From traditional genre treats like “The Babadook” to unclassifiable nightmares like “Mulholland Drive,” film critics pick their favorites.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best horror film of the 21st century?
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelancer for Rolling Stone, The Verge, Vulture
Everyone knows that the greatest Halloween film of all time is the 1962 nudie-cutie “House on Bare Mountain,” and my slavish devotion to giallo means that personal favorite horror movie of the new century is “Berberian Sound Studio”, but those are both answers to questions nobody asked. The finest horror film of the new millennium is “Cabin in the Woods”, both a dissertation on the history of the American scary movie and a chilling piece of work in its own right. With a fiendishly clever narrative hook, director/writer Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon reclaim the many narrative cliches endemic to the slasher genre — teens acting too stupid to live, ominous gas station attendants, basements hiding untold nightmares — and infuse them with new meaning. Ever since Bava first twitched the death nerve, conspicuous artifice has been par for the course in killer-thrillers, but “Cabin in the Woods” turns the hokeyness inside out and makes it all terrifying again.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
In college, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” gave me a nightmare that may have been my one and only panic attack to date. Though I love classic horror movies, the genre has pushed itself beyond my tolerance for gore—it so often offers physical cruelty that I find too disturbing to see (I can’t bear to watch the eye-slitting in “Un Chien Andalou,” either) that, as a viewer, I usually avoid the genre and, as a critic, tend to defer to colleagues on the subject. So the sampling from which I’ll judge the best of the century is small, yet the film that stands out from it would rank high on a list of best films of the century overall: Martin Scorsese’s ”Shutter Island.” It’s self-evidently a horror film, drawing amply on the canon of horror classics and exhuming its tropes to extrude from them the historical horrors of their times and of his own youth. It’s as much a work of cinematic psychoanalysis as of self-examination; its subject is his own incurable affliction with the horrors that were delivered to him in the form of chilling artistic delights, the recurring nightmares of waking life that diffuse their toxic essence in the gleeful telling. Its feedback loop of symbolic and physical monstrosities is, without gore or gross-outs, a truly terrifying idea.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics / Film School Rejects
There have actually been a few great nonfiction horror films this century, the latest being Morgan Spurlock’s “Rats.” But Rodney Ascher’s “The Nightmare” is the one that most scared the crap out of me and had me up at night paranoid that I might end up with sleep paralysis. It’s the best of that subgenre that I of course had to address (and it should be noted that plenty of other docs in the past 16 years have been plenty terrifying, too, but not classifiable as horror). However, the best horror film of any kind released in the 21st century is far and away Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.” It is scary, gory, hilarious, perfectly scripted and brilliantly directed. I admit my preference for horror is stuff that’s both funny and a deconstruction of sorts, as Shaun is, though I believe objectively there’s nothing compared to it.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
The hardest part about answering this question is in narrowing down the definition of a “horror film.” I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie that’s rattled me more deeply than “United 93,” or made me fear for the future of this world more intensely than “An Inconvenient Truth,” but neither of those films seem to fit the parameters of what we talk about when we talk about horror (hell, “An Inconvenient Truth” barely fits the parameters of what we talk about when we talk about movies). Ultimately, the genre is a lot like pornography: We know it when we see it. By that metric, the film that comes to my mind first and most forcefully is Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” which leverages two unforgettable performances — and dozens of traditional horror tropes — into one of the most harrowingly accurate movies ever made about living with grief and the guilt that comes with it.
Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire
Look no further than the comments section (and, hey, sorry about asking you to look at a comments section) of any online list of “best horror films” and tremble in fear at what you find there. All modes of entertainment and their supposed value is, of course, always subjective, but few genres stir up as much ire and interest than horror. What is horror? What is scary? How flexible is the genre? Do you like scary movies? Yet my horror boundaries have always been elastic. In short, you don’t need a creepy guy with a knife and a terrified coed running upstairs when she should be running downstairs, dammit, to fall under the banner of “HORROR!” for me.
Which is probably why I so love Drew Goddard’s inventive “Cabin in the Woods,” which happily marries a classic haunted house tale with some snappy commentary on the nature of not just horror, but the horror movie itself and then wraps the whole thing up with a truly terrifying world-ending event. It’s scary and funny and it’s got one of the most hilarious and horrifying scenes in genre history — that damn elevator, descending through levels of hell and monster and lore, seemingly without need — and it knows it.
(Runner-ups: “The Descent,” “The Strangers,” “Mulholland Drive,” and a host of others. Hey, “The Host”!)
Grady Hendrix (@Grady_Hendrix), Author Of “HorrorStör“
“Dumplings,” Fruit Chan’s flick about the price an aging television star will pay to stay young is hands down the best horror film of the 21st Century. Starting as a short in the anthology film “Three… Extremes,” Chan expanded it into a feature about Aunt Mei (Bai Ling), a Mainland Chinese chef whose dumplings made of fetuses are exactly what the 1% needs to stay dewy. Starting at a slow burn it’s not long before things erupt into miscarriages and big babies getting the meat cleaver, while cinematography by Chris Doyle keeps it classy, and a coda (cut from US versions by Lionsgate) delivers a sudden dose of heartbreak before the credits roll.
Jordan Hoffman (@jhoffman), The Guardian
Is “Enter the Void” a horror film? It sure as hell has jump-scares (a truck crashes into the screen when you don’t expect it) and supernatural themes (like a spirit floating over a city watching its loved ones.) So I guess that’s my horror/not-horror pick. In a more traditional vein, I really enjoyed “Drag Me To Hell.”
The most rewarding horror film has gotta be this Halloween-related short. Only watch this with the lights on.
Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire
“The Loved Ones”: Australian writer-director Sean Byrne’s deliriously frightening tale of a teen heartthrob (Xavier Samuel) kidnapped and tortured by the psychotic outcast (Robin McLeavy) he won’t take to the prom suggests “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remade by John Hughes. It’s a terrifying masterpiece that turns high school drama into a literal dead zone. There’s a lot of deranged twists here — brain-drilling experiments involving hot water, quasi-zombies locked up in a shadowy basement — but also serious payoff. Short of “It Follows,” it’s the scariest coming of age movie ever; unlike “It Follows,” Bryne catapults his premise beyond the realm of allegory to deliver a visceral thrill factory.
Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film School Rejects, Film Journal International
The last decade and a half surely spoiled the fans of the genre with some terrific horror films. From “The Orphanage” to “The Conjuring” and “The Babadook”, I considered several different titles that scarred me for life. But the best, or rather, my favorite horror film released after January 2001 is “Mulholland Drive.” Funny, because as scared and troubled as I was after the first time I saw it during its theatrical run (I mean, that diner scene alone- come on), I never quite thought of it as horror…until Bilge Ebiri David Edelstein made a list of great horror films since “The Shining” and placed it at the top spot, just a few years ago. That made me reconsider and watch the film with a different set of eyes. Well, there are correct. I revisited it again yesterday, and honestly, had trouble sleeping afterwards. The film’s uncanny sense of dread, hopelessness and mystery continuously swells and teases one’s deepest fears brutally.
Even in the early moments when Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles with a wide-eyed smile and big dreams, Lynch injects discomfort into our impression of her generously through her exaggerated manners and way of speech. And that discomfort never leaves “Mulholland Drive”; it only grows, changes shape and adds up to an immensely frightening, otherworldly Hollywood tale.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Pajiba/Nerdist
It’s “The Babadook.” It’s a horror film so good that it had longtime fans mad for the genre trembling at the ad campaign (Ba-ba-dook-dook-DOOK!) It was such a great film that it had those who hate horror cheering it all the same, while simultaneously trying to rob it of its genre cred. How dare a horror movie be this moving! This metaphorically rich! This fantastically frightening and heartfelt all at once!
Essie Davis and her pint-sized co-star Noah Wiseman offered performances that were in turns chilling and vulnerable. And writer/director Jennifer Kent created a story that was riveting and repellent, terrifying and tender, horrific and humane. With her first film, she achieved that for which so many filmmakers–regardless of genre–strive. She made an original world that felt so rich and real, it sucked us in and wouldn’t let go, leaving us shaking at ever top-hatted silhouette and every bump in the night. Delivering deliciously devilish visuals, powerful portrayals, and a goosebump pulling sound design, she created a new gold standard by which the rest of horror is now being held.
Tasha Robinson (@tasharobinson), The Verge
I maybe liked “Cabin In The Woods” more for unexpected humor, and “The Ring” more for sheer pants-wetting shock value, but for overall craft, performances, and ability to make a room full of people all jump and gasp at the same time, my horror dollar is on J.A. Bayona’s 2007 directorial debut “The Orphanage.” It’s one of those intricately-built films that starts off telling one story, then slowly evolves into another one bit by bit, with each new gradual reveal changing the film’s texture and tone. There are jump scares, but they feel more like punctuation at the end of elaborate, poetic sentences than like cheap shots at the audience. By the end of the film, I was mind-numbingly frightened of a simple children’s game, but the slow build of tension was so impressive that I admired the movie even when I wanted to put my hands over my eyes. This is a film that kept surprising me pleasantly right up to the final shot, but it’s scary in a deep, resonant way too.
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
We live in the scariest of times, so I wouldn’t be surprised if these horror picks end up in the all-time canon. Recent years have given us such stellar nightmares as “The Babadook,” “Mulholland Drive,” “The Conjuring,” and “Final Destination 3” (if you’re laughing at that last one, you’re not a hardcore fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the new Sigourney Weaver). But I must go with “28 Days Later,” for being innovative, concise (it’s all of Romero’s first trilogy in a single movie) and timely. There’s Van Gogh-level poetry in Anthony Dod Mantle’s muddy DV photography, and the movie improves on the speediness of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting”: Choose life indeed. Now run.
Q: What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?
A: “The Handmaiden” and “Moonlight” (tie)
Get the latest Box Office news! Sign up for our Box Office newsletter here.