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  • Rough Cut Staff

The Essential Horror Canon: Part 3 ('00s & '10s)

The final entry in our most essential horror films since Psycho debuted 60 years ago, these are our 10 most impactful genre flicks since Y2K. As a reminder, these are the five films from each decade we feel that — for better or worse — most influenced the western horror canon, so don't be concerned if your favorite isn't on this list. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


28 Days Later (2002)

Fox Searchlight

It might seem strange to think about now, but the zombie film once appeared left for dead (no pun intended). After the initial boom in the 1970s and early 1980s following George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, the genre fell out of favor for an extended period before a resurgence in the early 2000s that can reasonably be chalked up to two properties: Capcom’s Resident Evil video game series and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. The latter transported the notion of a horrifying post-apocalyptic world to the modern day and introduced a critical innovation: this time, the zombies are fast. It’s a radical change to the dynamic that wasn’t universally adopted — 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake embraced the speed, while the same year’s Shaun of the Dead kept its zombies slow — but regardless, the film reinvigorated an appetite for the undead that hasn’t yet been satiated. - Carson Cook


Saw (2004)

Lions Gate

Saw is fucked up. But for better (and for worse), Saw is entertaining. And nine films later, the franchise that made torture porn palatable for a mainstream audience is still going strong, while the more niche members of the so-called Splat Pack - Eli Roth, Rob Rodriguez - are either struggling to get films made or have shifted completely away from horror films. Saw’s co-creators, on the other hand, have become the two most prolific genre auteurs of their generation. Director James Wan went on to create the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises, landing himself a primo DCEU directing gig in the process, yet still returning to his roots with the upcoming Malignant. And writer Leigh Whannell, after co-creating Insidious, has been hand-picked as the director to bring back the classic Universal monster horror - he successfully helmed 2020’s The Invisible Man, and will lead the follow-up, The Wolfman. 16 years ago, two twisted minds said “Let’s play a game,” not realizing they would remake Hollywood in the process. - Zach D'Amico


Shaun of the Dead (2004)


Pastiche. It’s sometimes difficult to separate parody from its warmer, nicer cousin, but if you’re ever struggling to define it, show someone Shaun of the Dead. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s furiously funny homage to zombie movies, Shaun winks and nods at the tropes of a genre without ever looking down on them, finding the funny in a zombie attack through situational comedy and wry British humor rather than mocking its zombie forerunners. It has a clear impact on a host of “we’re meta but we love the genre” follow-ups, from Zombieland to What We Do in the Shadows (vampires), Final Girls (slashers), and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (backwoods killers). Plus it has one of the best ironic horror-movie needle drops, a flourish that was unfortunately beaten to death (no pun intended) in the decade to come. - ZD


Paranormal Activity (2007)


Paranormal Activity was made for $15,000, produced, written, directed, shot, and edited by one man, Oren Peli. The film would make nearly $200 million at the box office, and though costs spiked a bit with Paramount’s purchase and new ending, it nonetheless earned the title of “most profitable film ever.” The real question is: how come it took this long? After Blair Witch’s explosion on the scene, it was only a matter of time before someone melded a ghost story with the found footage style that had so successfully manipulated audiences in 1999. Paranormal’s success would bring the deluge of imitators that one might have expected at the turn of the century - REC (2007), Cloverfield (2008), District 9 (2009), The Last Exorcism (2010), Trollhunter (2010), V/H/S (2012), all within the next five years. Paranormal itself would stumble over four more movies, with another to come in 2022 amid a mini-rediscovery of the potency of horror by major studios. Meanwhile, it left the rest of us thinking: why the hell didn’t I think of that? - ZD


Jennifer’s Body (2009)

20th Century Fox

As discussed extensively by the Rough Cut team over on the New Auteurs podcast, Jennifer’s Body went underappreciated in its time, thanks in large part to a horribly mismanaged marketing campaign that tried to capitalize on Megan Fox’s popularity among teenage boys following her Transformers breakout, but has since gone through a significant rediscovery and reappraisal. Though in many ways Jennifer’s Body is a film that’s very much of its time, it’s a far cry from the trashy horror sex comedy it was made out to be; rather, it’s a fairly subversive piece of work from director Karyn Kusama and Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody that cleverly dissects societal expecations of young women and portrays the complexities of female friendship — while also being both very funny and legitimately scary. It also gave us an early instance of Adam Brody: Satanist, which one has to assume directly led to his casting in last year’s Ready or Not. - CC


The Conjuring (2013)

Warner Bros.

James Wan’s horror franchise track record is a mighty impressive one, but — with apologies to certain Rough Cut staff members and their love of the Saw movies — The Conjuring is his crowning achievement. Based on the reports of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (whose exploits also inspired The Amityville Horror), The Conjuring returned the haunted house movie to blockbuster status, with smartly executed jump scares and genuine character development leading to a whopping $300+ million gross despite an R-rating, benefitting from Warner Bros. decision to position the film as a summer blockbuster instead of relegating it to October or the horror dumping ground of January/February. Perhaps more importantly, The Conjuring showed that horror could serve as the backbone of a franchise without diminishing returns, with spin-offs like Annabelle more than holding their own at the box office. - CC


The Babadook (2014)

Entertainment One

The Babadook is the Halloween for the next generation. It combined immaculate villain creation (the Babadook is as terrifying and iconic a monster as Michael Myers is a killer) with impeccable craft to create a patient, deeply unsettling film that nonetheless refused to sacrifice terror for art, perfectly melding the two. Where Halloween’s successors stripped the slasher sub-genre of anything that wasn’t exploitative, The Babadook’s copycats leaned the opposite way, emphasizing the “art” part of “art horror.” In both cases, too many filmmakers took the wrong lessons from two era-defining horror films. Jennifer Kent’s masterpiece uses every single tool in her brilliant toolbox - evoking atmosphere and mood, mining the depths of human despair, character creation, steady camera movements - in service of terrifying her audience, rather than to undermine the horrors. It should be required filmmaking for wannabe horror auteurs. - ZD


The Witch (2016)


The Witch wasn’t the first horror movie released by indie distributor A24, but Robert Eggers’ 17th century folk horror fable is the one that broke through and paved the way for what we at Rough Cut fondly bemoan as “A24 Horror” — austere, artsy, and atmospheric, sometimes at the expense of story, pace, and character. A24 actually remains quite good at hitting the former points without losing the latter: from The Witch to It Comes at Night to Hereditary, the studio has done a mostly excellent job at cultivating creative teams with strong enough visions to not lose sight of all the moving pieces that make up a good horror film, regardless of how slow or fast the burn. The problem lies more with the many imitators, those studios and directors that see A24’s success but aren’t quite able to replicate it, succumbing to the mortal sin of horror filmmaking: being boring. - CC


Get Out (2017)

Universal Pictures

Similar to the “A24 Horror” spawned by The Witch, reaction to Jordan Peele’s Get Out helped popularize — I would say for better or for worse, but really it’s just for worse — the term “elevated horror.” It’s a phrase without a true definition, and I think most people would lump in the A24 brand under the larger umbrella, but the only purpose the term really serves is cover for people to act snobby about what constitutes a “good” horror movie (e.g. one worthy of critical praise and Oscar nominations). There are a lot of problems with this, obviously, but the silliest thing about the whole phenomenon is that Get Out is a classic horror movie through and through — it’s just a really excellent one that happens to feature a perspective that’s often underrepresented in the genre. Jordan Peele tapped into the zeitgeist so thoroughly that folks simply couldn’t square the film with its predecessors, and in that regard Get Out belongs in the company of films like The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs: horror so iconic and so perfectly constructed that the entire industry had no choice but to take notice, fundamentally altering the approach to the genre in the process. - CC


It (2017)

Warner Bros.

2017 was on its way to the lowest adjusted box-office totals in nearly a decade, and the movie theater doomsdayers were out in full force as a slow summer wound down into a near-halt in August moviegoing. Enter: It. The 2017 Stephen King adaptation shattered box office records, raking in over $700 million worldwide and becoming the all-time highest grossing horror movie, and the third-highest grossing R-rated movie at the time. On the back of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, it amplified what had grown to a loud whisper in the ear of every studio executive willing to listen: horror is the safest play with American audiences. And director Andy Muschietti’s particular brand of Spielbergian pop-horror, mixing melodrama, emotional growth, and genuine thrills, has the potential to become a dominating influence on the landscape of the 2020s and beyond. - ZD


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