Horror films used to be scary. That scariness was driven by an ominous atmosphere that provided the audience with a subtle hair-raising creepiness throughout the film. Rather than the “every now and again” sense of being scared, you were left with this sense of jumpiness and increased heart rate from beginning to end. There was a sense of actual horror due to the imaginative sense of the setting, the music, and the lighting. The story could be as simple as it wanted, because the true sense of horror came from everything surrounding the story.
The modern horror movie, however, has attempted to transition into a new era of horror by relying primarily on cheap jump scares, found footage mechanisms, and most noticeably, cringeworthy gore-fests. There have been bright spots for the lost art of horror, such as The Descent (2005), The Strangers (2008), 28 Days Later (2002), The Ring (2002), and Trick 'r Treat (2007). Unfortunately, most horror films since 2000 have relied on the aforementioned tropes and left horror fans without that feverish sense to keep the lights on.
Luckily for horror fans, a few handfuls of films over the past five years have lent credence to the idea that horror can be scary again.
Notable films not included on this list are: The Babadook, Kill List, Sinister, V/H/S, Annabelle, The Witch, and Don't Breathe.
The list is in no particular order:
1. The Conjuring (2013) / The Conjuring 2 (2016)
This list may not be in any order, but the first two films of The Conjuring franchise would be No. 1 regardless. James Wan doesn't bring about too much originality in his methods (quick acknowledgment for the amazingly used Hide-and-Clap), but rather does well with what made past horror so successful. Looking past the use of every type of jump scare imaginable, these movies are are well-crafted with the near-perfect blend of atmosphere, eeriness, sound effects, and silence.
2. Insidious (2010)
It may not have the curb-appeal of an "Amityville," but this haunted house movie takes the genre old school. In a very gothic manner, Insidious sets up a story that is an honest homage to films that can built a fluid tension and keep an audience wired and waiting for something to snap. Unfortunately, the set up for this movie is much more successful than the final act and the supernatural silliness. But nonetheless, the old school scares and score keep the movie infused with a type of nostalgia that keeps you satisfied. Solid acting all-around as well, but it is the "Bride in Black" who is the real star of the movie.
3. Mama (2013)
Any time Guillermo del Toro is tied to a project, you can raise your expectations for the visionary brilliance, and this is no exception. There a few scares to be had, but it is perhaps the nightmare sequences that really bring this film together and seep into your memory. This film doesn't waste time running away from the generic ghost story, as it relies on visionaries from the fantasy genre to drive the plot's story with a style that only del Toro could have influenced. It is this fantasy-driven atmosphere that drives the thrill of the film, while the attachment to the young sisters makes you invested in their safety.
4. Lights Out (2016)
I'll admit, as a therapist, I am slightly biased towards this film as its an allegory for living and dealing with mental illness. Bias aside, this movie is consistently effective. It may not have the magic that the original short offered, but what it loses in style it makes up for in story. The story-driven plot is successful and does not rely solely on the typical horror elements, as many horror films do today. It does not offer much uniqueness in how it orchestrates its scares, but the film is smart, both in the use of its main device (lights) and in the pace of the story. The movie played it safe, but safe doesn't always equate to boring.
5. The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
OK, sure, it isn't a horror movie, but a horror-comedy. However, the importance of this movie is less about the content as it is the conversation. The movie serves as a commentary on the modern slasher film, primarily the stupid choices that we have seen a slew of characters make. The film explores the rules of the horror genre and it attempts to answer what happens when the rules are broken.
6. It Follows (2014)
The first time I read the synopsis for the film I thought it was utterly ridiculous, and it is. A sexually-transmitted haunting? But it's original and these days that is a rarity. Not only is it original, but the camera work in this movie achieves such an unsettling feeling as we wait to see if the haunting can catch up to its victims. The uneasiness in this movie is carefully constructed and it achieves its purpose.
7. The Hallow (2015)
Sure, we've seen this story before: family moves to an isolated house and are haunted by creatures in the woods surrounding them. What the movie does well is mold its various plot points into the setting (such as the black fungus) and create an atmospheric tone similar to the dark woods it portrays. The characters are not the brightest and have quite a few "why didn't you listen?" moments, but the overall blend of atmosphere and creature designs gives the movie some props as a generous creature feature. Surprisingly enough, the movie successfully uses the "they want your baby" plot in a way that is exhilarating, and the latter half of the movie is all the better for it.
8. Hush (2016)
Before the release of the critically-acclaimed Don't Breathe (2016), this little gem played with the idea of a lead character with a sense-based disability. In this home invasion thriller, the "victim" who succumbs to the predator is deaf. The scenes when the movie accentuates her deafness by letting the audience experience the silence that she does is pure brilliance. A strong imagination or not, when you witness a man in a white face mask outside your window and you can't hear a thing, you will shudder. While a good score and sound effects can make or break a horror film, this movie throws that book out the window and all you can hear is successful silence.
9. You're Next (2011)
Another home invasion thriller, and the one movie on this list that has appeal for gore-whores. This movie definitely leaves much to be desired, with down points of crappy camera work and less than stellar acting. However, this movie gives some twists and surprises that injected some new blood into the home invasion sub-genre. What really drove this movie to this list is the success and uniqueness it brings in its combination of dark humor and energy. Plus, having a female protagonist kick ass in a most deciding way doesn't hurt either.
10. The Visit (2015)
Perhaps the most surprising movie on this list is the latest from the lost career of M. Night Shyamalan. The amount of cliches throughout this movie is ridiculous, however, the movie is entertaining and even ridiculous at times. Something about it draws you in, probably the drive to know the twist, cause you know he can't make a movie without one. The best part is that even when it comes, and you know it's going to come, the shock is real. Bravo, Shyamalan, bravo.
For a larger scale retrospective look, check out this list of the top 50 horror movies of the last century in the video below:
What modern films do you think have honored the horror genre the best in the past few years? Let me know in the comments below.