It’s always great when we come across horror movies that have something to say and offer us something more than a bunch of lazy jumpscares and disposable characters and it seems that in recent years, through the works of talented directors such as Ari Aster, Robert Eggers or Mike Flanagan, we are experiencing some kind of horror renaissance.
This list features ten 21st century horror movies that are not only scary but tried to do something more with the genre. Their complexity stands in different things, be it their intricate plots, underlying themes, their multi-layered characters or their overall approach to horror.
Let us know in the comments which are your 10 most complex films of the 21st century.
10. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Kim Jee-woon’s psychological horror is the highest-grossing Korean horror film ever made and the kind of movie you will not get from Hollywood – unless, of course, if you are thinking about the film’s 2009 lackluster remake called “The Uninvited”.
“A Tale of Two Sisters” is inspired by the old Korean folktale of “Jangha and Hongryeon” and follows Su-mi, a young girl who is returning home from a mental institution where she has been staying since the death of her mother. At home, she is reunited with her father, her sister and her stepmother, a woman who the girls despise. Not only the two girls have to endure their stepmother’s cruel behaviour, but strange events start to occur inside the house and dark secrets are soon revealed.
“A Tale of Two Sisters” is visually stunning, superbly acted and contains one of the most complex and challenging stories you will find in a horror film. You might find this film’s plot somewhat difficult to understand, but if you pay attention and connect all the dots, it this is a very rewarding story.
9. The Babadook (2014)
“The Babadook” was directed by Jennifer Kent and stars Essie Davis as a woman whose husband died in a violent car accident and who has to raise her six-year-old son Sam all by herself. Sam, who was born on the same day his father died, is a difficult child to raise and his mother finds it hard to love him. When Sam starts having strange dreams featuring a terrifying monster called the Babadook, things get out of control and soon his bizarre behavior takes a toll on his mother’s psyche.
“The Babadook” works great as a horror film and will scare you nevertheless. However, this is much more than a creepy movie and if you look deeper under the surface you will find out that the film stands out as a metaphor on grief and the difficulties of self-raising a problematic child. The Babadook itself is a symbol of the real-life horrors of childhood, when parents can sometimes turn out to be the true boogeyman.
8. Oculus (2013)
Mike Flanagan has emerged as one of the best horror filmmakers of the last decade. With films like “Oculus”, “Hush”, “Gerald’s Game”, “Ouija: Origin of Evil”, and – probably his best work to date – the Netflix TV series “The Haunting of Hill House”, Flanagan proved himself able to create superbly crafted horror films filled with complex and memorable characters, clever frights and a perfect balance between scares and drama.
If we could have chosen any of his works to put on this list, it would have been “The Haunting of Hill House”, but since this a movie list, we had to make a tough choice and ultimately picked out “Oculus”, which is probably the most similar to his masterful TV show.
Just like “The Haunting of Hill House”, “Oculus” revolves around a family tragedy in the past which left deep marks on the now adult children. Kaylie and Tim Russel are siblings both in their early twenties and haunted by their past. 11 years ago, their father killed their mother and Tim shot his father to death. Since then, he has been living in a psychiatric facility and has tried to make sense of what has happened to his family when he was ten years old.
When he meets his sister for the first time in a long while, Tim is forced to remember the horrors of his childhood as his sister insists that the crimes were caused by a supernatural entity linked to an antique mirror they had in their family home. Through an elaborate plan, the two siblings try to find out if the mirror’s powers are real or the entire haunted mirror story was just their minds’ mechanism to cope with childhood trauma.
Taking inspiration from “The Shining”, Flanagan recreated the idea of a haunted hotel which can take a toll on the inhabitants’ minds. However, this time the haunted hotel has become an evil mirror which makes those around it lose their minds.
The film perfectly reproduces the feeling of not knowing if your judgement is clear or not. However, unlike Kubrick’s “The Shining”, where the viewers always knew when what they were seeing was just a figment of the characters’ imagination, in Flanagan’s “Oculus” the characters’ point of view is unreliable, making it hard to discern what is real from what is not even for those watching.
The fear of losing one’s mind is one of the worst human fears and throughout this film Flanagan recreates it to perfection. The film’s intricate and inventive plot makes the best out of the haunted mirror trope and places “Oculus” among the most intelligent and complex horror films of this century.
7. Saw (2004)
The twisted, sick and overly entertaining first entry in the “Saw” franchise launched James Wan’s career as one of the most successful horror directors of this century. The film revolves around two strangers who wake up in a room, with no knowledge about how they got there. Soon, they are faced with a series of deadly puzzles masterminded by a mysterious figure called Jigsaw.
While this is not the best movie from a technical/actor performance point of view, “Saw” stood out with its twisty, intricate plot, the elaborate use of flashbacks for storytelling and its overall inventiveness. It is no wonder that it is still regarded as one of the most influential horror films of this century.
6. Martyrs (2008)
Pascal Laugier’s extreme horror is one of the most intense and spine-tingling films of all time. While “Martyrs” is filled with gore and many hard to watch moments, there is a good reason for all the disturbing imagery the films contains and unlike many other violent and bloody horrors, Laugier’s film isn’t shocking just for the sake of being shocking. “Martyrs” totally justifies the extremism and after watching the film’s unexpected ending you have to agree that there was no other way to tell this story and have the same impact.
The film follows Lucie Jurin, a young woman who was traumatized as a child after being abducted and abused for a year, until she managed to escape her captors. 15 years later, Lucie is set for revenge as she discovers the whereabouts of the people who tortured her as a child. However, throughout her blood-filled journey of revenge, Lucie stumbles upon a disturbing conspiracy which provides a much more sinister perspective upon everything that she went through.
It is hard to say much more about “Martyrs” without entering the spoiler territory. We will resume to saying that this is one of the most unique, elaborate, and polarising horror films ever made and an unsettling yet unforgettable experience.