Since the creation of film, there have been horror movies.
They have lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly going unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The genre was exhausted from churning out sequels, prequels, and new films at breakneck speed. It needed a breath of fresh air, something that would re-invent horror for a new generation who had grown up with Freddy, Jason, and Michael. In a certain way, that reinvention came in the form of 1996’s Scream. The tongue-in-cheek tone and self-aware humor, as well as its blatant references to its forefathers, made it a new horror film for fans of the genre. It was a new time for horror.
However, when one looks at Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Horror Films it’s clear that the films from this time weren’t very popular or groundbreaking. Less than ten of the films on the list came out between 1996 and 2004, and it’s this period that I call “The Decline.” Compared to the hundreds of films that a person can name from the years before, most people can only name a handful of successful films from this period. Most were duds like Anaconda and Wishmaster, but a few broke out of the mulch and opened a few new doors for horror.
- Scream. Whether you blame it for ruining the genre, love it for being both scary and funny, or don’t get what all the hype it about, this film changed things. It commented on the effect of horror movies on the social psyche and showed how formulaic the genre had become. There are so many memorable lines and scenes; this is the movie that dared to kill Drew Barrymore within fifteen minutes. It’s also the film that gave birth to the Scary Movie franchise—further devolving horror. Whatever your feelings for it or the following sequels, there’s no denying that the first film is a work or art in its own right.
- The Blair Witch Project. Cue the birth of the found footage subgenre. Perhaps some of the most realistic improv in horror history, this pseudo-documentary was advertised as real events when it came out. The film makes that believable by being filmed with the best shaky cam and terrible panning possible, having small talk and unneeded dialogue that is present in most actual conversation, and making the real horror the conflict between three friends lost in the woods. It holds up well today, even after the abundance of found footage films that followed, and still carries genuine suspense, terror, and complete fear.
- American Psycho. Suave, smart, and talented—Patrick Bateman seems like the ideal 1980s businessman. However, the film reveals that capitalism has ruined our souls and turned us all into apathetic psychopaths. This film is beautifully shot, and I would even argue that it’s one of the few horror movies to have a female-driven lens. The soundtrack is great, the cinematography reeks of taste, and Christian Bale’s performance is wonderfully psychotic. Ultra-violence and extravagance go hand in hand in this film.
- Dog Soldiers. War and horror movies are usually genres that don’t overlap. There’s a big difference between the very real horrors of war and the symbolic terror of the unknown. However, this film combines the British military and werewolves to great effect. The characters are all likeable and distinct, the special effects do justice to the werewolf lore, and it’s more action-packed than most horror movies. It fits its subgenre well, and there are a couple of twists and turns that should surprise audiences.
- The Ring. This film is credited with beginning the Asian-remake trend in horror movies, and it’s for good reason. Using tension, mystery, and a terminal timeline, this film builds and builds to a terrifying twist near the end that’s well-revered. While I’d never seen the movie before, I’d grown up hearing all about it and I was still scared. To be honest, I had to sleep with the lights on because this film contains my ever present fear of things-getting-closer. Many have said that the American remake is comparable to the original and well done, which can rarely be said with remakes in general. Luckily, there are more than seven days left before Halloween to watch this movie.
The decline of horror was a much needed break for the genre to re-evaluate its roots, take a break from releasing a million and one movies, and come back when it was most needed. The film that brought horror back to life would do so with a vengeance. There are still some worthwhile films that came out from 1996 to 2004, but far fewer than before. Still, the tongue-in-cheek tone, Asian-remakes, and found footage were born in this period so it wasn’t a complete waste.