As the horror movie continues to position itself as one of the few non-comic book-related genres that can garner huge theatrical crowds in our Netflix-and-chill era, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the best horror films over the last decade. So… that’s what I did. For the record, I picked out my favorite (somewhat mainstream) theatrical horror movie from each of the last 11 years, starting with 2008 and going all the way through to this year. And for the record, this is my list, not yours, so you might find reason to disagree or otherwise take issue with a pick here and there. So, without further ado… here we go.
Worldwide gross: $170 million (on a $25 million budget)
The “Mystery Box” marketing campaign did a fine job of hiding the fact that this Matt Reeves-directed movie was exactly what you thought it was from the cryptic teaser trailer. Using the in-vogue “found footage” format popularized by The Blair Witch Project a decade earlier (and 1.5 years before Paranormal Activity), this is a corker of a good idea. It’s a full-on kaiju movie told via found footage and entirely from the point-of-view of a handful of regular folks trying to escape the carnage. Sure, we can debate how much we’re supposed to care about the humans. It’s a riveting example of you-are-there horror, which feels much bigger than its $25 million budget, and it is a top-notch example of using the format to create gasps and forearm-bruising terror at the very slightest of reveals.
Saw VI (2009)
Worldwide gross: $68 million (on an $11 million budget)
I could have made an entire list just from mainstream theatrical horror gems from 2009 (see also – Jennifer’s Body, Orphan, The Haunting in Connecticut, Halloween II, etc.), but this one qualifies as a miracle. Like Star Trek, the sixth installment followed a franchise low-point to inexplicably become the best of the bunch. This one offers both a deep-dive in the franchise’s hilariously convoluted continuity and a somewhat stand-alone story that requires only the barest knowledge of John Kramer (Tobin Bell) and his grim philosophies. The film is a treatise on the immorality of the American health care system, released right as Obama was trying to pass the Affordable Care Act, while also reconfiguring the trap format so that there would be real suspense in terms of who would live and who would die. Saw VI is the best Saw movie of all, and it stands on its own as a bloody-good horror film.
Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.
Worldwide gross: $26 million (on a $30 million budget)
Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody star in this deliciously nasty little sci-fi chiller about a husband-and-wife scientist team that creates a female human-animal hybrid. Things go about as well as expected, with the scientists having to play mom-and-dad to a difficult-to-manage and unpredictable creature. With a lesser cast and a weaker script, this might have ended up as a Saturday night SyFy original movie. But Polley and Brody bring class to the proceedings, and the film works as a metaphor for raising a special-needs child as well as a disturbing fable of science-gone amok. It also earns big bonus points for having, hands-down, the funniest scene of a scientific demonstration gone violently amok since Robocop. This one goes in the forgotten gems category, and it was a life raft during an unusually mediocre summer movie season.
Final Destination V (2011)
Worldwide gross: $157 million (on a $40 million budget)
Like the Saw franchise, this one followed a series low point and then flopped (in North America) as folks who were burned out by the previous installment stayed away from this comparative gem. This punchy, funny and robustly clever installment in the “death be comin to get ya” franchise is not only the best sequel in the series, but perhps the best part V in horror film history. The ingredients are the same as always, but the characters are ever-so-slightly more developed and sympathetic, while the death scenes are eye-poppingly (in one case, literally so) spectacular and fiendishly clever. Toss in maybe the best death in the whole series (a Hitchcockian bit involving gymnastics), plus a doozy of a finale, and you have the recipe for a top-notch entry in a generally sub-par series.
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Worldwide gross: $66 million (on a $30 million budget)
Because sometimes that endlessly delayed studio release turns out to be a bloody masterpiece. Writer/director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon offered more than just a hilarious deconstruction of the horror film as a genre. The film asks both what kind of person enjoys overtly violent films and, more interestingly, what kind of person do you have to be to write such things. It’s both an angry attack against the toothless and the then-generic modern-day theatrical horror movie scene (remakes, reboots, knock-offs, ahoy!) while pointing the blame squarely at those who would flock to Prom Night 2008 while ignoring more original genre entries. It’s also, in its third act (which I still won’t reveal), a glorious affirmation that cinema can and should reach for the stars and dare to pay off on the promised wonder.
It condemns and ennobles the horror genre, if not popular cinema itself, without contradicting itself. It is a gloriously imaginative genre entry that shows how good even the generic stuff can be with strong writing and engaging characters (Kristen Connelly, also in The Bay, is quite good as is a “we shot this in 2009” Chris Hemsworth). The film has a second major plotline (revealed in the very first scene, but no need to discuss it here), which involves joyfully clever work from Bradley Whitford, Amy Acker, and Richard Jenkins, which in turn confronts our innate(?) habit of cheering on the fictional slaughter of fictional characters without an ounce of empathy. Even if you don’t want to go deeper or look closer, you’ll still find the cleverest, most ambitious, most imaginative, and most excitingly alive movie of 2012.
Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.
Worldwide gross: $724 million (on a $100 million budget)
Yes, I’m counting this as a scary movie, because the first act is a masterpiece in sustained tension and empathetic horror. Gravity was the movie going experience of the year and without question my favorite film of 2013. It is a painfully simple story told. It concerns two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) who must find a way to get back to Earth after an accident strands them in space. Five years later, Gravity is less a declaration of the potency of the original cinematic wonder than a last gasp of what turned out to be (in terms of the live-action blockbuster) a dying art form. No original live-action movie has earned anywhere near what Gravity did over the last five years, and I’m not sure any live-action original ever will again. But at least Alfonso Curon gave us one last ride before Hollywood was consumed by IP and nostalgia.
Worldwide gross: $44 million (on a $5 million budget)
Everyone (correctly) raving about The Haunting of Hill House shouldn’t be too surprised that Mike Flanagan crafted a jolting horror opera that emphasized family melodrama, inherited trauma and the specter of mental illness over potent scares. That’s more-or-less what he does. If anything, Hill House is almost self-parody to the point where it feels like Flanagan’s Tree of Life or Mission: Impossible 2. Anyway, this Blumhouse chiller concerns two adult siblings (Karen Gillan and Brendan Thwaites) who reunite in order to essentially destroy a cursed mirror that drove their parents murderously insane when they were young. The film works as a horror movie precisely because it emphasizes how real-world trauma and the notion of mentally ill parents is scarier than any ghost or goblin. This is a terrific single-location horror movie that deserved more love in a somewhat barren year for mainstream theatrical horror.
The Visit (2015)
Worldwide gross: $98 million (on a $5 million budget)
As someone who never gave up hope for the last decade, who never stopped hoping that the man who directed The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable was still buried underneath the hubris, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit was a glorious affirmation of faith. This quirky horror gem, about two kids who take a trip to visit the grandparents they have never met is a distinctly Shyamalan-ian crowd-pleasing winner. The film deliciously plays on both the fear of the elderly as well as the fear that we to will eventually have our bodies and our minds betray us as well. The supporting characters are all appropriately quirky, the scares are bruised-forearm scary, and the film features Shyamalan’s best plot twist. The Visit is excellent in that specific way that reminds us why M. Night Shyamalan was once such a marvel. It is richly humanistic, filled with individually sketched characters that often sparkle with wit and surprising decency.
The Witch (2016)
Worldwide gross: $40 million (on a $4 million budget)
The first inkling that the mainstream theatrical horror genre might be returning to (financial) life came when this distinctly arthouse chiller (from A24) both earned a C+ from Cinemascore (which is an A++ for a movie like this) and legged it to $24 million on a $8.8m debut weekend. Robert Eggers’ engrossing and suffocating family melodrama is an exercise in deeply metaphysical horror. Anya Taylor-Joy became a star (or at least a critical darling) as a young woman watching her isolated family tear itself apart and turn on each other as a result of some supernatural machinations. While the grotesque opening sequence (involving the murder of a baby) firmly establishes an outside threat, much of the horror comes from within, as this “too puritan for puritans” pioneer family is enveloped in paranoia and situational madness. It’s a movie so good that A24 somewhat remade it this year.
Get Out (2017)
Worldwide Gross: $255 million (on a $5m budget)
Following a year dominated by election politics, Stranger Things, Lemonade and Pokémon GO!, writer/director Jordan Peele’s modern masterpiece showed that mainstream theatrical movies could still capture the zeitgeist. The picture is both primal (a young man goes to visit his girlfriend’s parents and discovers potentially shady business) and painfully specific (a young black man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s parents and discovers potentially shady business) in a way that made its appeal truly universal. Daniel Kaluuya is superb as our hero, and the likes of Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Lakeith Stanfield and Betty Gabriel offer distinct character profiles in support of this ghoulish fairy tale. It’s scary and awkwardly funny and endlessly profound both as an of-the-moment parable and a portrait of the everlasting horror that is institutional racism. It was not only last year’s best movie, but its success gave me hope that movies might matter again.
A Quiet Place (2018)
Worldwide gross: $338 million (on a $17m budget)
John Krasinski’s high-concept horror gem, about a family trying to survive a world overrun by monsters that can hear even the slightest sound, became the biggest-grossing original live-action movie (in North America) since Gravity. Penned by Krasinski, Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, this is another winner that puts family melodrama and real-world fears over explicit supernatural terror. The difference is that this is a family that would actually be pretty happy absent the life-altering status quo. Its gimmick offers a rare horror movie with almost no “time out” moments, creating a physically exhausting exercise in bruised-forearm terror. This is a remarkably scary movie, existing as a working as a subtle empowerment fable that slowly deconstructs its core patriarchal structure. It leaves one alive with optimism for a generation of horror movie makers who grew up with M. Night Shyamalan’s early gems and took his melodramatic instincts to heart.
And now you can play the “But what about…?” game. I liked Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook just fine, but I just preferred Oculus. And there were any number of “I wish I had time to do two movies per year” gems, such as The Ruins in 2008, The Bay in 2012 (probably the best found footage horror movie ever) and You’re Next in 2013. Just because I preferred A Quiet Place to Hereditary doesn’t mean I didn’t like Hereditary (and I would love for Toni Collette to end up with a Best Actress nomination). And yeah, I’ll probably do a “best horror movies of 2009” list next year, because I really wanted to talk about The Haunting in Connecticut (which doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves as a moving family melodrama). But I digress, that’s enough for now. What’s your pick for the best or your favorite scary movies over the last 11 years? Sound off via social media if you wish.