May Old Acquaintances Be Remembered
It’s completely arbitrary, but we really think of movies in terms of the decades in which they were released. I bring up the 1970’s, and immediately a group of movies which typified that decade pops into any cinephile’s head. I bring up the 1990’s, and horror fans recall… Um… The “Scream” films? “Man’s Best Friend?” “The Lawnmower Man?”… Okay, bad example.
But I do think the last decade bears mentioning. I believe that it will go down in horror history as the triumphant return of horror to the mainstream. We’ll recall the rise and fall of Lions Gate as the primo provider of scary cinema, we’ll look back at the peak and the valley of home video as both incubator and crutch for an overall industry that has increasingly lost its foothold in the culture.
As a genre, Horror saw its largest resurgence in popularity since the 1970’s. The plummeting cost of film production coupled with the ubiquity of desktop-based editing resulted in a groundswell of homespun horror. New voices like Neil Marshall, Ti West, and Zack Snyder used theatrical horror as an incubation chamber to reinvent a genre after its ten-year hiatus from popularity.
As an industry, horror allowed itself to be influenced by international flavors from “Ringu” to “Haute Tension.” Audiences once again learned what it felt like to be frightened (or maddened or grossed out or whatever).
Also, Vampires came back in a big way (did they ever really leave?), followed by Zombies. Every time I hear that either of those two venerable creatures has lost its appeal to audiences, something like “The Walking Dead” or “Let the Right One In” comes out and proves prognosticators wrong.
Also, as the Sundance-style film festival begun to sprout gray hair, genre festivals like Fantastic Fest, Fantasia, Sitges, UK Frightfest, Screamfest and Shriekfest picked up the slack and reached directly to the audiences for whom the genre films were made. None of these festivals has become the place where films are bought and sold, but I think/hope that day is coming.
It’s difficult to look back at the decade that was without acknowledging the expensive mistakes and misfires in the genre, ones that may have filled their distributors’ coffers, but failed to leave lasting impressions. I’m not just talking about bad movies, which are inevitable. I’m talking mostly about cynical movies, where the profit motive overrode everything else.
The company leading this race-to-the-bottom this decade was Michael Bay‘s horror label Platinum Dunes, remaking “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Amityville Horror,” “The Hitcher,” “Friday the 13th,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” with decreasing degrees of artistic success each time. I have to ask myself why none of these films have become beloved classics of the genre – obviously someone making these decisions had some degree of affection for these properties, and if John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” proved anything it’s that a remake can be done effectively and with respect for the audience but somehow the Platinum Dunes experiment, in my opinion, missed that crucial aspect.
Some would lump Rob Zombie’s remake of “Halloween” in with that group but I would not, chalking Zombie’s Michael Meyers retread in with a lot of the other remakes that came out over the last decade, but I would disagree. Although I’m personally mixed on Zombie’s approach to the genre (more below), it’s obvious that the man loves him some horror.
In two words: Torture Porn. The term, coined by New York Magazine critic David Edelstein, sends us back to a certain kind of movie that flourished in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, but Herschell Gordon Lewis never did it quite like this. Eli Roth’s “Hostel” films, James Wan’s “Saw” franchise, and pretty much everything Rob Zombie ever made get lumped into this category.
Without defending or condemning this subgenre, it’s certainly had its ups and downs. For my money, the most fully-realized film to come out of this genre was the original “Saw” (more below), and by the time people stopped seeing these films most of us were already pretty-well over prolonged shots of people screaming in pain.
My Top 15 Horror Films of the ‘Aughts
I really tried to nail down a “top 10” list, but this decade packed in 50% more awesomeness than that would allow. So here, for what it’s worth, are my picks.
Let the Right One In (2008)
This gem from Sweden encapsulates everything that’s right with genre storytelling. Telling the story of a brutal kid being raised in a broken home, befriended by a girl who appears to be his age but is actually a much older vampire. I saw this at Fantastic Fest in 2008, with no idea of what I was about to see. It’s fairly impossible to do that today, what with the heightened profile of this film as well as the mainstream release of the pretty-good English-language remake, “Let Me In,” but there’s no replacing the surprises this film offers, or the deep and real-feeling characters that form the center of this heartbreaking story.
I’ve always been a big fan of Guillermo del Toro‘s Spanish-language films (“Cronos,” “The Devil’s Backbone”), but “Pan’s Labyrinth” placed del Toro in the pantheon of great horror directors and great fantasy directors at the same time. Although this film isn’t a horror movie per se, it has some of the scariest moments and best monsters of the decade (pale man, anybody?). Del Toro’s imaginative fantasy-driven design set against the backdrop of fascist WWII-era Spain made for one of the most involving, inventive, and truly frightening movies of the decade.
The Descent (2005)
After creating the most inventive (and least CGI-driven) werewolf movie in 2002’s “Dog Soldiers,” director Neil Marshall made pound-for-pound the most riveting nail-biter of monster movie of the decade. With an almost all-female cast, Marshall drops the audience into emotional and physical danger as our heroines are trapped in an underground cave system. Scares come early in the film, long before the Lovecraftian white creatures make their first appearance.
Session 9 (2001)
Plenty of movies like to compare themselves to Kubrick’s “The Shining,” specifically latching onto its “slow burn” aesthetic. What Brad Anderson’s “Session 9” gets closest to that goal is that it begins with the same idea – we don’t know the exact details of Gordon Fleming’s (Peter Mullan’s) unwinding, but from the first frame we know it’s going to get ugly. And the setting – a closed mental hospital filled with all-too-real caverns and secrets works too perfectly as the central metaphor for Fleming’s undoing.
The Revenant (2009)
No, you probably haven’t seen it. It’s not been released. But last year at Fantastic Fest it brought down the house. Director D. Kerry Prior does the impossible – he makes a horror comedy that’s both horrific and funny, and he does it by grounding the characters in some kind of believable reality, pitch-perfect casting, and by not insulting the intelligence of the audience. I don’t think this movie has distribution yet, but if anyone reading this ever gets a chance to see the movie, by all means do.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Rest assured that I was one of the loudest people screaming “WHY?!” when I first heard that George Romero’s best film was being remade. I mean, it would only beg comparison to a film as thematically alive and darkly comedic as the 1978 classic which fully modernized the zombie and upped the gross-out ante for several generations of fans. But on opening night at the Cinerama Dome, Zack Snyder’s first feature re-re-invented the genre. It may not make Romero happy, but “running zombies” created more mayhem and packed more scares than the lumbering dead of years past (yes, I know “The Return of the Living Dead” had running zombies back in 1985), and this movie did what a remake should do – it took the basic conceit of the original and reframed it in a different world and let it play out.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
Beyond being the best thing to happen to Clive Barker’s filmography since his own original 1987 horror “Hellraiser,” this dark slice of Manhattan horror marked Lions Gate‘s about-face from the genre it had done so much to build over the decade. A changing of the guard at the top of the studio led them away from the movies that had been filling theaters as well as their bank account to more esoteric fare, and it’s unfortunate. Ryûhei Kitamura‘s dark telling is vintage Barker, ripped straight out of The Books of Blood, and truly deserved a shot at being seen by a wider audience.
28 Days Later (2002)
Genre-hopper Danny Boyle’s eclectic zombie-like pandemic flick introduced mainstream audiences to Cillian Murphy, groundbreaking mini-DV cinematography that really worked, and equal parts of strong character development and genuine suspense and scares. And, yes, more running zombies (only they weren’t zombies, but whatever).
Serving as the basis for the also-quite-good “Quarantine,” “[REC]” once again reframed zombies. Running ones. And put them in one of the best horror mock-documentaries made to date. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza directed the movie that begins as a fluff news pieces/ridealong with a fire department and ends in a lockdown in a labyrinthine apartment building infected with a virus that turns ordinary people into a bloodthirsty horde. It manages to feel fully spontaneous while being perfectly structured, and carries an anarchic feeling of anything-can-happen-at-any-moment.
Nothing, and I mean nothing can prepare any audience for this most-extreme answer to the torture-porn movement. Director Pascal Laugier goes to places that nobody else would dare, bringing the audience who would risk going down the most extreme rabbit hole to a conclusion so jarring and mind-blowing it’s hard to believe that anyone had the balls to release it. Or make it. Or see it. For a time, Laugier was rumored to be directing a reboot of the aforementioned “Hellraiser” series, and he would have been the perfect match to reinvent pain on that level.
It’s hard to believe now, looking back, at what a phenomenon this modestly-budgeted claustrophobic thriller managed to spawn – and although it regularly gets lumped in with the “torture porn” movement, the original “Saw” was more of a horror version of “The Usual Suspects” than a precursor to “Hostel.” In fact, when my non-horror fans ask for movies to watch, I generally recommend this movie – it’s not as gory as anyone remembers or thinks (I don’t think they had the money for lots of the red stuff), but it has a great hook. Literally.
The Host (Gwoemul) (2006)
Firstly, it’s a minor miracle that this movie hasn’t been forced down the remake highway behind Asian classics like “Ringu,” “The Grudge,” and “A Tale of Two Sisters,” or the on-again-off-again rumors of an “Oldboy” remake (please, just don’t). Maybe it’s because it’s so culturally specific to its Korean cast, or maybe Americans just don’t have much of a taste for slime monsters these days. In a time when audiences are awash with CGI critters of all types, “The Host” proved that it could be done well, on a lower budget but with a superior creature and good storytelling and characters. Again, it didn’t insult the intelligence of its audience which is the divining rod between great low-budget genre work like this and forgettable straight-to-video garbage.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
I may be the only person on earth who loves this movie as much as I do, and I accept that. Richard Gere stars as the real-life journalist John Klein (no, I don’t buy into any of the “true” story), as a widower who stumbles across the “Mothman,” a wraithlike figure with glowing-red eyes who presages calamity and human suffering. While trying to unravel the mystery creature, Klein becomes too deeply entrenched in it to be objective about how insane he appears. The phone conversations he has with the never-seen “Indrid Cold” raise the hairs on the back of my neck every time. Yes, it’s a cinematic pricktease, but it really works and the solid cast nails this ethereal slice of weirdness to a human reality.
The Orphanage (2007)
Juan Antonio Bayona directs and Guillermo del Toro produces the most frightening ghost story of the decade. Phantom little kids are always scary, but throw a mask on that tyke and he’s terrifying. Like all good spirit yarns, this film deals with the unwinding of a troubled past, this time based at an orphanage for “special” children. The film hits all the buttons in the right order that all good ghost films do, as well as brining in a team of parapsychologists ripped right out of “Poltergeist” or “The House on Haunted Hill” to up the fear ante.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
With a few pennies and a San Diego tract house, Oren Peli proved that less can be more with a mock-doc that will glue almost anyone into their seats. It’s been pointed out that the phenomenon of the ultra-low-budget horror breakout/blockbuster seems to happen once every ten years, but the bad-pattern-recognizers who point that out seem to forget about 2003’s “Open Water,” or, of course, the rash of lowish-budget mock-docs that have trickled down through the decade. The real story here is that Peli, who was a Hollywood outsider, managed to make a solid film with unknown actors and that a major studio like Paramount decided to give the horror audience some credit in the brain department to everybody’s benefit. Of course that only works if the film is actually good (which it was), and now “Paranormal Activity” already has a (really good) sequel and another on the way as the studio tries to find and milk the formula that made the first one work.