Hey! It's finally my turn [which you can tell by all the repeated images and Asian language posters].
10. Slither (2006)
People hail Cloverfield as the return of the monster movie, but Slither actually beat J. J. Abrams to the punch by two years. Not the big, crazy, Godzilla-like rampaging monster, but the staple of old-school American horror – the sympathetic freak show, the creature from the abyss who just wants to be loved. Oh, and to eat people, and enslave the human race. And unlike Cloverfield, Slither never takes itself too seriously, and gives us everything we really want in a movie like this – a lot of gross out moments, a believable damsel in distress who’s not exactly a damsel [Elizabeth Banks], and the square-jawed Errol Flynn of today – Nathan Fillion.
I remain shocked that this movie isn’t a bigger deal than it is, and I think if it had been released in previous decade, it probably would be – as it’s really more of a DVD film, ripe with extras and deleted scenes, and in-joke catchphrases that would have made it huge with the cult crowd. Still, there’s plenty here to enjoy, with loads of humor and great monster makeup, not to mention one or two legitimate creep-out moments. And it all ends pretty much how it should, with a smile, and a wink, and Fillion’s assurance that all’s well in hand because, well, “I’m Bill Pardy.”
We are all Bill Pardy.
9. Dawn of the Dead (2004 Remake)
The past ten years was plagued with substandard remakes of great horror films that most people had never seen before, and as a fan of all those movies of yesterday, I was absolutely certain I wasn’t going to list a single one of them. Problem with taking that stance is, Zack Snyder and James Gunn’s remake of the Romero classic is actually really, really good, and with a few other films helped usher in the return of the zombie to horror.
Sure, this version lacks a lot of the social commentary the original had, but it makes up for it by doing a really good ensemble cast horror film where you actually come to care about the characters as something more than just eventual victims. The gore factor in this really high too, and even when completely locked down in the mall the movie never lets you feel entirely safe. Little flourishes like sprinting zombies and updated news footage makes the concept seem fresher than it actually is, and the filmmakers are smart enough to know that horror film or not, if you have Ving Rhames, you better have him make a speech. All of this would have made the movie memorable – but the horror of the zombie birth knocks this up to one of the scarier films in the whole of the genre.
8. [REC] (2007)
[REC] is a Spanish horror film that caused enough of a stir to get an American-made near-shot-for-shot remake called Quarantine, which was actually pretty good too, but still paled in comparison to the original, taking the Blair Witch-style shaky cam approach and telling a horrific story which, depending on who you ask, either redefines the zombie genre, or re-imagines demonic possession.
What strange hairs to have to split.
The movie takes it sweet time getting to bulk of the action, and suffers a little from its slow start, but once things start rolling the scares are almost nonstop, and I watched the last thirty minutes of [REC] tensed up and with my fingernails dug into my own thigh. This feeling of perpetual clench covers the movies weaker moments well, and the way it was filmed makes you feel more like you’re actually in the building with these creatures, as opposed to just watching what happened after the fact, like the aforementioned Blair Witch or Cloverfield. I’ll be honest, as cliché as it is to say, this is the only movie on this list I still don’t feel comfortable watching alone.
7. Frailty (2001)
I have a strong personal connection to this movie, as long before I actually saw it I sat in a car with my Dad as he told me about this strange little film where Bill Paxton wields an axe with “OTIS” carved in it and kills people with his kids along for the ride. When I finally got around to watching it, I was surprised that instead of an oddball, Evil Dead-style slaughter-fest what I really got was an incredibly deep psychological thriller that gives you just enough to keep you interested, but never tips its hand entirely until the very end.
Of course any movie that relies so heavily on a twist ending runs the risk of running only on its own shock value, and I’ll admit after seeing it once I really didn’t expect it to have the same weight on continued viewings. To my surprise, it actually gets stronger, with little tells to what’s going on that I didn’t notice the first time through, and just a really strong sense of story structure that sucked me in again even though I knew where I was going. Take note, M. Night Shyamalan; this is how it should be done.
6. Cabin Fever (2002)
I read an interview with Eli Roth that made me seek out Cabin Fever, where the director talked at length about how far American Horror had fallen, pointing out that once upon time movies like The Shining and The Exorcist were considered pinnacles of filmmaking, only to have the genre as a whole lowered by the continued sequel-driven drek of serial slasher films. Roth claimed that if he had a goal in making horror movies, it was to bring the genre back to the prominence it deserved, and Cabin Fever was his first noticed attempt.
If that truly was Roth’s goal [which we might be able to doubt, what with the Hostel series and all], then this movie is taking horror back to basics. If Cabin Fever seems familiar, it is, having a lot obviously in common with early grindhouse exploitation movies, and almost mimicking Craven’s The Last House on the Left in structure, if not in spirit. The movie has everything you’d expect, like sex, gore, and a good dose of humor, but where it really shines is in showing us just how shitty we can be to each other – as the group basically abandons the first infected, their friend Karen, to be quarantined on a dirty mattress in an old shed, and that’s just the first atrocity as we watch even our POV hero character [played by Rider Strong] make worse and worse decisions in the name of self-preservation. And it’s all for naught. Roth would revisit this theme later in “Hostel,” but somehow, almost unbelievably; it works better here, even with crazy redneck cops and swallowed harmonicas. Go figure.
5. The Descent (2005)
The Descent is one of those rare films that might actually be scarier before the monsters show up. There’s a lot about this film that reminds me of an absolute classic in the horror genre – Alien, with its claustrophobic sets and intelligent use of light [or in this case, the lack thereof]. With an all female cast, this British made [but set in America] film makes some interesting choices in how it goes about frightening the audience, with some of the most terrifying moments occurring just because of the characters’ surroundings. When one of the women becomes frightened while pulling through a particularly tight crevice, the horror of her winding up stuck there is as or more terrifying than when the subterranean creatures show up to start eating everyone.
But let’s not sell the monsters short either. Everything about them, from their blindness, to their agility, to their humanoid shape make them prime antagonists for the numerous encounters with the climbers in the latter half of the film, and any confrontation between the women and these creatures seem to take on a greater weight, because in each battle victory for our heroes seems plausible, with just the right bit of cleverness here, or the slightest touch of luck there.
Of course, even if they manage to beat their attackers, or escape them momentarily, there’s still the matter of finding a way out of the cave.
And while all that is very well and good for the genre as a whole, where The Descent really shines is how perfectly realized the world it’s set in is. Though only alluded to, the complexities of the relationships between the women are many and nuanced, and not chucked right out the window because “bigger things are going on.” Add to this characters’ one ray of hope coming from the drawing and equipment left behind by climbers from years before, and the movie manages to achieve something very difficult for a film with hissing monsters – realism.
4. 28 Days Later (2002)
One of the most difficult, and annoying, conceits of the zombie genre is the big reveal. Not that there’s anything particularly uninteresting with patient zero, but when ghouls really get to be an interesting threat is when there’s an actual horde to do battle with, and a world in which they rule. 28 Days Later takes care of this in its title alone, and with only a short intro to someone doing something very unseemly with a bunch of monkeys, we’re off and running [as are the zombies], as soon as our protagonist Jim awakes in an abandoned London hospital.
And an abandoned London has never looked so desolate or beautiful – in a strictly shit your pants sort of way. As the film goes on Jim sees how cutthroat things have gotten, and the zombies of U.K. turn out not to be the living dead but rather a rage-driven horde of people now driven to chase, eat, and murder anything in their way, all the while vomiting blood and screaming. Couple this with the fact that ghouls seem to be most fond of attacking at night, and you’ve already gotten the perfect movie monsters for a new age zombie movie.
But that’s just what makes 28 Days Later a very good movie. What makes the film truly, truly great is all the wonderful performances it was blessed with, from Naomi Harris and Chris Eccelston, to Danny Boyle’s Hail Mary directorial prowess after the god-awful abortion of a film that was “The Beach.” And the best of all of them was the heretofore unknown Cillian Murphy, playing young Jim who’s growing up in this new, savage world. And deep down we feel for Jim, and want him to keep some of that innocence he woke up with at the beginning in his hospital bed, but cracks start to form as he kills a rage infected child all on his own, and from there it’s a steady ride downhill to the point that not even Selena [Harris] recognizes him as he comes crashing to her rescue, blood soaked and killing barehanded like the rage infected Brits just outside the gate.
My only complaint with this film has to be the feel good ending – the character arc of Jim always made it hard for me to believe there would be anything left in the world for him if he survived, and even though that ending was filmed [twice actually], most prefer the theatrical “happy” repose Jim and his companions are given at the end of the film. And that’s fine. This is horror done almost like art – excellent storytelling, perfect antagonists, plenty of scares, great dialogue, and just a slight dash of social commentary. Dawn of the Dead was the remake – but 28 Days Later is far close to the spirit of Romero’s original forays into zombie horror.
3. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I almost didn’t put this so high. I personally think humor and horror go hand-in-hand, though, and usually the best scary movies are the ones that are smart enough to not just be about freaking the audience out over and over again. The genre is, at least a little, about catharsis after all.
And so we have Shaun of the Dead, another British horror movie that may or may not have bumped it’s more serious cousin 28 Days Later down a place on this list with a brilliant reference near its end. Everything here is back to normal, with slightly more classical, shambling undead, and a couple of dimwitted but loveable protagonists in the form of Shaun and Ed [Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, respectively]. Is Shaun of the Dead ever actually scary? Not… exactly, though there are one or two hair-raising moments when Shaun finds his flat mate Pete already standing dead in the shower, or when the whole cast is trapped in the car with recently reanimated Bill Nighy, ready to punctuate a heartfelt moment with some flesh eating. But mostly, Shaun of the Dead is about being smart, being clever, and referencing things in such a way so as not to just carry itself on previous subject matter alone.
Oh, the references. All of the Romero films, obviously, and “An American Werewolf” gets a nod in the form of a manic cabby, and “We’re coming to get you Barbara!” is assigned more to this film than any other that it previously made an appearance in. And if you’re really into Edgar Wright, and his whole crew, you’ll find more than a couple mentions of the precursor to Shaun, the BBC comedy Spaced. And as for the original jokes, well, they’re all fast, sharp, and hilarious, and unlike a lot of British comedy, aren’t left just to word play – a slip at the market, or a moment to wind up a disposable camera, and I’m laughing as hard as I ever have. And just when you think they can’t possibly have another good laugh in them, well…
There’s a dance battle with an obese, undead barkeep to Queen.
This isn’t to say its all laughs. There are some legitimately touching moments, like Shaun having to do in his own reanimated mother, or Ed, moments before death, saying one more immature goodbye to his friend. Arguably the most impressive thing the movie does is move so seamlessly between violence and laughs, while still managing to strike a believable somber tone. And before it can get heavy? Wright and company breaks it up by ripping poor David to pieces.
2. The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
Remember how I mentioned earlier that they remade [REC] almost shot-for-shot for an American audience? Well, the director of the Poughkeepsie Tapes, John Erick Dowdle, was the guy they got to do it.
Much like Quarantine and [REC], Poughkeepsie Tapes resembles the Blair Witch style, with a healthy dose of grindhouse mockumentary thrown in for color. The plot of the film is pretty loose, too, following New York City police detectives as they sift through over 800 video tapes seized in raid on an abandoned house in the suburbs. On the tapes are a visual record of an unknown killer and his series of crimes. The content of the tapes are studied by the detectives in hopes of uncovering the killer’s and his victims’ identities, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that no such revelations are to be had, and the true story is the effects that the disturbing images begin to have on those watching.
The effect on the viewer is a similar one, and why even with the sparse plot I have to rank The Poughkeepsie Tapes so high. Yes, there are disturbing images in the film – a lot of which, if presented on its own in something like Saw or Hostel might come across as torture porn [and if someone wanted to call this that, I don’t think I could come up with a strong argument to the contrary], but what sets The Poughkeepsie Tapes apart is the fact that it puts a context and weight to these scenes, the people who see them matter to us, and what they do to the people who see them matter, and by the end, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was watching and reacting to the movie, or watching and reacting to the movies within the movie.
It’s rare that a horror film sticks with me. The only other example that readily jumps to my mind was the 1997 Austrian horror film Funny Games, which though not from the decade we’ve been talking about I can only encourage everyone here to actively seek out and see. My first time seeing Funny Games, I was angry, incensed, and couldn’t get the movie out of my mind. It eventually became one of my favorites. The Poughkeepsie Tapes shares this rare honor with it – I walked away annoyed, incredibly disturbed without payoff, and completely unable to put the movie out of my mind. I knew this meant that like Games I’d come to love it.
Until then, I was sleeping with the lights on.
1. Lat den ratte komma in/Let the Right One In (2008)
What’s to be said that everyone else hasn’t? If this was my list of the best movies of the past ten years period, Let the Right On In would probably settle somewhere between Clerks 2 and The Hurt Locker [which is high praise if you know me], and is probably one of the better and more original flicks made way beyond the past decade.
As far as the vampire subsection of horror goes, this might be the kind of vamp movie that could have never been made in the U.S.A. Two aspects of the genre tend to fascinate most American creators and artists – the sexual/romantic aspect, and the supposed “curse” of immortality, which often takes the form of flashy, privileged boredom. It’s these hobby-horses that keep a lot of vampire-related media to these fanciful, fashion driven pieces which involve either body glitter, skin-tight leather, or Victorian collars that make it look like the undead are being kept from licking their stitches. And it’s not like there isn’t a market for all of that – there very much is, and I wouldn’t presume to say otherwise – but the genre’s been back to that well so many times if it’s not getting dry, then at the very least we’re getting bored with the taste.
So the Swedes throw out all of that, take the vampires pretty much as back to basics as you can go, even forgoing the usual teen-to-twenty-something age range to sort of enchanting look at a pre-teen world. The end result is a movie about an immortal killer and her bumbling slave which has been repeatedly and correctly called a “coming of age” story. The movie manages to be terrifying at times, but in other moments it becomes downright charming, a feeling that if the viewer pauses to realize makes everything feel even more unnerving. Let the Right One In is enchanting, but also a shocking horror show, and the fact that those two seemingly opposing forces operate so well together makes this movie special.
Earlier when talking about Cabin Fever, I mentioned how far the horror genre had fallen thanks to the uninspired, brain-dead slasher flicks that turned all horror movies into lepers among the other genres in filmmaking. Once, films like The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Shining were revered, even considered Oscar contenders – and Let the Right One In deserves to stand right along with them.
The Management would like to thank everyone who got involved in horror week [re: week-ish] here on the Mojo Wire, from those who submitted guest blogs to all the visitors and new readers. Randall sincerely hopes they'll decide to stick around after all the blood and guts are over, but is otherwise happy to be taking his blog back. Special thanks goes to John Wiswell, who came up with this idea, and the website IMP Awards, which provided most of the movie posters.