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; 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
It Follows (2014)
Dodgy final ten minutes aside, It Follows is the perfect example of how broad and wide the net is now for horror movies. It’s almost crazy that nobody thought of making a movie based on a killer STD before that follows you around everywhere, but we’re glad it happened. It’s not a scare-a-minute affair, It Follows is more of a movie that burrows into your brain and refuses to leave. Speaking of “it”…
Watch if: you like lo-fi horror that takes its sweet time.
Avoid if: you want to have sex for the next month.
Considerably better than anybody thought it would be, the adaptation of Stephen King’s cult classic horror novel left a lot of cinemagoers suddenly very afraid of clowns. Sure, the CGI is going to age just terribly, but Bill Skarsgård’s vision for Pennywise and a talented bunch of actors portraying The Losers’ Club meant that it was more than competition for the TV series.
Watch if: you want to catch the next generation of Hollywood actors.
Avoid if: coulrophobia has you good.
Get Out (2017)
Is it a horror movie or is it more of a social thriller? Frankly, I don’t care what Get Out is classified as, all I know is that it was one of the most unnerving movies I’ve ever seen. Acted perfectly by everyone involved, Get Out is a waking nightmare dealing in themes of class, racism, and why you should definitely use flash photography on anyone who seems a bit weird.
Watch if: you want a smart, subtly satirical horror.
Avoid if: you enjoy drinking tea.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Long before exorcism movies became all the rage again, The Exorcism of Emily Rose delivered something equal parts court drama and horror movie. Time has made people forget about Emily Rose, but they really shouldn’t. It’s low on scares and even gore, which may disappoint those of a more gruesome disposition, but Scott Derrickson’s unique spin on things made him one of the hottest properties in horror for the next decade.
Watch if: you want The Exorcist meets Suits.
Avoid if: you need gore in your horror movies.
Severance is a horror-comedy that probably doesn’t get the love it deserves outside of the UK. Danny Dyer is on rare form as the drug-addled lad at the center of a serial killer rampage during an office retreat in the middle of nowhere in Europe. It’s silly and hilarious, but it brings the scares and blood when it wants to. Plus, it shows you where not to put a severed leg.
Watch if: you loved Shaun of the Dead.
Avoid if: you are on shrooms.
The Orphanage (2009)
If you thought Children of the Corn was spooky, you should probably swerve The Orphanage. Whereas that cult classic was ultimately just, ahem, corny fun, J. A. Bayona’s Spanish film showed a real maturity in handling its themes, including some gruesome kills that you won’t forget in a hurry. The Orphanage deals with loss and love with grace, so make sure you don’t miss out on it.
Watch if: you can deal with creepy children.
Avoid if: you can’t deal with creepy children.
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.
Train to Busan
Just when it looked like the zombie craze was over, along came Train To Busan to change minds. Like a cross between World War Z (but good) and The Raid, Busan is a rollicking journey on a train packed with the infected. It’s fast and frantic, but it’s also very human. In the midst of everything, Busan also manages to grow a relationship between a father and daughter and to also deal in even-handed social commentary. Essential.
Watch if: World War Z was too neutered for you.
Avoid if: you’re a commuter.
The Others (2001)
To explain why The Others is so great would be to spoil the whole experience. What I can say, however, is that The Others nails its aesthetic and mood, as well as offering approachable horror — it’s basically a good entry horror movie for anyone who’s squeamish. As a bonus, Nicole Kidman’s turn as the matriarch is one of the rare times when an A+ actor doesn’t sleepwalk their way through a horror movie.
Watch if: you’re trying to get into horror movies.
Avoid if: you’re a gorehound.
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.
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.
Only Ginese people truly understand why Slither is so underrated. Perhaps it was caught up in the trend of horror comedy movies at the time, but James Gunn’s wormy ride never really resonated with cinemagoers in a big way. Luckily, it’s found a cult following in recent years. How can a movie featuring Michael Rooker turning into Willy Wonka’s most sadistic creation not be?
Watch if: you love horror comedies.
Avoid if: you like to soak in the tub.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I don’t know what to say to you if you haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead yet. Over a decade since it was first released, it’s constantly showing on television and just seems to grow and grow in adoration as the years pass. Watch this zombie classic as soon as you can and join the rest of us in quoting every line of its script until our dying days. Dogs can look up, by the way.
Watch if: you’re the king of the zombies.
Avoid if: you’ve got red on you.
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.
A movie so good that Hollywood decided to almost immediately remake it, REC did for found footage movies what The Exorcist did for exorcism movies. While many point to The Blair Witch Project as the dawn of the subgenre, it was REC that re-popularised and re-energised it with one of the most intense final fifteen minutes you will see in any horror movie. Maybe take your dog to the vet after watching this.
Watch if: you want to watch the best of found footage.
Avoid if: you’ve seen one too many found footage movies.
The Strangers (2006)
Technically speaking, The Strangers doesn’t do anything particularly new for the horror genre. It’s as cliched as you’d expect from a home invasion movie, but there’s something about it that makes it rise above its ordinary foundations. It could be that its antagonists are chilling, causing carnage for a couple of innocent people for a reason that is simple and just totally menacing.
Watch if: you want some old-school horror.
Avoid if: you’re home.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
As brutal as they come, I Saw the Devil is part revenge movie and part cop drama, but it’s also one of the most unsettling horror movies you’re likely to see. The disintegration of the hero as he hunts down his daughter’s killer will leave you asking who the real monster is. It’s a lot like an Asian version of Dead Man’s Shoes spliced with John Wick. If that isn’t high praise, I don’t know what it.
Watch if: you love Asian cinema and want to see one of its darkest offerings.
Avoid if: you…I don’t know. You really should watch it.
You’re Next (2011)
By flipping horror movie conventions on their head, You’re Next is a slasher movie that came out of nowhere to become one of this decades best. It’s not all that scary, but the way it handles the heroine in distress and the eclectic cast of characters makes it a fun watch. You will laugh a lot during You’re Next and then immediately feel bad about it.
Watch if: you love unconventional horror.
Avoid if: you turn off easily.
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.
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
Just as it looked like the found footage craze was bottoming out with mediocre after mediocre movie with no new ideas, along came The Taking of Deborah Logan to somehow present fresh and thrilling scares. While its visuals are what most people talk about, the utter dedication to the lead role shown by Jill Larson anchors her descent into darkness masterfully.
Watch if: you love found footage.
Avoid if: you’re approaching retirement.
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.
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.
The Mist (2007)
Who wants to feel thoroughly depressed for an hour and a half? Frank Darabont’s bleak tale of otherworldly invaders holds almost no sign of positivity or hope, which is compounded by an almost unbelievable event that I don’t want to spoil here. Despite coming out over a decade ago, The Mist’s warnings on leadership and religion couldn’t ring truer than ever. Swerve the TV show, though.
Watch if: you want to see a movie that wonderfully twists its source material.
Avoid if: you’re religious.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Before Hollywood came calling, Guillermo del Toro created The Devil’s Backbone: a ghost story with so many dissonant parts that it had no right to work, but it did. It’s thematically quite similar to The Others, though del Toro’s vision for the macabre and the unusual means that this Spanish horror movie is as good as any other this century. Heck, some people might say it is the best.
Watch if: you can deal with annoying kids.
Avoid if: you can’t deal with annoying kids.
The Invitation (2015)
Too many slept on The Invitation when it was released. It’s easy to see why — it’s a little light on scares and doesn’t exactly follow the template for a successful modern horror movie. But what it does have in abundance is tension that will leave you questioning every action of the most peculiar collection of dinner guests. By the time the credits roll, don’t be surprise to have cramp from just how tense The Invitation made you.
Watch if: you are a patient person.
Avoid if: you need all-action.
Don’t Breathe (2016)
If there’s anything you take away from Don’t Breathe, it’s that you absolutely shouldn’t mess with a blind guy, particularly if that guy happens to be Stephen Lang: professional badass. When a trio of friends break into a seemingly unassuming old man’s house, they discover far more than they bargained for. It’s an exhilarating and, funnily enough, breathless movie that gives Jane Levy another chance to shine as the new queen of horror.
Watch if: you want to root for the “bad guys”.
Avoid if: your neighbours creep you out.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Drag Me To Hell isn’t scary, but it for damn sure is a lot of gross fun. Sam Raimi returned to his shlock horror roots in a bombastic, OTT horror movie that features goats, b-movie mayhem, and one very pissed off gypsy. Raimi may never return to direct another Evil Dead movie, but Drag Me To Hell is absolutely the next best thing. As a bonus, it was one of the last times we saw Justin Long before he mysteriously disappeared into the ether.
Watch if: you love campy horror.
Avoid if: cheese isn’t your thing.
Evil Dead (2013)
Speaking of boomsticks, the 2013 “re-positioning” of the franchise was better than it had any right to be and must go down as one of the best horror movie reboots/remakes ever. By toning down on the camp factor and ramping up the violence, Fede Alvarez’s demented mind was on full show here, creating some of the grossest moments ever committed to film. Carved chicken, anyone?
Watch if: you’re a gorehound.
Avoid if: you’re sick of remakes.
The House of the Devil (2009)
A homage to old-school horror down to its very DNA, you feel like The House of The Devil was custom-made for VHS. Its certifiably against the grain of modern horror movie-making, which may perturb some, but Ti West’s career highlight will no doubt appeal to those who were brought up on a healthy diet of Hammer. Despite being crazy low-budget, The House of the Devil also does a great job with its hideously great effects, too.
Watch if: you want some Fulci-inspired horror.
Avoid if: you can’t deal with a slow pace.
The Descent (2005)
If you get claustrophobic while in an elevator, maybe don’t watch The Descent. The movie that put people off spelunking features an almost all-female cast of friends who don’t stay that way for long. Neil Marshall’s oft-heralded horror deals in some important themes, but what you’re really here for are the creepy creatures who must go down as some of the most disgusting abominations in horror movie history.
Watch if: you want some classic British horror.
Avoid if: you’re Gollum.