If you’re like me, time tends to blur together, especially since the millennium. Long gone are the palpable vibes that marked the decades. It’s been replaced by a seemingly endless passage of time. Blink and it’ll be 2024. Still, looking back at the early aughts—when the fear of Y2K faded only to be replaced by different terrors looming on the horizon—I am often surprised by how many amazing, groundbreaking horror films made their debut during that decade.
I could surely create a best-of list for 2000s-era films that extends into the hundreds— but I won’t. Instead, I offer what I think are some of the best.
A standout film in the “New French Extremity” movement, which prioritizes borderline overwhelming levels of violence to evoke a uniquely felt fear, Martyrs started scaring audiences everywhere in 2008. Telling the tale of two women, Lucie and Anna, who were both tortured as kids, as they seek vengeance for the horrors of their youth. It’s truly an unforgettable film.
American Psycho (2000)
Oh, the days of having to return videotapes. The adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name, Mary Harron quite literally crafted a masterpiece. The tone is pitch-perfect—and Christian Bale is perfectly cast as the titular character Patrick Bateman living a fickle, consumerist lifestyle in 80s-era Manhattan while his sanity gives way to extreme violence. There are so many memorable scenes, it’s hard-pressed to not recommend watching it at least once.
Though it technically is a zombie film, Pontypool is memorable for being so much more. Shot on a shoestring budget, it’s more War of the Worlds than any typical zombie flick. Here we listen to the soothing voice of radio disc jockey Grant Massey as he delivers the news amid a treacherous snowstorm while a strange virus infects the English language, causing people to get “caught up” on an infected word which turns them into maddening zombies. Talk about a unique premise!
Session 9 (2001)
It’s a film that was expected to flop, yet has become a cult sensation. Session 9 is about a crew of abatement workers that take a job at an abandoned mental asylum on the cheap because they really need the money. The desperation permeates the entire film, including the increasingly tense interactions among the crew as their once chill and laid-back boss, Gordon, loses his sanity. The film holds up really well and acts not only as an effective portrayal of financial frustration but also as a haunting tale of how ideas alone can “possess” you.
In My Skin (2002)
Yeah, this film. Where do I even start? In My Skin is brimming with self-destruction. The film portrays a woman named Esther as she begins to lose her grip on reality after she gets into an accident and hurts her leg. It comes out in vivid acts of cutting and depravity. Those scenes will be forever imprinted in your mind so be warned before watching! In My Skin makes Tetsuo: The Iron Man look preschool.
Lake Mungo (2010)
Lake Mungo is the very definition of “slow burn.” Initially made to be a straightforward documentary involving the drowning of a teenager, complete with extended interviews with her family, it soon becomes much more than that—with a supernatural bent that basically should remain hidden until the viewer makes it to the supremely effective last half of the film. Go in blind, expecting nothing. Trust me, you’ll leave the experience calling it a one-of-a-kind slice of found footage horror.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Perhaps the one film that revived found footage in a way that Blair Witch Project had popularized the subgenre, Paranormal Activity was a true blockbuster when it hit theaters. People everywhere were talking about it, and it wasn’t just horror fanatics. Widely known to be filmed for a measly $15 grand, Oren Peli had audiences spellbound by the story about a young couple as they deal with the possibility that one of them is haunted. The film launched a lucrative series (hey, some of the sequels are actually good too!) but there really was nothing quite like watching Paranormal Activity when it launched in theaters.
The Strangers (2008)
Yeah, I had to add this one to the list. The Strangers is so often compared to Funny Games as being among the best in the home invasion subgenre and with good reason. The film so effectively captures the fear of a house being destroyed, the psychology of both invader and victim, that it stands as a film that is often considered “too scary” for some viewers. That says a lot, considering how many years have passed since the film made its debut.