Wednesday, October 28, 2009

2000s: the decade in horror

What is horror? Something that invokes unease? Repulsion? What does it require? Surely not the supernatural, since so many horror films are grounded in realism and concern real-life horrors, and so many of the best ones are drenched in ambiguity. Is it something to do with how the past clings to us as we try to move forward in life? Something to do with death perhaps—though there are things worse than death. Let’s agree that horror films trade in some form of violence, though psychological or spiritual violence frequently trumps physical violence, which has the potential to just leave us numb or queasy, like a roller coaster ride.

Session 9

The genre seems to shift with every generation. What do the 2000s say about the way we fear and tremble today? Do we need graphic torture to keep us awake through the night? I confess that I can’t get too worked up over novel approaches to bodily desecration for its own sake. Torture cinema is certainly horrifying, but it’s also fundamentally boring. Like a dose of dysentery. The more I look over this list of my favourite horror films of our dwindling decade, the more I see how many endure for pretty much the same reasons the great horror films of the 30s and 40s or of the 60s and 70s endure. They strike a balance between unnerving mystery and a guttural, creeping certainty about something repellant. Something waits for us in the shadows. Something irrational, yet possibly real. Some shard of nightmare that lingers with us when we wake. Something common sense urges us to avoid. Yet we go to the movie anyway.

The Others

The Others (2001) leaned heavily on a hundred-year-old template, yet where the film finally lands is a brilliant twist on The Turn of the Screw. It was also the film that convinced me of Nicole Kidman’s talents. I’d found her too icy to be the sensual leading lady previous roles pitched her as, but playing this stern mother charged with protecting her two weirdly-diseased children in an enormous, apparently haunted house, she was both convincing and transfixing. The film found a strong companion piece in The Orphanage (07), also from a Spanish director, also featuring a woman, a house, and a past demanding to be acknowledged. And Belén Rueda carried that film just as boldly as Kidman did hers. It was a little cornier as I recall, yet there are things in it I haven’t stopped thinking about.


Speaking of Kidman, I’d propose that one of the most haunting horror films of the 2000s may have suffered critically, and maybe commercially, for not being regarded as horror at all. It’s only in the final moments of Birth (04), when Kidman’s heroine, shattered by her uncertainty over the case of the little boy who claimed to be her dead husband, that its generic status is confirmed. I missed it when it first appeared and only caught up with it later on DVD—and only after I’d devoured Warner’s Val Lewton box set, which greatly informed my reading of the film, which deserves to be considered among the finest works of Luis Buñuel’s old collaborator, the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière.

The Descent

Speaking of birth, the birthing/cavern imagery in The Descent (05) made for some of the most potent meta-body horror of the decade. As it became more fantastical, aspects of the film were perhaps a little too conventional, and too silly, to maintain suspension of disbelief, but this story about an all-girl spelunking trip was at the same time too effective an exploitation of claustrophobia, both external and internal, to be written off.

The Ring

I’m tempted to include the deeply creepy, if, again, sometimes very silly The Ring (02) on this list. I only hesitate because I can’t quite call Gore Verbinski’s US remake any sort of significant revision of the Japanese original (1998)—except perhaps for whatever fresh resonance it generates from Naomi Watts’ central performance, which offers some vivid emotional variation we just don’t get from Nakano Matsushima. But I’d rather champion something else from Japan altogether. Séance (00), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s fresh, inventive adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, is perhaps the finest example of the director’s unique, hushed horror aesthetic, drizzled with guilt.

The Devil's Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone (01) or Pan’s Labyrinth (06)? Both films involve children, both concern the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, and both were made by the immensely talented Guillermo Del Toro, who hails from Mexico but makes most of his best films, these two included, in Spain. I’ll choose the former, a ghost story, if only because it’s a purer example of the genre, and because the conceit of the unexploded bomb in the courtyard is one of the most inspired pregnant objects in recent film.


Session 9 (01), featuring a riveting central performance from Scottish actor Peter Mullan, gets my vote for best haunted house of the decade. Okay, it’s actually an asylum, not a house, but this is the movie’s bravura premise, which finds a small group of labourers pulling the asbestos out of the Danvers State Mental Hospital, a decrepit old shell of a building, and combines two of the best foundations for horror: the phantasmagoric and the looming threat of mental illness. The film is nearly as good as David Cronenberg’s Spider (02), adapted from Patrick McGrath. It’s also about the vaporous frontiers between lucidity and madness, between victim and predator, and also a bloody good showcase for a tremendous British acting talent, in this case Ralph Fiennes.

Let the Right One In

Equating the discomforts of lycanthropy with those of puberty, Canada’s own
Ginger Snaps (00) was undoubtedly a superb, inventive application of a familiar monster mythology into an adolescent context. But I have to say I was even more impressed by Let the Right One In (08), which took a similar tack with vampires but accentuated its tale with greater specificity of location, period, mood and art direction. It’s just a weirder movie in all the right ways, less generic yet still hugely entertaining, going even deeper into questions about gender, development, and the vertiginous sexual confusion of childhood.


Can I make it up to Canada by declaring Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (08) as easily the smartest, most deliriously bizarre spin on the zombie movie of the decade? It takes William Burroughs’ notion of the word as virus and runs with it like a screaming, foaming at the mouth maniac. Admittedly, it finally struggles hard to make complete sense, but it generates so many interesting questions along the way that coherence seems of secondary importance. It also the confines of a small town radio station and the deep, dark Ontario winter into a cocktail of serious chills.

Drag Me to Hell

I had a lot of fun with Drag Me to Hell (09), Sam Raimi’s return to horror after a long season of super hero hi-jinx—though like Raimi’s Spiderman movies this feels very much the product of comic books, specifically of the EC variety. A pretty, somewhat conceited girl just wants to manage a bank, but she gets stuck with a witch’s curse she can’t shake off, while Raimi sticks us with a surprise finale that left everyone in the theatre where I saw it reeling. Nothing, however, freaked the shit out of any big crowd I sat among like Paranormal Activity (07/09). Orin Peli’s demonic home movie horror is crude as all hell—it’s supposed to be—but its this very sense of the real, which it firmly held onto until its very stupid final moment, that imbued it with a feeling of campfire tale terror that’s so difficult to work over modern audiences with. Utterly reliant on contemporary technology, the movie is arguably designed for our age, yet more than anything else I’ve written about here it utilizes the most old-fashioned, if not primordial tricks in the book. It also hit number one at the box office last weekend. Go figure.

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