Halloween is just around the corner so I decided to torture myself with doing a little listicling for all you wannabe scared-to-go-to-sleepers out there. And Sweet Satan was this process painstaking! Like poking flaming needles in my eyes while my ankles were hobbled by a split ax. Or something like that. I flipped, back-flipped, see-sawed, hemmed and hawed.. etc. As a horror movie aficionado, whittling an entire decade of my favorite genre down to a mere two-hands-worth of selections was Sophie’s Choice after Sophie’s Choice. With no Meryl Streep to help! Which is probably why the last time I did this, I ended up with 13 entries. And though some of these may seem like obvious entries or redundancies that you’ve seen before, I really haven’t seen anyone nail the best of the decade, so this is me putting my feet to the fire and throwing the cards out there.
Obviously, it was really rather difficult narrowing my favorite horror movies of the decade down to ten but I didn’t want to spend all week writing about horror movies and letting the list get unwieldy so here we are. Then again, I cheated. That’s right – I slipped in a tie. But these are horror movies so it’s good to be bad, right? I digress. In terms of criteria, I’m really looking for overall quality. These aren’t necessarily the scariest, they aren’t the most disturbing (I have an entirely different entry for that), they aren’t what made the most money – they are what I believe to be the very best of what the genre has to offer. In other words, they’re my favorite although I’m extending a bit of authority and objectiveness to those favorites.
It’s not a proper countdown without an exhaustive list of honorable mentions so let’s take a bit sentences to give props where props are due. Honorable mentions go to Kim Jee-woon’s brutal cat-and-mouse Korean showdown I Saw the Devil, John Krasinski’s sotto-voce creature feature A Quiet Place, Karyn Kusama’s polite cult dinner party thriller The Invitation, David Gordon Green’s classic slasher redux Halloween, Fede Alvarez’s deserves a double nod for his gore-tastic reimagining of horror iconography with Evil Dead and his crazy suspenseful killer blind man thriller Don’t Breathe, Adam Wingard also earned two mentions for the crowd-pleasing duo of feminist home invasion thriller You’re Next and smiley psycho killer slasher The Guest, Sean Bryne too scores twice with his hardcore Aussie stalker film The Loved Ones and heavy metal haunted house feature The Devil’s Candy, Ben Wheatley’s disorienting and genre-jumping Kill List needs to be mentioned as does Iranian important Under the Shadow from Babak Anvari that doubles as a ghost story and treatise on gender politics. But enough of these losers, let’s talk about the best horror movies of the decade already.
10. (TIE) UNDER THE SKIN (2013)
I’m going to allow myself one tie because, hell, both entries have the word “Skin” in the title and leaving one or the other out of the conversation felt like I was cheating both myself and my readers. So here we are, starting off rough. Though this slow-moving snake oil salesman of a movie certainly champions style over substance at every turn, and risks alienating viewers who want their horror more plot-driven, Jonathan Glazer’s tale of an extraterrestrial who comes to Earth, inherits Scarlett Johansson’s body, seduces and then eats men (who we can rarely understand through super thick Scottish accents), before eventually becoming sympathetic to her prey is a nutty time. It more closely resembles a living, breathing painting than your standard studio horror fare but it rewards viewers with a thought-provoking examination of humanity, taking stock of our species’ oft depravity through the eyes of a curious voyeur. It also doesn’t hurt that Scarlett Johansson gets naked a lot.
10 (TIE) THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011)
Pedro Almodóvar harnesses the banal evil of Jean Redon’s Eyes Without a Face, creating an arthouse update of sorts for this story about an accomplished surgeon who forces experiments on a captive victim to make a burn-proof “skin”. His rationale is, well, rather unpleasant. But I’ll allow you to discover that for yourselves. Almodóvar’s film is brutal and cold to the touch, existing in this weirdly middle ground of offensiveness and macabre fascination with revenge and gender dynamics. Filled with graphic depictions of rape, forced surgeries, and twisted motives, The Skin I Live in is a challenging, prickly watch but worth it for Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya’s mind-bending performances and the production elements alone.
9. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)
There’s a reason so many were looking forward to Drew Goddard’s follow-up to The Cabin in The Woods – the guy literally murdered his debut. The meta-horror cult classic feels like a couple buddies (Avengers dude Joss Whedon co-wrote and basically co-directed) lampooning a genre they clearly love with every ounce of their being and every fiber of imagination. The Cabin in the Woods feels like the natural end of the line after decades of brainless slasher movies and by taking familiar formulas and building an alternative universe – wherein corporate entities stage human sacrifices to appease giant demons – off of its back feels fresh, even 6 years later. The sheer inventiveness, broad scope, generous blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em easter eggs, and liberal use of left-field office humor in The Cabin in the Woods makes this a refreshing, crowd-pleasing delight, which especially rewards dedicated genre enthusiasts.
8. THE BABADOOK (2014)
The first time I saw The Babadook, I shrugged it off. (Credit partially due to Noah Wiseman for creating one of the most nauseating children in the history of movies.) But my initial distance was a kind of unwillingness to accept the film for what it was and it’s violent staying power. It wasn’t until subsequent viewings that the breadth of Jennifer Kent’s story of loss, grief, and the creeping fantasy of filicide really took over and lingers to this day. The Babadook, a storybook creature that feeds on fear, is merely a parable for a single mother’s descent into madness, with Essie David delivering a spell-binding performance with none-too-few shades of the iconic Jack Torrence. Rarely does a film feel this real and raw, especially when also juggling supernatural elements.
7. IT FOLLOWS (2014)
It Follows is the kind of movie where you can’t quite figure out exactly why you feel so uneasy. But you do. Goddamnit, you do. First-time filmmaker David Robert Michell uses the backbone of an unusual STD (a sexually transmitted demon, in this instance) to craft this atmospheric coming-of-age story that features Maika Monroe in a truly star-making turn. But it’s the background elements of this tale that make it so disorienting and spellbinding – like the fact that there’s no logic to its time period (does it take place now? the 80s? the 90s? Contradictory evidence is offered in near every scene); or even what season it takes place in (they waffle between bathing suits and heavy winter coats – watch it again, you’ll see). It all adds up to labyrinthine storytelling that keeps you constantly off-kilter with its skewed sense of reality, often without your even realizing it.
6. GET OUT (2017)
A legitimate Oscar contender, Get Out is Jordan Peele’s haunting satire of American racial relationships that takes a hard look at the country we pretend to ignore.modern-dayrn day take on social slavery sees a black male accompany his white girlfriend to her parent’s home in the country. Things go wrong. The movie combines Twilight Zone curiosities in with potent social commentary, holding a mirror to society in ways that Peele probably didn’t realize would only become more revenant in the years since its release. Exquisitely realized and full of evocative imagery and otherworldly visions, Get Out is also deeply funny, which makes the nightmarish quality that haunts the whole of the film that much more disorienting and disturbing.
5. RAW (2016)
A great horror movie isn’t just about the scares. Raw, a French-Belgian import, proves this by delivering a thoughtfully constructed thesis on biology, sexuality, and family. Oh and there’s a good amount of cannibalism too. Strict vegetarian Justine attends veterinary school with her older sister, only to discover an unquenchable hunger for raw meat. Things get weird. The film from female director Julia Ducournau stands out for its intricately drawn relationships, disgusting human-eating-human imagery, and pulsing social conscience. This is bloody film, no doubt, but one that burns with conscience and culminates with a closing image that brings everything home in pitch-perfect manner.
4. GREEN ROOM (2015)
A punk rock mentality pervades Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, a rock-hard, vicious one-setting survival story about a hardcore band that witnesses a murder at a neo-Nazi show. The violence is gruesome and comes in unexpected waves, no character is ever safe, and Patrick Stewart gives a bone-chilling turn as Darcy, a take-no-prisoners true believer who you better believe would be caught under a MAGA hat. Green Room features some gnarly gore (the practical effects are simply stomach-churning) and believable characters who make silly mistakes that end up costing them their lives, all of which contributes a good dose of realism to this disturbing, high-strung delight. Seriously though, only hard stomachs should apply.
3. THE CONJURING (2013)
Studio horror has a not-so-nice reputation around the horror movie fandom but The Conjuring dared to flip the script, delivering a wide horror movie for wide audiences that content-wise should have been rated PG-13 but was slammed with an R-rating because it was deemed, quite simply, “too scary.” And too scary it indeed is. This haunted house horror weaponizes the fear of the unknown, delivering some of the best jump scares in the business to make one of the finest possession/exorcism films of all time. The Conjuring works best when it’s not showing you anything, James Wan’s camera focusing on the darkness, allowing our minds to fill in the voids with the worst possible nightmares. Amazingly effective and legitimately scary as hell, it’s no wonder it launched the most successful horror franchise in cinematic history.
2. HEREDITARY (2018)
Toni Collette gives an all-time great performance in this spell-binding horror-show that doubles as an uncharacteristically mature study of grief. Tension begins to mount early and by the time the third act kicks in, the debut from Ari Aster is full speed ahead, peel-your-eyes-back terrifying. Horrifying imagery, off-kilter direction, a twisted score, and an utterly terrifying seance all add up to a horror movie that will chill you to the bone. All hail King Paemon.
1. THE WITCH (2015)
The Witch is that near-perfect spooky film. One that chills you to your very bones. Every last element of David Egger’s deconstruction of a Puritan settler family imploding in on themselves in the raw, exposed wilderness adds to the terrifyingly isolated – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – atmosphere. Combining carnal fears of the woods in with legit black magic, blooming sexuality, and an evil goat named Black Phillip, The Witch is plain delicious – with Egger’s script emerging as a decadent creation of well-researched verbal succulence. I mean, seriously, this thing is just a joy to listen to. This painstakingly constructed downfall of the familial unit is a perfectly-directed masterpiece and the high watermark for what horror can be – a chilling confluence of high art and carnal terror.