The common wisdom, inherited thanks mostly to the 1968-1978 boom of great American horror movies that accompanied some of the nation’s most turbulent and hopeless years (at least among those that could be reflected via moving pictures), is that the worse off things are, the more relevant and powerful our cinematic nightmares become. That the halcyon days of horror are directly proportional to the index of actual human suffering. If that’s so, the entire world has spent the last decade counting down the few remaining seconds left on the Doomsday Clock. While the few years leading up to Y2K brought with them a set of snarky, masturbatorily meta slasher movies that ensured audiences not only felt superior to the movies they were raised on, but also absolved them of any sense of socio-political obligation, the dozens and dozens of new horror classics that have swarmed out of every corner of the globe since then (not unlike the teeming cockroaches that burst out of E.G. Marshall’s chest at the climax of Creepshow) seemed to impress upon us all that the biggest nightmare of all wasn’t that the world would end, but that we’d have to continue living on in the colossal mess we’ve cultivated.
Or, worse, that we’d have to continue cultivating a culture of killing. It’s both too glib and too jingoistic to suggest that 9/11 perhaps ushered in what has clearly become another golden age of horror, easy though it might be when we’re examining a time span during which political speechwriters used the word “terror” with more wanton relish than William Castle, Roger Corman, and the Crypt Keeper combined. Though the instantaneously repulsive spectacle in lower Manhattan and the deadening slow-mo retaliation certainly primed the world to absorb a whole lotta hurt, the new millennial horror paid forth brutalism in a multicultural banquet of carnage, grue, and dread. Some of our great new horror movies look to the past for assistance, others resonate with bleak nihilism for our future. Want stone proof the aughts sucked? Recue the blunt climax to the most diverting movie in our entire list of the 25 scariest post-2000 movies: Drag Me to Hell. We’re totally fucked. Eric Henderson.
It’s difficult to talk about The Orphanage without talking about Guillermo del Toro. As melancholic as it is frightening, the film (which del Toro produced) makes us mournful even as we’re dreading whatever lies in wait on the other side of a door or tucked behind a crawlspace. This uncomfortable blend, an unfortunate rarity these days, is something the creature-obsessed del Toro excels at, and it finds a uniquely clear expression under the careful direction of J.A. Bayona. The Spanish director privileges character and quietude over corpses and cheap tricks, lending the film a feeling of transcendence over the genre that its makers understand so well. Michael Nordine
Drag Me to Hell
Many horror films from the 2000s are so eager to splatter and slice their way into our hearts that they end up covering their canvases in bloody clichés. Not so with Sam Raimi’s masterfully paced throwback, which is smart enough to withhold its more disturbing visceral elements until the very last moment. This directorial restraint allows the perfectly calibrated sound design and dread-inducing mise-en-scène to drive the viewer mad with anticipation. Anchored by Allison Lohman’s brilliant performance as a loan officer fated for Hades’s gallows, Drag Me to Hell is as much about greed as it is culpability, or more specifically our arrogant attempts to cover up sin even when the devil herself is staring us down. Glenn Heath Jr.
A formally accomplished director when it suits him, Takashi Miike can be so shocking because he’s willing to discard his conventional gifts and dive face first in the muck; he doesn’t play the distancing art-house games that characterize the hypocritical Michael Haneke. Miike’s most popular contribution to the horror genre is Audition, which acted as a correction to the self-serving immorality of Fatal Attraction and its endless clones. Visitor Q, on the other hand, acts as a correction to the relentless popularity of reality TV, a phenomenon that invites us to vicariously feast on human misery as distraction from our own daily indignities. The story follows a family as they casually film one another indulging in incest and necrophilia as well as a long list of other similarly taboo activities, and Miike stages each escalating atrocity with a flip, tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes nearly slapstick manner that’s authentically horrifying. Yet, the filmmaker, as Audition made clear, is a moralist deep down, and the brilliant, surreal Visitor Q—so powerful and disgusting that many will probably find it unwatchable—is the ultimate middle-finger to media sponsored narcissism. Chuck Bowen
Sion Sono kicks things off with one of the great openers in recent horror cinema: Holding hands and chanting “a one and a two,” 50 uniformed Japanese high school girls throw themselves under a subway train, drenching bystanders in gouts and gallons of gore. Investigations into the ensuing outbreak of teenage suicide pacts, headed by Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), leads to a tween-idol girl group disseminating hidden messages that exhort listeners to promptly snuff it, concealed in the media blitzkrieg surrounding their ear-candy megahit “Mail Me.” Boasting plenty of splatter for the fanboys (much of it blatantly artificial CGI), Suicide Club at times deepens into an existential inquiry, even if it raises more questions about social media manipulation and interpersonal disconnect than it can hope to answer. An outrageous finale takes its audience behind the music, and through the looking glass, into a harsh realm filled with gerbils, raincoat-clad tykes, and new uses for woodworking tools. Budd Wilkins
The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
The most remarkable thing about Dutch writer-director Tom Six’s now-infamous provocation is that nobody seems to agree as to what it is. Even the critics that saw and despised it, of which there are many, don’t all think Six takes the film’s eponymous monster seriously. To be clear, he doesn’t, and that’s the crux of The Human Centipede (First Sequence), an effectively queasy chiller that constantly keeps you off-balance by anti-climactically pulling the rug out from under its viewers in almost every other scene. Dieter Laser’s evil Dr. Hieter is a hilariously campy mad scientist, but the threat that he poses to his very scared victims is very serious. Vile though it may be, Six’s vision is clever enough and jarring enough to make the story both rather funny and deeply unnerving. Simon Abrams
A History of Violence
Unconditional love and true evil are both core family values in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, a cinematic shotgun blast to the face that splits the classic American dream in half. After effortlessly dispatching two wayward thugs, father, husband, restaurant owner, and gangster-in-hiding Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself physically and emotionally cornered like a classic western outlaw. As Tom’s splintering identity sheds an outer layer of artifice to reveal a snakes skin underneath, brutal physical violence becomes his only communication device. But the real horror resides in the deafening silence of the film’s aching final shot: a quiet dinner table standoff foreshadowing years of familial hell to come. Heath Jr.
Let Me In
How fitting it is that the vampiric Ronald Reagan makes a cameo in Let Me In, the most unexpectedly tender, affecting film of its kind since Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. The creatures of the night and the anguish of a generation raised by hypocrites and yuppies fit right into Matt Reeves’s heartfelt depiction of ‘80s suburbia, a society that’s ravaged itself on a steady diet of fear. Distinctly warmer in tone than the Swedish original (and featuring a newly conceived carjacking sequence as nail-bitingly prodigious as anything in Hitchcock), this justified remake nonetheless finds equal levels of unrest and hurt among its cast of characters, eschewing traditional notions of villains and heroes with a dramatically ambiguous push-and-pull of overlapping, conflicting motivations. Kids, cops, bullies, killers, and even a vampire seem to share the same twisted soul. The bloodshed is tragic regardless, while a deceptively upbeat tone guards the true nature of the sinister conclusion—the end of this story, but more importantly, the beginning of another just like it. Rob Humanick
The Strangers is practically an abstraction, an old-school spooker spun from the blood splatter on a wall, a nearby record player scratching an oldie, a CB radio in the garage, a creaky swing set in the backyard. First-time helmer Bryan Bertino is beholden to genre quota, skidding the relationship of pretty young couple Kristen and James (played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) before subjecting them to an after-dark home invasion. But he offers no profound rationale for why she refuses his marriage proposal; like the shadowy stranger that comes knocking at their door (eerily asking, “Is Tamara home?”), it’s something that just happens. Plying an old-school artistry that begins with a creepy montage of bumblefuck houses and holds up almost without fail until the strangers offer a creepy non-justification for their transgressions, analog-man Bertino teases with the unknown until he’s left no pimple ungoosed. Sometimes avoiding the synapse-raping bad habits of splat packers Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja is its own reward; doing so without also submitting to Michael Haneke–style hand-slapping is nearly monumental. Ed Gonzalez
Frank Darabont pulls off an impressive coup with The Mist, making the human monsters more unnerving, vile, and volatile than the genetically mutated creatures stalking their every move. After dense fog suddenly blankets a Northeastern coastal town, many of the citizens band together inside a local supermarket to wait out the crippling weather. As time passes, collective annoyance and unrest turns to fear, dissent, and ultimately divisive rage, creating a tenuous moral landscape driven by shifting mob mentalities. Extreme ideology becomes the characters’ sharp-edged weapons of choice, and the result is pure savagery, a Lord of the Flies-style community apocalypse that leads to a blunt-force ending both resolutely depressing and bravely fitting. In the face of collective doubt and panic, even the best of us are beasts of burden. Heath Jr.
Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Abrams