Friday Fright Fest 2022: 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 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 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 eight 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.

Friday Fright Fest presents…

Cube (1997). What I found most interesting about this sci-fi horror is how its influence can be felt in other films like Saw or The Cabin in the Woods, but the original seems to have slipped under the mainstream radar. Five strangers wake in a mysterious ‘cube’, and must navigate dangerous traps physical, mental, and emotional to escape. The pacing of this film is agonizingly slow, but that’s by design. In order to avoid the traps and find the exit, the characters must take numerous steps as they move. The traps, compared to the latter gore fest in the early 2000s, do seem tamer but they’re good fun and surprising. We also have our favorite special effect in seeing a person literally cubed. Despite all that, the film is surprisingly philosophical and could be used as an extended metaphor for society, bureaucracy, or religion. The performances are fairly solid, and each person’s ‘designated purpose’ drives the group as a whole together or apart. Whoever decided to name each of the characters after real-life prisons earns some kudos. The cinematography, particularly in the first twenty or so minutes, helps to keep audiences off-kilter and the ongoing claustrophobia of the cubes is emphasized by repetitive design features and playing with different colors. Overall, this movie might give you some existential dread, a fear of squares, and—maybe—a little hope.

The Curve (1998). In the same loose vein as Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend, this thriller—while light on suspense or frights of most kinds—uses an attractive cast, mildly intriguing plot, and a few fun twists to play on a popular legend. Two roommates, Tim (Matthew Lillard) and Chris (Michael Vartan), decide to test the joke that if their other roommate Rand (Randall Batinkoff) dies by suicide they’ll earn 4.0s for the semester. Unfortunately, this leads to many unforeseen events, uncovers additional sinister plots, and proves that college students (especially those trying to get into Harvard for grad school) really are the worst. As far as late 90s horror goes, this one is mostly forgettable even as it adheres closely to the standard formula of the time. What makes it most redemptive is Lillard’s performance; he eats every moment of screen time in a character vaguely reminiscent of his earlier turn in Scream with just a touch of Funny Games-esque psychopathy. Where the film—as far as horror—shines is perhaps in the moral and ethical questions and twists it takes. How far would you go for perfect grades and a chance to ensure your future? What (or who) would you sacrifice? The score is a bit distracting and doesn’t always mesh well and a lot of the pacing or action feels repetitive or too slow for little pay off. It captures the anxiety of achievement well and I’d be interested in what a 2020s update would look like, but, other than that, this isn’t quite a hidden gem.

Dumplings (2004). Last year, I reviewed Three…Extremes which features a more condensed version of Fruit Chan’s tale of cannibalism. Expanded from forty minutes to ninety, the basic story is much the same: Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung), an aging actress, seeks the help of Mei (Bai Ling), an ageless chef, to restore her beauty so her husband will stop having an affair. Unfortunately, the secret ingredient in Mei’s infamous dumplings comes at a high cost. This is not a film for the faint of heart; if you are particularly affected by food horror, haute couture cannibalism, or anything related to abortion, this may not be for you. However, Fruit Chan seems to find beauty in this kind of hunger. The film adds more detail about Mr. Li and his affair to further push the motivations of Mrs. Li, and then twisting them. As with many other horror films, Dumplings pulls its inspiration from the sociopolitical culture of China and Hong Kong, and makes an intriguing commentary on the one-child policy and immigration. With strong performances and a horrifyingly original concept, this film will take away your appetite.

The Village (2004). Look, for all we tease M. Night Shyamalan and his twists, the man knows how to tell a good story. In his sixth feature (and last before his career dip), Shyamalan chose to depict some good old-fashioned folklore and historical creepiness—with a romantic heart at its center. In the village of Covington, citizens live their day to day lives with a sense of purpose and neighborly cheer. They also live in fear of Those We Don’t Speak Of, monsters who roam the bordering woods and prevent anyone from leaving. Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a blind girl, sets out on a quest for medicines from the town to save the man she loves. I did know both twists prior to actually watching the film, but that didn’t hurt it too much. The atmosphere, cinematography by Roger Deakins, stellar cast, and score all padded the faults I did find. Similar to other works by Shyamalan, the writing and dialogue often felt stilted (even with fake old-timey language) and the plot twists create more plot holes than they should. That said, I was amazed at how many great actors played parts in this and made those lines a little bit better. Adrian Brody plays a character with a developmental disorder, and—while it does add tragedy to later scenes—this largely felt like a portrayal that wasn’t needed for how the character moves within the plot. This contrasts with Ivy’s disability where her blindness is necessary to aspects of the plot. The film reminds me of similar late 90s/early 00s films where the atmosphere creates a world that feels almost tangible. I’m split on the final plot twist because, yes it’s fun, but the number of questions it raises instead of answering is tiring. Some of the scenes have pacing issues and go on for a little longer than they should but, as with all slow burns, you get there eventually. Overall, this was more entertaining than I thought it’d be and I will be visiting The Village again.

Turistas (2006). If Hostel set out to make Americans fear Eastern Europe, then this film, shot entirely on location, tried to do a lite version with Brazil. After a bus accident, a group of “gringo” backpackers find themselves stranded after a night of partying with the locals. Not everything is as it seems, and the situation devolves the more they try to find ways out. This definitely fits into the post 9/11 xenophobia torture-porn subgenre, but it’s not too heavy on most of them. It could almost serve as an introduction to the genre if it were of better quality in any of the areas. While some of the situations it depicts featuring its hapless tourists are moderately real, the combination therein is dramatized for effect before being taken to horrifying levels for the plot. The performances aren’t really selling it either, and every character feels like a checkbox for the “vacation horror” party pack. They’re likeable enough, though, and if you’re guessing a tropical film finds every excuse to undress an attractive cast you’d be right. Despite that, the setting and scenery are lush and add a natural claustrophobia to many situations, the underwater scenes are awesome (including a climax that goes on for perhaps too long, but definitely makes you aware of every breath you’re enjoying), and the one definite moment of gore is enjoyable enough. Miguel Lunardi delivers a short but entertaining performance with an expository monologue. My last complaint about the film is the opening—which contains one of my least favorite tricks/tropes in film. Overall, you don’t need to book a vacation to see this movie today.

Black Water (2007). Like sharks, horror films have a hard time portraying realistic crocodiles. That uncanny valley and often aged special effects tends to work against these films. Black Water, however, may be one of the few exceptions. Three tourists are attacked by a crocodile while on an isolated boat tour in Northern Australia. Their options for rescue are limited, and the attacker hasn’t left the water. Diana Glenn, Maeve Dermody, and Andy Rodoreda make a great ensemble, and the tensions and love between them build our hopes that they’ll survive. This film is notable, for me, because it made me absolutely hate the sight of mangrove trees. It’s admirable for something outdoors to be made claustrophobic, but it absolutely works here. Similar to Jaws, most of the suspense is built off of the worry that the crocodile could be anywhere and we wouldn’t even know. The movie, however, chooses to use real footage of saltwater crocodiles and CGI that against the actors. Most of the scenes are better for this, and the feeling of being hunted rarely lets off. The ending, like many nature horror films, is bleak, but it’s one that feels earned by the film itself. “Based on a true story” never felt so true and so terrifying.

The Mist (2007). Adapted from Stephen King’s novella of the same name, this monster movie seems all too possible after 2020. After a thunderstorm, the community of Bridgton, Maine is trapped in the supermarket when a mysterious mist rolls into town. The longer they’re trapped with dangers lurking outside, the higher the tension grows inside. Thomas Jane and Marcia Gay Harden deliver outstanding performances as a caring father and a religious fanatic; both are determined to survive but have different methods of doing so. The creature design on the various mist-beasts is perfect, and they make the decision to stay or go all the more difficult. The suspense of what lurks and when it will attack builds with every horrifying reveal. The ending is different from the novella, but holds its place as one of the most memorable and terrible in horror history. The supermarket is a great setting and well-utilized. The various characters and their reactions to the mist give this a sense of realism. We know all too well now that even a small community of people will never agree on how to deal with a disaster. King’s work, while frequently adapted, can be a bit hit or miss but this one is definitely a hit. If you haven’t already, spend a night with The Mist and pray you’ll come out the other side.

Eden Lake (2008). This is one of those rare indie films I had spoiled beforehand and, yet, I was still shocked in the actual watch of it. I wonder what it would be like to go in completely blind. Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) take a weekend vacation to a remote quarry that’s about to become a housing development. Unfortunately, they’re terrorized by a pack of local teenagers set on ruining their lives. It’s rare when realistic horror (versus supernatural or something apocalyptic) makes literal teenagers on BMX bikes some of the worst villains in horror, but it’s also refreshing because of that. If you have any remembrance of what it was like to be that age (peer pressure, crushes, awkwardness, etc.) then so much of that dynamic will ring true even as it seems so wild. Reilly and Fassbender establish a natural chemistry early in the film which makes it easy to root and hope for them when things begin to devolve. Jenny really gets put through the mud and the muck, so Reilly put her all into this and it shows. However, this is very much a plot that’s built on a lot of stupid decisions and BIG RED FLAGS and masculine posturing so it’s frustrating in equal turns. The violence is taut, suspenseful, and agonizing. The setting really becomes its own character as well, and what is shown of the town and its people (and adults) could be talked about more. A lot of foreshadowing and small details build up to the climax and then the twist ending which will burn itself into your mind. If you’re a bit cold this October, then maybe pop on down and see Eden Lake this weekend.

Splinter (2008). What is it about one location horror that makes it so effective? Sure, it’s budget friendly, but are we inherently terrified of being trapped by something Other? Director Toby Wilkins seems to think so. After being kidnapped by a drug-addict and an escaped convict, Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner) discover there’s something more terrifying circling a nearby gas station. My favorite part of this film is how the characters’ dynamics change based on the plot—enemies become allies then friends. The special effects in this film are gnarly, and it has one of the best monster designs I’ve seen since The Ritual. In many ways, this takes the body horror of infection and parasitism and amplifies it. Every new discovery about the parasite and its splinter-like appearance balances a knife-edge of curiosity and oh-hell-no. At times, the lighting works more against the film than for it, and even the suggestion of the creature’s unnatural appearance as it grows is creepy but I wanted a little bit more. The gas station as a setting is both practical and allows for some creativity in how things are handled. This film doesn’t run for long, but every minute is full of thrills, chills, and lots of blood spilled.

The House of the Devil (2009). With the success of Ti West’s X and Pearl this year, I wanted to visit one of his earlier cult hits. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student in need of money, accepts a mysterious ‘babysitting’ job on the night of a lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, the house isn’t the only thing making noise. What interests me is how many of the comments I made about The Innkeepers could also apply here. The pacing is incredibly slow until the climax, and even slow teases that something is wrong don’t necessarily amplify anything other than the suspense. The climax, at first, is a confusing tonal difference that is a bit predictable but delivers in a lot of different ways. West, again, pays homage to the slasher and occult features of the 80s in a film that almost appears to be taken straight from that time. Donahue captures the innocence yet growing independence of Samantha, and Tim Noonan is unsettling yet charming as Mr. Ulman. I can see why some audience members are terrified of this film. It has an eerie way of capturing how an unfamiliar place can heighten all your anxieties, and every noise could be something dangerous. Maybe not all of the plot points are connected as obviously or smoothly as they could be and the pacing does drag on a bit, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

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.