It’s time now for yet another Sacred Walloween Listicle! This week, we return to the world of film with the Top Ten Modern Horror Films! In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in something of a horror boon, with the past twenty years yielding a variety of the greatest horror films of all time. So today, we’re going to be ranking the best of the best, looking for the horror films from 1997 onwards that both chilled us to the bone and changed the game forever.
I had a long list of Honorable Mentions today. As I said, this has been an extraordinary two decades in horror filmmaking. There’s the popular options, like It (2017) and The Ring. There’s the arthouse options It Comes At Night and 28 Days Later. In terms of horror-comedy, we’ve had two entries that stand out in both their fields, The Cabin in the Woods and Shaun of the Dead. And then there are the great films that came the closest to making the list: V/H/S 2 is one of the most innovative shoestring budget horror films I’ve ever seen; mother! is a thought experiment in what a horror movie can and should be; The Strangers is one of the best utilizers of the “show, don’t tell” style of filmmaking, creating some of the scariest images known to film; Evil Dead was an excellent homage to the original horror classic; and overall, no film has been as absolutely influential as the $15,000 moneymaker Paranormal Activity, which was on an early version of this list and was cut at the last second. And finally, I want to give a shout out to The Guest, a tongue-in-cheek thriller that paid great tribute to classic horror director John Carpenter, yet feels more comedy and thriller than it does horror. I also haven’t seen Raw, The Devil’s Backbone, Under the Shadow, Let the Right One In, or The Descent, so none of those films will be appearing on this list. Now that all of that is settled, let’s take a look at the best of modern horror.
10. The Babadook
In terms of modern horror, few films have really broken out of the indie foreign scene the way The Babadook has. A classic horror film straight out of the 70s, the film has taken on a life of its own, receiving critical acclaim, a few awards here and there, Internet adoration, and now apparently a tribute from the LGBTQ community, who have apparently claimed him as their own as some sort of mascot (I do not subscribe to this theory, and do not understand it, but that’s their business). Nevertheless, at the heart of all this acclaim is a good movie that does what horror is supposed to do: use the horror to explore what scares us most. Here, that’s grief and depression. Essie Davis’ Amelia is a single mother at the end of her rope, having given birth to her troubled son during the car accident that killed her husband. Tormented by grief, forever trapped by her violent-prone son, and slowly losing her mind, Amelia finds herself hunted by a figure from a children’s book known as The Babadook, a creature that will call, follow, and haunt you for days before slowly driving you insane, possessing you, and making you kill everything and everyone you care about. What makes the entire ordeal so terrifying is that, while we follow Amelia as our protagonist, she is an unreliable narrator. Taken out of the experience, outside of her Babadook-filled narrative, we see clues that there may not actually be a monster, and that she is just slowly going insane on her own. The film plays as a psychological thriller, taunting us at each step of the way, and overall serving as a metaphor for what it’s like to be manic depressive. The Babadook stands tall as one of the greatest horror movies of the past twenty years.
As sequel after sequel has come along to up the craziness, nastiness, and awfulness of the original, it is easy to forget that Saw was, at its core, a clever, twisted, wonderful thriller. At its core, it’s a one-location drama featuring two men chained in a bathroom with nothing but a dead body, two handsaws, and conflicting sets of instructions, including murdering each other. As the film flashes back, we learn that the serial killer Jigsaw, only seen in the form of a creepy puppet (actually named Billy), gives people dangerous tasks involving drills, saws, and bear traps that will maim them if they succeed, but kill them if they fail. The mystery surrounds who is killing and maiming these people, but the intrigue surrounds the fact that the killer is not actually trying to kill these people. He targets those who don’t respect the value of their own lives and pushes them to their limits. Those who survive his traps and “games” end up realizing the importance of living and the value of survival. It’s a fascinating mission from a killer, and it makes a drastic departure from the normal “psychopathic killer” trope of most horror films. However, what most people remember from this film is the dramatic ending. Determined to live, Cary Elwes’ Lawrence chooses to use the hacksaw to chop through his own foot and crawls to find help, while the other survivor, Adam, battles Zepp, the Jigsaw Killer. What happens next will blow your mind. James Wan crafted a smart, taut thriller that stands the test of time in spite of its exploitative follow-ups. It’s well worth a watch.
8. The Conjuring
The Conjuring is the film that made horror movies fun again. After years of the genre being either indie-based or utter drek, The Conjuring chose to tell a classic ghost story through traditional means, and yet on a much larger scale. It utilized the publicity and filmmaking techniques that made films like The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist hits, using its “true story” narrative to its advantage, and it chose to use slow, tension-building reveals, as opposed to the jump scares that had been popular throughout the early aughts. At its core, there’s nothing really outstanding about the film: a family of seven arrives in an old farmhouse, strange things start happening, and it’s up to a married team of Scooby Doo-esque paranormal investigators to come save the day. The idea of a witch-possessed house is fairly creepy to begin with, but the way that director James Wan (again) demonstrates this is what chills us. The fact the kids can see something that we can’t frightens us. Imaginary friends that may be real are inherently disturbing. Simple edits from an empty field to a POV shot of a hanging body are hauntingly effective. And then there’s The Clapping Scene, one of the most talked about sequences of the decade. High on the tension, low on the jump scares, the scene continues to drag on and on until the simple reveal of two hands in the darkness appear to scare the ever-living sh*t out of us. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this movie has an evil doll. Good God, it’s like a treasure trove of evil. There’s nothing particularly deep about The Conjuring, and yet that’s ok. Sometimes all a film wants to do is scare us. And The Conjuring achieves that many times over.
7. You’re Next
There are few directors I love more than Adam Wingard, especially when he works with Simon Barrett. One of the things he’s come to be famous for is the self-aware horror movie. Oh, I’m not meaning something like Scream (which was released just too soon to make this list), which is more a comedy than it is a horror film. I mean a film that knows the concept is inherently dumb, and mocks our fears by subverting expectations. It’s not exactly ha-ha funny, but when you realize they’re intentionally doing things differently to mock the formula, the entire project becomes a lot more fun. One of the best examples of this is You’re Next, a slasher film that spends most of its running time trying to be a family mumblecore drama. The film chooses to spend most of its time following the strained relationships between siblings, parents, and new significant others. The horror comes in as the family is forced to work together when they’re confronted by three masked serial killers who emerge from the woods. The film has a number of great scares, centered on reflections, pan downs, and POV shots from the killers. However, what’s fun about the film is the way it subverts what we expect. Take an early scene where the family spends five minutes debating who’s the fastest member to run for help, finally picking the youngest daughter, and opening the door for her to run to freedom, only to immediately shoot this plan to hell by having her be instantly decapitated by a piano string across the door. Or another scene where the film immediately bursts to life with a jarring jump scare, only to reveal it is cutting to a professor and his student getting it on. These scenes are funny because they subvert our expectations. And they still manage to self-seriously include tropes, ranging from the “scary” song in “Looking For the Magic” to the Final Girl trope. Wingard and Barrett know how to make a film that is both entirely serious and still aware of how silly it is, and that’s why they are the modern day horror maestros.
6. Get Out
The most recent film on this list, there was really no way I could leave Jordan Peele’s Get Out off the list. Not only is it one of the best films of the year, it is a breath of fresh air into the horror genre, using some tropes, subverting others, and really pushing the boundaries of what horror could and should be. Peele has made a horror movie that spends its time exploring and satirizing race relations in America post-Obama, where white liberals are so convinced that they’d ended racism they have closed their eyes to their own terrible behavior. Watching the way the so-called “understanding characters” interact with Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris walk a careful line between comedy and creepy, making us question what genre the film exactly is. When it does answer the question in the third act, you immediately wish you could go back to the ambiguity. Things immediately amp up to a ten, and the horror becomes palpable, revealing an underworld that is frightening, insane, and ultimately allegorical. In fact, most of the movie plays out as a wonderful mix of horror and allegory, using Peele’s unique vision to comment on the parts of society that no one wants to talk about, regardless of political affiliation or background. It’s a horrifying glimpse inside the lives of African-Americans, terrifyingly played out to their most absurd conclusions. Get Out is a wonderful little anomaly: before it’s over, you’ll scream at the horrifying opening cinematically referencing Trayvon Martin and laugh at the shenanigans of Lil Ren Howery’s best friend. This is a film that will be remembered, and will stand out as one of the best films of 2017, as well as one of the best horror films in recent memory.
My God, what a discovery Hush was when I first saw it one year ago. Directed by Mike Flanagan, the film goes heavy on the use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony often goes hand-in-hand with horror, as it involves showing the audience something that the main character doesn’t know. Hush works because the entirety of the film rests on what the heroine, Maddie, doesn’t know. Why? Because she’s deaf. This means that while we can hear the masked killer as he enters the house, and can see him as he lurks behind poor Maddie, she is unaware of his location or his movements. It is terrifying to watch as he spends the first thirty minutes toying with her, stealing her phone and sending pictures to her laptop. It is even more terrifying to watch as he slowly and methodically tries to access her home so that he may gain the other hand. What follows is a two-person battle of wills, not unlike Misery or even Halloween, to an extent. It’s nice to see a horror movie with both a disabled main character and a non-virginal (or at least that aspect is incidental) female as the lead, as it defies the tropes we’ve come to associate with the genre. And watching the Home Alone/Skyfall/Straw Dogs-style defiance of a home invasion is always entertaining. Hush is what happens when you take a classic story, add a unique spin to it, and then tell it with taut, effortless storytelling. It stands as a testament to the ways that horror can shake us to our very core
4. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is a game-changing horror film both in its own right and for what it did to the genre. Sold as a real documentary made of found footage from the woods outside of Burkittsville, Maryland, The Blair Witch Project rode its mysterious, “true story” narrative all the way to the bank. Indeed, in hindsight, The Blair Witch really doesn’t feel like a traditional horror film. In all honesty, nothing really happens for eighty minutes but three annoying twenty-somethings wandering around the woods. However, that’s exactly what makes the film such a nightmare. Because the camera is so shaky, and the woods seem so expansive and confusing, you really do feel a sense of abandonment and confusion as the characters become more and more lost. Furthermore, as the film goes on and on, you feel more and more uneasy. You know how in a traditional horror movie scene the tension builds up and up before finally the scare happens and everything resets? What if that scene dragged out for the entire movie. That’s right, eighty minutes of feeling uneasy with no easy answers in sight. It’s one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had watching a horror movie. In fact, because that sequence is dragged out for so long, when we finally see the ending, it makes an already-terrifying sequence even more terrifying. Hell, I’d go as far as to say the ending of the film is one of the scariest scenes in all of film history. However, The Blair Witch Project’s legacy doesn’t end there. The film was such a breath of fresh air, the film started an entire new movement. V/H/S, Paranormal Activity, [REC], and Cloverfield all owe a great deal to Blair Witch for creating the found footage genre, and for allowing us to see a new way of telling stories. It may not be the glamorous example that many of these films are, but there’s no denying that The Blair Witch Project is one of the greatest modern horror movies, no matter how you look at it.
3. The Others
There are very few directors who really want to push what a horror film can and should be anymore. As I’ve written about several times before, a good horror movie is never just about scaring us. It’s about getting to the heart of what scares us about society as a whole, and what truly frightens us to our core. One of the best horror films in ages to do that is Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, which blends the haunted house narrative of The Conjuring and The Haunting with an analysis of rich themes delivered in a way that only the Spanish film scene has really captured. Set in one house as a woman driven to the edge, as played by Nicole Kidman, must maintain order as she waits for her husband to return from World War II. This means hiring new servants to run things and making sure the windows are all covered, in order to keep the sunlight from killing her photosensitive children, Anne and Nicholas. Things take a turn, however, when mysterious things start happening, and strange noises come from people Anne has dubbed “The Intruders.” The film raises questions about religion, death, and motherhood as Grace (Kidman’s character) encounters horror after horror, delivered in well-executed sequences. One sequence involves a hand reaching out from the darkness (The Conjuring was definitely influenced by this movie). The most famous involves a figure that sounds like Anne and is dressed like Anne, but is most certainly not Anne. It’s truly horrific filmmaking. The film would be a masterpiece even based on its technical prowess for the first 100 minutes, but it’s the final scene where things kick into gear. The ending of this film is one of the all-time best, twisting the narrative to make the audience rethink everything they’ve just seen and to rethink performances, messages and more, all of which you’ll make sure to look for when you watch the film for a second time. The Others stands tall as one of the best films in modern history, regardless of genre.
2. It Follows
It Follows is a lot of things. It’s an exploration of coming of age in Michigan. It a study in our fears of sex, relationships, dating, and growing up. However, above all, it’s a truly stunning, fun horror romp that sets out to scare us at every turn, and succeeds in abundance. David Robert Mitchell has made the type of horror film that John Carpenter used to make, depending on thrills and dramatic irony instead of lazy jump scares. It gives the audience a clear set of rules that must be adhered to, and the fear of breaking them permeates every other sequence to follow. You see, once you understand that It can appear as anyone or anything, but it will move at that lumbering pace, then the audience will instinctively spend the rest of the film watching the crowds and the background for someone out of the ordinary. By making you untrustworthy of every since frame, you are instantly uncomfortable for the rest of the film. We also have the terror of what seeing what heroine Maika Monroe sees, meaning that no one else can see what we are. The terror of unacknowledged figures emerging from the darkness, or the woods, or the parking lot fill us with dread and making the hairs on the back of our neck stand up for 100 minutes straight. However, above all, it makes us fear the thing that humans are supposed to love most: sex. Not unlike the threat of an STD, the film plays with our fears that the person we want to be intimate with will betray us, or prove sinister, or will give us something that will eventually kill us. Everything about this film is wonderfully frightening, scaring us to our core and standing tall as one of the best films of the decade, of the century, and of the horror genre overall.
1. The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shymalan may have been a laughing stock in Hollywood for several years after a series of horrifically bad flops. However, if anyone ever wants to doubt his talent as a filmmaker, writer, and all-around storyteller, they need not look further than his first film, The Sixth Sense. An outstanding achievement in drama, thriller, and horror genres, The Sixth Sense is frightening because, at its core, it’s not a horror film. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it is a horror story – a ghost story, to be exact. However, thematically, The Sixth Sense is the story of a family trying its best to stay together. Mother Lynn Sear wants to understand her troubled son and help him understand his issues. Meanwhile, shy and terrified Cole wants to help his mother know she isn’t alone, and to be “normal” for her to live a better life. That’s not the plot of a horror movie, that’s a Hallmark movie. However, the fact that Cole’s issue is that he is haunted by, followed by, and sometimes attacked by a series of ghosts, each appearing in the form of what killed them (suicidal housewife, accidental gun victim kid, and so on), is what scares us to our core. Luckily, Cole has help from Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who is willing to help him understand and control his condition. The film has a series of scenes ranging from the smart (the bonding sequence stepping forward and backward reveals exposition in a new, intelligent way) to the frightening (the reveal of the housewife is jump worthy, as is the first viewing of Mischa Barton), but none come close to the dramatic ending, which turns everything on its head and fills the audience with grief, anger, fear, and shock. In a word, with life. This is a horror movie that explores what it means to love, to live, and to die in a smart, fun, intelligent, and scary way, and which has forever become a part of the American cinematic lexicon. It is, without a doubt, the best modern horror film ever made.
Well, that concludes the third entry in Sacred Walloween. There will be one more entry before the month ends next Tuesday. Until then, stay spooky, my friends!