Horror, more than any other genre, operates as a mirror of our anxieties—a warped reflection of everything that haunts on either the micro or macro level. It’s been around since the beginning of film and will live on long past our deaths because there’s always something new to be afraid of. From environmental instability to terrorism to Y2K to our own neighbors, the list goes on and on. Every fear sprouts a new sub-genre, with each decade being famous for a specific sub-genre but none were as bloody as the 2000s. The early aughts were an uncertain time, filled with government mistrust, paranoia, and fear and the horror films reflected that. It was a scary time to be alive but a perfect time to be a horror fan. Out of that stew was born: torture porn, New French Extremity, the hardcore stuff coming out Korea and Japan, and low budget Indies that were either found footage films or cheap hack ‘n slash trash. Love it or hate it, the new wave of horror was bloodier and more gruesome than anything that had come before. The ’00s will never be held in the same esteem as the classier or more famous decades of horror cinema but there’s no denying it added a bunch of content for gorehounds and splatter fiends to enjoy. Consider this list a pool ring that’ll help you wade through this decade’s goriest films.
This is The 50 Greatest Horror Films of The 2000s.
50. The Ruins (2008)
I believe that anything if properly written, can be scary. You give Stephen King a deadline, enough bills, and the proper amount of cocaine and he can turn any object into a nightmare inducing scenario. So when he says the Scott Smith novel this film is based on — which is about killer vines — is terrifying, you pay attention. When a bunch of stupid American tourists decides to explore a Mexican ruin, they find themselves smack dab in the middle of a sacrificial area full of murderous foliage.
These plants aren’t The Little Shop of Horrors type that crack wise before they gobble you up. They’re far more insidious than that. They’ll rip a hole into your flesh, snake their way through your innards, and pop out the other side, with your body completely drained of blood. And if they can’t find a way into your body, they’ll trick you into walking into one of their traps by stimulating the voice of one of your dead friends. The book, as well as the movie, does for Mexican vacations and plants, what Jaws did for sharks and the ocean.
49. Shutter (2004)
Capturing ghosts with a polaroid camera, is a novel, albeit slightly unoriginal premise (the video game series Fatal Frame had already done it three years earlier) but Shutter still manages to bring new scares to a familiar concept. Although originating from Thailand and not Japan, Shutter is still among the first wave of Asian horror films that surged in the early 00s, and because of this, it’s one of the titles most associated with the “J-Horror” sub-genre. And since it’s one of the progenitors, it can be forgiven for being littered with clichés.
If you’re at all familiar with “J-Horror”, you know that they all involve an undead pale girl with the stringy black hair who uses technology to get revenge on something or someone and Shutter is no different. It replaces a TV with the sink of a photo developing room and a haunted VHS tape with a spooky picture. Originality is not this film’s strong point. What it is good at, however, is creating spine-tingling imagery and effective jump scares. In addition to that, there’s a twisted final reveal that elevates the film past its tropes to deliver a surprisingly disturbing tale of comeuppance and consequences you won’t soon forget.
48. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Because so little is known about the actor that played the lead in Nosferatu, there’s a popular theory that maybe, just maybe, he actually was a vampire. E. Elias Merhige’s film takes that urban legend and runs with it to amazing results. Dafoe has never been better as the temperamental vampire that clashes frequently with the director, Murnau (wonderfully played by Malkovich) over his inability to stop himself from eating the cast and crew. He gives an outstanding monologue about why he thought the book Dracula was sad and when asked why he ate a particular crew member instead of the script girl, he flippantly responded, “the script girl? I’ll eat her later.” More than just a horror film, Shadow of the Vampire is an accurate depiction of filmmaking, in that it shows just how difficult it is to make a damn movie. Especially when the lead won’t stop eating everybody.
47. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo Del Toro just knows how to tell quality horror stories. They each feel like dark horror fairy tales that are designed to scare young children and adults alike. For the most part, he is able to tell his stories with plenty of dread but also with heart the keeps you fully engaged throughout. The Devil’s Backbone was his first movie that I ever watched, and he just hooked me as a director that I would want to watch whatever he did next.
The Devil’s Backbone is a multilayered ghost story about revenge set in the late 1930’s Spain. Carlos arrives at an orphanage that harbors some dark secrets as he begins having visions of a mysterious apparition and hearing unsettling stories about an orphan who went missing the day a defused bomb appeared in the orphanage’s courtyard. Del Toro is able to create a creepy atmosphere with frightening images that rattle around your mind long after the movie is over.
46. May (2002)
A film that embraces the lyrical loneliness few horror films bother to tackle, May is a disturbing tale of an odd outsider who’s extreme isolation and rejection eventually lead to a gory nightmare. Bearing the name of its central, horribly sad protagonist, the film is easily carried by Angela Bettis, whose gloomy disposition stands in stark contrast with her character’s ironically sunny name. An outcast since childhood, May was shunned by classmates due to her lazy eye and ignored by her parents because of her weirdness. Never developing basic social cues and having impaired empathy, May has a hard time talking to and connecting with anyone besides her best friend, a porcelain doll.
But she, the doll, doesn’t always give the best advice. Now grown up and striving for some normalcy and companionship, she tries in vain to find a boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) or a girlfriend (Anna Faris) but with each attempt marred by a constant string of heartbreaks, she decides that the only friend worth having, is the one you make yourself. Deeply disturbing and terribly tragic, May is a sympathetic journey into the mind of a damaged woman who just wants to be loved, at any cost.
45. Cloverfield (2008)
Because of the success of The Blair Witch Project, the 2000s were lousy with found-footage movies but few of them managed to utilize the format to such pulse-pounding effect. While most were churning out cheap amateur looking trash to make a quick buck, some were doing legit interesting things with the concept, such as documenting a giant monster attack. One of the first monster films to completely omit the stereotypical briefing scene where a bunch of guys in military garb discusses the threat and what their plan is, Cloverfield keeps you in the action by focusing on a group of twenty-something Manhattanites who are just trying to survive.
In addition to it being a pulse-pounding thrill ride, it’s also a great allegory for 9/11. Much like how Godzilla was a response to the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cloverfield subtly depicts the widespread American fear in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. With its clever commentary, adrenaline-packed action, and white knuckle thrills, Cloverfield stands toe to toe against the best of the genre.
44. Open Water (2003)
If Jaws taught us anything, it’s that sharks are the scariest things on Earth. Not because they’re big or because they have hundreds of razor-sharp teeth or because they’re seemingly always hungry but because that you can’t see them till it’s too late. Once you see their fin, it’s game over. So the only thing scarier than dealing with one shark that’s terrorizing a beach full of potential prey is being stranded in the middle of the ocean that could have potentially hundreds of sharks around.
Loosely based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who in 1998 went out with a scuba diving group and were accidentally left behind because the dive-boat crew failed to take an accurate headcount, Open Water is such a horribly specific scenario done in such a realistically terrifying way, that it might create your new real-life biggest fear.
43. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
The early work of Wes Craven is a far cry from the films he’d go on to make. If Freddy was anywhere close to being as depraved as the killers in The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street would be unwatchable. The same goes for Scream or Shocker. If they were as brutally violent as The Hills Have Eyes, they wouldn’t have the reputations (which are a classic and a cult classic respectively) they have today. He set the gold standard for hard to watch cinema, so any remakes of those two nasty bits of work have their work cut out for them.
Enter Alexandre Aja. His film Haute Tension, while horribly flawed (the third act twist ruins what could’ve been a splatter masterpiece), remains one of the most unapologetically graphic slashers ever made. He was the best choice to match Craven’s sick and twisted vision. Sticking pretty closely to the original for about the first half, the film then takes a radical detour in the last half and becomes a completely different story. A story that’s far more grisly and horrific. With better performances, more realistic effects, and tons more violence, this is the perfect example of how to nail a horror remake.
42. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A twisty turny puzzle box of family dysfunction, supernatural entities, and weird siblings, A Tale of Two Sisters is a chilling mystery that gets crazier and scarier with each revelation. After a period of hospitalization in a mental institution, a young girl returns home to her family only to be ignored by her father, verbally attacked by her stepmother, and haunted by a ghost. Is she suffering from delusions or is she been gaslit (gaslighted?) by her stepmother. And if its the latter, why? With only her younger sister to help her, she must somehow survive her tormentors, both real, unreal, and potentially imagined, if she is to unravel the truth behind her madness.
As beautiful as it is terrifying, the film perfectly recreates what it would feel like being stuck in a haunted art museum. The cinematography is equally gorgeous and eerie, with each shot designed to either look like a painting or to take your breath away. On top of its visuals and scares and twists (so many twists), the film also deals with trauma, guilt, and other psychological problems. There’s a lot to unpack in this film, just make sure you do it with the lights on.
41. Lake Mungo (2008)
After 16-year-old drowns in a local dam, her family experiences a series of strange, inexplicable events centered in and around their home. Unsettled, they seek the help of a psychic and parapsychologist, who discovers that the daughter/sister they thought they knew led a double life she kept hidden from all of them. Her secrets will all be revealed at Lake Mungo.
Extremely reminiscent of Twin Peaks (down to the fact that the main characters are named Palmer), Lake Mungo is a somber exploration of grief and loss that never tips past loving homage. Names are the same and the general premise is identical but the tone is radically different. There’s no weird Lynch shit anywhere to be found. Just dread and unease.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite horror movies from this decade? Maybe they will show up further on the list!