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The 50 Greatest Horror Films of the 21st Century

The 50 Greatest Horror Films of the 21st Century

 

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Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière's 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there's never been a time when audiences didn't clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it's only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we're at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there's a startlingly fresh take on the genre's most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there's a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins

50

Them (2006)

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. Simon Abrams

49

Amer (2009)

In making Amer as cold, calculating, and totally transfixing as they have, Belgian filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have manically constructed what may very well be a super giallo. Full of free-floating signifiers of victims watching killers, killers watching victims, and victims becoming killers, the film is essentially an academic's tract on how the Italian giallo functions as a genre. And yet, it's edited so masterfully and filmed with such a sadistically attentive eye for detail that it never feels intractably stiff. Every scene has a new color scheme, a new way to visually process sexual identification. Catte and Forzani prioritize their roles so that they impress us as visual artists that also happen to be capable theorists. The film's narrative progression—the first act is Bava, the second is Fulci, and the third is Argento—is subsequently relentless while its dazzling kaleidoscopic aesthetic calls attention to its filmmakers' brash know-how. It's the ultimate cinematic fetish object—all close-ups, no mercy. Abrams

48

Don’t Breathe (2016)

With Don't Breathe, Fede Alvarez triumphantly suggests, through a seamless patchwork of near-escapes, an almost blackly comic spin on the classic Looney Tunes gag of characters running in and out of doors in a whirl of chaotic energy. In a more explicit riff of the Audrey Hepburn-starring Wait Until Dark, the story's would-be thieves are pitted against a man who turns out to be blind, though far from the feeble victim they imagined, and so their only hope of escape becomes their impossible silence. The sounds of things and objects, from creaky floorboards to cellphones, are both tip-offs and methods of distraction. In one scene, Stephen Lang's gun-toting veteran charges down the hall in a fury and directly past Dylan Minnette's Alex, and as the young man presses his back against the wall, the expression on his face could be our own for how it recognizes the simultaneous horror and absurdity of his predicament. Ed Gonzalez

47

Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith's 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it's suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni's austere script charts the crew's journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God's hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager

46

28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King's The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who's struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp

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