Genre fans have been joyously experiencing a horror renaissance in recent years as mainstream cinema outlets and soaring box-office receipts reinforce that fright films have gone populist across the board. While this doesn’t always bode well for diehard fans who dig the transgressive elements of horror over trendy Stephen King adaptations, for instance (and certainly some of those are truly outstanding), it does also mean that auteurs like Peter Strickland somehow gets financing for effed-up horror fare like In Fabric (2019).
Horror films, when done right, regularly deal with mankind’s own dark psychology, the visceral excitement of danger, the ecstatic rush of the shared experience and they have also proven repeatedly that horror is truly a director’s genre.
All the films listed here represent the very best of the horror genre, and while some choices are sure to surprise and enrage some readers (this is the internet after all) we urge you to join the discussion and add titles we may have overlooked in the comments section below (be nice!).
Now get ready for some serious scares as we detail the 25 Best Horror Films of the 21st Century!
25. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
This first-rate anthology film from writer-director Michael Dougherty is custom made to be a perennial October classic, alongside films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which horror fans trot out every autumn to embrace the blood-flecked and pumpkin-scented spirit of the season.
A genre film for genre fans, Trick ‘r Treat energetically embraces the best time of year with old fashion fun and freaked-out uncertainty as it weaves together overlapping tales of terror unfolding on the same Halloween night.
All of these sinister tales, which include a strong cast with the likes of Dylan Baker, Leslie Bibb, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin amongst them, are loosely tied via a now iconic new character to the horror canon; Sam (short for “Samhain”). Portrayed by Quinn Lord, Sam is a mysterious and macabre child trick-or-treater, cloaked in a burlap sack over footie pjs, he unleashes a cruel authority over all of those who break with established Halloween traditions (such as snuffing out the candle of a Jack-o-Lantern before the stroke of midnight).
Creepy, funny, suspenseful, and well-executed, Trick ‘r Treat is that rarest of anthology films that doesn’t have a stinker in the bunch, and so few films really capture the look, feel, and frightening atmosphere that Halloween can provide.
24. Alleluia (2014)
This haunting, heady, and suggestive thriller from Belgium provocateur Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire) was partially inspired by the true-crime catastrophe The Honeymoon Killers in this 2014 surreal and sexy chiller Alleluia. Lola Dueñas is incredible as lonesome single-mother Gloria who is affected by Michel (Laurent Lucas), a sketchy manipulator with a foot fetish and plentiful sexual prowess.
Gloria and Michel are soon pulling deadly bait-and-switch schemes on vulnerable women and Du Welz goes to artistic extremes, sequences pop with color that recalls vintage Dario Argento, and zigzags into other genres; a few scenes play out like full-on horror and then there’s an out of the blue musical showstopper that is absolutely breathtaking. Alleluia isn’t like most films, it’s an orgiastic procession of sexuality, fantasy, fears, and fucked up love. Not to be missed.
23. Green Room (2016)
Offering an extremely vicious and unbearably intense punk rock variant on Rio Bravo by way of Assault on Precinct 13, Jeremy Saulnier‘s intense shocker, Green Room, is catnip for extreme action thriller fans and horror hounds alike.
At the ass end of an awful tour, Pat (Anton Yelchin) and his noisy punk band, The Ain’t Rights, are desperate for dough and so find themselves headlining a gig at a backwoods skinhead bar, way off the map, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Soon the band bares terrible witness to something oh so grisly in the titular green room and soon the same room is all that stands between them and a blood-simple, machete-wielding, Neo-Nazi mob, led by a pants-shittingly-terrifying Patrick Stewart.
In Green Room, survival is a fool’s paradise, and hope but a mere blink in a broken beer bottle. As one brazenly executed action sequence follows another in bloody and rapid succession, duress and bloodshed reach a fever pitch. The sustained intense onslaughts on our tapering heroes effectively obliterates any notions of assurance for the audience. No one and nothing is safe and salvation seems impossibly distant, if at all. A more thought-provoking and brilliantly paced horror film with so palpable a physicality you will not find.
22. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Eerie atmospherics and a mournful child ghost haunts the heart of Mexican fabulist Guillermo del Toro’s melancholic masterpiece from 2001, The Devil’s Backbone. One of the most personal films in del Toro’s distinguished filmography, this is also one of his most terrifying and emotionally complex.
Unraveling in Spain in 1939, at the close of the Spanish Civil War, del Toro and co-writers David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras tell the tragic tale of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a twelve-year-old boy who, after his freedom-fighting father is killed fighting the fascists, is sent to a rural orphanage full of sadness, terror, and terrible secrets.
Del Toro both methodically and passionately combines the gothic ghost story, the historical melodrama and a riveting murder mystery into a formal and frightening mélange that is carefully designed to dramatically articulate that the most horrific and shocking monsters are the human ones.
21. The Wailing (2016)
Cleverly constructed and incredibly atmospheric, this South Korean horror film from director Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea ) is a disturbing journey deep into the heart of darkness. Uncertainty and unhealthy suspicion decays into hysteria when rural Goksung villagers connect a string of ferocious murders to the arrival of a mysterious Japanese visitor (Kunimura Jun).
Investigating Officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) soon finds himself in the center of a savage and genuinely formidable fright film with shamans, femme fatales, demonic possession and other assorted nightmares. This brief descriptor is deliberately vague so as not to give away anymore of this surprising genre mashup in what’s one of the most surprising, powerful, and ominously imaginative chillers in recent memory. This is a film that moves along at an unhurried clip but with all the inevitability of a freight train docking the half-emptied rail yards in the dead of night. Not to be missed.
20. The Love Witch (2016)
Los Angeles-based filmmaker Anna Biller (Viva ) gives audiences a delightfully macabre exercise in sassy seduction and strange, vintage sensations with The Love Witch, a visually lush film that feels like it was made in another era, except that it’s adorned with bracingly modernistic designs.
Stunning to look at and thrilling to think about throwback to the Technicolor melodramas of the swinging 60s and the sexploitation cinema that supervened, The Love Witch stars a smashing Samantha Robinson as Elaine, the eponymous witch.
Beautiful but bloodthirsty, Elaine is determined to find the man of her dreams and will cast spells and brew strange potions to manipulate the men around her until she finds her ideal muse.
Biller’s inspired and kaleidoscopic set design, sumptuous costumes, and deliberately superannuated aesthetic is a crafty coup de cinema, combined with an excellently effective soundtrack and kitschy ornamentation that makes The Love Witch a ravishing and ineffable entertainment and magic made manifest.
19. Climax (2018)
Argentinian enfant terrible filmmaker Gaspar Noé may now at long last finally have his masterpiece with Climax, an unimaginably beautiful nightmare mixture of ecstatic dance and horror most extreme. An absolutely mindblowing, and occasionally frustrating experience, Climax is as detailed and delirious as an Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.
Part Busby Berkeley dance number (think 42nd Street ) and part Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous Salò (1975), the film also benefits from a diverse and engaging cast of characters; members of a hip-hop dance troupe in 1996.
As Climax opens we hit the ground running, first glimpsing the film’s “final girl” clawing through the snow before backing us up narratively speaking, where we witness a whirlingly choreographed dance sequence in the troupe’s remote rehearsal space, set to pulsating era-appropriate EDM and shot in a single, staggering, trance-inducing take. To say that it’s riveting feels too basic, it’s an all-consuming feat of strength, and probably the most engrossing dance number you’ve ever borne witness to. So many different dancing styles coalesce; krumpers, voguers, and wackers, and all with an astounding fluidity, energy, and grace, it’s druggy just to take it all in. Wow.
But before long the film moves from Saturday Night Fever-style dance drama to full-on drug horror as the troupe comes to realize someone has spiked their celebratory sangria with some obscenely high-dose LSD.
Polarized reactions to Climax are not at all unwarranted given the dark and degenerate eruptions of terror –– trigger warnings abound –– but for the very brave or perhaps the youthfully naïve, Climax is a shocking and sinister pièce de résistance.
18. REC (2007)
What’s this? An entry in the overdone found-footage subgenre? Sure, by the time 2007 rolled around it felt like the Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity films and imitators had run the concept into the well-trod ground. Well, leave it to Spanish writer/director team of Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza to give the found-footage freakout nightmarish new life with the seriously sinister, utterly off-the-rails rollercoaster ride, REC.
Set in one apartment building complex under quarantine and beset by a macabre and menacing virus, this is a fright film that leaves tangible dread lurking in every dark margin and gloom overwhelming so many of its tightly framed, smartly choreographed, and excruciatingly tense and intense shots. REC is a relentless horror movie that plunges the viewer deeper and darker with each turn, extinguishing hope as it drags you down into its Byzantine and artfully nightmarish hellscape.