If anyone tries to tell you that the best horror movies aren’t what they used to be, you have my permission to graze their face with your open palm in a quick and painful manner. Slap them, basically, because without the rose-tinted glasses on, we might be in the best period for horror movies in history.
Part of that comes down to just how broad the spectrum is for horror these days, as well as how well-supported the genre is — there’s no shortage of movies available on VOD services and other platforms if they don’t “make the grade” for box office release. With more possibilities comes more room for experimentation; you don’t often see sequel after sequel like you used to, and if you do they are usually not all that bad. Sometimes they’re even better: who could have predicted that the Annabelle prequel/sequel would be an all-round superior effort to the first movie?
If you’re still on the anti-horror bandwagon, let the box office figures set you straight. Movies like IT and Get Out have made their budget back many times over, and that’s not just because they were hyped to the moon and back. No, those two –and countless others– have been good return on investments because, well, they’re good movies with fresh takes.
To celebrate the new golden era of the genre, we’re looking through nothing but the best horror movies of the 21st century from across all spans of subgenre and commercial success. There’s a good deal of mainstream efforts in here, but arguably just as many indie horror movies. We also have plenty of space for post-apocalyptic movies, zombie movies, and even found footage movies, despite them somewhat dying a death.
A couple of qualifiers before we start: the below list isn’t in a ranked or definitive order, just alphabetical; it’s just numbered so you can keep track of it. In addition, we’re only including one movie per franchise. This is also a living list, so we’re adding new horror movies as they release.
The Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century
1. 28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later is a remarkable movie for many different reasons. It’s one of the first big films to be shot almost entirely digitally, but it also managed the unenviable task of closing down London as well as helping to bring around the new craze of fast-moving zombie-like creatures. Oh, and it helps that it’s one of the best horror movies around, inferior final third and all.
Watch if: you want to see what a quiet London is like.
Avoid if: you love monkeys.
2. 30 Days of Night (2007)
A year before vampires sparkled and ruined any fear of them for the next decade, 30 Days of Night came along and showed just how visceral and heartless they could be. Based off of the cult graphic novels, 30 Days of Night has buckets of grim violence, grim characters, grim vamp–it’s just a very grim movie, basically. Also, “God? No God.” is one of the best lines in any horror movie.
Watch if: you want a hard-boiled vampire movie.
Avoid if: Josh Hartnett’s disappearance makes you sad.
READ NEXT: 17 Best Vampire Movies You Should Watch
3. Annabelle: Creation (2017)
I could just copy and paste the above when talking about Annabelle: Creation; it’s another sequel that far outstrips the underwhelming original. The only thing the original Annabelle had going for it was that really damn effective door scare, but Creation brings a whole cast of capable child actors, including the revelatory Lulu Wilson. Creation uses sound and the lack thereof to create some masterful scares and a knowing nod to its old-school inspirations.
Watch if: you can deal with creepy children.
Avoid if: you can’t deal with creepy children.
4. Antichrist (2009)
Lars Von Trier lives to mess with people, something that is evidenced perfectly by the downright disconcerting Antichrist. When a couple elopes after tragedy strikes, they look to rekindle the romance in their lives, but not before everything quickly goes insane. It’s packed with some bewildering and, at times, disgusting imagery, so maybe don’t watch it with your partner on your anniversary.
Watch if: you love some fucked up visuals.
Avoid if: you enjoy sex.
5. A Quiet Place (2018)
John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place isn’t effective because of what’s said, but because of what isn’t. A deathly silence hangs over the majority of the film, the keyword here being deathly. If you have the chance, this post-apocalyptic tale of a family trying to stay alive in a world in which they’re being hunted simply has to be watched at the cinema.
From our A Quiet Place review:
“A polished slice of fear inducing genre fare. Creating horror by relying on craftsmanship is a risk when your career is still young, but it pays off in spades here.”
Watch if: you can shut up.
Avoid if: you can’t shut up.
6. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Families, eh? A lot of horror movies use familial conflict to great effect, but A Tale of Two Sisters capitalises on the troubled lineage of two sisters to unravel a slow and methodical tragedy. With one of the sisters recently being released from a mental institution, the movie is a drama wrapped up in the conventions of a ghost story that was so successful that Hollywood remade it. Badly. Anyone else sensing a pattern here?
Watch if: you adore Korean horror.
Avoid if: you adore your sister.
7. The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is, first and foremost, a metaphor about motherhood and the stresses it brings. It’s expertly handled, subtly drawing parallels to the disintegration of a struggling mother and normality. But is also has a few great scares. If you don’t like kids, don’t watch The Babadook — the young boy will definitely burrow under your skin, which kind of feels like the point.
Watch if: you can deal with annoying kids.
Avoid if: you can’t deal with annoying kids.
8. The Battery (2012)
A different kind of zombie movie, The Battery isn’t all about the guts and spectacle. It’s about its two main characters, who couldn’t be more different from each other if they tried. The Battery is a low-budget effort that is high on character development and a gripping script with a killer soundtrack to match. You might not be familiar with it, so it’s probably about time you acquainted yourself with The Battery.
Watch if: you’re tired of the same old zombie movies.
Avoid if: you need your horror movies to have A+ production quality.
9. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Speaking of horror conventions, The Cabin in the Woods is a love letter to the horror genre, including its faults. A wild concept that I still can’t believe was greenlit, Cabin follows a group of attractive young people on vacation. You may think you know where it’s going, but you really don’t. It’s a hilarious and often utterly daft ride that will make you afraid of mermen.
Watch if: you want to watch a love letter to the genre.
Avoid if: you want serious horror.
10. The Conjuring (2013)
As much as some horror movie fans may fight against the big hitters, it’s hard to deny just how effective The Conjuring was in taking something totally tired and making it feel new again. Rather disingenuously “inspired by true events”, The Conjuring showed that sometimes old formulas can be turned into something contemporary and, most importantly, terrifyingly. I am still not over that clapping.
Watch if: you want classic horror repackaged for modern day.
Avoid if: you need your horror movies to be based in more than half-truths.
11. The Crazies (2010)
As something of a Romero zealot, it pains me to say that the original The Crazies isn’t all that great. Luckily, then, its 2010 remake more than does it justice and exceeds it in more ways than one. When a town’s inhabitant contact a virus, their tiny pocket of civilisation collapses and all hell breaks loose. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly thrilling and often disquieting. Just don’t mention that ending, though.
Watch if: you loved 28 Days Later.
Avoid if: Romero is gospel.
12. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
A movie so inherently dumb and watchable (zombie baby, anyone?) that it may well be the best guilty pleasure watch on this list. Zack Snyder’s remake of Romero’s iconic movie may lack the nuance or important commentary, but it makes up for it a relentless pace and plenty of mindless and fun action. There are plenty of stupid people in Dawn of the Dead, though, so be warned if illogical horror movie characters annoy you.
Watch if: you need some high-octane, dumb fun.
Avoid if: Romero is gospel to you.
13. Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
The best thing about Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes is that you’re rooting for the villain the whole time, someone who becomes so twisted by his quest for vengeance that he himself turns into the biggest monster of them all. Featuring a couple of iconic and unforgettable lines, this British cult classic is completely grounded and totally harrowing to the core. Remind me never to meet Paddy Considine down the local.
Watch if: you want to root for the bad guy.
Avoid if: you’re a drug dealer.
14. Dead Snow (2009)
Eurotrash down to its very knowing DNA, Dead Snow is a b-movie zombie escapade that shouldn’t be viewed seriously for even a second. When a group of hikers come across a Nazi coin in a snowy expanse, they are targets for a brigade of Nazi zombies who hunt them down in this fun, camp, and energetic horror movie. Don’t expect a masterpiece and you will leave Dead Snow with a dumb smile on your face.
Watch if: you love camp horror.
Avoid if: you are a Nazi.