The 21st century is a scary time.
It seems like the horror movie industry cranks out more duds than any other genre. For every box-office-breaker like IT or critical darling like It Follows, there are a dozen or more throwaways like It Waits (remember that one? Neither do I, but it has a 12% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). The sheer volume of horror-movies-per-year makes choosing what to watch next nearly impossible, especially when the best horror movies almost always intersect with other genres and movements. Should you go art house or international? Meta or Gothic? Explicit or ambiguous?
How about scary as hell? Below are 17 horror flicks from the start of the 21st century that you might have missed. They didn’t make either a critical or commercial splash but are worth checking out anyway. There’s a reason some films fly under the radar–not all of them are filmic masterpieces, or even wholly original–but these are scare-your-pants-off thrilling.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, dir. Kim Jee-Woon) This surreal reimagining of a South Korean folktale never quite caught on in the U.S. Maybe that’s because Americans in the early aughts were already preoccupied with J-horror, or maybe it’s because it was overshadowed by an underwhelming English-language remake (2009’s The Uninvited, which kept only the bare-bones plot of the original). Regardless, the movie is a great early example of K-horrors trademarks–imagery that alternates between lovely and disturbing, and themes of fractured families and reluctant maturity. At times, the movie seems to lose its own plot, but with creepy pubescent sisters, an evil stepmother, and suspense-laden sequences that will make you want to avoid the corners of your kitchen, the scares are ever-present.
Them (2006, dir. David Moreau and Xavier Palud) This French-Romanian home invasion thriller packs a lot of punch into its 77-minute runtime. While the unguessable ending is hands-down the best part of the movie, much of its middle is devoted to an almost unbearably tense game of cat-and-mouse between a pair of lovers (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen) and the shadowy intruders. Grainy footage indicates a shoestring budget, but directors still managed to find a seemingly endless, dimly lit country home for their leads to run around in. Why do they have a room that’s filled only with hanging plastic sheeting, or the world’s most obstacle-course-like attic? It’s hard to tell. In the end, much goes unexplained, but if you let your terror overwhelm your need for resolution, Them is a hell of a thriller.
Funny Games (2007, dir. Michael Haneke) Haneke’s slow-burn psychological thriller is a rare sort: a remake of the director’s own previous work, identical down to the last frame. Of course, there are differences between the two, and Haneke’s Austrian original earns more acclaim for originality, but the 2007 iteration is better than you remember. An incredibly unnerving, deeply unusual home invasion film that unfolds in near-real-time, the American Funny Games benefits most from its star power. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play the tortured couple with skilled shades of anguish, but it’s the villainous Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet who keep the whole disturbing endeavor together. The blond prepsters don’t feel quite as threatening as their Austrian counterparts (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering), and the film’s meta bits fall flat this time around, but Pitt’s and Corbet’s performances as polite and playful psychos are impossible to shake.
The Strangers (2008, dir. Bryan Bertino) The Strangers bears more than a passing resemblance to Them: both are based on paper-thin “true stories,” and both involve seemingly random sadistic home invasions. But where Them focuses on the thrill of the chase, The Strangers finds terror in the teasing buildup. Fear in The Strangers is like the shape you see out of the corner of your eye but never front and center, or worse, the shape standing behind you that you never even see. The murderers’ blasé attitudes are stomach-churning–they move a smoke alarm, give a feather-light touch, and stand just out of focus with no intention of being seen by anyone but the viewer. The phrase “playing with their food” was never so applicable–or alarming.
House of the Devil (2009, dir. Ti West) A beauty on 16mm, House of the Devil works well as both an homage to ‘70s and ‘80s horror, and a scarefest all its own. West sets up a cliched premise–a college-aged babysitter takes a new gig on a spooky night–and immediately twists it on its head. After arriving at a secluded mansion for a well-paying job, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) finds out too late that she isn’t babysitting a child, but rather an ailing, elderly in-law. Cue the shy heroine’s inability to say no to what will no-doubt be a night of hell–in this case, perhaps literally. From here on, the film is relentless, playing up the suspense and mystery so effectively that you’ll be tempted more than once to hide behind your hands. Bonus: Greta Gerwig plays Samantha’s best friend, and even without the solidly scary sequences, her presence alone would elevate the movie beyond the realm of a run-of-the-mill slasher.
The Fourth Kind (2009, dir. Olatunde Osunsanmi) Alien movies that provide authentic chills rather than secondhand embarrassment are hard to come by. At its high points, The Fourth Kind pulls off the former by forgoing the more over-the-top handheld “found footage” that’s ubiquitous in the genre, instead presenting police footage, taped psychology sessions, interviews with alleged subjects, and staged reenactments. The film, which is set in rural Alaska and follows a psychologist uncovering repressed memories of alien abductions, was heavily panned by critics, but it captures the real fear behind the idea of otherworldly abduction better than most. The uncomfortably blurred lines between nightmares, memories, and delusions keep viewers ill at ease to the hard-to-watch end. Plus, like Twin Peaks told us, the owls are not what they seem
Silent House (2011, dir. Chris Kentis and Laura Lau) What starts as another home invasion movie with a gimmick–it happens in real time with a faux continuous shot–becomes a knock-down-drag-out assault on the psyche in this Elizabeth Olsen-starrer. Even the simplest scenes during which Olsen’s character Sarah renovates her family home with her father and uncle are eerie, simmering with the potential energy of a type of film we think we’ve seen before. But almost immediately the movie descends into an unexpectedly gripping paranoia, kicked off by Sarah’s encounter with a supposed childhood friend who she can’t remember. The rest is twisted, original, and best when seen for yourself.
Sinister (2012, dir. Scott Derrickson) Sinister is like the less famous cousin of Blumhouse-produced horror blockbusters Paranormal Activity and Insidious, but it deserves its own moment in the spotlight. Ethan Hawke stars as a true crime writer who just moved his family too close for comfort to the scene of a gruesome murder. This one is mostly remembered for its silly-looking villain and inexplicable preoccupation with Babylonian mythology, but it’s the gnarly Super 8 footage that should haunt your dreams. The film’s nightmare-fuel opening shot shows grainy footage of an entire family–kids and parents, all with sacks over their heads–being hung from a tree in slow-motion, their bodies floating and legs kicking, an unseen force controlling their fates. It only gets freakier from there.
House at the End of the Street (2012, dir. Mark Tonderai) For its first half, this Jennifer Lawrence-led thriller is predictable–until it’s suddenly anything but. The setup is one you’ve heard before–a girl and her single mom move into a house across from a cute boy with a dark past and plenty of secrets. Max Thieriot plays the outcast, Ryan, whose family townsfolk say was killed by his unhinged sister, and for a while, the film moves into the territory of a surprisingly charming, decidedly un-scary teen drama. But when Ryan’s feral sister makes an appearance and pieces of their family history come crashing into place, House at the End of the Street becomes an indelibly nasty homage to the backwoods horror of the ‘70s. Lawrence and Thieriot are well-cast, and the third act is a doozy; it’s a shame this one was marketed like a run-of-the-mill teen movie, but it’s worth checking out now.
Devil’s Pass (2013, dir. Renny Harlin) The Dyatlov Pass Incident (a real historical event, and also the original title for this film) is one of the stranger, more cinema-ready unsolved mysteries of the past century, so it’s a wonder it’s only ever been the subject of one movie. Devil’s Pass follows a group of college students on a research trip with the intention of retracing the steps of the real-life Russian hikers who were found dead in the Ural mountains, with unexplained injuries and high levels of radiation, in 1959. The premise itself is rich enough, but the direction writer Vikram Weet chooses to explore is increasingly ambitious. Plus, it has everything you need from a found footage film in the style of The Blair Witch Project. Cagey locals who warn the group to turn back? Check. An escalating sense of isolation, paranoia, and impending doom? Check. A balls-to-the-wall ending that is at once preposterous and inspired? Check and check.
Oculus (2013, dir. Mike Flanagan) Horror aficionados know that Mike Flanagan’s female protagonists should not be messed with. In a genre that has more issues with representation of women than any other, films with resourceful, clever heroines like Oculus and Hush (below) are a desperately needed breath of fresh air. Oculus, in particular, is a meticulous, exhilarating reversal of the damsel in distress trope. Instead of being emotionally crippled by a supernatural incident from her childhood, Kaylie (a mesmerizing Karen Gillan) has been educating herself about its origin and preparing to face it again. While her formerly-institutionalized brother (Brenton Thwaites) has been talk-therapied into believing their childhood house of horrors wasn’t real, Kaylie has a heavily-researched plan–involving video cameras, temperature sensors, a watchdog, and a system of timed snack breaks–to revisit the house and the mirror that she thinks caused their childhood haunting. Startling imagery and a feeling of slipping in and out of time make Oculus a trippy film, but it’s scary for a different reason; Flanagan earns our terror by imagining malevolent forces strong enough to undermine even the most well-prepared, seemingly-in-control hero.
As Above, So Below (2014, dir. John Erick Dowdle) The most exciting, well-rounded American horror movie to be instantly forgotten in recent years, As Above, So Below got a bad rap mostly due to growing found footage fatigue. Truth be told, the handheld camera format is the least memorable part of a film that has a lot going for it. Part Indiana Jones-inspired adventure, part Dante-esque descent into a layered, surreal labyrinth of fear, it follows an enthusiastic student of alchemy (Perdita Weeks) as she and a crew of explorers search the Parisian catacombs for the legendary philosopher’s stone. The film’s anthropological aspects skirt disbelief (somehow a prophecy that’s being translated from an ancient language rhymes perfectly in English) but it also quickly establishes a cast of likable, interesting characters, making their chaotic and dangerous trip into the city’s underbelly all the more heart-pounding.
Creep (2015, dir. Patrick Brice) People say Creep is funny, and it is if you like your humor with a side of never wanting to go outside or meet another human being again. The film only has two visible actors–Patrick Brice as an unwitting documentarian answering a Craigslist ad, and Mark Duplass as Josef, a cipher of a man who sheds aspects of his persona like extra layers of clothing. Creep is a labor of love, directed by Brice and co-written by its two leads, and their hard work pays off. The film debuted at SXSW in 2014 and its initial release was stalled before it was finally given a quiet premiere on Netflix in 2015. It’s certainly worth discovering now; Duplass is a frightful joy to watch, and Brice finely manages an uncommon role–an emotive male lead in a horror movie. As Josef transforms from an ailing father to an overbearing adult man in a wolf mask to an obsessive, unnerving liar, it’s the film’s well-developed subtext that will keep you up at night. You get the sense that there’s so much more to this stranger–who makes awkward jokes, regurgitates lines that sound like those of a child psychologist, and tosses out falsehoods with the conviction of an honest man–than you would ever want to know about, but still, you can’t look away.
Hush (2016, dir. Mike Flanagan) The 21st century has been a Renaissance for home invasion flicks, as evidenced by the presence of five of them on this list. Hush is an all-time best. The premise–a deaf woman is terrorized by a masked man who tries to use her disability to his advantage–could have gone wrong in so many ways, but co-writer and star Kate Siegel pulled it off beautifully. The intruder is wrong to think that hurting this woman will be easy; Kate Siegel’s Maddie isn’t weak, and she treats her hearing loss simply as an obstacle to work around–a philosophy that when applied to the break-in helps her again and again throughout the harrowing night. You’ll root for her (probably by yelling aloud more than once) partly because the odds are against her, but mostly because she’s smart, and Flanagan is a pro at continually ratcheting up the suspense. This movie hits the coveted horror film trifecta; at once frightening, realistic, and empowering.
The Invitation (2016, dir. Karyn Kusama) Have you ever been trapped in a conversation that started out fine, but ended up being about how this person really, really wants you to join some money-making scheme or sketchy religion? Karyn Kusama knows that’s a nightmare in and of itself. In The Invitation, she uses the concept of being trapped in a social interaction gone wrong as the launchpad for something truly disturbing. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend are headed to a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband. That would be awkward enough already, but they’re also grappling with seeing one another for the first time after the death of their son and Eden’s attempted suicide. When Will becomes suspicious that Eden’s newfound spiritual group is actually a cult, the film takes a turn for the subjective, asking viewers to take stock of the situation and evaluate his own trustworthiness. As the night wears on, the film dances on a high wire of tension, with moments of wary calm balanced out by what seem to be increasingly obvious red flags, until it all crashes down in a satisfying, unexpected conclusion.
Under the Shadow (2016, dir. Babak Anvari) It’s a bit of a cheat to call Under the Shadow, a movie that was met with critical acclaim upon its Sundance premiere last year, underrated. Yet the Iranian-set wartime film is still criminally underseen, having basically gone straight from the festival circuit to Netflix. The film was lauded for its unique premise–in the 1980s, a mother left alone with her daughter during the bombings of Tehran thinks she’s either losing her mind or being haunted–but the scare factor here cannot be overstated. Narges Rashidi plays the mom who’s trying to hold it together while scared out of her wits by the behavior of her daughter, who of course has a creepy doll. Recurring nightmares, increasing isolation, and the ever-present tension of the cultural moment leave viewers feeling raw long before the djinn makes her entrance so that when you finally do jump or scream, the fear stings like an open wound.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017, dir. Osgood Perkins) This isn’t A24s most popular horror movie or even its best, but The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a stomach-churning tale with a dark heart that stays with you long after it’s over. Lucy Boynton and Kiernan Shipka play the only two high schoolers stuck at a Catholic boarding school over winter break. While Boynton’s character stays to work through a relationship issue in private, Shipka’s parents have been ominously delayed. Meanwhile, a parallel plot finds a disheveled Emma Roberts hitchhiking with a couple who have lost a child of their own. Even as it hints at its true nature, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is shadowy and vague enough to keep you guessing. For the most part, the film plays out like an art-house suspense movie, but when the climax hits, it’s the epitome of good horror.