I love horror movies. Ever since I was probably way too young to be watching them, I have delighted in the heightened sense of fearful thrills that they deliver, whether it’s bumps in the night (The Haunting, The Others et al.) or full-on terror (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead).
Despite some of the best horrors of all time being found decades ago, I still think the last 16 years have provided some truly examples of the genre. And often this is not the highest grossing and/or most well-known but those hidden and underrated gems that sneak under the radar for all but the most ardant of the genre fans.
I’ve compiled a big list of my favourites, in no particular order. Enjoy!
Possibly my favourite horror movie of the century thus far comes from Japan, a country that does the genre like no other. It follows a group of students who are investigating a series of mysterious and baffling suicides that appear to have been caused by a website that promises its visitors a chance to speak to the dead. It can be viewed as a shrewd social commentary on technology and the way the internet affects everyone’s lives but also enjoyed purely as a straightforward horror experience. It has a deeply unnerving atmosphere about it, avoiding cheap jump and gory scares for something far more creepily insidious. You know when people say they watched a horror from behind a cushion? Yeah, well in the case of Pulse that was 100% true for me!
This Canadian horror thriller sadly flew under the radar for most people but it’s one of the most unusual and unique horrors to come out this century thus far. It centres on a group of workers at a radio station in quiet, wintery Ontario town. One particularly cold morning a mysterious virus descends upon the place, causing the victims to turn into babbling zombie-like versions of their former selves. This darkly funny, memorably surreal film presents the “zombies” in a unique way which I won’t spoil here and features amazing sound design to bring the horrific situation to life.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Indie horror maestro Ti West (The Innkeepers) directs this Rosemary’s Baby-esque tale of a babysitter who accepts a late night job from a mysterious yet perfectly nice stranger (Tom Noonan). At first everything seems normal but she slowly realises something isn’t right in that big house. It’s a cool throwback to horrors of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s – including being shot in that grainy old style – eerily brooding with atmosphere and slow-building towards a nerve-shredding finale.
Visitor Q (2001)
Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) proves why he’s one of the most striking filmmaking talents around with this tale of a disturbed and perverted family who are visited by a mysterious stranger who seems to bring some sort of harmony with him. This is not for the easily offended as there are moments that are deeply troubling, if not downright reprehensible. But it makes for a truly unforgettable experience that’s tough to shake from your mind.
Switchblade Romance (2003)
A firm member of the “New French Extreme” wave of films, this follows a young woman who goes to stay with her friend at her father’s remote farmhouse. The first night they are brutally attacked by a mysterious stranger. There’s a reason the film was known as High Tension in some markets because it provides for some serious edge of your seat viewing accompanied by some wince-inducing gore. It’s unfortunately let down by a stupid, plot hole-laden ending but for the most part it’s an excellent watch.
From director Lucky McKee (The Woman, All Cheerleaders Must Die) comes this unnerving tale of a lonely young woman who tries her best to connect with people following a traumatic childhood. Anchored by a terrifically creepy central performance by Angela Bettis, it’s a wonderfully strange horror that keeps you on your toes and delights in providing moments of real horror shock value.
Grave Encounters (2010)
A bunch of good looking young people decide to stay the night in an abandoned insane asylum in the hopes of capturing some spooky footage for their Most Haunted show. Blah blah blah, we’ve seen this type of thing a million times before. But this particular found footage horror flick actually defies expectations by not only doing something interesting with the in-camera style of shooting and the “things going bump in the night” type of horror but is, most importantly, genuinely scary.
Raising disgust in horror a new, strange level is this Hong Kong shocker that started out as a short film in anthology Three… Extremes. Without spoiling the gag-inducing surprise, it follows an ageing TV actress who, seeking something that will return her youthful looks, visits an enigmatic chef whose dumpling recipe has a special ingredient. Don’t watch this one with a full stomach!
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
What if those evil, backwards, killer hicks you see in horror movies all the time were just a victim of circumstance and unfair negative assumptions? That’s the brilliant concept behind this hilarious horror comedy, which follows a couple of friends (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) who are vacationing in their mountain cabin when they happen across a group of kids who keep being killed off around them. It’s ultimately more of a comedy than a horror – and what a hilarious one it is – but there are some awesomely gruesome moments to be found, too.
Session 9 (2001)
One of the best horror movies that few people have ever heard of, this follows an asbestos cleaning crew (including David Caruso and Peter Mullan) as they work a job at an abandoned mental institution which has a horrific backstory that seems to be coming back to haunt them. Directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist), this is watch-through-your-fingers creepy, using realistic scares and palpable atmosphere to achieve its horror goals.
Rigor Mortis (2013)
Who says a horror movie has to just play within that genre? This audacious Hong Kong debut from singer-turned-director Juno Mak hearkens back to the vampire flicks made in the ’80s, namely the long-running Mr. Vampire series. The meta plot follows a formerly successful star of that series, Chin Siu-ho, who becomes depressed and suicidal after his wife leaves him and goes to stay at a rundown apartment building that’s actually inhabited by supernatural creatures, ghost hunters and the souls of the undead who co-exist with the neighbours. Creepy horror, thrilling crime, dark comedy, crazy and unique CGI… it’s all in there and more.
Another of the celebrated “New French Extremity” films, this insanely gory horror follows a heavily pregnant young woman who is targeted and attacked in her own home by an scorned older woman who is clearly after her baby. Definitely not one for the faint-hearted, you’ll need a strong stomach for what is an extremely graphic but seat-clawingly tense horror experience.
Eden Lake (2008)
Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly play a young couple who decide to have a relaxing weekend at the reclusive Eden Lake. When they confront a group of disruptive youths (one of whom played by rising star Jack O’Connell), their getaway turns nightmarish as the group start to terrorize the couple. It’s so effective because it feels scarily real throughout; there are no ghosts or demons to be found here but rather just human beings being nasty and brutal.
This very scary French horror (known as “Ils” in its native language) follows a young couple who get terrorized by a group of hooded strangers at their secluded farmhouse. It works so well because the situation feels terrifyingly believable, brilliantly tapping into that basic fear of intruders trying to get into your home at night and hurt you. The jaw-dropping ending only adds to why it’s so unnerving.
Celebrated South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) puts his definitive mark on the vampire movie with this story of a priest (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho) who is turned into a vampire following a failed medical experiment and is forced to abandon his priestly calling in order to feed on blood. Beloved by vampire movie and international cinema aficianados, it unfortunately remains a bit lesser known in the wider field. It’s a visually striking film, dripping with brooding, atmospheric tension and never afraid to show the horrors of vampirism or the classic sensuality that goes with it.
Definitely not to be confused with the animated Disney musical, this one has the simple premise of a group of three friends who get stuck up in ski left at a resort just as the park closes. It might seem boring just watching people stuck in one place for the whole movie but director Adam Green wrings every bit of tension out of the situation, chucking in shocks and tense “what would I do?” situations to rival the best of ’em.
Sometimes it’s best to go into a horror film knowing as little about the plot as possible. Such is the case with Ritual, a cracking Indonesian horror from director Joko Anwar. In basic terms it’s about a man who mysteriously wakes up buried alive in the woods, with no idea who he is, how he got there or why. He then goes on a search for answers, eventually finding himself struggling to escape the clutches of a mysterious assailant. Its best to leave it there as it provides a chilling, mystery-filled ride full of twists and turns and with an absolute killer ending.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
This terrific teen horror follows a couple of death-obsessed high schoolers and outcasts in their suburban neighbourhood whose morbidity becomes all too real when one of them gets bitten by a werewolf. As befits a lot of the best horrors, it uses the surface level werewolf story to examine universally relatable themes of puberty and growing up in a world that doesn’t accept being different.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
This wonderful love letter to the Halloween season tell its story in four segments – including a high school teacher with a secret life as a serial killer, a college virgin looking to meet “the one,” a legend about school bus tragedy and a crotchety old man who hates the holiday – each interweaving with one another on All Hallow’s Eve. Filled with chilling, blood-soaked surprises and in-jokes for horror fans, few movies exemplify that spookiest of holidays as much as this one.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
This hugely under-seen meta horror follows a wannabe serial killer in training who takes his inspiration from legendary horror killers like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees. It’s chalk full of in-jokes and nods to horrors of years past – for instance, that Leslie has to do lots of cardio so he can keep up with his victims while making it look like he’s just walking – using a faux documentary style at first before turning into a scary full-on slasher.
That’s it for our list. Have you seen any of these movies? Can you think of any other underrated/lesser known gems you want people to seek out? Comment below!