Friday Fright Fest 2021: 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 The Experiment (or “The Decline” one year), and the movies in between 2004 and 2010 as The Resurgence. As of 2020, however, these two time periods have been blended into one. From now on The Experiment refers to the movies that came out between 1996 and 2010. Overall, they’re all affected by the same influences, enmeshed with the culture of the new millennium, and share a lot of similar techniques in filmmaking and editing.

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. When one looks at Rotten Tomatoes “Top 100 Horror Movies” only seven are from these fourteen years. So, generally, movies from this era 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.

Ringu (1998). Did I watch every film in the American franchise (some multiple times) before ever getting around to seeing the original Japanese horror that spawned them all? Yes. Do I regret that? Maybe a little. Based on Koji Suzuki’s novel and directed by Hideo Nakata, it follows Reiko Asakawa, a reporter investigating an urban legend about a mysterious videotape that causes whoever sees it to die seven days later. When her niece falls victim to this curse and she too becomes trapped, it’s up to Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryūji, to figure out how to survive. Look, we all know this is the film that not only jump-started the J-horror obsession but also would bring the later remakes to the field. Part of that is in how it was adapted, sure, but a lot of it is in how good the original was in its bones. The concept of a haunted videotape is gold and Sadako is a compelling villain. The footage shown on the videotape here is different as the backstory is more culturally relevant to Japan and unique to a certain psychic element that isn’t really present in the American version. This also doesn’t rely on CGI elements and most of the scares are practical. Sadako (Rie Inō) has a unique physicality that is unnerving at least and scary at worst, even just standing. While some elements were balanced differently in the original than in the adaptation (the family dynamics, the mystery of the tape and its reveal), the pacing and focus on how Reiko and Ryūji are going to solve this make it compelling in its own way. I also think the initial lead-in to the main action builds the consequences nicely and seems to have higher stakes. This is a classic of the horror genre for a reason and, if you haven’t already, sit down and watch 1998’s Ring—it won’t kill you.

Thirteen Ghosts (2001). Part of the so-bad-it-might-be-good period of The Experiment where classic horror films were being remade every year, this addition updates William Castle’s 1960 film 13 Ghosts—for better or worse. Arthur Kriticos, his children, and their nanny are happy to explore their newly inherited mansion, but as the tour goes on it becomes clear they’re not alone and Arthur’s mysterious uncle may have had other plans with his inheritance. Everything about this film screams early 2000s—the casting, the editing, the writing, the balance between thrills and chills. Is it genuinely good? Most would say no. Would I argue that it’s a guilty pleasure? Absolutely. The character designs, particularly for the ghosts, make this feel like a trip through a haunted house of the best kind. The design and production of the house itself—the glass walls inscribed with Latin, their movements—is easily a highlight of the film. Sure, the quick edits (which would become popularized with Saw) are a bit overdone and some of the sound editing subtracts rather than adds to scenes. That said, the film does what it sets out to do in creating a ‘modern’ version of 13 Ghosts, updating the effects, upping the violence, and meshing with the times, but—also—holding true to some classic camp and horror. Matthew Lillard delivers a delightful performance as a psychic who sets out to help the family; if you’re a fan of his work in Scream or Scooby-Doo then this is right in that alley. Additionally, Rah Digga, while serving as the primary comedic relief of the film, also does her best to create a great character in Maggie and the role is still a noteworthy one in horror. Many of the moments in the film are quintessential 2000s horror—to the point of tropes—but we can set that aside in favor of a little fun. Overall, this is a film that isn’t made to be taken seriously, to keep you up at night, or to give you nightmares. This is a film that does, however, entertain and question what it means to be alive.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Guillermo del Toro has a gift for balancing films that encompass tragedy, history, and the supernatural. It is true of his later films like The Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth, and you’ll find that it’s also true of The Devil’s Backbone. Here, Carlos, an orphan, is brought to a small home run by a pair of Republican loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. What he finds are other boys in similar situations, the mystery of “the one who sighs”, an undetonated bomb in the yard, and trouble brewing. From the opening monologue asking “What is a ghost?”, del Toro sets out (in a similar fashion to Mike Flanagan’s later Haunting of Hill House) to explore the ways in which people and places can be haunted. We don’t have to wait in suspense for long before encountering our main spirit, the ghost of a boy who died at the same time the bomb arrived. The on-screen ghost depiction is so eerie and is reminiscent of later effects used in del Toro’s Crimson Peak where blood floats, bodies are translucent, and a spirit feels both corporeal and not. Despite the supernatural, much of the weight of the plot is taken up by the war as well as a romantic subplot. While this initially feels like it distracts from the “main” plot, what it may be doing is helping us to buy into this world and its heightened emotional stakes, especially as the climax hits. Although these various plotlines and characters seem as if they wouldn’t quite come together as well as they do, it all works for the best in the end and creates a harmony that feels necessary. Fernando Tielve’s debut in the lead role of Carlos is fairly well-balanced and convincing as a boy who is caught up in a place he never planned to be, wanting to belong, and naturally curious. I’m also in love with the color palette of the film, its bleakness and the clear blue distance of the sky and mountains. Against that sepia tone, the blood and fire becomes all the more harsh. If you enjoy Gothic horror, particularly that which is more quiet and unsettling than outright ‘scary’, then set your eyes upon The Devil’s Backbone.

May (2002). While one might assume the initial gimmick of Lucky McKee’s cult classic is the super creepy doll, many viewers come to find a poignant yet eerie portrayal of loneliness in the titular character of May—someone who we can both sympathize for and be afraid of. Due to a lazy eye and her closest friend being a doll in a box, May (Angela Bettis) is more awkward than most. Her attempts at forming connections with people become more desperate, because even as her life seems to improve she can’t seem to let go of what makes her ‘weird.’ For at least half of the film, the tone seems more in line with a quirky yet creepy rom-com or coming of age indie movie until it decidedly starts to move toward psychological horror. Even as May becomes more confident in her body and less shy, this is still a character that has spent most of her formative years alone and doesn’t know how to interact with people. The supporting cast, especially Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris, play off of Bettis wonderfully. The film does give some LGBT+ representation through more than one character (way ahead of its time there), but is also of its time in other ways. The horror leans more toward psychological, even as there is some mild gore and violence (mostly off-screen or using creative editing), but it all builds to a great climax and a last shot that is—in some ways—the creepy culmination of the entire film. And, yes, the doll is and isn’t a red herring but it is still disturbing and a reminder of why you should never trust anyone who collects dolls. Overall, May is a hidden gem of the genre and perfect for anyone looking for a friend.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). To be honest, I don’t think American horror films have nailed down the tonal balance between suspense, horror, and tragedy in the same way foreign markets have. Perhaps, in some ways, it’s the age of our culture or our preference in pacing. Whatever the case, Kim Jee-woon’s psychological drama winds, weaves, and twists through so many emotions that, by the end, the grief and guilt weigh heavy. Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), recently released from a mental hospital, returns home to her beloved sister, Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), her overbearing stepmother, Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah), and distant father. However, relationships between the family soon tense as Eun-joo returns to her horrible treatment of the girls, particularly Su-yeon. Layered in further plots, what is at first glance a familiar and twisted story becomes further so the more we watch and learn what happened one fateful day. What I most admire about the early stages of the film is the way it pits sympathy for the girls vs their stepmother until you’re not sure who is in the right or wrong. This mental instability only continues to build—sometimes perhaps a bit too hard to follow—but, by the end, most is clear. The relationship between the sisters is one that carries the film through its bleakness and makes the ending all the more hard-hitting. The production design, particularly the set design, is lovely; I’ve rarely seen such effective and vivid use of wallpaper and color design in horror. Yum Jung-ah’s performance as Eun-joo is amazing; the physicality of the character from her introduction to the very end makes her someone who seems unlikeable, standoffish, intimidating, and—yet—someone who is vulnerable too. While one of the twists does end up playing into an overplayed trope, it is handled deftly enough and the overall tone of the film doesn’t play it for entertainment’s sake. This is also a layered horror film in a “why not both?” way and I think it overall works. Also kudos for making wardrobes scary. If you’re looking for something with more than a few twists of the mind and heart then A Tale of Two Sisters may be right for you.

Silent Hill (2006). Video game adaptations, horror or not, are tough. Not only is there complex world-building, character development and backstories, but—let’s be honest—a lot of plots revolve around exploration or are moderately thin compared to films. So many adaptations only loosely use their games as ‘inspirations’ and jump from there. Silent Hill, as a semi-adaptation of three of the games in the franchise, luckily, feels like a video game in some of the best and worst ways. Much of the plot follows Rose as she searches through various locations in Silent Hill for her daughter, Sharon, and uncovers the truth about the mysterious and twisted town. The development of this unique setting, bends in reality, and visuals (especially with the creatures) are great. Of particular note are the armless creatures, Pyramid Head, and the nurses; I’m in awe every time of their unique and creepy movements. The atmosphere of Silent Hill feels wonderfully liminal, and I love the peeling effects as the town goes ‘dark.’ While not all of the effects have held up over time, most of them haven’t aged badly and could be compared to old graphics on most games at the time. However, much of the dialogue feels stilted and—like a video game—the plot involves running from location to location with ‘little’ pay-off. The climax is particularly demented with some sweet revenge, and plenty of moments throughout will satisfy those who enjoy a bit of violence. The score by Akira Yamaoka, as it’s the same from the game, is top notch and feels perfect for a foggy day. While we can always wonder what the original version without Sean Bean might have been if producers hadn’t been afraid of an all-female storyline, the dual narrative is satisfying enough even if we keep wanting to return to the Silent Hill parts. However, its insistence upon itself leads to a moderately unsatisfactory ending. Overall, Silent Hill is a movie I can watch again and again, because I’ll always feel welcome to return to this ring of hellfire.

30 Days of Night (2007). You can’t argue with the basic horror aesthetic of a dark night, white snow, and fresh red blood. This film has that in spades. Barrow, Alaska enters its polar night—a month-long period of darkness—and finds that new dangers are lurking in the dark this year as their communications and ways of escape have been sabotaged. At its heart, 30 Days of Night is about the kind of people that live in this kind of landscape naturally and what it takes to survive there without an outside supernatural threat stepping in, but it’s also about protecting and defining family, insiders, and outsiders. Josh Hartnett plays Eben, the town sheriff, and Melissa George is Stella, his complicated ex and a fire marshal for the state. Obviously, there’s a subplot about their relationship and some resolution there, and it’s threaded throughout fine but it does feel forced and like a plot we’ve seen a thousand times before. The supporting cast of survivors is mostly in the background, but there are some nice performances from Mark Rendall and Mark Boone Junior. Most of the vampires are just there to look threatening, but Danny Huston stands out as their leader. The designs for the monsters are, in some ways, old-fashioned and, in other ways, refreshingly different. Never for a second do they look human, and it’s this distinction that helps ground viewers in the townsfolks’ fears as they encounter this unknown. The violence and gore seems like a good balance for the subject matter—hitting hard and downplayed for chilling effect when it needs to be in equal turns. The score has some good tracks, but is a bit unbalanced in terms of matching the action on screen. It often jumps from quiet contemplation to loud action at the drop of a pin, and this doesn’t always work. That said, overall, this film is a wonderful addition to the vampire subgenre, a great example of putting the setting of a film to horrific work, and has some nice performances to help pull off the idea.

Lake Mungo (2008). I’d heard about this film but hesitated in watching it because of A) my vulnerability to good found footage films and B) how scary people said it would be. I still decided to watch it anyway. I slept with extra lights on. This Australian mockumentary tells the story of the Palmer family as they grieve the loss of their 16-year-old daughter and discover she may not be gone. From the first five minutes, I was sold on the cinematography and editing of this film because it looks exactly like what an episode of 20/20 would if it was covering the same subject. You have the old footage from the day Alice Palmer drowns, family photos (with accurate zoom-ins), interviews, walk throughs of various scenes and places, etc. The uncanny copy of this particular genre is what makes the film, then, seem so realistic as it follows the Palmer family and Alice’s death. This seems like exactly the kind of thing that could have aired on TV in the late-2000s, but then twists more than a few times as we unlock not only a few family secrets but Alice’s as well. A lot of films in the Renaissance deal with grief (Hereditary, The Babadook) but we see a precursor here as the Palmer family, in their individual ways, process Alice being gone and we, the audience, are forced to do the same. We’re given that same question—is she still with us?—and then twisted and turned and shocked and left to grieve. The found footage aspects of the film work well against the cleaner interview footage—kind of like when we’re meant to be scared by the alien in Signs—because it’s the unseen or the foreseen that the film cleanly shows us that horrifies most. As far as found footage goes, this is one of my favorites. You’ll have to watch and find out for yourself just what happened to Alice Palmer.

The Loved Ones (2009). Kasey Chamber’s “Not Pretty Enough” was easily one of my teenage anthems. Imagine my surprise, then, to find out it’s also antagonist Lola’s theme in this twisted film about the violent consequences of turning down an invitation to a dance. Grieving the loss of his father, Brent (Xavier Samuel) copes with self-harm, his girlfriend Holly, and doing his best to survive. Those needs are all amped up to eleven when he’s kidnapped by Lola (Robin McLeavy) and her father (John Brumpton) where he’s harassed and tortured. What I love about this film is that, unlike its cousin Wolf Creek, it doesn’t solely focus on the violence. Instead, we also see the fallout from this as Brent’s family and friends worry about his disappearance and as life, in intentional and unintentional ways, moves along. The pacing of the film is cut tight over close to a single day and night and moves quickly. While some of the subplots feel less than necessary, they end up adding into director Sean Byrne’s world. Robin McLeavy’s performance as Lola is outstanding, just the right amount of unhinged, sympathetic, funny, and awesome. While she’s not someone you would feel comfortable sitting down to dinner with, Lola is a character you can’t help but relate to on some level; we all want to belong and find our people/prince. The relationship between Lola and her father as it’s revealed through the film is a delight. It is at once glance quirky and dark, and then completely unsound. Samuel’s performance is likewise captivating as he spends much of it without speech and manages to convey so much emotion through his expressions. I admire how the film shoots its violence as much of it is imagined by the audience and captured through sound and imagined effect rather than full-on shown. As far as films of the more violent persuasion go, this is one I wouldn’t mind watching again and again because it doesn’t feel gratuitous. If you need a date then why not invite Lola onto your screen?

Orphan (2009). Subgenres in horror come and go and—for a time in the 2000s—the creepy orphan child subgenre made a decent comeback. As with any return, we needed some fresh blood and twists on the classic tropes and Orphan delivered. By the time I watched the film, I’d long known the spoiler but, even still, I was sucked in and charmed. A grieving family with a difficult past adopts the mysterious but well-behaved Esther, but trouble seems to follow her wherever she goes. If you enjoy Vera Farmiga’s performance in The Conjuring films then it’s no surprise she’s amazing here as Kate, a mother doing her best after a recent stillborn birth and past alcoholism. Isabelle Fuhrman does masterful work as Esther, one of the best young performances in horror and a memorable villain besides, and the layers to the character give it extra flair. Even going in knowing the twist, I found that the script foreshadowed well and the writing made everything all the more believable in some ways. The atmosphere overall has hints of those classic creepy orphan Gothics but with a bit of slasher fun. If you enjoy the tropes and tricks, they’ll be there but seeing them in a more modern setting makes it feel fresh and newer. While the climax felt a little predictable and action-heavy compared to the rest of the film, it was still entertaining and satisfied. Additionally, the opening sequence does not hold its punches and is viscerally horrifying on more than a few levels. This film takes almost every parental anxiety you can think of and wraps them together with brown velvet. If you’re thinking of adopting a new horror film, why not bring Orphan home today?

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 films spread throughout. Creators sought to recapture the magic of the classics and the heyday with age-old formulas, but they also added to the canon with new, terrifying films and franchises. 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.