A lot of people seem to be under the impression that making decent horror movies has become something of a dead art. The 20s and 30s saw the first film incarnations of gothic novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Phantom of the Opera. Hitchcock popularized (or some would say perfected) the art in the 50s and early 60s alongside films like House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting, and later in the 60s, Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby. The 1970s and 1980s are full of classic horror films like Carrie, Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wicker Man, Halloween, The Exorcist, The Shining, and many more. So what do we have now?
Good horror movies are not extinct but they do seem to be harder to notice nowadays. In the current world of short attention spans and producers determined to make money over quality, it often feels like the horror films that you hear about are either remakes, endless sequels (I'm looking at you Saw franchise), or driven entirely by jump scares and a sense of schadenfreude at seeing stupid teenagers die horrible deaths.
Being someone who just enjoys watching horror even if it's not good (especially if it's not good), I have managed to come across plenty of actual decent films that can scare you while still managing to tell a real story with well-written characters.
Just as few notes:
* I intend to be strict with my year 2000 cut off so there are some good 90s films that will not make the cut. The 90s were almost 15 years ago. They are not modern.
* No remakes or sequels. I'm trying to point out good original movies.
* Horror-comedies will not be gracing this list. I love horror-comedies and highly recommend Scream, Cabin in the Woods, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, and Inhuman Resources if a film deconstructing horror movies or joking around while scaring is more your thing.
* The "Scare Factor" is a zero to ten scale based on how much I personally was freaked out by the movie. Not how often I jumped (I can be very jumpy) or how much I screamed (I don't) but just how much it really got to me in a general uneasiness, can't-quite-sleep-right kind of way. Whether or not a horror movie should be judged based on how scary it is would be a debate for another time (alongside whether you can judge a comedy by how much you laughed) but for now I'm listing quality films but including this scale just for those who want an idea of how scary a film might be (in my own radically biased opinion).
And with that, the films listed from oldest to newest:
I will admit that I do not have the same affection for this movie that a lot of people seem to have but I understand why people like it so much. Although it does fall under the blanket trope of dead teenager movies, the teenagers in this movie feel a lot more real and likeable than the usual sort who you are supposed to want dead for the unforgivable crime of foolish choices. The movie also has a fairly interesting villain: death itself. Death is an inescapable bad guy. The movie also ties in common fears of bad dreams being prophetic and of airplanes. The sequels vary in quality (my personal preference goes 1, 3, 2, 5, and 4, which should never have happened) and have a tendency to add new rules to the franchise but the first will always be something of a classic.
Scare Factor: 2 (Only scary in that death is the only thing I truly fear.)
The Others (2001)
This movie is full of things I love. It's a period film that takes place right after World War II in a remote country house where the lady of the house, whose husband has gone missing in the war, hires some new creepy servants to take care of the place and her children who can't go out in the sunlight. Most of the horror of the movie comes from the atmosphere and the suggestion that there is something more going on than what you are seeing and that no one seems trustworthy. That uneasy feeling persists even as more details are revealed until you reach an interesting ending.
Scare Factor: 1 (Eerie but the kind of eerie I would like to live among.)
There are a lot of 90s Japanese horror films like Audition and Ringu that I couldn't put on this list so I will make do with this one. What makes good Japanese horror different from good horror in other countries is that it is often tinged with an element of social commentary. This movie in particular uses horror and ghosts as a way to tell a story about how technology is driving people to be more lonely and removed from the world through two different main plots and many people's intertwining experiences. Also very atmospheric with its heavy shadows and occasional post-apocalyptic feeling, sometimes it can feel like a physical representation of depression which can be a lot scarier than a boogeyman.
Scare Factor: 4 (Too real, man.)
Suicide Club (2002)
Another Japanese horror film worth mentioning that I have seen quite a lot of times considering how disturbing I find it. A series of mass suicides start happening in Japan, especially among seemingly happy teenagers, which leads detectives to believe suicide clubs are forming. A commentary on pop music obsession and the cult of wanting to fit in or a reflection of cultural attitudes towards suicide in a country that's famous for it? Maybe both. Draw your own conclusions. Also, although this movie is peppered with some comedy, there are so many terrifying or gross things that even the comedy in hindsight becomes sad. I have never seen the prequel, Noriko's Dinner Table, but that also exists.
Scare Factor: 5 (Everything about the bowling alley is nope nope nope.)
28 Days Later (2002)
A zombie movie for you. A man wakes up from a coma to find that the island of Great Britain has been overrun with a virus that has turned people into zombies. What makes this zombie movie different from a lot of zombie movies is the fact that it starts in a world that has already been crippled by the attacks but you are following a clueless protagonist who has to learn how to survive in an undead world. The real meat of the movie comes from the introduction of the soldiers where you see a disturbingly realistic portrayal of how humans can treat each other in times of crisis.
Scare Factor: 2 (Humans are way scarier than the zombies.)
A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
A Korean psychological horror film that plays out like a family drama. A girl returns from a mental hospital to live with her sister, father, and evil stepmother where everything seems to be a bit odd. The stepmother appears to be abusing the girl's sister but at the same time the sister seems like she might also be doing some really messed up things. The movie manages to keep the viewer consistently unnerved and curious in all elements of the film right down to the startling but beautiful set designs and an ending that twists at least twice before you finally get the full story.
Scare Factor: 1 (Pretty but harmless.)
I know I dissed the franchise earlier in this post but I only do that because I love the first movie so much and everything else made after the second film, which is okay, is an insult to the original. The film surrounds a serial killer named Jigsaw who puts people who he thinks are taking advantage of their lives in puzzle-like situations that they must escape to live, thereby, in his mind, proving that they value their lives. While one plot is following a search for Jigsaw, the main plot is about two men who are trapped in a Jigsaw-set-up room who get to know each other and try to find ways to escape. While the films now have a reputation for gore, this film was mostly a character study that's almost Hitchcockian in intention.
Scare Factor: 3 (At least partially because of the time my brother closed the door in the garage on me while shouting "game over", leaving me in the pitch black. Much angry yelling ensured.)
Funny Games (2007)
I'm kind of cheating on my own rules with this one because it is a remake but it's a shot-for-shot remake done by the same director with the same music, script, and set except that it's in English instead of German and uses different actors. This movie is the same as the 1997 movie as far as I or anyone else is concerned. The film is about a happy family getting tortured by two random guys but according to the director was meant to be a commentary on violence in the media and not a horror film. Well, Death of the Author because this is a really scary film that may leave you walking away thinking about reality versus fiction or about how you should never let strangers borrow eggs.
Scare Factor: 7 (Don't talk to anyone ever.)
Let The Right One In (2008)
After three movies where regular, albeit messed-up, people are the antagonists, how about a cuddly vampire film? This Swedish film is definitely a horror film but it would be wrong to call it that without also noting that it's kind of a romance and definitely a coming-of-age film. It's about a boy who is bullied by his classmates making friends who a girl who is a vampire. Love ensures. Also, a lot of violent murders in the snowy woods and locker rooms.
Scare Factor: 1 (Too happy to be scary in spite of the gore.)
The Loved Ones (2009)
This Australian film is sometimes referred to as a horror comedy but I really must not be getting the joke. A great example of how horror movies benefit from well developed characters, a teen who had been dealing with depression since the death of his father is kidnapped by the father of a girl whose invitation to a high school dance he turned down. From there his girlfriend and family search for him while he is made to endure various tortures from the slightly incestuous family before the plot is turned up to eleven. Maybe there's a little humor is the casual behavior of the family as they do these ridiculous things but mostly I think the same response is wide-eyed terror.
Scare Factor: 6 ("AM I NOT PRETTY ENOUGH?")
The House Of The Devil (2009)
There is something magical about how this movie was made only a few years ago and yet, manages to replicate the feeling of an 80s horror movie down to every last detail of the score and the font the opening credits were in. The plot surrounds a college student taking a babysitting job in order to pay her rent and is another film that plays into the "people are really messed up" theme that can often be scarier than monsters that you can believe aren't real. It's a slow-burning film that really builds to its terror and the payoff is completely worth it.
Scare Factor: 9 (I have multiple Satans in my room and yet, ritualistic sacrifice to demonic things still manages to be a trigger point for me when it's outside of an episode of Buffy or Angel.)
In Fear (2013)
I'm going to be road-tripping through Ireland in a few months and you can be that this movie will be on my mind the whole time. A guy and a girl who know each other through mutual friends decide to go to a music festival in Ireland and the guy has booked a hotel room for the night. However, as they try to get to their hotel, they find themselves going in circles as weirder and weirder things start to happen. Interesting enough, all the reactions in the film are real and the actors didn't even know the whole script with a lot of in made up based on how they responded in different situations. It's one of those movies that makes you wonder how you would react under the same circumstances.
Scare Factor: 7 (Still checking my backseat for attractive, Irish psychopaths.)
The Conjuring (2013)
Some of the films above have ghosts but this one is the only really story of a haunting. Based on a true story, the film follows Ed and Lorraine Warren, exorcists by trade, as they true to cleanse the house of the Perron family. While many movies have been based on the Warren's work (The Amityville Horror, The Haunting In Connecticut, and most recently Annabelle), this was the first one that featured them as the primary characters with the family rounding out the cast. There are plenty of scary things going on in the house, sometimes even in broad daylight, but a lot of the film is focused on telling a story just as much as scaring.
Scare Factor: 2 (I want to believe in ghosts far more than I actually believe in ghosts.)
Just kidding. This movie is kind of dumb. And yet I love it in a way that is unfortunate but true.
Scare Factor: 0 (Carrie Fischer has a shotgun though!)