That a horror film can be considered intelligent is a fact taken for granted today; but it hasn’t always been so. The horror genre has a bit of a spotty history when it comes to receiving respect and the requisite funding needed to earn that esteem. In the early days of cinema, horror films tended to be kept out of the celebratory spotlight and relegated to the corner of the public stage normally reserved for various sideshows. While careening from sensationalism to extravagance to camp to outright silliness, Scare fare has persistently sought equal footing in the cinematic market.
With the passing years has come increased acclaim for the horror films that strive to “get it right,” and many of these now rank among the most elite movies. The 21st century has carried on that trend, and produced a number of classic entries into the horror canon. Here are ten of the smartest and most elegant efforts of the current century’s first twenty years.
10. A Dark Song (2016) – Liam Gavin
In a genre overflowing with oversimplified and dumbed down magic, A Dark Song stands out from the crowd. A quintessential example of a thinking person’s horror film, it spells out its magic in the best possible way – not by watering it down, but rather by presenting it in as much thorough detail as a movie script can contain. In fact, it’s one of the most accurate presentations of ritual magic ever put on screen.
A grieving mother hires an occultist to help her contact the ghost of her dead son, and the two move to an isolated house to begin a months-long magic ritual. At the end of the rigorous rite, the occultist promises, the mother will gain her wish. The magical process turns out to be difficult and exhausting, and after several months tempers start to flare and isolation takes its toll. The magic will get results, but can the pair stick with the program carefully enough to get the results they want? Either way, A Dark Song builds to an unforgettable climax that’s worth the wait.
9. The Village (2004) – M. Night Shyamalan
Though scores of self-styled horror critics dismissed The Village for failing to live up to their own preconceived notions of what it should be, many serious students of cinema recognized that it contains more than meets the eye.
Those willing to approach the film on its own substantial merits will find a remarkably astute analysis of the psychology of fear and the mechanisms of cult control. Couple these intelligent themes with an engaging storyline, and the result is one of the smartest recent films in the horror genre.
The setting is a quiet village in the woods where residents live a simple rural existence. All seems idyllic, but we soon learn that the woods surrounding the village are home to terrifying creatures which the villagers live in constant fear of.
The locals have formed a truce with the creatures based on humans staying out of the woods, but when one of their own becomes dangerously sick the villagers have to find medicine somewhere. The situation leads to a confrontation with the creatures which challenges the worldview of all who live in the village.
8. The VVitch (2015) – Robert Eggers
The Witch has a decidedly retro horror feel while still managing to succeed as a modern classic. Refusing to compromise its own voice, it’s a film that escapes easy categorization and description. What’s certain is that The Witch is understated and elegant while remaining genuinely unsettling. Through its choice of language, which is minimalistic and eloquent, the movie immediately pulls the viewer into its own universe, where anything is possible.
In 17th century New England, a local family decides to leave their insular church congregation and start a new life outside the community. The church elders declare that evil and trouble will certainly follow the family, and when things start to go wrong, appearances agree.
When a tragedy befalls the secluded family, suspicions flare among the family members, and even accusations of witchcraft start to fly. Has the family in fact been cursed, or has isolation loosened their grip on reality? Waiting to discover the answer is a cinematic pleasure in The Witch.
7. The Wailing (2016) – Na Hong-jin
When a Japanese man comes to live in a South Korean town, he keeps to himself and lives a quiet life. But, coinciding with his arrival, a strange sickness breaks out in the village, and the stranger comes under immediate suspicion. A police investigator tackles the case with an open mind, but is quickly deluged with wild stories about the mysterious newcomer. As the body count increases, paranoia and fear threaten the sanity and the lives of all involved.
This South Korean film delivers its terror with a double-edged sword: not only does it depict genuinely frightening physical events, it also dives into the dangerous psychological realms of paranoia and suspicion. Delving into themes of Eastern mythology, The Wailing shows itself to be a supremely literate movie while still unleashing plenty of frights upon those who dare to undertake a viewing.
6. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – Guillermo del Toro
Horror master Guillermo del Toro helped to build his considerable reputation with this chilling classic. As always, del Toro’s horror film is both stylish and terrifying, with neither quality being diminished by the presence of the other. And while its message, partly relating to the events of the Spanish Civil War, is undeniably intelligent, The Devil’s Backbone never sacrifices the importance of the narrative at hand.
The Devil’s Backbone presents a young orphan boy named Carlos who is sent to the Santa Lucia School for training and care. The tenants of the school are a mixture of kindness, apathy, and hostility, but Carlos soon realizes that his new home houses dangerous secrets. The ghost of another boy stalks the halls, and may hold answers to the mysteries of the school.