Just at a surface glance, it’s interesting to see how American cinema has evolved since the millennium, particularly post-9/11. The most obvious change is the action genre, wherein terrible eastern-European accents once reigned and targeted crises on public transportation systems and business buildings ruled (ex. Speed: subways and buses; Mission Impossible: subways and helicopters; Speed 2: cruise ship lolololol; Die Hard: LA skyscraper; Air Force One: “Get off my plane” with a hilariously Russian Gary Oldman, etc.). After the shift in our country’s war-peace status, all of this goofy fun seemed to be exchanged for coded-patriotic, Bourne-type action that was designed to simulate a gritty and unstable reality that safely removed the faces and presence of pedestrians in danger.
Comedy took a big shift too; the self-aware goofy/silliness that made Airplane, (early) National Lampoon, Mel Brooks, and (early) Ben Stiller such key figures were seemingly exchanged for a slew of superficial gross-out gags and lazy mockeries (ex. Wedding Crashers, Waiting, the Scary Movie franchise, Not Another Teen Movie, Along Came Polly—with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s infamous “I sharted” scene for which I will always shed a tear, etc.). Not to suggest that these kinds of films were new to the genre, just that they seemed to become the norm. Perhaps this evolution would’ve happened eventually, but it’s worth noting that this change began to occur around the same time that there was a major shift in tension and attention in our nation.
I argue that this pattern holds true as well for horror, although the shift seems more subtle and in the opposite direction of action and comedy. That is, as action and comedy movies became fiercely in-group and back-door patriotic, the most compelling and critically acclaimed (read: good) horror movies that played in the U.S. originated in other countries, particularly the U.K., Japan, Spain, Australia, and Canada. Through some box office digging, it seems the largest contribution U.S. cinema seemed to throw in the horror pile until recently was the Saw and Paranormal Activity series and a generally poorly-received slew of remakes and sequels from pre-millennium films.* Of course, a few U.S.-made gems managed to sneak in (some of which are listed below and just so happen to be amongst the more recently released), but it seems like this “outsourcing” ultimately had a tremendous impact on the landscape of current horror cinema. I’m not attempting to provide an explanation for this shift (it’s still interesting to think about). However, I did want to point out the pattern, especially as the horror films I recommend below largely reflect this beautiful and critical cultural diversity in scary storytelling that has turned the horror genre into one of the most exciting, inventive, and insightful treats for cinephiles.
If I did want to take a quick stab at explaining what it is about these largely-international modern horror movies that I feel make them so good, I suspect it has to do with what themes they cling onto. Early American horror cinema was dominated by monsters and vampires (many of which were later dominated by mst3k) and gradually evolved to include a complex blend of fantasy, magic, superstition, and dogma. This included hauntings, witches, supernatural killers that just would not die, demon possession, and the ingenious invention of zombies. It seemed the landscape went from telling stories about monsters to telling stories about people who became monsters, and this worked very effectively. Come millennium, this landscape switched to the aforementioned remakes/sequels, “found footage” stories, and torture-films. Some of these were quite chilling, but on the whole it made American horror movies much more predictable, simplistic, and oftentimes just plain gross rather than creepy.
Post-millennium foreign horror films and the culturally diverse philosophies that come with them seem to have held on to the best horror tropes that used to be prominent in American cinema—monsters, vampires, witches, curses, and zombies that are too terrifying (or hilarious) to belong on television. It seems like American filmmakers finally beginning to catch up, thus making the horror genre one of the most exciting to currently watch.
In celebration of this evolution and growing cultural diversity behind the lens of the horror genre, here are 13 modern horror films (foreign and domestic) listed sequentially that you should definitely watch this October. Enjoy not sleeping.
1. 28 Days Later (2002) dir. Danny Boyle, UK
This movie remains one of the most monumental contributions to the horror genre thanks to the Boyle’s “reinvention” of the zombie. Pre-28 Days, zombies were often portrayed as shambling figures capable of being tricked, but 28 Days Later turned them into blood-thirsty sprinters powered by a monkey-originated “rage virus” (HIV/AIDS metaphors likely intended, but not emphasized). The film starts as a mystery when the protagonist wakes up from a coma in a hospital not long after rage zombies have taken over most of the country, but quickly turns to nail-biting thriller as we follow his fight for survival across what (and who) is left in the UK.
2. The Ring (2002) dir. Gore Verbinski, USA (adapted from Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ringu, Japan)
Not everyone agrees that The Ring is a successful remake of Hideo Nakata’s fantastic Ringu, but it’s personally one of my favorites. Curses as a horror trope don’t generally seem to translate well to American audiences, especially when the cursed object is a VHS tape (practically a foreign technology now to the film’s modern target audience)–but Verbinski translates it well. I’d say this success lies in his ability to create a growing atmosphere of dread, build Hitchcockian-style suspense, and cast the brilliant Naomi Watts, who was fresh off of her Mulholland Dr. debut and clearly ready for her down-the-well close-up. If we’re picking which of the American-remakes of Japanese-horror films, I feel this one pays the homage to its host culture best.
3. Shaun of the Dead (2004) dir. Edgar Wright, UK
Similar to 28 Days Later, the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost duo helped reinvent the zombie genre in another revolutionary way–by turning the trope into a comedy. Rife with biting, black, British humor and themes of unconditional friendship love, this is the one zombie movie that has a genuine feel-good component to it. Albeit, a limited feel-good–it’s still a zombie movie, and Pegg-fans should know he has never been one to introduce laughs without a a heavy dose of heartbreak.
4. The Descent (2005) dir. Neil Marshall, UK
This (unbelievably awesome) film follows six women as they spelunk into what they believe is a previously undiscovered cavern, only to become caved in with an army of flesh-eating creatures who live miles below ground. Any monster movie can be scary just based on the shocks and gore, but The Descent intensifies it even further by playing on basic human fears of tight spaces, heights, loss of light, and being trapped with no way out. It helps that the women all also happen to kick ass, even when they’re outnumbered. These aren’t your traditional Final Girls.
5. 28 Weeks Later (2007) dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, UK
It’s rare that I recommend a horror sequel, especially when none of the original cast returns, but 28 Weeks Later is a great follow up to 28 Days Later, if for very different reasons. The title should tell you everything you need to know about the movie, and you can probably deduce that–if this is a subsequent story–things still aren’t going down too well after rage-zombies had taken over the UK. This tension turns the film more into an action-horror-thriller with interesting cultural commentary due to the obvious shift in the nationality of the protagonists. You’ll likely miss the psychological drama and mystery of the first film, but the new scares and a priceless scene that involves helicopter blades and loads of zombie guts makes this film completely worth the watch.
6. Trick r’ Treat (2007) dir. Michael Doughtery, USA-Canada
I love a good B-movie, and Trick r’ Treat is B-level fantastic. The movie is told in a way reminiscent of sharing spooky stories around a campfire. Rather than one linear plot, the movie intertwines several classic-spooky stories into one fascinating narrative, all of which occur on the same Halloween night and involve separate-yet-related characters (think: Magnolia meets R.L. Stein). It is appropriately gory and consistently eerie, which left me with the same creepy feeling I used to get as a child when watching Are You Afraid of the Dark. Most importantly, this movie never takes itself seriously, which makes it overall a spooky blast.
7. Let the Right One In (2008) dir. Tomas Alfredson, Sweden
This Swedish-language film is precisely the kind of horror film I would recommend to people who hate watching scary stuff. It’s filled with very few “jumps” or “scares,” rather playing like a story of love and friendship between one 12 year old boy and one female-appearing vampire who has been 12 for a very long time. No worries–this is not Twilight. If anything, it feels like what Stranger Things would be like if it had vampires instead of alternate-universe monsters and was conceptualized through the lens of a Swedish director. The end result is a very beautiful film that’s more moving than terrifying.
8. Pontypool (2008) dir. Bruce McDonald, Canada
Pontypool follows the events that occur around a radio station hosted in the titular Canadian town on a day where everyone’s speech and cognitive capacity suddenly and inexplicably regress to infancy and their behaviors rapidly become homicidal. While classified as a horror film, what makes Pontypool so unnerving is rather the fear of not understanding why people are suddenly going full-zombie. If you’re dying for a hint going in: Kill is Kiss.
9. The Conjuring (2013) dir. James Wan, USA
The Conjuring was probably the first time in a long time that I became excited about American horror cinema again. Allegedly based on “true events,” the film follows the creepy occurrences of a haunted house encountered by the same two demonologists that tackled the highly controversial Amityville house haunting. Despite feeling contrived at times, the cinematic haunts we get along the way make it a very enjoyable addition to the horror scene. Assisted by a terrific performance from Vera Farmiga, who works wonders with the cliches that sadly makes up the majority of her part, this old-fashioned style scare is worth the jumps.
10. The Babadook (2014) dir. Jennifer Kent, Australia
Admittedly one of my all-time favorites, this movie is as much a psychological thriller as it is a classic monster movie. This film doesn’t necessarily reinvent the genre, yet it still manages to feel new (and, consequently, quite creepy). Even if you dislike horror, this film is worth watching simply for Essie Davis’ Oscar-worthy performance as a grief-stricken mother who fears she might be losing it when a children’s book suddenly appears in her home and begins to come to life.
11. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) dir. Ana Lily Amirpour, USA (Persian-Language)
While shot in the US, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a Persian-language film set in a fictional Iranian town aptly called “Bad City.” Best described as a punk-vampire-western, the black-and-white film follows a vigilante-vampire who feels straight out of Eastwood’s Unforgiven. All I really want to say about this film is that it’s amazing, beautifully feminist, and the most empowering take on the vampire-trope I’ve ever seen on film. It brings plenty of gore, but this is a vampire you’ll catch yourself wanting to root for. Watch it ASAP.
12. It Follows (2015) dir. David Robert Mitchell, USA
Many love to debate the true meaning and metaphors of this film, but I like taking it at face-value: A shape-shifting, life-sucking monster is passed between people like an STD and will only go away when the “infected” has sex with another person and, consequently, passes it along to them. Despite a simple (and bizarre) sounding plot, Mitchell is able to create an unrelenting air of unease and tension around a monster that ultimately just…follows. Several members of the young cast also shine in their roles, particularly Maika Monroe and Olivia Luccardi.
- The Witch (2016) dir. Robert Eggers, USA
This film received a wide diversity of reactions this year, largely for its pace, old-fashioned take on witchcraft, and strong religious themes. Personally, it remains one of my favorite movies of the year, especially for how well it serves as a reminder of how chilling the demonic-witch focus can be. Despite there being some graphic and gory elements to it, this movie isn’t about “jumps and scares;” expect to leave this film feeling unsettled and ready to put off the next camping trip instead.
Other post-2001 Honorable mentions: another personal B-movie favorite of mine–Black Sheep (Jonathan King, 2006, New Zealand), Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007, USA), Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007, USA), Drag Me to Hell (Sam Rami, 2009, USA), and Housebound (Gerard Johnstone, 2014, New Zealand).
*Post-2001 U.S. Remakes/Sequels include, but are not limited to, Scream, I Know What you did Last Summer, Alien, Blair Witch Project, Final Destination, The Hills Have Eyes, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, House of Wax, The Omen, Carrie, The Fog, It, and My Bloody Valentine—3D.
A variation of this piece also found it’s way to Movie Pilot: 13 Must Watch Modern Horror Films.