Ten years ago this weekend, I saw The Blair Witch Project. I went in, basically knowing what to expect from the movie’s extensive marketing and fully realizing how the movie must end, but I still came out unwilling to walk within spitting distance of a tree for a week. To this day, I count the movie as the best horror movie I’ve ever seen, partly due to nostalgia and partly due to the movie’s highly effective psychological wind-up.
Though the “golden age” of horror films probably spanned the second half of the seventies and the early eighties, this past decade hasn’t been too shabby. New technology has allowed directors to push the envelope in movie visuals, while Generation X’s love of fantasy has infused the genre with a new aspect of magical realism that has re-invigorated the genre.
The following is a list of what I have judged to be the best horror films of the last ten years. Each inspires authentic fear with a strongly build story rather than a series of cheap tricks or fountains of blood.
10. The Ring (2002)
Though it only ranks the bottom of the list for its lack of re-watchability, the American remake of Ringu gets a nod for its exceptionally creepy atmosphere and its open-ended story. There isn’t any one “jump out of your skin” moment, but it is hands-down the most effect use of the “evil child returns from the dead” story device ever.
9. Frailty (2002)
A riveting psychological study of religious fanaticism wrapped up in a serial killing spree. The great thing about this movie is that, after you finish watching it, you realize that you weren’t necessarily scared that another person is going to get killed as you are that the kid who are the main characters are going to get caught. It sets up an interesting new twist on the serial killer sub-genre.
8. Session 9 (2001)
This atmospheric psychological thriller is a return to basics for the genre. Relying on a great set and a tormented character where other movies rely on special effects, it still does as great a job of instilling fear into audiences and keeping them guessing.
7. The Ruins (2008)
Though psychological horror movies beat out slasher flicks every time as far as I’m concerned, every now and again, a slasher crops up that makes for great thought-free entertainment. Even the movie’s straight-forward, often predictable plotline and over-elaborate effects can’t temper the movie’s fast-paced thrills and horrific ending.
6. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Probably the most artistic movie on this list, it may also be the most intelligent. The Devil’s Backbone is a hypnotically spooky ghost story.
5. The Orphanage (2007)
Everything about this movie screams cliche, from the haunted house to the creepy orphan, but minute for minute, the movie delivers more goosebumps than any other movie of the last decade that hasn’t involved blood spatted across walls.
4. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
As if its weren’t enough that this movie brought the zombie genre back to popularity, it also, in my opinion, ought to be credited with making zombie movies frightening again. The deck was stacked against director Zack Snyder from the start. Nobody thought that the cult classic Dawn of the Dead needed remaking. But Snyder made all of the tired old zombie tricks new again, and the movie became one of my favorites.
3. The Descent (2005)
What can I say about The Descent? It’s easily one of the most claustrophobic movies ever made, which is, in and of itself, an accomplishment. It also has a way of making you realize just how dark the room is while you’re watching it at home. There’s no other movie that has ever made me quite so grateful for the light switch as this one.
2. The Strangers (2008)
Here’s where the critics and I part ways, because, despite poor critical reactions, The Strangers is one of my favorite horror movies. It’s the movie I ever saw in theaters that actually made people in the theater with me scream in shock. Despite the fact that audience know how the movie’s going to end right from the start, the caged sensation of its set and it’s slowly built suspense make it impossible not be scared spitless through the rest of the movie… or to sleep without triple checking that your doors are locked the night after first seeing it.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
I choose this movie because because it’s my personal all-time favorite horror movie, not because it’s the most frightening horror movie ever made or even the most frightening movie of the last decade. It was the first real horror movie I saw in theaters and the last movie I saw in the summer of ’99, before starting college. However, I think even if it weren’t for its nostalgic value, The Blair Witch could stand on its own merits. Apart from the fact that the movie starts with a bunch of kids getting lost in the woods, the movie is fairly fresh, cliche free ho
Of course, no one can watch every movie out there. So, if I’ve missed something in my list, or you’re just of another opinion, feel free to weigh in with a comment below.
What didn’t make the list and why:
Audition (1999) – While this movie would easily make the list of the top ten most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, the sheer boredom of its first hour disqualify it for any list of “best” films.
High Tension (2003) – This is a frightening slasher flick that looses out because of its bad ending. In my opinion, the ending of a horror film, more than that of any other genre, has to stick with you on your way out of the theater. It has to settle in your gut for you really get your money’s worth. If your head is doing the thinking when you get home rather a churning in your gut or a tingle at the nape of your neck, the movie failed.
The Others (2001) and The Sixth Sense (1999) – I exclude these from the list because they fall quite cleanly under the heading of “suspense” rather than “horror,” and I think that the distinction is important. While all good horror films contain their fair share of suspense, suspense movies don’t necessarily contain the horror elements that make a movie frightening even after the repeated viewings.
Saw (2004) – I loved it. It reminded me of my all-time favorite mystery novel, Then there were None. Still, at the end of the film, I wasn’t so much scared as amazed by the twist ending.