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FYI: My paid movie reviewing career is now officially old enough to vote. I can promise it’s not going third party… Over all these years, the question I have been asked most as a film critic is “This is more of a comment than a question: You suck.” The second is honestly “What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?”
It’s a boring answer. Only The Exorcist has ever actually scared me, mostly because my friend Tony and I watched it back when spelling “boobs” on a calculator was the height of hilarity. I was like 10 or 11, and the devil was not a lie. My abject, unholy terror after watching that particular movie taught me to separate all film from reality. Sure, jump scares still make me whizz a thimble of fear juice but none of it makes me truly “afraid.”
Although I’ve always appreciated the horror genre’s penchant for innovation, a legitimate passion has developed in the last few years thanks to some beloved guidance and partnership. Now, I feel like I’m finally ready to make a real, honest-to-Beelzebub “best of” list. In an effort to close the belching hellmouth that is 2020, I thought a ritual sacrifice of the top 20 horror movies of the last 20 years was just what the Necronomicon ordered.
Oh, and this is no-messing-around: no horror comedy (sorry Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland), no arthouse indie horror “homage” (sorry A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night), and no cartoon horror (sorry Paranorman). Alright, caveats over, let’s kick this pumpkinhead.
20 – The Descent
Director Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic glimpse into cave dwelling hell is a violent bit of spelunking, as six women try to survive some CHUDs. Fun fact: the US and UK got different endings, although both were nearly exactly similar in tone, purpose, and depressing inferences, much like the nations’ current leaders.
19 – Dawn of the Dead
Director Zack Snyder’s fanboy army can take out all the billboards they want to, his best film is still going to be this remake of the Romero classic. Not only does this mall-centric apocalypse have an absolutely perfect opening sequence, it has a woman giving birth to Mekhi Phifer’s zombie baby. This is art. Everything else in life is just noise.
18 – Cloverfield
For my mental bitcoins, no found footage film paid off better than this “alien who hates proto-hipsters” bit of jittery mayhem. With sewer xeno-cockroaches and TJ Miller before he was revealed to be the biggest monster involved, the film is still probably the best United Statesian Godzilla riff.
17 – Drag Me to Hell
Writer/director Sam Raimi’s giddy, “good for a teen’s first horror watching” flick is about a young loan officer who gets cursed after she is forced to kick a witch out of her home. This should serve as a stark warning for all those about to unpause COVID-era evictions… Whether or not Raimi intended the eating disorder metaphor that has been much discussed, it works, and the gnarly PG-13 ride is gloriously playful, like a spider tickling a fly.
16 – Prometheus and Alien: Covenant
I don’t typically “cheat” on these lists, but there’s no way to justify putting one of these in this slot without the other. Unfairly maligned for simplistic, superficial reasons, these are movies about the terror that is the origin of humanity and the nightmares we are bound to unleash upon the universe. If most creation stories are lullabies, this is a baby that screams back in binary code and Latin.
15 – The Void
This one has everything you love: Cosmic horror that is not directly linked to the racist HP Lovecraft, weird hooded cult members, Cronenberg-esque body horror done with practical effects, and a traumatizing synth/ambient noise score. If you open one gateway to hell this October, make it The Void!
14 – Under the Shadow
Set in Tehran in the 1980s, writer/director Babak Anvari’s djinn-based fear fable is filled with explicit symbolism and some legitimately upsetting chills. After a missile strike, a mother and daughter struggle against manmade terror and an evil genie that’s almost as scary as Will Smith in the (gasp) live-action Aladdin.
13 – Pontypool
If you feel like you want more upsetting pandemic-based content in your life, get yourself to Pontypool. A radio host, which is what we used to call podcasters, is holed up at his station, riding out the potential end of the world. Some folks absolutely detested the third act, but if we have learned anything in the last year, it’s that many people are wrong about a lot of things.
12 – Mandy
I almost didn’t include this one, as it is more “revenge fantasy by way of a Heavy Metal cartoon” than horror. But there are motorcycle-riding demons, a deranged cult led by a former Law & Order actor, a character credited as “Fuck Pig,” and Nicholas Cage at an 11. If that doesn’t tingle your danger noodle, what even is scary to you?
11 – Us
Writer/director Jordan Peele’s ascent to entertainment mogul is wholly justified by his sophomore effort. Us features a lead performance that should have won Lupita Nyong’o her second Oscar and has a central thesis about our cruelty towards people we are willing to ignore. That feels particularly timely during a year in which some folks have explicitly argued that we should let whole segments of our population simply die off without protection. Real life has always gotta one-up fiction, you know? (Ambien)
10 – Suspiria
We’re here, in the top sphere of fear. I fully expected that director Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s gory dance-heavy madness was going to trip my trigger, what with its copious use of Tilda Swinton. What I did not expect was to be glued to its marriage of the exquisitely beautiful and palpably grotesque, to its Cold War history lessons, to its aggressive feminism (albeit coming from two dudes writing/directing). From its Thom Yorke score to its abundant ballet, it should have come across as pretentious buffoonery. Instead, it felt like a blissful blend of goofy and profound. It’s goofound. Now you go find it.
9 – I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Writer/director Oz Perkins offers up just the prettiest, lyrical haunted house film you ever did see. It helps that Ruth Wilson is involved, which is literally always the case. Like Suspiria, the meta-nature of a movie about a prolific horror writer really should have been grating. Instead, this gentle and sly ghost story doesn’t jump out and say “boo” so much as it haunts you with tone, its feel lingering in your psychic residue. And that shit does not wash out.
8 – She Dies Tomorrow
The next time I revisit this list, writer/director Amy Seimetz’s film may well have convinced a few flicks above it their death was imminent. She Dies Tomorrow is about the absolute most terrifying thing in the entire world: understanding the inevitability of mortality. This hallucinatory, spellbinding film is upsetting in a way that won’t have you leaving the lights on so much as finding out if your insurance covers telepsychiatry. Doesn’t that sound fun?
7 – The Host
This Bong Joon-Ho guy may just be pretty good, y’all. The movie that put him on many a radar is this bonkers flick that is filled with his trademark tonal shifts, the performers he loves, recurrent themes about family, and mutated fish monsters. Parasite may have the scarier monster, capitalism, but The Host has 100% more tentacles.
6 – Hereditary
I deserve Toni Collette screaming in my face for not putting this in my top 5. Writer/director Ari Aster’s first exploration of grief and trauma hit the goofound absolutely perfectly. At the film’s legitimately insane climax, half the audience was gasping while the other half openly laughed. Perfection. Horror is, at its core, playing footsie with the darkly absurd. The sincerity of Collete’s performance, including the best reactions to discovering the supernatural is real, helps ground the film even as it continues to ascend into the mountains of madness.
5 – Let the Right One In
This quiet Swedish unfairy tale is the best vampire movie ever made, and you can tell Robert Pattinson I said that. In a way that most other blood-sucking cinema doesn’t, it legitimately conveys the desperation and depth of depression associated with unholy, endless life. The boundaries of good and evil bleed together, and we’re the ones who lap it up. That’s right: Just watching this makes you a Dracula. A Swedish Dracula at that, which means you’re just culinary school away from being a Swedish Dracula Chef!
4 – 28 Days Later
The best zombie movie ever made did the whole “the real monsters are regular human beings” thing better than anything outside of our political system. The very concept of the fast-moving undead is brilliantly unfair and was absolutely revolutionary. The shadow cast by this one has kept The Walking Dead going for, I want to say, 34 seasons? Any list like this one without 28 Days Later was probably written by an actual reanimated corpse trying to get you to let your guard down.
3 – The Babadook
We’re now at the point where any of these films could be number one. Writer/director Jennifer Kent introduced a delightfully meme-able, behatted weirdo that serves as a physical embodiment of the unique grief and trauma that stalks each of us. It’s as much about the burden of motherhood as it is about, you know, a guy with knife hands and a demonic pop-up book. No spoilers, but the final lesson of The Babadook has stayed with me longer than almost any other movie moral, save for “maybe don’t shoot Bambi’s mom.”
2 – Get Out
Jordan Peele’s debut changed the genre forever, legitimized horror’s already existing artistic merit in the eyes of many, elevated Black voices, exposed racism as the most terrifying force at play in the world, and made stirring a cup of tea the most upsetting sound this side of a Ben Shapiro “WAP” remix. Far smarter people than me have said far smarter things about this one, so let’s go with this: Get Out is just about as good as it gets. Out…
1 – Midsommar
Nearly 20 years ago, if you had told me a pagan horror movie about a toxic relationship would be one of the best movies I’d ever see, I probably would have gone into food reviewing. Instead, I’m eating up what Ari Aster is serving: a meticulous exploration of corrupt love, mental health, and Florence Pugh absolutely dominating the entire concept of acting. Midsommar resonates in a way that only the best cinema does, making you flinch as often from brain-splattering gore as from disingenuous professions of support in a romantic partnership. Whatever I thought horror was or could be when I started this gig, Midsommar proved to me it could be so much more.