It’s been a diverse and fascinating time for horror movies since the turn of the millennium, with a general lack of innovation in the mainstream countered by breakout hits from the burgeoning indie sphere, and overseas.
New genres have emerged, fresh talents have made their names, and fans of sinister cinematic goings-on everywhere have well and truly had the bejesus scared out of them.
With a superlative new shocker hitting UK screens this week, here are thirteen of the most ingenious, terrifying and influential horror flicks of the 21st century to date.
Session 9 (2001)
Something of an underrated and under-appreciated gem, Brad Anderson’s cult chiller about a group of blue-collar workers grafting in an abandoned insane asylum is far more original and distinctive than you might expect.
Taking in skin-crawling suggestions of the supernatural as well as dealing in fragile, volatile human psychology, it ingeniously serves up the majority of its most unsettling and shocking sequences in broad daylight – and builds to a disturbing, ominous conclusion.
The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall’s unbearably intense subterranean shocker deals a double punch of terror: first producing nail-biting tension simply through sheer claustrophobia and situational horror, before the second act kicks things into a whole other frantic gear.
A group of female cavers get far more than they bargained for out in the American wilderness. And so do we – including possibly the finest jump scare in cinematic history (wait for it).
28 Days Later (2002)
Fans of the post-apocalyptic hair-raiser will not have been surprised to see screenwriter Alex Garland pick up an Oscar nomination this year for Ex Machina. Garland’s concept of an ordinary man awakening to an eerily deserted London plagued by flesh eating ‘infected’ remains a potent one – utterly nailed by Danny Boyle’s sublime direction.
Anchored on terrific performances from Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris and the ever-wonderful Brendon Gleeson, it’s a haunting edge-of-the-seat thriller that arguably kick-started the noughties zombie revival.
A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
Kim Jee-woon, who also helmed I Saw The Devil and A Bittersweet Life, is a leading light in South Korean cinema – and this unsettling domestic nightmare is as atmospheric and intriguing as it gets.
Taking in unbearable familial tension and a genuinely terrifying night-time phantom, its powerful social horror is balanced by poignant and powerful revelations. You’ll want to watch this one twice.
Due to the increasingly awful sequels it spawned, and the general derision reserved for all those ‘torture-porn’ knock offs, people seem to forget that the original Saw was actually an incredibly smart, disturbing and well executed low-budget mystery, with far more intrigue and suspense than outright gore.
Two men awake to find themselves chained up in a grimy derelict bathroom, and must figure out who has taken them captive and why. Twelve years on, its inventive visual style, intricate plot and fiendish shocks still work a treat.
Kill List (2011)
Ben Wheatley’s grim, surreal and utterly captivating tale of two hit men descending into a modern British hell, is anchored on an ominous atmosphere of palpable unease, from its early domestic scenes right through to its later onslaughts of outlandish horror.
A pair of ex-soldiers turned assassins encounter all manner of depravity – and a sinister, mask-wearing cult – when they embark on a bloody mission to dispatch their titular selection of targets. What’s really going on here is difficult to grasp, but it’s compelling, nightmarish stuff.
Dark Water (2002)
Forget the mediocre Hollywood remake. Hideo Nakata’s heart-stopping Japanese original is a ghost story for the ages; drawing fear from a vulnerable mother’s loneliness, social anxiety and depression, as well as from the sinister phantom haunting the run-down apartment block in which she and her child are forced to live.
Nakata – famed for breakout 1998 hit Ringu – builds a similar sense of slow-burning dread here, leading to a later sequence so blood-curdling it’s worth the run-time alone. But there’s plenty more under the surface here too.
Without doubt the finest found-footage horror since Blair Witch, this Barcelona-set rollercoaster ride follows a TV news crew as a standard job following a group of firefighters for the night soon turns into a desperate bid for survival.
They enter a seemingly ordinary apartment building, only to find something truly sinister brewing within. The breathtakingly tense attic sequence may get all the plaudits, but the build-up to it is a perfectly-paced onslaught of nervy exploration and frantic bursts of action; eerily believable thanks to the naturalistic performances and set-up.
The Orphanage (2007)
2007 was a very good year for Spanish horror. And The Orphanage stands as one of the mostly spookily effective ghost sagas ever made.
One of those rare creations that’s both touching and terrifying, one woman’s ordeal after she returns to the children’s home where she was raised takes in a truly freaky sackcloth mask, and the creepiest game of Grandma’s Footsteps anyone has played. A bittersweet chiller that leaves a lasting impression.
It Follows (2014)
On paper, David Robert Mitchell’s concept sounds like a smart set-up for a fun but disposable teen slasher. In practice, the talented director turns It Follows into a deeply haunting experience that you’ll be turning over in your head long after the credits have rolled.
College student Jay becomes the victim of a sexually-transmitted curse – which sees its sufferers stalked by a relentless, shape-shifting entity. Elevated by a sensational score, luscious cinematography and an ingeniously sinister atmosphere, the movie is both surface-level frightening, and loaded with so much smart, meaningful subtext it hurts.
The Babadook (2014)
As much a horror about the despair of depression and the strains of parenthood as the shadowy, hatted figure plaguing its mother and son, Jennifer Kent’s dark journey into a fractured parent-child relationship balances skin-crawling bedtime scares with painful domestic strife to impressive effect.
Essie Davis delivers one of the performances of the decade as the mum in question, whose fragile mental state leaves matters on a knife-edge throughout – before you even add the eponymous bogeyman into the equation.
Let The Right One In (2008)
A bullied boy meets a mysterious young girl and the two develop an intense friendship. Sounds like the perfect set-up for a traditional coming of age story, doesn’t it? But in Thomas Alfredson’s extraordinary drama, the newcomer happens to be a deceptively deadly vampire.
Set against a bleak backdrop of drab apartments, drabber knitwear and indifferent adults in ’80s Sweden, this is an often strangely beautiful film which marries the touching relationship its two leads forge with disturbing imagery and some stark, brutal violence. The ingeniously directed swimming pool scene is just one reason why this is the best movie never to net a Best Foreign Picture nomination at the Oscars.
The Witch (2016)
The latest chapter in folk-horror’s impressive revival, Robert Eggers’ searing period chiller hits UK cinemas only this week – surging on a tidal wave of justified hype.
After re-locating to the edge of an ominous wood, a puritan family contend with threats both supernatural and human as horrifying events spiral out of control. Packing creepy goats, note-perfect performances, and a hefty wallop of slow-burning dread, there’s a real sense of evil running through this film – along with the most nerve-shredding musical score since The Shining.
NB: We’ve not included horror-comedies in this list – but honourable mentions go to Tucker and Dale Vs Evil, Sightseers, Cabin In The Woods and Trick R Treat, among others!)