20 best horror films of the past 20 years

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. Photo: AP

Earlier this year, the near unthinkable happened: Get Out, a modern-day horror film, claimed an Oscar.

For a genre often unfairly maligned as popcorn fare - even Kubrick's The Shining was infamously shut out by the Academy in 1980 - Get Out's honour was welcome recognition of the unique visions and sublime craft that's come from the form, a trend that's only exploded in recent years.

Here, in time for your Halloween viewing, are the best horror classics of the last twenty years.

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in The Babadook.
Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in The Babadook. Photo: The Babadook

20: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

On the surface this looks like just about every other college slasher ever made, but - written and produced by Joss Whedon - it's a little bit smarter and a lot more terrifying. While it does jump the shark near the end on its way to being incredible, and not in a positive way, it's a nail-biter and will certainly make you think twice about taking your mates on a trip to the woods for a while. - NC

19: Let the Right One In (2008)

This Swedish romantic horror isn't the scariest movie of the past two decades, but it is a quirky, dream-like film notable for subverting the vampire trope. In other words, it's a horror film that doesn't feel like a horror film. The movie has won numerous accolades, and has a massive 98 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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And don't bother with the American remake - best to weather those subtitles, if you can. - BC

18: Final Destination (2000)

There's no chainsaw-wielding villain in the Final Destination franchise. Instead, young adults are hunted down one-by-one by none other than death itself. In the franchise's first film, high school student Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has a vision of his Paris-bound plane exploding in mid-air. He panics and a fight breaks out, ensuring he and several other classmates get kicked off the flight. But the group quickly learns that you can't cheat fate that easily. - BC

17: Paranormal Activity (2009)

I had nightmares for weeks after watching this in the cinema. Clever cinematography and a premise that is disturbingly believable, it digs deep into the horror bag of tricks and engages every device they could pull out in their fist. Jump-scares are deployed with alarming regularity, so if you have a heart condition stay far, far away from this one. - NC

16: It Follows (2014)

This beautifully-shot supernatural horror film tells the story of teenage girl Jay (Maika Monroe), who is pursued by a strange creature after having sex with her boyfriend. The movie has weathered criticism that it's a simple allegory for sexually transmitted diseases, still managing to snap up an impressive 97 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its ending, while a little predictable, is incredibly satisfying. - BC

15: The Conjuring (2013)

A remote and creaky old house always makes a great setting for horror, and The Conjuring's storyline really makes the most of it. With a particularly nasty spirit lurking around a family's new home, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are called in to help - and what follows is over 100 minutes of cover-your-eyes terror. Based on true stories from the real-life Warrens, there are jump-scares aplenty. Good ones, too. - GR

14: It (2017)

Apeing the '80s kid hijinks of Spielberg by way of Stranger Things, last year's adaptation of Stephen King's classic earned its creepy atmosphere less from Pennywise the Dancing Clown (as sinister as Bill Skarsgård's portrayal was) and more from the Losers' Club's lingering trauma – not to mention a staggering blood-soaked scene that will haunt you each time you use the bathroom. - RM

13: Dying Breed (2008)

What begins as a research trip to Tasmania to find the extinct Tasmanian tiger turns into a terrifying ordeal for a group of scientists who, instead, come across the descendents of a notorious cannibal. No one is winning any awards for acting in this film, but the gore is brilliant and there is a particularly magnificent scene with a meat hook which is worth tuning in for alone. - NC

12: You're Next (2011)

Home and Away alum Sharni Vinson spills buckets of blood in this home invasion crowd-pleaser,in a brilliant subversion of the genre's enduring 'final girl' trope. Filled with as many twists as sinister laughs, it also makes spectacular use of Dwight Tilley's power-pop burner Looking forthe Magic. - RM

11: Orphan (2009)

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra had already showcased his Hollywood genre chops with 2005's House of Wax, a likeable remake of Vincent Price's 3D classic. But Orphan, about a grieving couple who adopt a mysterious nine-year-old, was another creeper altogether, complete with a bombshell twist that would've made Hitchcock proud. - RM

10: Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary has been praised as one of the scariest - and smartest - horror films of 2018. It features a stunning performance by Australian Toni Collette, as well as young American actors Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro. (Ann Dowd, from The Handmaid's Tale, also makes a terrifying appearance.) Wolff has said the film left him with PTSD and as the credits begin to roll, it's easy to understand why. - BC

9: Ringu (1998)

While we often focus on American horror, plenty of other countries produce genuinely terrifying films that appeal to fans around the world. Directed by Hideo Nakata, this freakily scary Japanese horror-thriller is about a reporter (Nanako Matsushima) investigating a cursed videotape that kills viewers seven days after watching it. As well as getting a sequel the following year, it sparked a trend to western remakes, with Naomi Watts starring in The Ring (2002) and The Ring Two (2005). - GM

8: Saw (2004)

Saw was an immediate hit when it landed on the horror scene in 2004, grossing over $US100 million worldwide (off a reported $US1.2 million budget). Australian creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan honed in on the very worst of humanity, creating a "killer" who didn't actually do any of the killing himself - he just forced his victims to make terrible decisions that ultimately led to their demise. Horror in the purest form. - GR

7: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Sure, if video shops still existed this masterpiece – from director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost – might be spending more time filed in the comedy aisle. But for its affectionate zinging of zombie-flick tropes, not to mention a satirical streak that sees the lumbering undead slot surreptitiously into modern society, it's a horror classic through and through. - RM

6: A Quiet Place (2018)

If this isn't the year's best horror film, it's up there. It sets you up for 90 minutes of jump-scares but employs the device relatively infrequently. The result is a lengthy mind game where the fear comes from the anticipation rather than the event, and it is exhausting to watch. Some of the characters are excruciatingly annoying, but John Krasinski and Emily Blunt deliver compelling performances. The whole thing is set up beautifully for a franchise and I can't wait to see how the world they've created, where sound attracts monsters, develops. - NC

5: Wolf Creek (2005)

When Wolf Creek was released in 2005, it tapped into the deep-seated but very real fear many trusting backpackers have of crossing paths with a murderous lunatic on their travels. Set in the eerie Australian outback, the story is gruesome and gory but realistic enough to make it genuinely scary. It's spawned a TV series now, but you really can't beat the original. - GR

4: The Sixth Sense (1999)

While frustratingly inconsistent since, director M. Night Shyamalan nailed this masterfully tense supernatural horror story about a child pyschologist (Bruce Willis) treating a troubled boy (Haley Joel Osment). The twist - belated spoiler alert - is legendary. So is the line "I see dead people". It transcended the genre when it became a box office triumph that was also up for six Oscars including best picture, director and supporting actress for Toni Collette. - GM

3: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The groundbreaking indie flick that spawned a school of found-footage pretenders still isn't one to watch alone on a dark Halloween night. For all its harried frights it's remarkably gore-free, but the memory of one of its main protagonists, silently stunned in a shadowy corner, probably remains imprinted on a generation scared to walk into empty rooms, let alone the "great" outdoors. - RM

2: Get Out (2017)

The best horror films aren't just edgy rollercoaster experiences. In the case of this horror-thriller from comic-turned-director Jordan Peele, the genre was a way to examine the troubled state of American race relations. Cleverly blending tension and comedy in a story about a photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) going with his girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her parents, it was a critically acclaimed box office hit that won an Oscar for best original screenplay. - GM

1: The Babadook (2014)

Jennifer Kent's debut film flopped on its Australian release, before being recognised as a modern horror classic when it opened in the US. It's a genuinely scary supernatural thriller that is also a heart-wrenching drama about struggling with grief, centring on a widow (Essie Davis) who is trying to protect her six-year-old son (Noah Wiseman) from a monster called Mr Babadook. Cleverly teasing about whether the monster is real or imaginery, it reframes the genre by having a middle-aged mother at its heart. - GM

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