The volume of horror fare isn’t quite through the roof here, but 2000 can lay claim to some decent variety and a few imaginative films. More foundations are being laid for the “J-horror” craze that would sweep into Hollywood following The Ring in 2002, while the progeny of Scream are still kicking into the new decade with the likes of Final Destination, and, well … Scream 3, but let’s not spend much time discussing that.
More distinctive is the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, a riddle of a film that accurately conveys the confused reality of the book and the highly unreliable state of its narrator. Christian Bale was perfectly cast as the impeccably coiffed Patrick Bateman, a symbol of corporate soullessness who puts on airs to remain undetected as a pure psychopath prowling the waters of New York City high society in the late ’80s. The joke, of course, is that ultimately he’s trying harder than he really needs to—the world occupied by Batemen is so self-obsessed and concerned with surface level BS that even when he’s attempting to confess, no one bothers to listen or act on the obvious warning signs he’s throwing up. His world is so fundamentally unconcerned and unempathetic that the boundaries between sociopathy and “regular” human behavior are entirely blurred.
Out of Japan, we have Ju-on: The Curse, which would prove to be deeply influential upon the mold of J-horror ghost stories that would proliferate throughout the 2000s, such as the better known Ju-on: The Grudge in 2002, remade in the American market in 2004. Even more entertaining is Japan’s Battle Royale, a delightfully twisted tale of an entire middle school class that is shipped off to an island and forced to fight to the death by their totalitarian government. If you think that sounds similar to The Hunger Games, you’re by no means alone—so many on the web made that point that author Suzanne Collins has felt the need to repeatedly claim she was unaware of Battle Royale when developing her very similar series. Regardless, the adaptation is bloody fun, avoiding the depth of focus on teen romance/YA fiction cliches seen in The Hunger Games to instead revolve around kinetic action and explosive, semi-comical violence. In the last few years, the term was even lifted to describe the popular videogame genre that contains the likes of PUBG and Fortnite.
Elsewhere, the year 2000 graces us with Willem Dafoe’s powerhouse performance as a real-life vampire on the set of Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire, while Tarsem Singh’s The Cell proved to be one of the most purely imaginative fantasy horror films of the decade, sending psychologist Jennifer Lopez into the unconscious mind of a serial killer to contend with his warped self-projection in a beautiful, metaphysical battle of wills. Visually audacious but often self-congratulatory, it still stands out as one of the year’s most daring offerings.
2000 Honorable Mentions:
American Psycho, Battle Royale, Shadow of the Vampire, The Cell, Pitch Black, Ju-on, The Gift, Final Destination, Scream 3, What Lies Beneath
Director: John Fawcett
The trope of “lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty” is not exactly an uncommon one, and has been played for both laughs (Teen Wolf) and serious drama (When Animals Dream) on different occasions, but nowhere do the worlds of high school predation and throat-ripping werewolf savagery come together as satisfyingly as in Ginger Snaps. It works as funny high school satire; it works as a legitimate werewolf horror film; it works as family dramedy—the film just works, making it one of the few indispensable modern werewolf movies, other than the likes of Dog Soldiers.
The formula of Ginger Snaps is a bit like a precursor to the high school cattiness of Mean Girls, except deeply rooted in the ’90s grunge rebellion of Daria. Its central duo are sisters Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins), twins united in their nihilistic, gothic worldview and too-cool-for-school, half-serious misanthropy. All their lives, the two have looked out for one another as a duo, defining themselves in an “us against the world” style of pact—until, that is, Ginger begins her first period. As one sister begins to mature much faster than the other, Ginger is beguiled by the powers of popularity and the wolfish desires bubbling up within her, while Brigitte grapples with the obvious fear of being left behind as Ginger explores a brave new world. The relationship themes are simple, easy to grasp and universal, while the feminist overtones raise questions related to sexual independence, social acceptance and friendships between young women.
Really, it’s the performances of Perkins and Isabelle who lend truth to the material, bringing to life a pair of jaded outcasts who have never realized that they depend on one another’s support to an unhealthy degree. Ginger is the bully; the alpha; the idea person and instigator of their plans. Brigitte is the pushover; the enabler; the “runt” who must rise up and overcome if she wants to save her sister’s soul. For two young women who have always defined themselves in relation to one another, there’s a lot at stake—especially with Mom poking around their business, threatening to reveal the secret of what Ginger is becoming.
Nor does Ginger Snaps skimp on the full-on werewolf carnage. Its prosthetics provide subtly evolving “wolfy” qualities for Isabelle’s face throughout, while the final transformation echoes the best of David Cronenberg, albeit on a budget. Still, the film isn’t afraid to be funny in one moment, and spill blood with a straight face in the next—it’s a rare combination of humor and legitimate horror chops, with pathos for both its leads. If you’re a werewolf fan and haven’t managed to see it, then you’re missing out on one of the sub-genre’s most effective overall presentations.
In the years since Ginger Snaps, the status of the film has risen, with it now regularly appearing on “best of” lists for the decade. Isabelle went on to become one of the era’s most prolific scream queens, with appearances in the likes of 2002’s Carrie or Freddy vs. Jason, and starring roles in well-liked indie horrors such as American Mary. Ginger Snaps also received two sequels of its own, reuniting Isabelle and Perkins, but it’s the initial go-round that stands out for its simplicity and rock-solid execution.
Not the deepest year, necessarily, but one with some very strong choices at the top of the list, and a legitimately difficult three- or four-way pick between the biggest contenders—especially between The Others and The Devil’s Backbone as they represent two different (but excellent) flavors of ghost story.
Ultimately, the pick is The Devil’s Backbone, if only because The Others feels so deeply indebted to The Innocents and the many other gothic ghost stories that had come before it. Not to diminish Alejandro Amenábar’s film, but it simply feels slightly more familiar, though often eerily beautiful. Nicole Kidman is excellent as an overprotective mother in WWII England who attempts to shield her light-sensitive children from what seems to be a malevolent force, disturbing the peace in their country manor. As the story unfolds, however, it inverts on itself like a ghostly Möbius strip, turning a straightforward haunted house story into something with more of a metaphysical flavor. Visually, it’s one of the decade’s best ghost stories for certain, with a classically spooky vibe that can be difficult to replicate in modern film. Certainly, The Others is a throwback in the best of ways.
The year’s other strongest contender is Frailty, a harrowing psychological horror film directed by and starring the late, great Tom Paxton in what was quietly one of the actor’s best roles. Here, he’s playing a father raising two young sons in 1979, when he receives an angelic vision instructing him to abduct and kill “demons” disguised as human beings. One son is convinced of the veracity of these visions, while the other suffers from a much more tenuous grasp on his faith, doubting the sanity of his father and unsure of how to proceed. Like the best thrillers, the truth is always kept out of grasp until the film’s conclusion, but the tug of war between faith, family loyalty and the suspicion of mental illness makes for powerful drama, with Paxton feverishly commanding the screen and Matthew McConaughey turning in a solid performance, years before the supposed beginning of the “McConaissance.”
The rest of the 2001 lineup includes an array of titles, from the well-regarded, minimalist indie psych-horror of Session 9 to the decidedly lesser, big-budget Hollywood sequel of Hannibal, or the hyper-violent Japanese weirdness of Ichi the Killer. All in all, a solid year as the horror genre revs to life following the 1990s.
2001 Honorable Mentions:
The Others, Frailty, Session 9, Ichi the Killer, Hannibal, Pulse, From Hell, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Jeepers Creepers
Director: Guillermo del Toro
The precise moment in which The Devil’s Backbone takes place is utterly instrumental to the telling of Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish ghost story. A year and date aren’t given, but they can be roughly surmised from the psychological state of the characters on screen. It’s the final days of the Spanish Civil War, and for those who backed the democratically elected republic, it’s clear that the writing is on the wall. That impending sense of doom—the utter certainty that despite fighting the good fight, oppression is right around the corner—colors the film with a palpable sense of apocalyptic dread, and an uncertainty as to what will be left when it’s all over. Those who fought for their democracy aren’t about to give up, but their faces bear the crushing grief of defeat—they’re just going through the motions at this point.
And suffice to say, children growing up in a dingy little orphanage deserve better than caretakers who are just “going through the motions,” but they’ll have to take what they can get. Little Carlos arrives at the parched orphanage, the son of a man who died fighting in the hopeless conflict, without anyone he can call his own. Although he improbably forges a tenuous friendship with a local bully, perhaps its his utter aloneness that makes him receptive to visions from the beyond. Perhaps he’s been chosen specifically for this task; this commune with the dead. Perhaps that’s why the ghost of little Santi chooses to appear before him.
The Devil’s Backbone is both mystery and classic gothic ghost story, intertwining the adult drama of the orphanage’s caretakers, who are also funneling support to the doomed Republican fighters, and the trials of young Carlos, who is delving deep into the history of the orphanage itself, and unearthing some old skeletons in the process. The structure has obvious thematic similarities with del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth, but where Pan is fantastical and beautiful, The Devil’s Backbone is grittier and more genuinely frightening. Like all of del Toro’s films, however, it maintains a deeply human emotional core, empathizing with the plight of its protagonists young and old, in a time when no one else could reasonably have done any better.
This is the kind of film that, like The Innocents or The Others, ages well thanks to the strength of its performances and its overall focus on instilling a specific mood over hammering home the scare chords or soon-to-be-outdated CGI. It manages to balance a tender portrayal of coming of age and making friends in an inherently hostile environment with classically creepy overtones, displaying symbolism that is both easy for an audience to grasp and satisfying for viewers to consider in greater depth. Tidy, self-assured and expertly constructed within the framework of a small budget, it was the film that proved the eventual Best Director winner was ready for bigger and more ambitious projects.
Another solid year overall, 2002 is marked by the continued international prominence of Asian horror cinema, especially from Japan. At the same time, the first of the prominent U.S. remakes, The Ring, brings a sudden interest in J-horror stateside, heralding the beginning of a period that will see English-language remakes of many prominent films, from The Grudge and Dark Water to The Eye and Shutter. As is often the case in horror fads, these types of films will have a few years of saturation before more or less disappearing afterward.
In the fall of 2002, though, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring was hailed as a revelation in horror, and it really is a film that is both stylish and effective—particularly its opening establishment of the “cursed tape,” and the “I saw her face” cutaway, which had theater audiences jumping out of their seats. Naomi Watts provides one of the genre’s best central performances as investigative journalist Rachel Keller, who dives into the history of the tape while working against a ticking clock for herself and her son. With memorably creepy, darkly shaded, green-and-blue-tinged visuals, The Ring built an expressively creepy, morose visual identity, which would be lifted by many lesser, PG-13 horror films through the rest of the decade—as would the aesthetic of the ghost girl Samara, who memorably emerges from the TV screen in the film’s big conclusion. In the years that have followed, The Ring experienced a degree of critical blowback, as is common when a film can be described as the progenitor of a particular sub-genre style, but Verbinski’s remake deserved the attention it received in the U.S.
This year also gives us one of the best modern werewolf films in the form of Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, a movie that does away with the more sympathetic aspects of most werewolf stories in the vein of The Wolf Man, instead telling its story entirely from the point of view of a group of soldiers under assault by an entire coven of lycanthropes. In the process, it lifts some basic zombie movie tropes from the likes of Night of the Living Dead, aping the “barricaded in a farmhouse under attack” imagery, but swapping out the standard Romero ghouls for some of the best full-body werewolf costumes ever constructed. It’s those effects that really help elevate Dog Soldiers from run-of-the-mill to unforgettable—they’re arguably the most attractively designed movie werewolves ever, and the film never skimps on showing them off. It’s a classic case of simple premise, outstanding execution.
Other notables for 2002 include Guillermo del Toro’s elevation of the Blade franchise in Blade II, M. Night Shyamalan’s strong first 100 minutes (and bonkers conclusion) in Signs, and the still-underseen psychological horror film May, which perhaps suffers from “unfortunately generic title” syndrome. Along with the laughs to be found in “Bruce Campbell vs. an Egyptian mummy” in Bubba Ho-Tep, it makes for a fun year.
2002 Honorable Mentions:
The Ring, Dog Soldiers, Ju-On: The Grudge, Blade II, Bubba Ho-Tep, May, Signs, The Eye, Dark Water, Red Dragon
Director: Danny Boyle
After flourishing throughout the 1980s, the zombie film genre faded into the background for more than a decade, with only a few notable exceptions (Dead Alive, Cemetery Man) that half qualify. But for fans of works by the likes of George Romero, the 1990s were some truly lean times, a trend that would continue on into the 2000s—until 28 Days Later brought a breath of fresh air to the basic structure of zombie cinema.
And yes, we know—the “infected” of 28 Days Later aren’t technically “zombies” or “undead” in the classical Romero sense, but there’s no denying that this film otherwise fits the bill of “zombie apocalypse” movie almost perfectly. The status of the victims as ultimately alive or dead doesn’t matter—what matters is their behavior, and this is where the film innovated most notably, by presenting a form of assailant that was notably more vicious and ferocious than the standard Romero ghoul. Such was the brilliance of the “rage virus.”
This is not to say that the “fast zombie” was a concept that had never existed before this—look no further than Return of the Living Dead, whose indestructible zombies are perfectly capable of sprinting—but in this particular application, it was received as a revelation that helped make zombies frightening once again. These weren’t the dumb, plodding ghouls of Dawn of the Dead, which could be threaded through and pushed over to comic effect with a modicum of carefulness. These rage-infected savages were like sprinting linebackers who would stop at nothing to take you down, completely unhinged lunatics who had somehow unlocked their maximum physical potential. Even burning to death, they’re still sprinting at you. The idea was terrifying, and quickly became an easy way to increase the threat level of your standard zombie, whether they were appearing in films (Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead) or videogames (the Left 4 Dead series). It was such a fundamental shift that you can essentially categorize the zombie films since 28 Days Later as “slow zombie” or “fast zombie” movies.
Of course, the simple revelation of “zombie speed” wouldn’t have meant much without the characters and story to back it up. Danny Boyle’s film is a starkly beautiful and lonesome vision of societal collapse, using the empty London streets of its opening moments (and a beginning essentially stolen by Robert Kirkman for The Walking Dead) to beautiful effect. Cillian Murphy’s Jim wanders through an eerily deserted city, calling to mind multiple Twilight Zone episodes but also the chaos in America that followed the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001—the shots of walls of “missing” posters grimly evoke the same sense of loss and hopeless confusion that permeated U.S. culture at the time, with the attacks still fresh in the nation’s collective memory.
Some 17 years after release, 28 Days Later is a film we return to not so much for its impact on zombie tropes (although this was vast), but for its powerfully nihilistic message, which assumes the worst of human nature and is rarely proven wrong. There are glimmers of hope—the theatrical ending is much rosier than either of the alternates, which are quite bleak—but it’s still one of most bluntly horrific depictions of humanity’s self-inflicted death.
After a pretty strong opening to the decade, 2003 is an oddly weak year for the genre, especially in terms of American output—there just aren’t many notable U.S. films here at all, but thankfully the international horror movies pick up the slack. It continues to be a prolific era for Japanese horror films, with such entries as Gozu and 2LDK, but they’re by no means the only Asian nation producing notable genre movies at this point—look no further than this year’s #1, A Tale of Two Sisters from South Korea.
Of the international offerings, one of the most notable, interesting and ultimately frustrating is France’s High Tension from director Alexandre Aja, a stylish stalk-and-kill horror thriller that features some of the most vicious bloodletting of the decade. A notable entry in the movement dubbed New French Extremity, the film centers around a young woman who visits a friend’s family before a serial killer begins systematically killing everyone around her. It gained infamy both for its over-the-top splatter and a twist ending that sadly strains the credibility of what the story can reasonably rationalize as it tries to explain itself. It feels like a case where it’s not so much the nature of the twist that is problematic, but the inability of the film to make the past events of the story make sense once the twist is revealed. Perhaps, though, with Aja back in genre fans’ good graces after this year’s surprisingly well received Crawl, Haute Tension will be due for a reassessment.
Other notables for the year include one of the most perfect distillations of a simple fear captured for the big screen in the form of Open Water, the start of an up-and-down directorial career for Rob Zombie in House of 1,000 Corpses, the beginning of a long-running series in Wrong Turn and the unnecessary but technically competent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Also worth mentioning: Freddy vs. Jason, which is beyond silly, but a guilty pleasure popcorn flick for fans of both series who always wanted to see a titanic brawl between two of the classic slasher villains. It’s impossible to take seriously, but it gave most audience members exactly what they wanted to see, and you can’t fault it for that.
2003 Honorable Mentions:
Gozu, High Tension, Identity, Open Water, Dead End, Wrong Turn, Freddy vs. Jason, House of 1,000 Corpses, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Director: Jee-woon Kim
The international success of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring not only paved the way for more American remakes of Japanese horror fare (all thrown under the term “J-horror”), it also seemed to embolden production of horror cinema all throughout the rest of Asia’s biggest film markets, seeing the U.S. as a potentially profitable new arena to exploit. That included South Korea, whose output spiked in this period (we called it “K-horror,” because we’re so original). And the most famous of those films was no doubt A Tale of Two Sisters, which in 2003 became the highest-grossing horror film in the country’s history. Drawing upon centuries old Korean folk stories, the film modernizes itself with M. Night Shyamalan-esque psychological plotting and some good-old-fashioned twists.
The titular two sisters are elder Su-mi and younger Su-yeong, over whom Su-mi feels quite protective. As we join the story, the elder sister has just returned from a mental institution, where she had been incarcerated for unknown reasons after some unexplained event threw the family into disarray. Returning to the family’s remote estate in the wilderness, she immediately comes into friction against her overbearing stepmother Eun-joo, and suspects her of abusing Su-yeong. The family patriarch, on the other hand, father Moo-hyeon, seems completely ineffectual and passive, wracked by grief and haunted by the past. He refuses to sleep in the same bed as his wife and consistently withdraws himself from the story, allowing tensions to continue to deepen between Su-mi and Eun-joo, until the threat of violence is far more than just implied.
Some of these relationships must be inferred, rather than simply absorbed as matter of fact. A Tale of Two Sisters is a very patient, glacially paced film that is somewhat ponderous in its opening moments. Unlike American counterparts such as the poorly received 2009 remake The Uninvited, the film does not spoon-feed the audience vital background information, and dialog is often obtuse. Characters have conversations with one another where both sides refuse to address the heart of the mounting tensions in the household, which is purposefully frustrating for the audience—we feel trapped in the middle of a familial dispute in which we don’t have the right to speak up.
Once the household’s disturbances take a turn for the supernatural, however, the timbre of the film changes considerably. Ghosts both real and imagined return to play their part in digging up the family’s buried secrets, and here the film’s slow pace suddenly becomes an asset—there are haunting scenes in A Tale of Two Sisters that draw out individual moments of suspense almost to the point where it becomes unbearable. It’s a distinctly different experience than that of PG-13, American jump scare horror—here, director Kim Jee-woon will simply show you a ghost, and let both you and the character sweat as it takes its time crossing the room to stand atop your bed. Other terrifying moments have their roots in reality, as in the protracted sequence of a dinner guest having a seizure and flopping chaotically on the dining room floor. It invokes a sort of collectivist culture taboo—the ungainly breaking of the extreme social restraint otherwise expected of the characters at all times.
In its closing moments, A Tale of Two Sisters is at its most poignant, blurring the lines between psychological horror and dramatic, Greek-style tragedy in a way that is so unexpectedly effective it’s likely to take an audience completely by surprise. This is the moment the film chooses to use to engender sympathy for characters who didn’t seem to deserve it before, forcing a reevaluation of the entire story that adds considerably more richness to previous interactions. It’s a film for the patient horror viewer, but one that is ultimately rewarding.
American horror cinema returns to prominence in 2004, a stronger year overall than the one that preceded it, although the output from Asia is still firing on all cylinders as well. This is a particularly pan-Asian year for the genre, in fact, as the anthology Three … Extremes contains segments from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, while the year is also home to Dumplings from China (a segment of Three…Extremes made into a feature) and Shutter from Thailand. The latter would eventually receive its own American remake, as the craze for Asian horror remakes was still in full swing at the time, but director Banjong Pisanthanakun’s film has to be considered the definitive version of this urban legend-style story.
In the U.S., meanwhile, this is a year where the top few films proved to be extremely influential on the shape and tone of the next decade. Both this year’s zombie classics (Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead) and the splatter revelation of Saw would inspire waves of imitators and revitalize their genres.
Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is the hellish flipside to Edgar Wright’s uproarious humor in Shaun, a film that pulled off the task of updating George Romero’s 1978 classic far more ably than most would have expected. Most vividly, it truly captures a sense of sudden and completely chaotic societal collapse, especially in the stellar first 20 minutes, as Sarah Polley’s character Ana awakes to a world that has gone completely insane overnight. With her husband dead, she flees through the streets, which have become a charnel house of wrecked cars, flaming bodies and hordes of the fast-moving dead. Like 28 Days Later, Snyder’s film got maximum impact out of the unexpectedly profound change from “slow zombies” to “fast zombies,” altering the basic feel of Romero’s universe in a way that is pervasive but merely different, rather than damaging. Although the purists resist such an idea to this day, it gives this film a verve and immediacy that makes each encounter with the dead a true scrabble for survival. Combined with the array of colorful characters—the rooftop game of shooting zombies that look like certain celebrities is pretty funny—the film is ultimately a worthy successor to Romero’s mantle, especially in its bleak as hell ending.
Saw, on the other hand, can be seen as a progenitor of the splatter horror substyle that eventually ended up being derogatorily referred to as “torture porn,” although the original film in the series doesn’t truly feel like it deserves that label—not in the same way as the Saw sequels, or the films they inspired such as Hostel or Wolf Creek. Rather, the original Saw plays more like a fiendish mystery, of the type that might once have starred Boris Karloff as a mad scientist subjecting a group of people to a series of sadistic games of survival. Even more so than the series it directly leads into, however, the most important contribution of Saw to the modern horror landscape is likely director/super producer James Wan, who would go on to define the look and feel of 2010s supernatural horror films in the Insidious and The Conjuring series.
2004 Honorable Mentions:
Dawn of the Dead, Saw, Three … Extremes, Shutter, The Village, Dumplings, Secret Window, Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed, The Grudge
Director: Edgar Wright
If 2002 indisputably resurrected the zombie film at cinemas via 28 Days Later, then it was 2004 that completed the comeback, offering up the best year for zombie movies since the 1980s, and perfecting the “zom-com” in the process. The current wave of zombie appreciation we rode through the 2010s and into the present day really has its roots here—via Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead for legitimate zombie horror, and Shaun of the Dead as the genre’s most perfect satire. Meanwhile, on the comics side of the equation, The Walking Dead began publishing in October of 2003, further cementing this two-year stretch as the genesis point for all our current zombie fiction.
Shaun of the Dead is a brilliant illustration of the key tenet of horror comedy: Anything can be a source of humor, depending on how it’s presented. Serial killers and slasher villains can be comic foils. Monsters can be funny. Zombies can be a laugh riot—what matters is how the protagonists react to them, which sets the tone for how the audience is meant to perceive the film’s antagonists. Films like Shaun of the Dead can still have emotional, pathos-building moments, but those moments come and go quickly, never undermining the humorous tone for too long. Whereas the overarching tone of the average Romero zombie movie is one of a ceaseless battle against entropy and hopelessness, the tone of something like Shaun of the Dead is that of a petulant teenager being forced to grow up and accept his responsibilities. The zombies here don’t actually behave any differently than those from the likes of Night of the Living Dead—it’s the characters who behave differently around them, reacting to the emergence of the undead with a tone that is more “casually unnerved” than hopeless or panicked.
The first of the three films dubbed as Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto” trilogy (the others being Hot Fuzz and The World’s End), Shaun of the Dead was an early demonstration of the traits that make Wright’s films such lively, engaging experiences. He gets an incredible amount of mileage out of visual comedy and comedy embedded within physical action and movement, helped along by dynamic editing that can turn mundane activities into comic punchlines—think of, for instance, the “paperwork” action montages within Hot Fuzz. In Shaun of the Dead, that lively and energetic editing style makes a nice contrast to Shaun’s own lazy, slacker personality, and a lack of awareness that is played for huge laughs in the long one-shot of Simon Pegg wandering through a wrecked London, failing to realize that the zombie apocalypse has occurred. Many zombie films had already made the basic observation that “we are the zombies,” but none of them nailed the cynical question of “how different is the zombie apocalypse from everyday life, really?” with this kind of cleverness.
At the same time, the film never forgets about its roots in the horror genre; nor does it try to innovate in terms of the “rules” of its movie monster of choice. These are genuine, Romero-style zombies, and they will absolutely tear you to pieces if given the opportunity. Just look at what happens to poor David, for god’s sake—it’s a sequence so intensely gory and gruesome that it’s a little hard to believe it actually happens within the framework of a comedy. Taken completely out of context, one would think this scene was an excerpt from some lost Romero classic, and that’s a major factor as to why Shaun of the Dead simultaneously works so well as both comedy and legitimate zombie film. It is truly the best of both worlds, and we never could have had something like Zombieland without it. Modern horror comedy in general has often been built with Edgar Wright’s instant classic as a blueprint, and you can hardly blame other filmmakers for turning to it for inspiration.
Overall, this is a solid frame that is marked by the stomach-churning presence of several of the mid-2000s “extreme horror” films that generated the most negative discussion during this era. The likes of Saw 2 pushed that series far beyond the more modest setup of the original film, while Wolf Creek made headlines in Australia and Eli Roth’s Hostel stirred up considerable anger in the U.S. There is a sense here of horror establishing some new boundaries as far as cinematic brutality is concerned, pushing well past the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to depict scenes of realistic torture and dismemberment that are delivered with an air of harrowing seriousness rather than slasher-esque glee. Those critical of the new wave derided all such films under the blanket term of “torture porn,” while defenders turned toward almost Freudian psychoanalysis to probe the trend for deeper and more primal meaning. 15 years later, it’s still not entirely clear who was in the right.
Outside of the films directly accused of bearing the torture porn label, the trend toward the extreme and risque is present in several of the other most notable offerings. The Devil’s Rejects certainly pulls no punches in its wanton bloodletting on the part of the villainous Firefly family (recently returned to the screen in the poorly received 3 From Hell), and is usually regarded as director Rob Zombie’s strongest overall offering to date. Hard Candy, meanwhile, also raised a lot of eyebrows in 2005 for a storyline that was difficult for many people to accept on basic premise: A 14-year-old girl lures in an older man with sexual innuendo before subduing him and torturing him for reasons of her own. The film is still worth seeing in 2019, however, for the strong central performances from Patrick Wilson and a debuting Ellen Page.
The rest of 2005 features films that both conform to trends of the day, such as the J-horror fervor still going strong in Noroi, and entries that stand out as much more individualistic, like the black-and-white, silent film parody of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, which faithfully adapts one of the author’s best-known stories. Feast also falls delightfully into the latter camp; a very fun examination of monster movie and “hero” tropes that establishes a familiar horror film situation and then purposely veers in unexpected directions.
Finally, 2005 is also home to George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, considered by many zombie geeks—myself included—as the last essential entry in the original “of the dead” series, taking some of the themes of Day of the Dead to their logical conclusion, even if the overall story isn’t exactly what it could have been. Still, these are the last fumes of Romero as a significant creative presence, before Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead returned to retread what had become very familiar ground.
2005 Honorable Mentions:
The Devil’s Rejects, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hard Candy, Feast, Noroi: The Curse, Land of the Dead, The Call of Cthulhu, Saw 2, Wolf Creek, Corpse Bride
Director: Neil Marshall
Stories that genuinely revolve around female relationships are incredibly rare in the world of horror. It is, suffice to say, one of the genres that tends to have the fewest films passing the Bechdel test, even though the central protagonists of certain genres (such as slasher movies) are often women. All too often, though, these women are simply defined by their relationships with male protagonists, or as the target of a male antagonist, such as your classic, masked slasher villain (Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, etc). The Descent would already stand out in this genre just for the fact that its protagonists are exclusively women, but the lack of a clearly “male” villain pushes it farther from the center, into territory that is still very rarely explored. As a result, it possesses a timbre all its own—a true female voice, even though it was written by director Neil Marshall.
The Descent is about widowed former mother Sarah, who reunites with a group of friends a year after losing both her husband and her young daughter in a car wreck. Together, as a way of healing their group dynamic (although the film doesn’t say it so bluntly) and bringing Sarah out of her depression, the group plans to go spelunking, exploring an unmapped section of caves deep in Appalachia. After a cave-in, however, the group is left with only one choice—move further into the ever-blacker abyss, as the walls close in, the air grows stale, and strange sounds begin to creep up from the depths …
Yes, this is ultimately a creature feature, but describing The Descent as a “monster movie” unfairly minimizes its uncommon gravitas and expertly executed slow-burn. Indeed, the most impressive aspect of this film is likely its incredible patience and ability to flesh out its characters while imperceptibly turning up the tension, scene by scene. As the group descends into the heart of the cave system, they’re routinely squeezing through narrow cracks that represent what is arguably the ultimate harnessing of claustrophobia as a cinematic scare tactic. These scenes seem to go on forever, to the point that the audience is already on the edge of its seat by the time one of the creatures finally makes an extremely memorable first appearance. It’s a proper, switch-flipping moment: What had been a quiet, claustrophobic film soon erupts in a geyser of blood, as the spelunkers are not only torn asunder, but have their relationships torn apart as well. It’s all impeccably written, with several members of the group being fleshed out nearly as well as de facto protagonist Sarah, making you care about each of them as individuals. The audience, in fact, is given the perfect degree of information—we understand more about what has happened than any of the single characters do, allowing us to perceive an extra layer of tragedy in how misunderstandings and old grievances undermine the fight to survive.
Of course, that isn’t to say The Descent isn’t effective as a limb-snapping creature feature at the same time. Its monsters, loosely theorized to be some kind of cave-deformed, troglodytic, cannibalistic human offshoot that hasn’t seen the light of day in generations, are truly a sight to behold, in limited moments when you can behold them. They hunt in packs, looking vaguely like more feral versions of Gollum, weak in terms of eyesight but with greatly enhanced senses of hearing and smell. The central nest makes their efficacy clear, as human bones are mounded in a vast sepulchre of forgotten violence, dating back what must be decades. Seeing it, there is a sense that all our characters are far beyond any kind of help or hope.
Ultimately, The Descent is simultaneously as well-characterized and merciless as modern horror films come. With an ending that nicely pays off several of its running threads (although you should make sure you’re watching the original UK ending, instead of the U.S. cut), it prioritizes pure horror above all else. It is absolutely among the most effective horror films of the 2000s.
This is a solid year of horror releases, although a trend is coming into focus that will become commonplace through the rest of the 2000s and beyond—the best horror films in any given year are often the lower-budget indie fare. As professional grade video filming equipment such as Red digital cameras became commonplace and easily accessible, the result was a boom in high-quality indie horror offerings from first-time directors, as horror proved once again to be a fertile genre for directors to make their debut, just as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. This year, that spirit manifests itself in throwback slashers like Hatchet and micro-budget zombie fare like Jim Mickle’s ultra-gritty Mulberry Street.
2006 also feels like a year that comes with a specific caveat, however: As much as we love Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it strikes as as more of a pure fantasy and drama than it is a horror film, especially when compared to the more overt horror structures of The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos or Crimson Peak. It is a great film, but the “horror” aspect is more ancillary, and that’s why you won’t see any more mention of it here—plus, it gives us a chance to talk about lesser-known films instead.
In terms of the other prominent offerings from this year, one of the most notable is The Host, the film that put South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) on the map for many U.S. viewers. Featuring an outstanding performance from regular Joon-ho collaborator Song Kang-ho as a lazy father of arguably below-average intelligence, the film is both throwback creature feature and modern environmentalist fable, all in one. It features some wonderful performances, but what you’re likely to remember most afterward is the truly original creature design, which looks like a monstrous tadpole that sprouted legs, grew fangs and clambered awkwardly onto land. Unlike so many monsters designed as “perfect killing machines,” this one is notable in how truly random and ungainly it seems to be—the product not of evolution, but human chemical meddling. This broken creature is ultimately an indictment of our own kind.
Other notables for 2006 include the gross-out body horror comedy of Slither, which is equal parts hilarious and disgusting, and Alexandre Aja’s unnecessary (but brutally effective) remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Horror comedies abound here, in fact, also including Fido and Severance, while Silent Hill represents a half-successful attempt to bring one of the most revered horror videogame series to life on the big screen.
2006 Honorable Mentions:
The Host, Slither, The Hills Have Eyes, Fido, Severance, Silent Hill, Them, Mulberry Street, Hatchet, Cold Prey
Director: Scott Glosserman
Sometimes, a film suffers in the need possessed by critics to compare it to specific other works. Perhaps, in a world that hadn’t seen Scream (or Man Bites Dog), a movie like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon would have been hailed as a horror revelation. Instead, it simply racked up audience awards at film festivals before dropping off the cultural landscape, establishing only a small cult in the process. And that’s a shame, because in all honesty, Behind the Mask deserves a whole lot more. Yes, its basic outline is on some level informed by Sream, but its writing, villain and protagonist (who are truly one and the same) arguably surpass its source material, or at least match it. This is one of the best meta-examinations of the slasher genre that has been produced to date, and also one of the funniest. It is both a loving homage to the nooks and crannies of a prolific horror sub-genre, and an effective horror film in its own right whenever it chooses to be.
Behind the Mask (it really should have just ended the title there) is presented from its opening moments as footage shot by a TV news channel documentary team, headed up by a reporter named Taylor, as they approach and then interview a man who wishes to establish himself as the next great supernatural slasher killer: Leslie Vernon. You see, in the universe of Behind the Mask, the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were real people whose crimes captivated a nation. Within the world of psycho spree killers (which we are invited into, via Taylor), these slasher icons are revered as auteurs who “changed the industry” from anonymous killings to dramatic works of art, and are spoken about by Leslie and co. like you or I might speak of Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock. What he offers to Taylor is the unprecedented opportunity to see how exactly someone like him “does what I do.”
So begins a story that plays a bit like taking a VIP tour behind the scenes of a Las Vegas magic show, learning the secrets to how killers like Vernon manage to do things that would be described by audience members as “unrealistic.” He discusses the group dynamics of what makes an ideal target group of victims, with the central “survivor girl” who is meant to eventually become his nemesis. He elucidates on how a killer can seem to be in multiple places at once, or why so many unlucky “accidents” seem to befall the victims—because the killer has planned the entire evening in depth, far in advance, rigging the playing field to turn the night in his favor. It’s only fair, after all—as Vernon says at one point, “logistically speaking, I’m at a severe disadvantage here.” You can’t exactly argue the point, but via these lessons, the film does an interesting thing—it both demystifies the slasher as a villain but makes him far more interesting as a human being who is driven to perfecting his art, which requires him to become a mythological symbol of evil. As a sage former killer observes, “for good to be pitted against evil, you’ve got to have evil.”
The film would already be compelling if it simply stuck to this format, but writer-director Glosserman’s masterstroke is a third-act redefinition of the type of film we’re viewing, drawing backward from the mockumentary format to immerse the characters previously stuck behind the camera in the action itself, accompanied by a complete visual overhaul. This is when the meta-observations on the nature of cinema come strongly into play, as its genre-savvy characters attempt to overcome the scenario with the knowledge they’ve acquired while tailing Leslie, only to find that the power of tropes isn’t so easily subverted as they thought. It’s the icing on top of a pitch-perfect parody, expanding the focus of Glosserman’s script from simply the horror genre to the inescapability of basic cinematic story structure.
With a bevy of cameos from genre luminaries such as Robert Englund, Zelda Rubinstein, Kane Hodder and Scott Wilson, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is an indispensable entry in the slasher canon as it continues to evolve and fold in on itself in the post-Scream era. Hopefully, the long-delayed sequel will one day come to fruition, if only because it would help draw viewers back to the underappreciated original.
In the midst of a run of years that have mostly been “solid” rather than spectacular, the 2007 lineup looks like a true bumper crop. The top isn’t necessarily super crowded, but this year goes truly deep, with a plethora of quality releases coming from all sources. As in recent years, indie horror largely leads the way, but this is also an excellent year for big studio horror as well. In particular, something like the Stephen King adaptation 1408 is a pitch-perfect example of what you can achieve within the confines of major studio, PG-13 horror. Although the PG-13 rating was often a bane of studio horror films in this era, it’s definitely not impossible to craft an effectively scary movie without the jump to “R.”
As far as other contenders go for 2007, it’s impossible to overlook David Fincher’s mesmerizing, haunting Zodiac, a film that is startlingly effective in tearing open the wounds of the Zodiac killer cold case and presenting the events in a way that is starkly naturalistic, frustrating and true to life. Here is a film that truly captures the fear of uncertainty in a city that is held in the grip of a killer, and the hopelessness of journalists and police who are powerless to deduce that killer’s identity. Fincher tantalizes the audience with several suspects who each seem to be perfect candidates for the Zodiac—especially the blood-chilling performance of John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen—but yanks the rug out from underneath you each time when those suspicions are dashed. You keep feeling, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith, that if you just take a step back from the problem and reassess it with fresh eyes, everything will fall into place—a perpetual hope that eventually costs Graysmith his family, and a warning against letting obsession define a life. With magnificent performances from several members of its ensemble cast, there’s no doubt that Zodiac is a modern classic.
Also splendid is J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, one of the best pure ghost stories of this particular decade. With dread-inducing cinematography and a classic gothic seaside location, it’s a film that tapped into the power of deep-seated genre tropes and celebrated them in a way that somehow felt fresh. Production and costume design are certainly strong points, as the bag-headed ghost of forsaken orphan Tomás was an immediately iconic image that helped crystalize the aesthetic of the modern Spanish horror scene, of which Bayona is a prominent member. This same year’s REC likewise helped jump-start the late 2000s found footage craze, while not receiving nearly as much attention as Paranormal Activity in the U.S.
And of course, we must talk about Paranormal Activity. In the 12 years since the release of this movie, the series has been disparaged ad nauseum as the progenitor of countless inferior follow-ups and imitators, but we shouldn’t let the negative effects of this movie’s success blind us to the fact that Paranormal Activity, when it arrived, was a shockingly effective, extremely scary horror film. Made on a $15,000 budget, it was the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you needed any serious amount of money to scare the crap out of audiences—especially audiences that weren’t yet inured to the tropes of found footage horror. It kicked off a true phenomenon, catching the same spark possessed only by The Blair Witch Project, somehow causing otherwise logical people to question (at least briefly) if what they were seeing was somehow “real.” It remains the only time I’ve ever seen ushers stand in a theater throughout a screening just to watch the audience react to a movie, which is an experience I doubt I’ll ever have again.
2007 is obviously a great year, even without mentioning the devastating opening of 28 Weeks Later, the heartbreaking final moments of The Mist or the gore extremes of Inside or Frontier(s). With everything taken into account, this is the pinnacle of the decade.
2007 Honorable Mentions:
Zodiac, The Orphanage, REC, Paranormal Activity, Grindhouse, 28 Weeks Later, Inside, The Mist, 1408, 30 Days of Night, Teeth, Funny Games, Frontier(s)
Director: Michael Dougherty
There’s no shortage of horror films that are framed around the angle of Halloween as a holiday, although perhaps not quite as many as one might expect. John Carpenter’s Halloween, for instance, largely uses the date on the calendar as incidental set dressing—there are a few pumpkins here and there, and a reference to trick ‘r treating, but the events of the story could have taken place on any day of the year. This is not so of Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, the film we once called the ultimate Halloween night movie. Where other horror films simply attempt to absorb a little bit of the holiday’s spookiness into themselves via osmosis, Trick ‘r Treat is a true veneration of all the things we horror geeks love about the holiday. It’s a pure distillation of the feeling so many of us possessed as children—the indescribable excitement of venturing out into the night when it felt like the world had become full of macabre mystery. For 82 minutes, you feel like a kid again.
And to think, the world almost never had a chance to see the film at all. Due perhaps to its unorthodox, quasi-anthology structure and lack of big stars, a completed Trick ‘r Treat screened only at festivals for several years after its initial “release.” It was only after Anna Paquin became a bigger star via True Blood that the masses got a chance to see Trick ‘r Treat thanks to its first home video release in 2009, which effectively began the rise of this movie’s cult. A decade later, its status as a classic of the season has just about been established, with appearances at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights and regular airings on cable TV networks. It was just too charming a film to remain hidden forever.
And that is probably the word for Trick ‘r Treat: It is truly charming, rather than outright “scary” most of the time, although there are a few moments that may make one jump, especially in its last 20 minutes. But from start to finish, it charms in its tale of the residents of a small Midwestern town, most of whom seem to take the traditions of Halloween fairly seriously. And it’s a good thing, too, with Sam—the adorable (but vicious), sack-headed avatar of the holiday stalking the streets, keeping an eye on the neighborhood. Disrespect the traditions of Halloween, and little Sam is liable to pay you a visit you won’t forget. Assuming you survive, of course.
Our cast of characters, meanwhile, check off a bevy of horror movie boxes, although the film is fond of establishing expectations for characters that are then subverted. There’s a vampire that isn’t really a vampire after all; a murderous school principal; a “helpless” Red Riding Hood who is more than capable of defending herself; and a gaggle of preteens pulling a cruel prank on one of their own. All the segments, which weave in and out of each other in a nonlinear sort of way, feel comfortably familiar without being rote. They’ve all been freshened up in some way, and benefit from their interconnected nature, and the presence of Sam, always off in the background silently observing. Each and every story concludes itself satisfyingly, giving momentum to the next, right up until a delightfully crotchety Brian Cox finds himself finally facing down Sam and atoning for long-buried sins.
And so, as we close in on Halloween of 2019, remember to keep that pumpkin lit and the candy bowl full. You never know who might be watching.
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
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.
The decade comes to a close in strong fashion, with an eclectic slate of films that accurately represent everything going on in 2000s horror: Above average studio fare (Zombieland, Drag Me to Hell), crazy or audacious indie stuff (The Loved Ones, Triangle, Antichrist) and the occasional international film (Thirst) to spice things up. All in all, practically every sub-genre is represented here, although part of that is due to the overall rise in horror titles—as the streaming era well and truly begins, there are now more avenues than ever to watch these movies, especially low-budget horror films. Within a few more years, “direct-to-VOD” will become the standard for much low-budget horror fare, replacing the direct-to-video era driven by physical rentals.
Awarding this year to Zombieland in the #1 spot certainly seems like it would be a valid move, at least in terms of the splash the horror comedy made in 2009, becoming the highest-grossing zombie film of all time (at least until World War Z, bleh). And indeed, in a world where Shaun of the Dead hadn’t been released in 2004, the arrival of Zombieland would likely have felt like a revelation in horror comedy, but with that previous classic’s attitude to guide it, the result here was merely a very entertaining time at the movies. Benefitting from perfect casting, especially in the form of a playfully deranged Woody Harrelson, Zombieland was perfectly positioned to ride the cresting zombie wave in pop culture, which would lead to the pilot episode of The Walking Dead in 2010. The next few years represent Peak Zombie, at least in terms of the density of releases, especially indie ones.
Drag Me to Hell is another strong effort with a bit more intent at genuine fright behind it, although Sami Raimi’s direction almost can’t help but embrace a certain sense of dark humor—it’s essentially baked into his identity as an artist at this point, and whatever he does carries a wry humor with it. In particular, he seems bound and determined to gross out his audience as much as possible in this particular story, displaying what comes off as either an oral fixation or a commentary on protagonist Christine’s subtextual eating disorder, depending how you look at it. Tonally positioned like a lost chapter in the Evil Dead saga, sans some of the blood and guts, it was a welcome return to the horror genre for the director after years of focusing on Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man.
Not to be forgotten is the exceedingly twisty indie horror-thriller Triangle, a film with a title that doesn’t quite do its complexity justice. Feeling quite a bit like a more horrific version of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s underseen time-travel thriller Timecrimes, Triangle is a mystery set on an abandoned ocean liner, where literally nothing is as it first appears. Trying to describe this particular film is an effort in futility—suffice to say, if Möbius strip movies are your thing, this one is essential.
Other notables for this frame include Jennifer’s Body, which was derided upon release but reclaimed by critics in recent years, along with the revival of the “Nazi zombie” genre in Dead Snow and the bizarre blend of sex and pop-science found in Vincenzo Natali’s Splice. This is certainly not a year lacking in variety.
2009 Honorable Mentions:
Zombieland, The Loved Ones, Drag Me to Hell, Triangle, Thirst, Jennifer’s Body, REC 2, Antichrist, Orphan, Dead Snow, Survival of the Dead, Splice, Friday the 13th
Director: Ti West
It’s difficult to discuss The House of the Devil without acknowledging its clear inspirations, a plethora of 1970s and 1980s horror films that range from Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man to The Devil Rides Out or Night of the Demons. This is by intent—director Ti West is by no means trying to avoid these conversations and comparisons, although The House of the Devil doesn’t truly reference any of them TOO directly. Rather, it is suffused with a feeling of creepy familiarity, as if you once saw the film in the long-distant past, or had it described to you by a friend. Babysitters in peril, satanic cults operating in the background, a silent house with a protagonist spending a lonely night by herself … where have I heard all of this before? The film is like a half-remembered dream.
It’s that tone; that creepingly familiar feeling, that makes The House of the Devil an unexpectedly effective, suspenseful exercise in classic horror cinema. It’s the story of a young woman hired to spend a night babysitting at a remote country estate, but when she arrives it’s immediately clear that the clients are not what you’d call conventional parents. In fact, they confide to her, there are no children here at all—her actual duty is to simply mind the house and make sure the family’s “infirm” grandmother is alright, although the job largely consists of simply wiling away the hours and waiting for the owners to return. I guess it’s up to our protagonist’s curiosity to get the best of her, until she’s stalking through the darkened corridors of the home, gradually becoming more suspicious about the odd folks who were so desperate to hire her for the night …
Really, that’s where the film is at its best—it’s able to milk incredible tension out of the simplest of non-activities on screen, like the protagonist waiting for a pizza delivery to arrive, or killing time with a game of billiards. Dialog is minimal, realistic and has a loose, improvisational feeling. The performances are subdued, and the pace is slow and deliberate … right up until it isn’t. Because when The House of the Devil goes off, it goes off with a bang, crossing that line from mumblecore to mumblegore with such suddenness that the transition is likely to make the viewer come out of their seat. It’s a perfectly calculated exercise in patience, and then catharsis—an Old Dark House framework, infused with the vintage paranoia of the 1980s satanic panic.
More than anything, though, The House of the Devil is genuinely pulse-raising—a horror film with the principal intent of actively scaring its audience, not through the use of stab chords and a constant barrage of jump scares, but via the slow building of dread and the sense of inescapable, slowly advancing doom. It’s a voyeuristic sort of experience that alternatingly makes the audience feel like spectators from the outside in, peering through the windows of this old house at a young woman we’re sure is in some kind of peril, or active participants in her increasingly frantic explorations. West ultimately achieves a singular sense of isolation, as if this house were on the dark side of the moon, rather than simply down a dark country road. It’s clear that no help will be arriving for this young woman—she is well and truly alone in this fight, and so are we.