For close to two decades now the 21st century has proven to be a great new era for horror fans as we’ve been experiencing something of a horror renaissance. Sure there have been sequels nobody asked for, franchises that just won’t die, and trends we’ve grown tired of (torture porn and zombie films, we’re looking at you!), but there’s also a wealth of artsy period pieces, pastiche chillers, and exceedingly excellent foreign imports that have had us howling with devilish delight and rejoicing the quality fright fare unspooling before us.
The following list wasn’t easy to settle upon in a mere ten titles, but it’s fair to say that the ten films represented here offer the highest scare ratios of anything to hit cinemas this century. These are the finest examples of impressive genre films streamlined to scare audiences silly, and if you feel that your favorite “scariest horror film of the 21st century” was unjustly ignored, please add it in the comments section below.
10. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Few expected a lucrative and legitimately frightening franchise from Israeli American filmmaker Oren Peli’s micro-budgeted found footage film, Paranormal Activity, and yet it went on to be a box office smash, scaring the piss out of viewers and garnering great reviews.
Sure, many thought the found-footage fad had run its course, but Peli cleverly updated the rather familiar conceit (thanks a lot Blair Witch!) for the more demanding and perhaps unsuspecting digital age.
Ratcheting up scares while relying on the simple use of a home video camera installed in a suburban bedroom – as well as urban myths around the potential of the Ouija board – Paranormal Activity prods and provokes primal fear and gooseflesh from the easily identifiable mundane world; a young couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) living in San Diego in a new and nondescript tract home gradually unravel at the hands of stealthy supernatural forces.
If you missed the bandwagon on this one (you can ignore the sequels, though they are kinda fun), it still makes for great at home viewing, just leave the lights ablaze and be prepared to ignore the noises of your own house settling.
9. I Saw the Devil (2010)
South Korean director Kim Jee-woon and writer Park Hoon-jung know a thing or two about crafting an alternately shocking, knee-slapping, and viscerally engaging revenge-addled horror odyssey, and their audacious 2010 genre mashup, I Saw the Devil illustrates this with ghoulish glee while piling on a number of truly scary set pieces.
And speaking of pieces, after pieces of his missing fiancé, Jang Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) are found strewn near a local river and environs, trained secret agent for the National Intelligence Service Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) becomes obsessed with tracking down her killer. And it’s not long before he does just that, and he lays one hell of a smackdown on the sick shit sack (Choi Min-sik), too.
But Kim has bigger designs for the killer, and after he brutally beats the snot out of him (complete with some upsetting Achilles tendon slashing action) he maliciously lets him go “free” so that a twisted cat and mouse game will ensue.
You’d think that I Saw the Devil’s cottoning to trendy torture porn, OTT violence (cannibalism features prominently), depraved sexual violence, and extreme gore would render the film unwatchable and yet it’s a shockingly effective, artfully and even gorgeously photographed affair (mad props to cinematographer Lee Mo-gae and editor Nam Na-yeong for their exemplary efforts), complete with characters that are utterly emotionally compelling.
For all its awful, stomach-churning content and nightmare fuel, I Saw the Devil is never less than compelling, and near impossible to look away from. This is an unrelenting genre picture that will have you dazed for days.
8. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later (with mad props to star screenwriter Alex Garland) reworks and revives the zombie genre by giving it political figuration, humanist tragedy, and style to spare.
Quicker than you can say “The Day of the Triffids”, Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier, awakens in a London hospital from a coma 28 days after a contagion has hit humanity hard. This virus induces terrible rage in those affected via blood and saliva, so while technically not a zombie bacillus –– nerds, we hear you, it’s not your atypical zombie apocalypse –– the film uses all those familiar tropes in artful and terrifying new ways.
So Sunny Jim soon pairs with other survivors –– including Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson, and a breakout performance from the sensational Naomie Harris –– and the film focuses on their struggles and sorrows as they rise to occasion in a frightening new reality. Provocative, playful, and told with tireless energy, 28 Days Later is a great character-driven panic attack that hard-edged horror fans rightfully revere.
7. The Witch (2016)
With perfect period detail and unsettling aplomb, writer/director Robert Eggers’ directorial debut The Witch is in the chilling tradition of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) as fearsome religiosity mingles with stiff-necked puritanical fear.
Eggers carefully constructs this tale of supernatural horror in 17th Century New England where we are introduced to young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who lives with her parents and siblings in a remote farm, where their closest neighbors are Puritans who view the New Testament differently than they, and so they are essentially ostracized from their community.
When Thomasin’s baby brother goes missing the family fears he may have been abducted by a witch and then before you know it the family goat, Black Phillip, is apparently speaking some fucked up shit to Thomasin’s creepy younger twin siblings. As the slow-burning yarn skillfully unspools, the viewer is utterly immersed in a repressive, claustrophobic, and deeply chilling tale.
The production design adds great depth to the story, as do the strong performances, effective and authentic Jacobean dialect, the supremely unsettling sequences with witchcraft –– and the monotheistic Christian beliefs of Thomasin’s clan aren’t any cheerier –– making for a genre experience that really is quite unique.
The Witch is an original and upsetting historical horror film that would problem pair nicely with a screening of Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General (1968), as both films contain ample frights instigated by a repressive society, a fear of feminine principles, misused power, and a climax that’s both devastating and shocking.
6. REC (2007)
What’s this? Another 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.