Audiences finally saw The Blair Witch Project, an 81-minute, $60,000 indie film that arrived on a huge wave of viral marketing, in late July 1999. It wasn't just a movie; for a few months Blair Witch was a legitimate phenomenon. Its elaborate ad campaign took off like wildfire on the internet (yes, even in 1999 that stuff happened) and helped turn a micro-budget horror movie into a smash hit that pulled in over $248 million worldwide. While the marketing campaign and word-of-mouth helped turn this tiny film into a global sensation, the film itself seemed to split audiences right down the middle: some felt it was little more than an aimless wander through the forest; others (like me) consider it a fascinating example of how to build suspense and tension using little but tone and restraint. It easily ranks among the best horror movies of all time.
The Blair Witch Project changed the horror genre forever, virtually giving birth to the "found footage" style of horror filmmaking, and reminding jaded viewers they could still be scared. Which movies have come closest to chilling the spine in the last 17 years? We rank the truly terrifying titles:
21. May (2002)
Although not overtly "scary" in a traditional sense, Lucky McKee's bittersweet masterpiece earns a lot of points for sincerity, compassion, and off-kilter humor. This underappreciated yet undeniably effective horror film works on a variety of levels (hell, even the late, great Roger Ebert gave the film four stars!) but it's at its best when it's focused on the gradual descent of poor May Canady (Angela Bettis), a strange young woman who alienates most of her acquaintances before deciding to build herself a perfect friend. Yes, that's "build" in the Frankenstein sense. May is gory, funny, and haunting. Because, let's face it, we've all felt like lonely May from time to time.
20. The Conjuring (2013)
Some would say it's tough to wring legitimate scares out of a vehicle as old fashioned as a haunted-house story. Those people probably haven't seen how James Wan does it. Not only in his Insidious series, an infinitely more effective Poltergeist homage than the rotten 2015 Poltergeist remake, but in this take on the late 1970s-style, Amityville-esque template which reinvigorated the whole darn sub-genre. This summer's The Conjuring 2 isn't half-bad either!
19. The Devil's Backbone (2001)
It's tough to pick the scariest moment from a Guillermo del Toro film. The Crimson Peak director has made so many fantastic genre films, and throughout his work, refused to paint monsters as one-note jump-scare caricatures. But there's something tragically ominous about the spirits residing in the isolated orphanage of The Devil's Backbone, a location that's been all but forgotten in a war-torn nation. Del Toro's Cronos is creepy, Pan's Labyrinth is a dark masterpiece, and Crimson Peak is old-school eerie, but The Devil's Backbone feels like the filmmaker's most personal horror story -- and his scariest.
18. Sinister (2012)
We've all seen a few creepy "found footage" horror movies (at least a few, right?) but here's a classically shot horror film that tells the story of the guy who actually found the footage... and quickly came to regret it. Backed by a clever premise, an effortlessly gloomy tone, and a handful of very well-crafted shocks, Sinister has proven to be quite the favorite among contemporary horror fans, and while the flick packs at least five or six great scares into one nasty package, my favorite is still the one they semi-spoiled in the trailer. Who knew a kid in a box could be so damn scary?
17. Kill List (2011)
Director Ben Wheatley broke onto the scene with the caustic family drama Down Terrace and is presently impressing audiences with his scathing adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High-Rise. Tucked comfortably between those films is Kill List, a fascinating and masterfully compelling mixture of crime drama, pitch-black comedy, and full-bore occult-horror insanity. While the film is oddly compelling and undeniably intense from the outset, the truly scary bits don't really show up until about halfway through, when our (anti-)heroes stumble across a religious rite that's nothing short of horrific. You'll know what scene I mean the second it shows up.
16. Let the Right One In (2008)
By 2008, we were due for an intelligent subversion of well-established vampire tropes (apologies, Twilight fans) and this wonderfully effective Swedish import, based on the acclaimed novel from 2004, proved to be precisely what horror fans were looking for. (Those who fear subtitles got a surprisingly effective American remake in 2010.) Not only is Let the Right One In an unexpectedly touching coming-of-age story about a bullied boy and his youthful vampire friend, but it also works remarkably well as a creepy monster movie. The film's scariest moment? Either a gruesome swimming pool attack or a terrifying immolation that takes place in a hospital room. You pick.
15. The Orphanage (2007)
Zombies and slashers and freaks (oh my) will always be spooky, but it takes a special touch to reinvent their shocks. The Orphanage is a masterfully creepy ghost story that takes place in a forgotten old orphanage, and (aside from a few tasty jump-scares here and there) director J.A. Bayona takes great delight in stretching out the tension as long as possible before delivering a well-earned payoff. Several, in fact. This meticulously constructed ghost story is a lovely throwback to atmospheric thrillers of yesteryear, thanks mainly to a great cast, a darkly beautiful setting, and a big handful of well-wrought scares.
14. Saw (2004)
Say what you like about the sequels -- I dig 'em all except for the last one, The Final Chapter -- but those who caught Saw before all the surprises were spoiled were in for a big, bruising treat. First-timers James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (writer) are clearly having a ball with this buffet of horror delights. The low-budget, high-energy horror show goes from suspense to shocks and from police procedural to outright gory mayhem without skipping a beat. I'm not ashamed to admit that the ending, with the reveal of the Jigsaw Killer, totally got me. If you think this movie is little more than "torture porn" (a nonsense phrase) then you need to give it another spin.
13. The House of the Devil (2009)
Nobody does "slow-burn horror" like indie stalwart Ti West. While he earned big points with the genre crowd on films like The Innkeepers and The Sacrament, there's just something innately unnerving about his invasion horror film, The House of the Devil. Chalk it up to the film's gradual escalation of tension, the well-presented payoff, and a handful of great performances. The icing on the cake is the brilliant sound design. When a horror film has its viewer actively listening for random door creaks or far-off bumps in the night, then you know you're dealing with craftsmanship. The House of the Devil played me like a flute.
12. Inside (2007)
Horror fans have always been able to look towards France for freaky, new, and invigorating horror. On the surface, Inside is little more than a polished, super violent "cat & mouse" thriller. Take it seriously, and you find themes of isolation, alienation, the fears that arise when you're about to have a baby. As a (very) pregnant woman tries to stay one step ahead of a (very) psychotic invader, the viewer is treated to a wide array of dark thrills, gory chills, and graphic kills. Not a horror movie for the kids, but a shockingly entertaining piece of grown-up genre cinema.
11. The Mist (2007)
There are so many great moments to choose from in this wonderfully icky Frank Darabont rendition of a very fun Stephen King novella -- from the giant tentacle in the loading dock to Marcia Gay Harden's powerfully creepy performance -- but for my money the highlight of The Mist is the ill-fated trek from besieged supermarket to abandoned pharmacy... and the horrific creatures that lay in wait. Others would probably point to the film's unapologetically bleak ending as the scariest moment in the film, but however you slice it, The Mist is easily one of the best monster movies of the last two decades. (And the B&W version on the Blu-ray is a true thing of beauty.)
10. The Witch (2016)
Just when you start to worry that there's nothing original happening in horror, you settle in with The Witch, a dark thriller that's so damn realistic that you wonder how they transported a camera back to 1630s New England. A meticulous attention to period detail -- from the clothes to the location to the dialogue -- makes The Witch a novel diversion. An insidiously slow burn makes the film diabolically creepy. There are several cerebral scares scattered throughout, but the highlight has to be a creepy ol' beast named "Black Philip." I may never look at a goat the same way again.
9. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle's blisteringly intense tale of a "rage virus" that leaves London in ruins is loaded with bursts of suspense and terror. The grainy video aesthetic, and the unnerving sound design in the film's opening sequence (as eco-terrorists choose the wrong damn monkey to set free), set the stage for the intensity to come. The church scene, the disturbing fate of Brendan Gleeson's character, and a rousing finale that shows how the uninfected can be even more terrifying than the afflicted, make this a classic.
8. The Babadook (2014)
Rare are the horror films that can scare young people and their parents in equal measure. Jennifer Kent pulls it off in the wonderfully eerie The Babadook. Kids will no doubt earn a few chills from the ominous storybook character who seemingly comes to life, and grown-ups will appreciate the clever subtext about how scary it is to be a parent. A darkly beautiful storybook sequence still sticks with me today.
7. Frailty (2001)
Actor Bill Paxton is known for a wide variety of great performances in movies like Near Dark, True Lies, and Aliens. But there's at least one film that proves Paxton has some serious skills behind the camera: the unsettling, quietly audacious Frailty. Paxton's directorial debut is backed by a fantastic screenplay and a variety of strong performances. The film's willingness to tread into some deep, dark, potentially controversial material that makes it more than just another well-made horror flick. Frailty is about a madman and his two sons who come to believe that they're supposed to kill "demons." The ambiguity of the religious thriller is what makes it so darn scary. Bonus points for Paxton's performance, which wavers between good-natured and flatly terrifying without missing a beat.
6. It Follows (2015)
David Robert Mitchell's It Follows has proven to be a divisive movie, but really, no one has seen anything quite like it before. The masterfully constructed movie is basically about a sexually transmitted demonic possession, but there's more to it than a refreshingly unique premise. Mitchell layers It Follows with creepy "what ifs" and effective jolts. The best scare is probably the one involving a bedroom, a doorway, and a very oddly shaped intruder. The whole movie plays like an eerie fever dream, but that one sequence still gets me after having seen the film at least six times.
5. Martyrs (2008)
This nasty French import is about a psychotic young woman who slaughters a family for (perhaps) justifiable reasons, then quickly descends into a freaky landscape of brutality, nihilism, and outright evil. Throughout all the nasty stuff, Martyrs poses fascinating questions about our capacity for suffering and the impact that violence has on the human soul. But beware: despite being brilliantly conceived, the film is too heavy to throw in for a typical horror-movie night. This one is reserved strictly for the serious horror fans.
4. Session 9 (2001)
Few things are creepier than a real-life location that feels tailor-made for a horror movie. Director Brad Anderson found one in the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts (though the decrepit, abandoned asylum has since been torn down, so don't go looking for it). The endlessly eerie building is the stage for a group of asbestos-removal workers who stumble across not only a few unhappy spirits, but horrible secrets that threaten to infect their own minds. The scariest sequence involves an underground hallway, a rapidly dwindling light supply, and a very panic-stricken young man. Anderson nails it.
3. The Ruins (2008)
Those who read the Scott Smith novel of the same name simply had to wonder, "How the hell are they going to make killer vines scary?" Then they saw the movie. The Ruins follows a bunch of naive Americans who (very stupidly) decide to explore a Mexican ruin full of murderous foliage. And if you don't think "murderous vines" sounds like a scary concept, just wait until you've experienced the horrific ways in which these biological predators get under their victims' skin. (Kudos to the special effects team -- yikes!) Forced to choose a horrific moment from this grim, gruesome gore-fest's many, many, many horrific moments, I'd probably choose the amputation scene. That one will give you nightmares. Good nightmares.
2. The Descent (2005)
Movies that tap into a "universal fear" scare the hardest. Neil Marshall, the director behind a few of your favorite Game of Thrones episodes, chose claustrophobia in his spelunking-gone-wrong horror movie, The Descent. If a suffocating location and dimly lit shooting style weren't creepy enough, The Descent boasts some supremely nasty monsters who live deep beneath the surface. When they discover a welcome new food source in a foolhardy group of women, hell breaks loose. Weirdly enough, the scariest scene doesn't even involve the creatures; just a very narrow squeeze between two caverns.
1. [REC] 2 (2009)
Most horror geeks have no doubt enjoyed the [REC] vs. [REC] 2 debate, and the best thing about arguments like this is that neither side is wrong. The first film deserves credit for delivering such a unique and fascinating piece of horror cinema that combines found footage, bio-horror, and claustrophobic, "zombie"-style mayhem. The sequel deserves even more for expanding the conceit and being even scarier than its predecessor. The later sequels are not half-bad, nor is the American remake, Quarantine, but nothing comes close to the one-two punch of [REC] and [REC] 2. If you've never seen these two films, I envy you.
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