Thanks to the participation of a large swathe of Cinepunx friends and faithful, we’ve put together what we consider to be the top 20 horror films of the last 20 years. The idea was to see what the best movies of the new millenium were, so in true ‘Punx fashion, two of the movies are from 1999 – although their collective influence is arguably the one which looms largest over the list of films compiled here. Plus, with ties and all, we managed to end up with a list of 25 movies, so it’s ultra-comprehensive.
We think this is a pretty representative list, and love the fact that so many “underrated” movies made it. It’s not all hits, and it’s not all critically-adored films. The final list was over 150 movies, with quite a few of those bottom 20-30 only getting one vote, but it was great to see the variety represented.
Obviously, we love more than just this, but these are the best of the best.
Here’s Cinepunx’s Top 20 (and Then Some) Horror Movies of the Last 20 Years:
1. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017)
Get Out is a film that is somehow firmly in a tradition of filmmaking, and yet exists as a singular event. The film takes the social commentary of The Stepford Wives and applies the same sense of humor and critique and looks at “post-racial” America. The same sense of being about something while telling a particular story is present, as well as the anxiety of being all too familiar with what we are seeing. Yet, the lineage of the film, whether in that social horror tradition or in the long line of Black horror films that came before, does nothing to change the unique position of the film. Get Out is a tense, well crafted piece of horror, but it also was released at just the right time to a country that was ready for its insights in a way that no audience was ever primed before.
– Liam O’Donnell
2. The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard, 2012)
Cabin in the Woods was, and remains, my favorite film of 2012. Outwardly, it’s unassuming – even its title serves as a delivery mechanism for one of the most common horror tropes: a group of friends head out for a remote getaway and tangle with some unexpected terror. But what writers Drew Goddard (who also directed) and Joss Whedon have created here is a tale that unravels with a ratcheting up and often hilarious continuous escalation, far beyond whatever the viewer might expect.
Discussing the film is a bit tricky as I recommend going in a blindly as possible and dare not spoil its myriad pleasures. In broad terms, it is set up very much like standard horror fare and then pulls back the proverbial curtain on a larger machine occurring behind the scenes, and that’s about all I’m prepared to give away. But for any horror fan, Cabin in the Woods is required viewing – a richly rewarding, briskly paced, high concept monster mash that also serves as an entertaining metatextual analysis of the genre, but without the smug self-satisfaction that often comes with that territory. – Austin Vashaw
3. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)
First, let me put this to bed: Green Room is a horror film.
Sure, it’s a crime thriller, and a siege movie (think Assault on Precinct 13, except with Nazis), but at its heart it’s about taking a group of innocents and terrifying them to their core. In this case the innocents are punk band the Ain’t Rights, who inadvertently witness a murder in the green room of a Neo-Nazi owned (and frequented) club. The staff must then retrieve the relentlessly brutal owner (played chillingly by Patrick Stewart) to take care of the band. And by “take care”, I mean attack them with guns, dogs, and – in the film’s most gruesome moment – machetes. But these are not your traditional wilting horror movie victims, and they refuse to back down. It’s beautifully acted, perfectly directed, and exactly as brutal as it needs to be. In the years since, Nazis have made a sickening mainstream comeback, but Green Room tells them explicitly to fuck off. And when they don’t listen, it makes them. – Doug Tilley
4. 28 Days Later (dir. Danny Boyle, 2002)
Years before the Red One camera and the industry-wide standardization of digital cinematography, Danny Boyle and D.P. Anthony Dod Mantle used hand-held digital cameras to usher in 21st century horror with a lo-fi howl of rage and pain. Working in the British speculative fiction tradition of Day of the Triffids and Threads, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland crafted an end-of-the-world tale of harrowing specificity that also served as a nerve-shreddingly intense reinvention of the zombie film for the modern era. The visceral terror of this movie was absolutely unmatched on its release in 2002, and paradoxically, the hideousness of the too-saturated, too-grainy digital footage has aged the film beautifully. In the era of Blu-ray, absolutely nothing looks like this movie anymore. Tied together with deeply felt performances led by career-best work from a then unknown Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later’s shattering bleakness is balanced out by its ultimately humanist message; the real horror isn’t a terrible, violent death, it’s being alone, and only by helping and forming connections with one another can we give meaning to the chaos of the apocalypse. – Michael Roberson
5. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Before Mr. Babadook was an LGBTQ icon, he was one of the most frightening movie monsters of the 21st century. Modern horror often locates horror within the nuclear family, but The Babadook takes this idea and turns it on its head. The film is unsettling because it deliberately keeps us uncertain of who deserves our sympathy. Both lead actors deliver compelling performances playing characters that come right to the brink of being obnoxious. Is Noah Wiseman’s Samuel a “Terrible Child” in the tradition of The Omen? Or is Essie Davis’ Amelia an abusive parent along the lines of Jack Torrance? It’s never entirely clear if the events of the film depict a possession or a haunting. As for Mr. Babadook, it’s a shame that one of the best visual designs in recent memory gets so little screen time. And yet that classic “less is more” approach makes his few appearances especially effective. In so many ways the film feels like a throwback to an older 1970s style of horror film, but with contemporary ideas regarding family, trauma, and loss. The Babadook is an exercise in ambiguity, and up to the very end it resists simple explanations or resolutions. – Trey Lawson
6. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster, 2018)
Ari Aster’s Hereditary stands head and shoulders above a lot of movies that will make these lists. It’s both haunting and powerful at a generational level, with relevance extending far beyond its genre. Something you’ll speak about with reverence similar to films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining, or RINGU. On the surface, the film does everything you’d ask of a Saturday night horror flick: demonic possession, shocking gore, self-mutilation, and the occasional jump scare. However, the movie really earns its stripes by capturing the insurmountable dread of dealing with ‘Hereditary’ mental illness and the stress it places on one’s support system. One of the more crushing scenes in the movie involves Gabriel Byrne’s death after finally reaching a breaking point and deciding he’s no longer going to enable (in his mind) his wife’s behavior. The momentary lapse in support ultimately costs Byrne his life, and sets the movie on its final march into absolute madness. The often under-appreciated Toni Collette delivers an iconic, undeniably Oscar-worthy performance as Annie, creating an almost unreasonably high benchmark for performance in a horror film. Aster has already left an indelible mark on the genre with Hereditary and more recently Midsommar, here’s hoping horror remains his weapon of choice for years to come. – Max Davis
7. It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
8. The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall, 2005)
9. Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright, 2004)
Loving a movie on first viewing is always nice, but you don’t often get such a crystal clear realization of “Oh, this person just became one of my favorite filmmakers.” But back in the surreal mid-00s, that’s exactly the part that Edgar Wright put in my hair with Shaun of the Dead. I’d been a horror fan for a while, but only recently had started attempting to dig into the corners of the genre, and this genre-savvy “zom-com” combined a canny look backwards while also showcasing an exciting visual voice and exact blend of crude humor, clever wordplay, and gut-busting visual gags. I fell in love with the film immediately, and haven’t stopped following the filmmaker’s projects since.
Shaun of the Dead stands as a springboard from which Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg would reach new heights (The World’s End being a deliberate companion piece to this film) but also a defining work of zombie horror fiction, comedy, and the increasing internationally of 21st century filmmaking. And even after more than a decade of undead glut in the genre, it’s still fantastic – the script remains airtight, the characters archetypal yet lovingly human, and the zombie gore seriously legit.
And that Queen needle drop doesn’t hurt either. – Brendan Agnew
9. The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015)
There is no such thing as silence in the woods. There’s quiet, oh my yes, thing can sure get awfully quiet. But things are never truly silent, and no stillness is ever truly still. Robert Eggers’ The Witch is not solely a man vs. nature story, just as it is does not belong solely to any particular thematic grouping, but much of its mounting power comes from its masterful depiction of those moments in which you are alone but not alone, surrounded by nothing and with only the inescapable sense that something is waiting just out of sight, readying itself to pounce.
Like The Babadook, The Witch has been co-opted somewhat in the time since its release, with “live deliciously” and “Black Philip” memes threatening to dilute its power. But Eggers’ film operates on the knife-edge between banal grievances and the dark fantastic, just like any especially potent nightmare. The end result is a deliciously chilling fable (or “A New England Folk Tale”) that entrances as well as repels. – Brendan Foley
10. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
11. The Devil’s Backbone (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
12. IT: Chapter One (dir. Andrés Muschietti, 2017)
12. The Blair Witch Project (dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
In the summer of 1999, I was sixteen years old, and I was at the library reading a magazine (I don’t remember which one) when I saw an ad for a movie coming out in a month or so. The ad was brief: in the fall of 1996, three student filmmakers had ventured into the woods outside of a town in Maryland to shoot a documentary on a local legend and disappeared, and a year later their footage was found and the advertised film was the footage they shot. I was immediately fascinated and terrified. Mind you, this was just before the advent of the Internet as a widespread phenomenon; I didn’t have a device in my pocket that I could debunk this with instantly. To me, this was real. And I had to see it.
That film was The Blair Witch Project. I saw it with my friends and it scared the shit out of me. People can badmouth it now, and say it doesn’t show anything and the ending’s stupid, but at the time it was genuinely terrifying. There are few things scarier than the sight and sound of someone in true terror, and this film is chock full of that. Plus, I cannot stress enough that lots of people thought this was real. I know that the found footage has become a bygone trend in horror film-making, but if you ask me Eduardo Sanchez’s debut feature still hits hard and it set the standard for the technique. In fifty years, people will speak of this film in the same revered tones as people now speak of The Exorcist. It’s not my favorite horror movie, but I’d be hard pressed to name a film in the last twenty years that had as much of an impact on the genre. – Justin Lore
13. Drag Me to Hell (dir. Sam Raimi, 2009)
14. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau, 2016)
15. Us (dir. Jordan Peele, 2019)
Second films are tricky. Like so many other genre fans, I had Us atop my list of most-anticipated films of 2019. Get Out was nothing short of a revelation, and I was excited to see what Jordan Peele would do with his second film. Not just because he’s a talent that excites me, though he is absolutely that and I would follow him into a raging fire (or CBS All Access). Moreso, I am fascinated by the dynamic that exists between a filmmaker’s first and second films.
Obviously, there are pressures attendant to both first and second films. When you’re working on your first film, you’re very aware that it could suck and this was all a mistake and your whole life’s ambition was folly. A first film, however, also carries a freedom that the filmmaker will never have again. They are free to work on their film without a lot of eyes on them. They are responsible to producers, investors, and collaborators, but they don’t yet have the internet yelling at them to demand their next film and speculate on what it’s about. They can take their time, and when they’re ready to put it out into the world, hopefully it finds an audience.
Jordan Peele spent years working on the script for Get Out. He went through that document with a fine-tooth comb, even changing the ending in post-production. He made exactly the film he wanted to make, to the tune of $255.4 million dollars at the global box office and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. So, what would he do next?
I love Us. I have listened to that remix of “I Got 5 On It” many, many times this year. I saw it opening day and rushed to social media to share my excitement – and there I was informed that I was wrong. People expected another Get Out, another flawless script. They expected another crisply-constructed tale of social horror, and instead they got a messy bit of abstract fear. Yes, it’s about class. Yes, it’s about nature vs nurture. But it’s also about the existential fear that I’m not the me that I’m supposed to be.
More importantly, however, it’s Jordan Peele growing as a director. There are so many moments where you can see him trying to convey something through a visual instead of a perfect line, such as Jason backing Pluto, his Tethered, into the raging fire. There is no line where a character overtly states that Jason is a sensitive, empathic child, he just is one. To trust your collaborators (whom you haven’t even met yet!) enough to leave negative space in the script for them to fill in… that is the mark of a filmmaker who wants to grow beyond where they are. Transcendence in cinema only comes when people trust each other, and I trust Jordan Peele to keep pushing himself and the medium forward for years to come. – Adam Stovall
16. Audition (dir. Takashi Miike, 1999)
16. Thirst (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2009)
With Thirst, director Park Chan-Wook accomplished two very important things. One, he established without doubt his versatility as a director, going beyond the stark and upsetting revenge tales he was known for into an entirely new arena. Second, he told a vampire story that resonated with the history of the tradition while having a largely original take. Desire and faith, addiction and repentance, what is human life even worth? So many stark and complicated themes in a film that combines humor and gore and hits a level of emotionally disturbing that still catches me by surprise. The meeting of cultures, of beliefs, in Thirst represent the complicated theological and imaginative framework of Korea, and the film is uninterested in interrupting its devious fairy tale to make interpretation easy for the audience. – Liam O’Donnell
17. American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron, 2000)
17. Housebound (dir. Gerard Johnstone, 2014)
I do this thing where I dig through all of the year-end lists to find out what movies I might’ve missed in the past 12 months. The real joy is discovering films which come from smaller, independent directors and producers overseas. For 2014, The Babadook seemingly took up all the attention we could focus on the southern hemisphere, leaving little room for a horror comedy from New Zealand.
It’s a fucking shame, too, because there’s a ton of heart in this haunted house movie, with Housebound dealing just as much with the idea of parent-child relations, albeit with a much older, much more problematic child. It’s equal parts touching and hilarious, with some turns and scenes that still rank among my absolute favorites. An early sight of Kylie dragging an ATM down the street might be one of the most strikingly funny things of the last decade. – Nick Spacek
17. Martyrs (dir. Pascal Laugier, 2008)
I’m not sure the person who recommended this movie to me actually saw it. I was promised “the most brutal gore scene of all time” but that the end was “kind of a bummer”. I heard other reasons to watch it, but to be honest, I went in wanting to test myself. The film turns out to be about real-life abuse, its aftermaths, and ultimately, overwhelming existential terror. The first half deals with what seems to be an updated version of a typical supernatural slasher baddie. It’s not. By the time the second of the girls is put in a dungeon, there’s already stomach-churning gore, but the extended scenes of ordinary violence while the girl is imprisoned are the hardest to watch. When we finally get to the ultimate scene, the act itself is not even shown. The unimaginable, is. It’s worse than a scene you can simply watch and endure. And story-wise, it’s all for naught. The idea is that the people behind the torture are doing it for philosophical purposes, which is also more disturbing than purely evil pleasure and –even for them – the fact this road leads to nowhere is what proves to be too much. – Jim Haku
18. The Mist (dir. Frank Darabont, 2007)
19. Bone Tomahawk (dir. S. Craig Zahler, 2015)
20. Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos, 2018)
While I imagine it would be quite the experience to watch Panos Casmatos’ 2018 film Mandy while under the influence of a mind-altering substance, I think the film’s greatest feat is that it takes you on one hell of an acid trip all by itself. Every frame of this movie is saturated with a surreal quality that makes you feel like you may be dreaming the whole thing, and it doesn’t hurt that Cosmatos built a perfect world to channel Nicolas Cage’s intensity. Bonus points to Linus Roache for playing the skeeviest would-be cult leader ever committed to celluloid and to a soundtrack from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson that perfectly complements the film’s bizarre visuals. Mandy is a film that warrants a rewatch not necessarily for the narrative, but because it submerges us in a feeling that I’ve yet to find in any other movie. – Bryan Christopher