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 started 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 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 five to keep you entertained this weekend.
- Wolf Creek (2005). Perhaps the first subgenre people tend to think of when they remember 2000s horror films is “torture porn.” Brought into vogue by Saw and continuing throughout the years, it defined the pre-Renaissance’s films desire for gore, schlock, and lots of bodies. Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek then is a bit of an anomaly within the subgenre. While it does detail the torture of three backpackers in the Australian wilderness at the hands of one man, it doesn’t linger on these images. Instead, the focus is on the game of predator and prey—the hunt—and that’s what really makes it torturous. Similar to Hostel, it’s dealing with messages of xenophobia but also a good deal of misogyny. Mick Taylor, our villain, played by John Jarratt is done to perfection; he’s not a madman (or a cannibal), but a guy who believes in his morals and values and will protect what’s his. He’s even likeable in some ways. Our innocent backpackers are actually sympathetic, given enough room to develop personalities, and there is a feeling of hope they might survive this situation. Liz and Kristy’s relationship is an interesting dynamic and, as it changes, the character’s true hearts are revealed—who chooses individual survival over the group, who shows a lack of concern. The cinematography, particularly of the Australian landscape, is well done and some of the tense score moments work nicely. As far as the torture porn subgenre goes, this is a taut addition and a must see.
- Snakes on a Plane (2006). I’m not going to say this film is good, but I’m also not going to say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Is the premise ridiculous? Yes. Is the plot built around the premise absolutely stupid? Yes. But are there snakes on a plane? You betcha. A witness to a murder trial is escorted by the FBI on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles; too bad the accused has paid to have venomous snakes released during the flight so the plane will be brought down before it reaches the mainland. Oh, and they’ve laced the leis with pheromones to get those snakes good and riled up too. So, yes, it’s a ridiculous concept, but you know what? It’s entertaining! Instead of just one species of snake, there’s a whole bunch and they get plenty of screen time and it’s campy in the best way possible. Samuel L. Jackson delivers one of the greatest lines in cinema history. The side characters are all equally ridiculous, but there are so many tropes fit onto this one plane you figure it would crash all on its own. The theme song is a total banger, forever and always. While 2/3 of the snakes in the film are CGI or animatronic, there’s enough suspension of disbelief that it almost doesn’t matter; they get the movements just about right and it’s an unbelievable scenario anyway. The horrific moments generally work, and the comedic moments definitely do. While it is not the best snake-related horror film in terms of scares, it’s definitely one that’s trying hard for the B-movie entertainment that it does provide and takes itself seriously in the best of ways. It’s worth at least one watch and then, if you’ve had it with the snakes, it’s over and done.
- Primeval (2007). One of four crocodile films released in its year, this movie stands somewhere in the middle. A group of mostly well-meaning Americans (are there any other kind?) travel to Burundi to investigate and capture the infamous Gustave, a crocodile that has been benefiting from the chaos of the civil war it was born from. As far as killer crocs go, this is a film that is suspiciously light on the creature for the first half considering that it’s made of CG and the suspense is not being drawn from the creature itself. Instead, this is more of a taut political thriller with a creature feature thrown in. Civil war and genocide are real world horrors and our well-intentioned protagonists are navigating this world the best they can. After all, this is a primal battle for territory: Gustave has claimed the Ruzizi, a warlord claims the nearby land, and even with a ceasefire the tension is still there. The film has a lot to say, but doesn’t always balance it well—and the real horror that spawned Gustave makes good inspiration, true, but those who think they’re in for just a killer croc movie will be in for something else. And, yes, the CG is distracting; there are a couple of good scenes where Gustave shines and is genuinely scary, but otherwise he just looks goofy. Unfortunately, as with sharks, CG has a hard time capturing the essence of crocs. The only character I genuinely cared about was Jojo, which doesn’t say much for the rest of the cast. If you are a fan of animal horror or killer crocs and/or interested in a horror film set in the political climate of Burundi then it’s worth your time, but it’s not a huge loss to skip.
- The Ruins (2008). Ecological horror often falls into two categories: campy as hell or never go outside scary. It’s also a little unusual for eco-horror, which tends to lean into creature features, to look toward plants instead. This has been notably done with Little Shop of Horrors, a musical-comedy, and The Happening, generally regarded as a failure. The Ruins takes many of the familiar tropes of vacation horror and delivers them in an ultimately hopeless package (somehow perfectly indicative of its eco-horror subgenre and, perhaps, climate change). Six tourists hike to an abandoned Mayan ruin in Mexico while on vacation, and become trapped between villagers and a mysterious plant. What really sells this premise are the performances from the cast, especially Joe Anderson and Laura Ramsey, and the use of practical effects versus special. The decision to keep the people on top of the ruins, often in broad daylight, rather than having them explore the temple below feels like a wise one. Most of the especially visceral scenes take place with clear sight lines and are wonderfully brutal and, by the end, there’s a real sense of human tragedy in many of these decisions. While I’m not overly fond of the two main protagonists or interested in their relationship (additional characters are where it’s at), there’s enough balance in the plot that it doesn’t focus on them long enough for me to care. The plants are appropriately normal, with just the right touch of sinister when needed, and you can tell a lot of thought was put into their design and purpose. Overall, this is a slick and nasty film that’ll grow on you, if it hasn’t already.
- Zombieland (2009). Before The Walking Dead and various other films slowed the zombie subgenre for good, this post-apocalyptic comedy did its best to bring some laughs to what was mostly a serious and, even then, overly done trope. It details a band of four survivors who travel across the Southwestern United States in search of a zombie-free paradise, and the ‘rules’ of how to survive in this new world where the dead roam. But it also shows the simple things that still define humanity when there really aren’t humans anymore. The cast is A-plus, creating a family ensemble, and there’s such an easy banter between them. Jesse Eisenberg, as our protagonist, is his usual awkward self and I do miss his horror days. Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin, and Emma Stone build the cast and add extra layers to what kind of people one might find in the zombie apocalypse. There’s an emotional flashback later in the film that hits hard, hidden beneath comedy, layered in characterization. The gore works well, proving this isn’t a “clean” comedy; when you see a creepy clown zombie you feel disgusted and a little bit scared, as you should. Most of the jokes land well, and there’s an amazing cameo. The journey through the different settings is great, and the climax is great and hits the character development in all the right ways. The editing and effects deserve a shout-out because this film has a particular look that works in all the right ways. Luckily, after a long wait, the characters and zombies are rising from the grave for a sequel coming out this month. If you haven’t had a chance to see the first film, now’s a good time to sit back and enjoy the little things.
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.
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