This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
This is an overall decent year, although it’s hard for it to compare to the one that preceded it, which was abnormally packed with quality. Indie and international films are largely leading the way here, with Let the Right One In as the easy, slam-dunk choice for the #1 spot.
On the commercial side of the spectrum, Cloverfield made a divisive splash at the box office, with overblown reports of people experiencing nausea or vomiting because of its jarring, first-person found footage visual style. Suffice to say, the hubbub about the film’s shaky camera has often made viewers look past its surprisingly effective horror sequences in the years that followed, especially when the group is attacked in the subway tunnels by the crab-like creatures that clung to the larger monster as parasites. The most effective thing in Cloverfield is ultimately the way it captures the human perspective that is almost always absent from giant monster movies—the confusion and total lack of information that an average person on the street would possess if a creature suddenly appeared and started wrecking Manhattan. Nor do our protagonists factor into the creature’s arrival or destruction—they’re merely bystanders trying to survive, which likely makes their plight more resonant to the average viewer. This isn’t really a perspective on monster movies you can return to in repeated installments without it losing its effectiveness, but Cloverfield deserves credit for imagining a very different reaction to the presence of a Godzilla-like threat.
The likes of Pontypool, on the other hand, represent the more cerebral side of 2000s indie horror; the type of film that is far too weird to succeed in wide distribution, but now has a place in the world of streaming services, etc. This is a “zombie” film in a sense more thematic than literal—those affected by the condition at the heart of the film become ravenous killers with no sense of self-preservation, but this isn’t your George Romero-style illness, transmitted by bites of the risen dead. Rather, Pontypool is a sly commentary on the shallowness and artificiality of modern discourse, relationships and casual conversation, wherein our fractured language has itself become broken, the carrier for a psychic strain of illness that infects our consciousness rather than our bodies. It’s a film that is still too heady for some, but Stephen McHattie is electric as a radio shock jock who realizes he’s part of the problem, and tries to find a solution over the air.
Other notables for this year include Bryan Bertino’s well-executed home invasion horror The Strangers, which thrives when it’s being patient, as well as the unrelenting brutality of Martyrs and the fairly faithful Clive Barker adaptation in The Midnight Meat Train. One additional film that more people should see is low-budget “horror drama” Lake Mungo, which uses a muted mockumentary style to probe the fallout of a family member’s death, while slowly introducing elements that may or may not be supernatural. Critically acclaimed but still underseen today, it’s a film that proves the post-Paranormal Activity era of low-budget indie horror was not entirely spent in imitation.
2008 Honorable Mentions: Pontypool, Cloverfield, Martyrs, Eden Lake, Lake Mungo, The Children, The Strangers, Splinter, The Midnight Meat Train, The Burrowers
The Film: Let the Right One In
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Vampires have never been more human, or more vulnerable, than they are in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. The Swedish film Roger Ebert referred to as “the best modern vampire movie” strips away all the gothic arch-villain connotations of existing as a vampire and reduces the affliction to its most basic components: You become a creature of intense needs and vulnerabilities, precisely because your existence is still so tethered to human society. Without human blood, a vampire cannot live. And yet to take blood, a vampire inevitably arouses suspicion, putting the wheels of their own destruction into motion. A vampire essentially has no choice in the matter—their lives are dangerous and lonely by default.
Into this situation comes a young boy named Oskar, with whom we initially sympathize, before realizing he is more than meets the eye. Oskar has suffered; this much is clear. His mother is cold and distant, seemingly consumed by the grief of a life that slipped away from her when she wasn’t looking. His father is gone, partying with friends after the divorce. He’s bullied mercilessly in school by a pack of thugs who seem like budding psychopaths. The pieces are all there to get us on Oskar’s side, but for the slow realization that the circumstances of his life have perhaps changed him into a person just as potentially dangerous as those who torment him. Oskar would like nothing more than to plunge his little knife into one of those bullies, and the reveal of him practicing his stabbing motions into a tree is more than a little creepy, suggesting exactly what the 12-year-old may eventually be capable of.
But ah, perhaps Oskar just needs a friend, right? If only that friend wasn’t an immortal vampire, trapped in the body of what was once a 12-year-old girl. The seeming age match between the two makes for an interesting source of both friction and bonding—as also seen to some degree in Interview with the Vampire, Eli has technically aged hundreds of years, but her mental faculties and personal identity remained curiously frozen in time. She still thinks of herself as 12, only it’s just that she’s been 12 for “a very long time.” The events of Let the Right One In, however, kick-start what can only be described as a rapid maturation in both Oskar and Eli.
At its heart, this is also a story about how we take advantage of those we profess to love, and how people use each other to seek their own goals. Eli’s “familiar” of sorts, Håkan, is a man who is deeply committed to and obsessed with Eli, but she seems to harbor no genuine fondness or affection for him. He continues to do her bidding, killing for her to allay suspicion about a 12-year-old girl out on her own at night, even though she’s perfectly capable of doing the deed herself. He shields her from some of the harsh truths of the modern world, allowing her to wile away her time in confinement, while she dangles the prospect of some kind of romantic payoff that we quickly realize will never come. She gives him just enough encouragement, in other words, to keep him on her leash, even as she’s forging a much more genuine bond with the little boy next door. The bitterness and jealousy Håkan experiences is more than understandable as a result.
As for the film’s American version, Let Me In is the rare case of a Hollywood remake of a foreign language classic that largely translated the subject material with grace and dignity. Unfairly demonized for having the audacity to remake a masterpiece, Let Me In faced a tough uphill road toward any kind of grudging admiration, and although its central performances can’t quite match up with Swedish original, the gap between the two is not nearly so great as many made it out to be at the time. In fact, the American version arguably does a few things better than the original, fleshing out the character of Håkan in particular, depicting his self-sacrificing struggle to keep his vampire ward fed and safe, which accurately captured themes present in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel. Each film has its strong points, and each ends with a bang—the “swimming pool scene” being one of the great sequences in the history of vampire cinema by just about any measurement. Ultimately, Let the Right One In is a very cold, emotionally resonant tale about everything we’re willing to sacrifice in the name of love and acceptance.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.