A friend recently issued me a challenge: come up with a top 10 list of the best horror films that are not torture porn or similar to Paranormal Activity. I accepted this challenge with the intention of upping the stakes: find good horror that is also more recent to this millennium that are not sequels, remakes or based on a zombie or virus like apocalypse. If you are looking for some new scares beyond the classics, take a spoiler-free journey after the jump to find out what you’ve been missing out on in the horror world lately.
When it comes to horror these past 12-years, you’d find a sheer lack of creativity or boldness. Many new films like The Possession, The Unborn or Apollo 18 play it safe by going through the motions and providing cheap jump scares with weak tension. Many others have been lackluster remakes or rely on their ability to make the audience feel uncomfortable with as much gore as possible. More recently, the Paranormal Activity franchise has become a new Halloween tradition, replacing the Saw series, which many audiences have grown tired of.
Creating this list was a little more difficult than I believed it would be. I was loose on genre restrictions to begin with, but later became very picky as to what I considered to be actual horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is a great, but I would consider it to be more a fantasy adventure. I figured most people had seen American Psycho, so I thought I’d give other movies a chance. And then there is Old Boy and Battle Royale, two fantastic foreign films that have terrifying moments, but are more thriller action stories than true horror.
The Loved Ones and I Saw the Devil are pretty close to the torture porn genre, but are so far removed from the rest that they are worth your time due to the unique nature of both. I would like to put Martyrs on every list, but because of the ludicrous amount of violence and sadistic visual imagery I could not put this on my list. It is a film that will sit with you for a very, very long time. Martyrs is insanely exhausting, frustrating, and disturbing, yet it has the ability to reward for those who love true horror.
So let’s begin shall we? And I don’t think I should have to say this, but lights off while viewing these movies is a must.
WARNING: Do not watch the trailers for ANY of these in order to preserve the excellence of these films!
10: Triangle (Directed by Christopher Smith) Starring Melissa George, Joshua McIvor and Jack Taylor
Synopsis: The story revolves around the passengers of a yachting trip in the Atlantic Ocean who, when struck by mysterious weather conditions, jump to another ship only to experience greater havoc on the open seas.
Triangle is a fantastic thriller that will keep you guessing until the end. Increasing the level of suspense, Triangle does a wonderful job of toying with your expectations. Melissa George does an incredibly well as the lead character, Jess, who comes across a series of unfortunate events that may or may not be what they appear to be.
Of course the title of the film would lead you to believe that our seafarers have befallen upon the Bermuda Triangle, but once the story gets rolling, a cliché other dimension is the last thing you’ll be thinking about. Forget Ghost Ship and Event Horizon, docking onto another mysterious vessel has never been so thrilling.
9: Splinter (2008) (Directed by Toby Wilkins) Starring Shea Whigham, Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo
Synopsis: Trapped in an isolated gas station by a voracious parasite that transforms its still living victims into deadly hosts, a young couple and an escaped convict must find a way to work together to survive this primal terror.
Creating a scenario that isolates your characters to a single location because they are afraid to leave can be an easy task, but it’s in how you keep them there that evokes a truly gripping horror. ATM and Hypothermia have completely intolerable characters with a premise so ludicrous, you will feel self hatred for pressing play. When you formulate a movie where you are trapped with characters in a single location they have to be relatable to the situation and most importantly, the audience needs to like them – Alien does this quite well.
Splinter is a parasitic creature feature that infects other hosts by physical exposure. Like any horror, we need to buy that this threat is realistic enough to believe in it, and Splinter accomplishes this feat with ease. With as low of a budget as this film appeared to have, the parasite was very convincing. I generally felt terrified at the thought of how much peril these characters were in. There is one moment that is so gut-wrenchingly gruesome that it is comprehensible to think that this would be the only plausible option to help this one character to survive. It’s rare to see a film like this succeed with such little credibility to back it up, but this is once chance that you won’t regret
8: The Strangers (Directed by Bryan Bertino) Starring Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler and Gemma Ward
Synopsis: A young couple staying in an isolated vacation home are terrorized by three unknown assailants.
The plot synopsis alone is about all you need to know before going into The Strangers. I beg you to heed my warning and not watch the trailer. It practically ruins moment of tension. Another horror about isolation, this is the only film on this list that could be conceivable in the real world. In actuality, The Strangers was based on the Keddie Cabin Murders of 1981.
Entirely a slow burn, The Strangers escalates into a chilling tale of home invasion that will make you question the next time you answer the door. The movie does a great job at filling you in on the relationship between the characters played by Speedman and Tyler before the terror begins. The intruders succeed in making you feel very uncomfortable, making this an outstanding horror. The Strangers deliver an eerie vibe through and through that you cannot shake off once the credits begin to roll.
7: The Last Exorcism (Directed by Daniel Stamm) Starring Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Louis Herthum and Iris Bahr
Synopsis: A troubled evangelical minister agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew.
The Last Exorcism appeared on my best of 2010 list. Not all exorcism films succeed, and neither do found footage films. But this movie integrates both genres so harmoniously together that it creates a wonderfully disturbing horror. It really tests your beliefs along with the main character whether or not you think possession is real or not. And big kudos should be given to Ashley Bell for her first big performance on the big screen.
Playing on the facet of faith versus false hope, The Last Exorcism conveys exorcism like no other movie has done before. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, which can only be praised by the excellent use of found footage style. Never have I found exorcisms stories so engaging until I saw this.
It’s currently on Netflix Watch Instant!
6: Cloverfield (Directed by Matt Reeves) Starring Mike Vogel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, and Odette Yustman
Synopsis: Revolves around a monster attack in New York as told from the point of view of a small group of people.
I questioned as to whether I should put Cloverfield on my list. When I first saw this film I was completely angry at the end, but the longer it sat with me the more I had a hankering to see it again. It has so many redeeming qualities that it makes up for the end and they actually enhance it with repeat viewings. The only other found footage film on my list, Cloverfield is the best example of how to do it correctly.
Produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield had a lot of mystery leading up to its release. There are so many tense moments that are unexplainable at the time, but when the pieces begin to fall into place it makes rewatching Cloverfield incredibly rewarding. The actors do such an amazing job to make everything appear so believable that due to the found footage nature, you feel like you are on this journey with them.
Every second our protagonists spend trying to avoid the monster going from building to build and underground is utterly horrifying. The camera work does a great job at capturing the emotion of what was taking place without giving you a sense of motion sickness. I dare you to give Cloverfield a try if you’ve ever turned your nose up to it before or after you’ve seen it in the past. This is one monster flick that puts the classics like Godzilla or King Kong to shame.
5: The Mist (Directed by Frank Darabont) Starring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Laurie Holden, and Andre Braugher
Synopsis: A freak storm unleashes a species of bloodthirsty creatures on a small town, where a small band of citizens hole up in a supermarket and fight for their lives.
We’ve had two films on this list so far that make holding up indoors feel safe. But trapped within the confines of a supermarket, The Mist constructs a well-thought out plot element that creates an effective tension that leaves some characters to question whether they should take their chances on the outside. The Mist is one of the worst scenarios you could find yourself in and at the end makes you glad you’ll hopefully never have to endure that type of situation ever.
Possibly the bleakest of all on this list, The Mist takes a close look at the human condition and dissects how we would react under the sharpest microscope. Pushing every character’s back against a wall, it is powerfully frightening to see what is contained on the inside could be more dangerous than what is waiting for everyone on the outside.
The Mist also has three actors from The Walking Dead, Andrea, Dale, and Carol.
4: Insidious (Directed by James Wan) Staring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, and Ty Simpkins
Synopsis: A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.
Grabbing my attention as one of the best movies of 2011, Insidious is the freakiest on this list. Everything you see will get your heart racing. If you’re looking for an absolutely goosebump inducing horror, Insidious will never back down from beginning to end. With the amount of chills you’ll feel, you’d think you had five spines.
The music is nail biting, the jump scares are fantastic, and the whole tone of Insidious is completely terrifyingly eerie. It is purely one of the best movies about a haunting that you could ever watch. It takes a lot for me to feel scared within a horror film these days, and when I actually allowed a second to breathe, I realized how tight I was clenching my fists. If you want to have a date completely dug into your shoulder by the end of the night, pick Insidious, that is if you aren’t scared by the end yourself.
This movie is on Netflix Watch Instant now!
3: The Cabin in the Woods (Directed by Drew Goddard) Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford and Anna Hutchison
Synopsis: Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods.
Scary Movie had a good thing going with it’s satirical play on the horror genre presented in comedic fashion. What Cabin does, is take that premise of analyzing the genre and completely flips it on its head, delivering a frightfully good time and an awe-inspiring result.
With some help by the Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard does a fantastic job in his first directorial debut after writing many stories for Buffy, Angel, Lost, and Alias – he actually wrote Cloverfield too. Cabin represents the horror genre faithfully that it is simply genius. You’ll never find a better movie that can critique a genre so well, yet create a perfect entry.
The Cabin in the Woods also leads up to one of the best climaxes you will ever witness in any horror movie ever. There are so many rich character moments and terrific writing that it would be hard pressed for any horror fan not to love it. One of the most anticipated films for me this year, The Cabin in the Woods will definitely make my best of list for 2012.
2: Trick ‘r Treat (Directed by Michael Dougherty) Starring Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, and Dylan Baker
Synopsis: Five interwoven stories that occur on Halloween: An everyday high school principal has a secret life; a college virgin might have just met the one guy for her; a group of teenagers pull a mean prank; a woman who loathes the night has to contend with her holiday-obsessed husband; an old man is terrorized by a trick or treater.
Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are all idealistic examples of true horror, but Trick ‘r Treat is the greatest exemplifcation of the holiday spirit. It’s hard to create a true anthology story that binds an all encompassing theme, but this filmsews the nature of Halloween together so effectively within these five stories that it makes for a new holiday favorite.
Like The Cabin in the Woods, Trick ‘r Treat took a long time to get off the shelf before it was released to the public. It became another highly sought after horror that I had to get my hands on – and it was well worth the wait. Each story has its own unique personality, making them all refreshing and enjoyable. There are moments of laughter, joy, sexuality, and of course terror – all the elements you need to establish an effective horror movie. One you can enjoy for years to come!
1: The Descent (Directed by Neil Marshall) Starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza and Alex Reid
Synopsis: A caving expedition goes horribly wrong, as the explorers become trapped and ultimately pursued by a strange breed of predators.
Ever since I saw The Descent, I knew in my mind that it would be something that would stick with me for the rest of my life. An impeccable entry into the creature feature genre, The Descent takes that aspect, weaves in claustrophobia, and asks the question, “how far are you willing to go to survive?” These ladies seek out adventure to feel alive, but once they realize what they must go through in this cave, they’ll definitely know what it means to live.
The Descent is unrelentless at every turn; these women have to truly fight for their lives. Not only will this movie make you afraid of the dark again, but will have you seriously question the next time the urge to go spelunking pops into your head. Physically exhausting, The Descent will make you experience every step, or climb, these explorers endure in order to find their way out of the cave. The Descent is riveting, excruciatingly intense, absolutely frightening, and will have you holding your breath at various times throughout the film.
If I were you, go for the extended British ending, it has a unique oomph to it that will make you really appreciate true horror.
Honorable mentions: Troll Hunter, The Ward, Devil, Rubber, Orphan, Sweeney Todd, The Orphanage, The Innkeepers, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, and Contagion.
All plot synopsies taken from IMDb.com