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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 1

By Andreas

It’s list-making time again! The alliteration-loving Marvin the Macabre over at The Montana Mancave Massacre has challenged horror bloggers to name their top 10 horror movies of the past 10 years. So of course, we had to do it. (I came up with a similar list of 20 horror faves from all time periods back in October.) You can expect Ashley’s top 10 sometime soon; in the meantime, here’s mine: ten rewatchable, well-made movies, and the best that recent horror has to offer.

10. Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2010)

I found a lot to dislike in the bioethical child-rearing allegory Splice: it adopts a lot of horror cliches without taking them anywhere; its writing is only clever in spates; and it goes completely off the rails at the end. But it’s got terrific special effects (especially in the creation of its monster, Dren) and when it’s darkly funny, it really the mark. That, plus its icy blue/green color palette and Adrien Brody’s hotness, sneaks it onto my list at #10.

9. Seed of Chucky (Don Mancini, 2004)

So many slasher sequels of the past decade have been formulaic, low-quality retreads. Hence why Seed of Chucky is such a breath of fresh air: it revels in its franchise’s inherent absurdity, piling meta-jokes and gory self-parody on top of its “killer doll on a rampage” premise. Turning the Child’s Play set-up inside out, Hollywood-style, is oodles of fun—as is seeing Jennifer Tilly finally get her equivalent of Being John Malkovich.

8. Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

You can call it “children’s fantasy” all you want; I’m telling you, Coraline is an animated horror movie. The title character’s dream-turned-nightmare constitutes one of the decade’s most imaginative horror landscapes, and there’s no villain quite like the Other Mother, voiced with menacing sweetness by Teri Hatcher. Selick’s fluid stop-motion artistry and Neil Gaiman’s very scary novel turned out to be a match made in horror heaven.

7. Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2009)

No zombie movie of the 2000s (and there were a lot of them) had a twist quite as original as Pontypool‘s: here, the vector of disease isn’t saliva or blood, but words. Set in a claustrophobic radio station off in rural Ontario, the film milks all the terror it can out of talk radio call-ins—bleak audio-only testimonies to the increasingly violent havoc outside. The terror is counterbalanced only by the rough, reliable growl of Stephen McHattie, giving a powerful performance as a hotshot DJ trying to keep cool. Semiotic horror: that’s something you don’t see everyday.


6. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

This Korean monster movie casts off the genre straitjacket from the very beginning, and fearlessly mixes slapstick, tragedy, and anti-imperialist critique to tell the story of one family’s vendetta against a giant fish monster. Strange, stylish, and spectacular, The Host rewrites the rules of kaiju cinema while playing the audience’s heartstrings like a giant killer harp.

5. [REC] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)

Handheld Blair Witch rip-offs are a dime a dozen these days. Literally: they’re cheap to shoot, and often profitable. (See: Paranormal Activity.) But [REC] takes the caught-on-tape aesthetic into new territory, bringing the audience right into the heart of a quarantined zombie outbreak. It’s ceaselessly visceral and inventive, and introduces reporter Angela Vidal, one of my favorite recent final girls. Few movies beat [REC] when it comes to inducing raw, physical fear. (Not even [REC] 2, though it certainly tried.)

4. May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

I’m not shy about my love of May. I did write 1/4 of my senior thesis about it, after all. It’s a quirky, cute, romantic, gruesome, twisted, bloody, perverse indie horror confection, melding Frankenstein and Repulsion with something Zooey Deschanel might star in. It’s the bittersweet tale of an obsessive, attractive misfit and the lengths she goes to for love. It’s really, really good! Essential viewing if you’re interested in horror of the past decade, or any time.

3. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

For many stupid reasons, art films like Caché that debut at Cannes are rarely seen as authentic horror. But it is! It so is, and it’s one of the eeriest, most disturbing horror movies of the 2000s. It only has a single scene of actual gore, but that’s nothing compared to the lingering unease and uncertainty instilled by the rest of the movie. Who sent those tapes and letters, utterly destroying the Laurent family’s bourgeois comfort? It’s a question that persists after countless gratuitous slasher deaths have faded.

2. 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)

Boyle’s vision of post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested England is an elegy to a vanishing way of life (i.e., humanity). A hardy quartet of survivors make an arduous cross-country trek, punctuated both by bursts of violence and rare moments of beauty. In such a ruined world, 28 Days Later asks, can any altruism or compassion bloom? For all its brutality, it’s an unusually tender horror movie, with stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris doing very subtle, striking work. This is the new millennium’s gold standard of what a zombie movie can look like.

1. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

Really, what else could top this list? Not a single misstep mars Alfredson’s note-perfect adaptation of John Lindqvist’s young-love vampire novel. Sweet, delicate, and shockingly violent, Let the Right One In is as cool and crystalline as a snowflake. Oskar and Eli’s bizarre relationship is a refuge for two abused outsiders, two kids just trying to make a go of it in this hard world. It’s a theme we can all relate to and, in Alfredson’s gentle hands, it’s also the most beautiful, unforgettable horror movie of the 21st century.

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Ewan Keeps Me Hanging On

By Andreas

Do you like Lou Reed music? What about Danny Boyle movies? Do you think Ewan McGregor’s incredibly attractive even when he’s playing an emaciated heroin addict? If any of those answers was “yes,” then you should go read my new piece on the song “Perfect Day” and its use in Trainspotting over at The Film Experience. Although I haven’t watched all of Trainspotting in a while, this scene is the one that really, really sticks with me, and “Perfect Day” is a complex song that does a great job of setting the mood and subtly commenting on the action.

Why can’t Boyle pull genius moves like that anymore? 127 Hours had a few scattered scenes that were viscerally powerful or vaguely incisive, but the film as a whole got lost in its own optimism. In a short Oscars piece I wrote in February, I talked about how Boyle “turned a gruesome, real-life ordeal into a giddy, feel-good horror movie”; meanwhile, in Trainspotting, he had no problem revealing the fundamental hopelessness of Renton’s situation. Same goes for 28 Days Later, happy ending or no. At least we can still revel in the morbid irony of the “Perfect Day” sequence, not to mention John Murphy’s awesome 28 Days Later score!

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The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh

From its first scene, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a film of extreme highs and extreme lows, often in very close proximity. With surprising swiftness, its characters travel from a wish-fulfillment shopping spree to a run-in with red-eyed zombies, and from a bucolic reverie to the loss of one of their own. Although it’s nearly two hours long, the film never really lets up, but that doesn’t stop it from including a few crucial character-building moments. As in much of Boyle’s work, this is humanity under the worst possible duress. (See: heroin addiction, poverty, being trapped under a boulder.) But it also retains a dark sense of humor and a sincere interest in human relationships as it explores life in England’s, nearly a month after its population is decimated by a zombie epidemic called the Rage virus.

The film follows a hardy group of survivors: Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Jim, who spent the titular period of time in a coma, is just as clueless as the audience, but quickly learns about the situation under Selena’s tutelage. After they meet Frank and Hannah, they reluctantly agree to drive toward Manchester, per the request of a mysterious radio message. Along the way, they gradually form a surrogate family – a notion literalized by the bittersweet image of four wild, uninfected horses running around a field. Emotional shorthand like this threatens to become cloying, but the actors are so good that they efface the screenplay’s rough patches. As important as the special effects and postapocalyptic environment may be, this is a film built on strong performances.

Alas, this also makes 28 Days Later an incredibly nerve-wracking film. The main characters are all so identifiable and lovable that it afflicts me with anxiety every time they step outside. Boyle does a good job of making the constant danger very palpable. Even though some zombie purists assert that the infected aren’t zombies, they fucking are, and their speed – scrambling and loping toward whatever or whoever they can destroy – perfectly suits this movie’s purposes. The tunnel scene, for example, is one of the movie’s most effective because of the zombies’ madly feral dash over the heaps of garbage; it drives home the humans’ complete vulnerability. So many have died already, including all the characters’ loved ones, that there’s no doubt about whether this is a life or death situation.

This unyielding suspense and emotional attachment combine to make an intelligent, self-aware rollercoaster of a movie. They also enable the film to makes its most profound statements. This is, after all, a film about surviving the most dire crisis imaginable – the end of civilization as we know it. Each character must determine his or her own priorities. The film doesn’t harp on this, but lets it evolve out of who the characters are: Jim, the newcomer, still holds vestiges of old world values like family and love; Selena, the jaded survivalist, both teaches and learns from him; Frank, selfless and gregarious, wants what’s best for the group (and especially his daughter); Hannah suffers from severe, ongoing PTSD and wants people around her to depend upon. Over the course of the film, they learn the price of having each other; they also come to enjoy simple, sensory pleasures – like, for example, raisins.

For these reasons, I find the film both thrilling and moving. I enjoy it in the same cathartic way that some people enjoy movies based on Nicholas Sparks books. Except 28 Days Later is much, much better. It’s also full of searing, sometimes prescient political commentary, whether about the government’s handling of the epidemic and its aftermath, or about the military compound where the film ends up in its third act. The treatment of Major West and his men, while still very dark, is slightly comedic; as played by Christopher Eccleston, West is a frazzled leader making promises he can’t keep and exercising his authority just to make sure he still has it.

The men, meanwhile, prove that even when civilization collapses, rape culture remains. Although only a few of the men are especially boorish and malicious, their self-aggrandizing machismo turns out to be more contagious than the Rage virus, and their behavior toward their guests is as much of a statement about the military mindset that the film needs to make. I’m consistently impressed by how well the film weaves together its tense, nonstop action and its many well-developed subtexts. It’s one of the most successful, insightful postapocalyptic films made of late and it still has time for one zombie attack set-piece after another.

Some other things I like about 28 Days Later: it’s integration of high-angle, surveillance-style cinematography with conventional shot/reverse shot patterns; its eclectic but never overbearing score; how it draws on Romero’s Living Dead movies and Matheson’s I Am Legend (as well as its film adaptations), but still marks out its own unique territory while saying “We are the real monsters” with more subtlety than Romero ever has; the fruitful invocation of haunted house movies during its climax; and, of course, the beautiful Cillian Murphy.

This film just preys so well on my fears and my loves. I can’t help but be strongly affected by it. As Jim wanders around an empty London, his surroundings reveal the panic that once consumed them; this is an apocalypse that feels believably lived-in. Boyle applies a certain strange realism to his zombie apocalypse, and maybe that’s what makes it so resonant. It’s a distinctly 21st century vision of horror. But it still hangs onto a little hope, billowing in the breeze. I’ll close on an optimistic note with a gratuitous picture of the beautiful Cillian Murphy.

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