Because there have been several sites and podcasts that have looked at their favorite (and/or best) of the new century of horror, I thought I would add my own list into the milieu. Here are my 15-11 choices for the best horror films to come out since 2000.
15. Martyrs (2008), dir. by Pascal Laugier
Since I wrote about Martyrs earlier this year, it had to make an appearance on this list somewhere. Not only that, but I wanted a solid representative film from the French New Wave of horror and, in my opinion, Martyrs is easily the best film of the ones I have seen. This film breeds speculation from its narrative and its intense, but intrinsically profound, use of violence and torture within is visual process. It is not terribly often when I see a film and immediately have a deeper take on it without weeks or months of thinking about it, but this film achieved it and I still think it’s one of the standout pieces of the site so far.
What makes this film worthy of the top 15 of the new century is not only the content and meaning, but how Pascal Laugier is able to heighten that meaning with visuals that speak to the grandiosity of the plot, but also speak to the down-to-earth matters of how women are viewed and how their bodies are objectified and broken by those in power, largely male. The film has a strong feminist tension within its borders, but it refuses to be just that. There are theological streams, psychological streams, themes that deal with the complexities of sex and gender, among others. Laugier packs a lot of meaning within the film and yet doesn’t give the viewers an easy answer at the end, which, in this case, works in its favor.
14. Janghwa, Hongryeon [aka A Tale of Two Sisters] (2003), dir. by Jee-woon Kim
Asian horror is one of my weaknesses when it comes to horror cinema, however I have seen enough of them to appreciate what they bring to the table and how their creativity ends up becoming the latest cliché in the following years of American horror—evil black-haired little girls, pale, black-eyed ghosts, etc. However, of all of the films I have seen the only one that has stuck with me was this Korean horror film, Janghwa, Hongryeon. The film is utterly disorienting as it flicks back and forth between the past and present and does so often without a tell. The language barrier and the unreliability of the narrator’s perspective help to call into question what is actually happening in the story. Re-watching it the other day created the same feelings of confusion for me that the first viewing had, so it avoids being a one trick pony.
Plot-wise, the film is able to explore the deep wells of mixed-family dynamics, relational betrayal, grief and trauma and how it all can pull a family down into a mire of paranoia, blame and potentially mental illness. There really are no perfectly likable characters in this film, but they are all so well characterized that they never quite become demonized and therefore easy to dismiss and dispatch within the scope of the film. All in all, the film’s most disturbing elements only end up exasperating the seething family drama that undergirds the supernatural elements. It’s a memorable film and one that I believe doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves within 21st century horror.
13. What We Do in the Shadows (2015), dir. by Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi
The fusion of horror and comedy is a type of alchemy that, more often than not, fails to create any kind of real chemistry or magic. In a perfect world, a horror comedy should attempt to deliver scares and chuckles in a formal cinematic dance. The balance of comedy and horror is not as important, but both have to be present and the film has to make both aspects cohesive within its runtime. Needless to say, very few films have achieved it, but leave it to Jermaine Clement from “Flight of the Conchords” along with Taika Waititi—who looks to be attached to the next Thor film—to deliver a rare and delightful concoction.
The film utilizes the mockumentary/reality TV conceit with a deft hand and very little excess. The focus is on four vampires—who each very cleverly represent nearly every vampire in cinematic history—who live in the same flat and struggle with living a normal life that includes paying bills, dividing up chores and all of the other interpersonal dynamics involved in having roommates. The narrative embodies something that most everyone has dealt with at some point in their lives except in this case they are not human, but instead something straight out of a horror film. There are moments that truly work as well shot horror scenes, but they always have a smirk and awkwardness that runs beneath every scene. This is a special little film that is unfortunately little seen.
12. Insidious (2010), dir. by James Wan
I will just admit it from the start; I would consider myself a James Wan fan when it comes to how he directs horror. I have heard some say Wan is a one trick pony, others have said that he doesn’t really have a visual style of his own, but I would strongly argue that he is maybe one of the most important and capable horror directors of recent years. The man can create horror that in less capable hands would have gone off the rails very quickly and then turns around and does a straightforward horror film that has no frills or trick endings, but just a solidly made example of a classic style horror film—the central film in mind, here, is The Conjuring. Insidious, however, was the first film of his where I really took notice of who he was. I had seen Saw years before, and really liked it, but I was not conscious of who directed it.
Insidious—with its almost vaudevillian back half—shows a lot of charisma, spunk, creativity and guts. When I first saw the film, there were just as many haters as there were people who really appreciated it, like me. If this film had been directed by any number of lesser directors, they would not have been able to reconcile the by-the-numbers first half with the insane free-for-all that was the last half. But Wan, with the help of a terrific cast and effective writing by Leigh Whannell, was able to make the transition seamlessly and, simultaneously, showed himself to be a creative risk taker, which, if done well, will always get my approval.
11. The Strangers (2008), dir. by Bryan Bertino
I am potentially the worst kind of horror fan. I don’t collect horror Blu-Rays/DVDs of all of the films I love or mildly liked. I don’t do this for any kind of film because of my very minimalist sensibilities. However, the films I do buy are always on Blu-Ray and are always the films that I know I will watch several times. The Strangers is one of a handful of horror flicks that I own. I watch it often and find myself more engrossed with Bertino’s direction each time. There are no ghosts, creatures, vampires, etc. in this film, only humans doing terrible things to humans. The film edged out the anarchistic nihilism of The Dark Knight’s Joker by nearly two months. Still to this day, the line, “Because you were home,” rattles through my brain as perhaps one of the most frightening justifications for what happens in a film that I can recall.
As I wrote about earlier in the year, the reason why this film stands out to me amongst the rest of its ilk is its very grounded sense of place, movement and setting. Most of the film does not have violence, just the intent and threat of violence until the very end when that threat is let loose on our protagonists. This film plays into the same vein and fears of Haneke’s two Funny Games adaptations, but revels not in the dialogue of psychological torture but creating a space where the audience, the characters and psychological horror can all be housed. Funny Games detaches itself from the viewers; The Strangers brings the viewers into the realm of the terror. This film would be one of my most watched horror flicks of the new century, but I think there are still 10 other films that beat it out on the whole.
Come back next Monday for the continuation of the list!