7. Saw (2004) – James Wan
Horror franchises are difficult. On one hand, you can have new production teams tarnishing what was fresh about the original. On the other hand, without sequels, how can your killer become a horror icon?
Like the sequels or not, Saw was one of the most influential horror films of the new century, starting a franchise that’s become one of the highest grossing in history. The film also propelled now-horror goliaths James Wan and Leigh Whannell into the forefront. And it gave us one of the biggest horror icons to come out of this generation: Jigsaw.
One of James’ best, and most marketable attributes is his ability to take low budgets and produce best-selling horror content that earns several times its budget back. Saw was made for a mere $1.2 million dollars, and while it shows in certain areas, the film’s overall quality, in relation to other horror films with quadruple times Saw’s budget, is impressive.
One of the most compelling aspects of the film is the psychological questions it presents to the audience. Wan’s direction aids us in empathizing with the characters stuck in Jigsaw’s traps. As Jigsaw’s creepy puppet stares directly into the camera, it asks both the character and the audience, “How much blood will you shed to stay alive?”
6. Drag Me To Hell (2009) – Sam Raimi
Drag Me To Hell saw Sam Raimi finally return to horror after his stint doing Spider-Man, and it did not disappoint. It tells the story of a young girl, cursed by a gypsy after a hilarious altercation in a parking lot. The curse will cause the young girl to be dragged to hell by a powerful goat demon in three days to be tortured for all eternity, unless the girl can lift the curse.
Drag Me To Hell is one of the most self-aware movies of all time, unapologetic in its B-horror plot, but allowing itself to be embellished by the budget that Raimi’s name provides. It doesn’t try to be more than what it is, which is just good fun. Raimi is his most playful here, with scenes featuring possessed goats and anvil-antics that would rival those of Wile E. Coyote. We can only hope that we will soon see Raimi return to the genre he does best.
5. Let The Right One In (2008) – Thomas Alfredson
Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let The Right One In is one of those few gems that functions both as a horror film and an art piece. It’s a vampire movie that reveals itself somberly, blurring the lines between its influences and a coming-of-age film. The result is something truly unique.
It tells the story of a bullied 12-year-old boy, named Oskar, who finds solace and friendship in his new neighbor, Eli, who is also a vampire. Eli is able to survive by means of Hakan, an older man who lives with Eli. During the night, Hakan sneaks out and murders the civilians of their new suburb, procuring blood for Eli.
What makes Let The Right One In a transcendent work of art is that it makes subtle commentary about cycles of abuse. It contrasts Oskar’s terrors in the schoolyard with Eli’s demands for blood. The relationship that builds between the two children throughout the film stems from a desire they share for freedom.
They are both trapped, Oskar by rules of propriety, and Eli by her biology. Through the mutual darkness they face, the film manages to both attain a sense of warmth between the two, and add new facets to the vampire mythology.
4. The Conjuring (2013) – James Wan
This is the second James Wan film on this list and perhaps his magnum opus to the horror genre. Most contemporary possession films tend to fall flat, and by all accounts, The Conjuring could have easily just been another possession move. Wan’s impeccable direction keeps this from happening.
While The Conjuring isn’t reinventing the wheel, it is a horror classic because it tastefully does all the things a horror film is supposed to do. And yet it feels right at home in James’ repertoire of films. Spooky vaudevillian images of the haunted house are reminiscent of Dead Silence and Insidious, but where those films falter, The Conjuring succeeds.
What other horror films could learn from The Conjuring is not only how to build tension and execute scares, but also how to create compelling character arcs within the context of a horror film. The film follows the Warrens, paranormal investigators. Loraine Warren is coping with the failure of their past investigations when she gets a chance for redemption. Because there is so much content about the characters, at times, the film feels like more of a drama than a horror film, and that’s exactly how horror films should be.
3. I Saw The Devil (2010) – Kim Ji-woon
If there’s one genre of film that the South Koreans have mastered, it is revenge horror/thrillers, and I Saw The Devil is the king of them all. Joo-yun is a secret service agent who seeks vengeance against Kyung-chul, the man who has brutally murdered his fiancé.
The grisly contents of the film should deter its audience, but they don’t because of Ji-woon’s masterful command over fluctuating tones and emotions. Like any good revenge film, I Saw The Devil has a mean-spirited heart. It’s never about just murder, which would be too easy.
Instead, the film becomes a cat and mouse game of torture, with Joo-yun bent on making sure Kyung-chul suffers a fate far worse than his fiancé. It is a film that will weigh heavy on both your heart and your conscience far after it’s runtime is up, and it is for this reason that it succeeds as a horror film.
2. Thirst (2009) – Park Chan-wook
A distant cousin to Let The Right One In, Thirst is about a priest, named Sang-hyun, who is turned into a vampire through a failed medical experiment. As Sang-hyun discovers his desire for blood, he also finds himself lusting for a married woman. Like the title suggests, his journey is one of temptation. Sang-hyun wrestles with the beast inside of him, praying he doesn’t go down a path towards condemnation.
Like most of the top films on this list, Thirst isn’t fantastic because it’s cringe inducing or spine tingling, but because of the strength in the writing. We get to see Sang-hyun transition from a selfless man of God, offering up his body and life to medicine, into a man of carnality, sacrificing his chance at redemption for earthly pleasures.
In contrast to Sang-hyun’s journey is his lover, Tae-ju, who similarly transitions from a frail vixen into a cold-blooded killer. In many ways, the film feels very Catholic in that we see our characters lives fall apart any time they give into temptation. Perhaps that’s just another part of Park Chan-wook’s accomplishment, in that he instills Sang-hyun’s guilt within us.
1. Martyrs (2008) – Pascal Laugier
Pascal Laugier introduces his film, Martyrs, in a special introduction on the DVD, by stating that he doesn’t think you made the right choice to watch his film, and he’s sorry. Perhaps the apology is warranted. What makes Martyrs the best horror film of the new century is that it not only goes above and beyond with the thrills and chills and gore, but it also has something important to say about the human condition.
At times, the film is grotesque, but because of the depth and grit of its characters, it never wades too deep into pointless torture porn. However, the film does capitalize on human suffering, but this is an integral part of its message. As an exploration of pain, Martyrs allows itself the freedom to only answer one question at a time, and in place of each answer come a thousand other questions, even after the film ends. Every single one of those remaining questions will haunt you long after the film is over.
Author Bio: Ethan Levinskas is a writer living in North Hollywood where he enjoys a consistent diet of oven baked pizzas and blessing each slice with his shameless tears. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Cinema Art + Science (yes, that is the degree name) at Columbia College Chicago with a focus in screenwriting. His goal is to one day have people enjoy his stories from a reclined leather seat with a bag of overpriced popcorn in their hands.