As we moved into “The Noughties” (a popular term that’s been affixed to the first decade of the 21st century), and after two decades of relative stability and peace in Western society, the world found itself yet again in the midst of a major shift: opening with 9/11–the worst terror attack in recorded history–and ending in a global financial meltdown, to call the decade turbulent is an understatement.
It was also a decade where escapist films made a triumphant return to cinema: The Lord of the Rings films became gigantic hits with audiences, Harry Potter was a mainstream staple, and the rise of the superhero genre ushered in big-budget franchises that continue into this decade.
The horror genre–itself being a kind of escapism, though much darker than a world of hobbits and heroes–also raised its stakes during the 2000s, rebounding from the slump it experienced in the 1990s. And all across the world, groundbreaking horror films were being produced that heightened what could be depicted in the genre.
This international scope is reflected in this list: all 10 films detailed in this article were produced outside of the USA and represent some of the best horror films to come out in the first, difficult decade of this young century.
1. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A teenage girl returns home from a stay in an institution and reunites with her family, including her sister, father, and stepmother. The two teenage sisters have a strained relationship with their stepmother, who was their mother’s nurse before she passed.
Strange, supernatural events begin to occur during the house while their stepmother begins acting increasingly cruel towards them, a situation that culminates in acts of awful violence. But whether these disturbing events are happening at all soon becomes the true mystery of the movie.
This South Korean psychological horror film was a hit in its home country–the highest grossing Korean horror film of all time, in fact–and was the first horror film from that country to receive a theatrical release in the United States. Based on a Korean fairy tale, it has been adapted numerous times throughout the 20th century but never before with the dark, graphic style in which A Tale of Two Sisters interprets it.
This film would prove to be highly influential on future Korean horror films, which would rise in popularity (and notoriety) in the ensuing years. Remade in the US as The Uninvited in 2009, the original is both superior and far more unnerving.
2. Three… Extremes (2005)
An actress seeking to reclaim her youth buys dumplings from a mysterious woman that she promises will rejuvenate her, but the dumplings are made from a disturbing source, and she soon finds herself having to make her own; an extra kidnaps a director and his wife, forcing them into a dangerous game with gruesome and tragic consequences; and a circus performer-turned-novelist recalls her past with her lost twin sister, who she had apparently murdered, but soon begins to question what is real and fantasy in her mind.
This anthology highlights three East Asian directors in a decade where Asian horror films began to find an international audience. The three short films–directed by Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike, respectively–reflect the stylish, shocking style that has become signature of horror films from this region.
But it also works best as an introduction to neophytes to the more graphic horror films from this region, as this trio of short films aren’t nearly as extreme as many other contemporary selections of Asian horror from this time.
3. The Descent (2005)
Six women go on a spelunking adventure together, although tensions are high between two of them, Juno and Sarah, since Juno abandoned Sarah when Sarah’s husband and daughter died in a car accident the year before. Hoping to restore their friendship, Juno leads the group into an unexplored cave system, but a collapse traps them underground with no rescue possible.
With trust in each other also collapsing, the situation goes from bad to worse when underground humanoids begin to attack them and gruesome accidents begin to disable members of the group. As the monsters grow nearer, consuming the women one by one, the personal strain between Juno and Sarah meets to a violent conclusion.
The Descent is not for the claustrophobic: effectively using the setting of an underground cave system to great effect, so much so that the events in the film before the monsters arrive are just as unnerving as those afterwards. The creatures in the film are similarly terrifying creations, as half-human/half-bat albinos go, and the graphic depiction of their savagery brings the horror to this already suspenseful film.
The all-female cast adds to the novelty of the film, which focuses just as much on the deteriorating interpersonal relationships between them as the situation becomes more dire, and the merciless plotting leaves the viewer thoroughly disturbed up to its last scene. One of the most critically acclaimed horror films of the decade, The Descent is a horror film that heads into the darkness only to plunge further with no apparent escape in sight.
4. Them (2006)
In a remote area of Romania, a husband and wife settle into their new home when they are suddenly under siege by an unknown group of people who terrorize them inside their house. After the husband is injured they escape into the woods, where they are further pursued by this group.
The wife is captured and tortured while the husband realizes, to his horror, that they are a group of children–teenagers and younger–who are seemingly doing this to them for no other reason than it amuses them. But of course this is a horror movie, so it doesn’t end there…
A brief film, Them (titled Ils in its native French) runs for just 77 minutes, but it makes good use of its time by keeping the suspense high throughout. For a film that lacks any substantial gore, the execution of the premise and playing on the audience’s fears–of being hunted by an unknown party for no reason, children belying their innocence through malicious acts, physical isolation from safety–provides Them its true power as a horror film.
By making its enemies (supposedly innocent) adolescents instead of some fantastic monster, after watching it you may become wary of any youngsters you come across in the woods–or else cancel an upcoming cabin rental completely.
5. Frontier(s) (2007)
In a French horror film that strangely echoes present concerns, when a far-right wing candidate becomes President, a gang of young Muslim Arabs decide to commit a robbery while Paris is engulfed in riots. Their heist is successful, and they flee to a hostel near the border seeking escape from the increasingly radicalized country. Unfortunately, the hostel is run by a family of cannibalistic neo-Nazis…
Starting in the 2000s, New French Extremism has become an increasingly visible film movement produced by the country, with a number of graphic horror and exploitation films attached to this title. Frontier(s) is one of the most politically charged products from this movement, a film bathed in gore and shocking violence, while it also addresses the increasingly radicalized political atmosphere the country is experiencing, particularly its attitude towards Muslim immigrants and refugees.
Although released a decade ago, now with the upcoming French election and a candidate who reflects many of the explicit attitudes the far-right faction does in this film, Frontier(s) is perhaps more timely than any other film on this list–and for this reason, its horror is all the more impactful.