We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre. These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
This month, I’m laying out all the horror films that caught my interest and I view as worthy of best of the decade. Similar to a few other genres this past decade, there has been a number of routine entries, and unfortunately they make up the vast majority. You know the types of films I’m talking about, the ones that rely on jump-scares, and bad, predictable jump-scares at that. That’s not to say that a jump-scare can’t work, but even films like The Conjuring, which I enjoyed just fine, didn’t really get too big of a rise out of me.
That being said, there were thirteen films that I found to be worthy of either a slot on the top ten or an honorable mention.
The Witch (2016)
Director: Robert Eggers
This is a great example of how horror films can work without a ton of jump-scares or sudden loud staccato notes on the soundtrack. Anya Taylor-Joy’s career-launching performance as Tomasin is excellent, and who can forget the scariest billy goat in motion picture history, Black Phillip?
Director: Darren Aronofsky
I might be the lone guy in the room, but I enjoyed the ride this film took me on. Sure, it’s debatable whether it’s a horror film or a drama or a religious film (or some other nameless sub-genre), but mother! still offers up a few grotesque images and themes that fit the mold of a horror film.
Pet Sematary (2019)
Directors: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
This remake of the Stephen King novel of the same name is a great throw-back to the 1990s style of horror films. Pet Sematary also features nice performances from Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jete Laurence, and especially from John Lithgow, whose portrayal of Jeb is so good, it feels like he came right out of the book.
Now here are the ten best horror movies of the 2010s.
10 Best Horror Movies of the 2010s
10. It Follows (2015)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
A lot can be said for David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. It’s a genuinely great concept, and set up in classic horror structure where we see the case of “it” following somebody, to get the goosebumps going, then we see the explanation for how it follows.
Even if the low-budget feel to this movie extends to some poor acting from the supporting cast and some effects that are less than special, It Follows does offer up a nice performance from lead actress Maika Monroe, who is very sympathetic as Jay, and the soundtrack by Disasterpiece is one of the best horror scores in the last few decades.
At the very least, It Follows also gives its audience the opportunity to have open discussions about the limitations of “it”, how to escape “it”, and what they would do if “it” followed them, how they would outrun “it”. Even if I wasn’t scared watching the film, these type of discussions and a solid story are strong enough to crack the top ten.
9. Evil Dead (2013)
Director: Fede Álvarez
One of the bigger names in horror this decade was Fede Álvarez, and I won’t give too much away, but he knocked more than one film out of the park in the past ten years. The first one was the remake of The Evil Dead, and this movie had every reason not to work: remaking a cult classic, not including the mainstay hero of the series, and not being directed by Sam Raimi. However, Evil Dead came above all this and, in my humble opinion, outdid the original.
Obviously, this is an extremely gory mess of a film, and that’s exactly what I wanted out of it. Even if all the characters are stock teenagers (save the main heroine), that’s to be expected in this genre. Alverez also has some fantastic camerawork in the film, courtesy of DP Aaron Morton, and a fabulous leading lady with Jane Levy, who plays Mia.
Again, the crux of the film is on grossing out the audience with the goriest kills possible on screen without warranting an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, and it more than delivers on that front. Whether it’s vomiting blood, cutting your mouth open with shards of glass, or cutting your own tongue on a box cutter, there isn’t much left unchecked here with how extreme you could go. While this approach isn’t going to win over any new fans, those who paid to see what was promised went home happy, and I was one of the many who did.
Another horror remake makes the list, and this time from another acclaimed director, though Luca is more known for his romantic dramas than his horror films. Suspiria, unlike Evil Dead, tells a completely different story than the Argento original of the 1970s, but doesn’t forget the roots it came from, and as far as remakes go, this stands as one of the better ones in recent memory.
What makes Suspiria work is it’s no-nonsense approach. It’s slow-paced, but it doesn’t shy away from being a balls to the wall extreme cringe-fest. There is a lot of imagery that’s hard to look at throughout the movie, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s too much for some viewers. But for me, it’s wonderful: possession, suicide, body contortion, losing all bodily functions uncontrolably, and a massive, bloody ritual. Bring it on.
But from more of a technical and acting standpoint, Suspiria is second to none. Director of Photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was overlooked for his beautiful work; the setting of late 1970s Berlin becomes a character in itself, and the makeup work is fantastic. Of course, Thom Yorke’s score is brilliant as well, and makes for some creepy but memorable film music.
I would be remiss without also mentioning the incredible work from Dakota Johnson, who turns in a career-best performance as Susie, and Tilda Swinton, who gives her standard, awesome performance as, well, I won’t give too much away, but she’s great. And it was a real treat to see the heroine from the original film, Jessica Harper, show up, too.
7. Don’t Breathe (2016)
Director: Fede Álverez
Fede strikes again, this time bringing to life the story of three teens in Detroit who decide to rip off a blind, elderly veteran who was paid off in a court settlement. It’s a very basic premise, but played out very well thanks to Fede’s direction, a good ensemble cast, and very unexpected story beats, also from Álverez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues.
What makes Don’t Breathe work is the constant tension. It’s a buyable idea for a movie, and one that could play out in real life, but the danger of being caught becomes a bit dialed up when your killer has one of his senses knocked out. I remember laughing at the trailers because it seemed too far out there, but never bet against Álverez, because he made it work.
Jane Levy is back again as our leading lady, and she digs into her role as Roxy whenever she can. Sure, 90% of her screentime is looking scared and running away from the bad guy, but there’s enough backstory to her and Dylan Minnette’s character, Alex, to make them likeable protagonists.
This was also a film that bucked the horror trend that’s been around for decades: rooting for the villain. All through the slasher films of the 1980s and most horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, the audiences were asked to root for and support the killer, with few exceptions. But Don’t Breathe flips this in a clever way. The first act of the film is traditional: the teens break into his house, we want him to win because of it. Then a second act twist makes us root for the kids. I won’t give it away in case you’re late to the party, but it’s a thoughtful move for a premise that could have made for thoughtless entertainment.
You may have noticed so far on this list that I have kept plot twists and surprises unrevealed. However, with Cabin in the Woods, I wouldn’t be doing the film justice without giving away what makes it so special. So, I have to call this the best horror-comedy of the decade. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon made something pretty special here, and it is definitely one you should see if you haven’t yet.
The Cabin in the Woods opens with your standard horror act one: five teens, all of whom conveniently fill a stereotypical teenager role, head out of town for a weekend of booze, sex, and drugs. Then they are hunted by a pack of killer zombies, and we all know the rest. Except this was all planned and executed by executives in an attempt to prevent the end of the world by fulfilling a ritual.
So yeah, the first screening of this film is a wonderful experience. The hard turn taken in the second act is only outdone by the wonderful comedy bits thrown in throughout. Both Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are perfect as the two main execs we follow trying to kill the five kids. One of the funniest moments in any movie this decade is Jenkins’ reaction to a failed ghost ritual in Japan.
The acting here is fine, nothing special, but that’s intentional. Even bigger names like Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Connolly can’t make bad dialogue sound good. Again, the highlights are Whitford and Jenkins, and I wouldn’t be the slightest bit upset at the idea of a prequel involving their characters. One final note: I love how the film ended, with every possible horror monster on the loose, the end of the world being upon us, and the two surviving teens just sitting back, letting it all happen. It’s a horror-comedy essential.
5. It (2017)
Director: Andy Muschietti
Stephen King adaptations are always a gamble. For every Misery, there’s a Dreamcatcher. For every Carrie (1976), there’s a Carrie (2013). But Andy Muschietti brought one of the more grandiose and challenging novels to the big screen with It, and luckily this was a gamble that more than paid off. We’ll see if the second chapter of It lives up to this first one later this year.
As for part one, It is fantastic. Obviously it’s in the same wheelhouse as more modern entertainment like Stranger Things, even close enough to include cast member Finn Wolfhard, but that was one of the strongest elements of the film. The Losers Club, the pet name for the seven main characters, all have their unique traits to make them stand out, and all make for great protagonists.
However, the biggest appeal of the movie, appropriately, is Pennywise the dancing clown, played very well by Bill Skarsgard. He’s not as creepy as the immortal Tim Curry portrayal, but he works as both a scary clown and as a funny clown, especially in the scene where he taunts Eddie.
As mentioned with Don’t Breathe, It could easily have been a film where we root for Pennywise the whole movie and wish the kids get wiped out one-by-one, but by making the kids the dominant characters, and ones we root for more so than the villain, it returns more to the spirit of horror films of the past. Funnily enough, they emulate the horror films that were out when King first started writing 40 years earlier.
Adapting his short film of the same name, David Sandberg made a big name for himself with Lights Out. Sure, it’s a premise that’s not wholly original, borrowing visually from films like Videodrome or The Ring, but it’s one of the best original horror films of the decade, and an entertaining, albeit short, film.
The mythology of the villain in Lights Out feels fresh. It’s a bit out there, but no more out there than, say, Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kruger, who also had outlandish origin stories. That’s another vibe I caught from the film, a personal family story, again similar to the first Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Exorcist, both of which were more personal.
As for the cast, Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer both do good work as the mother and daughter in the family, and Gabriel Bateman also does a great job as the son. Sandberg’s direction is surprisingly strong for his first feature, though Lights Out was not his first short film, either. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score also does the film a service by cranking up the tension in the more intimate moments.
Overall, it’s a solid horror film, and another one in the trend of more recent horror films where you root against the villain. Diana is a superb looking bad girl, but one that is hard to root for when she starts killing off characters. And while Sandberg has moved on to Annabelle sequels and superhero fare, I’d be more than curious to see a follow-up to the one that started it all.
3. Us (2019)
Director: Jordan Peele
The most recent film on this list, Us is such an entertaining romp that I left the theater asking myself whether or not it was stronger than Peele’s first effort, Get Out. For now, my answer is that Us is the number three film on the list, but that may change in future years. But still, that’s a pretty big accomplishment, especially when you consider the sophomore slump among horror directors is common, but it’s a trend Peele bucked.
On its surface, Us is a common horror film: a family is attacked and has to fend for themselves. While yes, they are fending off their evil doppelgangers, and that’s all there is to the plot for the first half of the film, the second half expands into something really special, especially for a horror film. Peele adds a lot of social commentary, similar to Get Out, but it’s arguably deeper and more thought-provoking in Us.
Anyways, I have to say that Us feels superior to Get Out in a couple other categories, though: acting, directing, and technically. While Us does have a few holes in the script, the other aspects more than make up for those faults. Lupita Nyong’o deserves a lot of attention for her portrayals of Addy, a mother thrust into defending her family, and even more so as Red, the vengeful copy of Addy out to destroy her, both physically and psychologically.
Winston Duke is very funny, but the scene-stealer is Elizabeth Moss, who does great work as both her human character and her double. I also give major, major props to composer Michael Abels, whose score is so good, it will be a crime if it isn’t nominated later this year. And cinematographer Mike Gioulakis also deserves a lot of credit for all the great horror lighting for all the interior scenes, valid proof that not every horror movie has to be set in the woods or a dark alleyway.
But Peele himself has improved spectacularly behind the camera with Us. There are a number of impressive shots, some long takes and others quick cuts, but Get Out had a more static set-up as far as the camera was concerned. Us is more aggressive, featuring more steadicam and dolly shots, and made for more exciting filmmaking. If your story isn’t as strong the second time around, the least you can do is make it more exciting, and mission accomplished for Peele and co.
It seemed that the genre rebounded in the second half of the decade, and certainly one of the best was A Quiet Place. While it was first touted as a cute pet project for Krasinski, who would work for the first time with wife Emily Blunt, it turned out to be not just one of the best horror films of the decade, but also one of the better films of 2018.
The premise is, of course, pretty unique: creatures will kill you if you make a sound. The film takes some, but not a lot of time to show just how dependent society is on sound, from washing machines to toilets. This was a masterstroke by Krasinski, to remind us of just how careful the family in the film has to be.
The family is also a strong element in A Quiet Place. The stakes are raised even more when we realize that Regan, the oldest daughter, is deaf, and that she holds responsibility on herself for the death of her youngest brother, which was a strong way to open the film as well. The emotions of the film really go above and beyond for a horror film, and it’s kind of hard to stay dry-eyed when the father, Lee, played by Krasinski, is asked by his son if he hates his daughter.
As for the creatures themselves, they aren’t given too much of a personality, but that’s not exactly the point. They do have a visual style that’s close to the alien in Super 8 and not too far off from the classic xenomorph in the Alien franchise. What is unique about them, as mentioned, is their seeking out sound to catch their prey. Even without the personality or sophistication of other monsters and aliens in movies past, they do pose a threat, and again that’s heightened with us rooting for the family and not the monsters.
Directorially, Krasinski shows plenty of promise, and his sense of pacing and creative storytelling is one that I will look forward to with future efforts. And I will also admit that this was one of few horror films this decade that actually executed its jump-scares well enough to get me, and I’ve seen every last type of jump-scare, so that’s worth something.
1. Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele
Well, I’m sure some of you may have predicted this, but there’s just no getting around it: Get Out is the best horror film of the decade, whether you view it as pure horror or as a horror-comedy. I put it in the former, but the script is so strong and the style so unique, all the audience has to do is sit back and enjoy themselves for the 104 minutes the film runs for. Peele’s creative forces are firing on all cylinders.
While I praise Us for having the stronger social commentary between Peele’s two efforts thus far, that isn’t to say that Get Out didn’t have anything to say. Almost everyone knows that racism still exists today, and prejudice is a monster we may not ever be able to defeat, and Peele was able to get this across without having overt racist stereotypes scattered throughout the film. Instead it’s the golf and country club crowd who think they’re being progressive, but it still comes off as insensitive. It’s a smart play, and one that makes the audience think.
It’s also important to realize that the African-American perspective is not a typical one for horror films, either. Sure, Candyman took its political stance back in the day, but even that film was centered on a while grad student trying to find out if the Candyman was real or not. To have a film like this come from an African American writer/director and star an African American, typically an early victim in horror films, is indeed a progressive approach.
Now all that being said, the politics of the film and the debates and discussions that could be had around it are only half the fun. Get Out is also one hell of an entertaining romp. From the first scene to the final twist, Peele has us on the edge of our seats. We’re able to see the basic idea of the film coming from a mile away, but the realization of why Chris, the protagonist, is being targeted is such a smart reveal.
Daniel Kaluuya does a fine job as Chris, though I would argue he’s far from Best Actor material (he was nominated nonetheless). I feel the stronger work comes from his co-star, Allison Williams, who starts out as the innocent girlfriend, but later channels Sharon Stone’s role in Basic Instinct, even down to a particular shot that’s uncanny. I also laugh my ass off every time Lil Rey Howery is on-screen as Chris’ best friend, Rod.
Of course Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, and Caleb Landry Jones do fine work as the family targeting Chris, and even a smaller role like Stephen Root as the man wanting Chris’ body is well-played. Us composer Michael Abels also did a nice job on the score here, and the opening song Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga, which is Swahili and translates to “listen to your ancestors”, is a perfect mood setter. Peele is nothing short of a genius, and with both Get Out and Us, he proves he’s the definitive horror filmmaker of the decade.