10 great horror films of the 21st century

With the Cult section of the BFI London Film Festival offering a tasting menu of the some of the most striking new horror cinema, we got to thinking: what are the best horror films made since the year 2000?

Michael Blyth
Updated:

Kristy (2014)

Kristy (2014)

The inclusion of a spanking new 4K restoration of Tobe Hooper’s notorious shocker The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in the Cult strand at this year’s BFI London Film Festival can’t fail to make horror fans cast a nostalgic eye back to the good old days of genre cinema; a time when horror films felt dangerous and truly subversive, fresh and heart-stoppingly original. But while it’s tempting to go down the familiar ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ route, the rest of the 2014 Cult selection offers a veritable embarrassment of horror riches, pointing to a genre in rather rude health.

From the campy histrionics of the Misery-inspired Shrew’s Nest to the ascetic brutality of Latvia’s first ever horror film, The Man in the Orange Jacket, this year’s LFF has something to keep everyone awake at night. David Robert Mitchell follows his gorgeous The Myth of the American Sleepover with the equally gorgeous, but infinitely more terrifying, It Follows, while Carter Smith more than exceeds the promise he showed with his underrated debut The Ruins with the creepily melancholic Jamie Marks Is Dead.

There’s delicious slasher fun to be had in Oliver Blackburn’s Kristy, and probably the most macabre love story you’ll ever witness with Spring. There’s even that rarest of all horror rarities, a genuinely great remake in the form of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. And that’s just to mention a few.

So, as we prepare ourselves for a terror-filled October, let’s remember 10 more great contemporary horror films, which continue to prove that, actually, they do make them like they used to.

Session 9 (2001)

Director Brad Anderson

Session 9 (2001)

Session 9 (2001)

With his last couple of directorial efforts, The Call (2013) and Stonehearst Asylum (2014), amounting to little more than competent but stylistically anonymous pot boilers, Brad Anderson’s recent decline into mediocrity has been somewhat distressing to witness, not least when one considers the early promise he displayed with the genuinely unsettling Session 9.

Infusing the gothic tradition with a neat industrial spin, the film follows a group of workmen employed to remove the asbestos from an old, abandoned mental asylum. As Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining (1980), Anderson finds horrors in the vast and sometimes brightly lit expanses of his majestic setting, and this shrewd reimagining of the familiar haunted house genre feels simultaneously old-fashioned and strikingly modern. The formulaic ending may be a tad underwhelming, but there’s no denying the skill that Anderson demonstrates in getting there. Let’s hope it’s not long before he hones in on that skill again.

May (2002)

Director Lucky McKee

May (2002)

May (2002)

A recent favourite among genre lovers, but sadly unknown to most filmgoers outside the horror community, Lucky McKee’s profeminist riff on the Frankenstein story deserves recognition as one of the modern greats. Perhaps cinema’s most sympathetic anti-heroine since Carrie White, May Canady is a shy outcast, lonely and looking for love. When a series of romantic encounters end in crushing disappointment, May decides to take her own drastic actions in a desperate attempt to find the perfect mate.

Distinctive in many ways, not least in its unexpectedly progressive take on sexual identity, and boasting a devastating performance from Angela Bettis in the lead role, this sublime debut is a work of immense sensitivity, not to mention deliciously cruel humour. McKee’s interest in female-focused horror has developed impressively over the last decade, be it in his savage (and much misunderstood) critique on domestic and sexual abuse, The Woman (2009), or the sassy femme politics of All Cheerleaders Die (2013). But it’s May that remains his stone-cold classic.

The Descent (2005)

Director Neil Marshall

The Descent (2005)

The Descent (2005)

Comparable to the likes of Jaws (1975) or Alien (1979) as a near-perfect exercise in pure cinematic tension, Neil Marshall’s account of six ill-fated women who embark on the caving expedition from hell is just about as exciting as it comes. Even in advance of the monsters turning up, it’s an ordeal to watch these thrill-seekers make their way through the claustrophobic subterranean labyrinth, and therein lies Marshall’s masterstroke: to craft a horror film that is completely terrifying before the actual horror begins.

Marshall’s expert understanding of space and his use of oppressive darkness make for an out-and-out masterclass in how to build atmosphere, and thankfully he’s not afraid to crank up the carnage when the nocturnal nasties finally do arrive. Be sure to avoid the sanitised US release, which softened the relentlessly downbeat conclusion (and paved the way for 2009’s lacklustre The Descent: Part 2), and stick to Marshall’s nightmarish original cut.

Bug (2006)

Director William Friedkin

Bug (2007)

Bug (2007)

It’s fair to say that William Friedkin’s 1990 nanny-from-hell romp The Guardian, his first foray into horror since The Exorcist (1973), was something on a disappointment. Critically mauled and hilariously (or perhaps enjoyably?) misjudged, it seemed to suggest the former master had little left to offer the genre. Thankfully, in 2006 he proved the haters wrong with his gruelling chamber piece Bug, which once again placed Friedkin at the top of his game.

Adapted from Tracy Letts’s play about a waitress’s destructive relationship with a man obsessed by delusions of insect infestations and the government, this exploration of psychosis achieves near unbearable levels of intensity, burrowing deep into the escalating mania of its characters, and showcasing a staggering performance from Ashley Judd at its core. As a study of modern paranoia, it is up there with the likes of Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1993) or Todd Haynes’s [Safe] (1995), while its biological preoccupations recall the venereal horrors of a young David Cronenberg to delightfully squirm-inducing effect.

Inside (2007)

Director Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo

Inside (2007)

Inside (2007)

Grouped under the evocative banner of New French Extremity, a wave of particularly confrontational films emerged from Gallic shores at the turn of the 21st century. While the transgressive terrors of works like Trouble Every Day (2001), High Tension (2003) or the infamous Martyrs (2008) tested the boundaries of the more adventurous filmgoer, it was Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s unremittingly torturous Inside that packed the most satisfying punch.

In a neat twist on the home invasion format that besieged horror cinema of the early 2000s, Inside saw a demented Béatrice Dalle on a maniacal rampage to steal the unborn baby of an expectant single mother, with the help of a rather large pair of scissors. As beautifully stylish as it is horribly grotesque, the film is perhaps most notable for the unexpected sadness that permeates the blood splatter, elevating it from mere exploitation romp into something altogether more memorable and brutally affecting. Not for the faint hearted; although, that said, the strong hearted should probably approach with caution too.

Amer (2009)

Director Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Amer (2009)

Amer (2009)

It’s widely understood that Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s extraordinary debut is a rare example of the modern giallo film, a model made famous by classic Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. But while Amer certainly displays many of the virtuoso visual tropes of giallo cinema, narratively the film is a far cry from the crime fiction templates that defined the classics of the genre. In fact, the film can perhaps be more accurately described as the twisted product of two minds who have simply watched far too many Italian horror movies.

Tracing the sexual evolution of a young woman in three distinct chapters, the film is an erotic, perverse and often terrifying exploration of female desire and the body, that will delight and quite probably mystify unsuspecting viewers with its surrealistic tendencies, which are as indebted to experimental film form as they are to the horror genre.

The House of the Devil (2009)

Director Ti West

The House of the Devil (2008)

The House of the Devil (2008)

Just a few minutes into The House of the Devil, it’s clear that you’re in safe hands. There is the ever reliable ‘based on a true story’ declaration that proudly kicks things off. Then there are the glorious retro stylings of the opening credits that effortlessly evoke the glory days of late 1970s/early 1980s low-budget horror cinema. And, as if that’s not enough, there is even a charming cameo from genre legend Dee Wallace (Critters, Cujo, The Howling), which will make even the most cynical horror fan feel right at home.

There is no denying that this is the work of someone who knows their horror history, and while Ti West’s film is a perfectly realised throwback to the terror titles of yesteryear, it also stands proudly as one of the finest, most authentic horror films to appear in recent memory. Taking the concept of slowburn to almost unbearable levels, this is a film with just one thing on its mind: to completely terrify its audience. And it does so beautifully.

The Loved Ones (2009)

Director Sean Byrne

The Loved Ones (2009)

The Loved Ones (2009)

If Mark Hartley’s ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood (2008) taught us anything, it was that no one blends the horrific and the hysterical with quite the same perverse irreverence as the Australians, and with his delirious debut, Sean Byrne proved that Aussie genre cinema is still as gleefully unruly as ever.

When Lola’s advances toward class hottie Brent are rebuffed, she will not take no as an answer, and formulates a killer plan to make her dream prom night a reality. In a perfect world, Lola would be up there with Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees as one of the most iconic antagonists to grace the silver screen. Beautifully realised by Byrne, and flawlessly performed by Robin McLeavy, she is that classic villain you just can’t help but love, no matter how far they go. Featuring the most unpleasant dinner party since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and characterised by a deathly streak of jet black humour, The Loved Ones is just about as loveable as ultraviolence gets.

We Are What We Are (2010)

Director Jorge Michel Grau

We Are What We Are (2010)

We Are What We Are (2010)

Touching on themes of family dysfunction, poverty and child abuse, Jorge Michel Grau’s remarkable slice of kitchen-sink grand guignol is a contemplative and challenging genre entry that defies easy categorisation. The story of a reclusive family whose culinary habits may be hard for some to swallow, Grau bravely trusts his audience to fill in the very deliberate gaps he leaves, and make their own sense of what is unfolding on screen.

In among the expertly handled horror sequences are some intriguing observations on notions of familial tradition and responsibility, while a particularly effective subplot revolving around the teenage son’s burgeoning sexuality gives the film unexpected resonance for queer audiences. Jim Mickle’s impressive US remake in 2013 offered a unique twist by cleverly reversing the gender dynamics that exist at the very heart of the melancholic original to create an entirely new vision, but it’s Grau’s film that ultimately has the deepest bite.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Directors Peter Strickland

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

In much the same way Amer made reference to the classics of Italian giallo cinema, without necessarily being a giallo per se, Peter Strickland’s arresting Berberian Sound Studio similarly pays tribute to the glory days of Euro-horror (with shades of David Lynch and Brian De Palma also sprinkled throughout) while ultimately coming up with something entirely fresh and distinctive in itself.

Set in an Italian film studio in the 1970s, Strickland’s descent into an abstract musique concrète nightmare is a genre lover’s dream, overflowing with in-jokes and references that serve as just minor pieces in Strickland’s complex jigsaw puzzle. With a simply staggering sound design for which only the most high-tech audio system could do justice, this love letter to the craft of filmmaking is an expressive, idiosyncratic and occasionally frustrating exercise in cinematic technique. But for all its clever tricks and knowing deconstruction of genre, it still manages to be absolutely terrifying too. In its own very singular way.

Your suggestions

Let the Right One In (2008)

Let the Right One In (2008)

  1. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
  2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)
  3. The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
  4. [REC] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2005)
  5. Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005)
  6. 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)
  7. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
  8. Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
  9. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
  10. The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007)

So, did we let the right ones in? Modern horror inspired plenty of passion when we asked you on social media what we’d missed from this list. Where was J-horror?, you cried. What about Guillermo del Toro’s films? You’ve got the wrong Ti West movie!

We’ve counted up your votes, and del Toro’s slight at least is righted, with both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth making the top 10. The overwhelming favourites were, however, Pascal Laugier’s grisly shocker Martyrs and, in the very top spot, Tomas Alfredson’s sublimely spooky vampire movie Let the Right One In.

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