Horror movies have a long history of sneaking commentary about real-world issues into their tales of slashers and ghouls—and even those that aim only to entertain help us escape our actual fears by letting us shriek at terrors that never leave the screen.
In just a few short months this decade will come to a close but wow, have we seen some great horror films. These 10 titles (with a few bonus additions at the end!) have made the last 10 years the good kind of scary—in a decade when we’ve needed them more than ever.
“Hell is a teenage girl” are the opening lines of this Karyn Kusama-directed, Diablo Cody-scripted dark comedy about a troubled friendship between two girls that takes a turn for the toxic when the more vixenish of the two becomes a demon after mistakenly being offered up as a virgin sacrifice.
Coming at a time when high school horror movies had sort of fallen out of fashion after the rise of neo-slasher flicks like Scream, Jennifer’s Body more emulates movies like Heathers and Mean Girls with its wicked jabs at tired teen tropes. The title character (a perfectly cast Megan Fox, two years after her Transformers breakout) is a she-devil who’s secretly insecure, with an ego buoyed by a BFF literally named “Needy” (a frumpified Amanda Seyfried).
But Needy has begun to realize that the girl she’s worshiped since they were kids is an emotional vampire...even before Jennifer turns into something exponentially worse. With that comes plenty of gore—mostly gushing out of the boys who become Jennifer’s prey—and the sorts of snarky one-liners that had earned screenwriter Cody an Oscar for 2007's Juno, like “PMS isn’t real, it was invented by the boy-run media to make us seem crazy!” But the layered observation that opens the movie is what really sets the tone, leading into a story that’s far smarter and more feminist than its mouth-breathing marketing campaign—which played up Fox’s hot bod, and not much else—ever allowed. Thankfully, Jennifer’s Body has since attained the cult-movie status it deserved from the start.
You’re Next manages to take a pretty tired horror subgenre—the home-invasion thriller—and make it feel fresh and exciting, with a sly sense of humor and in-joke casting that brings together a who’s who of indie-film luminaries (including Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, and Larry Fessenden; You’re Next screenwriter Adam Barrett also co-stars). Director Adam Wingard went on to make The Guest, Blair Witch, and Death Note, and has a little movie called Godzilla vs. Kong coming out next year, but it’s hard to imagine any film having more wicked energy than his breakout.
You’re Next has elements of Agatha Christie and Clue baked into the twists and turns of its country-manor setting and murder mystery, with an ensemble cast that quickly paints a believable portrait of an upper-class family who haven’t all gotten together in forever—as matriarch Aubrey Davison (horror legend Barbara Crampton) points out—because, it seems, the adult kids really can’t stand each other. All hell breaks loose when intruders wearing creepy animal masks start picking them off and most of the film serves as a showcase for creatively-staged, over-the-top, absolutely horrific injuries and deaths using arrows, a machete, razor wire, a sledgehammer, kitchen utensils, nails, you name it.
But the movie’s best trick—other than its repeated use of an obscure power pop gem on the soundtrack—is its Final Girl, the unexpectedly badass Erin (Sharni Vinson), who thinks she’s just meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time, but must call upon the life-or-death skills she learned growing up as the child of survivalists (surprise!) if she wants to make it through the night.
Stephen King adaptations have been popular ever since the author became a reliable source of best-selling terror in the mid-1970s. But if it feels like King-inspired movies and TV have become a tidal wave lately, gushing out of Hollywood like blood from the elevators in The Shining, it’s probably down to the incredible success of Andy Muschietti’s It, which currently holds the title of “highest-grossing horror film of all time.”
Box-office receipts don’t always speak to a movie’s quality, of course. But in this case, the financial success felt like a bonus prize for a film that had already achieved something remarkable. Despite what the marketing would have you believe, It is not just about a demonic clown, though Bill Skarsgård’s grotesque portrayal of Pennywise, coming on the heels of Tim Curry’s iconic take on the character in the 1990 It miniseries, is certainly effective. It’s really about the many layers of childhood horrors—cruel parents (ranging from checked-out to full-on abusive), bullies (both of the sadistic and mean-girl varieties), and the loss of innocence in a place like Derry, Maine, where a sort of shared madness means nobody’s really able to acknowledge the evil pulsing just beneath its small-town sidewalks.
Thank goodness for the Losers’ Club, whose friendship gives them the strength to stand up to even the toothiest, sewer-dwelling horrors—and for the young actors (including Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard and Shazam’s Jack Dylan Grazer) who play them, giving Muschietti-guided performances that feel like typical kids with the juice turned up just the right amount. The kids and their grown-up counterparts shared screen time in It Chapter Two, which tackled more adult themes with the added pressure of needing to stick the landing, and earned decidedly more mixed reviews (and fewer zillions of dollars). But even if you didn’t care so much for the sequel, the power and potency of the first installment remains undiminished.
Though it certainly has plenty of nightmare fodder, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows also has style to spare. It crafts a world of dreamy menace in suburban Detroit, where a sense of decay prowls around the edge of every frame, and a synth-heavy soundtrack telegraphs the heavy influence of horror filmmakers past, especially John Carpenter. And it does Carpenter proud with its uniquely alarming monster, a supernatural entity that has but one purpose: to track down and brutally annihilate whoever is unlucky enough to be its next target. It doesn’t fly or drive. It doesn’t even run. It just walks. Lumbers, even. But it never...ever...stops...moving.
This simple scenario proves understandably terrifying for the protagonist of It Follows—a college student named Jay (Maika Monroe) who learns too late that her new boyfriend is carrying the sickest twist on an STD ever and has selfishly used her to put another human target in the chain between himself and “it.” But it’s also terrifying for the audience. Every scene becomes an exercise in ticking-clock paranoia; in the film’s wide shots, you can’t stop yourself from frantically scanning the background for anyone who looks like they might be making a beeline straight for Jay, because you know someone always will be. And the more intimate scenes are agonizing, too—because every moment that Jay remains in place means that thing is marching ever closer to her.
Where did it begin? Can it ever be stopped? Will Jay ever be free? It Follows leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it’s actually scarier that way. Also unnerving: the fact that the entity can take on any human form, but prefers either being naked and fucked-up looking, or appearing as an exact copy of someone known to its intended victim.
By 2013, James Wan had already directed horror hits Saw and Insidious, so fans were primed for more top-quality scares by the time The Conjuring, about a family in 1971 beset by demonic forces when they move into a farmhouse with a tragic history, came around. But the movie still delivered on unexpectedly high levels, combining an outstanding cast (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson) with a well-crafted story full of mystery, suspense, sympathetic characters, and—most importantly—nerve-jangling frights; the “hide and clap” scene is now a classic, though the first big reveal of the story’s creepy villain (an undead, Satan-worshiping witch who’s hungry for souls and children) is also a spill-your-popcorn moment no matter how many times you see it. These are jump scares done right.
Plus, there’s the added allure that comes with basing the script on a “true story.” Farmiga and Wilson portray real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, who are called upon to help the family in distress using their unique combination of ironclad Christian faith, demonic know-how, and Lorraine’s clairvoyant powers. It all added up to a film so popular that we now have a billion-dollar “Conjuring Universe” that’s still churning out a surprisingly creative array of spin-offs, prequels, and sequels.
In Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut The Babadook, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries fame) is pushed to the breaking point when her needy six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman)—who’s already shrill, obnoxious, and weirdly obsessed with monsters—starts behaving so aggressively that he’s kicked out of school and ostracized at family functions. Forced to stay home to take care of him, deprived of sleep, and without any sort of support system, Amelia begins to lose her mind a little bit—a situation that’s made even worse when the title creature shows up.
Ostensibly a character from a mysterious pop-up book Sam finds in his room, the Babadook is both a supernatural menace who wreaks real harm and a stand-in for Amelia’s grief over losing her husband, who died in a car wreck while driving her to the hospital when she was in labor with Sam. More to the point, it’s grief she doesn’t want to deal with because it ties into her taboo feelings of resentment and even hostility toward Sam, whose bad behavior only makes coping more difficult.
The Babadook is a harrowing gut-punch of a movie; watching it is a wrenching emotional experience. But it’s also cleverly written, with a metaphor that both suits the story and provides some extremely legit scares—all those sassy memes aside, the Babadook will fuck you up! And Davis’ raw performance, which remains largely sympathetic even when Amelia veers into homicidal territory, might fuck you up too.
Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (written by Park Joo-suk) doesn’t really break all that much new ground in the zombie genre. But as many zillions of movies we’ve seen about the hungry undead, this one’s got something special: characters you actually care about—and not just the adorable little girl who’s trying to visit her mother, though she’s definitely one of them.
It begins in Seoul, as that little girl’s workaholic dad (Gong Yoo) reluctantly agrees to take his daughter (Kim Su-an) by train to visit her mother after blowing it big-time on her birthday. We’re way ahead of the characters already, having seen reports of a very suspicious outbreak—as well as the reanimation of some should-be roadkill—so like all those train passengers, we’re just sitting tight until that moment when the zombies show themselves.
While we wait, and it doesn’t take long, Train to Busan introduces us to the folks who’re about to take the ride of their lives (for some of them, of course, their last ride): the rich snobs, the elderly sisters, the pregnant woman and her tough-guy (who’s really a softie) husband, the baseball team, the train stewards, the freaked-out stowaway, oh...and that girl with the freaky bite on her leg.
Having a host of intriguing characters—some of whom become heroes, others of whom turn out to be just as odious as the actual monsters—is one thing, but if you really want to make a great zombie movie, you’ve got to have some creative zombie stuff, too. And Train to Busan delivers. The incredibly effective gimmick of setting most of the action on a moving train goes a long way toward setting up plenty of memorable teeth-gnashing and flesh-ripping encounters, as do the outstandingly gruesome special effects.
Intense attention to period detail makes this feature debut from Robert Eggers (who has since made The Lighthouse) feel exceptionally authentic in its brutality, as it traces the splintering of a Puritan family, circa 1630s New England, after they’re banished from their colony following a clash of religious philosophies. Life in the wilderness would be tough enough—what with the very real possibility of starvation and illness, not to mention the stress of being isolated with some toxic personalities, including a hysterical matriarch and a pair of unreasonably bratty twin youngsters—without the presence of a witch lurking in the adjacent woods. But lurk she does, helping herself to the family’s infant child early in The Witch’s first act, sparking the escalating despair and chaos that permeates the rest of the film.
Young teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in her breakout role) is the audience’s entry point into this pastoral hellscape, but the standout character ends up being Black Phillip—the cocky farm goat who’s revealed to be Satan in disguise, using his barnyard vantage point to spy on the family’s ever-crumbling faith. The Witch is bleak without ever being boring, with all-in performances that make its moments of shocking violence feel well-earned. But The Witch’s most subversive triumph is that it ends on a high note—suggesting that rooting for the villain is sometimes the only way to attain the ultimate catharsis.
When writer-director Ari Aster released Midsommar earlier this year, horror fans didn’t exactly know what to expect from the film itself—but they did know that Aster is someone who’s unafraid to push boundaries and poke into some very uncomfortable places. That’s all thanks to 2018's Hereditary, his debut film. And while there are several debut films on this list, including the film in the top spot below, Hereditary’s sudden emergence into the world is maybe the most startling. It’s a tightly-wound movie about a family who endures one tragedy after another, with escalating grief and trauma that become even more complicated when some occult interlopers enter the picture.
Last year, io9's Evan Narcisse spoke to Aster about how Hereditary is a horror movie that mines a lot of its dread from the fact that it’s also rooted in another deeply emotional genre:
“Even while I was pitching the film...I would describe the film as a family tragedy that warps into a nightmare. And I was kind of careful not to call it a horror film. It is a horror film, and I hope it’s a very good one. By which I mean, I hope it meets the demands of the genre in a satisfying way. But it was important for me to attend to the family drama first, and to have all the horror elements grow out of that.
I don’t believe that I can really affect an audience or impact them in a meaningful way if they aren’t invested in the people who are suffering. Right? And ultimately, this is a movie that’s about suffering. It’s a very sorrowful meditation on grief and trauma, and I think the film has even more of a debt to domestic melodramas than it does to horror movies. It’s a film that I’m hoping kind of stews in the feelings of these people and, again, becomes a nightmare.”
Toni Collette’s lead performance—as an artist who makes tiny, perfect dioramas inspired by her overwrought, extremely messy actual life—is the greatest part of Hereditary, but the unsettling feeling the entire movie leaves you with is also an undeniably remarkable achievement.
There are still 40 minutes left to go when Get Out jumps from eerie, slow-burn suspense to full-on frantic horror movie. It’s when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) figures out he’s in immediate danger of something far more awful than death, but he doesn’t quite get that his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is as evil as her family. But the audience sure does—which makes the tension as Rose pretends to fumble around looking for her car keys almost unbearable. Get Out is the perfect title for this movie for so many reasons, but one of them is that’s exactly what you will be screaming at Chris to do when the walls start closing in.
But even though the “fight-or-die” final act is a familiar one for horror fans, as is the whole “there’s nothing scarier than other humans” thing, Get Out uses those tropes in the service of a story so smart and culturally savvy that it makes a tremendous impact. Everything in the movie is first-rate (first-time feature helmer Jordan Peele’s direction, the production design and editing, all the performances, the soundtrack), but its most tremendous element is Peele’s Oscar-winning screenplay, a searing satire of racism in 21st century America—particularly the sort of insidious racism practiced by upscale white folks who’ll say things like “I would have voted for Obama for a third term!” but will privately nurture hateful ideas.
Earlier this year, Peele released Us, a doppelgänger horror saga that offers an even more sprawling investigation of the American psyche, and confirms that Peele is one of the most important filmmakers working today, in any genre. But Get Out takes the top spot here, for all the reasons noted above, but also because it captures the zeitgeist in ways beyond what Peele probably even intended. It was released just a month after Trump’s inauguration—a moment that still feels like a mass slide into the “sunken place.”
Paranormal Activity made its massive multiplex breakout in 2009 but it was originally released in 2007, so it technically doesn’t qualify as being from this decade. Still, it seems wrong not to mention a movie that proved not only was “found footage” horror not dead, but it could still be utterly bone-chilling. Drag Me to Hell (2009) was genre master Sam Raimi’s take on the then-recent financial crisis, as seen through the tale of an ambitious bank employee who learns the hard way never to repossess the home of someone with the sort of supernatural powers that’ll make you regret it.
Speaking of Raimi, Drew Goddard’s Joss Whedon-produced debut The Cabin in the Woods (2012) turned the Evil Dead formula inside out with a dark, dark comedy about who’s really pulling the strings when it comes to ghouls in the wilderness. Peter Strickland’s 2012 Berberian Sound Studio paid homage to 1970s Italian horror movies in an artfully authentic way that felt more like innovation than imitation. And 2018's A Quiet Place, from John Krasinski, reminded us that the simplest idea—monster aliens that will attack only if they can hear you—can sometimes deliver the most shhhhhhriek-inducing impact.
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