OcTerror · Reviews

Friday Fright Fest: The Resurgence

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.

Around 2004, horror movies began to change their tone. Their tongue-in-cheek sarcasm was starting to wear thin and the genre was in need of change. The experiments had run their course—some successful, some not—and we’d seen what worked in terms of scares. Saw, the low budget horror that could, brought the genre back to life screaming. What followed was a blur of splatter films, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, and new horrors as the genre resurged with a vengeance.

While there are plenty of decent films from this era to choose from, it’s interesting how they tend to blend together in hindsight. The franchises that were born during this time come to mind, but the singular films are a little harder to remember off the top of your head unless they’re favorites. Not many of them have memorable villains or heroes, but their plots are slick and the scares are good. There were some moderate successes during this time, quite a few newfound classics, and here are ten to keep you entertained this Halloweekend.

  1. Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004). Honestly, I find the sequel to the 1997 film scarier and better than the original in more ways than one. A team of researchers looking for a flower of immortality encounter gargantuan anacondas in Southeast Asia. The CGI is a little more believable in the sequel and the plot lends itself toward more suspense than laughs—which works in its favor. It’s not one of the best animal horror movies ever made and it leans more toward the stupid side of things at times, but my personal fear of snakes makes it a strong contender for one of the best in that subgenre. There’s some nice commentary on man’s drive for immortality versus the best interest of survival, but otherwise it’s just a movie about really big snakes.
  2. Shaun of the Dead (2004). After George A. Romero’s critical success in the zombie genre and 28 Days Later’s revitalization of the monster, Simon Pegg decided to parody our expectations with an unexpectedly funny, yet scary film that paid tribute to those before him. What would your everyday man do during the zombie apocalypse? The answer is try to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, drink beer at the pub, and spend time with his best friend. All while fighting zombies. This movie is funny as hell thanks in part to the great performances by the cast, but it has great moments of genre peril and tragedy as hard decisions have to be made. At times, it’s a very British film, but I think it’s also a very human film at heart. Definitely one of the best films in the zombie subgenre of horror, and a great comedy film as well.
  3. The Grudge (2004). Another American remake of a Japanese horror film, this time Ju-On, starring genre darling Sarah Michelle Gellar. The film is a non-linear narrative that uncovers a curse revolving around a family and a house. Karen Davis (Gellar) is tasked with checking in on an elderly dementia patient after her normal caretaker goes missing, but she begins to notice something’s wrong with the house. As she begins to uncover the history of the house and its previous tenants, Karen learns that a curse is beginning to unfold in her life. The setting and sound design really add to the beauty and terror of the film; we feel Karen’s confusion and initial isolation in Tokyo, and the sound Toshio makes is nightmare fuel. The tone and pacing of the film works to its benefit, and I’d say it’s one of the better American remakes out there—definitely before the onslaught of lesser films.
  4. Hostel (2005). Following the wide success of Saw, a large amount of splatter films made it to the big screen and achieved infamy. Hostel is one of the better films of this particular subgenre, made so by its anti-consumer message and typical Roth isolationist stance. It follows two American college students, Pax and Josh, and their Icelandic friend, Oli, as they travel across Europe in search of babes, beer, and a good time. Following a recommendation from a guy in Amsterdam, the group heads to Slovakia for an unlisted hostel that has beautiful girls a plenty but unknown dangers lurking around every picturesque corner. Not only is traveling in an unfamiliar country nerve-wracking enough, but the film wants you to think about why you go into these other countries with foreign cultures and different languages and pretend to know anything (a guidebook isn’t God). The gore itself is relatively tame in terms of what would later permeate the subgenre, but builds the suspense nicely and the changing protagonist works in the film’s favor. If you can handle lots of boobs and blood then check into the Hostel.
  5. Slither (2006). I’m not really a fan of body horror, and when I do enjoy the subgenre it’s because it’s been done either ‘tastefully’ or not to excess. This film does none of those things. It’s body horror to the extreme. James Gunn’s sci-fi horror darling literally slithers onto your screen as an extraterrestrial parasite lands in a small town and starts to take over the populace. Surprisingly, this cult classic stars Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and Michael Rooker—which is about the only thing that kept me watching when the ick got going. It’s decently funny and the effects are great, and—even if the story isn’t original per say—it’s an interesting premise to explore with these characters. If you can handle body horror and like aliens and actors who have moved onto better things these days then I recommend it.
  6. The Orphanage (2007). A change of pace from splatter and body horror, J. A. Bayona’s quiet suspense mostly draws on the audience’s sympathies for a family’s suffering rather than falling back on jump scares or recent tropes. The Spanish horror follows Laura, a woman who plans to reopen her old orphanage as a facility for disabled children, and her family. Shortly after moving into the building, Laura’s son, Simon, goes missing and she tries to solve the mystery of his disappearance and the orphanage. This story unspools like a good Gothic horror as the suspense builds and builds to the heart-stopping climax. It’s a film that lends itself to multiple interpretations, and the presence and design of Tomas is a large part of this mystery. Belen Rueda’s performance as Laura is fantastic, and everything carries an equal weight in this film to create a heavy, mournful atmosphere to the end. Fans of Pan’s Labyrinth will enjoy many aspects of this film as well.
  7. Let the Right One In (2008). This Swedish horror reminds me of Clive Barker films in that it’s romantic at heart, beneath all the blood. Oskar, a lonely boy in Stockholm, meets the mysterious Eli, a girl who’s been twelve for a very long time. Unfortunately, Eli needs to feed off of most of Oskar’s friends and neighbors in order to survive, but she also helps Oskar learn to stand up for himself so they’re a pair that suits each other. This film takes the relatively tired vampire subgenre and reinvigorates it with the novel approach of a child bloodsucker (not addressed nearly enough in Interview with the Vampire). Eli makes for a rather sympathetic character, and Oskar’s attraction for her is understandable given the demons of his own world. The climactic scene near the end makes for some beautiful and visually interesting horror that shouldn’t be missed.
  8. Cloverfield (2008). Our first proper found footage of the year comes in the form of this giant monster movie. Six friends try to escape from New York in the wake of an unknown attack on the city while they’re at a party; what follows is a trial of errors as they attempt to track down lost members of their group, avoid soldiers and panicked citizens, and continually run into the monster and its parasitic children. The action is recorded on a handheld camcorder that was being used to record farewells at the party before all the action started—now it’s evidence that belongs to the Department of Defense. A lot of the film’s strength comes from its general avoidance of showing too much of the creature until it’s absolutely necessary; we’d be a lot less scared if we knew what it looked like from the very beginning, but by delivering bits and pieces of appearance throughout the film, audiences are forced to build-a-monster. The performances vary and aren’t that great (particularly T.J. Miller, who is funny but quite annoying after a while), but the characters are built up decently and you care enough to want them to survive this ordeal. Cloverfield is definitely one of the better found footage films that’s out there, and I’d recommend checking it out before a monster crashes your Halloween party.
  9. Drag Me to Hell (2009). Sam Raimi’s unique perspective on curse horror was quite timely in the midst of the Great Recession. It follows Christine Brown, a loan officer, who’s cursed by an old gypsy woman after not extending her mortgage. She has three days to figure out how to lift the curse or else she’ll be ‘dragged to hell’ to suffer for eternity. Does her crime fit the punishment? Not really, but this is a genre where bad things usually happen to good people anyway. There is body horror in this film, but it’s not to excess and can be avoided with hands-over-eyes. The humor, effects, and scares keep coming and add up to an interesting experience that’s campy yet terrifying in equal turns. Alison Lohman’s performance as Christine is sympathetic in all the right ways, and it’s certainly a film that gets you thinking about how you’d handle a gypsy woman cursing you for trying to get ahead at work.
  10. Jennifer’s Body (2009). One of the first horror films I ever saw, Jennifer’s Body will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s one of the few movies in the genre to not only have two female leads, but also be written and directed by women as well. Sure, some of Diablo Cody’s dialogue hasn’t aged well, but it’s still funny and quirky as hell. The film follows Needy Lesnicki, an insecure and subdued teen, as she comes to terms with the fact that her best friend, the titular Jennifer, may no longer be human. There’s ritual sacrifice in the name of rock music, a tragic fire in a small town, a line of male victims seduced along the way, and so much more. Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried deliver fun and frightening performances as Jennifer and Needy, and J.K. Simmons, Adam Brody, Kyle Gallner, and even Chris Pratt are there to back them up. The soundtrack is one of the best compilations in the genre, and the effects used in the film are fairly decent. While it doesn’t do anything new for the vampire/succubus subgenre, the film makes nice strides for women’s horror. Check out Jennifer’s Body this Halloween if you haven’t; I remember my first time watching with fondness.

The resurgence of real horror was a much needed break from the weirdness and the lackluster scares that had plagued the experiment. Torture porn and re-imaginings were on every screen, but there were still original films spread throughout. Creators sought to recreate the magic of the classics and the heyday with the age-old formulas, but they also added to the canon with new, terrifying films. The resurgence was about bringing horror back to life, but what followed would take it to the next level.