There was before The Blair Witch Project, and after The Blair Witch Project. The 81-minute, $60,000 indie film arrived on a huge wave of viral marketing, in late July 1999, and a few months later, it was a legitimate phenomenon. The movie’s elaborate ad campaign took off like wildfire on the internet (yes, even in 1999 that stuff happened) and helped turn a micro-budget horror movie into a smash hit that pulled in over $248 million worldwide. The cherry on top: It easily ranks among the best horror movies of all time.
The Blair Witch Project changed the horror genre forever, virtually giving birth to the “found footage” style of horror filmmaking, and reminding jaded viewers they could still be scared. Which movies have come closest to chilling the spine in the last 17 years? We rank the truly terrifying titles of this new millennium:
21. May (2002)
Although not overtly “scary” in a traditional sense, Lucky McKee’s bittersweet masterpiece earns a lot of points for sincerity, compassion, and off-kilter humor. This underappreciated yet undeniably effective horror film works on a variety of levels (hell, even the late, great Roger Ebert gave the film four stars!) but it’s at its best when it’s focused on the gradual descent of poor May Canady (Angela Bettis), a strange young woman who alienates most of her acquaintances before deciding to build herself a perfect friend. Yes, that’s “build” in the Frankenstein sense. May is gory, funny, and haunting. Because, let’s face it, we’ve all felt like lonely May from time to time.
20. The Conjuring (2013)
Some would say it’s tough to wring legitimate scares out of a vehicle as old fashioned as a haunted-house story. Those people probably haven’t seen how James Wan does it. Not only in his Insidious series, an infinitely more effective Poltergeist homage than the rotten 2015 Poltergeist remake, but in this take on the late 1970s-style, Amityville-esque template which reinvigorated the whole darn sub-genre. This summer’s The Conjuring 2 isn’t half-bad either!
19. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
It’s tough to pick the scariest moment from a Guillermo del Toro film. The Crimson Peak director has made so many fantastic genre films, and throughout his work, refused to paint monsters as one-note jump-scare caricatures. But there’s something tragically ominous about the spirits residing in the isolated orphanage of The Devil’s Backbone, a location that’s been all but forgotten in a war-torn nation. Del Toro’s Cronos is creepy, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark masterpiece, and Crimson Peak is old-school eerie, but The Devil’s Backbone feels like the filmmaker’s most personal horror story — and his scariest.
18. Sinister (2012)
We’ve all seen a few creepy “found footage” horror movies (at least a few, right?) but here’s a classically shot horror film that tells the story of the guy who actually found the footage… and quickly came to regret it. Backed by a clever premise, an effortlessly gloomy tone, and a handful of very well-crafted shocks, Sinister has proven to be quite the favorite among contemporary horror fans, and while the flick packs at least five or six great scares into one nasty package, my favorite is still the one they semi-spoiled in the trailer. Who knew a kid in a box could be so damn scary?
17. Kill List (2011)
Director Ben Wheatley broke onto the scene with the caustic family drama Down Terrace and is presently impressing audiences with his scathing adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise. Tucked comfortably between those films is Kill List, a fascinating and masterfully compelling mixture of crime drama, pitch-black comedy, and full-bore occult-horror insanity. While the film is oddly compelling and undeniably intense from the outset, the truly scary bits don’t really show up until about halfway through, when our (anti-)heroes stumble across a religious rite that’s nothing short of horrific. You’ll know what scene I mean the second it shows up.
16. Let the Right One In (2008)
By 2008, we were due for an intelligent subversion of well-established vampire tropes (apologies, Twilight fans) and this wonderfully effective Swedish import, based on the acclaimed novel from 2004, proved to be precisely what horror fans were looking for. (Those who fear subtitles got a surprisingly effective American remake in 2010.) Not only is Let the Right One In an unexpectedly touching coming-of-age story about a bullied boy and his youthful vampire friend, but it also works remarkably well as a creepy monster movie. The film’s scariest moment? Either a gruesome swimming pool attack or a terrifying immolation that takes place in a hospital room. You pick.
15. The Orphanage (2007)
Zombies and slashers and freaks (oh my) will always be spooky, but it takes a special touch to reinvent their shocks. The Orphanage is a masterfully creepy ghost story that takes place in a forgotten old orphanage, and (aside from a few tasty jump-scares here and there) director J.A. Bayona takes great delight in stretching out the tension as long as possible before delivering a well-earned payoff. Several, in fact. This meticulously constructed ghost story is a lovely throwback to atmospheric thrillers of yesteryear, thanks mainly to a great cast, a darkly beautiful setting, and a big handful of well-wrought scares.
14. Saw (2004)
Say what you like about the sequels — I dig ’em all except for the last one, The Final Chapter — but those who caught Saw before all the surprises were spoiled were in for a big, bruising treat. First-timers James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (writer) are clearly having a ball with this buffet of horror delights. The low-budget, high-energy horror show goes from suspense to shocks and from police procedural to outright gory mayhem without skipping a beat. I’m not ashamed to admit that the ending, with the reveal of the Jigsaw Killer, totally got me. If you think this movie is little more than “torture porn” (a nonsense phrase) then you need to give it another spin.
13. The House of the Devil (2009)
Nobody does “slow-burn horror” like indie stalwart Ti West. While he earned big points with the genre crowd on films like The Innkeepers and The Sacrament, there’s just something innately unnerving about his invasion horror film, The House of the Devil. Chalk it up to the film’s gradual escalation of tension, the well-presented payoff, and a handful of great performances. The icing on the cake is the brilliant sound design. When a horror film has its viewer actively listening for random door creaks or far-off bumps in the night, then you know you’re dealing with craftsmanship. The House of the Devil played me like a flute.
12. Inside (2007)
Horror fans have always been able to look towards France for freaky, new, and invigorating horror. On the surface, Inside is little more than a polished, super violent “cat & mouse” thriller. Take it seriously, and you find themes of isolation, alienation, the fears that arise when you’re about to have a baby. As a (very) pregnant woman tries to stay one step ahead of a (very) psychotic invader, the viewer is treated to a wide array of dark thrills, gory chills, and graphic kills. Not a horror movie for the kids, but a shockingly entertaining piece of grown-up genre cinema.
11. The Mist (2007)
There are so many great moments to choose from in this wonderfully icky Frank Darabont rendition of a very fun Stephen King novella — from the giant tentacle in the loading dock to Marcia Gay Harden’s powerfully creepy performance — but for my money the highlight of The Mist is the ill-fated trek from besieged supermarket to abandoned pharmacy… and the horrific creatures that lay in wait. Others would probably point to the film’s unapologetically bleak ending as the scariest moment in the film, but however you slice it, The Mist is easily one of the best monster movies of the last two decades. (And the B&W version on the Blu-ray is a true thing of beauty.)