The 25 Best Horror Movies of the Last 25 Years

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Universal Pictures/Lionsgate/Dimension/Paramount

The frost is on the pumpkin, a chill is in the air, and a deranged serial killer in a creepy mask is haunting our nightmares. Yes, that’s right; it’s Halloween season — and after ranking the 25 best superhero movies, comedy movies, and sci-fi movies of the last 25 years, it’s the perfect time for the staff of ScreenCrush to compile the 25 best horror movies of the modern era as well.

To create this piece, the editors and contributors of ScreenCrush first assembled a shortlist of more than 300 horror movies released since 1991. (It was the longest shortlist in history.) Each writer picked their favorite 25 films from those options. Then a second round of voting broke the ties and determined the final order of the piece you have before you. In situations where there was some debate whether a particular film qualified as a horror movie or not, we applied a simple standard: Is the movie scary? If the answer was yes, it qualified.

Just 25 choices means a lot of worthy horror movies of the last quarter century were going to get left out. (#26, for those keeping score at home, was High Tension.) If your favorite didn’t make the cut (so to speak), don’t come after us with a machete; just leave your personal picks in the comments section below. (And seriously, don’t come after us with machetes.) We happen to think that after a lot of friendly arguments, we arrived at a list of 25 horror movies that are scary good. And here they are:

25. Martyrs (2008)
Directed by Pascal Laugier

Pascal Laugier’s harrowing film begins with a simple home invasion before taking a sharp and off-putting turn into existential horror conveyed through what some might crassly dismiss as “torture porn.” But there is a method to Laugier’s mad grotesquery, and beneath the blood-slicked surface lies a story of a woman who has survived unspeakable trauma, and who copes with the memory of those violent acts by inflicting more violence upon herself. Martyrs offers a tragic story of friendship and devotion, of a victim tormented by her past trauma, and more importantly, Laugier asks what that trauma means in the context of living — and dying. — Britt Hayes


24. Attack the Block (2011)
Directed by Joe Cornish

Though it might get classified as a science-fiction movie, Joe Cornish’s directorial debut has more scares than most “real” horror films. A lot of the credit belongs to the design of the film’s monstrous aliens, which descend on a British council estate on Guy Fawkes Night. In a world of endless ripoffs of H.R. Giger and his xenomorph, Cornish’s creatures were refreshingly (and terrifyingly) new; with inky black fur, massive claws, and row upon row of razor-sharp, bioluminescent teeth, they look like the personification of ravenous, remorseless hunger. Even with future Star Wars star John Boyega slashing his way through every extraterrestrial in sight with a samurai sword, there’s never a guarantee anyone will survive this intense alien attack. Believe. — Matt Singer


23. You’re Next (2011)
Directed by Adam Wingard

Some wrote this film off as a ripoff of The Strangers, but what separates Adam Wingard’s film from the competition is its surprising sense of humor. There’s an early dinner scene with (frequent Wingard collaborators) AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Amy Seimetz taking cheap shots at each other during their dysfunctional family reunion, and I’m not even joking when I say I could happily watch a full hour of this material, because it’s just so wickedly hilarious watching them all go at it. Alas, one of the film’s murderers has to go and ruin it by shooting an arrow through one of their heads, though there are still plenty of character-driven laugh-out-loud moments to come. “FELIX YOU F—ING LOWLIFE!” Brian Collins


22. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Directed by Oren Peli

The reported budget of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity was just $15,000; the entire movie was shot in just one week. In the end, the film made almost $200 million worldwide, and spawned four sequels (and counting). On paper, Paranormal Activity sounds incredibly boring; a collection of “found footage” of a couple trying to figure out if their new house is haunted, shot mostly at night while they sleep. Almost nothing supernatural or stereotypically scary happens on camera; there are repeated sections where hours pass as Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) lay peacefully in their bed. But the sleeping protagonists are, perversely, the key to the movie’s success — because when they’re asleep, they’re completely vulnerable to the ghosts’ meddling. And there’s nothing scarier than total vulnerability. — MS


21. The Strangers (2008)
Directed by Bryan Bertino

Movies that are endlessly delayed usually aren’t worth the wait, but The Strangers, which hit theaters almost a year after its original release date, proved to be the exception. It was also a surprise smash, grossing $52 million on a $10 million budget during the busiest part of the summer season. This is almost unheard of for an original R-rated horror film, but audiences couldn’t resist finding out what happened to Liv Tyler, sneaking a cigarette while a masked killer silently wandered around the house behind her. The moment was so effective it was actually turned into the theatrical poster — also unheard of in the days of terrible Photoshop jobs that tell you nothing about the film.  All they did was take a frame from the film and audiences came — that’s impressive for any movie, let alone a horror movie playing alongside Iron Man and Indiana Jones. — BC


20. The Conjuring (2013)
Directed by James Wan

With Insidious, director James Wan proved he could create the cinematic equivalent of a macabre funhouse, assembling strong, weird scares into a finely-tuned horror machine. With The Conjuring, he perfected it. This movie isn’t just scary — it’s classy. Here is a modern haunted house movie that recalls The Haunting, The Uninvited, and The Changeling. It helps that Wan cast Vera Farmiga and and Patrick Wilson as his leads, two actors so strong that we simply have to believe that they make a living investigating the things that go bump in the night. As Ed and Lorraine Warren, they feel like instant horror icons capable of sustaining an entire series of movies. They are flawless tour guides for Wan’s world, where demonic possession, terrifying psychic visions, and evil ghosts are just another day at the office. Few horror characters are this confident. Few horror movies are this confident. — Jacob Hall


19. The Babadook (2014)
Directed by Jennifer Kent

The best genre films use their scares and shocks to break down our defenses, to get under our skin in the most visceral way possible to investigate ideas that can otherwise be tough to tackle. The Babadook is a movie about grief and pain and mental illness and how we learn to cope. It’s about how a family heals, and how that healing process can be difficult. It’s also about an evil children’s book that unleashes a terrifying monster that feeds on the innocent. The title creature’s latest victim is a grieving widow, played by the remarkable Essie Davis in a performance that needs to be seen to be believed. She falls into this harsh, difficult role completely and writer/director Jennifer Kent catches her. This is a very scary movie. More importantly, it’s a very scary movie that has something to say. — JH


18. 28 Days Later… (2002)
Directed by Danny Boyle

As soon as I hear the word zombies, I’m usually out. The horror genre came into its own in the ’60s and ’70s with classics like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and had a resurgence in the 2000s with The Walking Dead. But Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… remains one of the best of the past several years for grappling with the terror of a viral outbreak on a human level, instead of fetishizing the idea of the monster. Waking up from a coma to find your entire city deserted is terrifying enough, but then having to battle infected stragglers to survive is even more harrowing. Boyle captured that fear on a small but effective scale without turning his movie into an end-of-the-world disaster epic like I Am Legend and World War Z. But beyond being a zombie movie, 28 Days Later… is a gory, adrenaline-packed thriller that remains one of Boyle’s best. — Erin Whitney


17. Black Swan (2010)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan finds terror in repression and the arrested development of womanhood, with the story of Natalie Portman’s porcelain-perfect Nina, a ballerina who lands the dual role of the white and black swans in a dark reimagining of Swan Lake. Ballet offers an ideal canvas for Aronofsky’s psychological horror — it is an art that demands near-gruesome levels of dedication, and from there the horror extends to Nina’s mental state as she finds herself tormented by a dark double that possesses all that she lacks. Aronofsky’s film is an unnerving exploration of sexual identity and self-control, and there is nothing more terrifying to a perfectionist like Nina as that which cannot — and will not — be controlled. — BH


16. Se7en (1995)
Directed by David Fincher

It’s shocking to realize Se7en came out 20 years ago. The film, arguably David Fincher’s best, holds up better than most ’90s thrillers — I don’t care how many times you’ve seen the ending, that damn box is forever anxiety-inducing. Se7en may not show up on many traditional horror movie lists, but it’s the reality of the film’s violence, physical and psychological, that makes it such a palpable nightmare. The seven deadly sins aren’t merely plot points to justify the film’s gore; they symbolize the horrific depths of evil the human mind is capable of. Fincher’s classic sequences were so disturbing that the film pretty much changed the way people thought about the cardinal sins. Just try to think about lust and gluttony without getting sick to your stomach. — EW


15. The Ring (2002)
Directed by Gore Verbinski

One of the scariest experiences of my life came when I saw The Ring … on VHS. In a movie theater, or today on digital video, Gore Verbinski’s remake of Hideo Nakata’s popular J-horror, is still a chilling experience. But on VHS, it was something special. The whole premise of a videotape that killed anyone who watched it within seven days gave an extra level of spookiness to the whole thing, particularly in the sequence where Verbinski shows you exactly what is on that cursed cassette, and you realize you’re doing the very thing this movie explicitly tells you not to do. No joke: I had terrible nightmares for a week, probably because I kept one eye on the television at all times, just to make sure nothing was coming out of it to get me. — MS


14. The House of the Devil (2009)
Directed by Ti West

Exacting and nostalgic recreations of VHS-era horror movies are all the rage these days, but no one has done it better than Ti West, whose House of the Devil is a masterpiece of style and mood. The familiar storyline (a babysitter takes the wrong job and things go terribly) is just the skeleton upon which West hangs a vicious atmosphere. This film evokes menace and dread from frame one, even as it takes its sweet time getting to the chaos of the third act. So much of The House of the Devil involves watching nothing go wrong, so why does it feel like everything is about to go wrong at any moment? That’s the genius of West’s filmmaking. He knows that we know horror movies. He knows that we cannot trust a character played by Tom Noonan because he’s played by Tom Noonan. He preys on our knowledge. He makes us wait. And it’s excruciating … and delightful. — JH


13. [REC] (2007)
Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza

Forget the 2008 shot-for-shot remake. The 2007 Spanish film [REC] was the peak of found-footage horror filmmaking. While the subgenre quickly became a gimmick after Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity[REC] managed to turn the camera into a character as well as the audience’s only viewpoint for the frantic events happening in a virus-infected apartment complex. The film used shaky handheld images to create anxiety and a documentary feel, while throwing the audience into the unknown with the camera’s spotlight and night vision setting. What makes [REC] truly scary though is how little is known about the outbreak when the story begins. Trapped in a claustrophobic, inescapable space, we never know who or what is hiding inside each apartment, and it isn’t until the film’s final moments that we learn exactly what caused this nightmarish experience. — EW


12. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Directed by Zack Snyder

For a movie I once signed a petition to keep from being made, I have to admit Dawn of the Dead turned out pretty damn well. In fact it remains my favorite Zack Snyder film, though that’s probably because this is the only one that’s based on a James Gunn script. Wisely retaining the setting (a mall) and the plot (zombies) and little else from George Romero’s classic original, Snyder and Gunn did the impossible, tackling one of horror’s holy grails and delivering what remains a highlight of the zombie genre. Any complaints about the fast zombies went out the window early on, when Sarah Polley was attacked by her own (now zombified) child, and the film rarely let up from there. Plus: Celebrity zombie sharpshooting! — BC


11. Inside (2007)
Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury

For some it’s Die Hard, for others it’s Home Alone, and for a few kindred spirits, it’s Scrooged. But in my house, the annual Christmas viewing experience is Inside, which for Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury ranks as one of the best horror debuts of the past 20 years. One might look at the sub-90-minute runtime and the Dimension logo on the top of the DVD case and assume it’s total junk. But make no mistake: Few modern horror films offer as much suspense as Bustillo and Maury cram into Inside, rarely letting the audience breathe once the home invasion element kicks in around the 15-minute mark. The occasional bursts of startling violence (wait until you find out why there’s a pair of scissors on the cover) may be too upsetting for some, but once you learn the reason for everything that’s happening, you might even find it justified. — BC


10. Audition (1999)
Directed by Takashi Miike

There’s an entire informal subgenre of films that exist as daring endurance tests for blossoming horror fans, and Takashi Miike’s Audition is one of them. Miike’s film begins as a quiet and dreamlike drama, telling the story of a lonely Japanese man (Ryo Ishibashi) in search of an exemplary wife. At his friend’s unseemly urging, he holds a series of fake auditions to find his mate, leading him into a precarious relationship with the demure Asami (Eihi Shiina). Miike pushes the knife in slowly, punctuating the film with startling revelations about Asami’s mysterious personal life and her history of unfortunate encounters with men, before fiercely twisting it in a climax that tests the will of both its morally dubious protagonist and an audience eager for bloodshed. Audition’s commentary on casual misogyny is as sharp and searing as the weapons wielded in its terrifying finale. — BH


9. It Follows (2014)
Directed by David Robert Mitchell

One sign of a great horror movie: When the feelings of unease and paranoia it dredges up stay with you long after you leave the theater. In the most obvious of ways, It Follows, which is all about being stalked by a sexually-transmitted nightmarish apparition, achieves that perfectly. David Robert Mitchell’s film not only gave us one of the most wildly original horror storylines in decades, but managed to concoct a suffocating atmosphere of non-stop anxiety. The film’s alarming discomfort doesn’t let up after the credits roll, and even then the rules and explanations behind the film’s mystifying plot remain a question. Aesthetics are also a major part of what make It Follows so hard to shake, from Disasterpeace’s menacing score to the hazy cinematography. While Mitchell creates a terrifying world, it’s one you’ll want to return to for a second viewing. — EW


8. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Directed by Edgar Wright

The title of Shaun of the Dead implies it’s a zombie comedy. But Edgar Wright’s great film is actually the funniest zombie movie ever made. That’s a big difference. Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg peppered their script with enough jokes and references to keep horror buffs engaged and giggling for ages, but the laughter never dulls the impact of the film’s zombie apocalypse. The brutal gore actually hurts. Lovable characters meet violent ends. The scares creep up on you like a shambling zombie. Beyond the horror and the comedy is a tale of two best friends whose strained bromance is put through the wringer. In Shaun of the Dead, a crumbling relationship feels like the end of the world. — JH


7. Let the Right One In (2008)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Vampires are well-worn horror territory, and the bloodsucking subgenre may be the most difficult in which to deliver something fresh. But Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is as surprising as it is poignant — a coming-of-age tale told through the eyes of a lonely little boy and the enigmatic vampire girl next door, gift-wrapped in the stark and chilly atmosphere of Sweden in the winter. Impeccably cold and cool, Alfredson’s film is saturated with the sort of dread we identify with those dreary winter months, when every breath feels like a small, desperate plea for life. That feeling captures the tone of Let the Right One In, which is part love story and part revenge story, embellished with the startling discoveries of a transition into young adulthood. — BH


6. I Saw the Devil (2010)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon

I Saw the Devil may be the most grueling movie ever made, but it is also one of the most gleefully entertaining. That’s an odd thing to say about a movie that follows an unhinged secret agent who uses his special set of skills to track down the serial killer who murdered the love of his life and exact the most violent revenge imaginable, but it’s true. At 141 minutes, this is a cat-and-mouse epic that flies by in the blink of an eye. Director Kim Jee-woon’s sixth film is a lurid masterpiece, an experience that never stops moving and never stops challenging the audience. Set in a borderline-fantastical South Korea where you can’t walk two feet without stumbling over another murderer, I Saw the Devil watches Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik continuously find new and inventive ways to destroy each other’s lives. Lee’s character’s quest for vengeance turns him into a monster to rival Choi’s, a transformation that will test the stomach of even the most hardened genre fan. — JH


5. The Descent (2005)
Directed by Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall’s sophomore film is tense, terrifying horror entertainment … and that’s before the monsters even show up. If our ill-fated team of spelunkers never met up with the bat-like humans (or are they human-like bats?) that dwell in the cave they’re trapped inside, it would still be one of the best horror films of the decade. But their appearance seals the deal — this is one of the very few horror films of the past 10 years that can be inarguably described as a must-see. Hell, the U.S. version of the ending sends us off on a terrific jolt — and that’s considered the “bad” ending! Claustrophobics need not apply; any one scene of our heroes trapped (even momentarily so) in one of the tiny tunnels that they go into for fun would be enough to send them into shock. Add in what may very well be the best “Oh it’s just a dream” scare in horror history (you know the one) and you have the ingredients for a minor genre masterpiece. — BC


4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

Anyone can make a found-footage movie — as the dozens of bad filmmakers who’d produced sub-par Blair Witch Project knockoffs over the last 15 years can attest. But even though it launched an entirely new subgenre, no one has yet to duplicate the terror and rough-hewn beauty of the original Blair Witch. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez so convincingly aped the style of a real documentary — having their actors using their real names, letting them shoot the movie themselves — that they convinced thousands of people that this was authentic non-fiction footage shot by a couple of college kids trying to suss out the truth behind a Maryland urban legend. (Take my word for it; I once got into a shouting match with a woman who refused to believe me when I insisted the movie wasn’t real.) Though many viewers over the years have complained that the film’s finale is underwhelming or anticlimactic, that’s the only kind of ending that would make sense — there couldn’t possibly be anything overtly supernatural in a “real” documentary. Unlike so many of the crummy movies they inspired, Myrick and Sánchez put the authenticity of their aesthetic ahead of superficial shock value. People bought that Blair Witch was real because they made it so easy to believe. — MS


3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme

If you were asked the name the scariest fictional killer in cinematic history, few characters would come to mind before Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins’ psychotic cannibal was (and still is) one of the most unnerving characters ever created, yet his precision and brilliance also make him one of the most admirable onscreen murderers. His calm reticence and refined demeanor were the ideal contrast to his grisly crimes, and what made his conversations with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling all the more chilling. Although imprisoned, the thin glass wall between Hannibal and Clarice was a constant reminder throughout the film that no one was safe from his reach — both literally, as his eventual escape revealed, and mentally, as he managed to crawl into the young FBI agent’s head. An impeccably crafted and gorgeously shot thriller, Jonathan Demme’s film creates a never-ending air of danger. — EW


2. Scream (1996)
Directed by Wes Craven

The best horror films often find ways to not only embrace the traditional tropes of the genre, but to also subvert them along the way. This is exactly what Wes Craven did with Scream, sending up classic slasher films with an unexpected, sharp twist on its predecessors. Scream gleefully concedes the flaws of its genre, while taking its hallmarks and using them against an audience that’s all-too-familiar with its predictable narrative. Craven’s metatextual slasher affectionately mocks an audience raised on pop-culture references reflected in characters who often compare their lives to a movie. Scream set a precedent and few slasher films since have found the nerve to live up to this standard. Craven redefined the slasher and in doing so made a definitive horror classic. — BH


1. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Directed by Drew Goddard

The Cabin in the Woods wants to be the ultimate horror movie. And at least from the last quarter century, that’s exactly what it is. It starts with clichés — a quintet of teenagers, each a stereotype unto themselves, on a trip to a remote vacation home filled with ominous decorations and a basement full of bizarre trinkets. Then it picks the clichés apart; the whole premise is a setup by two bureaucrats (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) working for a mysterious organization charged with preserving humanity by ritualistically sacrificing young people to appease some ancient, bloodthirsty gods. And then it twists things around again, reinvesting all its clichés with renewed terror in a violent and bloody finale.

It’s definitely no coincidence that there are two guys pulling all the strings behind the scenes — just as director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon invented The Cabin in the Woods. They set out not only to scare audiences, but to try to tease out the reasons why audiences want to be scared in the first place. The most horrifying part of their ingenious work of genre de- and reconstruction isn’t the gore or jump scares or the vicious, cannibalistic merman (although that dude is pretty horrifying). It’s the notion that the ultimate villain in any horror movie is us, the bloodthirsty viewers who come to the theater demanding to see innocent blood spilled. — MS

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