In the past week, I’ve seen the absolute worst in modern horror (I watched the new Friday the 13th remake on DVD) and I’ve seen a preview of what hopefully will be one of the best (Scorsese’s Shutter Island trailer). Both got me thinking as to what the horror genre has evolved (or devolved into) and I set out to find the best this decade has to offer (we’ll look at the worst another time).
Most universally recognized horror classics are from years ago, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm St, Carrie, The Exorcist, Evil Dead, are all antiques by today’s standards, though they were revolutionary at the time and heavily influenced modern horror. But what has been released recently that can compare to such classics? I’ve assembled the ten best selections below, see if you agree. I’m sure you won’t.
10) The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
The Hills Have Eyes is one of those rare horror remakes that actually turned out to be worthwhile. Alexandre Aja is a modern day horror master and you’ll see another project of his higher up on the list, but his crack at Wes Craven’s original tale of hillside mutants is a distinctly memorable experience.
What makes Hills great is that it defies nearly every cliche of the tired horror genre. The victims aren’t teenagers, they’re a family of all shapes and sizes. The aggressors aren’t immortal, mute killing machines, but fragile (albeit deformed) humans with personalities all their own. And most notably, the movie takes place mostly in the day time in wide open spaces, rather than dark cramped houses or log cabins.
The film has all the gore and scares of a traditional horror flick, but it’s anything but formulaic. It’s good to be different, especially in this genre, and Aja can be proud of a remake that actually seemed like something new.
9) 28 Days Later (2002)
It was a toss up between putting this or Dawn of the Dead at this spot on the list, but ultimately Danny Boyle won out over Zack Snyder. Both films were excellent, but 28 Days came first, and should be credited with sparking the revival of the zombie genre.
Boyle employed the use of “fast zombies” as opposed to the slow, plodding ones that populated George A. Romero’s classic films. This added a new sense of terror to the proceedings, as zombies sprinting at you are much more fearsome than ones power walking toward you.
The film also explored the human side to the zombie apocalypse, showing how mankind can degrade under the physical and mental toll of such an ordeal. The final scene at the makeshift military base remains one of modern horror’s most frightening sequences.
8 ) Saw (2004)
It is unfortunate that those behind this franchise got the idea in their head to churn out a new installment every year since the original, no matter what the quality. The series has gone up and down in it’s five installments to date, but more often than not, they’re still smarter than the average horror flick, and that all started with the original.
Saw may have ushered in a briefly dumb era of “torture porn” type movies (Hostel, Captivity, etc.), but the original premise for the film was rock solid, and two men in a rotting bathroom armed only with hacksaws was a chilling setting for a film, and the ending left everyone absolutely floored. The film has close to the lowest budget of anything on this list, and what the writers managed to do with pretty much nothing is simply stunning.
Jigsaw has become a horror icon just as prominent as Freddy, Jason or Michael Myers, but he turned a new page on the horror genre, using mind instead of muscle to rain retribution down on his victims.
7) The Descent (2005)
Women are understandably frustrated with horror films, as they usually portray them as large chested sorority girls who don’t know enough to not walk into dark rooms alone and unarmed. That’s why The Descent‘s cast made up entirely of badass chicks was a welcome change for the genre, and the film had the story, writing and directing to back them up.
Taking place entirely in an underground cave system, The Descent is extremely claustrophobic and so tense you’ll be sore afterwards. It’s scary enough facing the prospect of being buried alive for eternity, but once the “creatures” show up? Shit gets crazy.
The ending defies the genre as well, and it’s haunting, depressing and strangely satisfying all at the same time.
6) High Tension (2003)
Alexadre Aja is back on the list with his critically acclaimed slasher, High Tension. On first glance, the film seems like a well-shot, well-written French take on the slasher film, but as the plot unravels, it’s revealed that the film is anything but typical, and does much to set itself apart from a sea of similar premises.
Americans enjoyed the film slightly less than their European counterparts, and were quick to point out plot holes with the film’s twist, but in any case, High Tension is a welcome change for the slasher genre, which features an endless parade of the same movie reworked slightly different ways.
Also, lesbians. Nice.
5) Audition (1999)
You didn’t think I’d make this list without a Takeshi Miike film right? Well, Audition has to be one of the most ****ed up movies ever made, and if you can get through the absurdity of it, it’s a damn good horror flick as well.
The burlap sack reveal remains one of the most disturbing thoughts ever put into film, and the movie even provoked one woman so much at a screening with Miike, she stood up and yelled “You’re evil!” at him. How’s that for a screen test?
If you haven’t seen Audition, you should, but approach with caution. You might not be the same afterwards.
4) The Sixth Sense (1999)
We must ignore the laughing stock that M. Night Shyamalan has become in recent years in order to appreciate his original masterpiece, The Sixth Sense. It’s the film that got him nominated for an Oscar, and which made giddy critics start hailing him as the next Alfred Hitchcock. But as we all know, Hitchcock went on to make more than two and a half good horror movies, where Shyamalan, so far, has not.
Horror films are often noted for their twists, and some bend over backwards to try and surprise the audience (see Hide and Seek for a prime example), but The Sixth Sense had the twist to end all twists, and if your asshole buddies didn’t ruin it for you, you were probably blown away like the rest of us.
Shyamalan made a great movie here because he didn’t rely on blood or gore, but rather atmosphere and tension more than anything else, something modern day horror directors should definitely learn from.
Also, this just in: Bruce Willis is dead the whole time.
Sorry, but it’s been 10 years, you’ve lost the right to be surprised.
3) The Blair Witch Project (1999)
To the layman, The Blair Witch Project is “just a bunch of people running around the woods yelling,” but to those of us with half a brain, the movie is a master class in low budget film making, and should be treated as such.
Part of the appeal of Blair Witch is that it feels real, and to capitalize on this, it was marketed as such. I remember upon its release that some people were buzzing this was actually a true story, and it was all real. That may sound stupid now, but at the time, even a hint of that going into the film made the experience all the more unnerving.
And if you’re upset because they didn’t show the witch at the end, you’re missing the entire point. Go watch Freddy vs. Jason or something.
2) The Ring (2002)
I know I’ll get a lot of flack for putting The Ring so high up on the list, and leaving the Japanese movie it was based off of, Ringu, off completely. Well, guess what? This is one of the only time where the American’s actually did it better. That’s right, I said it.
The original Ring may have started the concept of the video cassette that kills you via creepy, vengeful long-haired girl, but frankly, it’s just not that great of a movie. The ideas presented are all half formed and unfinished, and in the American adaptation, Gore Verbinski stepped in to take the project from more than merely a solid idea to an excellent film.
I have no regrets about placing The Ring this high, it’s a near perfect blend of classic horror and commercial appeal, and it deserves to be recognized for the modern horror classic that it is. But do NOT mention the sequel, alright?
1) The Orphanage (2007)
The Orphanage is the best horror film of the last decade because it’s just so damn smart. The entire movie can be read two different ways, depending on how you’d like to interpret it. It can either be a ghost story, full of long-dead children running around the halls of a creepy orphanage, or it can be a psychological thriller, where all the ghosts turn out to be either real or imagined, and I’ve had many people miss this aspect of the film completely.
The movie is absolutely terrifying despite lacking any real gore and only a handful of jump moments. It’s an exercise in what can happen when intelligent people actually get their hands on a horror script, and the reigns are handed to a director who knows that real horror is more about the prelude to the kill than the kill itself. And sometimes there doesn’t even need to be a kill at all.
Runners up that I know you’ll tell me I missed:
Dawn of the Dead – Zack Snyder’s remake of George A. Romero’s classic exceeded everyone’s expectations.
The Midnight Meat Train – A very WTF cast (Vinnie Jones and Bradley Cooper?), but a brilliant horror concept that hopefully gains a cult following someday.
Session 9 – Many proclaim this as an unspoken legend of horror, but honestly I wasn’t that impressed.
Suicide Club – A great concept to be sure, but the film is about three stops past crazytown, and it’s almost too nonsensical for its own good.
Shaun of the Dead – One of my favorite films to be sure, but I didn’t want to include horror-comedy here. Also in this category would be Slither, and some would argue The Host, though I don’t view that as a horror film. Don’t even get me started on Drag Me to Hell.
Battle Royale – Horror? Ehh, maybe. Is “Gore” its own movie category? This gives me an idea for a “10 best movies to play drinking games to” list.
Twilight - Horrifying, but only because of the acting and writing.