In case you’ve been living under a tombstone, it’s been a pretty good time for horror movies. Films like It and A Quiet Place are breaking box office records. Movies like Get Out and The Shape of Water are bringing home the hardware during awards season. And the indie scene has been cranking out the some of the most original horror movies we’ve ever seen.
There’s a number of factors that have led to this “horror renaissance” we’re currently in, but the biggest one is pretty obvious: an increase in overall quality of movies. Moviegoers aren’t just going to the theaters for the scares anymore. People are excited to see well-made, thought-provoking movies again. It’s a beautiful thing.
There’s even been films that have transcended past being a great movie, so far as to be regarded as a modern classic in a short amount of time. Which brings us to today’s list. Below are 10 films I believe have achieved this status.From films likely to be studied in film school, to movies that have become underground favorites. Let’s get it out of the way: I’m no expert and my opinion of what is considered “classic” is most likely different than yours. So to create this list, I not only created a criteria to judge these films but also reached out on social media to get the opinion of the people. Real quick, here is my criteria for the list:
- Released between 2000-2017 (sorry, you’re not going to see Hereditary on this list.)
- Objective film quality (is it well-made?)
- Cultural relevance/Legacy (how did/will it affect people over time?)
- Impact on the genre (did it change the game?)
Also, here’s a few honorable mentions that almost made the list and deserve a shout out: The Babadook, The Blair Witch Project, Cabin in the Woods, The Descent, The VVitch, Martyrs and many more. With all of that out of the way, here is my ranked list of 10 Modern Masterpieces!
10. Cloverfield (2008)
Let’s kick off the list with a little controversy! Found footage, in the scope of horror history, is still a fairly new sub-genre. It’s also one of the most divisive, with many having different opinions on what the best found footage movie is – between The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield. Though the first two may have pioneered the craze, first doesn’t necessarily equal best for me.
The JJ Abrams creature feature is an example of using a medium to its full potential. The found footage aspect works so well, contributing to the sense of urgency one would feel during a monster attack. And with the story unfolding in real-time, we only know as much as the characters in the film do. The mystery combined with the protagonist’s perspective made the reveal of Clover that much sweeter, because the found footage really gives scope to the situation. Cloverfield is even an example where the dreaded shakey-cam is justified – the biggest flaw of found-footage. Pushing the format to its limits, on top of being a fantastic monster flick makes Cloverfield the penultimate found-footage classic.
9. 28 Days Later (2003)
The early 2000s saw a resurgence in zombie movies, a sub-genre that had grown a bit stale. 28 Days Later led the charge in 2003 as probably the most grounded, realistic zombie flicks ever to hit the big screen. Helmed by the versatile Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later follows Jim (fantastic performance by Cillian Murphy) who has just awoken from a coma to discover a post-apocalyptic London. What makes this film special is that it’s a human story with a zombie backdrop. Along Jim’s journey, he deals with the grief of losing his parents, bonds with fellow survivors, and navigates a dangerous military situation.
28 Days Later shines not only in its humanistic approach, but with its political metaphors as well. On top of that, its bleak and dread-filled atmosphere immerses you right into the world. 28 Days Later routinely tops “best zombie movie” lists and paved the way for the new wave zombie flicks like Shaun of the Dead, Train to Busan, and a sequel, 28 Weeks Later.
8. The Final Girls (2015)
I went back and forth hard between this film and Cabin in the Woods, (the toughest decision of the list, and one that I’ll probably get yelled at for). That being said, The Final Girls did everything that Cabin in the Woods did but even better, in my opinion. The Final Girls is the ultimate love letter to slasher films and final girls, taking meta to a whole new level. It’s not the first meta film, taking notes from Scream and New Nightmare, but it’s definitely the most creative. Our protagonists are trapped inside their favorite slasher movie and must rely on their horror movie knowledge to survive. But The Final Girls doesn’t just take aim at classic slasher tropes, it comes after horror filmmaking in general.
On top of that, The Final Girls is simply a terrific movie. It has top-notch production value, a surprising amount of emotional weight, and is one of the funniest horror movies I’ve ever seen. Its place on the list might be based more on potential than anything, but it’s finally getting seen and will probably have a similar journey as Trick r’ Treat (more on that in a minute). If marketed better, it could have reached a larger audience and been a summer smash hit. Luckily, The Final Girls has quickly become a cult favorite and is prime for midnight screenings down the road.
7. Trick r’ Treat (2009)
Over the span of a decade, Trick r Treat has evolved from obscure indie flick, to cult classic, to a bona-fide Halloween staple. A couple of years ago, I had never even heard of it. But since then, I couldn’t imagine October without watching it. The film had it tough out of the gates, with its release being delayed nearly two years without a theatrical run. But the horror community is nothing if not persistent, championing the film to new heights.
I’m a sucker for a good anthology, and the way Trick r Treat interweaves its stories is absolutely brilliant. Each story has its own theme and teaches a different lesson, while keeping the overall narrative intact. The film treats Halloween like a twisted fairy tale, giving us one of the most iconic characters in horror, Sam. It has everything: blood, violence, comedy, and some fantastic practical effects. Most importantly though, it embodies the very spirit of Halloween. Even with a botched release, Trick r Treat has risen above to become a horror staple. All it took was time, so I’m fairly confident The Final Girls will follow a similar path.
6. Let the Right One In (2008)
Another big part of the horror renaissance from the past decade is the resurgence of foreign film. I’m not sure what it is, but horror fans have seemingly become more open to foreign film. The Swedish film Let the Right One In is a brilliant example of transcending the genre, using the medium to create something more than just a horror movie. On the surface, it’s another vampire movie. But if you peel back the layers, you discover a delicate coming-of-age story exploring themes such as adolescent love and loneliness.
Let the Right One In is truly beautiful in every way; its ice-cold cinematography, the portrayal of friendship, and even the bloody cold open. For better or worse, the film also started the craze of adapting foreign films in English with the American version, Let Me In, garnering praise of its own. This film has helped bring the horror community closer together, showing that great storytelling has no language barrier.
5. Get Out (2017)
The most recent film on the list, Get Out is also arguably the most relevant. My favorite aspect of horror is the ability to tell a grounded story without the constraints of reality. Jordan Peele crafted what has been dubbed a “social thriller”, taking on themes of discrimination and racism head on. Peele showed us the terrifying reality of racism in a way that couldn’t be ignored.
Get Out was probably the most talked about horror- eh…scratch that, movies of 2017. On top of that, it’s an expertly crafted film. The first-time director showed a genuine understanding of fear and how to create atmosphere. Peele’s script (which you can read online) is insanely tight, leaving no details left unnoticed. Throw in an insane third act and an Oscar-nominated performance from Daniel Kaluuya, you get a classic that we’re going to talk about for decades.
4. American Psycho (2000)
This is one I could see people arguing not to be on the list, but American Psycho is my favorite movie and I have a case to be made for it. It checks all the boxes of my criteria, I’ve always been confused why it isn’t brought up more often as one of the greats. Luckily this has changed over the 18 years since its release, garnering a cult following. The film is underrated on a production level, containing masterclass editing and one of the most iconic soundtracks in horror. Christian Bale’s performance is transcendent, crafting the perfect charismatic psychopath (with quotable lines for days) to watch in this shocking character study.
Patrick Bateman is truly terrifying as a direct representation of the evil potential humanity possesses, the idea that anyone could be an unhinged murderer. It changed the game for dark comedies, leaning to both extremes of violent gore and hilarious dialogue without unraveling. Lastly, it’s a film that’s become more relevant over the years. It’s themes of materialism, existentialism, and narcissism still hold up to this day. If you haven’t revisited American Psycho in a minute, pick it up. Don’t you have some videotapes to return, anyways?
3. The Conjuring (2013)
It’s hard to pinpoint when this recent golden age of horror began, but for me it was James Wan’s haunted house/possession throwback The Conjuring. There were definitely great movies made prior to 2013, but this film sticks out in its execution. Is it the most original movie? No. Is it things we’ve seen before? Yes. But that’s kind of the cool thing: it has a lot of the tropes from haunted house and possession movies, but cliché can work if done properly.
The Conjuring sets up a world with relatable characters, a fantastic setting, and a terrifying mythology that just worked. James Wan also crafts incredibly inventive scares to keep you on the edge of your seat. The film also focuses on something a lot of horror movies weren’t for a long time: great acting performances, anchored by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The Conjuring was also the beginning of Blumhouse’s dependable business model: giving directors modest budgets, creative freedom and actually promoting their films. In a way, this has bridged the gap between mainstream and independent filmmaking.
2. Saw (2003)
I would have been put into a reverse bear trap by the online film community if I didn’t include psychological gorefest Saw on my list, and rightfully so. The product of two future horror icons, James Wan and Leigh Whannell joined forces to craft a film that would go on to be one of the most successful horror franchises (8 films and counting) of all-time and make “torture porn” a staple sub-genre in horror. The film also birthed one of horror’s most infamous characters: John Kramer, aka The Jigsaw Killer played by the incomparable Tobin Bell.
What’s interesting, after watching the entire franchise back in October, is how different the original Saw movie is from the rest. The first film shines with a less-is-more approach, utilizing its small cast and setting to deliver a masterclass in suspense. Gratuitous gore, the shocking plot twist, the serialized nature of the franchise…so many things came from this film, making it possibly the most influential horror movie on this list. A true classic.
1. It Follows (2015)
Topping the list is the film that made me fall in love with horror movies, It Follows. I have liked horror movies my entire life, but it wasn’t until I saw this stylish supernatural thriller that I became a full-fledged fiend. Another film that pushes the boundaries of what the genre can do, It Follows uses horror as metaphor for sexual freedom. Manifesting the fears of sex into a physical being, It is always around and there is no escaping it. It Follows does a tremendous job of playing with real life fears, grounding us in a surreal reality. But the standout aspects of the film are definitely its stylish production element.
I didn’t know horror movies could be this beautiful or cool looking. I didn’t know a horror movie score could be so eerily groovy (shout out to Disasterpeace, this thing slaps). The fact that you have no idea where or when this movie takes place enforces that this nightmare could happen to anyone, at any time. From concept to execution, this film is inventive and downright terrifying. It Follows is a classic as it has paved the way for creative horror movies the past few years, showing once again that the genre can be used for more than scares and tell intelligent stories in unconventional ways. If not for this film, we wouldn’t have movies like It Comes at Night, Annihilation, and so many more. Between quality and its impact on the genre, It Follows is the penultimate modern classic in my books.
And that’s the end of this list! A case for 10 other films to be included could definitely be made – but in reality how can one truly decide if something is a classic or not? It took The Shining years before being agreed upon as a classic, so only time will tell how many of these movies are still talked about in 20 years.
Until then, let’s talk about it on social media! Agree? Disagree? Share your list of modern masterpieces on Twitter or in the Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!