From arthouse burners to movies with vindictive, toothy fish, to tragic ghost stories, here are the 50 best horror films of the 21st century.

50. The Babadook

Jennier Kent’s portrait of grief and pain has a cathartic power all of its own. The script is watertight; the performances are uniformly excellent; and The Babadook itself is a bold new horror icon. What more could you want?

49. Beneath

Larry Fessenden’s bonkers, microbudget raft movie has it all, from a killer fish, to scorned lovers, to sacrifice. It’s all held together by the sheer strength of Fessenden’s vision, and, as ever, bursts with his trademark heart, humour, and horror. We don’t appreciate the man enough.

48. Slither

Before he made his name as a director of billion-dollar blockbusters, James Gunn used to play around the muck with the rest of us, making deliciously gooey serves of body horror like Slither. Unfairly maligned on its release, the film is a horror fan’s dream, packed as it is with hat-tips and horrors out of space in equal measure.

47. We Are The Flesh

Thank God We Are The Flesh only runs a lean 79 minutes – any longer and it might have proven genuinely un-releasable, not to mention unwatchable. A post-apocalyptic drama that sets two siblings against a perverse mastermind named Mariano, this is the definition of a tough watch – incest is only the tip of the iceberg here. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

46. The Descent

Despite the potent terror of being trapped in tight spaces, few filmmakers have nailed a true sense of claustrophobia in their films, making The Descent all the rarer a beast. A disturbing look at a group of people pushed to their very limits, it’s as mean-spirited and tense as contemporary horror flicks come.

45. It Comes At Night

Blame the promotional materials for It Comes At Night’s muted audience response – they promised a blood-soaked, apocalyptic tale with a twist, which the film most certainly is not. Rather, it’s a stripped-down morality tale that tackles that most overwhelming of contemporary horrors: having roommates.

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44. Tigers Are Not Afraid

An astonishing blend of fantasy and real world horrors, Tigers Are Not Afraid has frequently been compared to the work of the film’s producer, Guillermo Del Toro. And while the comparisons make sense, they don’t do enough justice to the film’s writer and director, Issa López, a bold new genre voice who handles her film’s frequent left turns with genuine aplomb.

43. The Cottage

The Cottage, a genre-bending slasher-cum-dark comedy-cum crime thriller, is well overdue its critical reappraisal. Boasting a brilliant comic performance by Reese Shearsmith of League Of Gentlemen fame, not to mention a scene-chewing turn from Andy Serkis, it’s a perfect meld of tones, topped off by one of the most thrillingly nasty finales of recent memory.

42. The Midnight Meat Train

Based on the bonkers Clive Barker short story of the same name, The Midnight Meat Train was unfairly maligned on its initial release. Rather than the brain-dead gore fest it was painted as by critics, this is a startlingly surreal and expertly handled slasher – one that takes a turn towards the outright mad in its final act that will stay with you forever.

41. Killing Ground

From our review: “Killing Ground, the debut film from writer/director Damien Power, is a horrific Rube Goldberg machine, a complicated series of chance encounters and violent clashes that builds up to a searing, blood-soaked finale. In that way, the destination won’t be much of a surprise – given the “perfect young couple head into the outback” setup, it’s not a question of if things are going to go wrong but when – and yet the way Power spins his cogs into motion is sickly thrilling.”

40. High Tension

Sure, Alexandre Aja’s High Tension might end on a bum note – its “twist” is so ludicrous as to genuinely beg belief. But everything before that is so strong – so memorably and expertly handled – that it still more than earns its place on this list.

39. Cherry Tree Lane

The house invasion sub-genre is given new life in this, a real-time thriller that barrels from one nasty set-up to another, as a young couple find themselves menaced by a pack of goons. The ending will suck the air out of you. The film’s director, Paul Andrew Williams, has spent the last few years making a comedy aimed squarely at pensioners, Song For Marion, and TV movies – it’s high time he returned to horror.

38. The Orphanage

Peter Pan shot through with ten gallons of loss, The Orphanage intellectualises its pantheon of childlike spirits without ever making them lose their edge – they remain genuinely horrifying throughout, even as you come to oddly empathise with them. The twist will wreck you.

37. The Mist

Frank Darabont’s The Mist boasts that rare distinction: it somehow manages to top the ending of its source text, a short story by Stephen King. But the film’s invigoratingly cruel – and genuinely unexpected – denouement isn’t all it has going for it; it’s a thrill ride throughout, as a gaggle of mismatched characters find themselves locked in a grocery store during some distinctly lethal goings-on.

36. American Mary

This Soska Sisters-helmed character study feels like something plucked out of another dimension. Yet for all of its unpredictable narrative twists and turns, not to mention its invigoratingly academic approach to its amoral main characters, it’s also genuinely heartfelt: a horror film that mixes melancholia, gore, and humanity into one distinct package.

35. The Witch

From our review: “The Witch is an evil film. It’s a haunted strip of celluloid, the kind of movie the conservative far-right is terrified will have teenagers trying to summon the devil in their garage – a sick, sadistic experience helmed by a director both disgusted by and fascinated with the human race and its frailty. It’s also a masterpiece.”

34. We Are What We Are

A cannibal flick with a difference, Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are is a slow-burner, as much of a character drama as it is an all-out shocker. That’s not, mind you, to deny the impact of where the film ends up: by its finale, this transforms into a genuinely tragic bloodletter, as a Mexican family with – let’s call them unique – tastes run afoul of the law.

33. Detention

Detention isn’t as much a film as it is a bullet train riding straight through your skull. Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on methamphetamines, it zig zags between arch comedy, time-travelling lunacy, and slasher excess. By the end, it’s increasingly difficult to tell who anybody actually is, let alone whether they’re trying to kill or fuck each other – but that’s entirely the point. It’s an information overload aimed squarely for the information overloaded generation. No wonder the pantheon of baby boomer critics hated it.

32. Dark Water

Already having proved himself a master of the genre with Ring, Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water doubles down on the director’s significant talents. Less outright horrific than that earlier masterpiece, Dark Water is a slow-burner, seeping deep down into your bones the longer it goes on.

31. Eden Lake

Like Deliverance on crack, Eden Lake drops two bougie middle-classers in a rural world that they dismiss at their own significant peril. Featuring a stellar, blood-and-guts soaked turn from a pre-fame Michael Fassbender, it’s a harrowing, bleak little watch with a finale as barbed as a fish hook.

30. Prevenge

Prevenge has one of those set-ups so strong you have to wonder why no-one ever thought of it before: a pregnant woman is guided to slaughter by the insidious, sing-song voice of her unborn child. Alice Lowe, the film’s star and director, handles both roles like a true titan, mixing horror and comedy with the skill of a true master.

29. Creep 2

While Creep was a straightforward – if inspired – found footage slasher that spent its brisk run-time building up and then deflating tension, Creep 2 is another beast altogether. A post-modern deconstruction of the horror film, it’s a whip smart two-hander; like some Harold Pinter play on crack. Mark Duplass’s performance, which goes from goofy grins to eerie threats in a split second, is an all-timer.

28. You’re Next

Director/writer team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett excel at taking bare bones premises and spinning them into something unexpected and odd. Case in point? The pair’s magnum opus, You’re Next, a home invasion thriller that unpicks the genre while still treating it with the upmost respect.

27. Upgrade

From our review: “This is one of the most thrilling, fucked-up films of the year, a cult masterpiece constructed out of scrap metal and human viscera. For the length of its running time, Upgrade is as immediate and uncomplicated as a switchblade pressed against the throat.”

26. Suicide Club

Suicide Club, the work of genre maverick Sion Sono, is like something torn out of a fever-dream. Opening with one of the most striking horror setpieces of the century, it has the sweat-soaked magic realism of Junji Ito, and a lopsided sense of tone that belongs solely to Sono.

25. Crimson Peak

A gothic melodrama that calls to mind everything from The Changeling to The Innocents, this Guillermo del Toro-shocker is as heartfelt as it is haunted: the dilapidated, clay-splattered Thomas and Lucille Sharpe are some of the most tragic characters the auteur has ever sketched. Add in a small army of blood red ghosts, a brutal ending, and a dozen shattered taboos, and you have a film that lives in a world entirely of its own.

24. May

Frankenstein for the early internet generation, May is Lucky McKee’s escapist fantasy, a restrained look at loneliness, hurt, and, oddly enough, redemption. There aren’t many directors who would have the bravery to even tackle McKee’s ending, let alone nail it as well as he does. Still waiting for the day Angela Bettiss, who delivers career-best work here, is appreciated as one of the most talented performers of her generation.

23. Curse Of Chucky

Don Mancini has spent the last 30 years doing whatever the fuck he wants with the Chucky franchise, God bless his heart, and never has his creative blank check being more clearly realised than in Curse Of Chucky. A bonkers slasher with more guts and verve than most, it was sadly sent straight to DVD by Universal Pictures, who clearly didn’t understand what a subversive little gem on their hands. Their loss.

22. The Ritual

Even if it didn’t boast one of the most inspired creature designs of the last 40 years, the sheer emotional intelligence of The Ritual, a Netflix-produced chiller, would earn it a place on this list. Rafe Spall is a muted, spiky man who, with a bunch of his mates, goes on a terribly misguided holiday to honour a fallen friend. The ending is truly inspired.

21. The Devil’s Backbone

Another del Toro ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone uses the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War to tell a tale of innocence lost. It might be the man’s most melancholic film, filled as it is with an assortment of weepy-eyed, bleeding ghosts, trapped in a boarding school that time seems to have forgotten. It’s also one of his best.

20. Don’t Breathe

Fede Alvarez’s bona fide masterpiece, Don’t Breathe takes an elegantly simple set-up – a group of teenagers try to outwit a blind man, only to find the tables turned when he traps them in his house and shuts the lights off – and goes bonkers with it. You’ll never look at basters the same way.

19. Imprint

The most impressive episode of the sadly missed Masters Of Horror anthology series, Imprint is a skin-crawling tale from Takashi Miike that sees the Japanese master return to his most beloved of torture devices – needles. Loping from one horror to another, it’s as sudden and unexpected as a knife in the guts. Long live the master.

18. Beyond The Black Rainbow

Panos Cosmatos’ artistic means of dealing with grief – he’s since described it as an inhale, following the death of his parents – Beyond The Black Rainbow is a multi-coloured slow-burner that becomes one of the most effective slasher films of recent memory in its final act.

17. Triangle

A slasher with a difference, Triangle has the guts to reveal its genre-busting twist early, as a young, apparently doting mother, finds herself haunted by a masked killer she soon learns is more familiar than she might initially think. It all builds up to one agonising conclusion, as the world writer-director Christopher Smith has carefully drawn unpicks itself.

16. We Are Still Here

We Are Still Here, Ted Geoghegan’s astonishing debut, starts as a brilliant example of one type of horror flick, before suddenly morphing into a brilliant example of another. Fulci is often considered the reference point, but in actuality, this one has an energy all of Geoghegan’s own. Special credit must also go to genre superstar Elissa Dowling, who fully inhabits her role as a creaky, cracked ghost unwilling to relinquish their humanity.

15. Antichrist

A vicious nightmare of a film, Antichrist is Lars Von Trier’s most accomplished work. The death of a young child sets the whole plot in motion – and that’s not the only taboo Von Trier shatters, as the film rattles towards its disturbingly inevitable conclusion.

14. The Evil Within

The Evil Within doesn’t feel as much like a film as it does a relic from some long forgotten, evil civilisation. Filmed over several years and assembled only after the tragic death of its writer-director, it’s the kind of oddball work of anti-art that most filmmakers couldn’t replicate even if they tried.

13. The Host

Just when ya thought you’d seen every pleasure the creature feature sub-genre has to offer, along came Bong Joon-Ho with The Host, a humanist, anti-colonial and distinctly toothy parable. Setting a dunderhead and his family – both biological and adopted – against a vicious monster born of illegal chemical dumping, The Host ripples with the kind of pleasures only Joon-Ho can provide.

12. The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

From our review: “There is so much to love here; so much colour, and humour, and horror, and stylishly captured sickness. And of course, there’s Jane Doe herself: inspiration for a thousand future Halloween costumes and an icon in the making. She is, after all, the film’s key: a unique, unforgettable horror lurking like a tumour at the centre of one of the most exciting American genre films to be released in years.”

11. Goodnight Mommy

Perhaps the toughest watch on this list, Goodnight Mommy inexorably pivots from slow-burning arthouse project to an all-out torture device, one pumped full of the kind of violence that will make even the most hardened horror fans curl their toes. Not, mind you, that all that horror is there simply for the sake of it. No, this is a smart, terrifying fairy tale – one that uses every single (admittedly awful) bout of suffering in the service of its relentless finale.

10. Wolf Creek 2

Australia’s (self-appointed) cultural highbrow types got Wolf Creek 2 totally wrong, misreading it as a sadistic overabundance of slasher tropes. They convinced themselves – and, apparently, anyone they could get to listen – that director Greg McLean enjoyed spilling blood as much as his Akubra-hat sporting antagonist Mick Taylor. How wrong they were. Wolf Creek 2 isn’t the gruelling genre outing it was painted as being: it’s a much smarter film than that, full of razor-sharp satire, and helmed with the skill of a true horror visionary.

9. Kill List

Like horror classic The Wicker Man before it, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List resists easy interpretation. It starts simply enough, as a hitman finds himself tasked with working his way through the titular list, building up a small mountain of bodies along the way. But before long, the film is accumulating runes, paedophiles, and strange, vicious rituals, all designed to serve some deliberately murky cause. What you can glean is enough to warp your mind.

8. Pulse

Pulse is terrifying. That’s not up for debate. What is, however, is the question of what makes it so. Virtually bloodless, strange and weaving, it doesn’t work in the way other chillers do. It snakes its way inside you, lying hard and cold in your gut, and it doesn’t budge. Even when you can’t process what exactly you’re terrified of, you’re still terrified. It is perhaps the only film on this list that I would not recommend watching alone.

7. Raw

From our review: “Raw all leads up to a taboo-shattering conclusion, a punchline with a stench so bad it will make the unprepared gag. But even in its brutal finale, the film shows off its renegade sense of humour, and Ducournau’s empathy for her lead stops Raw from becoming a mere exercise in cruelty or bad taste.”

6. Trick ‘r Treat

Most anthology films end up being considerably less than the sum of their parts – on the whole they’re lopsided affairs, uneven and messy portmanteaus that leave very little in their wake. But Trick ‘r Treat isn’t like most anthology horror films. The strongest entry in the sub-genre since Creepshow, it’s a viciously funny grab bag of shocks, blood splurts, and sleights of hand, as the lives of a gaggle of murderers, beasties, and victims intersect one Halloween night.

5. Spring

To say much of Spring’s plot is to ruin what makes it so special – indeed, given its carefully and intelligently drawn first act, even including it on this list should be considered a spoiler of some sort. Safe to say, director duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead pull off a tight-rope trick that most would consider utterly impossible, managing to craft a phenomenal body horror flick that owes equal debts to H.P. Lovecraft and a slew of meet-cute dramas. The real genius is they somehow manage to water down neither – the love story is affectionately and authentically told, and the moments of garish violence are dropped with real aplomb.

4. The Woman

Lucky McKee’s bona fide masterpiece, The Woman is an odd, blood-soaked character study of sorts, as a seemingly normal family find and “tame” the titular barbarian. But it’s also so much more than that, touching on everything from feminist parable to a distinctly Lynchian deconstruction of all the dirty secrets that lie beneath suburbia. Oh, and by the way: Pollyanna McIntosh for President.

3. Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room spends its first act setting up the apparatus for one of the most brutal conclusions in recent horror film history, before stepping back and letting the pieces brutally put themselves together. It all has the tragic, inexorable pull of a Shakespearean revenge drama, or a bad dream: no matter how much its doomed heroes try, it seems they cannot outwit the resourceful neo-Nazis standing behind a locked door, holding all of the cards.

2. Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me To Hell is a hundred different things to a hundred different people. Some have called it a revisionist, nostalgic splatter-flick; an amusingly classic horror film that only the director of The Evil Dead could have made. Others still view it through the lens of social satire, marvelling at the way it inserts house foreclosures into an otherworldly tale of ancient curses. But whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is this: it is a horror masterpiece, from one of the very greatest filmmakers of all time – horror or not. Come back to us horror fans, Sam. We miss you.

1. Martyrs

Beginning as a supernatural thriller, moving through revenge drama, and ending up, inexplicably, prodding at the very origins of the universe and life after death itself, Martyrs is the horror equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that never lets good taste get in the way of its ambitions.

It is also, admittedly, a tough watch – long sections of its third act feel as gruelling for its audience as they do for the film’s doomed heroine – but the violence isn’t some distraction from the plot; it is the plot. This is a film obsessed with the legacy of hurt; with the strange ways that it can condemn and absolve. In its extremity, and intelligence, and terrible, tragic power, it is one of the most striking and original documents of the 21st century.

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