In recent years, specialty production studios like A24 and Blumhouse have taken chances on unique against-the-grain horror films. Films like Hereditary and Get Out, once destined to be rarely seen cult films, have been successful in finding a wider audience while still committing to an artistic authenticity.
With the resurgence in popularity of original horror content, it is important to remember the modern films that laid the groundwork for all of this to be possible, films that conveyed a sense of artistic integrity in the horror genre. The films listed below are some of the greatest cult horror films of the 21st century, films that failed to find a large audience upon release but live on through the committed reverence of horror movie fans across the globe.
10. The House of the Devil
Although this list celebrates films released in the 21st century, this first film is a clear throwback to the horror films of past decades. Released in 2009 and directed by Ti West, The House of the Devil sets off into the well-tread horror territory of “babysitter has a bad time in a creepy house”. But, the film makes up for its lack of a wholly original story with stylistic direction and a fierce dedication to its 1980s setting.
In order to maintain the 80s horror aesthetic, Ti West decided to shoot on 16mm film. This produced a grainy effect that made the film feel and look like a genuine 80s flick. So much so in fact that it’s easy to forget The House of the Devil is a contemporary horror film. While this might not seem all that original in the era of 80s revival thanks to popular entertainment like Stranger Things and IT, in 2009 it was a bold decision to make.
Context of the time is a necessary factor when discussing the movie’s cult status. Popular horror in the early 2000’s was hell bent on ramping up the gore, relying on jump-scare tactics, or a mixture of the two. The House of the Devil stood in stark contrast to these formulas, instead opting for the slow burn tactics of a bygone era. At a time when the Saw franchise was going for gross-out, The House of the Devil took its time with stylistic retrogradation and creeping occult horror, effectively cementing itself as a cult classic.
9. The Devil’s Backbone
The third feature film from legendary director Guillermo del Toro follows a newly orphaned 12-year-old boy during the Spanish Civil War as he discovers his orphanage is haunted by a dark apparition. The setting and time-period are quite unique to horror and that still rings true today. What makes the film great is the way it melds these factors with del Toro’s gothic sensibilities and beautiful imagery to create a horror film like no other.
Immediately upon its release in 2001, The Devil’s Backbone’s imagery already felt iconic. The orphanage feels lived in and realistic to the time; during the day the clouds of dust produce a haze and at night the surrounding fog is palpable. If you’ve seen The Devil’s Backbone I’m sure the first image that comes to mind is the massive defused bomb looming large in the courtyard. The film is littered with imagery just as effective, symbology both subtle and clear.
The Devil’s Backbone takes time to breathe, allowing the horror to creep into all senses while slowly plotting the relationships between each character and their places within the overall mystery. If you’ve seen any recent del Toro films, you know his penchant for unique gothic terror. The Devil’s Backbone has traces of what del Toro would become and is an early example of a modern auteur finding his voice.
8. Kill List
Kill List was director Ben Wheatley’s cult-horror follow up to his 2009 feature debut Down Terrace. The film is about a retired hitman with a crumbling family life unenthusiastically ending his retirement in a time of financial trouble for one last “it’s too good to say no” job. It is also one of the most twisting, unnerving, and flat out disturbing films on this list.
The horror of Kill List is subtle, until it isn’t. The movie begins like any other: there is set up to the characters and their lives, there is exposition for backstory and there is an introduction to the mostly handheld cinematography and lo-fi aesthetic. This introduction of character and style is typical for a first act, but something feels different about Kill List.
From the get go, there is an eerie quality to what’s happening on screen. There are hints given, both obvious and subtle, throughout the film. The flashes of raw, brutally disturbing violence consistently build until the film reaches its explosive fever pitch of a finale. Kill List is a disturbing exercise in horrific mind-fuckery that is purely a product of its creator’s vision and well deserving of its cult status.
7. Trick ‘R Treat
Perfect around Halloween time, Trick ‘R Treat is an energetic anthology film with stories that all take place on one Halloween night. The non-linear storytelling allows for each segment to play like a horrific slice-of-life glimpse into a small town haunted by Sam, an iconic creepy trick-or-treater dressed in burlap who strictly enforces the rules of Halloween, often with deadly consequences. As the characters and stories begin to intertwine, Trick ‘R Treat reveals itself to be a darkly comic and unabashedly terrifying cult classic.
Trick ‘R Treat failed to find a large audience upon its release but has since become a Halloween tradition for many horror fans. The balance between creepy and fun is hard to keep steady, but each short in the anthology has a delirious playfulness that stays thematically on point while also pushing the narrative forward. If you’re looking for a good horror anthology this month, add Trick ‘R Treat to the list and you won’t be disappointed.
The first feature from micro-budget horror wonder-duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Resolution is a lo-fi indie horror masterpiece. The film feels like what The Cabin in the Woods should have been; a kinetic mish-mash of subverted horror clichés, uprooted and doled out in unique ways that keep the viewer guessing on where exactly the horror is coming from.
This is a small film with big ideas, made on an impressively low budget. Concise in its commentary on horror in general, Resolution analyzes the relationship between audience and filmmaker. It is also a testament to creativity. Resolution’s sheer creative ambition is an inspiration to aspiring filmmakers of all ages and backgrounds, solidifying its place as a cult classic among indie horror fans.