THE 10 BEST HORROR MOVIES OF THE DECADE
2000 - 2009
~ john b. cribbs. ~
This is one I've had on the back burner the last two years. Why dust it off now? Well honestly, my schedule for October horror articles just got majorly compromised and I'm a little desperate, but I won't go into that here. The real question is, why didn't I publish a "decade's best" horror list back at the end of the old/start of the new decade? Same ol' story: everybody with a laptop was getting their lists up, and there just didn't seem to be any point. I'm not someone who honestly believes in ranking movies in general (although, I am a sucker for lists.) Honestly, I just didn't think it necessary for me to throw my share into this seemingly endless stream of listomania...
But seriously - have you seen some of these fucking lists? Leslie Vernon? Paranormal Activity? I mean the first half of The Descent was pretty good, but really, #1? Is House of the Dead really the discriminating horror fan's favorite? Just check out the usually-great Maitland McDonagh's list, it's embarrassing! (And what the hell is American Zombie anyway?) I decided to compile my own selections - of favorites; I have zero interest in making an argument that these represent the definitive "greatest" horror movies of an arbitrary ten-year span and only titled this with the qualifier "best" to help its chances on google - as a kind of therapy to remind myself why I like this genre in the first place, and what there might be to look forward to in the ensuing decade. (I wish I'd had the chance to watch them again before writing this, but what can you do.)
Wallace & Gromit in THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT
nick park & steve box, 2005
I can't in good conscience make this part of the official list, but you can't ignore that on top of the things we've come to expect from Aardman - thrilling chases, outstanding set pieces, great visual gags, brilliant animation and characterization - this feature-length debut of the studio's flagship duo contains (nuts) some of the most spot-on nods to classic horror ever committed to film. With the seeds already planted in the creepier moments of The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, this film continues the tradition of flavoring its innovation and hilarity with some wonderfully eerie touches. Whether it's the vicar confronting the beast in the empty chapel at night, Gromit not being able to trust his shadow, or the astounding transformation sequence that my daughter can't even watch because it's too scary (the scale and intensity of which rivals the one from An American Werewolf in London), the entire feel of the film is clearly inspired by old Universal and Hammer horror films, complete with energized emotional levels to balance the terror. Hotel Transylvania was ok, but I really wish Aardman would make their own full-blown monster movie.
fabrice du welz, 2006
A Belgian release without the stink of Dardenne anywhere near it, this weird little film follows the ordeal of a strikingly arrogant amateur singer named Marc, who trades light pop crooning for rabbit snares and crudely-constructed crucifixes after breaking down by a remote auberge and its surrounding backwoods town. Of all the movies released in the last decade, this one comes closest to the spirit of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and believe me when I say that's a huge compliment rather than an ambiguous kiss-off.) Like Tobe Hooper before him, Walloon director Fabrice Du Welz captures a collective mania almost circus-like in its jovial absurdity: a society in the sticks that have created their own way of life and their own warped sense of honor and justice sustained by a predatory instinct never before found in film (well, maybe the hive of insane villagers from Gymkata.) And like TCM, there's a delightfully uncomfortable mixture of discomfort and comedy as the madness incites such surreal moments as an improvised (almost slapstick) hunting excursion, one memorably uncomfortable amateur stand-up routine and the outbreak of a full-blown polka party. These indulgences never send the movie over-the-top, since Welz keeps the hopelessness of his hero's plight in the foreground and keeps things surprising so that it never settles into your run-of-the-mill Christmas nightmare set in the dark country out where the buses don't run.
Central to the film's aberrant fascinations is the weirdly evolving relationship between Marc and his emphatic host Mr. Bartel (provocatively named after the late Eating Raoul auteur.) Marc distracts himself from the reality of his plaintive "career" with an unwarranted air of conceit, construed by Bartel as an assault to his authority that's already been badly diminished since the alleged absconding of his wife several years earlier. Marc's going to have to answer for compromising the position Bartel has set for himself; things get really hairy once his forced incorporation into the town's twisted structure stirs up a hornet's nest of psychotic perverts. This is a film that understands and applies the horror movie maxim that it's not who you are, it's where you end up. There's a reason many of the victims in these films are stripped of everything they are and compelled to rebuild themselves, re-adapting to survive the rabbit hole they've fallen into. Calvaire's rural hell is so primitive and tenuously constructed that a calf can easily fit in as the town floozie, or a man's beloved missing dog, blurring the line between class and gender roles that society perceives and ones that are constantly re-contextualized. Once anyone can be anything, the apocalypse couldn't be far away, yet rather than ride on its vague religious implications, the film smartly exploits horrific imagery inspired by the bloody theater of the passion, embellished in all its sanguineous glory by expert cameraman Benoît Debie. Virtually ignored upon release and often falsely accused of lack of originality - despite its familiar setup and obvious influences, it manages to find its own voice, which is something Welz's follow-up Vinyan was disappointingly unable to do - I hope time is kind to this movie.
9. HOSTEL: PART II
eli roth, 2007
I saw the first Hostel on the last day of the 2005 Toronto Film Festival (just after the Wallace and Gromit movie, in fact.) An elated Eli Roth bounced to the front of the theater to beg the audience's forgiveness for this not being the final final cut of the film; there were still some technical issues to sort out, etc. Watching the movie, I wondered what he was going to do about the problem of casting three hard-partying, pussy-hunting, thoroughly detestable frat boys as the lead characters, whose deaths we're subsequently meant to rue rather than champion later in the movie. By the end, it was clear that Roth had purposely set himself up with a dual challenge: to shake things up by dropping a group of guys into the victim roles so often associated with girls, and to win the viewer over by making these bozos sympathetic despite their shortcomings. Roth almost succeeded by putting Jay Hernandez through a trial of fire it would be impossible not to commiserate with - almost. Ultimately the effort detracted from a movie where there was a lot - the grandiose cityscape of Bratislava, the Elite Hunting Club, the Bubblegum Gang - to pay attention to besides whether or not these backpacking dipshits were worth saving.
Kind of unironically, it was reverting back to the correct formula that fixed most of the problems of Eli Roth's "torture porn" odyssey in the second outing. Changing the leads to women, even though the trio is made up of a spoiled rich girl, a flaky troublemaker and an inhibited nerd, made them more instantly sympathetic and vulnerable, and let the viewer shift focus to the evil stacking up against them. The quesy theme of control - the impotent torturers' need to hold dominance over their helpless victims - works so much better when the sexual identities make more sense. Part II does everything a sequel should, and I don't just mean using those irresistibly faux-classy roman numerals in the title (also the word "part"): it wraps up loose ends from the original, reveals more about the sinister system to which the first survivors were subjected, raises the stakes for this round's players and comes up with new twists, even if most of them are pretty obvious fairly early on. Even moreso than the first movie, this one lets Roth run wild with his combination crass slasher flick/atmospheric Grand Guignol nightmare approach, grimly realized in the scene with poor Heather Matarazzo hanging upside down as the Erzsébet Báthory-like madam caresses her quivering nude body with a wickedly long scythe (not only one of the most horrifying scenes in recent memories, but one that provided Matarazzo with a memorable career moment outside of Welcome to the Dollhouse.) For Roth, a good-intentioned if slightly unfocused filmmaker perpetually stuck in the limbo of "nearly there," this is the closest he's gotten to a masterpiece of modern horror (excepting his vastly enjoyable Thanksgiving trailer from Death Proof.)
8. DRAG ME TO HELL
sam raimi, 2009
Alison Lohman really wants that promotion. Kevin Pollack keeps prodding her to prove she deserves it. In a vulnerable, very human moment she goes against what she believes is the right thing to do...and thanks to that one slip, she's damned. For the remainder of the movie, she becomes increasingly unhinged and doggedly desperate in a fight for her soul. One mistake leads to another and she keeps digging herself deeper into a hole to the point where she ends up in a literal hole, unearthing the rotting corpse of the gypsy crone whose invocation has condemned her to hell. By that lowest of points, her life has been so thoroughly upended that the bane of her curse seems almost like an outlandish by-product of personal guilt and excuse for self-punishment (just look at the title.) Whatever Lohman's motivations may be, everything leading to her descent into that wet, putrid rabbit hole - live kitty sacrifices, awkward encounters with future in-laws, seances and satanic goats - is pure good-time-at-the-movies roller coaster fun.
Besides being the best gypsy curse film of the decade (remember, Thinner came out in '96*) this movie is full-tilt Raimi, employing every trick from the Evil Dead films and a few new ones just to show he hasn't lost his technical playfulness and sense of unfliching fun, something anyone who saw The Gift may have been concerned about. Anyone worried that Raimi had gone permanently "Hollywood" need only feast in the glory that is the garage fight, in which the wart-racked gypsy lady tries to gnaw Lohman's face off even though she's lost her set of false chompers. It's all so wonderfully gross, with bile and blood and phlegm and saliva utilized to the fullest of their cringe-inducing ooziness, that the moral inquiry of who should really be mad at who here is temporarily set aside to make room for what must be the best extended bare-knuckle scrap set in a mundane location between two non-fighters since They Live. The movie mixes Raimi's trademark moves with all the wicked thrills and nasty twists of EC Comics, the deadpan dread of Hammer horror and the inescapable and intangible menace of Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon. A lot of credit is due first-time Raimi cameraman Peter Demings, long-time Raimi editor Bob Murawski and legendary horror film composer Christopher Young, who help create a seedy environment that feels contaminated the instant Lohman is cursed. A great old fashioned horror movie and worthy companion to Raimi's early work.
7. BAD BIOLOGY
frank henenlotter, 2008
Henenlotter made a glorious return after an unbearable 16 year absence to direct a love story between a woman with seven clitorises and a man with a massive, sentient, occasionally detached and slithering penis. And it simply could not be more beautiful. Picking up where he left off with his previous explorations of characters whose physical deformities, social discomfort and sexual deviancies turned them into unwitting vessels for homicidal monsters, he tells the tale of a man harboring a beast below his belt and a woman literally born with no inhibition. You could say she has the confidence of seven women, and her sanguine, insatiable spirit is what makes her so likable even while she's murdering partners during her overenthusiastic orgasms and leaving a trail of instantly-conceived, mutated infants in the bathtubs of crime scenes. If only things were so easy for her prospective Romeo, who is so surmounted by his dominating member he's become a sad hermit with a humongous hard-on. Soon the boner has a body count, and the only way to quell the aggravated sex organs is to get these two kids together for what promises to be the kinkiest hook-up in horror history.
Typically in Henenlotter's movies it's the quiet ones you gotta watch, although Bad Biology takes it a step further by contrasting the introverted, suffering boner bearer with the female lead, who rejoices in her unshackled sex life despite the consequences (she's a pro-lifer's ultimate nightmare.) Both create literal orgies of destruction even though they're really just looking out for themselves: she victimizes to avoid victimization; he spends so much time repressing the urges of his out-of-control monster wang that it literally latches off and assaults innocently lounging half-naked girls. You can't fault these two for being slaves to their sexual drive, and the real horror of the movie - to incorporate any favorite Henenlotter subject, drug addiction - is that they can really never get enough.
Here's my original review of the movie (written before Funderburg and Marcus Pinn wised me up to the fact that R.A. the Rugged Man is a very credible and well-respected underground rapper who apparently once shat on a record executive's desk.)
6. GINGER SNAPS
john fawcett, 2000
The Howling and An American Werewolf in London may have redefined the werewolf movie in 1981, but with their regrettable sequels dominating the market for the following two decades, John Fawcett's film was a godsend to a subgenre that had quickly grown stale. And speaking of that not-so-fresh feeling, Fawcett and co-writer Karen Walton's idea to equate the mark of the werewolf to "the curse" of a coming-of-age high school girl, her lycanthropy a physical manifestation of the evil side effects of puberty, turned out to be inspired rather than obnoxious (the same can't be said for Jennifer's Body a couple years later.) The tragedy of monster transformation has been a family ordeal since Larry Talbot's father bludgeoned him with a silver cane in the original Wolf Man, but it's never been as affecting as the strange case of the Fitzgerald sisters, Brigitte and the transmogrifying Ginger. They start out with the kind of special sibling relationship you'd expect to form in a cold, boring location like Bailey Downs: they stick close together and seem to speak their own language, share a morbid fascination with violent death. But that's what it's like at that age - death's just a game, boys are stupid, high school is what it is...then you grow up, and the banal little horrors have suddenly got teeth.
The secret to the success of Ginger Snaps - a rare pun title that's actually pretty awesome - is that it understands adolescence, the awkwardness of change, and I know a lot of people like that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders movie, but I think this one's more relatable (less self-flagellation and burning at the stake.) Although men get snapped by Ginger throughout the film, its power comes from the female leads. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a horror movie off the top of my head where both the hero and the monster are girls (ok, Carrie. And Friday the 13th. And Let's Scare Jessica to Death. And oh yeah, Drag Me to Hell. Whatever, it's still not very common.) This is one of those titles that comes up a lot on those other internet lists I was complaining about earlier, and I guess I wouldn't argue that it's a little overrated, but it's amazing how much of it works simply by being its own thing. How often do you have a quality werewolf movie without a show-stopping transformation sequence? The final showdown in the basement is memorable because we care what happens to Brigitte and the emotional agony she's going through when she realizes she's going to have to kill her sister, and that's more than you can say for the backstabbing nitwits running around the caves in The Descent. Probably the best non-Cronenberg horror film to come from Canada (sorry, Cube.)
5. WOLF CREEEK
greg mclean, 2005
To truly appreciate the quality of Greg Mclean's harrowing debut film, think of an Australian horror film. Any Australian horror film (ok, not Razorback or Richard Franklin's movies but anything else.) While I'm certainly aware of elitist arthouse weirdos who think there are reasons to recommend Peter Weir's The Last Wave or Colin Eggleston's Long Weekend, you and I both know there's something screwy going on there. And if somebody near you tells you to see Wake in Fright, turn and run until you can't run any further. Mclean doesn't look to encompass all of Australian history and geography to tell a simple spook story, but Wolf Creek is somehow infused with the natural foreboding of the outback. Most movies use a haunted house, an abandoned factory, a summer camp and add a few smoke machines to give it a creepy vibe; Mclean uses the whole wide open of his home country, suffocating in its seductive expanse. All that space - it's too much space! How in all that space is there not someone out to kill you and your friends? And whoever that someone out there is, he must have been born from some savage patch of dark country, as habitual to the territory as any hungry predator or natural disaster (kind of what Richard Stanley was going for in Dust Devil - it works better here.)
The great thing about this film, especially seeing it the first time, is that the first half is so elusive. There's a mounting tension from the opening scene that stretches to nearly an hour into the movie, and while it's not impossible to tell what's coming there's a lot of second guessing involved. Looking back, that's probably based on the ease with which John Jarrett moves effortlessly back and forth from cheesy bushman to walking nightmare like a homicidal Australian uncle. Wolf Creek revived the slasher film, a subgenre so stale it was easy to forget how uninspired it was in the first place, by bringing back the mystery back to the setup, the idea that anything could happen, even if that anything is, well, nothing, as in the film's final moments. Is it this pervasive unease that filled Roger Ebert with such "sadness and loathing" back when the film played the states? What the rotund reviewer should have realized is they can't all be a good time like Drag Me to Hell: every once in a while, we have to be reminded of the dark fold of the human soul where this stuff comes from, and what it looks like: a grinning John Jarrett.
Here's what Funderburg thought of the movie back in 'ought-six.
james gunn, 2006
Madonna. Kevin Costner. Marisa Tomei. Vincent D'Onofrio. 400 pound actor-person Joe Fleishaker. Slither confirms it: James Gunn is by far the best Troma export. Able to take the Troma formula of slime, sex and a genuine appreciation for fun, low budget genre pictures and actually turn it into something not only watchable but enormously satisfying, Gunn gets all the blood and guts in there without losing control of the movie or sacrificing little things like good characters and competent plot structure. He takes the alien invasion yarn, parasitic slug subgenre, monster B-movie, body snatcher thriller and zombie film and mixes it all into one delicious bowl of raw splatter gumbo; or, as Gunn called it, "some fucked-up color in the marketplace." But it never gets too nostalgic for its influences or overwhelmed with all the elements, the perfect example being the scene in the bathtub that draws on Cronenberg's Shivers without slapping us across the face with a penis-shaped slug and is singularly tense and exciting without being bombastic. Gunn's assured direction provides the film a scope and successful execution that shine through despite its low budget.
A lot of the movie's charm comes from the inspired casting of charismatic shuckster Nathan Fillion and hard-breathing heavy Michael Rooker (Gunn also milks some enjoyable comedy relief out of Gregg Henry and his character's frustrating attempts to rationalize the situation.) It's impossible to emphasize how well every actor fits into their role, and how much Gunn cares about these characters, even when he's having fun at their expense. There's comedy, but it's splattered in pathos. We root for these folks to stop the infestation of their town by mind-stealing, raw meat-munching blob Rooker, even as this monstrosity's obsession with its host's perky blonde wife makes him weirdly sympathetic. The humor tips its hat to everything from Henenlotter to Return of the Living Dead** but is very much original. In a decade of entertaining horror-comedies (Severance, Shaun of the Dead), Slither is the real deal and the essence of true Grindhouse, that is to say a celebration of the all-out perversity and glee of the monster movie.
3. KING OF THE ANTS
stuart gordon, 2003
The title evokes Lord of the Flies, and the hidden darkness inherent in humankind is its own base subject. A guy named Sean with no real marketable skills is taken under the wing of a local crook and his seedy gang and finds himself feeling useful and accomplished for the first time in his unremarkable, ant-like existence. This sudden sense of personal potential leads to him casually accepting a murder assignment, the first step in awakening a latent capacity for violence that will eventually lay waste to everything and everyone around him. Being a regular person, Charlie Higson seems to suggest in this adaptation of his novel, makes you dangerous: you're a blank slate on which other people can sketch a dark destiny, even if it's just a suggestive scribble or crude stick figure of a figment of a notion of what that individual has within himself. Maybe being a killer is what Sean was meant to do; it's just as likely that the right conditions could have sparked artistic potential or the path towards a great career, a beautiful wife and adorable daughter, but fate would have it that the dormant faculty aroused in him is the savvy to suffer, survive and eviscerate.
Somehow, Stuart Gordon and actor Chris McKenna were able to create a lead character for whom, through all the home invasion, destruction of innocent lives and dismemberment, you can't just help but feel a sick sort of compassion. Part of that is drawn from the lengthy session of torture and humiliation Sean is forced to endure that makes up the core of the film, an experience every bit as horrific and degrading as the one suffered by Marc in Calvaire that similarly warps and rebuilds him. Apathetic in its realism and unflinching in its extremes, King of the Ants still incorporates Gordon's trademark dark humor and enjoyably audacious gross-outs. What can't go unmentioned is that Gordon had a great decade: anything he did - the comically horrific Stuck, Mametian nightmare Edmond, worthy Lovecraft adaptation Dagon or either of his two terrific Master of Horror entries - would have been at home on this list. King of the Ants just happens to strike an unpredictable balance of mood, character and panic that sets it slightly above even his most exceptional work - it rivals From Beyond as his macabre masterpiece.
2. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS
ji-woon kim, 2004
To call A Tale of Two Sisters a great haunted house story is almost too literal. While there is some kind of malignant force that appears before the characters from scene to scene, the film's ambience of dread comes from the foreboding interior itself. Everything in the house is given an exotic twist so that ordinary objects like doorknobs, pillow cases and tablecloths seem strange and sinister; a wardrobe prominent to the plot seems to furnish an infinite space of absolute void. Su-mi, the young girl at the center of the film, returns to the house (but not from the psychiatrist visit where we first met her - careful, even the film's timeline is treacherous) but you can tell from her relationship to the surroundings that, despite its fantastic and tantalizing design, she feels ostracized in its sterile architecture and threatened by the inhospitable darkness. The setting itself supplies the film its alienating freakiness, since the foundation of its manifested threat comes from within the family inside.
Taken from a popular Korean fairy tale - there's even an evil stepmother - Kim's film is both modern and timeless in its depiction of a fractured family. The abstract danger stems from a harboring of emotion, resentment that comes from the well of collective familial cliques, putting pride ahead of compassion when one's position is tentative. Upholding what are commonly considered good family values like closeness, mistrust of outsiders, an aptness to keep secrets and a protective instinct towards one's sibling become the cause of misery and ill-fortune, and what really makes the story about the sisters even when one of them seems weirdly - suspiciously - downplayed. The movie might, on some level, seem easy to dismiss based on the "Sixth Sense argument" that reality-bending plot twists aren't substantial, but give me a break: does the predictable ending make Diabolique any less brilliant? Not to mention that the movie's multiple revelations aren't even reliable. Why did the dinner guest who had the seizure see a girl under the cabinet? What drove the mother insane, and why does Su-mi suffer similiar visions? What happened to the stepmother? There's a lot that needs explaining beyond simple mental illness and the "it was all in her head" rationalization. Is Su-mi really every woman, or is hers the wicked spirit that destroys the family? There are countless answers in this endlessly fascinating film.
1. IN MY SKIN
marina de van, 2003
We all want to feel comfortable in our own skin. We want to look presentable to our potential mates and confident around competitive co-workers. The right make-up, the appropriate clothing, a sense of personal hygiene...at what point does the process become more like a mortician fussing over a cadaver than a genuine effort to improve oneself? The effort of presentation gets us so far away from its own ends that one day, when something happens to remind us of our body's vulnerability and mortality, it's like an exciting discovery. For Marina de van's Esther, that discovery - a gash in leg - opens up (literally and figuratively) an opportunity to gain some kind of control over her life, when the only power she can wrest away from the shifting forces of fate is her own biological destiny. David Cronenberg, the king of bodily horror, spent years exploring the Cartesian Split between mind and body, where the person locked inside his or her shell is forced to watch as horrible transformations took place, finding it fascinating even as the radical mutation slowly dissolved any semblance of humanity. Several films imitated the theme, but de Van was the one to take it to the next level by suggesting that an even more unspeakable scenario would be the willful corruption of one's own body, in which the invading outsider and the victim are one and the same.
As she immerses herself deeper into the painful satisfaction of autoerotic mutilation, Esther's personal life becomes a harrowingly gradual, premature autopsy. The fascination with her failed flesh invigorates her own sense of sanctity, like a religious zealot venerating the relics of a demolished church: enraptured in the desecration of her own temple, each new incision is an exclusive stigmata, self-cannibalism a communion. The skin she's been living in has suddenly become something new and terrifying, the split between body and mind not the result of a radical and creative new disease but a willful submission to Trelkovsky's indignation in The Tenant: Esther gives her head the right to call itself "me." Removed from herself, she's her own voyeur and vivisector, jack-the-rippering her body to pieces and blissfully heading down the same road to ruin as more reluctant movie characters whose transformation isn't quite voluntary. The director-star fearlessly depicts (and performs) this culminating spiral in the film's grotesque final 20 minutes in an unfiltered, non-showy style that isn't faux-shocking but genuinely discomforting and hard to watch. The approach to the subject is also expertly handled so that it never comes close to being a comment on the garish topic of female body issues like weight concern or self-cutting. Esther finds gratification in her own evisceration, something more shocking and repellent than your standard madman with a knife. This is the film that made me feel (in addition to queasy and uncomfortable) that horror movies were ready to go in a new and exciting direction. Sadly, nearly ten years later, this has yet to happen. Hopefully somebody will pick up the discarded pieces and make something equally awesome sometime this decade.
other good horror films of note.
Bubba Ho-Tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002)
Bug (William Friedkin, 2007)
Deadgirl (Sarmiento & Harel, 2008)
Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2002)
Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003)
À l'intérieur/Inside (Bustillo & Maury, 2007)
Jeepers Creepers (Victor Salva, 2001)
Kairo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
Suicide Club (Sion Sono, 2002)
Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo, 2007)
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)
~ 2012 ~
* I really hope someone is right now working on this decade's greatest gypsy curse movie.
** It even manages to get a little Ghosts of Mars in there, more proof that - while it didn't ultimately make this list - Carpenter's film is not nearly as bad as most people claim.