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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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‘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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‘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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‘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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‘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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‘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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’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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