The Best Horror Cinema of the 21st Century
My first horror film was John Carpenter’s The Thing. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember it being the first horror film that I actually watched from beginning to end without hiding in the bathroom down the hall, like I did with Alien, which I guess was technically my first horror film. With The Thing, once the credits rolled, I felt uneasy, sick. But I also felt changed, like I now knew something about the world that I hadn't before. Things wouldn’t always necessarily be OK out there in the big bad world. From that point on, I think I subconsciously relied on horror films to provide me with that dose of uncertainty that would no doubt rear its ugly head at every opportunity down the road.
I’ve posted a video essay showcasing the horror films that contribute something bold and unique to the genre. Rather than have a ranked list, I made an attempt at grouping them together by theme.
Part One: What makes for an effective home-invasion thriller?
Home invasion has been a pervasive theme in horror films and thrillers, dating back to Blind Alley (1939, dir. Charles Vidor). The idea that your house is no longer your safe haven, where life’s ills can’t touch you, has always made for effective genre fare. The films I chose for this theme do a really fine job of capturing the hopelessness of being prey in your own home. The more traditional ones, like The Strangers (2008, dir. Bryan Bertino) and You’re Next (2011, dir. Adam Wingard), are exercises in suspense, focusing more on technical elements like sound and camerawork to really hammer home the visceral impact.
Hush (2016, dir. Mike Flanagan) employs those same elements but complicates the narrative by making its protagonist (a marvelous Kate Siegel, who also wrote the script) deaf and mute. The equally marvelous John Gallagher, Jr. plays the predator who decides to play with his quarry, not realizing how resourceful and cunning she is. Siegel nails a challenging role in which she must wordlessly convey the horror of her situation, and it creates a story that's brimming with tension, but also emotionally engaging.
And then we have Inside (2007, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury), which spends its first thirty minutes building suspense in expert fashion, then descends into red chaos. A pregnant woman is being terrorized by another woman who only wants to steal her unborn child. This is hard stuff to watch, but if you can get past the gore, you will find a movie made with real skill.
Part Two: A genre redefined by women in the new millennium
Nearly all of the films featured in this list have a female protagonist. But this is nothing new: Women, for better or worse, usually have been our surrogate in horror. It’s only now that we’re starting to see more interesting roles for women, going beyond what typically has been expected of them in the genre.
Starry Eyes (2014, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer) is a striking throwback to the films of De Palma and Argento, but the plot line—driven actress sells her soul and undergoes a grisly transformation—is about all the movie has in common with classics such as Carrie and Suspiria. Some might also compare it to Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent The Neon Demon, but Starry Eyes trades ghoulish exploitation and flashy visuals for a more stripped-down, character-driven piece. Alex Essoe makes her big debut here, and it’s one of the best horror performances of this or any decade.
A great companion piece to Starry Eyes is Lucky McKee’s May (2002), a twisted fairy tale about a socially isolated girl (a fantastic Angela Bettis) trying in vain to find genuine companionship while also fending off her own psychological deterioration. May eventually opts for a darker path in its final act, but I was completely enveloped in Bettis' character throughout.
Audition (1999, dir. Takashe Miike) has been pegged as a “feminist revenge fantasy,” although I think that’s a rather reductive label. Its feminism is certainly on display, but the focus seems to be more on the male protagonist, a lonely widower who uses his producer friend’s resources to put together a fake TV audition in order to find a girlfriend. That’s just plain creepy, and when he finds a girl—a much younger girl—who fits the bill, he slowly begins to discover that she’s a violent killer who’s been exacting bloody revenge on all of the men in her life who have wronged her. What I like about Audition is its very truthful portrait of a shallow man looking for happiness, and thinking that it exists in the form of a perfect female specimen to marry him, obey him, and bear him children. That he's unable to see her as a multidimensional person is what leads to his downfall. The finale presses this point home in unrelenting, grisly fashion.
The Ring (2002, dir. Gore Verbinski) and It Follows (2015, dir. David Robert Mitchell) may not have especially strong female protagonists, but I include them here for a couple of reasons: It Follows showcases the modern iteration of the classic female horror lead, with Maika Monroe filling in for Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, and The Ring was one of the first horror films that pitted two women against each other in a battle of good and evil.
Part Three: The rise of independent horror
I’m a firm believer that when it comes to horror, you can do more with less. While many of the films in every part of this list were produced independently, these four made the most of their conservative budgets. The best example is Paranormal Activity (2007, dir. Oren Peli), made on a budget of $15,000, which is low even for this list. Peli orchestrates some genuinely scary set pieces here, and managed to do it all with some fishing line and a pair of game actors (Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston). The Babadook (2014, dir. Jennifer Kent), Goodnight Mommy (2015, dir. Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz), and Let The Right One In (2008, dir. Tomas Alfredson) also benefit from small budgets. This allows for a sense of intimacy with the characters and their surroundings that most big-budget horror films simply don’t have the patience for. These films build slowly, use minimal music, and let the characters drive the story, all hallmarks of independent filmmaking.
Part Four: What are the scariest creature features of this century?
This one is near and dear to my heart, as I’ve been a monster nerd since seeing The Thing all those years ago. In the new millennium, however, monsters are not as fun as they used to be. These days, they represent something dire and foreboding, something more in tune with the horrors of the realty we live in. Monsters are more political now, as we see in movies like 28 Days Later (2002, dir. Danny Boyle), in which a viral outbreak decimates the United Kingdom (and possibly the world), and we see, in vivid detail, the human cost of such an event. I remember seeing this film when it opened, just a year after 9/11, and feeling shaken by those images.
[Rec] (2007, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza) is another shock to the system about a viral outbreak, but this one is a little more fun (for me, at least). Those of you averse to the found-footage shaky-cam effect will want to steer clear of this one, but if you’re a fan of absolute zombie mayhem, check it out.
The Mist (2007, dir. Frank Darabont) remains my favorite Stephen King story for its deft evocation of society collapsing in a microcosm. Darabont’s is probably the most faithful of any of King adaptation (save for that doozy of an ending), which really allows for the parable to shine through.
The Host (2006, dir. Bong Joon-ho) took a couple of viewings to finally grow on me, but it eventually won me over. What makes it work is how it’s able to juggle multiple tones and still be consistent in its overall execution. Plus, the monster here is an ingenious creation, like something out of Lucasfilm if Guillermo Del Toro were the department head.
The Descent (2005, dir. Neil Marshall) is one of those movie ideas that you’re kind of shocked no one thought of sooner: Women on a caving expedition encounter subterranean creatures thirsty for their blood. It’s the perfect setting and premise, and Marshall (who’s directed some of the best episodes of Game of Thrones and is due his own Marvel property any day now) takes full advantage of both.
I’m including The Cabin in the Woods (2012, dir. Drew Goddard) in this list, because it is technically a monster movie, but it’s also one of the sharpest satires of the horror genre in recent memory. One could argue that it falls under (and wryly parodies) all of the themes covered in this essay, which is no small feat. Joss Whedon’s script deconstructs all of the clichés with panache, while still maintaining a sense of dread and, strangely, loss.
Watch the full-length version of Zach Prewitt's video here.