Horror, much like comedy, is something of a subjective genre. What scares one person might bore the next, and what disturbs someone might simply annoy others. Similarly, the very definition of a horror film isn’t always clear either. Jump scares, blood n gore, and monster effects have their place, but oftentimes the most effective horror comes from an unsettling atmosphere, personal terrors, and the possibility that it could happen to you.
Narrowing down fifteen years worth of such films to just a handful of top picks isn’t easy, but Matthew Monagle and I shuffled through the hundreds of titles and settled on the fifteen we think make up the best of the best. Our picks include ghosts, creatures, zombies, vampires, killer kids, and perhaps most frightening of all, some very human monsters too.
One last note, in regard to viewing the millennium as having started in 2000 or 2001, we’re deferring to the renowned educational series, Seinfeld, in which a much-respected philosopher stated: “Since there was no year zero, the millennium doesn’t begin until the year two-thousand and one.”
So here are the 15 best horror films from 2001–2015.
Session 9 (2001)
The 2004 film The Machinist featured an incredible physical transformation by Christian Bale, one that made it impossible for director Brad Anderson ‐ without a writing credit for the first time in his career ‐ to wrest authorship away from his leading man. Those who remember the film think of it as a Bale performance first and a compelling thriller second; so the task is left to the rest of us to shout the praises of Session 9 to the heavens. Despite the memorable casting of David Caruso, the film is a haunting examination of the ways the human mind can break under the burden of overwhelming guilt. Furthermore, in shooting his film at the defunct Danvers State Hospital, Anderson gave us a movie location rivaling that of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. ‐ Matthew Monagle
The Ring (2002)
No one really expected much from a horror remake by the director of Mousehunt, but even if our expectations had been high they probably would have been exceeded. Gore Verbinski actually improves upon the already creepy Japanese original in part by grounding the tale more fully before unleashing its tragically vengeful ghost into our world, and it’s all brought to life with Hollywood-level effects and visuals that seamlessly merge the real and the nightmarish. VHS tapes may be dated now, but the film captures the power of media ‐ the power we give it ‐ in a way that feels timeless. Regardless of the medium, our addiction is unwavering, and we can not look away. ‐ Rob Hunter
The Descent (2005)
The best horror films ‐ the films that earn their place alongside the pantheon of greats ‐ are the ones that play off our fear of the unknown in a world where everything is mapped and categorized. The Descent presents us with a group of strong female characters; it then proceeds to bury these characters half a mile under earth and rock. Director Neil Marshall makes sure we feel every inch. This means that the subterranean creatures are almost an unnecessary addition. By the time the amateur spelunkers admit that they’re lost and start turning on each other, the fear of never being able to find your way back to the surface is considerably more frightening than the simple prospect of being eaten alive. ‐ MM
As scary as ghosts and zombies can be at times, they’re escapist creations that we know aren’t going to follow us home from the theater. By contrast, human monsters with a desire to terrorize and murder us may already be waiting up in the attic. Writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud capture the very real fear of an unknown someone intruding into the false safety of our home with the intent of doing harm. The already terrifying nightmare is made even more frightening by the casualness behind the motivation and the realization that your life could be worth so little to someone else. Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers isn’t a remake despite some incredible similarities, and while a couple issues hold it back from Ils’ (aka Them’s) absolute greatness it’s still a terrifically scary experience well worth a watch. ‐ RH
The Orphanage (2007)
Haunted house tales are some of the most common in the genre as unseen presences are cheap to film, but visible ghosts ‐ when done right ‐ can be far scarier. J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage is brilliantly-crafted proof of this as it uses conventional elements (big house, a ghost-hunting psychic) to tell a story featuring a tangible but immensely creepy phantom and a grief-filled mystery spanning decades. It succeeds as a fantastic haunted house film, but it elevates itself with attractive visuals, invested performances, and a tragic tale at its core. We’re left shaken and sad for both the living and the dead with moments that truly chill our hearts and an ending that just might leave some viewers teary-eyed. ‐ RH
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Horror anthologies are making something of a comeback this year, but when Michael Dougherty’s quartet of horrifically humorous terror tales arrived in 2007 it was the end of a long, uninspired dry spell. Easily the best of its kind since Creepshow, this EC Comics-like collection of grisly comeuppances and gory demises captures the holiday spirit with a clear reverence for Halloween and a wide variety of monstrous threats. It’s more fun than scary ‐ although it has more than a few creepy moments ‐ but its smart structure and affection for the genre work with a stellar cast and memorable character design to make Dougherty’s film a Halloween fixture. The ultimate trick was that we never got a sequel, but at least we have the treat of Dougherty’s long-awaited follow-up (Krampus) hitting theaters in December. ‐ RH
There’s a reason only one found footage film made the cut for this list, and that’s because the vast majority of films employing the format do so without narrative necessity and competent execution. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s franchise-starter understands that and sets up reasons for everything to come as well as likable protagonists. Once the terror starts it’s relentlessly aggressive and only pauses to build more tension or reveal the twisted story behind the nightmare. That story offers a compelling narrative that’s clearly no mere afterthought, and we never question why the camera is still rolling. The immediate sequel is great even if the next two are a series of diminishing returns, but this is a classic that legitimized the format and continues to deliver the scary goods on repeat viewings. ‐ RH
With all due respect to The Battery — which missed this list by the thinnest of hairs ‐ few films have captured the full potential of the single-location horror story quite as well as Pontypool. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it features Stephen McHattie, the sort of character actor who shines brightest when his character’s sanity starts to swirl around the drain. McHattie’s Grant Mazzy is the kind of big fish that thrives in small ponds; his dawning realization that this situation is something bigger than himself is what keeps the story moving forward long past what we should have expected. More than anything, though, the film is a demonstration of all the tools available to the modern horror director. Even an on-air radio interview can be terrifying in the right hands. ‐ MM
Let the Right One In (2008)
By now I’ve seen so many versions of Let the Right One In that it might as well have been written by William Shakespeare. I’ve read the original book by John Ajvide Lindqvis, watched the original Swedish film, watched the subsequent American remake, and even seen the 2014 stage adaptation by the National Theatre of Scotland. And through it all, my devotion to the 2008 film has never wavered. Each version of Oskar found fertile ground in the character’s sense of isolation and loneliness; it is only Lina Leandersson’s Eli, though ‐ both ancient and impossibly young ‐ that unlocks the story’s true potential. In turns both beautiful and horrific, this is one of the truly great films of the last fifteen years, regardless of genre. ‐ MM
We’re not ranking this list, but if we were this French film would be my number one. On its surface it delivers legitimate scares with a nightmarish entity intent on causing intense physical harm and other even more horrific scenes of excruciating pain, but writer/director Pascal Laugier has far loftier goals than simply watching people suffer. He succeeds too with a film that explores ideas of guilt, sacrifice, and mortality in ways almost no film, genre or otherwise, would dare to attempt. It’s a truly harrowing experience, and an integral part of its effectiveness are the unflinching performances of its two leads ‐ Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï ‐ who together help make for an unpredictable, draining, and emotionally devastating film. ‐ RH
The Children (2008)
If we haven’t already lost you, this is where it happens. Movies with killer kids can be great fun, but they’re rarely frightening or effective ‐ Tom Shankland’s tale of Christmas-set terror accomplishes both. Realistic characters, including kids and parents who are only as annoying as real kids and parents can be, make for a rarity in the sub-genre in that these children aren’t made to be super-human in their ability to kill otherwise competent adults ‐ they simply use intelligence and a parent’s love for their offspring as weapons. The Children is less playful than most holiday-set genre films and works as a solid piece of eco-horror too giving it more texture than expected as it touches on humanity’s innate ability to screw up both our world and our offspring. Add in some terror-filled, brightly-lit daytime scenes and a growing suspense that builds towards a killer ending, and the result is a terrific little chiller that I return to year after year. ‐ RH
This dark Korean thriller finds horror in the cruelty we inflict upon each other not just through our actions but through our inaction as well. It features a blade-wielding killer, but as bloody and violent as the kills get ‐ and they are bloody and violent ‐ it’s that emotional depth that weighs heaviest and hurts the most. If you’re reading this list in order you may be sensing a trend among my picks… emotional, gut-wrenching horror is my sweet spot. We’re made to watch as the monster is being created, and the film challenges ideas of complicity and responsibility for those around us. Once the very physical horror kicks in director Jang Cheol-soo shows an adept hand at ratcheting up cathartic thrills and grisly violence in a film that, like Hong Kong’s Dream Home and France’s Inside, imbues the slasher sub-genre with surprising humanity. ‐ RH
The Innkeepers (2011)
The House of the Devil is typically the Ti West film that gets the most love and attention, but for my time and money his haunted house tale from 2011 is the superior film. Its sense of humor probably turns some horror fans away, but while the time spent with the two main characters is filled with laughs and personality it’s also bringing us closer to the female lead played by Sara Paxton. We come to care both about and for her thanks as much to Paxton’s performance as to the script, and it’s that emotional connection that serves to increase the tension and terror in later scenes. West masterfully captures the tonal shifts between laughs and scary beats, and the ending lands with an unexpectedly powerful gut punch. ‐ RH
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Obviously you expected Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s incredibly smart, funny, and creative love letter to horror films to make this list, and here it is. The ’80s had Student Bodies, the ’90s had Scream, and the millennium has this piece of meta-pop brilliance that goes big on the laughs without ever forgetting its heart belongs to horror ‐ the screen is filled with all manner of monstrous creations, and the script reveals an immense genre knowledge used to both enhance and twist conventions. It’s more than just a recycling of tropes and conceits though as it uses them as setup for its own grand tale about the fate of humanity itself. ‐ RH
Under the Skin (2013)
Call it science fiction, indie art film, or illegal alien drama if you must, but it’s difficult not to see the near omnipresent horror of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. A sexy alien being murdering men in an inky black pool (or with a rock when necessary) is already horror of the Species variety, but the movie is interested in ideas well beyond simple, vicarious thrills. It’s a tale of isolation and identity, and as her empathy grows so does a devastating loneliness even as she’s surrounded by people. It’s paced like a dream, but the events are straight out of a nightmare revealing a very human horror story experienced by someone who desperately wants to be one. If the mental terror doesn’t do it for you there are scenes here that count as some of the most harrowing and frightening of the past few years including a drowning and an emotionally conflicting ending. Glazer and Scarlett Johansson deliver a fear-filled story of an extra-terrestrial who can never go home again, and it might just be enough to scare you away from the beach, the forest, and slow-moving vans on the streets of Edinburgh. ‐ RH
It Follows (2015)
Even with a search criteria that only allows for the last fifteen years, it is possible to be overly biased towards recent movies. Still, it’s hard to imagine a film standing the test of time better than It Follows. Even without the clever reworking of the ‘Final Girl’ sexual politics, the film would be a masterclass in keeping fear in the frame. Few films encourage audiences to pay such close attention to the background of shots; few films, too, have such a powerful synergy between soundtrack and scenery. Worth a bonus point? The careful handling of the film’s theatrical release also meant that this was the first sign for a lot of audiences that contemporary filmmakers are up to something special with the horror genre. ‐ MM
Honorable mentions: 28 Days Later, The Babadook, The Battery, The Conjuring, The Den, The Devil’s Backbone, Frailty, The Host, I Saw the Devil, The Loved Ones, The Mist, Sauna, Thirst, Tucker and Dale vs Evil
What are some of your favorite horror movies of the past fifteen years?