Come one, come all, to the terrifyingly thrilling spookfest that is Sacred Walloween! Last year’s festivities were…disappointing, to say the least. My apologies for that. My efforts were divided with a day job that bled over into nights, not to mention the general mood of the mid-pandemic, mid-election dreariness. That’s going to change this year, as I will be doing everything in my power to provide the best Sacred Walloween to date! And I will be starting this year’s festivities off with a long-overdue listicle: the Top Ten Horror Films of the Decade!
Now I know what you’re thinking – “Didn’t you just do a horror retrospective piece a couple years ago?” And the answer is yes, I did rank the Top Ten Horror Movies of the Modern Era, from 1999 to 2017. But this one is different! Not only do I have more films to choose from, but I have a sense of hindsight I didn’t at the time. Furthermore, it’s a great way to kick off my upcoming Best of the Decade retrospectives that have been a year in the making. So I can’t think of a better way to conclude this year’s Sacred Walloween. The 2010s were an incredible decade for the horror genre, with 2010 alone giving us Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. 2011 brought us You’re Next, a brilliant satire of the home invasion genre. 2014 revitalized the monster film, between the haunting The Babadook and the blockbuster Godzilla. And then things kicked into gear. 2015 brought about the return of M. Night Shyamalan in The Visit, while Guillermo del Toro gave us classic Gothic horror in Crimson Peak. 2016 gave us the foreign body horror classic Raw, while 2017 gave us the slasher satire Happy Death Day and the haunting revenge flick Revenge. 2018 gave us the haunting Vox Lux and the best horror sequel in many decades in Halloween. 2019 pushed the boundaries with Jordan Peele’s unique Us, the creative remake to Black Christmas, the weird-ass giallo tribute In Fabric, the creature feature Crawl, and the f*cking nightmare that is The Lighthouse. Oh, and Ari Aster helped close out the decade with the mostly solid Hereditary and Midsommar. I’m also trying to avoid comedies, so unfortunately What We Do In The Shadows doesn’t quite make the cut (even though it’s one of the greatest comedies I’ve seen all decade). And while they came aggressively close to making the Top Ten, I just couldn’t make room for the impeccably made The VVitch (“Wouldst thou likest to live deliciously?”) or the reinventive zombie flick Train To Busan. Both were incredible, and their absence is solely due to the caliber of the Top Ten. So, with that being said, let’s take a look at the Top Ten Horror Films of the Decade!
It’s been two years, and I’m still not entirely sure how to describe – let alone approach – Mandy. A Lovecraftian-meets-Barkeresque nightmare, Mandy transforms a genre that’s normally about revenge and shady societal commentary into a touching ode to grief and the dangers of patriarchal cultish behavior. For the first hour of Mandy’s two-hour runtime, it’s more atmospheric than haunting, with the audience following a loving couple (Nicolas Cage’s Red and Andrea Risenborough’s Mandy) who live in the woods during the 80s who have a brief, yet creepy encounter with the Children of the New Dawn, a Manson-esque religious cult led by the creepy Jeremiah Sand. When Mandy shoots Sand down, Sand hires a group of LSD-laden motorcycle demons to kidnap the couple and ultimately kill Mandy, and that’s when the film takes off. The first half of the film offers mostly creepy commentary on the cult and toxic masculinity, as the most violent crimes occur when a drugged Mandy laughs at Sand’s tiny manhood. But things take a turn when the grief-ridden Cage forges demon-killing weapons and goes on a rampage, slowly devolving into a personal – and very real – Hell. Panos Cosmatos’ direction is impeccable, capturing grief in an otherworldly, memorable way, while Cage gives one of his best performances as a normal man who becomes unhinged, often communicating in primal grunts of pain (ok, so maybe not a big acting stretch). Weird, haunting, and striking, it’s hard to think of a more memorable horror film from the last decade than Mandy.
I know, I know, it’s getting a little repetitive around these parts. I talk about Hush every chance I get. But I can’t help it. It’s ironic that Mike Flanagan has become synonymous with horror because of his interpretations of The Haunting of Hill House/Bly Manor, Gerald’s Game, and Doctor Sleep, and yet all of these entries pale in comparison to his big breakthrough. A take on the slasher genre, the film follows the cat-and-mouse game between deaf author Maddie Young (Katie Siegel) and a masked serial killer (John Gallagher Jr.). What’s fascinating about the film is the way Flanagan plays with the set-up, utilizing his sound design to reflect Maddie’s condition, and transforming a jump-scare-laden genre into an experiment in tension. 9/10, we the audience knows exactly where The Killer is located, and what he’s doing, but Maddie rarely does – because she doesn’t have the benefit of sound. This use of dramatic irony helps elevate the film, and also provides new angles on a struggling genre. There’s a real sense of intimate tension inherent in the production, and both actors are highly convincing in their roles. Hush builds upon the legacy of films like Psycho and Halloween, elevating itself to become a modern slasher staple, and it’s one of the best horror films of the last decade.
8. A Quiet Place
Another film that thrived on its sound design and the unique perspective of a deaf horror character, few films were as surprising all decade as John Krasinski’s family horror A Quiet Place. The best horror films are those with social commentary, and it is hard to overlook the obvious metaphor for parents who feel unable to protect their children in a growing world of chaos. I mean, after all, in one of the most audacious opening scenes of the decade, the main family (Krasinski, wife Emily Blunt, and two children played by Noah Jupe and the great Millicent Simmonds) watches as their youngest member sets off a toy truck and is eaten by monsters. The middle portion of the film features some interesting commentary on the downside of stoic parenting, but it’s the third act that elevates the material. Each character has their own terrifying encounter, with each encounter letting Krasinski try out a new trick to terrify his audience. There’s the foreshadowing of an ominous nail, the realization of impending labor (we’ll have to suspend our disbelief that anyone would bring a child known to cry all the time into a world where sound gets you killed and the chance of death is astronomical). There’s the deaf daughter wandering a cornfield, blissfully unaware of the monster wandering behind her – equally unaware of his nearby prey. And then there’s the son, trapped in a corn silo with a hidden threat, unable to make a sound and yet only able to make a sound. It’s a brilliant little parable, a master class on how to make a high concept blockbuster on a low budget, and one of the most fun experiences I had in theaters this entire last decade.
7. The Guest
I went back and forth over which Adam Wingard film to include on this list. On the one hand, You’re Next is the scariest film he’s ever directed. But it’s hard to think of a more entertaining Midnight Madness production than The Guest. A tribute to the films of John Carpenter, and a cross between The Terminator, The Bourne Identity, and the classic cult films of the 70s and 80s. The Guest operates on a simple concept: a family has lost their son in the Iraq War, and one of his fellow soldiers comes to pay his respects. They invite him in, and slowly start to realize that he’s not who he says he is – instead, he’s a super-soldier who escaped military custody after going insane. The film is legitimately terrifying, as stoic David wreaks havoc on their small town (in ways both good – like beating up toxic homophobic bullies – and bad – like murdering an entire diner with a grenade), but it has a sense of humor. After realizing that David’s a psychopath, one character simply laments “What the f*ck, David!” The film uses over-the-top needle drops at random points, through self-aware referencing. And in a hilarious aside, David’s bloodlust is not so much gleeful nor reluctant – it’s just an annoying side road. Maika Monroe makes a solid Final Girl, but the star is Dan Stevens, who plays David perfectly as a seductive, stoic killer who’s half-Matt Damon-as-Jason-Bourne and half Michael Myers. It’s a memorable, fun little thriller that sends up the genre and a stand-alone classic.
6. The Love Witch
Perhaps the least “scary” film on this list, The Love Witch is one of the most unique films to come out this entire decade. A comedic send-up to the classic technicolor films of the 60s, Anna Biller’s tribute to the films of Mario Bava and beyond is both silly and striking at the same time (she also wrote, edited, produced, and scored the film). Centered on a witch named Elaine who’s desperate for love, the film jumps between Elaine’s encounters with men, which always end the same way – she drugs them, they make love, and then leaves them when they become too clingy, ultimately ending in their suicide. Biller’s direction is truly remarkable – she utilizes classic zoom cuts, striking Technicolor, and psychedelic effects to critique the gender roles of the genre’s origins. The film comments on the way women are forced to feel fulfilled through a man, and ultimately have to weaponize their own femininity in order to reach fulfillment (here embodied by literal witchcraft). The “horror,” meanwhile, comes from the notion of flipped gender roles – men seeing how it feels to be considered “too emotional.” It’s a funny concept…until it’s not. When Biller wants to get terrifying (like a character’s bathtub suicide), it truly is haunting. All of this only works, of course, because Samantha Robinson gives one of the best horror performances all decade, portraying Elaine as classically chic and effortlessly gorgeous. It’s a haunting, seductive, brilliant portrayal, and it helps drive home one of the best horror films of the past decade.
5. The Conjuring
Perhaps the most “mainstream” on this list, it’s hard to deny The Conjuring’s role in the public lexicon. Arguably the genesis of the Horror Renaissance, The Conjuring reminds audiences of the most important rule: originality is not a necessity in making a good, memorable film. All that matters is you tell a good story well, with smart direction and a game audience. James Wan draws his audience in carefully and methodically: he introduces us to a lovable family of seven (all daughters), shows us the layout of the house and its land, and slowly incorporates the spookiness afterwards. We hear the creaks at night, see the dog barking at nothing, and watch the kids play with “imaginary friends” who exist in music boxes. And that’s when the horror slowly rolls out. Psychic characters see hanging bodies. Creepy dolls escape their lockboxes to attack young children. Ghosts leap out of closets. And let’s not forget the scariest sequence of the decade: The Clapping Game. It’s a perfect example of tension – utilizing sound to slowly creep out the characters and the audience, dimming the lights until things are pitch black, and then delivering the perfect “kill shot.” It’s perfect filmmaking. Sure, The Conjuring is cliched. It’s spawned a series of dwindling, obnoxious sequels that just don’t cut it. But on its own, as a straightforward outing, it’s one of the best horror films of the decade.
The original Suspiria is one of the most audacious horror films ever made; simple in its vision and ethereal in its execution. Its 2018 remake, Suspiria, is somehow both its complete opposite and its complete equal. Director Luca Guadagnino apparently decides to zig every time his predecessor zags. Whereas the 1977 classic was a cornucopia of colors and lights, his Suspiria is in a muted grey, letting the occasional flashes of red pop all the more. Whereas the 1977 film is a 90-minute anxiety ride, Guadagnino’s version is a 2½ hour epic. And whereas the original was nothing more than a terrifying story of witches and good vs. evil, Guadagnino creates a much more complicated work of art, commenting on a thousand years of humanity killing each other. The Holocaust looms overhead, Baader-Meinhof looms just offscreen, and the undercover battling factions of witches each vying for power serve as an apt metaphor for the rising fascistic movements around them. But lest you think the film is some boring lecture, Guadagnino is still Guadagnino. There’s still an ethereal quality in every shot, whether it’s a haunting ribbon-wrapped dance scene or the intentional Uncanny Valley of an old man played by Lutz Ebersdorf, who is very clearly Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup (Swinton herself plays three characters, two of which involve heavy makeup). And in one of the most gruesome horror moments of the decade, a young girl has her body magically contorted and mangled based on the movements of Susie’s (a terrific Dakota Johnson) dance. It is a trippy, horrific experience, and not only one of the best horror remakes of all time, but one of the best horror films of this last decade, hands down.
3. It Follows
One of my favorite films of the last decade, It Follows serves as both a send-up to slashers and monster movies while providing something new to the genre. Taking the idea of “sex gets you killed to the next level,” David Robert Mitchell’s indie smash was prefaced on a simple concept: teenagers have sex, and in doing so they pass along a creature that can take the form of anyone and will follow you for the rest of your life until you a) pass it on to another person, or b) get killed. Obviously there’s a lot to dissect there – teen behavior, fear of STDs, and the dark underbelly of suburban life. But even without that depth, It Followsstands strong as a masterful effort of filmmaking. The opening sequence follows a girl running through the streets from an unseen threat, enticing the audience from the jump. The ever-changing monster has audiences search each frame for a slow-moving outlier that may strike at any moment. And in my favorite sequence, we watch as the characters lazily sit around the lake…until we realize that the friend in the background is actually in the lake. It’s all truly terrifying stuff, and it adds up to one of the decade’s most original, most exciting concepts – and an all-time legend to boot.
Climax is the only film on this list to ever top one of my Best Of lists. How could I not? Gaspar Noé’s transgressive send-up to Pasolini, Russell, and Greenaway is a mind-blowing trip into Hell. A modern-day take on the Tower of Babel, the film surrounds a group of dancers preparing for a competition who realize that their punch was spiked during an after-party. What was once a creative, chaotic celebration devolves into a backstabbing groupthink of corruption. Personal feuds are elevated into suspecting, preemptive murders. Lust corrupts the members until they are incapable of controlling themselves. And Noé continues to elevate the tension by continuously pushing the boundaries of decency. Think pregnant women are safe? Think again. Think a child is safe? Think again. Each and every character is in danger from this collective group think and bigoted hatred, and it’s all ready to boil over in an explosive climax. And that’s not to mention that Noé utilizes every trick in the book to keep heart rates firmly above 100 bpm the entire time, from a 45-minute unbroken takes to swooping camera angles that capture every frightening detail. Eventually, you realize there’s no point fighting it: the overwhelming assault on the sense will control you, body and soul. It’s audacious, it’s frightening, and most importantly, it’s a true masterpiece.
1. Get Out
Yes, yes, you knew this was going to be #1. It had to be. What else this last decade had the lasting impact on pop culture as Get Out, the film that turned Jordan Peele into an A-list horror director, became only the fourth (depending on how you define the term) horror film to be nominated for Best Picture, made hundreds of millions of dollars off of a Sundance title, and made “The Sunken Place” a pop culture staple. Get Out is an example of finding horror in the real world, of taking everyday-creepy events and making them flat-out terrifying. It places audiences in the shoes of a Black man (played to perfection by Academy Award-winner Daniel Kaluuya) who experiences racism everywhere. Sometimes, it’s obvious, like a police officer who harasses him after an accident, or the opening scene that evokes Trayvon Martin and foreshadows Ahmaud Arbery. But oftentimes, racism is prevalent in little coded messages. The villains in this film are not gun-toting racist rednecks; they are the white middle-class liberals that claim to look down on racism while still benefitting from the effects. They are the ones that declare “I support and love Black people, but only if they look and talk the way I want” (thus the iconic “You know, I would have voted Obama for a third term”). Peele takes these everyday conversations and occurrences and turns them into high terror, telling the audience something is very wrong, even if you can’t explain what. And perhaps what makes this film pop the most is Peele’s ability to pay homage to the films that came before while never resorting to theft or pandering. Little allusions to Body Snatchers, Halloween, The Exorcist, and beyond line the film and bring it to life, in all its terrifying glory. It is a perfectly structured film that Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling would envy – funny when it needs to be, shocking time and time again, and terrifying throughout. It is, without a doubt, the best horror film of the last decade.
Well, that wraps up my first article of Sacred Walloween! I hope you’re all ready for a spook-filled month – I know I am. In the meantime, feel free to comment below on your thoughts on these films. Are there any from the last decade that you feel I missed, or didn’t give enough love? I’d love to hear it! Oh, and before we reach the big Halloween song I’ve got set for you, I have a quick favor to ask. I’ve already used up most of my goofy Halloween ditties. If you have any that you love, from any pop culture medium, please feel free to let me know! I’ll be sure to give you a shout-out when they get used. Stay spooky, my friends.