Since the dawn of the motion picture, horror has proven to be one of cinema’s most versatile and enduring genres. From John Carpenter and Wes Craven to Dario Argento and Alfred Hitchcock, some of the silver screen’s most illustrious auteurs have made their bones on the craft of psychological suspense and physical terror.
And while the genre did go through a cringey period of dumb teen slashers and bloody gore fests in the late-1990s to the mid-2000s – a new crop of visionary filmmakers have recently emerged to restore artistic credibility and critical prestige to the genre. A horror renaissance is in full swing at the moment, and fright fans are delighted.
The 2010s in particular have proven to be fertile for creative expressions of human dread on the big screen. And if you need any proof, just consider that the biggest cultural force at this year’s Oscars was a horror movie! So after months of nightmare-inducing re-watches, our film editor has picked out the finest horror films this decade has to offer.
Honorable mentions: I Saw The Devil, mother!, It Comes At Night, Train to Busan, Split, Gerald’s Game, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Sinister
Before the Babadook itself became an LGBTQ icon (no, seriously), the supernatural monster first popped up in Jennifer Kent’s highly regarded directorial debut. The Babadook was harrowing and intense not just because of it’s brilliant creature design and slow-burn composition, but because it evoked so much empathy for it’s richly-drawn mother-son protagonists. It’s expression of maternal fears and the enveloping, shape-shifting nature of grief garnered this Australian indie masterpiece international acclaim.
Under The Shadow
Set in Tehran during the Iraq-Iran war, Under The Shadow‘s female leads aren’t just haunted by a malevolent Djinn, they also have to deal with the everyday terror of a fundamentalist regime and missiles bombarding their neighborhood. Psychologically, the fear comes from an environment of restrictions (societally and supernaturally), and the dread that you may never be able escape them. Babak Anvari’s Persian-language nail-biter is emotionally gripping, and loaded with genuine scares alongside sharply subversive subtext.
A breakout for debuting writer-director Robert Eggers, The Witch taps into puritanical fear with terrific attention to period detail and unnervingly austere cinematography. This slow-burning folk tale might be too patient for some, but for those who appreciate it’s triumph of tone and thought-provoking theological themes – this one is a modern masterpiece. The Witch’s chilling and ominous look at the darkest corners of religious psyche succeeds because of its meticulous approach to crafting a thick atmosphere of foreboding.
To say Don’t Breathe is white-knuckle tense would be an understatement. This film brilliantly turns the home invasion sub-genre on its head to deliver an unrelenting and claustrophobic horror-thriller that will have you squirming in your seat. Fede Alvarez’s ability to orchestrate scares within a limited space is continually inventive, and his plot twists are truly shocking. Stephen Lang’s performance is a force of nature, painting the movie’s perpetrators turned victims (and us) into increasingly nerve-wracking corners.
Despite an intimidating running time of 156 minutes, The Wailing is filled with enough twisty mysteries, surprising humour, piercing emotion and ancient terror to keep you riveted throughout. This intense, unsettling and unpredictable slow-burn is an incredibly immersive experience, keeping you lost in it’s ominous rural atmosphere. Hong-Jin Na’s film may be deeply allegorical, but it’s primal frights are universally visceral. The Wailing is a masterful showcase for why South Korea has become such a horror hotbed lately.
Down on their luck and out of cash, a struggling punk band takes a gig at a neo-Nazi venue in the backwoods – only to be trapped and attacked by a gang of white supremacist skinheads. Jeremy Saulnier’s gruesome flick is perhaps the best constructed exploitation film of the 21st century. But as brutal as Green Room can get, it never becomes overly-gratuitous gore porn. Saulnier instead chooses to punctate simmering stretches of palpable panic (and sprinkles of dark humour) with sudden, potent doses of grisly ultra-violence.
All good horror serves as an allegory for something, but rarely has a flick tackled it’s theme as directly as It Follows. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, this film about a sexually transmitted demon works on multiple levels – as a Carpenter-esque suspense thriller, as a heartbreaking coming-of-age drama, and as heady exploration of the overwhelming fear that comes with sexual maturity. Cleverly executed setpieces, a hypnotic synth soundtrack and it’s dreamy atmosphere makes this an exceedingly stylish creepshow.
Julia Ducournau’s feature film debut has the freshest, meatiest, most succulent cannibalism metaphor we’ve ever encountered – using a well-worn gross-out horror trope as a surreal feminist parable of sexual awakening, a dramatic representation of sisterhood, and a smart commentary on abstinence versus indulgence. This is not for the faint of heart because Raw‘s ravenous descent into carnal eroticism and grotesque gore is nausea inducing. But thankfully this flesh-eating French-Belgian film offers much to chew on.
Get Out is, in no uncertain terms, pure genius. It’s dark satire not only deftly captures our social zeitgeist, Jordan Peele’s confrontation of racial tension is alternately unsettling, hilarious, dramatic and subversive. It’s unusual to find a film that can make you scared, laugh and think – often at the same time. Peele’s freshman effort draws upon deep-rooted African-American fears to unleash potent frights that are laced with unsparing political fury. This certainly ranks up there as there as one of the most skillful genre exercises this decade.
The Conjuring didn’t just launch the career of James Wan, it was such a mainstream hit that it also launched sequels and spin-offs (though none of them were as good as the original). This film single-handedly reinvigorated the demonically possessed child formula, simply because it was so viscerally effective and sensationally entertaining. The haunted house basics still work, and that’s largely down to this story taking the time to develop fleshed-out, sympathetic characters alongside it’s classically constructed scares.
We couldn’t do a list without a Stephen King adaptation. This 2017 version of It really does improve upon the 1990 miniseries (which is highly regarded, but doesn’t age well) by making full use of it’s R rating to embrace the visual essence of the novel’s more frightening moments. Andy Muschietti’s film doesn’t just effectively capture the mood of the 80s’ beyond nostalgia, his wonderful character development with The Losers Club infuses empathy, thus amplifying audience investment in these kids during bouts of visceral terror.
The Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s movie about horror movies might be the the most creative meta feat in cinematic history. Simultaneously a satire of horror conventions and a love letter to the genre’s storied heritage, The Cabin in the Woods cleverly plays with cliches to deconstruct it’s most overused and predictable elements, before elevating the formula in mind-blowingly post-modern and self-aware ways. The film has fun turning tropes inside out, but amazingly, it still manages to function as deliriously entertaining thrill ride.
A Quiet Place
Directed, co-written and starring John Krasinski, A Quiet Place is such a simple yet expertly constructed exercise in tension building. Sound design always plays a crucial role in horror, but this movie’s use of utter silence to evoke discomfort and accentuate nervous alertness is exceptional. Continuous, ominous dread is maintained with such minimalism. So much of the acting relies on facial expression or body language, and Emily Blunt’s physicality is especially terrific (she would’ve made a great silent movie actress).