Best Horror Films of the 2000s

Though something of a self-confessed horror fan, I still feel as though I am behind many of the die-hard fans. I also seem to search and appreciate different aspects of horror than many others, and there are a few films from my own list that I can’t say I’ve really seen anywhere else. That being said, hopefully I’ll motivate a few viewings and discussions; it was a lot of fun to write. For reference sake, I’ve seen about about 50 horrors from last decade, and am also including a short list of top five films I wish I had seen before making this list.

Top Five Horror Films of the Decade that I still need to see

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

The Hills have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006)

Kairo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

High Tension (Alexandre Aja, 2003)

Mulberry Street (Jim Mickle, 2006)

10. The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)

A film that I personally find depreciates in value on multiple viewing; The Mist is far too misanthropic for me. Not even the heroes are noble or virtuous; they are not even weak in an appealing way. I just want to say, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a narrative but to have such a larger number of people with few redeeming features irks the optimist in me who believes that people are fundamentally good. That being said, their dynamic and situation is fascinating enough to not only sustain the film, but make it one of the best horrors of the decade. The story unfolds in a way very typical of the invasion narrative, as characters are forced to co-operate in order to survive, and inevitably fail because of conflicting interests and egos. This film integrates both the military and religion into the relatively small space with great effect, highlighting both the power and powerlessness of the individual within the “machine”. The much debated final scene is really what elevates the film to new levels for me, as the bleakness is brought to eleven by the faceless human monsters who come to the “rescue”. The Mist reflects a contemporary distrust in the military, not only as potential “monsters”, but the dangers they can unload on the public without us being informed or able to properly survive. In essence, it is about their failures to protect us, and in that sense, the father’s failure to protect his own family seems like a very apt comparison within the structure of the narrative.

9. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2008)

I feel in many ways, that Trick ‘r Treat is at odds with many of the other films on my list; It is not particularly unsettling, preferring to channel the “feel” of the Halloween season, rather than the true nature of horror. That is not a criticism, as much as it is an observation. The film still has its scares, but they are mostly incidental, harmless and subverted by both the absurdity of the plot and the comic bravura that runs through the entire film. The film is not completely shallow though, and in its subversion of our expectations, it also manages to make a few interesting observations on the horror genre and its clichés. Perhaps the best example is the twist on the virginal college girl; the premise is set up stereotypically, having her chastised and teased for her innocence, and then preyed upon by the lusty monster. Though it is hardly the first time we see the expectation of the innocent female transformed or turned on its head, I think this one is done with a new level of creativity that is unprecedented. Though the reveal of what the “victim” is plays a large part in what makes the story so interesting, it is what it represents that is pivotal ; something lusty, animalistic and the fact that she did not have to be corrupted to reach that state, that it existed within her from the start… and that she embraces it completely.

8. Suicide Club (Sion Sono, 2001)

Not an easy choice, though often disturbing and disgusting, Suicide Club does not exactly fit a classical horror formula. The grotesque nature of some of the subject matter and the extreme (and not cartoony) violence elevates it to a kind of spectacle horror like many slashers are, or more recent “torture-porns”. The film escapes from all the natural inclinations of western horror, and is not only an incisive commentary on popular Japanese culture, but the profound effect the lack of individualism has on society as a whole. The film’s opening sequence is one of the most shocking of all times, and not only sets a tone, but defines every moment that follows. The mass, and seemingly, random suicide of teenage girls leads to government investigations into the phenomena, that only seems to be growing, as well as a huge amount of self-examination. The most disturbing scenes are the two mass suicides, the first being apparently planned, though no real explanation is offered… the second, a genuinely random act of school yard games. The film offers a theory about people distancing themselves from… themselves; that most of us live a kind of out of body existence where we are not truly connected to the lives we live and with the other people in our life. That we exist as cogs in a larger game, allowing ourselves to be swayed and moved by the currents of the information age. Though, hardly an endorsement of suicide, the film approaches the subject as a kind of perverse revolt over individual freedoms and power that is ironically as faceless as the existence they are protesting.

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7. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

Much like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, Drag me to Hell is notable for its formal and aesthetic qualities rather than the strength of its plot. By that I don’t really mean that it is a “visual” splendour, in the sense that Suspiria is, but rather that the creativity of both the constructive of the scares, and the use of motifs is both potent and consistently clever. The story is fundamentally weak, though it works as a very effective vehicle for Raimi’s unique horror sensibility. The manifestation of hell is very different than that of the Evil Dead films, as it is largely internal, motivated by Christine’s moral degradation. As a result, it often seems that the evolution of the scares moves from being extremely external, beginning with very physical attacks that are often without precedent or strong instigation, to becoming an internal battle, often with dreams, and with profound effects on Christine’s state of mind and relationships.  The film is just unmitigated fun.

6. The Last House on the Left (Dennis Illiadis, 2009)

I’m still kind of baffled that I liked this film so much; it is a remake of a remake for heaven’s sake! The film is somehow good though, from the almost ethereal quality of some of the imagery (notably the use of water throughout the film, which is at once redeeming and cleansing, but also hides the truth) to the lurid nature of the parent’s revenge, it displays a kind of artfulness a-typical of contemporary mainstream horror. The film is downright dirty, often times extremely difficult to watch. It appropriately makes the infamous rape scene extremely painful and disgusting, focusing especially on the victim’s experience, rather than the gratuitous violence of her captors. The second half of the film is comprised almost solely of the parent’s revenge on the people who raped and attempted to murder their daughter. The violence is gratuitous, at once satisfying and extremely disturbing. It is fascinating to see their transformation, but their moral degradation is even more apparent. The film does try to have its cake and eat it too, but I think it is successful enough on a formal level to ignore any apparent tonal or thematic inconsistencies it espouses.

5. Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

Though the film is overtly about religion, and the dangers of fundamental belief, the film is universal in its handling of family matters and the questions of faith and morality. Rooted in a Christian ethos, a father receives messages from God that instruct him to destroy the demons that live among them. He takes on the aid of his two sons, one who believes him without question, and the other who doubts him every step of the way. It should be no surprise that this creates an incredible amount of tension between the characters, and because the film itself never fully commits to what perception of reality is accurate or not, the audience is not only disturbed by the possibility that the father is insane, but that even worse, that he might not be. The film is shockingly brutal, without ever having to show very much. Most of the violence takes place off or just beyond the confines of the screen; the characters carry the weight of their actions, whether it is with a certain amount of disgust, or the sense of a dutiful act completed. It is a film that does a lot with very little, and relies heavily on both its writing and the strength of its performances… two things that more horror films could try.

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4.Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

One of the more compelling entries in the vampire genre, Let the Right One, is an intimate and frightening story of the wolf and the lamb. It is entirely possible that this film could be read as a kind of love story, not unlike Twilight, where two bodies of the same age interrelate in a seemingly romantic way. This is a disturbing interpretation of events, but I do not think it is an illegimate one. If we want to be reductive, Wuthering Heights is also a love story, and so is Lolita. It is because love is seemingly involved that all of these narratives become so disturbing, because we do not want to believe something as sacred and holy as love can be so perverted by abuse, violence and obsession. In Let the Right One In, because of the appearance of the characters suggests pre-pubescent youth, it is easy to ignore the implied age of one of them. When they are both lying together in bed, naked, the scene is not disturbing because one is a vampire, but because we do not want to believe in sexualized children… even if Oskar’s own naivety implied little more than a healthy curiosity in the opposite sex, the imagery is strong enough to unsettle us. This idea is used recurrently through the film, and is a rather common one in the handling of children in horror. It just so happens that this film integrates it with a newfound melancholy and sense of loss, that almost serves to justify the character’s reliance on each other, even if one can only assume that at least one of them will be a little more lost for it. We both hope for Oskar and Eli to remain together, because they are both lost souls who seem to have found hope, while we shrink at the most likely consequences of this “union”.

3. Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000)

Horror is probably the best genre of filmmaking to deal with traumatic life events, especially ones that are commonplace. Ginger Snaps deals not only with the coming of adolescence between two sisters, “the curse”, but also the trauma of early sexual discovery. The film appropriately handles the complex nature of female sexuality, not only in the woman’s role as the submissive player in the male-female power-plays but how it is further exercised in relationships with other women. This is not only present in the idealized female friendship that exists between Ginger and her sister Brigitte, whose relationship borders on incestuous in their psychological and physical intimacy but in both girl’s interactions with their classmates. The aggression and rivalry displayed between the sisters and popular girl, Trina, reveal the nuances in both female competitiveness and even the sexual tension that exists between rivals, in how Ginger dominates Trina both physically and mentally, and then has the audacity to offer Trina’s “body” for her father to taste. It’s sickening and disturbing on so many levels, but yet, somehow un-gratuitous and natural. One of the great films about adolescence and teenage girls.

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2. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)

As scarce as female directors are in the filmmaking world, in the realm of genre (beyond rom-coms) they are as rare as albino two-headed calves. Claire Denis is the exception that makes the rule, especially considering, that she makes a film that is so un-genre-like… pure arthouse fluff. Suffice to say, I love every minute. The film is exceptionally feminine in the handling of horror and violence; the plot is thin, but the anxiety and relationships are strong. The characters are in anguish, as the ones who are infected can’t help consuming other people “just to feel something”. Her handling of consummation is hardly different than her treatment of sex, and both are unconventional for any genre, especially horror. The perspective is that of a woman, the focus is on the flesh, touching, moving… it is not only focused on the female experience, but adulates the male form in a cinematically unfamiliar way. The film is not necessarily about violence, physical or emotional, between lovers, but about our self-destructive nature and how it poisons our lives. On an aesthetic level, it is a film about the flesh; a study of movements, deconstructions, comparisons, and filters. The body is seen in many states, through many lenses, in many locations… constantly transforming and taking on new meanings. It is a film like a dream, or more like a nightmare, it is an existence that you don’t want to believe… but fear does.

1. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2008)

A film that has no right to be as sad and probing as it is, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, is at its worst, a self-aware and over-stylized pretentious film that attempts to over-compensate the familiarity of its structure with almost patently absurd visuals. Why include it then? Truthfully, a large part of me loves all that empty self-awareness; it is so descriptive of a sub-genre of horror that gave up so long ago. It is this premise of absurdity though, that allows moments of true intimacy and humanity to peek through. The characters are not only aware of their superficiality; they seem to strive to be the clichés of adolescence that we find so often in popular culture.  The men seem to recognize the moral corruption of their pursuits, how misogynistic and destructive it is, while the women pursue degrading situations that only further put into question their own identity and self-esteem. Both personalities are extremely vulnerable when isolated from the authority of mom and dad, and the comfort of not being brutally murdered by a faceless killer. The tension is palpable, the melancholy real, and the revenge brutal. For a film that works so hard to look like a magazine spread, the murders are not fun or beautiful, they are not even particularly creative… but that’s why they are so effective. They humanize the inhuman, and only further contribute to the re-evaluation of horror norms within the slasher genre that shows no respect for death or human weakness.

The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, 1981)

The Entity is conceptually an interesting story… it is perhaps even an interesting novel, but it is not an interesting film. Not only overlong, the film fails to convey the underlying feelings of despair and anxiety; the horror is never developed in an appropriate or thrilling way. The first attack and rape is not only shocking, but disturbing and frightening. The subsequent attacks should only escalate this hysteria, but they never do. The repetitive and even cyclical nature of the plot is not an inherently poor storytelling technique, it is simply poorly executed. The repeated attacks are not only meant to escalate in violence, they ought to take on new significance and reflect the chaotic state of mind of the protagonist. Based on a true story or not, the narrative should not ignore the thematic and emotional states of its characters. This is perhaps the film’s greatest failure. Though a film about great traumatic experiences, with a character who has not only lived a very difficult sexual and romantic past, but continues to, there is little (if any) insight into this state.

The introduction of the real believers is extremely poor; they are not only uninteresting, but clumsily introduced. That particular narrative thread, which leads into the film’s final act, is piss poor, and distances the film even further from the emotional and psychological aspect of the narrative. Also, the sheer outrageousness of their attempt to “capture” or prove the existence of an entity is just weak. Also, the electrical charges! So, so terrible… I knew it was the beginning of the end when they begin to “attack” Bill. Just terrible.

The film is not all bad, the performances are all strong. Hershey does her best with a rather inconsistent character and a terrible plot. Ron Silver is also quite brilliant, and the film’s strongest scenes are the ones between the two.

Five Best Films I saw in January

Aside from having a record amount of hits this month, I saw a shit-load of damn good films. It was really hard to narrow it down to just five. Though it seems doubtful, I can only keep up this good fortune for the rest of the year!! As always, only first time viewings and alphabetical order.

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat, 2004)

Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)

Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)

Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002)

The dissolve between reality and mythology in Dog Soldiers is more than just about the possibility that the supernatural exists. It exposes the little cracks in our personal realities and ideals; that most of us are just pawns with very little power over our situations. Dog Soldiers is one of many horror films of the previous decade that expresses the anxiety so may seem to feel towards the military (other notable examples, the Mist and 28 Days/Weeks Later). This film tackles, especially, our doubts  in the validity of our government’s military ambitions; that perhaps our systems of defence are not necessarily set up as a means of safety, but simply a cog in a larger complex motivated by greed. War ignores the individual, not only as much as the soldier becomes simply a mechanized part of a whole, but at the sake of our conception of humanity.  The film does portray the common soldier in a mostly positive light. In that sense, it takes on a very classical anti-war film stance like that of MASH or Paths of Glory, that champions the common soldier; men who are fighting either because they believe in something, or are unjustly caught up in a war they never signed up for.

I am not sure how successful this anti-war stance is, it certainly does not rank in the same level as my own favourite film, Catch-22 which explores similar ideas outside of the horror model, and I think that The Mist explores our military anxiety with a great deal more shock and skill… that being said, the film succeeds more than it fails. The film presents a huge amount of ideas, almost too many, and as a result it glosses over most of them without being able to properly express its stance on them. Then again, some of this apparent over-ambition strengthens the paranoia of the film. Tackling so much, creates a sense of chaos that mirrors so many mixed emotions so many feel about the military as well as the men (and women) who work and live within it.

In my review of The Howling, I expressed by doubts and even annoyance over transformation scenes…. and I have to say, this film pulls it’s off magnificently. I think it’s because, in terms of character development, the major transformation scene happens at a time where the character demonstrates a complete lack of humanity. Though he looks like a human, his morality is so skewed and motivated by self-serving notions, that he embodies a mechanized death-machine. His ambitions willingly sacrifice human life, with not even the possibility that it is for the greater good. It is purely for individual or corporate gain. At its worse, it is a search for a means to make soldiering more efficient in the same way yellow gas or atomic bombs makes fighting a war easier and more advantageous.

In addition to having what I see as a successful transformation scene, the film has probably my very favourite werewolf design of any film. It is not realistic in the least, and even looking at the monsters, I doubt they could move with the kind of speed and dexterity that they demonstrate in the film. That being said, their upright manner and ridiculously long limbs remind me of early expressionistic paintings… and even my own drawings. They look their best in profile or in low light, but I don’t have any objections for the unobscured shots. They are strangely alluring and beautiful, even feminine.

I think the film’s final strength is how the limited locations inspired feelings of confinement. It is a very traditional horror model that happens to reflect what we see as an escapable relationship between citizen and military. Both are not only linked, as (obviously) there is no military without citizens who are willing to participate, but also our reliance on them for protection and aid. It’s a co-dependency, but an extremely uneasy one. Actually, this makes me think of the final act in 28 Days Later so disturbing,  as you have military men in full on identity crisis; they not only have no populace to protect, but feel partially culpable for the social dissolve. They are caught between being the military man and the “real” man. In Dog Soldiers you have a different kind of unease, not only a fear of the possibility of becoming a monster (in the human or animalistic sense), but the fear of being out of control.

Though I am apparently not a werewolf fan, this is one of the few gems of the popular horror sub-genre. I’d even argue it’s stronger than Marshall’s more popular horror follow-up The Descent.

Three Films to Describe your Film Taste

Borrowed from Sven at Match-Cut Forums

Suspiria– My love for horror, baroque imagery, feminine perspective and protagonist, and evocative childhoods.

Catch-22 – How I love my humour, both absurd and close to tragedy. Stunning imagery, Alan Arkin, non-cohesive plot-lines.

Other Men’s Women– I love me old Hollywood, tonal shifts, overblown but somehow insignificant romances, beautiful moments of laughter and nothingness.

Women in Horror Recognition Month

Today, my surfing of the blog-o-sphere has brought to my attention a truly wonderful event/project! Hannah Neurotica, creator and editor of Ax Wound: Gender & the Horror Genre, is organizing a “Women in Horror Recognition month”. This February will be the first year the event takes place, and here is hoping it takes off! If you check out their website, they offer many fun and interesting suggestions to help promote different women in the industry. It can be something as simple as hosting a screening or screenings of films made by women filmmakers, or even writing/making/producing your own horror related art.

Personally, I’m undecided as to what I will do exactly. I will probably watch a bunch of horrors, trying especially to seek out some female horror directors. I am actually working on a horror script of my own at the moment, so I guess I’ll continue with that and not let it fall to the wayside like most of my other projects. I’ll see what else I can come up with, and I’m open to suggestions! Spread the word folks!

The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)

Though a classic of the horror genre, I think The Howling is fundamentally flawed. The build-up is strong; it is rooted in urban anxieties, and the effects of trauma on the individual. Karen White is a reporter who has a close encounter with a serial killer that leaves her unable to carry on with her personal and professional life. Her psychiatrist recommends she spend the weekend at his “colony” an isolated community up in the mountains, so that she can overcome her fears.

As soon as Karen goes to the colony and other reporters seem to reveal that something less than human may be involved, the plot begins to crumble. The supporting characters are largely uninteresting, and this really drags the film down. Unlike many great horrors where the atmosphere of the film is largely defined by the cast of characters that surround the protagonist, this one is cheapened by how absurd and uninteresting they are.

Another fatal horror error is that the film betrays the idea of “less is more”. As impressive as some of the effects happen to be, on a whole, the focus on monster design drags the film down. The film could have done well to take a page out of other anamorphic horror films like Cat People, where nothing is really revealed. The long and medium shots of the werewolves, especially in motion, are laughably bad. Even technically successful shots, like the transformations, inevitably drag down the plot. They are overdrawn, and simply eliminate any sense of tension or suspense. The latter half of the film is destroyed by these interruptions that ruin the pace of the film.

The film’s final act, as Karen confronts the werewolves head on, should be a veiled metaphor for her emotional and psychological struggle. Though the story is somewhat overblown, the scarring event is reminiscent of very real sexual attacks and abuse. Not only in the setting, the mood but the effects it has on Karen. The film’s final act is simply not emotionally charged enough, and neither does it deal with the right kind of imagery or intensity. The film just seems afraid to really commit itself to the psychology of its horror, and its apparent commercial aspirations inevitably neuter any potential it may have had. This is simply a bland film.