The 22 Greatest Horror Films of the 21st Century

Fast zombies! Sound-sensitive aliens! Swedish vampires! We’ve got 'em all.

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Any true horror film fan will tell you that enjoyment of the genre shouldn’t be limited to just Halloween time. However, an annual spooky season on the calendar gives everyone the perfect reason to indulge in cinematic scares. In the past few years, we’ve experienced a boom in horror. Not only are there more films doing solid business at the box office, there are more films operating at a higher level. Whether your taste runs to the psychological or the slasher, the thoughtful or the torturous, there’s something out there for you.

Executive Editor Troy Brownfield, along with his horror-loving sons Connor, an editorial intern,  and Kyle, an aspiring filmmaker, have teamed up for a survey of the greatest horror films since 2000. They applied the Tom Morello Scale of Impact, Influence, and Awesomeness to determine the list.

First, though, here’s a rundown of Honorable Mentions: Us (2019); The Ring (2002); The Witch (2015); Pearl (2022); Happy Death Day (2017); Insidious (2010); Hostel (2005); Don’t Breathe (2016); Sinister (2012); Paranormal Activity (2007); Hush (2016); Ginger Snaps (2000); American Psycho (2000); The Ritual (British, 2017); Dawn of the Dead (2004 remake); The Invisible Man (2020 remake); The Host (Korean, 2006); [•REC] (Spanish, 2007); Creep (2014); It Follows (2015); and Shaun of the Dead (2004). And now, the Top 22 . . .

 

22. Final Destination

Director James Wong, 2008

Final Destination trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Forever Horror Video Archive)

Final Destination operates on a fiendishly simple premise: a group of students cheat death in a plane crash, so Death comes for them. The film relies heavily on suspense and the elaborate inventiveness of the ways in which fate eliminates the “survivors.” Production designer John Willett deliberately uses tricks of design and color to make scenes feel unbalanced, which adds to the overall uneasiness.

21. 28 Days Later

Director Danny Boyle, 2002

28 Days Later trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

If there’s one that’s consistent about Danny Boyle’s resume, it’s that he can direct anything. From Trainspotting to Slumdog Millionaire to Yesterday, he has a knack for developing stories in any genre that couple wit and humanity with bravura visuals. 28 Days Later is no different, as its rage-fueled infected, moving much faster than the cinematic zombies of old, gave the walking dead clichés a swift kick in the pants. Brutal, brilliant, and extremely effective.

20. A Quiet Place

Director John Krasinski, 2018

A Quiet Place trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Paramount Pictures)

A Quiet Place earns a spot due to its highly creative premise: a family of apocalypse survivors is forced to stay near-silent in order to hide from the monsters that have overrun the planet. While relying on almost zero lines of dialogue sounds restrictive, A Quiet Place expertly uses that to its advantage with a series of inventive, well-acted scenes that are carried by an impressive employment of body language, facial expressions, and American Sign Language. Character arcs are strongly conveyed in the silence, the monsters are properly scary, and the entire movie is wrought with tension. Overall, it’s a solid blend of past silent monster movies and the elements that make modern horror films work.

19. The Conjuring

Director James Wan, 2013

The Conjuring trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros. Pictures)

The first of an interconnected horror movie universe helmed by horror legend James Wan, The Conjuring remains that universe’s strongest outing (although not the best James Wan movie; that’s later). Based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the film follows a couple as they attempt to excise a malevolent presence from a family farmhouse. What makes the movie strong is its slow and continuous build of tension that leads to some of the genre’s best jump scares ever, as well as powerful performances by leads Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. Even some of the worn-down tropes are mitigated by well-crafted spins.

18. X

Director Ti West, 2022

X trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by A24)

Ti West became a name director in horror with a segment in anthology V/H/S, films like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and acting roles in movies by his friends Joe Swanberg and Adam Wingard (all of whom were involved in You’re Next). In 2022, he pulled the seemingly impossible trick of directing one terrific period horror film, X, while also secretly making a sequel, Pearl. X follows the cast and crew of an adult film who are menaced on their farm location in 1979. Mia Goth stuns in a surprise double-role that carries over to (we’re not kidding) an Oscar-worthy role in Pearl, where she delivers an incredible nine-minute monologue.

17. Halloween (2018)

Director David Gordon Green, 2018

Halloween (2018) trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Universal Pictures)

Easily the best of new trilogy of Halloween films, 2018’s Halloween de-canonizes all of the franchise’s sequels, thus becoming a direct sequel to the 1978 original. Halloween excels by being both a faithful continuation of the original story’s plot, characters, and themes, as well a suspenseful, action-packed, and fun film in its own right. Jamie Lee Curtis gives a tremendous performance as a Laurie Strode, who has had 40 years of her life preparing for (and defined by) a chance at another encounter with Michael Myers. Judy Greer and Andi Matichak also have compelling turns as Laurie’s daughter Karen and granddaughter Allyson, respectively, and the film is at its best when the three generations of Strode women unite against Myers in an excellent climax that could have served as a satisfying end to the entire franchise. In the real world, the movie is often cited as paving the way for “requels” (reboot sequels) like Scream (2022) and Candyman (2021).

16. Ready or Not

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, 2019

Ready or Not trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Searchlight Pictures)

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are part of the Radio Silence creative collective, and have had major roles in the V/H/S seies and the recent reboot of the Scream franchise (which they also directed). Ready or Not is an occasionally playful, frequently funny survival horror tale in which a new bride finds herself hunted across her in-laws’ sprawling estate as part of a dark tradition. The movie balances black comedy with inventive action and keeps you wondering if everyone’s crazy or if there really is something supernatural at play. It’s a superb choice for a party film.

15. Orphan

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009

Orphan trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros. Pictures)

This underrated psychological thriller/horror film follows a couple looking to adopt after the stillbirth of their third child. Unfortunately for them, something is wrong with the child they picked; Esther is not at all what she appears to be. With a captivating performance from young star Isabelle Fuhrman, and a bonkers twist in the third act, Orphan is an extraordinary and unique addition to the horror genre.

14. You’re Next

Director Adam Wingard, 2011

You’re Next trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Trailers)

You’re Next is one of the best genre mash-ups that the horror genre has produced this century. Combining a slasher film with an action thriller, with some quality doses of dark comedy, You’re Next follows Erin, a young woman (and former survivalist compound resident) who accompanies her boyfriend to his wealthy family’s reunion at their expansive vacation home, only to have to fight off a home invasion by a team of slashers. The movie is a fast-paced thrill ride, filled with creative shots (including a sequence that is lit only by repetitive cell phone camera flashes), inventive kills, fun homages to other home invasion films, and a gruesome ending. Some of the twists are predictable, but the film’s overall entertainment value is high enough that you won’t really care.

13. Dog Soldiers

Director Neil Marshall, 2002

Dog Soldiers trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Trailer Chan)

Dog Soldiers may exist near the beginning of our list’s timeframe, but it holds up incredibly well over twenty years after its release. A fresh take on the werewolf genre, the film’s strengths lie in its claustrophobic setting (taking place almost exclusively in one farmhouse surrounded by the aforementioned monsters), its great ensemble cast, and its genuinely surprising twists. It effectively plays on existing werewolf tropes while incorporating original elements that enhance the film’s story and atmosphere. Dog Soldiers gains bonus points for launching the career of director Marshall (who would later receive an Emmy nomination for his directorial work on Game of Thrones), and for, amazingly, keeping an accurate count of ammunition through the movie.

12. Malignant

Director James Wan, 2021

Malignant trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros. Pictures)

Though he’s been balancing his horror output with blockbusters (Furious 7, Aquaman) for a few years, Wan returned to his old stomping grounds with this bonkers, gore-filled love letter to Italian Giallo, ’80s slashers, and his own bad self. With a script by Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu, and the great Akela Cooper, so much of the film  works based on the one-two punch of Wan’s sheer audacity combined with his unassailable technical skill.  As the film chugs along, twist piles on twist in between set pieces that can make you laugh, gross out, and cheer, sometimes simultaneously. Annabelle Wallis’s Madison is a great new horror hero, and Gabriel is a villain for the ages. It’s definitely a film that you don’t want to describe too much, as much of the fun (and there’s a lot of fun) is in the discovery.

11. Barbarian

Director Zach Cregger, 2022

Barbarian trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by 20th Century Studios)

If you’re familiar with Cregger from his work with sketch comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know, you might be shocked to see him this high on a list like this. Trust us; it’s no fluke. With Barbarian, Cregger turned in an assured, twisty, and socially relevant film. Cregger starts his deliberately-paced movie with a creepy vacation rental mix-up and then proceeds to rip the rug out from under the audience over and over. It’s the kind of film where it’s genuinely impossible to predict what happens next, so you can only hold on tight. It’s fiendishly ingenious, occasionally very funny, and contains one of the most inspired uses of a song that you’ll find on the list.

10. Trick ’r Treat

Director Michael Dougherty, 2007

Trick ’r Treat trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by TheMovieJunk)

Trick ’r Treat draws inspiration from classic horror comics and anthologies like Creepshow. Dougherty weaves together a number of stories orbiting tiny Sam, who is very serious about the rules of Halloween. The tales careen across one wild Halloween night that involves both earthly and supernatural horrors to which Sam bears witness (or occasionally joins). A festival darling with a solid cast featuring the likes of Brian Cox and Anna Paquin, the film got choked out of theatrical release for a number of unofficial reasons; it did end up finding a loyal following on DVD. It finally got its first theatrical run as part of a special event this year.

9. Cloverfield

Director Matt Reeves, 2008

Cloverfield trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Written by Drew Goddard (more later, but also The Martian), produced by J.J. Abrams, and directed by Matt Reeves (The Batman), Cloverfield has about as solid a pedigree as you’ll find for the mid-2000s. Sparked by Abrams’s desire to make something with an American twist on Godzilla and buoyed by a smart, detailed social media campaign ahead of release, Cloverfield combines old-school giant monster thrills with found-footage immediacy. Some have said that the near-constant movement of the shaky cam makes them ill, but if you get past that, it’s a giant old-fashioned monster movie (or old-fashioned giant monster movie).

8. Hereditary

Director Ari Aster, 2018

Hereditary trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by A24)

If there’s one word to describe the back-to-back features that Ari Aster made in 2018 and 2019, it’s harrowing. You’ll need to wait a bit longer to read about the second, but Aster’s feature debut, Hereditary, works on you in ways you don’t even fully comprehend until well after its final scene. Hereditary is intelligent and dense with meaning; it’s possible to miss crucial information if you’re not paying attention. At its dark heart, it’s about family secrets and the emotional havoc they can cause in the best of circumstances. But that theme plugs into a plot full of the kind pulsing malevolence that powers the best work by the likes of William Peter Blatty and Ira Levin.

7. Saw

Director James Wan, 2004

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Saw trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Immediately upon release in 2004, Saw redefined the horror genre. Originally, Saw was a short film starring co-writer Leigh Whannell. The short included just one trap during a runtime of nine minutes and forty-four seconds. Due to their short’s success, co-writers Whannell and James Wan were given a $1.2 million budget to shoot a full-length film in just over 18 days. The fast pace, intricate details, and dumbfounding third act twists caused Saw to find tremendous success, grossing over $100 million worldwide.6.

6. The Descent

Director Neil Marshall, 2005

The Descent trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Plenty of people find caves, enclosed spaces, and darkness scary enough on their own. But in the hands of Neil Marshall, they become the fuel for an absolute nightmare. Six women, most of whom are in some degree of mourning from an accident the year before, embark on a spelunking trip in Appalachia. Things go wrong right away, and then another element takes events in an even more horrifying direction. Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza give magnetic performances as two friends with emotional damage and unresolved issues. It’s a genuinely scary film that squeezes your fear centers with a cold and clammy hand.

5. Train to Busan

Director Yeon Sang-ho, 2016

Train to Busan trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Zero Media)

Although Train to Busan was the not the first zombie movie to introduce speedy undead into the mix, it may have done it the best. While on a bullet train travelling 190 miles per hour, a group of passengers soon catch news, and proof, of an outbreak that turns commuters into fast-moving, flesh-hungry zombies. With plenty of suspense and a tight setting, director Yeon Sang-ho still manages to deliver on character development and heavy emotions.

4. The Cabin in the Woods

Director Drew Goddard, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Lionsgate Movies)

In association with Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first-time director (and Cloverfield writer) Drew Goddard presents a satirical comedy slasher with a fun and imaginative story. With a screenplay that was written in just three days and a great cast (a young Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins), The Cabin in the Woods found success both with critics and at the box office. It’s already recognized as a classic for the way it played with the audience and deconstructed horror tropes.

3. Midsommar

Director Ari Aster, 2019

Midsommar trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by A24)

The 1973 British classic The Wicker Man has always been the standard-bearer for folk horror. Now it’s got company. Ari Aster’s Midsommar does some of its most terrifying work in broad daylight, challenging you not to avert your eyes when darkness can’t protect you. The film follows a group of students on an anthropology trip to Sweden, but at the center of that group is a relationship in crisis; Christian is on the verge of dumping Dani (a truly mesmerizing Florence Pugh) even though Dani just lost her family in an accident. The trip itself begins in an idyllic rural setting, but soon digs at the unsettling underside of traditions that go back much further than the young students might expect. Aster crafts the film with a persistent air of unease that evolves into a jaw-dropping final act.

2. Let the Right One In

Director Tomas Alfredson, 2008

Let the Right One In trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing)

Let the Right One In is based on the 2004 book of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Lindqvist lent a hand to the production by adapting his own novel for the screenplay. Set in Sweden, Let the Right One In focuses less on the traditional vampire mythos and more on the complex connection between a bullied boy and the strange girl that moves into his building. The beautiful story and craftsmanship quickly raised critical acclaim and led to many awards, including Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. Just two years later, it received a critically-acclaimed American remake, Let Me In, from Cloverfield director Matt Reeves.

1. Get Out

Director Jordan Peele, 2017

Get Out trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Trailers)

Only one horror film has ever won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and only one Black writer has ever won that award; the intersection point of that achievement is writer-director Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Peele was mostly known for sketch comedy (Key & Peele) when his amazingly effective directorial debut arrived. Infused with dark humor and an even darker sense of mounting dread, Get Out demonstrates what wise observers have always known: that the Black experience in America can frequently be a horror story. While Peele’s twisty script and smart direction work wonders, he’s ably supported by a very strong cast that includes a revelatory Daniel Kaluuya, several actors playing deliciously against type (Bradley Whitford, Katherine Keener, Allison Williams), and Lil Rel Howery as one of the best horror movie best friends of all time: Rod Williams, TSA. Get Out is funny, frightening, and fantastic. It’s the Greatest Horror Film Since 2000.

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Comments

  1. I often find myself out of step with popular social trends: I never kept up with the Kardashians; I never have any curiosity about the identity of ”The Masked Singer”; I’m still undecided about the aesthetic judgement of people who dye their hair blue. And I find the popularity and critical acclaim of ”Get Out” inexplicable. Though it is a competently made movie, it doesn’t, for me, sound a single honest note during its 140 minutes running time. More relevant here, it has less horror than Will Smith’s behavior at the Academy Awards.

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