I wasn’t surprised to find that the list of 100 films of the decade included at least 11 titles—Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), 28 Days Later… (2002), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), From Hell (2001), Grindhouse (2007), Let the Right One In (2008), The Orphanage (2007), The Others (2001), The Ring (2002), Shadow of the Vampire (2000)—that could be classified as horror pictures. A case could be made that all of those titles are something “more” than horror films—and I wouldn’t disagree with that—but they are still horror movies, that most marginalized and ghettoized of genres.
Perhaps it’s because horror was the genre that seriously attracted to movies in the first place, but I’ve never found them to be wholly deserving of their reputation as somehow less than films of just about any other genre. Oh, I understand where this comes from. From the minute horror films became big business with the “first wave” of horror with Dracula and Frankenstein back in 1931 fly-by-night producers started churning out the most incredible muck in the guise of horror and foisting it on the public. Not much has changed on that score in the intervening 79 years.
The last decade brought us not only the films cited above. We also were on the receiving end of bad remakes, the PG-13-ification of the genre and the rise of that most dubious of sub-genres, torture porn, which, in some ways, isn’t a whole lot more than the old “creative death” school of filmmaking from the 1970s with extra sadism added. It’s just not that hard to lose respect for a genre that’s associated with such things as Hostel (2005), See No Evil (2006) and The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)—to name but a few. However, I’m not convinced that this says anything worse about horror than New in Town (2009) or any Nancy Meyers movie says about the romantic comedy.
The truth is that there have been quite afew horror films in the last decade that might not entirely work, or are even deeply flawed, or that just don’t quite cross genre boundaries, but are not without merit or interest—and in some cases might grow in stature over the years. No, I’m not making the case that the titles I’ve come up with (with a little help from Justin Souther) are necessarily unsung classics waiting to be appreciated—though some of them, I think, might well qualify. Rather, I’m merely suggesting that these are movies of some note that bear more consideration than they’ve generally been given. These are not ranked, but presented strictly in alphabetical order.
Dead Silence (2007). James Wan made his mark with Saw (2004) and while he’s continued to be associated with that franchise in a producing capacity, he and Saw screenwriter Leigh Whannell conspired to make the more classically horrific Dead Silence in its wake. Since the duo had helped to launch the torture porn mania with Saw—and helped keep it going through their involvement with its annual sequel—Dead Silence came as a complete surprise. Oh, the film isn’t without its gruesome side. It earns its R rating. But it’s also old school horror—completely grounded in the supernatural. In this case, it’s the supernatural of the local legend variety, which, along with the story’s revenge theme, serves the film well.
This doesn’t mean Dead Silence is without its flaws. A number of things that happen in the course of the film only work because characters do improbably stupid things of the sort that only characters in horror films do. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not about to throw a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy that I suspect is somehow involved in having murdered my wife by ripping her tongue out in the backseat of my car and drive off. Has no one ever heard of a trunk? Similarly, the film is cursed with one of those “let us show you how clever we were” endings that, as usual, mostly serves to make you suspect that the filmmakers aren’t so much convinced of their cleverness as they are of your stupidity.
However, there are many things to prize about the film. It has more atmosphere than just about any horror film of the time—and it’s atmosphere that is deliciously drawn from the essence of classic era horror. If you’re a horror geek, there’s no way you’re not going to be a little disarmed when the film opens with the classic Universal logo from the 1930s. You get the immediate sense that a kindred spirit is at work here. It doesn’t stop there. The film’s improbable Guignol Theatre (what kind of jerkwater town could possibly support this place?) is like some magnificent blend of the old Phantom of the Opera (1925 and 1943) Paris Opera set and the curtain-billowing corridors of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927). And if the whole film doesn’t work, the flashback to the performance of the ventriloquist (Judith Roberts) that started the whole thing is masterfully done. I have a hunch that time will magnify its virtues and minimize its problems.
Dreamcatcher (2003). Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher—drawn from the Stephen King novel—is a film I’m slightly reluctant to put on this list. First of all, it’s not strictly a horror film, but sci-fi horror. But more I’m never quite sure how I feel about it. Kasdan called the source novel a “fever dream” and certainly approached it that way. King wrote the book while recovering from being stuck by a van (an incident mirrored in the movie)—and while taking a lot of painkillers. This may or may not account for the downright loopy quality of the narrative, which is never less than odd. Stranger than this, however, may be the fact that Kasdan’s film also relates to his earlier film (and his biggest success) The Big Chill (1983)—only with mayhem, ESP and aliens added to the mix.
The film was pretty much written off as a failure in 2003 (it remains Kasdan’s last directorial project) and seems to have simply fallen through the cracks in the meantime. I liked it—on its own screwy terms and despite its occasional lapses into unintended humor—on its original release, and the one time I watched it since then I still found it entertaining. My belief is that it’s worth another look, but at the moment that’s as far as I’m willing to go.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). When Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses finally made its debut (after Universal dumped it and Lionsgate took it on and had it recut to secure an R rating) I gave it a generally bad review—even while noting that it was fascinatingly made and occasionally very effective. It also became a film that I kept returning to. And the more I saw it, the more fascinated I became—and the more I liked it and the more it seemed to me to work.
My original thought was that it worked up the point that the innocent victims were taken to the Firefly residence (the house of the title)—or that it worked in the manner of an old-fashioned spook house ride. After a while, I found it worked through the point where the “guests” became captives—and then worked in fits and starts throughout the rest of its length. Some of this I blamed—and still blame—on cuts that have reduced the narrative to an often incoherent mess. But beyond this, there’s a level of sadism to the film—a dwelling on pain and humiliation—that I’m simply not comfortable with and don’t think I ever will be. Yet something—I suspect it’s a combination of Zombie’s own horror movie geekiness and his willingness to go absolutely wild with cinematic invention just to see if it will work—keeps drawing me back.
In terms of coherence and being of a piece, Zombie’s sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, is undeniably a better movie. It’s just as sadistic—maybe more so—but it aims for and achieves a 1970s drive-in exploitation movie vibe. The fact that it starts with that vibe and sticks with it for its entire length is what makes it a more solid piece of work. But there’s a trade-off to get there. The sense of inventive playfulness has given way to a unified look. It makes the film more of a piece, but it’s nowhere near as much fun. On another level, it feels a little bit like a betrayal in that insists on explaining too much about the Firefly clan—right down to the origin of their use of the names of characters from Marx Brothers movies. What had been an in-joke for movie geeks in the first film is pretty much ruined here. But on its own separate merits, it’s arguably Zombie’s best work to date—a statement the value of which is utterly subjective.
Jeepers Creepers (2001) and Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003). Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers is about 60 minutes worth of one of the creepiest movies of the decade. Unfortunately, that only accounts for the first two-thirds of the film. Those first 60 minutes, however, are rich in dread and atmosphere and surprisingly good characterization. They’re also blessed with a sense of humor about the genre. When bickering brother and sister (Justin Long and Gina Philips) spot a sinister figure (Jonathan Breck) apparently dumping bodies down a pipe in the ground next to an old church and he insists they investigate, the sister remarks, “You know the part in scary movies when somebody does something really stupid, and everybody hates them for it? This is it.” And, of course, it is.
What he finds down that pipe more than fulfills any fears the film has already conjured—and it plays on those fears effectively for some considerable time. Then almost exactly one hour into the proceedings, we get our first clear look at the killer—or as he’s billed “The Creeper”—and the film immediately turns into something altogether different. It suddenly becomes a kind of retro 1950s rubber-suited-monster picture. The thing is it’s a pretty darn good rubber-suited-monster movie, but as much fun as the third act is, it loses almost all the unnerving quality of the earlier portions.
When the film proved susprisingly popular, a sequel was inevitable. Just as inevitable was the fact that there would be no room for the slow build-up of the first movie and we would get an entire film more or less in the key of the last section of the original. The surprise was that Jeepers Creepers 2 was a much better monster movie than might have been suspected. The Creeper (Jonathan Breck again) had undergone something of a makeover—he was darker and made to appear wet or possibly even slimy. In an interview I did with Breck for Scarlet Street magazine at the time, he told me that Salva had decided this would increase the menace of the creature, and he was right. The overall film was geared toward a more action-oriented approach that worked well—and was surprisingly used to bring the movie around to an ending that had some of the dread inherent in the first film. That, however, was left to the very end and the promise of a sequel, which it appears we may finally get in 2011 with Jeepers Creepers 3: Cathedral.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008). Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train ought to have been one of the major horror films of the decade—and it might have been had it not been for power plays by new Lionsgate head honcho Joe Drake, who not only bumped the film for a favorable release date (so as not to play against a film he had produced for another studio), but then proceeded to bury, giving it only the most perfunctory of releases—to a handful of second-run theaters. The sad thing in all this is that Kitamura’s film was easily the best English language horror film of 2008—and almost no one saw it. The ads called Kitamura a “visionary director” and based on the style and atmosphere he brought to this film, I’m not going to argue the point—even though it’s exactly the kind of ballyhoo that studios like to indulge in with directors you’ve probably never heard of. For once it was true.
The question arises as to just how popular it might have been with a decent release. There’s no telling, but the reviews were surprisingly good on those rare occasions when it got reviewed at all. (Interestingly, Lionsgate actively sought to have the film not reviewed whenever possible.) However, it may have been a film that was not exactly in the mood of the moment. A number of the reviews—even the good reviews—complained that the film went “off the rails” in its climactic section, which indicates—as did the response to Alexndre Aja’s Mirrors (2008)—a certain resistance to horror with actual supernatural elements was in the air at the time. It actually should have surprised no one since the supernatural figures into Clive Barker’s short story on which the film was based—and the story and the film end in roughly the same manner. Whatever the case, The Midnight Meat Train is a film very much in need of serous reassessing—or maybe just assessing at all.
Mirrors (2008). Yes, Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors has some pretty bad dialogue—the kind that induces laughter where none was intended—and its plot isn’t what you might call the latest model. It is, however, a surprising film to come from Aja, who made his mark in 2005 with the French import High Tension (or if you’re French or pretentious Haute Tension), a truly nasty bit of goods that wore its sadism on its sleeve and somehow garnered a following. This in turn landed Aja the remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006), which turned out to be just about exactly the movie you’d expect from the maker of High Tension. So nothing was more of a shock than the supernatural horrors of Mirrors—a film that relies far more on atmosphere than anything else and has nary a trace of torture porn clining to it. This isn’t to say that the movie is gore free—merely that it doesn’t revel in pain for its own sake.
Even if the whole idea of evil being on the other side of mirrors is not something you would buy if it was being sold as fish, Aja and screenwriter Gregory Levasseur (who has worked on all Aja’s films) manage to make it compelling enough to generate a certain degree of tension—and the story actually hangs together, assuming you can accept certain fanciful basic notions. (After all, you’ve gone to see a horror picture about haunted mirrors, you’re already half way to accepting whatever comes your way.) The film’s atmosphere is the key to it all, though, and its central setting—a skillfully art-directed fire-damaged department store—is surely unsettling and memorable. Better still, Aja gets the most out of the setting—so much so in fact that the film loses steam when it strays from the location. But I’m not complaining, because Mirrors—while it finally goes on too long and tries too hard—is that rare film in modern horror that actually delivers a climax worthy of its build-up.
None too surprisingly, Mirrors didn’t do very well at the box office, grossing about one third of its cost Stateside and only going into mild profit based on its worldwide figures. It was clearly not a film that was in the mood of the moment where horror was concerned. It is, however, afilm that will probably look better with the passage of time. Interestingly, its tepid business did not result in Aja running back to the comparative safety of torture porn. His next film instead is the 3-D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), which looks just as campy as the original to judge by the trailer.
Seed of Chucky (2004). It will doubtless be noted that I’m friends with the writer-director of Seed of Chucky, Don Mancini. It may also be noted that I am at least acquainted with star Jennifer Tilly and guest star John Waters. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have spoken on the phone with Brad Dourif. However, it should be noted that all of this happened after I’d championed Seed of Chucky, so while I might be considered biased now, I certainly wasn’t when I first saw this twisted trash masterpiece that’s a classic of what we called “splatstick.” It’s also the sort of splatstick that doesn’t stint on the splat. In fact, despite its comedy status, it’s very likely the bloodiest and goriest film on this list.
Universal originally rejected the project as being too gay and having too much Jennifer Tilly, which is to say that Universal missed the fact that are two of the key elements that make Seed of Chucky such a deliriously subversive work. After having written the first four films about the wise-cracking homicidal doll, Chucky (always voiced by Brad Dourif), Mancini here took over the directing chores—something that makes one wish he’d been emplyed in that capacity all along. He brings a drive and tasteless glee to the proceedings that is unique to the series—perhaps because, as its architect, he felt free to do whatever he liked with the material. And what he liked was to take the horror concept and stand it on its head with a satire on the first films, horror movies, pop culture in general and the whole back-biting world of the movie business in the bargain. The results are fresh, funny and delightfully wicked from start to finish.
Silent Hill (2006). Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill has a clunky opening, an often ineffective musical score (thanks to the insistence on using music from its video game source), and a totally unnecessary tacked-on wrap-up that blunts the film’s amazingly horrific climax. None of this, however, is enough to keep the film from being one of the most creative and disturbing horror films of the decade. Not surprisingly, it was a film that was largely savaged by critics. Considering that it was based on a video game, this was probably inevitable, but I’ve yet to understand just why so many of the naysayers had so much trouble following the story, which I found to be remarkably coherent—especially for a film that’s more concerned with capturing the essence of a nightmare than with spinning a tale. The tale is all there—assuming the viewer understands that it’s taking place on two levels of reality at one time, and frankly that’s not so hard to understand. Indeed, it’s virtually spelled out.
As a nightmare on film Silent Hill is hard to beat. The world it inhabits is hostile and unlike anything that exists in a waking state. Gans mines this world for every drop of horror possible and more often than not succeeds in a feverish vision that is at once horrifying and grand. The plot is actually fairly simple and revolves around the ritualistic attempted slaying of a child (Jodelle Ferland) by a crazy puritanical community for being “different.” What they have wrought, however, is the terror of a vengeance-crazed demonic version of this child, who keeps them trapped in this world of darkness until she can exact her revenge on them.
Part of the brilliance of Gans’ approach to all this lies in the insistence on using floor effects as much as possible. While nearly everything in the film has been highly colored by the use of CGI effects, the characters and creatures have the kind of solidity than only comes from using real actors as the basis for the effects. As fanciful as the film gets, it never strays into the realm of the cartoonishness that plagues so much CGI. More, the film is utterly unafraid of plunging the viewer into the logic—or lack thereof—of a dream. It offers no explanation because it doesn’t need to. It assumes that you accept what you see—and what you see is remarkably disturbing in a way that film rarely is. It also offers a truly bravura climax that is neatly summed by the mother (Deborah Kara Unger) of the demonic creation with, “Alessa, what have you become?” And when you see the child happily dancing in a shower of blood from her victims, it’s hard not to echo that question.
Unfortunately, the film was an expensive undertaking that was simply too weird—and maybe too artsy—to make a profit. It should come as no surprise then that the proposed sequel will not be directed by Gans and is promised to be more “accessible,” which likely means it will also be a lot less interesting.
This is where I’m ending the list—safe in the knowledge that there will be those who are going to be upset over titles I’ve left off as much as by titles I’ve included. I don’t believe there’s a horror film—that got a mainstream release—from the past decade that I didn’t see. In the case of quite a few of them, I might wish I didn’t see them, but I did. And, yes, there are some highly-rated titles that didn’t impress me as much as they were supposed to. And there were titles that impressed almost no one that I actually considered putting on here.
The main one of these was the largely indefensible feardotcom (2002) that ploughed its way into theaters to beat the not dissimilarly themed The Ring—and which vanished very quickly, which is probably no more than it deserved. I say that as one of three critics who actually gave the film something like a good review. It is not a good movie, but as even Roger Ebert noted, “I give the total movie two stars, but there are some four-star elements that deserve a better movie. You have to know how to look for them, but they’re there.” And he’s right. Visually, the film is a weird throwback to German Expressionist film with echoes of the very first wave of sound horror movies. It’s also a mess that’s sometimes hysterically funny when it oughtn’t be and I can’t recommend it or say that I think it will improve with time. It will always be a bad movie with some amazing things buried in it. Whether or not you have any desire to dig for those things is completely your call.