by InRO Staff Feature Articles Film Year in Review

Best of the Decade in Horror (2000 – 2009)

November 1, 2009

Few genres lend themselves as well to a specific holiday as horror does to Halloween. Not every film of the genre directly connects with the holiday (though there’s about 90 Halloween sequels to compensate), but the vibe of Halloween night, the tradition of dressing up like so many horror movie icons, certainly aligns the two in a way that’s hard to deny. So on the occasion of the last Halloween in the first decade of the new millennium, we look at the very best films this divisive genre had to offer. The last ten years saw the rise of a number of prominent fads, namely the dreaded “torture porn” sub-genre—which I’ve railed against repeatedly on these pages—as well as the surge of J-horror (not to mention the inevitable but nonetheless obnoxious wave of J-horror remakes). Frankly, none has produced anywhere near enough films of real quality to validate their popularity. But if toted successes Saw and Hostel represent a deplorably nihilistic streak in popular horror, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, a film just as gritty and ruthless, serves as something of a pallet cleanser, reintroducing some measure of humanity to the genre. And if both Ringu and its American remake The Ring equally suck, Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa has eased that pain with a sturdy crop of immensely scary thrillers that favor subtlety over cheap thrills. If nothing here quite matches the true classics of the genre, well, there’s always next decade. Sam C. Mac

PulseSome people believe that a photograph can steal their soul. How those people feel about a society increasingly reliant on technology and withdrawn from human interaction is probably not too hard to guess. Between webcams and cell phones and the ever-time-consuming Internet (y’know, that thing you’re using right now), I personally have found myself overdosing on information, starring blankly into a screen and mashing away at keys, feeling rather soulless and empty. I can identify with the young, lonely individuals of Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s still-best film, 2005’s existential horror mood-piece Pulse. The setting of modern day Japan is a prime location for feeling out this sense of alienation, as there are over a million hikikomori, or shut-ins, living in the country, receding from their day-to-day lives and, in many cases, refusing to leave their parents homes for months or even years. It’s a “social problem,” according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, caused by academic competitiveness and a crippling, decade-long economic recession, among other things.

Kurosawa’s film is never explicitly about the hikikomori condition, but images of the paranoid citizens of Tokyo barricading themselves in their homes and frantically lining their doors and windows with red electrical tape evoke a similar isolation. The film is essentially a redux of Kurosawa’s earlier supernatural thriller, Cure, which likewise envisions a slow but inevitable infiltration of morbidity, triggering a rash of inexplicable suicides. But in Pulse, it’s not hypnosis that spreads a virus (that’s always been a laughable device; in fact, it’s the reason I can’t watch the original Manchurian Candidate with a straight face), but, far more terrifying, it’s the World Wide Web that finds itself host to undead specters, haunting a group of university students. Like in his other great work of the decade (this year’s recession commentary Tokyo Sonata), Kurosawa targets a specific societal deficiency: if not that of the hikikomori than the zombified state of a culture glued to their computer screens. The result is a stunning work of subtle but deeply affecting horror, both a masterclass in long-take, panning cinematography and expertly mixed and composed sound design—which meshes swelling, Kubrickian orchestration with distorted and pained howls and an ever-present fog of static, a cacophony that only occasionally dissipates, and in favor of an even more disturbing silence. Pulse is a meaningful, atmospheric work that can scare the pants off of you just as efficiently as any more abrasive film one chooses to name. SCM

Let the Right One InThe modern vampire genre is so rich in poetic dogma that even the slightest deviation would seem like a desecration of the tradition. But when Swedish director Tomas Alfredson set out to adapt John Ajvide Lindqvist’s popular novel, Let the Right One In, into a movie of the same name, he willingly followed the book’s lead and threw vampire film conventions out the window. The result may be one of the most chilling coming-of-age stories ever put to celluloid. Oskar is a clever but submissive 12-year-old outsider. Regularly bullied at school, he channels his rage through secret fantasies of violent revenge. When Eli, a strange girl around his age, moves in next door with an older man, Oskar immediately recognizes her loneliness as something they share. Forming a tentative friendship, through Morse code exchanges on their conjoining walls and brief evening encounters outside in the snow, Oskar slowly realizes that his new ally has a dark secret that trumps anything he might be hiding. Exhilarated and frightened, he finds new strength in his friend’s deviant behavior. Likewise, as Eli’s companionship with her caretaker dissolves, she finds her need for Oskar growing. Garlic, wooden stakes and holy water are nowhere to be found in Let the Right One In; instead, Alfredson peppers the film with unique visual branding that threatens to redefine the genre altogether. Various sequences take on an instantly iconic quality: blood seeps from Eli’s orifices when she enters a room uninvited; a woman destined to become a vampire bursts into flames when exposed to direct sunlight; and a hoard of cats attack a blood-sucker in a CGI frenzy. The biggest surprise of the film is that all the blood and murder is simply a vehicle for a tender relationship between two social misfits, using decapitation as the ultimate consummation. Kathie Smith

Wolf CreekThe Australian landscape is as harsh as it is beautiful. Austere mountain ranges jut from the earth, holding the heavens at knife point. A clear, ocean blue sky looms above miles of parched and unforgiving terrain. Wolf Creek, the 2005 debut film from Aussie Greg McLean, exhibits an understanding of this allure/danger dichotomy. The filmmaker’s elemental approach to horror takes on an entrancing mysticism that not even the great classics of the genre can quite attest to. Crisp, impressionistic images—from waves crashing on a beach at dusk, to the sleek, MTV-ready montage of a pool party, to the eventual destination of a grim junkyard littered with metallic surfaces—establish an incredible sense of place, appropriate since Wolf Creek‘s brutal antagonist is something of a product of his environment. The grimy, pot-bellied Mick, whose jovial personality both masks his vicious intensions and sincerely echoes his nonchalant attitude (even as he snuffs his unsuspecting victims), sees himself above morality and law in a land that enforces neither. In a show of territorial darwinism, Mick methodically strands and then abducts three young tourists, as he’s done to so many other “trespassers” before. The three prisoners escape their respective traps—one bound and locked in a shed, another nailed to a cross—and they are each tested by their environment while being hunted by a man whose almost symbolically in sync with it. But McLean’s masterstroke here comes from the way he establishes who his characters are. Like another film on this list (The Descent), the necessary time is alloted for us to invest in these characters before they’re put in peril, and we come to know them not as brain-dead lambs for the slaughter but as thinking people that, unlike the many tourists Mick targets, display an appreciation for the land they traverse. Wolf Creek succeeds as a potent and deeply disturbing genre film, imbued with all the grace of Malick and the dexterity of Carpenter or Hooper, but it also proves surprisingly effective as tragedy, too. SCM

AuditionAudition, Takashi Miike’s most notorious and well-known film, may not be the director’s best nor most representative work, but it is a masterpiece of restraint that horrifically explodes right before your eyes. Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged salary man who, after seven years of grieving for his dead wife and raising his teenage son, is ready to attempt dating. When his colleague sets up a fake audition to lure the perfect match, Shigeharu at first hesitates but finally agrees to the deceptive arrangement. Among the applicants is the beguiling Asami (Eihi Shiina), who’s pursuing an acting career after injury shattered her dreams of becoming a ballerina. Shigeharu is instantly enchanted, unwittingly walking into a psychopathic tempest. When he promises Asami to love only her, you can detect the coming downward spiral. But the patience through which the drama in Audition slowly builds, from the quiet complexity of moderate-man-meets-mysterious-young-woman to the harrowing finale, entirely defiles expectations—even those of the most seasoned viewer. Subtlety and brutality collide as Miike pulls back the curtain on something that is far more frightening than any monster. As facilitated by the jolt of a burlap bag and piano wire meeting bone, Asami—fragile, demure and soft-spoken—quickly eclipses the venomous Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction; where it’s clear that Forrest was a woman scorned, Asami is a much more potent and severe product of our gender-dictated society. Whether this is an underlying commentary to the film or not is the last thing you’ll be thinking about. Cool, calm and dressed for success, Asami is the antithesis of the apathetic modern day horror film torturer. Whether you close your eyes or simply squirm around in your seat, her sweet refrain—“kiri, kiri, kiri”—is likely to haunt you to your grave. KS

StrangersThe set-up is simple: A couple retire to a cozy house in the woods, in the dead of night. A deep sense of melancholy haunts both, and when we notice a trail of red rose blossoms leading to the bedroom, we immediately understand that a failed marriage proposal is the cause. Despite their emotional disconnect, the two lovers engage in a desperate act of sexual fulfillment, interrupted by a knock at the door. This intrusion introduces us to one of three masked strangers, all with the intention of playing a deadly game, and without provocation. These faceless antagonists—a male in a suit, with a bag over his head; two with glossy cartoonish face-masks—intend to kill Kristen and James because, as one later announces coldly, and with conviction, “they were home.” That eerie confession mirrors an implied response to why director Bryan Bertino provides no motivation for the strangers’ attacks, no reason for their existence: they just are. The Strangers is an exercise in claustrophobic terror with no salvation, commendable due to its unpretentious approach and compelling because the director paces his film so carefully, transitioning between scenes of quiet terror and bombastic chaos with jolting efficiency. Unlike many visually frenetic directors, Bertino is not afraid to hold a single shot, displaying patience while at the same time ratcheting up the suspense as we wait for the menacing figure to appear in the background. What results is a pulse-quickening, stylish and not entirely nihilistic thriller, worthy of heightened praise since it represents the conscious effort to gravitate more towards suspense, and away from the kind of depraved, scarring torture porn that has infected the horror genre for years. SCM

Trouble Every DayClaire Denis‘s one stab at the horror genre is an erotic parable which imagines a world where a certain group of afflicted individuals engage in sex as foreplay to violence; a predatory process which awakens in them an intense primal urge to attack and kill their partner (giving “rough sex” a whole new definition). Much of the film is devoid of dialogue, as is the case with many Denis films, placing emphasis on tone and atmosphere. Stuart Staples (of Tindersticks) provides soaring strings, tapping percussion and shakers to score panning shots of skin, photographed like the rosiest of apples—as seductive to the viewer as to the film’s vicious predators. Not only is skin shot to look delectable and inviting, but it’s treated as delicate and easily damaged—the thin membrane separating the afflicted from their sustenance. The movie concerns itself with the relationship between allure and danger, asserting its theme with every lustful glance and pining gesture. Some may find this approach too subtle, but Trouble Every Day (like Kurosawa’s Pulse) is a film about inaction. And this is a necessary concession, as it enables the few instances in which violence does take place on screen to be all the more jarring. Denis delivers a stirring thesis that’s far more intelligent than that of most horror films, while also pertaining to many of them: She posits that all desire—sexual, violent, or otherwise—is intrinsically linked. Just as blood and skin are connected (part of our DNA), carnal urges are equivalent to violent urges. The separation, essentially, is defined by an individual’s own ability to control their actions in the heat of the moment. It’s a supposition which few straight genre films would have the audacity to suggest. But I can think of few concepts more terrifying. SCM

The DescentWhat makes The Descent one of the most effective horror movies to come out in years? Intimacy. It’s captured here in every form: the intimacy of a space that presses around torsos; the intimacy of death that comes at close range from both friendly hands and maws not quite human; the intimacy inherent in the kind of trust mountaineers, divers and (in this case) spelunkers place in each other when they gather in dangerous isolation; and the intimacy director Neil Marshall has with his six characters. That he knows these women is evident in their truth of form; spend time in any well-to-do nature centre and you’ll meet these people, exuberant in their Oakley. The Descent delivers classic psychological and visceral horror—we shudder at its claustrophobic crawlspaces before we even start to recoil from the milky humanoids who’ve adapted to life below ground. When six explorers descend into a cave system, there aren’t enough pick-axes in the world to save them from creatures who use echovision to track them in the murk. We know where this is going: Marshall gives us a classic slasher-cum-zombie film. But we’re taken there through unexpected byways, and we resist the destination the more we get to know the women, whose physical strength and resourcefulness is convincing. And this movie is very much about its women: With its womb/sperm imagery and ambiguous maternity, The Descent needs its all-female main cast to grind out a pseudo-feminist subtext. (It also really needs its original international ending, not the focus-group result shown to American audiences.) There’s good use of ambient sound in this picture, and great use of chiaroscuro that sometimes bleeds to red. Praise Marshall for reinvigorating the art of the jump-fright in such a richly atmospheric film; that’s not an easy combination to pull off anymore. Ranylt Richildis