This film has been on my top horror lists since its release, and it’s slowly made its way higher with each viewing. Now, it finally sits where it was destined to, as the most terrifying, disturbing, well-acted, perfectly paced horror film not just of the last five years but of the last decade. It’s a true modern classic that joins the ranks of The Exorcist, Halloween, Psycho, and other iconic productions that constitute the best achievements of the genre. For the ultimate effect, watch this one as late at night as possible, with all of the lights off and either alone or with just a small number of other people. This film grossed $77 million off of a $3 million budget, so it performed very well and had terrific profit margins.
2. The Babadook
With serious capacity to disturb viewers, it relies not just on monstrous terror but also psychological terror of the most frightening sort. Some of the most unnerving and chilling moments are not of the creepy creature, but of the little boy as he seems to lose his mind or lashes out until his mother is losing hers. Amazingly effective with very few literal “traditional” scares, it relies on tension and unsettling real-life moments to make the darker parts all the more horrific. Budgeted at a low $2 million, the film pulled nearly $7 million in theaters and garnered widespread acclaim as one of the greatest modern horror releases.
3. The Conjuring
Supposedly based on a true story (but of course, none of it is seriously true), it’s old-school haunted house cinema extraordinaire. There is an instant timelessness to the proceedings, and a visual texture that is John R. Leonetti’s career-best. If you want to ensure you’ll spend the rest of the night awake under your covers, jumping at every creaking floorboard and afraid to look at the closet door lest it seem to move, this is your ticket. At $20 million to produce, the film was a major hit with $318 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable and highest-grossing horror films in history.
4. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Sensual shades of black and gray mingle to a hip western score for a vampire romance by way of Dead Man and Rumble Fish. Few directors in horror have a freshman outing as perfect as this, and it’s brilliant that the blood letting is of secondary importance to the main characters and arcs woven throughout the film. With a micro-budget, the film had a limited release and only took just under $500,000. But it received almost universal critical praise, as well it should, and is building quite a following on home entertainment among horror fans.
5. It Follows
Whether perceived as a parable on the dangers of unprotected sex in the age of AIDS and pandemics, or a proclamation of reclaiming control of life and sexuality amid those sorts of dangers, or even as more about broader concepts of simultaneous risks of intimacy and isolation in the modern hyper-connected world, it’s undeniably great filmmaking. The relentlessness, personal nature of the central conflict makes it most of all a story simply about death’s inevitability however hard we fight to delay or deny it, and that is ultimately why it resonated so strongly with audiences. That, and it’s scary as hell. Costing just $2 million to produce, this movie more than covered expenses even with an extremely modest $18 million theatrical cume.
Complex occult terror that devilishly throws us off balance in parallel stories past and present. Constantly forcing viewers to question and second-guess their expectations and perceptions, it delivers gory goods for those who think the rest of the list isn’t quite bloody enough. But it’s far more than that, and you’ll appreciate the smart storytelling and effective acting. The $44 million box office numbers are a win, in light of the comparatively low $5 million budget, another entry that proves low-to-modest budgeting is typically the smartest and most profitable route for horror.
7. The Cabin in the Woods
Among my personal favorite modern horror films, this film includes samplings of just about every sort of horror filmmaking you can image. If the previous entry added some bloody good gore to this list, then get out your mop for this one, because once the monsters get started, they never let up. It’s as hilarious as it is gory, as gory as it is fun, and somehow it manages to be one big homage and yet also entirely original all at the same time. The film more than doubled its $30 million budget with $66 million in theatrical revenue, but the studio’s portion barely covered those expenses and the marketing adds tens of millions more in the red column.
8. Troll Hunter
Troll, Satirical without being a comedy, filled with terrific visual effects despite a low budget, and just flat-out wildly entertaining. It’s a big-monster movie with enough creepiness and carnage to qualify as “horror” for this list, but it’s also got terrific mythology and fantasy elements as well, and the fake documentary angle that is otherwise so overused in the genre never wears out its welcome here. The $5 million it managed from global receipts is not much above its $3.5 million budget, but it built a minor cult following on home release, and now a U.S. remake is planned.
9. The Woman in Black
A lush Gothic haunted mansion story in the best classic tradition. Hammer Films had their finest revival entry by far with this gorgeously designed, atmospheric tale. Few horror films have this level of commitment to setup and presence, allowing the tension and dread to grow as we linger in each scene and location. This is one of two films on the list that harken back to good old fashioned haunted house filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s. Budgeted at a modest $15 million, the $127 million worldwide box office was an impressive return and led to a far less impressive sequel.
10. Let Me In
A coming of age that is unexpectedly and disorientingly sweet even while something terrifying and/or bloody is happening. Yes, it’s very similar to the first film adaptation of the same novel, but that doesn’t really matter when the final result is this good. The lovely visual palette and lazy sweeping camera movement creates a dreamy — sometimes nightmarish — impression when combined with the patient pacing and terrific cast who speak volumes in the silence between their words. Releasing in October of 2010, this one took only $24 million in theaters, off of a $20 million budget. Sadly, then, it never enjoyed the attention it deserved from audiences.