Now that we stand at the beginning of a new decade, we can look back and reflect on what the last 10 years have done for our favourite genre. These may not have been the best years for the world, but it’s been a stonking 10 years for horror.
In this decade, while big name directors continued to produce quality material, we’ve been totally blindsided by indie offerings from relative unknowns. The big studios grow more and more reliant on sequels and remakes, but the beating heart of horror has always been its legions of devoted fans-turned-filmmakers, and this decade proved that the community is alive and well.
The 2010s also saw the rise of new figures in the genre, such as Robert Eggers and Jennifer Kent, names that look set to be included in all future lists of horror greats.
It would be a crime to overlook international horror, with strong candidates from all corners of the globe. Particularly notable are films from South America, which highlight the brutality of wealth inequality, and those that take inspiration from the ravages of war that this bloody decade has brought to the Middle East.
For the sake of breadth, we have limited ourselves to one film per director. As incomplete as it may be, here is Vampire Squid’s list of the best that horror cinema the 2010s had to offer.
Under the Skin
Kicking off our list is Jonathon Glazer’s enigmatic opus Under the Skin. This Glasgow-set thriller stars Scarlett Johansson as a sociopathic alien that seduces men only to dissolve them in an oily pool of liquid. A chance encounter with a disfigured man convinces her to change her ways, only for her to find that she is as trapped in her role of predator as her victims are in theirs.
Helped along by the haunting score of Mica Levi, this is a tale that is captivating, mysterious and occasionally frustratingly obscure. At its heart, the film is a story of gender dynamics, urban alienation, bodily agency, objectification and loneliness. It’s an experience not soon forgotten.
We Are What We Are (2010)
Although Jim Mickle’s remake may be a tidier and more disciplined affair, it can’t hold a candle to the vibrancy and startling energy of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 original. A man in Mexico City collapses, puking up a gout of black blood. By the media, it’s painted as just another ghoulish tableau in a city more than used to nightmares. However, the man was the patriarch of a clan of cannibals, and without him, they need to find new ways of putting food on the table.
The film blends empathy for these unfortunates with abject disgust for their diet, which is shown in all its grisly detail. Claustrophobic domestic environments make the horror totally inescapable as the film burns slowly (REALLY slowly) towards a terrifying climax. It’s a story of grinding poverty whose central metaphor, sadly, only grows more relevant as we enter the 2020s.
What We Do in the Shadows
Director Taiki Waititi certainly had a very good decade. From the thunderous success of Thor: Ragnarok, which breathed fresh life into the flagging Marvel Universe, to the critical darling Jojo Rabbit, Waititi is now a director of note.
However, it was probably this offbeat vampire mockumentary that first earned him international attention. Along with co-director Jemaine Clement, Waititi created a hilarious fly-on-the-wall documentary about a New Zealand flat-share. It also manages to be a comprehensive send-up of every cinematic vampire trope and cliché in existence.
Much like iconic series Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in The Shadows is replete with hilarious moments as Kiwis react with trademark mildness to extreme situations. In the vein of its spiritual predecessor Shaun of the Dead, What We Do in the Shadows reinvented the comedy-horror genre. It has since spawned two successful TV series.
The middle of the decade saw the far right, seen by many as a dormant or even largely defeated political group, start to gain ground in both America and Europe. Fanning the flames of racial tension and building support on the streets and at the ballot box, fascists were back.
This 2015 film is, on one level, a claustrophobic siege action thriller with moments of explosive, gory violence. On another, it reflected widespread societal concerns at finding oneself suddenly surrounded by nationalist psychopaths in a situation spiralling out of control.
A hardcore punk band (scene veterans can spend hours pausing this movie to identify the thousands of band stickers that populate every shot) play a white nationalist skinhead compound in a strict ‘get in, get paid, get out’ deal. However, when they witness a murder, they find themselves trapped in a backstage room while the skinhead leader (a delightfully sinister Patrick Stewart) goads his boneheaded minions to attack them. Green Room is about as tense a viewing experience as you could hope for.
Under the Shadow
Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow explores the potential terrors lurking in the confined spaces of apartment buildings. In this sense, it can be seen as part of a rich tradition of apartment chillers, including Dark Water and even Rosemary’s Baby. What gives it its edge is its setting: Tehran, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.
Shideh is refused entry into medical school because of her past history of political activism. When her condescending husband is called away to war, Shideh and her daughter find themselves under siege from disapproving conservative neighbours and the expectations of an oppressive society. A stray bomb crashes through the top floor of the building, and when her daughter begins to exhibit odd behaviour, Shideh becomes convinced that a Djinn has come with it. This supernatural tale represents a fascinating slant on the well-worn haunted house and possession narratives. It is uniquely creepy and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
For many, 2014 was the decade’s first bumper year for horror. After all, it delivered two instant classics in the form of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (more on this later). The Babadook is both a masterful blend of the haunted house and monster movies, as well as a love letter to the history of horror cinema.
Essie Davis is phenomenal as Amelia, the woman struggling to cope as a single mother following the death of her husband. When a strange children’s book seems to place her son in the path of a malevolent entity, Amelia does her best to destroy the book and save her family.
With references throughout to the birth of horror cinema in Germany’s silent era, this is a film nerd’s wet dream. However, that isn’t to say that it doesn’t also deliver visceral scares and stellar performances. With The Babadook, Jennifer Kent gave us the decade’s first true horror icon.
A Dark Song
This British indie gem passed under the radar for a lot of people, but for us, it was one of the true greats of the 2010s. Representing one of the most realistic depictions of the occult in cinema (honourable mention to 2017’s Pyewacket here), A Dark Song borrows details from Aleister Crowley’s famous rituals to create a truly memorable and deeply creepy experience.
Sophia Howard rents a house in Wales and hires an occultist to help her to contact her deceased son. This isn’t your standard Harry Potter magic though, and a brutal regime of fasting, learning (fluent Aramaic and German are a must), meditation and self-sacrifice are the prices she must pay for this forbidden knowledge.
Steve Oram is spectacular as Joseph Solomon, the nerdy occultist who uses his power over Sophia for his own ends. Right up to the striking denouement, the audience will be in two minds about whether this is all just an elaborate, abusive scam. Director Liam Gavin has created a vision of the supernatural that feels weighty, grounded and utterly believable.
Robert Eggers’ bleak period horror movie is an extraordinary feat. To modern sensibilities, historical accounts of witch trials are pretty comical. Tales of Satan taking the form of dogs, mice as familiars and nude black masses speak to a simpler time when fear of dark forces was ever-present.
It’s an incredible achievement then that Eggers was able to take modern audiences and dunk them into an experience so immersive that they were able to really feel the superstitious energies of that era. His crowning achievement? Making a horror icon out of a simple barnyard animal.
A puritan and his family are cast out of a community for heresy. Once alone, their crops fail, and they begin to believe in dark forces lurking in the woods that border their simple homestead. Above all, they come to believe that their goat Black Phillip may be Satan himself.
In terms of its position in this decade, The Witch can be seen as an expression of the renewed interest in folk horror that marked the mid 2010s. Championed by directors like Ben Wheatley and creators like Mark Gatiss, this revival spoke to growing concerns about the state of the environment. It also provided opportunities to explore topics like feminism, coming of age and mass hysteria, all with an occult quirk.
Speaking of the folk horror revival, we have to give a doff of the cap to Ben Wheatley, one of its key proponents and another figure whose career went from strength to strength in the 2010s. Our ‘one film per director’ rule prevents us from talking about his bleak ‘hitman vs. witch cult’ flick Kill List or his darkly psychedelic civil war fever dream A Field in England, although you should take it from us that both are brilliant.
Instead, we’ve given it to Sightseers, a horror comedy that draws on Mike Leigh’s BBC Play for Today Nuts in May to create a hilarious tale of murder and caravanning in the British countryside. At first glance, it could appear that this is simply a series of unfortunate events that ends with two holidaymakers on the run with a newly-discovered penchant for murder. However, Wheatley’s direction implies something much more sinister at work, with subtle hints that the landscape itself, with its ancient monoliths and criss-crossing leylines, is in some way responsible for egging them on.
Alice Lowe and Steve Oram mare brilliant as the quaint couple, and the film delivers on many levels. Alice Lowe’s extraordinary achievement in Prevenge, a revenge thriller in which she acted as well as directed, wrote and produced (all while heavily pregnant), is another high point for British horror this decade.
With its infectious synth soundtrack and hazy suburban setting, It Follows really kicked off the 2010’s preoccupation with 80s throwbacks, making a huge impact this decade.
With its simmering subtext of sexual paranoia, it became the perfect counterpoint to director David Robert Mitchell’s chirpy coming-of-age debut The Myth of the American Sleepover. The setup is simple: Sleep with somebody that it is following, and it now follows you. It can look like anyone, it moves at walking pace, and it will never, ever stop.
From this simple setup, Mitchell weaves a tale that shreds the nerves of its audience as much as those of its principle characters. Be prepared to scan every shot of this movie for the heart-stopping villain, and to never truly feel able to relax. Hints of Halloween and The Ring never stop this chiller from feeling truly original.
The 2010s saw many people migrate from their traditional multiplexes and DVD collections to begin purely streaming content. In this new context, a few standout titles emerged that really sold the public on the idea that the future was streamable. The Invitation was absolutely one of these, a film that many found not through word of mouth, but through Netflix’s algorithm.
Seven years after Jennifer’s Body, the quirky horror comedy that felt like the natural heir to Ginger Snaps, director Karyn Kusama delivered us an invitation.
The film centres on a divorced couple, Eve and Will, both shattered by the loss of their son. This evening, an olive branch is extended between them, as Eve has decided to host a party, having found solace with some kind of new age group (alarm bells ringing? Good!). Weaponised politeness is the order of the day, as a frustrated and bitter Will navigates an evening fraught with awkwardness and underlying razor-sharp tension. By the time the true nature of the evening is revealed, audiences will be on the edges of their seats. Kusama has created a masterclass in slowly ratcheting suspense.
With the general move to online streaming services, more and more people also found themselves exposed to the content of a diverse array of countries (and more inclined to take a punt on them rather than wait for the English language remakes!). Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing was just one of the great films that benefited from this shift in consumer trends.
When a seemingly peaceful village called Gokseong is beset by a plague of sudden and violent deaths, authorities believe that a strain of poisonous or hallucinogenic mushrooms may be the cause. Sent to investigate, detective Jong-Goo soon discovers that there may be something more supernatural at work. What follows is an odyssey into a shadow world that mixes Korean folklore, Catholicism and shamanism together in a nihilistic brew.
Six years in the making and clocking in at 156 minutes in length, this is an epic journey that never drags, despite its enormous bulk. Instead, it skips from one expertly realised scare to the next, pausing only to deliver some emotional gristle and a surprising dash of comedy. Visually breathtaking and nail-bitingly tense, this film advertises itself as a descent into hell and does not disappoint.
Although it makes a perfect double bill with Mike Flanagan’s Hush, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe just about nudges its thematic twin off the podium. The film, which focuses on a group of professional burglars who decide to rob a blind man and bite off more (way more) than they can chew, is easily one of the tensest viewing experiences of the decade.
Where Flanagan’s film sets out its stall early on and takes us on a rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs, Don’t Breathe is a different beast entirely. Despite the suffocatingly claustrophobic setting, the derelict house of the film contains a set of secrets that mean that the stakes are constantly shifting. The mastery of suspense on display here is extraordinary.
Stephen Lang as Nordstrom, the blind veteran, flips the script on the intruders in ways that make him every bit as intimidating as a Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers. News of a planned sequel is music to our ears.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian Vampire Western refuses easy categorisation. It has a grounded confidence as it blends and twists genre tropes, making it an infinitely compelling watch.
A young man is facing threats from a local drug dealer, but finds himself even more out of his depth when the gang intimidation is swiftly ended by a mysterious female vampire. Visually stunning, in stylish black and white, this is a moody and enthralling piece that turned expectations on their heads in 2014.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a refreshing reinterpretation of the tired clichés of the vampire sub-genre. That it takes a staid set of tropes and uses them to tell a tale of complex gender politics is a testament to the storytelling skills of Amirpour.
Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a film that future pop culture historians will look back on as being indicative of humanity’s ecological anxieties in the 2010s (assuming humanity gets its act together and survives that long!). Based on the cult novel by Vampire Squid favourite Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation presents us with an odyssey into the unknown that mirrors Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
A mysterious zone has appeared on the American coastline, a zone in which the usual rules of science, biology and even logic have been suspended. The zone is growing, and a group of strangers must head into its heart to try to tease out its secrets.
What is most interesting to us about Annihilation is how it reframes the relationship of humanity and the environment. The landscape here is not a resource to exploit, a terrain to navigate or a backdrop against which to act. It is its own being; autonomous and enigmatic, capable of beauty and brutality in equal measure. It will not be reasoned with or dictated to, and demands to be approached on its own terms.
This shift reflects a growing awareness of our place in the world that began to strike many in the 2010s. With ecological collapse looming, we can only hope that more wake up to the dangers we face.
Train to Busan
The 2010s charted the rise and fall of our love affair with zombies, from the initial explosion of affection and excitement (Walking Dead Season 1, 2010) to the inevitable disappointment and recrimination (Walking Dead Season 9, 2018). With such a plethora of zombie creativity on offer, it’s pretty telling that there could only be one contender for the best of the decade.
A father, Seok-Woo, is travelling by train so that his daughter Su-An can be with her mother for her birthday. When a passenger falls ill and starts biting people, you best be sure it’s zombie time.
What separates this film from the usual fare is its emotional weight. Sure, there’s the central focus on the fractured relationship between Seok-Woo and his family, but what’s extraordinary is how quickly and efficiently director Yeon Sang-Ho gets us to care about even minor characters. This isn’t just a standard zombie action movie in which characters appear simply to move the plot along, with their main personality trait being ‘slow and tasty’. Everyone here has a story, and the brief glimpses we get as they intersect with the main narrative are fascinating as they appear and gut-wrenching as they are (inevitably) taken away.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Issa López made Tigers Are Not Afraid in response to the current mainstream fascination with South American drug cartel culture (as exhibited by shows like Narcos) but apparent disinterest in the human cost that it entails. Told with compassion and intelligence, Tigers Are Not Afraid showcases the horrors of a city under siege by drug gangs through the eyes of a child. It blends magical realism with social grittiness in a manner that is completely unforgettable.
10-year-old Estrella is facing down the drug gangs and the ghosts of their victims, guided through her labyrinthine journey by her cunning and courage. She teams up with a group of children orphaned by the drugs war, and they band together for survival.
Its natural analogue is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which used similar techniques to talk about the cruelty and societal fracturing of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, Del Toro name-dropped Tigers Are Not Afraid during his Hollywood hall of fame acceptance speech, describing it as one of the best horror films of the decade. Frankly, who are we to argue?
An inclusion that will surprise absolutely nobody, Ari Aster’s horror debut stunned audiences when it premiered, leaving even hardened horror fans sleeping with the lights on. In the world that Aster conjures, all participants are trapped in a pre-ordained cycle of horrifying events. The end result is a meditation on free will and determinism. It focuses on how our pasts, and particularly the sins of our parents, set templates for our lives that can be impossible to overcome.
A family, wracked with grief, are pursued by a mysterious cult who appear to have strange designs on them. The familial drama is knife-edge tense and the general sense of inescapable dread is frankly exhausting as we watch them struggle to escape their fates. To truly understand how hopeless our protagonists’ situations are require second or even third viewings, so enmeshed are they in the cult’s fiendish plot.
Toni Colette‘s performance is breathtaking here, and her grief and bitterness are absolutely caustic. Perhaps more than any other film released this decade, Hereditary upped the ante in terms of how oppressive an atmosphere a film could create.
Aster’s brightly lit folk horror follow-up Midsommar is also essential viewing.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, 2016’s Raw is a visceral experience that stays with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
Justine is a veterinary student with a lifelong commitment to vegetarianism. When a hazing ritual requires her to eat raw rabbit meat, she unleashes a set of dark desires that she is unable to control. The result is a striking coming-of-age tale in which cannibalism and burgeoning sexuality are blended together in an unforgettable witch’s brew.
Justine’s is not the only uncomfortable journey of self-discovery here. An eyeball-licking fetish and an obsession with monkey rape (you heard) are just a few of the boundaries being pushed among the student body. As a result, the whole concoction is laced with profoundly disturbing imagery.
Ducournau weaves together the sublime, the grotesque and the erotic throughout, creating something electrically charged and deeply uncomfortable. As a meditation on self-image, sexuality and experimentation, it is second to none, but it’s also a masterful inversion of the cinematic male gaze. As such, it became a hit with Cannes film buffs and horror-heads alike.
Which four faces adorn the Mount Rushmore of this decade’s horror? Robert Eggers and Ari Aster seem like no-brainers, with Jennifer Kent making a solid Teddy Roosevelt. The coveted position of Washington, however, has to go to Jordan Peele.
Get Out was a daring foray into long-form cinema for the legendary sketch comedian, and given that it won him a damn Oscar, we’d say that the gamble paid off.
Get Out is the tale of Chris, a young black man on his way to an uncomfortable weekend with his partner’s wealthy white family. What starts off as a tedious obligation, as Chris has to grin and bear conversations ranging from the smugly patronising to the nakedly racist, quickly becomes something far more sinister.
Get Out is a fantastic send-up of racial politics in America, with facades of civility masking a history of intolerance, oppression and violence that stretches back for generations. Daniel Kaluuya is a great empathetic lead, and Lil Rel Howery’s comic turn as TSA agent Rod was memorable enough to propel him to overnight stardom. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, it seems likely that Get Out will be remembered as the film of the decade.