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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies 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
 

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

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

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

49

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

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

48

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

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

47

The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

46

May (2002)

Navigating a tonal tightrope between tenderness and terror, Lucky McKee’s May ultimately resembles the patchwork creature that’s pieced together in its gruesome final act. This monstrous meditation on E.M. Forster’s motto “Only connect!” chronicles a pathetic, pent-up wallflower’s (Angela Bettis) attempts to establish “normal” relations with colleagues at a veterinary surgery and a potential love object or two. This proves a fool’s errand, since McKee surrounds her with a supporting cast of disobliging caricatures—predatory lesbian, self-absorbed artiste, daft L.A. punk. There’s a sly sense of humor at work here, never more apparent than during a risibly pretentious student film. McKee delivers several queasily disturbing set pieces along the way, especially one involving a roomful of blind children and lots of shattered glass. Wilkins

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

45

Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire‘s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Gonzalez

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

44

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

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

43

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

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

42

Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

41

Piranha 3D

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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