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  • Writer's picturecharlottelzang

Top 25 Horror Films of the 21st Century

With Co- Writer, Alex Knudsen

Okay, so it isn’t a ‘bookish’ list, but we devour horror movies at a gluttonous and alarming level. We watched 85 horror films last year alone that we hadn’t seen. That’s a new horror film every 4.3 days. Times that by the last 17 ½ years and you’ve got a hell of a lot of horror movies during this still new century. Not all of those films are from this century, but many of them are, and compared to the 2000’s and certainly the 1990’s, the past (almost) two decades have given us a dearth of brilliant horror films. Films that have pushed the boundaries of horror far past where the genre had ever gone before.

We know there is still a year and a half left to round out the first two decades of the 21st Century, but we simply couldn’t wait to create our list of the Best 25 Horror Films of this Century. We took an approach, much like when the AFI releases it’s Top 100 Films of All Time; they don’t include any ‘recent’ films to be eligible; meaning films made in the most recent couple years, allowing time for the film to ‘set-in’, so to speak. So, don’t be alarmed when you don’t see “Get Out”, “It Follows”, “The Witch”, “Hereditary” or “A Quiet Place” on our list. They’re still a bit too fresh in our minds.

As with any ‘Best of’ list, our choices are only our own very carefully considered opinions. Meaning that we would love to hear what films you would have included or which films you never would have considered. We all have our own personalized history, experience and palette that effect how we emotionally or critically experience a film. This is our unique list. We hope more than anything that we can introduce you to a great film you haven’t seen, foreign horror films you haven’t heard or inspire healthy debate.

#25. The Houses October Built

Set up to be another found footage movie, “The Houses October Built” comes across as more of a documentary, and the end twists even further, now seemingly being filmed in the more classic, outsider sense. This odd shift in point of view, albeit so slight as to go potentially unnoticed, adds to the creepy crawly feeling of the film. The premise of the story is something most everyone can relate to, as many of us have visited a haunted house at one time or another. A group of childhood friends, now in adulthood, set out to find the most extreme and realistic scare that can come from a haunted house. Think the dark web meets off the radar southern haunted house scares. Their first encounter would be enough for the most iron-willed of us to call it a day, but this group needs more. What their search unveils is something extremely raw and genuinely frightening, something that seems so potentially real it makes us want to stay far, far away.

#24. Eyes of My Mother

The word horror might imply something like blood splatter or a battle of good vs. evil, but “Eyes of My Mother” presents something wholly different. A blatant expose on nature vs. nurture, this story of a young, impressionable woman is more of a meditative psychological case study. Francesca, played by actress Kika Magalhaes, is living a quiet country life that will be splintered after a door-to-door salesman with evil intentions makes his way into their home. Caught in the act, the would be salesman is beaten by the father who returns home a moment too late. Witness to the terrible violence of her mother’s death, and her father’s rage, Francesca’s fragile and simple mind breaks. As she becomes a young woman, the effects of her PTSD and her loneliness that has been consuming her morph into some truly eye-widening and jaw-dropping scenarios. The intimate cinematography, presented in a beatific black and white palate, and the rawness of the performances left us feeling like we were somehow complicit in the horrific acts we had just witnessed. A truly unique horror film.

#23. The Descent 

There is nothing so stressful and cagey as confined spaces, much less with inhuman species thirsting after your flesh. The dramatic tension between the six friends, mixed with the all too real terror of a spelunker’s nightmare, might be enough of a horror show for some. The precarious and dangerous situation these women find themselves in is aggravated when a herd of sub-human creatures start stalking and eating them. The creatures have adapted to the darkness of the caves, using sound and a form of echolocation to stalk their prey. Survival is the end game, and this battle gets cutthroat given the conditions, closed confines and lack of visibility. So it’s no wonder some things will go very, very wrong. After all, if you can’t see your attacker, you just start swinging.

#22. 30 Days of Night

Finally, someone made the overdue and astute decision to present the vampire as the feral and dangerous species it threatens to be, in this chaotic, pulse-pounding horror film. “30 Days of Night” is a much over-looked gem that far too many fans of horror have passed by. It’s unrelenting, dark and intensely viscous. Josh Hartnett delivers a, maybe surprisingly, nuanced performance that gives us a leading man so mature and commanding that it’s a wonder he hasn’t been cast in more projects. The care given in the script to each character lends a weight to the overall viewer investment in the end game, thereby raising the stakes as the clan of vampires close in.

#21. You’re Next 

When all is to be expected, “You’re Next” stands out above most all other home invasion films by giving logic, reason and motive to it’s villains. This film is not violence for violence sake, though bloody violent it is. Adam Wingard, with his first of two films on our list, brings intensity, tension and entertainment to this fast paced and shocking horror film. Sharni Vinson gives us one of the most badass female heroes in the history of horror cinema and it is a joy to watch her kick ass. “You’re Next” keeps us guessing right up to the bitter end, and cuts no corners with the in your face violence of survival.

#20. Raw

If there were ever a template for a feminist horror film, “Raw” would set the bar. But writer/director Julia Ducournau has gone on record, stating that she prefers not to place any such labels on her film. It is a feminine movie no doubt, but more than that, “Raw” gives us a bizarre coming of age story that doesn’t involve the transformation cliché. Sisterly love has never been so astutely and uniquely displayed as in Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf’s flawless performances. While too much for some, this boundary-pushing film will come as a welcome relief to those who want to see the subject of horror visited in a daring and unique way.

#19. Housebound 

The quirkiest of horror films on our list, “Housebound” is a welcome return to the brazen and bizarre New Zealand horror of Peter Jackson’s early cult favorites, “Bad Taste” and “Dead Alive”. While the gore never comes close to measuring up to the pinnacle of Jackson’s “Dead Alive”, what Gerard Johnstone’s film embodies is the dark comedic edge that cements the film in the viewers memory for months and years to come. Anchored by the brilliant and hilarious performance of Morgana O’Reilly, “Housebound” gives you characters you care about, route for and want to revisit again and again.

#18. Grace 

“Grace” may be the only film on our list that presents a wholly unique experience for male and female viewers. What woman wouldn’t give anything; do anything, to secure the protection of her child? Director Paul Solet pulls no punches in presenting an extreme and visceral scenario of maternal love. Something only a woman could understand and causes a man to cringe at. The meticulous scenes before the events in question, where dinner becomes a treacherous and sickening endeavor, brilliantly foreshadow the mass of discomfort still to come. But, make no mistake, whether you are a male or female viewer, your hand will cover your mouth in aghast horror numerous times during this brave, unique and shocking horror film.

#17. The Guest 

The most hilarious and outright fun horror movie on our list, “The Guest” is outrageous, audacious, and sexy (Think “American Psycho” meets “The Bourne Identity”). This film is a bizarre highbred of genres that hits the right note on every level, resulting in a far-fetched but wholly entertaining and unique horror film. What makes this film truly special is the magnetic and alluring performance by Dan Stevens, seducing us the viewer, in addition to the family of a fallen comrade, into believing anything he does is for the better good. The razor sharp directing by Adam Wingard turns this possibly campy story into an invigorating and suspenseful slasher film for the modern era.

#16. Creep 

This brilliant horror film is like a vortex of goodness that leaves you asking, what just happened? Writer, producer and actor Mark Duplass redefines what one can accomplish with virtually no money and a camera; evoking genuine fear and raw tension. “Creep” lives or dies (pun?) on the performance and depiction of the main character, the ‘creep’, and Duplass does so, in spades. We see him through the video recordings of a videographer going to interview a man ‘dying from a brain tumor’ who wants to record a message for his unborn child. As you may have immediately guessed, this is not the case. Few actors could pull off a performance of a character you would simultaneously want to hang out with, but who also makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Thus is the allure and attraction to the movie, “Creep”.

#15. Left Bank

One of the more reclusive films on our list, this Belgian horror film is based in the disturbingly real. A stressed athlete takes respite in an empty apartment of an acquaintance to rehab after pushing herself to far in her training. Occupying the apartment of a missing woman, she discovers clues as to what may have happened, notably an odd obsession with something in the basement of the apartment complex. As things spiral out of control, there is something about “Left Bank” that feels almost like a documentary version of “Rosemary’s Baby”; perhaps a futuristic look at the tenants of the same complex that impregnated poor Rosemary with Satan’s Child. What else might they have gotten up to?

#14. Sauna 

This Russian/Finnish horror film embodies what Andrei Tarkovsky may have given us if he had delved into the world of horror. Beautiful, mysterious and provocative, Antti-Jussi Annila presents a film steeped in the rich, historical drama of a historic European war, accentuated by the bizarre and surreal elements of earthly horrors that may be awaiting each and every one of us when the time comes to face the music. The cinematography, production design and sound design lift this close-to-home horror film to a level of artistry rarely seen in the horror genre.

#13. Bone Tomahawk 

Kurt Russell and the western genre fit like a pair of worn-in jeans, something comfortable you can always depend upon. That is until writer/director S. Craig Zahler turns this combo on its head in this gut-wrenching and shocking hybrid of horror that will leave you sick and scarred. The cast is uniformly perfect, anchored by Russell as the stoic Sheriff, Richard Jenkins as his sympathetic back-up deputy, Patrick Wilson as the honorable family man and the added nuance of Matthew Fox’s dichotomous performance as the Southern dandy bringing an air of honor and commitment to the seemingly flippant character maxim. The genre mutilation from western to horror is a moment that no viewer will be able to shake from their mind or soul. “Bone Tomahawk” is a modern masterpiece of horror and required viewing to any fan of horror.

#12. Calvaire 

Ah, backwoods creeps come in every country it seems. Another one of those under the radar horror films, this French/Belgian film presents a classic horror situation, except not in the vastness of the Australian outback or the dreadful deserted towns of Texas. A cabaret performer/magician is on his way to his next gig when his car breaks down and the locals, all of them obviously unsettling, offer their merry hand to make things right. Things get out of hand, communication goes sideways, and the beautiful and wild landscape becomes a trap of terror. A tip to the wise, if you find yourself in any kind of backwoods in need of car repair, just be nice and play along. If you don’t, well…you’ve seen the horror films.

#11. Frontier(s)

Filled with so much blood and gore, this might seem like the kind of movie that is only good based on that special effect gimmick, but this French horror film becomes a great deal more. “Frontier(s)” plays as a sick reinvention of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, but with more depth. Revolving around a family who still believes in the ultimate “race”, a Nazi grandfather pushes his clan to breed or kill based on the rules of the supreme race he clings to. Much to his chagrin, the family is falling apart, and the mutant inbred children of his oldest son are becoming a troublesome nuisance in the creepy caverns of the family farm. Samuel Le Bihan shatters any lingering memories from his previous romantic roles by becoming the living visage of Triple H (seriously, look it up) and a menacing country bumpkin set on making his father’s wishes come true.

#10. Let the Right One In

Perhaps one of the most terrifying things in the vampire realm would be eternal life; even more so if that is granted to a child. This Swedish film is gorgeous in not only its dark cinematography, but in the story of a child vampire who is far beyond her years, without the body to show it. In this beautiful story, the friendship that develops between this heart-hardened vampire child and a lonely boy is as horrifying in its charming simplicity as the true nature of the girl that is being befriended. Throughout all the horror in “Let the Right One In”, what we’re left with is poetic and leaves us with a refreshing sense of hope.

#9. The Children 

Forget “The Omen”. Forget “The Good Son”. “The Children” takes the proverbial cake as the penultimate horror film about creepy children. During a family Christmas gathering, a mysterious affliction besets all children under a certain age causing them to start acting out in murderous ways. A heavy sense of despair befalls the parents and the older child as they attempt to understand what exactly is happening. A unique depiction of a zombie apocalypse, afflicting only children, leaving the adults to make the moral decision, who can kill a child (nudge, nudge, wink, wink to those who know 70’s Spanish horror. Ha ha, had to do it!)? But perhaps the key to this whole thing is the older sibling who doesn’t seem to be afflicted by the killer-in-you turn of events.

#8. The Invitation 

Starting with an easily relatable uncomfortable experience of going to a party hosted by an ex, the unease of “The Invitation” may be enough of a horror show for some. But the greatest part is yet to come. The wife he once knew seems to have vanished into an odd, cult-like attitude, attempting to cover her own grief of their mutual loss, versus facing it. This unnerving horror film slowly builds, one cringe worthy scenario after another, as the guests of this dinner party reveal bits and pieces of their own sorrows. The climatic end will leave you breathing a sigh of relief, and then gasping a quick intake of horror that will stick with you for days, weeks and months to come. Logan Marshall-Green deserves special mention for his utterly captivating and believable turn as the ex-husband placed in a truly horrific situation.

#7. We Are What We Are (2013)

The gorgeous cinematography may be what draws you in, but it’s the character intrigue of this slow paced folk tale of two young girls and their father that are left behind after a tragic event that keeps you there, wanting to know what the end result of this family secret is. This is the US remake of the Spanish version, made three years earlier, but we find it to be more potent than its paternal version; rarely the case. A family drama with deep and ghoulish roots, there is so much humanity to these young sisters, and their future is something, like many other youths in their time, they are rebelling against. The precedents set by their parents are no longer working, as the world outside progresses, so must they. In this case, the consequences are a bit more gruesome.

#6. Inside (Unrated)

Prospective viewers of “Inside” should be forced to go into a pre-screening assessment to decide whether or not they are ready to experience this film. Blood abounds in this French horror film by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, making it, without a doubt, one of the bloodiest films of all time. Most examples of the ‘home invasion’ sub-genre of horror find the battle to be a bit mismatched; often female(s) facing down a male(s) perpetrator. This gruesome tale sees two equal women battling in primal and vicious ways. One of them is willing to commit murder for the precious cargo in the other woman’s belly, while the soon to be mother is not going to give up the life of her child too easily. The violence is graphic, hauntingly realistic and will force even the most advanced horror fan to turn away from the screen. There are very few people we know who we would recommend this movie to, and for that reason it is on our list. It is a film that cannot be unseen.

#5. The Blackcoat’s Daughter 

An amazing, taut masterpiece of cinematic horror, written and directed by Oz Perkins, son of horror legend Anthony Perkins, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is an interwoven tale of boarding school femme fatales delving into the darkest recesses of teenage weakness. Unlike the majority of horror film of the modern era, Oz Perkins displays a patient hand in the storytelling of a demonic cataclysm. This perfect example of great slow cinema is all the better for its crawling pace, building the tension and clenching your heart along the way. Cinematography, score and sound design play no small part of evocation of the titillating and nuanced horror of this film. Is there hope in the eyes of our protagonist at the end of the film? It is such fragile shot, one can’t be certain, but the possibility of that final look…

#4. The Mist 

Heartbreaking. Who would think that would ever be the first word that comes to mind when thinking back on a horror film? Emotionally tortured and scarred is how we still feel about this film. No other horror film can compare to the impact of the climatic final moment of “The Mist”. It’s very important to mention that the impact of the end of this film would mean nothing if not for the build up of the characters we grow to care about through the film. Frank Darabont, in his third directorial effort of a Stephen King based story, hits the pinnacle of emotional catharsis in this bleak and distressing story. Thomas Jane’s everyman sets the stage that any viewer with a heart will identify with; whether you have children or not, thus blackening the already tar black ending.

#3. Final Prayer 

In our minds, “Final Prayer” rests next to “The Blair Witch Project” as the greatest found footage film of all time. The first person camera work is based in the necessity for our two lead protagonists to record and report on the religious disturbances within a small town church in Devon, England. Seeking to debunk or prove the unexplained occurrences within the walls of this holy site, most everyone is ready to discount the truth of the strange sounds and actions within the stone chapel. Brazen disturbances help build the mystery and tension growing within the ranks of our two heroes. With each unbelievable finding, these non-believers seek the truth with a reckless abandon that tosses them further and further into an unholy abyss of terror. The climax of this terrifying film will leave you feeling suffocated and wrecked, planting a memory within your mind that seems your own but assuredly, is not.

#2. Demon 

Nothing terrifies us more than the horror we can imagine within our own existence. We are pretty sure that Freddy and Jason aren’t coming anywhere near us, but what about the spirit of the departed? Rattled from their resting place by accident and then taking over the body of someone close to us, there is no way to defend or combat something like that. This makes Marcin Wrona’s ultra realistic possession horror one of the most terrifying films we have ever seen. There’s something incredibly dark and foreboding about the fact that writer/director Wrona committed suicide during a festival showing of the film that lingers over the viewing and the subsequent affect it has on us. This is horror at its most base. No slashing killers, no monsters from beyond; “Demon” presents us something so real it leaves us shaken and disturbed.

#1. Martyrs 

There is no second-guessing our choice of the greatest horror film of the 21st century; in fact, Pascal Laugier’s masterpiece stakes a claim for potentially the greatest horror film of all time. Initially we sidestepped this work of art, misbelieving it to be a piece of torture porn, violence for violence’s sake. Thankfully we bit the bullet and dove into this exploratory saga that challenges the ideas of who we are, why we’re here and where we go when our time is nigh. What starts as a straightforward revenge film, dovetails into a story so much deeper than any of us could have imagined. What we’re left with is a piece of cinematic art that demands us to question our very existence on this planet. Make no mistake; “Martyrs” is brutally violent and incredibly difficult to watch, but those who love horror and are capable of enduring the visual onslaught, you will be greatly rewarded.

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