10. The Witch (2016)
Just when you start to worry that there’s nothing original happening in horror, you settle in with The Witch, a dark thriller that’s so damn realistic that you wonder how they transported a camera back to 1630s New England. A meticulous attention to period detail — from the clothes to the location to the dialogue — makes The Witch a novel diversion. An insidiously slow burn makes the film diabolically creepy. There are several cerebral scares scattered throughout, but the highlight has to be a creepy ol’ beast named “Black Philip.” I may never look at a goat the same way again.
9. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s blisteringly intense tale of a “rage virus” that leaves London in ruins is loaded with bursts of suspense and terror. The grainy video aesthetic, and the unnerving sound design in the film’s opening sequence (as eco-terrorists choose the wrong damn monkey to set free), set the stage for the intensity to come. The church scene, the disturbing fate of Brendan Gleeson’s character, and a rousing finale that shows how the uninfected can be even more terrifying than the afflicted, make this a classic.
8. The Babadook (2014)
Rare are the horror films that can scare young people and their parents in equal measure. Jennifer Kent pulls it off in the wonderfully eerie The Babadook. Kids will no doubt earn a few chills from the ominous storybook character who seemingly comes to life, and grown-ups will appreciate the clever subtext about how scary it is to be a parent. A darkly beautiful storybook sequence still sticks with me today.
7. Frailty (2001)
Actor Bill Paxton is known for a wide variety of great performances in movies like Near Dark, True Lies, and Aliens. But there’s at least one film that proves Paxton has some serious skills behind the camera: the unsettling, quietly audacious Frailty. Paxton’s directorial debut is backed by a fantastic screenplay and a variety of strong performances. The film’s willingness to tread into some deep, dark, potentially controversial material that makes it more than just another well-made horror flick. Frailty is about a madman and his two sons who come to believe that they’re supposed to kill “demons.” The ambiguity of the religious thriller is what makes it so darn scary. Bonus points for Paxton’s performance, which wavers between good-natured and flatly terrifying without missing a beat.
6. It Follows (2015)
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has proven to be a divisive movie, but really, no one has seen anything quite like it before. The masterfully constructed movie is basically about a sexually transmitted demonic possession, but there’s more to it than a refreshingly unique premise. Mitchell layers It Follows with creepy “what ifs” and effective jolts. The best scare is probably the one involving a bedroom, a doorway, and a very oddly shaped intruder. The whole movie plays like an eerie fever dream, but that one sequence still gets me after having seen the film at least six times.
5. Martyrs (2008)
This nasty French import is about a psychotic young woman who slaughters a family for (perhaps) justifiable reasons, then quickly descends into a freaky landscape of brutality, nihilism, and outright evil. Throughout all the nasty stuff, Martyrs poses fascinating questions about our capacity for suffering and the impact that violence has on the human soul. But beware: despite being brilliantly conceived, the film is too heavy to throw in for a typical horror-movie night. This one is reserved strictly for the serious horror fans.
4. Session 9 (2001)
Few things are creepier than a real-life location that feels tailor-made for a horror movie. Director Brad Anderson found one in the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts (though the decrepit, abandoned asylum has since been torn down, so don’t go looking for it). The endlessly eerie building is the stage for a group of asbestos-removal workers who stumble across not only a few unhappy spirits, but horrible secrets that threaten to infect their own minds. The scariest sequence involves an underground hallway, a rapidly dwindling light supply, and a very panic-stricken young man. Anderson nails it.
3. The Ruins (2008)
Those who read the Scott Smith novel of the same name simply had to wonder, “How the hell are they going to make killer vines scary?” Then they saw the movie. The Ruinsfollows a bunch of naive Americans who (very stupidly) decide to explore a Mexican ruin full of murderous foliage. And if you don’t think “murderous vines” sounds like a scary concept, just wait until you’ve experienced the horrific ways in which these biological predators get under their victims’ skin. (Kudos to the special effects team — yikes!) Forced to choose a horrific moment from this grim, gruesome gore-fest’s many, many, many horrific moments, I’d probably choose the amputation scene. That one will give you nightmares. Good nightmares.
2. The Descent (2005)
Movies that tap into a “universal fear” scare the hardest. Neil Marshall, the director behind a few of your favorite Game of Thrones episodes, chose claustrophobia in his spelunking-gone-wrong horror movie, The Descent. If a suffocating location and dimly lit shooting style weren’t creepy enough, The Descent boasts some supremely nasty monsters who live deep beneath the surface. When they discover a welcome new food source in a foolhardy group of women, hell breaks loose. Weirdly enough, the scariest scene doesn’t even involve the creatures; just a very narrow squeeze between two caverns.
1. [REC] 2 (2009)
Most horror geeks have no doubt enjoyed the [REC] vs. [REC] 2 debate, and the best thing about arguments like this is that neither side is wrong. The first film deserves credit for delivering such a unique and fascinating piece of horror cinema that combines found footage, bio-horror, and claustrophobic, “zombie”-style mayhem. The sequel deserves even more for expanding the conceit and being even scarier than its predecessor. The later sequels are not half-bad, nor is the American remake, Quarantine, but nothing comes close to the one-two punch of [REC] and [REC] 2. If you’ve never seen these two films, I envy you.