown fears of a gloomy forest, though replacing this overused cliche for the depths of some underground caves. It’s a horrible, highly uncomfortable watch following a group of young women on a caving expedition in America who find difficulty when the intricate cave system collapses and a new breed of terror stalks their whereabouts. 

6. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

Jordan Peele’s surprising foray into horror in 2017 starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield struck a cultural chord, blending ingenious horror with a cleverly contextualised social statement.

Tracking the experience of Kaluuya’s Chris Washington as he visits his girlfriend’s parents for the very first time, Get Out is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller led by terrific performances and several spiky narrative surprises. Exceptional storytelling sets this apart from the industry norm, playing off the paranoid fears of visiting one’s in-laws with genuine fear and palpable tension that concludes in something quite extraordinary. 

5. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

A game-changer when it comes to the contemporary horror genre, 2018s Hereditary brought brains to the classic horror tale, with the story itself not too extraordinary, but the execution, revolutionary. 

Horrifically hopeless, dread is built upon within an intense hotbed of guilt, envy and regret with help from fantastic performances across the board, specifically from Toni Collette. That car scene is, as a single entity, an example of horror at its very best. Aster’s follow-up Midsommar would cement his prominence in the contemporary horror genre, lacing his bleak narratives with strong subtextual emotion.

4. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)

The idea of a zombie pre-millennium was more of a nuisance than a terrifying threat, something that would knock all your furniture over rather than aim for the jugular. 28 Days Later would change all that.

Giving an ‘infected’ sub-category to the zombie genre, and spawning a whole movement of zombie enthusiasts, 28 Days Later would become a cultural phenomenon. Its now-iconic opening sequence, stalking the ghostly Cillian Murphy around London’s desolate streets, sets a pessimistic benchmark for the rest of the film, a drab, realistic and highly entertaining depiction of viral infection. Whilst its sequel 28 Weeks Later wouldn’t quite reach the same heights, it still continued Danny Boyle’s unique and terrifying take on the classic monster. 

3. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

In the midst of the vampire renaissance in the mid-2000s, Let the Right One In appeared as the dark and twisted counterpart to the cultural sweetheart, Twilight. Instead, the film created a smaller cultural rejuvenation of its own, bringing dark Nordic drama to the forefront of mainstream entertainment.

Following a downtrodden, quiet boy who finds young love in a mysterious girl new to the community, Let the Right One In would spark the career of Tomas Alfredson who would go on to create the tense dramas Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Snowman. Deftly transitioning between quiet drama and brutal, unforgiving horror, Let the Right One In set a new precedent for sophisticated contemporary horror upon its release in 2008.

2. Audition (Takashi Miike, 2001)

One of the finest horror films of the 21st century, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is familiar with the explicitly traumatic, though 1999s Audition takes his disturbing world to new cinematic heights.

Described by the iconic Quentin Tarantino as a “true masterpiece if ever there was one”, in this strange tale of a widower auditioning local women to be his new wife, Miike crafts a slow burner that patiently culminates into a gripping horror. Brewing beneath the surface of this modern classic is something far more sinister, bringing audiences one of the most surprising tonal deviations in all of cinema.

1. Rec. (Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, 2007)

With the help of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, Rec took 21st-century innovations in horror and formed together with its own ingenious take on the genre.

Playing out in real time, Rec follows a TV reporter and a group of firefighters who report to a mysterious disturbance at a block of flats. What conspires to be the result of an occult medical science, Rec spirals into a grungy, dirty take on the infected sub-genre that well suffuses elements of found footage and grungy new extremity horror. The perfect culmination of all that contemporary horror has brought to the table, Rec creates a tangible panic and urgency that keeps you glued into position for 80 minutes.

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