As with many of the best horror movies, what you find on the surface isn’t necessarily indicative of the truth. The same concept can be applied to the state of modern horror films. While cinemas undoubtedly promote the most boilerplate and crowd-pleasing of the bunch, if you dig a little bit deeper you’ll find the true heart of the genre. Some popular picks and some hidden gems, listed below are the 25 best horror movies of the 21st century.
25. The Strangers
Upon its release, The Strangers billed itself as “inspired by true events”. This turned out to be a smart marketing ploy, but not entirely truthful. Loosely inspired by an early childhood memory of writer/director Bryan Bertino, The Strangers is so terrifying because it feels real. A savagely still and realistically brutal take on the home invasion sub-genre, the film quickly attached itself to audience paranoias with the simple line/idea: “Because you were home”.
After the success of Saw in 2004, director James Wan wanted to prove he could make a horror film just as scary without featuring the over-the-top gore the Saw franchise had become so closely tied to. Thus, Insidious was born. Wan’s take on the tried-and-true possession formula proved to be anything by formulaic. The unique use of the astral plane and creative demon designs where enough to spawn a franchise, something James Wan would prove to be unusually adept at, but the first film is still the best of the bunch.
23. Lake Mungo
A criminally underseen “mockumentary” horror film even to this day, Lake Mungo is one of the best films to come out of Australia in the 21st century. Written and directed by Joel Anderson, Lake Mungo brilliantly uses the documentary format to tell a bone-chilling ghost story of supernatural terror and human loss.
While watching Lake Mungo, it almost seems impossible that it isn’t a real documentary. The unknown and untrained actors offer unsettlingly realistic performances that convey deeply the unavoidable tragedy of loss. The film tells a very human story and uses the documentary formula so precisely that when the scares come—they linger. A true hidden gem.
22. Funny Games
In 2007, writer and director Michael Haneke released this English language shot-for-shot remake of his own 1997 film of the same name. Another unique twist on the home intruder sub-genre, Funny Games might be the most disturbing film on this list.
Watching a happy family succumb to the sociopathic brutality of two detached rich kids is not even close to entertainment, in fact it can be emotionally draining to sit through, but what Haneke has done here is offer both a terrifying vision of the absence of empathy while simultaneously commenting on the relationship between audiences and the films they watch. Funny Games is a deeply unsettling example of a director’s unwavering dedication to a dark vision.
21. The Conjuring
The second (and not last) film on this list by director James Wan to spawn a franchise, The Conjuring is a modern update of 1970’s haunted house flicks. Based on the “true” paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring is a lovingly crafted popcorn horror film that turned out to be a box office smash.
Bringing in a worldwide gross of $319.5 million on a $20 million budget, the film’s massive success reignited horror as a genre for wide release. The truly incredible thing however, was that The Conjuring managed to reach a large audience while keeping some artistic merit intact. A well-paced story mixed with some genuine freights and deliberate direction make this one of the best successful horror films in recent years.
Pulse (or Kairo) is a 2001 Japanese horror film about specters in the age of the internet. Admittedly a bit dated now, Pulse was one of the first horror films to embrace the potential terror of 21st century technology. Since its release, the film has garnered a passionate cult following.
What makes Pulse so unnerving is in its defiance of early 2000s horror tropes; using the power of suggestion and audience imagination rather than relying on gore for frights.
19. The Ritual
One of the best horror offerings in the “Netflix Original” lineup, The Ritual is an air-tight and moody piece of filmmaking. On the surface it’s a story of survival in a wilderness haunted by supernatural terrors, but at its core The Ritual is about the deeply personal ramifications of shared tragedy.
Boasting great performances, haunting cinematography, an entertaining yet layered script and a refreshingly creative monster design, if you have Netflix make sure to give this one a look.
Yet another James Wan franchise starter, the original Saw is often underappreciated due to the deteriorating quality of its sequels. While those films are known for their Rube Goldberg-esq traps and buckets of blood, Saw was a much quieter film.
Taking place mostly in one location and heavily dependent on the performances of its two leading men, Saw wove an intriguing mystery that coalesced into a now iconic twist ending. It is not without its fair share of horrific traps and gore though, but unlike the films that would follow, Wan used these situations as appetizers of the plot rather than the main course.