For people with a lively interest in cinema’s rapid technolgical and cultural evolution over the past few decades, few areas are as fascinating as the horror genre. Just a few decades ago, horror films were mostly considered disreputable and schlocky. The field was dominated by cookie-cutter sequels full of masked slashers and low-rent monsters, and while many actors of note started out in horror, few willingly stayed there if they could get more prestigious work. Directors were another thing entirely, with a handful of dedicated genre enthusiasts, from George Romero to David Cronenberg, reliably cranking out memorable work — but they were usually the exception to the rule.
But rapid changes in digital effects, filmmaking, and distribution helped put a new generation of horror filmmakers behind the camera, gave them a new tool set to produce cheap but effective monsters, and then let them get their work directly to their enthusiastic audience. Over the course of less than a decade, starting around the turn of the millennium, the genre entirely changed its tone and its focus.
A handful of hit films laid the foundation for the new cult horror standards. Wes Craven’s Scream gave horror a hip, self-aware, meta-comedy feel, letting horror movies stay scary while intelligently acknowledging their own tropes. The Blair Witch Project showed the value of viral marketing, and proved a compelling story and tense tone was more important than a high-gloss studio sheen. The Sixth Sense suggested an immense mainstream market for psychological horror built around big twists, while Saw revealed an equally dedicated market for gory, nasty, cheaply made movies with their own sharp surprises. These films, and a handful of others, set the stage for a whole new canon of horror classics that are still affecting the industry, giving new horror directors a model for how to work, and promising huge paybacks on low budgets, if filmmakers and studios can just find their audience.
The old horror canon is still out there, from F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu to game-changing films like Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with plenty of stops in between. But for horror fans today, there’s a whole new canon still being made. Here are a handful of the post-2000 horror films we consider to be the classics, required viewing for cinephiles who want to keep up with the key works in the genre. They aren’t just the best of a new crop, they’re also the most influential and significant films in recent horror cinema.
Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is regularly billed as a horror-comedy, but the humor is pretty low-key and wry compared to something like Scream or Shaun of the Dead. And in the middle of America’s current cultural crisis over rape and consent, the humor may not play at all. But if anything, Teeth feels more culturally relevant right now than it did in 2007. Jess Weixler stars as Dawn, a sexually timid virgin whose vagina dentata makes itself known when a friend rapes her. Gradually, armed with a defense against sexual attack, she starts to take ownership of her own sexuality, accepting that sex is a social minefield, and coming to appreciate her power in it. Horror films have always been inspired by current social anxieties, and Teeth is one of the most striking responses to a generation of women who were sexualized early in life, but only gradually came to terms with their own desires. Like Hard Candy two years earlier, it’s a queasy, often ugly look at gender relations and fears, but it comes with a subversive sense of triumph for women used to the horror-movie message that having sex means earning death. Instead, in Teeth, it usually means dealing death instead.
Where to stream it: It’s currently on Netflix. Like all the films on this list, it’s also available on digital rental or purchase services like Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube. GoWatchIt is a useful tool for rental price comparisons, and to show which platform has which film. We’ve added links to the GoWatchIt pages for these films, for easy access.
Let the Right One In (2008)
The Swedish adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel came out the same year as the first Twilight movie, and both movies feature a close emotional connection between a dangerous vampire and a naïve human. But Let the Right One In takes a much darker, more tragic view on vampires — and on loneliness, humanity, and people’s willingness to do just about anything to not be alone. Let the Right One In, about a young girl vampire making friends with a bullied 12-year-old boy, follows a long tradition of finding monsters much creepier when they interact with kids — or when they look like kids themselves. The sheer chilliness and quiet of Tomas Alfredson’s film helps make it effective, but its surprising blend of gentleness and gore and its terrific kid cast make it memorable.
Where to stream it: Currently on Hulu and Shudder, as well as digital rental services.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Scream set off a wave of genre-savvy meta-horror movies, but none of its other followers so aptly skewered horror as Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods. True to its title, the film follows five young stereotypes on a weekend getaway to a remote cabin, where they’re stalked by a murderous undead family — but only because they were set up by a ghoulish behind-the-scenes group that needs their pain and suffering as a sacrifice to an even greater evil. Horror-comedies are often flippant about the genre’s big tropes, but Cabin in the Woods, like Scream, clearly comes from filmmakers who are fond of those tropes, even when they’re turning them over to interrogate where they came from and what purpose they serve. More bloody and occasionally shocking than actually scary, Cabin in the Woods is pure irreverence, but it’s also solidly paced and assembled. Plus it features Chris Hemsworth as a doofy but smart jock, just after his Thor breakthrough, but before his Avengers fame sunk in.
Where to stream it: Digital rental services.
The V/H/S shorts collection isn’t necessarily standout horror — all anthologies are a mixed bag, and their worst installments tend to stick in the mind as much as the best ones. But in terms of influence, V/H/S is memorable because of the mini-boom it spawned in horror shorts collections like The ABCs of Death series, Volumes of Blood, and XX. The original featured known horror directors Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg, and Ti West, and subsequent ones helped foster the sense that a would-be horror director could get discovered and get vaulted into the majors if they rubbed shoulders with the right creators on these anthologies. That rarely happened, but the theory at least provided encouragement and a suitable market for a new wave of creators.
Where to stream it: It’s on Hulu for subscribers, the ad-supported TubiTV for general viewers, or rental services.
The Purge (2013)
Leave it to a low-budget horror movie to strike a chord with movie audiences about the growing class divide in America, and become a hit franchise in the process. The original The Purge was a locked-in-a-house thriller, starring Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, but the real star was the concept: after America is hit by an economic collapse, a totalitarian group called the New Founding Fathers are swept into public office. Key to their grip on society is “The Purge” — an annual event where all laws are rescinded for 12 hours and people can do whatever they want, without repercussion. Supposedly, The Purge has led to unprecedented economic growth and widespread social civility. After the success of the first film, writer-director James DeMonaco consistently used the franchise’s framework (including the new TV show) to explore classism, racism, and xenophobia. In many ways, The Purge has been horror’s running commentary on this era of American history, which is exactly why it’s so disturbing.
Where to stream it: As part of a DirecTV subscription, or on digital rental services.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
When writer-director Oren Peli set out to make Paranormal Activity, he wasn’t trying to change the trajectory of the horror genre. He was just trying to crank out a micro-budget feature, shooting with a video camera in his own house. But the movie ended up breaking big for eventual distributor Paramount Pictures, and an entire franchise followed. So did scores of imitators, with Paranormal Activity kicking off a found-footage boom on a scale that even exceeded the response to The Blair Witch Project. But while many of the sequels were uneven, Peli’s original film still works, using relentless patience to create truly terrifying jump scares.
Where to stream it: It’s currently streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime, as well as rental services.
The Conjuring (2013)
The original Saw put director James Wan in horror fans’ sights, but The Conjuring franchise may end up as his most significant genre legacy. Inspired by the real-life tales of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the series kicked off with the story of the Perron family, who move into a Rhode Island farmhouse in 1971 and to discover all manners of supernatural menace. The film demonstrated just how skilled Wan is at creating atmosphere and tension, but the series has gone on to spawn its own Marvel-style cinematic universe, with films like The Nun, the spin-off Annabelle series, 2016’s The Conjuring 2, and The Conjuring 3 scheduled to arrive in 2020. The series shows no signs of stopping, though as with many franchises on this list, the original film is without question the best.
Where to stream it: It’s currently on Netflix and HBO Go, and it’s widely digitally rentable.
With so much of our lives spent on phone and computer screens, it was only a matter of time before a movie decided to tell a story using them as a medium. The idea shouldn’t work at all, but Unfriended manages to do two unlikely things at once: it tells a compelling story, and it uses its stylistic conceit well enough that it inspired an entire cottage industry of computer-screen movies. Unfriended’s plot is basically I Know What You Did Last Summer, updated with a timely bullying theme and told from the point of view of several friends hanging out in a Skype chat. But it knows its tropes well, and the trails it blazed have lead to even more compelling films, like the John Cho thriller Searching.
Where to stream it: It’s widely digitally rentable.
The Babadook (2014)
Not every memorable horror film inspires a movement. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook feels less like a groundbreaking trendsetter, and more like an exceptionally well-textured part of the movement toward more personal, niche horror. But it nicely illustrates why that niche horror works so well. Worn-out widow Amelia struggles with her difficult young son Samuel, and the tension between them gets worse when he produces a pop-up picture book about a horrifying monster called The Babadook, and begins obsessing over it. Part of the film’s horror is in Samuel’s creepy-kid behavior, and part is in the images and actions of The Babadook itself — but the film deepens considerably when Kent moves away from predictable haunted-house warfare between the protagonists and the spirit haunting them, and instead suggests that the monster is a mental condition that endangers both Amelia and Sam. The way the story shifts over time to be about something much bigger than scared-of-the-dark nastiness earned The Babadook a lot of respect and admiration on release, and it helped set the stage for even more films about very specific fears.
Where to stream it: Digital rental outlets.
It Follows (2014)
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows takes up a more general fear — sexually transmitted disease — and literalizes it into an unstoppable monster that relentlessly pursues its quarry at a slow, unvarying walking pace. The film goes to some emotionally weird, unpleasant places by the end, but for most of its run, it feels like it’s tapping into universal fears, particularly about the way aging and death eventually come to all of us. It’s the rare film that finds dread in slow-moving inevitability, instead of in sudden shocks. The weighty, intense Disasterpeace score underlines the film’s sense of dread, but mostly, Mitchell gets a long series of unsettling moments out of simply having someone in the background of a shot moving toward the foreground. It’s an example of how in horror, a great premise can easily sub in for a big budget and a lot of special effects. With the right setup and a great cast — in this case, particularly The Guest’s Maika Monroe — even the most seemingly mundane things can become deeply unnerving.
Where to stream it: Streaming on Netflix, or through digital rental.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Ana Lily Amirpour’s stylish black-and-white Farsi-language vampire film feels like a lost 1980s Jim Jarmusch project, thanks to its languid, sleepy 1950s vibe and unending sense of bored, disaffected cool. Set in a fictional small Iran town (and shot in California), the movie follows a young man whose struggles to care for his heroin-addicted father are complicated, first by the thug supplying the drug, and then by the chador-wearing vampire who introduces herself into their lives. Amirpour’s film has been described as a feminist Iranian vampire Western, but she’s pretty consistently dismissed the attempts to make her film about political metaphor or feminist ideals. She’s more interested in channeling James Dean and David Lynch into the same haunting, beautifully shot spectacle, where the players posture and circle around each other, smug in their awareness of their power, youth, and pride, at least until the bloodsucking starts. It’s an exercise in old-school cinematic style, and it’s hypnotic even when it isn’t dynamic.
Where to stream it: Digital rental services.
The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers’ The Witch got a bad rap when it first hit screens, because the marketing led horror fans to believe it was an over-the-top-scary monster movie, when it’s actually tense gothic horror, and the kind of story that ends up communicating that people are much worse monsters than most horror-movie creatures. Eggers put a great deal of thought and work into the look, feel, and especially language of the film, and how to re-create 1630s New England on a small budget. His protagonists, a religious family who leave their Puritan village over dogma differences and settle in the wilderness, run afoul of witches in the woods. But the witches aren’t nearly as much of a threat as the tensions developing between teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her parents. This is another creeping-dread film that’s more about tension and the isolation of the environment than about jump-scares and monster attacks. But it’s a must-see for audiences who like their costume dramas tinged with horror, or their horror made as authentically and immersively as possible.
Where to stream it: Playing on Netflix and through rental services.
Get Out (2017)
While the horror genre is already well-suited to tackling cultural and social anxieties, no movie in recent memory has done so with more surgical precision — or scares and laughs — than Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out. The story of a black photographer who visits the home of his white girlfriend’s parents, only to discover the nefarious horror they and their rich white friends are perpetrating, Get Out walks the narrowest of lines, balancing satire, 1970s-horror paranoia, incisive social commentary, and psychological unease to create a film that is frightening, accessible, and disturbingly resonant. (It also become a massive hit that earned four Oscar nominations, including a win for Peele’s screenplay.)
Where to stream it: DirecTV subscription or digital rental.