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50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

From topical zombie apocalypses to retro-slasher flicks, the best scary movies since the turn of the millennium

Back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Vietnam and civil unrest helped kickstart a new golden age of American horror movies; shortly after the beginning of our new century, we had one massive public atrocity and several new wars to fuel a whole new wave of movies dealing with communal anxieties via scary monsters and super-freaky maniacs. Yes, it’s always been a durable genre regardless of what’s going on in the culture, but considering what’s happened globally over the last 16 years, it makes sense that horror films would resonate with folks the way they have. That, and the fact that such free-floating dread would help give birth to a number of films from both the U.S. and abroad that deserve a place in the pantheon.

So we’ve assembled our take on the 50 best horror films of the 21st century – the zombie-apocalypse tales, things-that-go-bump-in-the-psyche ghost stories, retro-slasher flicks, neo-giallo nuggets, J-horror, K-horror, French extreme and Hollywood franchise films that have spooked us, shook us and scared us shitless since 2000. As in any committee-led process, our highly opinionated writers and experts argued over what constituted being included/categorized here (Mulholland Drive belongs on every list of the Greatest Films of the Millennium; whether it’s genuinely a “horror” film, however, is still up for debate). But the ranked list of films here are guaranteed to have you repeating to yourself, “It’s only a movie … it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie …”.

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50

‘Don’t Breathe’ (2016)

Three years after he made his feature-film debut with a surprisingly good Evil Dead reboot, filmmaker Fede Alvarez directed and co-wrote his own gripping, original addition to the horror canon. A trio of teens attempt to rob the house of a blind man. It's only then they learn about their target's past: He's is a bereft Army vet (Avatar's Stephen Lang) whose daughter has died and, to cope with his lost, has subsequently taken some dark turns in his life. Tables get turned, and predators become prey – it's abject, twisted and totally compelling. KG

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49

‘Sinister’ (2012)

Desperate for a hit, a true-crime author (Ethan Hawke) takes on a project involving a serial killer; coming across a box of Super-8 films in the basement, he discovers that the house he’s staying in may help him with his research in the worst possible ways. This return to the good ol’ hard-R horror trend after a long line of anodyne mid-‘aughts thrillers felt like a sucker-punch to the abdomen, working a gruesome legacy of snuff films, occult nastiness and literary vanity to incredible scary-movie effect. ST

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48

‘Saw II’ (2005)

The first Saw, released only a year earlier, was a hit with a branding-ready bad guy called Jigsaw, so a sequel was all but inevitable. Fortuitously, screenwriter Darren Lynn Bousman had been attempting to shop around a script called The Desperate that was close enough to the 2004 movie that the franchise could easily repurpose it – and in the process, make a far better film than the original. Stronger characters, a greater sense of panic, that stark giallo-inspired look and Donnie Wahlberg losing his shit while his son struggle with one of the killer's games – this was a superior Saw in every imaginable way. It was such a hit Bousman directed the next two sequels. KG

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47

‘May’ (2002)

If you took the best parts of your pals and put them together, you could make the perfect friend, right? That's literally what the titular character of May attempts to do to cure her crushing loneliness. Angela Bettis channels her heroine's inner Carrie White, evoking empathy as her character's metal state deteriorates. With each rejection, the audience becomes more complicit in her craziness as May kills and dismembers people in an attempt to achieve the impossible: finding someone to have and to hold. Mad props to director Lucky McKee for creating a character so relatable that we want nothing more than for her to succeed. JV

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46

‘Goodnight Mommy’ (2014)

Sure, many children are innately creepy, and identical youngsters are vessels for evil pretty much without exception. (It's called science, people.) But the little rascals in this sleek debut from Austrian duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are in a class all their own. When Mom starts acting volatile after returning from an intensive surgery, the boys suspect she's not the woman she claims to be — look up "capgras delusion" in your DSM — so they go to work on violently interrogating her. The boys' unusual weapons speak to the directors' originality in this front-to-back novel work: Krazy Glue, a DIY crossbow, and a goosebump-raising jar of cockroaches, to name a few. Trust no twin. CB

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45

‘[REC]’ (2007)

Spain throws its hat into the "found-footage" horror ring (sort of) with this nice 'n' nasty tale of a TV news reporter (Manuela Velasco) doing a human-interest story on a local fire station. She tags along for a routine call involving an elderly woman stuck in her apartment; little does she know there's a mysterious epidemic, a quarantine and an infected feeding frenzy in her future as well. Told entirely through a cameraman's recordings, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's tweaked take on zombie flicks takes its time setting up the mayhem, only to hit the accelerator in its chaotic final act. And it arguably features the most effective horror-movie use of a little girl since Night of the Living Dead. DF

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44

‘Final Destination’ (2000)

Sure, teens have outrun hockey-mask-wearing homicidal maniacs and unstoppable killing machines – but what happens when they have to face off against the Grim Reaper? Having avoided a plane crash, a high-school student (Devon Sawa) and several fellow passengers find out first-hand that Death does not like being cheated – and as one character says, "you don't wanna fuck with that mack daddy." This durable horror franchise would up the ante on baroque "accidental" killings as it racked up entries (Runaway roller coasters! Decapitating elevators! Tanning machines turned into broilers!), but its first installment remains eerily prescient, kicking off a decade that'd be characterized by IRL instances of horrific, random acts of violence on a large scale. DF

43

‘Dawn of the Dead’ (2004)

Both director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and writer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) would go on to superhero superstardom. But this unlikely duo's reimagining of George A. Romero's sacrosanct zombies-in-a-mall masterpiece defies everything you know about the often dire horror-remake trend. Credit to the film’s opening sequence, an absolute showstopper of mounting terror as the undead apocalypse takes hold in Sarah Polley's suburban neighborhood; it's one of the scariest 10 minute set pieces in the history of the subgenre. And if that wasn't dread-inducing enough, it culminates in an opening-credit sequence that use Johnny Cash's Bible-quoting song "The Man Comes Around" to further the sense of Armageddon. Bravo. STC

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42

‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007)

It spawned five sequels and numerous parodies, but neither time nor imitation have diminished the scares of Oren Pelli's directorial debut. Initially released in 2007 (though given a much wider release two years later in a drastically altered version), Paranormal Activity breathed new life into the popular found-footage concept, setting its tale of demonic harassment not in an obviously creepy locale a la The Blair Witch Project, but rather in the bland confines of a Southern California tract home. Never has the unexpected click of a hallway light been so disconcerting. DE

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41

‘American Psycho’ (2000)

Based on the divisive, frequently repulsive serial-killer satire of Reagan-era excess by novelist Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Harron's adaptation of the saga of Wall Street psychopath Patrick Bateman locates the source text's feminist subtext about objectification and consumption, then drags it into the light. Part Tom Cruise–pastiche and part yuppie Norman Bates, Christian Bale's performance as the title character was instantly iconic and endlessly quotable ("Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?"). But the sequence that best represents the movie’s message involves no dialogue at all: Bateman running through the halls of his apartment building, nude except for a strategically positioned chainsaw – which he drops on the head of a fleeing woman with a howl of ugly, pointless triumph. STC

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40

‘The Purge: Anarchy’ (2014)

The first Purge movie took a genius idea – a government-mandated annual holiday in which every violent act is legal from dusk until dawn – and fashioned a tense home-invasion thriller out of its high-concept premise. James DeMonaco's sequel beautifully drops the free-for-all mayhem into more of a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox-game template, adds another layer of social commentary and gives us a new genre hero in Frank Grillo's vengeful badass. But wisely, he didn't forget the oh-shit! scares as well, and ended up with a superior follow-up that expands the movie's universe while still delivering the folks-in-creepy-masks primal fears. DF

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39

‘The Ring’ (2002)

A female ghost with long, black hair, the grotesque loom of fright on the faces of those she comes for, home video – Gore Verbinski's remake of influential Japanese horror Ringu transposes the story from Tokyo to Seatlle, but the song (and more importantly, the scares) remain the same. A VHS tape begins circulating that, upon viewing, allegedly kills whoever views it seven days after watching it. Quicker than you can say "urban legend," bodies begin piling up and an angry spirit is crawling out of a TV set. Rarely has an American remake of a foreign horror film captured the original spirit so spot on. SZ

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38

‘Session 9’ (2001)

For over a century, Massachusetts' Danvers State Hospital was hell for mental patients, the site of gruesome experiments and unspeakably heinous abuses. It's all (undoubtedly haunted) luxury condos now, but the sadism lives on in director Brad Anderson’s homemade nightmare about a group of asbestos removers sorting through the madhouse's remains. As it blurs the line between dissociative identity disorder and demonic possession, the movie uses the cheapo look of digital videotape as an effective source for terror – long before such notions became passé. CB

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37

‘Piranha 3D’ (2010)

Alexandre Aja's remake of Joe Dante's 1978 Jaws–rip-off simply retains the original's name and toothy little predators – and it's all the better for it. The French director is less interested in redoing that Corman quickie and more interested in channeling that old-fashioned grindhouse mix of copious nudity and abundant gore, as well as embedding a handful of in-jokes into the mix (just when you thought it was safe for Richard Dreyfuss to go back in the water …). But anyone that thinks this is merely a goof should go directly to the scene of a woman getting her hair caught in an outboard motor. You've been warned. DF

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36

‘The Devil’s Rejects’ (2005)

Though a sequel of sorts to his ragged debut feature House of 1,000 Corpses, Rob Zombie's grindhouse throwback was a huge leap forward – a nod to the grit and grim of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and 1970s drive-in sleaze that nonetheless speaks to contemporary worries about torture and revenge. The rocker-turned-filmmaker's boldness pays off in a bizarre scene where a movie critic is called in for his expertise on the Marx Brothers, as well as in a finale that features perhaps the only acceptable use of "Free Bird" outside a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. ST

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35

‘Ginger Snaps’ (2000)

Werewolves and womanhood walk arm-in-arm in this Canadian B-movie classic, which stars hip scream queen Katharine Isabelle as a teenage nerd who becomes sexier and more popular after she’s bitten by a snarling canine. Screenwriter Karen Walton and director John Fawcett (who’d later work on Orphan Black, another genre piece about feminine identity) turn the story of the newly cool Ginger and her concerned younger sister Brigitte into a bloody black comedy. Never mind the scary wolf-attacks and grotesque transformations; this is really about the everyday horror girls go through whenever their best friends change in front of their eyes. NM

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34

‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (2014)

A mockumentary about vampires might seem like low-hanging fruit, but New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi and collaborator/co-director/Flight of the Conchords member Jemaine Clement manages to make it both hilarious and genuinely frightening. The Real World-style friction between several undead housemates, including an 8,000-year-old Nosferatu-like bloodsucker, is sharply satirical and yet strangely poignant; you end up feeling for these creatures of the night, even when they have to rip some poor soul's throat out to survive. Bonus: A sequel focusing on the pack of uptight werewolves (not swear-wolves) led by comedian Rhys Darby is supposedly on the way. SA

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33

‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ (2014)

As spellbinding a debut movie as you're likely to see, Ana Lily Armipour's melding of spaghetti Westerns, John Hughes misfit odes, black-and-white art movies and vampire stories definitely announced a major new talent. But the fact that horror is but one of the film's many flavors doesn't dilute the thrills or chills at all; you can swoon to its Type-O–craving heroine dancing with her crush one second and then shudder as she goes fangs-first ballistic on someone several scenes later. Consider this the punk-rock, girl-power Twilight you didn't know you needed. DF

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32

‘Amer’ (2009)

A genius riff on Italian giallo movies, Belgian filmmakers Hélène Cattete & Bruno Forzani's debut uses the genre's visual motifs – black gloves, blood-red lips, razor blades – and a gorgeously garish aesthetic to chart the life of a young woman named Ana in three acts. It's stylish, terrifying and ironic to the extreme, a kaleidoscope of color and a sensory overload. But more importantly, this free-form exercise takes a form associated with masculine menace and uses it to explore how a woman feels to be scared, or aroused, or preyed upon. SZ

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31

‘Cloverfield’ (2008)

The enigmatic title, the found-footage format, and the viral Internet trickery typical of of executive producer/Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams are what drove Cloverfield to the front of the zeitgeist (and the box office). But the film stands on its own as perhaps the first giant-monster movie since the original Japanese Gojira to convey the horror of a creature’s sheer scale. The panic-inducing you-are-there approach to an attack on Manhattan by a berserk, bizarre alien monstrosity – leveling landmarks, unleashing a secondary onslaught of parasites, and inviting increasingly indiscriminate attacks from the desperate military – found the dark and desperate heart of a genre too frequently limited to kaiju camp. STC

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30

‘You’re Next’ (2011)

Adam Wingard's neo-slasher film revives the "home invasion" horror of such classic 1970s films as The Last House on the Left and When A Stranger Calls — only this time, instead of teenage girls, it's a cozy family reunion that’s being menaced. There’s more gore here than you can shake a severed head at, but the script's dark humor and clever plot twists elevate it far above your typical retro-splatter fare. And Sharni Vinson is one seriously ass-kicking horror heroine. DE