When I think back over the last decade in regards to horror, it seems like a relatively barren landscape. However, when I sat down to prepare the list, I realized there has been some quite excellent work done in the past ten years. Granted, we have suffered through such irritating trends as the J-horror ghost flicks, the pathetic ‘torture porn’ genre, and the done-to-death supernatural thriller.
I’ve tried to limit the list to proper horror films—i.e. they try at some level to thrill or unnerve you—and have left off comedies like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. In addition, I’m not a fan of the overly violent exploitative trash like Chaos or the Hostel films, so you won’t find any of those here (including stuff like Inside or Martyrs, which I was unfortunate enough to have seen). Like the last round-up for animation, we will start with five runners-up”, followed by slots 20-11.
The Shadow of the Vampire (2000) Directed by: Elias Merhige
Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is a clever and visually grimy little bit of historical speculation that wonders if Murnau, the German director of Nosferatu, recruited an actual vampire to film his masterpiece.
Dafoe, as the decrepit and near impotent bloodsucker, is perfectly repugnant and genuinely unsettling. The centerpiece of the film is his relationship with Malkovich and together they bring all the moral rot inherent in the story to the surface.
This isn’t a film of shock or scares but a movie with a deep internal dread that must creep into the heart of every artist; the prospect of being faced with the decision to sell your own soul and the choice you might make when that day comes.
Isolation (2005) Directed by: Billy O’Brien
This is a taut and atmospheric little movie that takes the biological terror of films like Alien or The Thing and relocates them to a struggling cow farm in rural Ireland. It took me two viewing to warm to this one, mostly because the central monster is an almost indistinct jumble.
But beyond what it looks like, the genetic end-game it is playing is wholly terrifying and the actors are all on point, anchoring an oppressive and lonely setting and adding spice to some overwhelmingly tense suspense pieces.
There are plenty of reasons to see this one, including a scene that suggests that the scariest place in all of the universe just might be the inside of a cow’s anus.
The Signal (2007) Directed by: Dave Bruckner/Jake Gentry/Dan Bush
The Signal reminds me a lot of late 70’s/early 80’s horror films where the fall of civilization is met with madness, fear and bloodshed. The idea of a lone signal scrambling the brains of humanity and sending them on murderous rampages is the kind of thing Cronenberg specialized in back then.
This film, carrying three separate directors, suggests Cronenberg in its final segment, and there’s plenty of Raimi inspired slap-stick madness in the middle section. The first part, that introduces us to the signal and its effects, reminds of films like 28 Days Later. Ultimately, no one segment is better than the others, although I suspect many will recall the second one most vividly. Versatility is The Signal’s strength.
This is one of those films that keeps topping itself with each new ludicrous event, and if you have ever secretly feared/hoped for that day where the social walls would fall and pit you against your own neighbors for survival, then you might want to seek this one out. It’s off its rocker.
Rogue (2007) Directed by: Greg McClean
Greg McClean, the director of the grimy and needlessly grotesque Wolf Creek returns to the concept of savagery in the Australian outback. This time though, he cuts down on the sadism and hits a home-run by telling a man-vs-nature survival story about a tourist boat attacked by a large and hungry crocodile. Radha Mitchell and Michael Vartan, along with Sam Worthington, round out a strong cast.
Adding much to the film are the suspense of night-time river attacks and the ominous cinematography that evokes the brutal and haunting landscape of Australia’s wilderness.
By the time the movie has wound-down into a formidable monster pic, McClean has already run his audience through the ringer. This an exceptionally unnerving and beautiful creature feature.
Buppah Rahtree (2003) Directed by: Yuthlert Sippapak
Buppah Rahtree is a stand-out example of Thai horror cinema. An exemplary midnight movie in ever regard, Buppah crams about four or five different genres and tones into one movie and manages to tell a story that has significant and emotional impact.
You will care for the main character and mourn her loathsome downfall at the hands of a young, rich cad. You will rupture organs laughing at the manic ways her ghost torments and taunts the residents of the apartment complex where she dies. Finally, you will be put on edge as the final threads of her revenge draw together against the unsuspecting man who caused her pain in the first place.
Although it has its share of effective thrills, Buppah is best defined by its wicked sense of humor; my favorite scene involves two Thai priests trying to use dialogue from The Exorcist to ward away a pissed-off ghost with a bow staff.
20. In My Skin (2002) Directed by: Marina De Van
Mental deterioration and physical disfigurement. In My Skin has the unpleasant and fearsome job of imagining my most extreme nightmares in a tangible and unrelentingly gruesome manner. This film, about a girl who comes to gain a fascination for self mutilation—and later self cannibalism—after a personal accident, is as repulsive and suspenseful as they come.
A fascinating character study about a woman struggling with an addiction that causes her body great harm is thought-provoking at the same time it’s stomach churning. Self mutilation is about as morbid an obsession as one could want, but more mundane addictions like alcohol, cigarettes, or even food (gets a lot of us where we live) take specific and altering tolls on our physical person. This film examines the sickness and its toll up close and personal and the results are devastating.
If it weren’t so single-mindedly unpleasant, this would be much higher on the list.
19. Dog Soldiers (2002) Directed by: Neil Marshall
Dog Soldiers is one fun B-movie! Werewolves never got the respect that vampires got in the 80s, and in the 90’s they were virtually non-existent. They have been underappreciated this decade too, but the ’00s have at least brought us a couple good flicks to call our own.
Among them is this beastie; an action-horror that sets up a group of British mercs against an army of hungry werewolves and lets the fur and the fury fly. Marshall is an expert director when it comes to schlock. He imbues silliness with a real and thrilling energy. Some of my fave bits feature solid actors like Sean Pertwee firing off quips and automatic weaponry at gangly men in rubber wolf suits.
In addition to the delicious absurdity, Marshall keeps the humor and the thrills cranked unreasonably high. This is an excellent and invigorating popcorn splatter-fest.
18. The Living and the Dead (2006) Directed by: Simon Rumley
Possessing a refreshing intelligence and dreamlike visual style, Dead tells the story of an mentally disturbed young man in a falling-down Victorian manse who is left to care for his disabled mother while his father is away. When he stops taking his meds, things go down a short road to Hell and before long we are trapped in this moldering husk of a home with an increasingly insane son and the mother at his mercy.
One of the occupational hazards of horror films is that quite often they cannot sustain suspense in the same way that other thrillers can. The Living and the Dead is not like this. It is an uncommonly anxious film that starts at strung-out levels of discomfort and moves precariously through so many scenes of harrowing drama that as a viewer I quickly realized that any resolution, if it came, would not be sufficient to wash away the film’s sting.
What we have here is a movie of unflinching dread that follows one man down the rabbit hole of his own mind. A creepy, underrated gem that deserves to be seen.
17. Drag Me To Hell (2009) Directed by: Sam Raimi
Drag Me To Hell isn’t just classic Raimi. It’s also a classic Universal horror picture that utilizes all of the mad props and genre trimmings to tell the kind of overwrought chiller that one would have seen in the 40s or the 50s, or read between the pages of Tales from The Crypt.
This one features a terrific performance by Allison Lohman and nearly no restraint from Sam in the viscera department. Best of all, the movie is both good-natured and spooky and sinister. When it lets loose, it really manages to get crazy. At the same time, Raimi doesn’t let Lohman’s character or the audience off the hook.
Raimi plays his morality close to the hilt, and the universe he sets up here revolves around the chinks in Lohman’s integrity and charity. It’s a great, goofy, ghoulish time and that séance scene is one of Raimi’s all time best moments.
16. Ginger Snaps (2000) Directed by: John Fawcett
Prior to Stephanie Meyers turning them into leering Native American jocks, werewolves and teenagers didn’t mix much. The strength of John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps is that it combines both elements—the wolves and the teens—and doesn’t short-change either.
The relationship between the two sisters, played with real connection by Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins, is the lifeblood of the story and I’ve rarely seen such a confident and believable portrayal of siblings in a genre film. It is often stated that the Ginger Snaps uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty, with Ginger’s dark, wolfy side standing in for hormonal upheaval and blossoming lust. Ehhh, not quite.
Instead, Isabelle’s werewolf ‘curse’ overrides and interacts with her ‘feminine curse’ in such a way that both are amplified and volatile as a result of mixing with the other. Adding more fire to the satirical fire is the fact that not even Ginger’s mother (an on-point Mimi Rogers) can tell the difference between the ravenous appetite of a monster lurking within her daughter and just a case of menstrual anxiety. Oh, to be a teenager again!
15. 28 Days Later (2002) Directed by: Danny Boyle
Art-house and horror had been courting on and off prior to 2002, but when Danny Boyle unleashed this thoughtful and downright scary apocalypse to our cinema screens he brought both back together with a resounding crash. And 28 Days Later is nothing, if not artistically accomplished. Danny is playing with cinematic motifs and camera styles, as well as color palettes that he would go on to experiment with heavily in later films. Many of them are better than this, but none of them have the intensity displayed here.
I love the look, love the way the end of the world is handled, and the rage-infected remainder are an interesting and aggressive take on Romero’s shambling zombies. There is a real poignancy behind those scenes of Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson on the road together, taking in the last remnant of humanity.
Yes, it gets a little weak in the film’s final third, but ultimately this is the movie that breathed life back into the rapidly decaying zombie genre. And yet, it stands alone and above most of its contemporaries as a horror film with both bite and brains. Bring on 28 Chanukahs Later.
14. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) Directed by: Scott Glosserman
Behind the Mask is as good as it is because it breathes life into a terribly stale genre—the slasher flick—and on the way to lampooning the whole thing, inadvertently discovers some un-mined nuggets of potential. I love the mockumentary packaging of the first two-thirds and the performance by Nathan Baesal as an excited yuppie hiding a dark bogeyman is actually cleverly shaded.
By the time the third segment hits and the movie becomes the kind of film it’s been kidding about, Baesal has given Vernon what none of his heroes had—humanity and personality, and he’s actually creepier for having it. Watching him beaming with excitement and joy right before he sets off on the big spree is the kind of moment the movie has earned.
Scott Wilson as the murderous mentor and Englund as Vernon’s ‘Ahab’ are both predictably good, but the other stand-out is Angela Goethals as Taylor Gentry, the would-be documentarian that gets faced with her moral and ethical dilemma just as Vernon is revving up to face-down his survivor girl. Ultimately, what this movie delivers is what all the critics have been moaning about for years; an interesting, multi-faceted heroine and a villain with real menace.
For my money, the slasher film has never been done better.
13. The Mist (2007) Directed by: Frank Darabont
I first read Stephen King’s The Mist in the summer of 1991, right in the middle of an earth drenching thunder storm not unlike the one that opens the story. Back then, I was much younger and the tantalizing images of prehistoric creatures terrorizing a small enclave of survivors in a grocery store lodged in my mind and have been there ever since. So, for 16 years I’ve been imagining what the film version of King’s drifting fog banks, giant spiders, reptilian bats and six-legged behemoths would actually look like.
I must admit complete surprise at how well Darabont nails the particulars in his own version. This is a late-night drive-in monster film come to life with style and imagination and artistry. Artistry? In a movie with carnivorous pterodactyls and giant land-based lobsters eviscerating people? Absolutely.
Jane is good as the leader of the more rational collective of survivors and Marcia Gay Harden channels the cackling false prophet Mrs. Carmody perfectly. In smaller roles, Toby Jones and Jeffrey DeMunn give the film some added flavor. The monsters, especially the roving, Lovecraftian juggernaut at film’s end are spectacularly designed and suitably mind-bending.
Some hate the ending. I don’t. It brings the film’s themes of misplaced faith full circle. Once the world shrinks down to those four bullets, you’ll never find your way out of the mist.
12. The House of the Devil (2009) Directed by: Ti West
I have long held John Carpenter’s Halloween as one of the perfect specimens of it’s place and time. It captures that late 70’s universe of suburban suspicion and fearful urban legend so precisely that watching it is like being transported. Then there is the knotted web of suspense and apprehension that the film weaves. Very, very few films—including any of Halloween’s sequels or remakes—have managed to achieve that sense of style and urgency. But, in my opinion, Ti West’s House of the Devil does exactly that.
It is a complete throw-back to early 80s horror movies. Like Halloween, Devil has very little onscreen violence and a limited number of casualties. The atmosphere of the leaf littered college campus, the winding, wood-shrouded back roads and the big sprawling mansion that may or may not have a secret in the basement is gloriously immersive.
For large stretches of House we are on edge just waiting for something to happen while precious little actually does. This could kill a film dead, but the casting of Jocelin Donahue alleviates any attention span problems you are likely to have. Like Curtis before her, Donahue has a gawky, clumsy girl-next-door cuteness and charm. She’s also resourceful and carries the psychological weight of the film’s final events on her narrow but resilient shoulders.
11. Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) Directed by: Christophe Gans
I wrestled with whether or not Brotherhood of the Wolf is actually a horror film or not. It certainly features a frightening beast, some terrifically suspenseful set pieces and a landscape and characters that might as well be dipped in gothic excess. It’s not based on much of a ‘true story’ outside of some residual details regarding The Beast of Gevudan and I don’t imagine there’s anyone out there to account for the Iroquois martial artists, one-armed counts, secret Vatican societies or giant wolf-like monsters.
Visually, I am overcome by the movie’s artificial world that recalls Anton Furst’s Company of Wolves or Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Brotherhood is a more deliberately entertaining film than either of those and its more conscientious. Just as we have had the monster defeated, the sidekick slaughtered, the girl poisoned, and the society revealed, and we can’t possibly expect anything more from the film, out comes Vincent Cassel wielding a retractable bone sword. Boo-ya!
In the end, I think it is a horror movie, one fabulously in-tune with a great many different genres and styles and ideas. The entire film may be baffling on a strictly narrative level but I really appreciate the way it takes so much detail and research and mythology and then expertly mixes them into a big stew of crazy.