Friday Fright Fest 2020: The Experiment

Horror movies have been around since the creation of film.

They often lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly went 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.

In previous OcTerrors, I encapsulated the period from 1996 (Scream) to 2004 (Saw) as a singular era, and the movies in between 2004 and the beginning of our Renaissance as another era—The Experiment and The Resurgence. However, as with generations of humans, it hardly seems accurate to have two small eras next to three larger ones. So, in the interest of accuracy and better accreditation to the horror genre, I’m blending these two time periods into one. From now on The Experiment refers to the movies that came out between 1996 and 2010.

This time period then becomes categorized by a few overall movements we can use to generalize the tone: tongue-in-cheek, self-referential humor; torture porn and spatter gore; more remakes and re-imaginings than ever before; and a few franchises doing their best to join the greats. The latter half of The Experiment redeems the earlier half. When one looks at Rotten Tomatoes “Top 100 Horror Movies” only nine are from these fourteen years, and most of those are from Guillermo del Toro. So, generally, movies from this time weren’t as critically successful, not necessarily as commercially successful as they are now or were previously, and were often hit or miss.

Maybe these films haven’t made a lasting impression on our culture in the same way films before or after them have. But they often tried new things—sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t—and a lot of subgenres were built, exploded, and renewed during this period. The films in this era are a mixed bag of good and bad, for many reasons, but there are definite merits to their inclusion on this list. Here’s ten to start our own experiment.

  1. Wishmaster (1997). One of the few post-Scream franchises to initially carry Wes Craven’s seal of approval, Wishmaster is full of potential but perhaps spends too much of its time appealing to audiences and its predecessors. The plot surrounding an evil djinn who will bring its own kind forth from the beyond upon the granting of the third wish is a great concept, and the way the Djinn twists people’s words, desires, and wishes for its own chaos is a lot of fun. Alexandra, the foil to the Djinn’s plan and holder of the wishes, does an adequate job of standing against him and suffering through the evil. What doesn’t really work is that, most of the time, the film feels like something you’ve already seen, and not in the trope-y way. Since the film was written by someone who also worked on Hellraiser that influence is obvious; there are also touches of Candyman, Nightmare on Elm Street (every villain does not need a quip!), and a few others. This sucks a lot of the originality out of the film and what could be something cooler ends up feeling like everything else with a touch of fantasy and some overdone effects every ten minutes. I’m not angry, just disappointed that a horror movie about a killer Djinn wasn’t allowed to stand on its own and seems like it had to rely on cameos and earlier plots to succeed. Wishmaster did not grant my wish.
  2. Anaconda (1997). I reviewed the sequel to this film in 2017 and, while I still stand by the fact I like Blood Orchid better, it’s fair to say my opinion about the original has changed a little bit since then. A documentary crew in the Amazon rainforest find more than they planned when they encounter the legendary snake, but that’s not the only danger. First, casting—maybe not acting—is interesting here; we have a lot of actors coming off of big projects or at the beginnings of their careers all balled together, and they all do their best to play their character types, although no one has much depth. Jon Voight spends most of the film acting to high hell with an absurd accent and with his face stuck permanently in a sneer. One of the hardest things for me to believe, though, is why no one on this ill-planned pleasure cruise thought to bring a medic or someone with any kind of training to the Amazon. To the film’s credit it takes the overdone hitchhiker plotline and puts it on a boat and then says “why not add giant snake”? The effects actually aren’t as bad as I remembered—bad in a good way—and I actually felt sorry for the anaconda a few times. Some of the best moments come from the cinematography and the way the camera gives us a snake’s eye view. The climax is overdone in action thriller fashion where it seems to go on literally forever, but it’s all in good fun. Overall, Anaconda is the kind of creature feature that might not scare as much as it wants to, but has all the elements that make it just right for guilty pleasure viewing.
  3. Urban Legend (1998). If the title didn’t tell you already this film is about urban legends. Specifically, it’s honed down into a nineties-as-can-be movie about a slasher who kills their victims mimicking popular urban legends on a college campus. It has a few memorable stars—Jared Leto, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid—who populate this story you’ve heard time and time again. It’s also dated as hell in a way that feels almost terrifying on its own (can’t use the phone and internet at the same time, all the cars have manual windows). However, in the same way people keep telling urban legends to each other, something about this movie is familiar yet likeable; the characters are trope-ridden, the plot is fairly predictable, the scares aren’t that new but it’s still enjoyable and thrilling. The additions the film makes to the legends in small or larger ways are welcome, even if it’s only a particular song choice. Rebecca Gayheart is the standout for me in particular for her work in the climax and how it subverted a few of my expectations and the expectations of the genre—especially post-Scream. There’s also a bit of commentary that could be made about the power universities have over their communities and the ways these shape their realities and lawlessness—which, as we know, is its own horror in this day and age. As far as late nineties horror goes, Urban Legend is a strangely comforting scare, like sitting around a campfire swapping stories with your friends.
  4. What Lies Beneath (2000). At this point in our culture, you’d assume any near sane person who experienced weird shit happening in their new house would automatically assume it was haunted. Apparently we still have this weird stigma about being crazy and not even entertaining the idea of real ghosts, who knew? Robert Zemeckis’ film contains multitudes of possibilities, which is what makes it thrilling at first, but by about halfway through the rush has died off a bit and the urge to get to the real plot feels more prominent. The most basic (this movie is weirdly complicated) summary is that Claire believes her new home is haunted and she’s determined to figure out why and by whom; her workaholic husband, Norman, disagrees and thinks she’s losing her mind. A large chunk of the beginning is devoted to a red herring which really could have been cut down or cut entirely in order to build the later plot. Due to this switch, the film almost feels like two movies; I’m of the group that actually prefers the high drama second half because it’s true to my perceptions of academia, it’s a bit less done than the first half, and the initial climax delivers on suspense and more (all from a bathtub!). Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford do predictably great work as the leads; these are actors who are fairly capable of saying more with a glance and their body language than others. The film feels overly long from a writing perspective—why is all of it necessary?—and it sets up some expectations that aren’t paid off. As far as films in the haunting subgenre go, this one is fairly standard; we have a decent sense of suspense, good realistic reactions from Pfeiffer, but everything is fairly predictable for the genre and the movie is more interested in its own mysteries than too many scares. If you’re looking to soak in some early 00s atmosphere then What Lies Beneath will entertain at the very least.
  5. Ginger Snaps (2000). Although its production history was troubled by the cultural context surrounding the world at the time, Ginger Snaps created a further dialogue about ‘troubled teens preoccupied with death’ than just what the evening news would have you believe. Ginger and Brigitte, trapped in suburbia, do their best to survive through black humor as the outcasts of their school; this changes after Ginger not only gets her first period but is attacked by a wild maybe-not-a-dog. Now, it’s up to Brigitte to save her sister, and the neighborhood. Stories that focus on the relationships between girls when they’re interrupted by teen angst and the supernatural are some of my favorites (Jennifer’s Body) and this is no exception. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle work well together as the Fitzgerald sisters; initially, two against the world and then turning against each other. Additional kudos to Mimi Rogers for playing one of the most supportive non-murdering mamas in horror. Ginger’s transformation emotionally and physically throughout the film is captured so well by Isabelle and through the use of effects. The horror—abandonment, death, conformity/loss of identity—plays so well here in the mix with the werewolf genre. It takes much of what’s worked in earlier, male-focused films and heightens with it with the ongoing idea of “becoming a woman.” Ginger Snaps is not only a must-see in its particular subgenre but a welcome addition to horror as a whole for its take on sisters, womanhood, and teen angst.
  6. Session 9 (2001). I bet you need two hands for the amount of horror movies where the main character is a writer or a student. Those seem to be the two most popular ‘jobs’ that lead to dangerous situations. Session 9, on the other hand, points out that you don’t need to be a businessman like Patrick Bates or a writer like Jack Torrance to encounter scary things. You can be an everyday family man who gets rid of asbestos for a living. Gordon and his crew of four men win a bid to clean an abandoned psychiatric hospital. However, the hospital and some of its patients have a bit of an unsavory history; a series of taped sessions are discovered and the job begins to unravel. There’s a lot to enjoy about this film and I don’t want to give away too much because of the way it twists. First, it was filmed at the now demolished Danvers State Mental Hospital, and that automatically adds authenticity and a general sense of unease to so many of the scenes without needing to do much. The way they shot many of the rooms feels uncomfortable, particularly long hallways or dark places. Second, the performances from the cast are fairly realistic and properly downplayed; they genuinely seem like coworkers with their own lives and dramas. Third, the sound design often adds to moments of discord or unease in great ways. That said, this is one of those plots that does hinge on people doing stupid things and making stupid decisions—which leads to the bad things, obviously—but, at the same time, it makes you want to shake characters. I do admire in this post-90s period a film taking the risk this one does and it works with some of the predictability and plays with audiences’ minds as well. Perhaps by the end you’ll feel like you need a session and want to check in for a stay too, but it’s one I recommend nonetheless.
  7. Resident Evil (2002). This film spawned a franchise of six films and is one of the most successful video game adaptations. It, in many ways, reinvigorated the zombie subgenre long before The Walking Dead would do so once again. Alice, a woman suffering from amnesia, wakes up in an underground facility for the Umbrella Corporation and, with a group of commandos, works to contain the outbreak of the T-virus. While this is a loose adaptation of the first and second game in that franchise, it does well enough as a film that most people who have not played the games can come in and understand what’s going on, the characters, and the stakes. It also helps that the main character has amnesia so we’re learning stuff at the same time she is. Milla Jovovich balances the role of Alice well: badass one second and vulnerable the next. Michelle Rodriguez delivers a notable performance as one of commandos, but the rest of them fade a bit into the background. The zombies themselves are a different, yet familiar, kind of threatening as we’re introduced to a mix of scientific beginnings and horrific costs. The introduction of the Umbrella Corporation goes pretty well and this film sets up the ongoing Alice vs the Man crux of the franchise. The effects, particularly in the laser scene, work well to help build the action, suspense, and horror.  While the writing and exposition can be clunky at times, we’re really here to watch some people kill some zombies and not much else. The use of a contained setting works in the film’s favor as opposed to some of its sequels which are of a much grander scale, and, in this way, each new floor and level develops the horror. Get infected and discover what spawned a fourteen year film franchise.
  8. 1408 (2007). Based on the short story by Stephen King, this film details the mother of all hauntings. Let’s face it—houses, hotels, cabins, etc.—have been done to death. What makes 1408 unique is it focuses solely on a singular room and gives it such unholy power that it does deliver on the scares. Mike Enslin is an author who writes about haunted locations and when he’s invited to the titular room at the Dolphin Hotel he can’t resist the temptation to see whether its history of horrors is justified. Even after the manager warns him no one has lasted more than an hour in the room, he’s determined, but will he survive? First the production design did a good job on the room—it doesn’t look evil. In fact, it looks like almost every other hotel room you’d see (maybe a little dated, not quite posh for 2007, but standard). As its appearance changes and the events play out its activity becomes a great point of conflict. John Cusack pretty much carries the film and, as in a lot of King-based films, the character’s deteriorating state of mind is captured really well. This is at once a paranormal film and, at the same time, a psychological horror film because it plays on both Enslin’s mind and the audiences’. This is definitely a film worth checking into—although it may be difficult to leave once you’ve begun.
  9. Zodiac (2007). Horror comes in all shapes and sizes, and made for all kinds of temperaments. While The Silence of the Lambs and Seven definitely have more horrific elements to them, I’m happy to qualify David Fincher’s 157 minute thriller about the hunt for the Zodiac Killer as a member of the OcTerror family. A lot of that comes down to mindset: imagine you live in California during the 70s, the news is plastered with coverage about a mysterious killer who the police cannot catch, you’re worried… “Period Horror”, like The Witch, can evoke similar feelings of terror as when the scares were contemporary. While this film covers the investigation more so than the killings—which are featured in decent detail—it’s the ongoing obsession over who is committing these crimes and taunting the public that heightens the suspense. In many ways our current culture still does this; think of all the podcasts covering serial killers, murderers, or the obsession over the Golden State Killer and Unsolved Mysteries. This is a question inspector Dave Toschi, played wonderfully by Mark Ruffalo, asks Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal—why is a cartoonist the person who will solve this case? Over the years of the investigation, the obsession consumes various people revolving around the Zodiac Killer and, in the same way, the obsession with serial killers and crimes has consumed our current culture to an almost unhealthy level. Outside of the thematic and critical, the performances are outstanding and the film unspools with careful attention to the pace of an actual investigation. There’s a wonderfully tense scene in a basement that had my heart racing, and the suspense throughout was taut—even if I knew what would happen. It’s a film with an environment of terror hanging overhead, even as life moves on, and if that doesn’t sum up a million other things today I don’t know what does.
  10. Dread (2009). Along with Jennifer’s Body and Sorority Row, this film is part of the threesome that introduced me to more adult horror (especially beyond vampires) and got me hooked on them sweet, sweet scares. Initially I remember choosing it because it stars Jackson Rathbone and the plot revolves around “dread”—those traumatic kind of fears, which I am all too familiar with. What I found was a film that has stuck with me long past the first viewing. Three college students begin a project focusing on the titular emotion—where does an individual’s fear come from? what makes it unique?—but one of them is more invested in the outcome of the study than the other two. As far as naturalistic acting goes in horror, the cast does a great job across the board of treating this as a real scenario; Rathbone, Shaun Evans, and Hanne Steen are great as conductors of this study carrying their own traumas. Dread has one of the better psychological torture scenes outside of the Saw franchise, and a haunting bathtub scene as well. While it’s a bit uneven in other aspects and could use some development here and there, it works well enough focusing on the bare minimum. The climax is one of my favorites as it builds and shocks in equal turns. I’ve used this film as a tester with dates to see how they react with horror because it has a lot of what I like in appetizer-size bites: gore, psychological terror, suspense, sex, ethical conundrums, and an ending that makes you ponder. This isn’t exactly one of those ‘cathartic’ horror films, but it is one that will fill you will a sense of dread for most of its run. Dread is an underrated, entertaining flick that lingers like trauma.

Horror’s experimental period was just the warm-up to the more successful projects that would emerge later during the Renaissance. Torture porn and re-imaginings were on every screen, but there were still original movies spread throughout. Filmmakers 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 movies. The experiment was about trying new things, making jokes about tropes, and bringing horror back to life, but what followed would take it to the next level.