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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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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

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29

‘Antichrist’ (2009)

Opening with a child falling out an open window and ending with a horde of faceless women marching ominously through barren woods, Lars von Trier's psychological horror film exudes plenty of slithering unease. But this portrait of grief and marital discord, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, also boasts sequences as bloodcurdling as any that you'd see in a conventional slasher film. Von Trier upends the hoary cabin-in-the-woods premise to chronicle his characters' mental deterioration, complete with graphic scenes of smashed penises and self-inflicted clitoral mutilation, turning sex itself into an act of violence. It's a haunted-house movie in which the demons are all in our protagonists' heads. TG

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28

‘Martyrs’ (2008)

One of the most extreme of neo-extreme French horror films – which is saying something – Pascal Laugier's cinematic endurance test is something to be watched on a dare, even for those jaded horror fans who think they've seen it all. What begins as a quest for revenge against a group of bourgeois sickos morphs into wrenching exercise in cult sadism, with one young woman's pain opening the door to the transcendent. It's either a bruising allegory for real-world torture or an irredeemable trip to the far end of exploitation. What it’s not is forgettable. ST

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27

‘The Strangers’ (2008)

A couple, a house in the woods, a few masked invaders – standard horror-movie stuff. But it's a great example of why style often matters when it comes to scaring the beejesus out of audiences. Doling out suspense in agonizing drips and drabs, director Bryan Bertino takes his sweet time to get to the mayhem, teasing out the conflict between the victims and the looming threat of their mysterious attackers. The quietest moments are the most effective, built on the eerie discord of composing duo tomandandy's score and compositions that tuck the bad guys in the corners of the frame, swaddled in shadow. ST

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26

‘Ju-On (The Grudge)’ (2002)

While Ringu may have kickstarted modern J-horror, it wasn't the only franchise game in town – Takashi Shimizu's bone-chilling tales of a ghostly curse that attaches itself to anyone entering a house with a homicidal history also helped spread the country's new wave to vast shores.The third film in the series but the first to get a theatrical release and international attention, Ju-On didn't change the subgenre's conventions so much as refine them, adding a sickening sense of grace to its scenes of black-haired spirits creeping and crawling. And never underestimate the power of someone unexpectedly finding a hand on the back of their scalp. DF

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25

‘Trouble Every Day’ (2001)

French director Claire Denis divided both fans and critics sharply with her relentlessly gruesome tale of love and cannibalism, casting the appropriately vampiric likes of Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle as the afflicted halves of two separate couples torn apart by "the sickness." This is where the Venn diagram of high art and extreme horror meet in the middle, and you will not find a better gut-punch allegory about love as a consuming passion. Literally. ST

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24

‘I Saw the Devil’ (2010)

The story is basic: A secret service agent (Lee Byung-hun) goes after the psychopath (Oldboy's Choi Min-sik) who murdered his pregnant wife. They each take turns playing the cat and the mouse of the equation; torture, gory violence, decapitated heads, and some of the grisliest scenes of vengeance ensure. The film poses the question "How do good people destroy evil without becoming rotten themselves?," but don't look for answers to that philosophical query here — this is the sort of Asian exploitation cinema that takes pleasure in literally sticking its fingers in wounds. As for the killer, Choi plays him with such blasé soulnessness it's chilling: He's the personification of the abyss staring back. TG

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23

‘Drag Me to Hell’ (2009)

The mighty Sam Raimi returned to the genre after a long absence with a story of a legendary witchy woman and a new-school heroine (Alison Lohman), then drops them in to a characteristically old-school funhouse of gypsy death vomit, atomic nosebleeds, deadite goats and possessed cakes. For fans who'd missed his signature splatter-meets-the-Three-Stooges approach, this was like a gift from the Fangoria gods. And just about the time Lohman tells an elderly corpse to "choke on it, bitch!" you realize we'd already got all the new Evil Dead movie we needed. SZ

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22

‘Inside’ (2007)

Enfant terribles Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo cut a deep gash in the French "extreme horror" new wave with their slasher film extraordanaire. Béatrice Dalle is La Femme — effectively the female version of Michael Myers, minus the cheap Shatner mask and coveralls. She's got an axe to grind with Sarah (Alysson Paradis), who is pregnant, alone on Christmas Eve, and pretty much relentlessly terrorized for 82 minutes straight. It's a gory Gallic violence party of household weapons including knitting needles, a lamp, Lysol, sewing shears and – bonus points – the very creative use of a toaster. JV

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21

‘Kill List’ (2011)

It starts as a stark domestic drama and slowly morphs into a just one-last-job hit-man thriller; the fact that Ben Wheatley's jaw-dropping second movie ends as a spiral into hell attests to the gent's ability to meld genres while dropping the rug out from you. The less said about how it gets to that point, of course, the better; what we can say is that the director makes dread part of the movie's DNA from the get-go, and that you understand why it's a horror-film list long before the end credits. SZ

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20

‘The Host’ (2006)

You know the drill: Careless scientists dump unstable chemicals into a nearby body of water and presto-change-o, some supersized mutant's off devouring the nearest metropolis and its helpless, screaming citizens. South Korean genre chameleon Bong Joon-ho works his singularly wonky sense of black humor (several killings play like punch lines) and sharp sense of social satire, and fashions a giant-monster-movie for our ecologically fraught, precariously unstable moment. Not to mention that the film assigns more fully-formed identities to the characters terrorized by the seaweedy beast than usual for the subgenre. It's a funnier, smarter sort of Godzilla-style B-movie. CB

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19

‘Crimson Peak’ (2015)

Guillermo del Toro was insistent that the story of a 19th-century woman who marries into a doomed aristocratic family was a "Gothic romance" rather than a traditional horror film. Fair enough. By the time skinless ghosts starting crawling along the floors and roaming the halls of their crumbling mansion while threatening a pale-skinned new bride (Mia Wasikowska), however, that distinction seems rather moot. The movie's high style and use of color harkens back to old-school Maria Bava movies and Hammer flicks, while an expert cast — including Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain — play out the macabre storyline in a way that would make Edgar Allan Poe positively beam. SA

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18

‘The Others’ (2001)

Nicole Kidman’s intense turn as a widowed mother anchors Alejandro Amenábar's supernatural mystery, which updates the time-honored haunted house genre – think The Haunting or The Turn of the Screw – with a Sixth Sense-type spin. The scares here are low-key but immensely effective, thanks to the film's dreamlike pacing and creepy atmosphere. (Remote Victorian country house, anyone?) Amenábar uses his subtle way with clues and metaphors to alert us that all may not be entirely as it seems, yet he never telegraphs the surprise ending. DE

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17

‘Berberian Sound Studio’ (2012)

A horror movie about making horror movies, this trippy, giallo-influenced British art film stars Toby Jones as a sound-effects expert who goes slowly mad while working on an Italian fright-flick with a hostile crew. Writer-director Peter Strickland keeps most of the menace in his protagonist's mind, watching the man disappear into his own paranoid imagination as he spends his days approximating the sounds of stab wounds and victims' screams. It's a clever exercise in audience manipulation, making us uncomfortable by showing the fakery that going into producing a good scare – and the delivering the goods. NM

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16

‘Haute Tension’ (2003)

The most brutally horrific home-invasion flick since The Last House on the Left, this take-no-prisoners French horror flick was a rare movie to get a U.S. theatrical release despite an NC-17 rating for violence. But graphic depictions of spurting arteries, decapitation and disembowelment aside, this movie ranks high by living up to its title (translation: "High Tension") and presenting enough intense suspense to make it so you can't look away. Because how else would you know if its pixie-cut protagonist Marie (viva Cécile De France!) can properly defend herself with a barbed-wire–covered two-by-four or not? Also, watch out for the concrete saw. KG

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15

‘The Orphanage’ (2007)

J.A. Bayona’s 2007 film asks the question, What could be more terrifying than the unexplained disappearance of your child? Its unnerving answer: The possibility that ghostly youth had something to do with it. The rare horror flick that’s as heartbreaking as it is terrifying, this supernatural thriller certainly makes the most of its titular setting, a gothic pile located on a desolate stretch of Spain’s Costa Verde; but it’s Belén Rueda's outstanding performance as the missing child’s bereaved mother that really gives the film its lasting emotional wallop. DE

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14

‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ (2003)

Japanese horror was all the rage in the late Nineties and early aughts; South Korean director Kim Jee-woon's take on dark-haired-ghost stories proved that "K-horror" could match their eastern neighbors when it came to supernatural freakiness. A couple of siblings endure a hate/tolerate relationship with their icy stepmother, while the haunted mansion they live that keeps dropping disturbing clues about their shared past. Offbeat camera angles disorient the viewer, making it all the more startling when apparitions leap out of the shadows. By the time the movie reveals all its secrets, a dysfunctional family has morphed into its own kind of monster. NM

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13

‘It Follows’ (2014)

STDs, unplanned pregnancy, social awkwardness at keg parties — as unintended consequences of sex go, they're all a walk in the park compared to, say, an unstoppable wraith that stalks frisky teens and is passed from victim to victim by, well … take a wild guess. David Robert Mitchell's lo-fi, revisionist take on the slasher flick's horny-teen-victim trope is filled with stylistic flourishes (that 360-degree pan is a stunner), pitch-perfect John Carpenter homages and a genuine sense that you're watching a waking nightmare. Never has losing your V-card ever had a higher cost. CB

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12

‘The House of the Devil’ (2009)

Ti West's slow-simmering "Beware of Satanists!" cautionary tale looks and feels like an artifact from the early 1980s, found in a dusty corner of an abandoned video store. A naive college student takes a babysitting job at a creaky Victorian house, working for a couple of shady characters (played by veteran cult movie weirdos Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). Before the literal all-hell-breaks-loose third act, The House of the Devil plays up the spooky atmosphere and retro style – right down to a scene involving a cranked-up Walkman, a song by the Fixx, and our sick fear that everything's about to go very wrong. NM

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11

‘The Devil’s Backbone’ (2001)

A mesmerizing, moody ghost story set in a haunted orphanage during the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, Guillermo del Toro's third feature was the one where all the pieces fell into place, and watching him grab hold of his true voice remains a thrill. It's his simplest movie, and still one of his scariest, the moreso because its old-school vision of the supernatural fits so snugly into the real world. SA

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10

‘Under the Skin’ (2013)

It took director Jonathan Glazer almost a decade to adapt Michael Faber's alien invasion novel, about an extraterrestrial that manifests in female human form (specifically, Scarlett Johansson) and seduces male hitchhikers in order to trap, dissolve and eat them. Then the creature makes a curious discovery about its sexual identity while inhabiting this big blue marble; by the end, we're all crying along with the monster. In the hands of a lesser director, Under the Skin would never succeed at such masterful manipulation. But this isn't a movie you watch so much as experience. It's like taking a warm bath in pure nightmare fuel. JV

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9

‘The Descent’ (2005)

Years before he redefined TV action with his work on Game of Thrones, British director Neil Marshall earned his place in the horror pantheon with this merciless survival-horror story. One year after a car accident shatters their bonds, a group of women go spelunking in a remote Appalachian cavern and unearth far more than they bargained for. The claustrophobic setting is intense and the creature effects genuinely disturbing, but the film's greatness lies in its use of its main character's raw, red grief as emotional kindling for the catastrophe that follows. Few of even the greatest genre movies dare to go places this deep. STC

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8

‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004)

Fans consider it an expert goof on zombie movies, but don't tell that to director Edgar Wright: "Our funny characters were inhabiting a pretty bleak and scary situation," he's claimed. "I hope it works as a companion film to the Romero trilogy, rather than a spoof." Mission accomplished: Shaun brilliantly merges horror and comedy in a way that makes the scares exponentially more cutting. This story of a regular bloke (co-writer Simon Pegg) and his oafish best friend (Nick Frost) who discover that the undead are terrorizing their neighborhood has an extra jolt because its laughs are constantly undercut by seeing their friends and loved ones viciously devoured in front of their eyes. And few feature a disemboweling as gut-churning as the one in which a character is about to apologize for being an ass — just as the ravenous hordes break through the wall and tear him to shreds. TG

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7

‘The Witch’ (2009)

A masterpiece of atmospheric horror, Robert Eggers' brilliantly crafted period piece follows descent of a 17th-century New England farm family into despair and madness after their baby is snatched by a local hag. Though the film contains some genuinely terrifying sequences, much of its overwhelming sense of spookiness comes from what isn’t seen on the screen, along with the tension that inevitably results when the family pits their unbending Puritan outlook against the merciless power of Mother Nature. And Black Phillip, the family’s goat, will put you off petting zoos for the rest of your life. DE

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6

‘Pulse’ (2001)

An insidious, suicide-inducing miasma invades the world of the living via the Internet in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's quiet, apocalyptic ghost story. Of all the films in the J-horror wave of early aughts, Pulse is by far the creepiest and most prophetic – a depressing indictment of technology and the negative effect it continues to have on humanity. Even more impressively, the filmmaker never resorts to cheap scares, opting for a slower-than-slow-burn sense of dread to suggest a society suffering from spiritual rot, one mouse-click at a time. It's sad, beautiful and haunting – the rare horror movie that leaves a dark stain on your soul. JV

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5

‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2012)

The most subversive meta-horror flick since Scream made the genre self-aware, Drew Goddard's tweaked take on the most tired cliché in horror – horny college kids retreating to cabin for drug-binging and sexcapades – becomes something so original that Hollywood hasn't figured out a way to mimic and/or ruin it the way they did with, say, The Blair Witch Project. It has so many twists that it's best enjoyed if you can go into it with a blank slate (or whiteboard, as the case may be … we've said too much already). But its real feat is being a rare movie that manages to be scary and funny without becoming schlocky or corny in the process. And that's not mentioning the merman subplot. KG

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4

‘The Conjuring’ (2013)

Lots of directors pledge allegiance to old-school horror flicks like The Exorcist; James Wan is one of the few capable of making something worthy of his influences. This ghost story par excellence works from the same true-life sources that gave us The Amityville Horror: In the early 1970s, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) visit a Rhode Island family who believe their home is haunted. The Conjuring isn’t merely a spot-on period re-creation — it's a fiendishly effective throwback to Seventies-style studio horror, back when methodical pacing and an icy tone trumped cheap gore. Stately, sophisticated dread permeates every frame, with Wan devilishly toying with his audience as they jump at every creaky floorboard and random trip to the super-creepy basement. TG

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3

‘The Babadook’ (2014)

Jennifer Kent's debut was not only one of the most assured in years but one of the most conceptually sound: She not only knows how to scare people, but why. The story of a widowed mother (Essie Davis) whose son is menaced by an angular demon that's literally straight out of a children's book begins as a nerve-scraping parable of grief; it becomes truly terrifying, however, when the subject shifts to how quickly parental love can turn to hate. It's a monster movie in which everyone takes turns being the monster. SA

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2

‘Let the Right One In’ (2008)

Beautiful, bleak and deeply affecting, Tomas Alfredson's stunning 2008 film gave the vampire genre a much-needed tweak with its somber depiction of one of the more unusual relationships in horror history – an alienated 12 year-old boy who inadvertently bonds with the "young" female bloodsucker next door. Filled with enough Swedish angst to make Ingmar Bergman proud and enough genuine scares to appeal to jaded horror fanatics, Let the Right One In moves quietly and deliberately, which makes its feeding scenes and set pieces such as swimming-pool massacre seem all the more jarring. Even more frightening, perhaps, is the film's assertion that adolescent males have the capacity to be far more monstrous than actual monsters. DE

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1

’28 Days Later…’ (2002)

As with many great horror movies, Danny Boyle's eviscerating zombie thriller grew out of real-world terrors. "Danny was particularly interested in issues that had to do with social rage – the increase of rage in our society, road rage and other things," screenwriter Alex Garland explained. Out of that came 28 Days Later…, in which a handful of survivors (including Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris) try to stay a step ahead of unstoppable hordes of rampaging undead, who don't just feast on the living but seem to be filled with an unquenchable anger, ferociously chasing after our heroes with the lunatic logic of a nightmare. Shot on MiniDV to emphasize the grubby, post-apocalyptic ugliness, the film is a marvel of handheld camerawork and jittery editing. But in the wake of 9/11's jolting tragedy, this prescient horror film also spoke to unconscious anxieties about a world in which simmering tensions and seething paranoia felt like a terrible new normal. TG

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