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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 2

By Ashley

About a week ago, Andreas posted his top 10 horror films of the past decade for The Montana Mancave Massacre and now it’s my turn up to bat. We spent quite a while discussing what we thought were the best horror films of the past ten years and then to narrow that list down even more while trying to avoid a lot of overlap between our lists. It wasn’t too hard: we’re both die-hard horror fans and love a lot of the same films but still have very specific tastes and things that appeal to us especially. So, without further babbling, here’s my list of the top 10 films from the past decade!

10. Grace (Paul Solet, 2009)

As I’ve shown time and time again, I am a sucker for pregnancy/infant/child related horror. Due to my own internalized fears about pregnancy and children, even the worst of this type of film could still chill me. Grace was an unexpected gem for me. After Madeline’s obsessive attempts to have a baby in a completely controlled environment fail, she gives birth to an undead baby who lives on Madeline’s blood. I thought it did well with the typical “evil baby, scary pregnancy” cliches. It could have gone in the direction of the It’s Alive remake and made the baby like a wild animal eating people’s throats out, but Grace offered up a much more subtle horror. We watch as this young, widowed mother literally lets herself be drained, physically and mentally, for the sake of her child.

9. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

I was about 12 the first time I saw this movie and it seriously scared me; I slept with my light on for a few days afterward. As an adult, the film still chills me. Nicole Kidman gives a powerful, sometimes icy performance (which is kind of her thing but it really works here) as the long-suffering mother of two photosensitive children. I love The Others because it really is an old-fashioned haunted house story: large, dark shadowy manor, foggy woods, ghosts hiding behind curtains. Something else I love about it is how emotional the story and the characters are. I sometimes feel that horror films tend to shy away from tapping into the emotional potentials of the genre, as if being sad and being afraid are two mutually exclusive emotions. The twist ending may not pack that much of a surprising punch but what the climax lacks in creativity it makes up for in raw emotion.

8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie parodies ever. It manages to quite flawlessly mesh comedy, horror and romance. Shaun is so perfectly balanced: it never gets so cheeky in its self-awareness like some movies (cough *Zombieland* cough) that it renders the horror aspects of the film ineffective, and the romance doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in. In any other slacker comedy, our loveable but lazy and ambitionless protagonist would learn to be more responsible and hardworking through a series of wacky events; in Shaun, he learns it through a series of wacky and terrifying events that involve beating zombies with a cricket bat, pretending to be the undead, and defending their very penetrable fortress of a pub.

7. Ils (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

I love French horror and I love home invasion movies. Pretty simple. I live in mortal fear of someone not just breaking into my home, but fucking with me while they do it. Coming in and messing with a person’s home is such a violation; our homes are where we go to be safe and the idea of people entering it and making it dangerous is terrifying. This movie is often compared to The Strangers, which came out 2 years later, and in my opinion Ils is the superior film. Mostly because Ils is not fueled by an Idiot Plot; our two main characters don’t leave each other alone or get caught by the people invading their home because they make foolish mistakes. The only reason they (spoiler) get caught by their assailants is because they’re simply outnumbered. It’s so simple and so chilling.

6. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

I want more movies like this movie. I am the audience for this movie. Slow and atmospheric, it builds quietly, bides its time, gives the audience little jolts of fear but for most of the film deprives us of any release in adrenaline. It just builds and builds and builds, winding the viewer up tight with expectation. It’s a pitch-perfect throwback to the horror of the late ’70s and ’80s; it emulates all we love about that era’s horror flicks while managing to be a superior film than most of them. It takes some of the best horror cliches—Satanists, babysitter, scary house in the middle of nowhere, satanic pregnancy—and turns them into something new. It’s a weird, satisfying blend of familiarity and modernity. And I still maintain that “Are you not the babysitter?” is one of the most chilling lines in recent horror cinema.

5. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The Descent scared the ever-loving shit out of me even before we got to the scary, wall-climbing cave people: tight caves and crumbling rocks, claustrophobic sets, total darkness and total vulnerability and helplessness on the part of our characters. Scary shit, for sure. And then they get attacked by the creepy cave creatures. One of the things that sets it apart from other horror films is that not only is the cast entirely female, but most of them actually act like they like each other. You get the sense that these women are actually friends, not backbiting teenagers whose only defining characteristics are either “have boobs and die sexy” or “have boobs and be final girl” like we’re usually served up in typical horror. Even with Sarah and Juno, between whom there is a very palpable rift, you can sense that they’re at least trying to work things out. I have kind of a thing for bleak endings (some of my favorite movies include The Stepford Wives and Martyrs), so this movie, from start to finish, is right up my alley.

4. Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Some people don’t consider this a horror movie and I’ll admit that it’s definitely got a revenge plot going on rather than a straight-up horror narrative. But I feel like often times revenge films (and especially South Korean revenge films) have lots of horror aspects. And in any case, this movie scared me pretty intensely. The very premise is scary enough; kidnapped and trapped for 15 years, no idea why, your captors never talk to you or tell you anything. And then you’re let go, again no explanation. Beyond that, all-consuming revenge is a concept that deeply frightens me: all you exist for, all you want, your entire identity is wrapped up in revenge. And then, in the case of our protagonist Dae-su, to reach the end of your endeavors only to find it was all for naught, that this was the plan all along and, worst of all, that you’ve been fucking your daughter. I’d cut my tongue off too. And that ending. Does Mi-do have any idea who Dae-su is? Has Dae-su really forgotten the truth about who this woman is? Or is he so desperate for love and comfort that he’s willing to pretend he doesn’t know, just to keep the love of his lover-daughter? Creepy, disturbing, intensely unsettling stuff.

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

This is the only overlap between my and Andreas’s lists and it really can’t be avoided. Let The Right One In is undeniably one of the best, most powerful, beautiful films of this past decade, horror or otherwise. Since Andreas already discussed this film in his list I’ll keep this brief. Oskar and Eli are one of recent horror’s most deeply sweet and troubled couples. The quiet of this film is what gets me; it’s not full of screams and a pounding soundtrack. It’s so quiet that you can literally hear the snow falling in the opening scene. It’s such a full and complete quiet that when something terrifying does happen and someone gets their throat eaten or someone screams it’s like shattering glass. I could literally go on about this movie for days, so suffice it to say that I love Let the Right One In.

2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

Something else I love is the New French Extremity. I can’t explain why I love Martyrs so much. I saw it and didn’t sleep for about two days. Not because I was afraid but because the movie had affected me so deeply that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was this movie trying to say? What was it saying about women and violence and religion and mental illness? Why am I so drawn to a film that doesn’t have a single ounce of joy or hope? Because Martyrs is not an enjoyable film; it’s an endurance test from start to finish. I guess one of the reasons why I love it, why I’m drawn to it, why I consider it one of my all time favorite horror movies is because, other than being a deeply terrifying film, every time I watch it I spend days thinking. I like movies that make me think and this one does that in spades. Ultra-violence and incredibly unsatisfying ending aside, it’s an intensely intellectual film in that it encourages (and sometimes forces) people to think about what is happening.

1. Inside (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007)

Long time readers of this blog should already know that I am a big fan of this movie. I’ve written at length about it a few times. I’ve mentioned my deeply internalized fears of pregnancy and children and how that manifests itself as a deep fear and love of all horror movies involving pregnancy/infants/children.  Inside is everything I love about pregnancy horror: I love the way these horror films take the clichés about pregnant women and twist them through the codes of the genre, turning maternity into a horrifying perversion of itself. We all know the stereotypes about Mama Bears and snooty moms who bicker with each other and all that jazz. But once horror gets its hands on these ideas, bickering turns to terrifying stalking and bloody show downs and pregnancy turns into an all-out, no-holds-barred war. And frail little Sara’s hugely swollen, vulnerable body is the battleground.

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Satanists and Suspense in The House of the Devil

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like demonic rituals on the night of a lunar eclipse.]


Andreas:

The suspense is killing me. I hope it lasts. —Gwendolyn, The Importance of Being Earnest

Pity the poor babysitter. Half the time, she’s strung out on LSD and roasts the baby like a Christmas ham; the rest of the time, she’s harassed by psychos calling from inside the house. Or else she dies, and nobody tells mom about it. Or she’s being prepped, again like a Christmas ham, for the satanic rite to end all satanic rites. That last scenario is the crux of Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a film that revels in spinning mundane straw into horror gold. Most movies about unsuspecting young women and satanist covens descend quickly into a slew of impalements and beheadings. West gives us a suspenseful status quo, then holds it, and holds it, and holds it, ratcheting our anxiety up higher with each phone call or mention of an eclipse. Explicit clues as to what’s really going on are sparse, especially for poor Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our plucky and lovable heroine; in short, it’s one of the most thrilling, titillating, and fun horror movies of the past decade.

One of The House of the Devil‘s major assets is its simplicity. Both its title and plot feel generic, as if they were copied from the 1980s Horror Pastiche Handbook, but West breathes new life into them. And not in a creepy voodoo way, either. No, he does it more in a “this man is one of the most innovative writer/directors currently working in horror” way. House is just about Samantha, a cash-strapped college girl who gives babysitting a shot. When the situation gets weird – i.e., the old couple hiring her are ambiguously creepy motherfuckers, and there’s no baby – her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) recommends that she leave, but alas, the prospect of paying for one month’s rent is just too tempting. The rest of the film is just Samantha biding her time… until, as it must, the coven of satanists drugs her for a bloody, pentagram-filled human sacrifice.

So, at least superficially, House has all the earmarks of a typical slasher movie or urban legend: a girl, a house, and the devil. But it’s also one of the least crass, most subtle variations ever done on those themes. Take the first portion of the movie, for example. Not much happens: Samantha confirms her new living place, goes jogging, calls about the babysitting job, waits around, meets with Megan for pizza, etc. But it’s compelling, mostly because West squeezes in so much dense observational detail. Yes, detail about the ’80s (a decade I didn’t live through) but also just detail about normal, stressful college life. It’s in the frostiness and desolation of the campus in the morning. It’s in the way Samantha lounges around on the front steps of the student center. And it’s in her getting sexiled, as well as her mildly contentious relationship with her roommate. It all forms the very realistic groundwork for the heebie-jeebies that fill the rest of the movie.

So in addition to its simplicity, one of House‘s greatest virtues is its plausibility. And for a movie whose plot is basically Halloween crossed with Rosemary’s Baby, that’s saying something. Just by knowing the movie’s title, we expect bad shit to go down, so West engages in the most economical, masterful kinds of suggestion. A desperate voice on a pay phone takes on a sinister pall. And when that voice belongs to the seemingly harmless (maybe too harmless) Mr. Ulman, to whose secluded house1 the girls journey, we infer something sinister about the whole gosh-darn situation. Of course, objectively weird remarks like “I promise to make this as painless for you as possible” don’t exactly help his case. But the age difference factors in here, too: on the surface, Mr. Ulman and his wife (played by cult film mainstay/total fox Mary Woronov) just feel a little, you know, out of touch, unable to relate to today’s youth. So maybe that‘s why he reminds Samantha about ordering pizza several times. And it’s not because the pizza’s actually going to drug her in time for the sacrifice. Maybe?

The bulk of the film, in which Samantha mucks around the house trying not to get bored, is pure genius. In its immaculate subtlety, it’s like Robert Wise’s The Haunting times infinity. Part of the reason is that Samantha doesn’t know her movie is called The House of the Devil, and we do, so of course we’re going to yell, “Don’t go up there! Get out of that house!” to the consternation of our sleeping neighbors. She’s not stupid; she knows she was taking a risk by staying there, as she admits to Megan. But she seriously does need the money, and nothing about the deal conclusively says, “You’re going to get blood poured on you through a goat skull.” It says something more like, “This old couple is kind of odd, and they shouldn’t have lied, but that’s a lot of money.” That’s why this movie is great horror: it manages to have a smart, interesting female lead and still lead her into a dangerous, yet terrifyingly reasonable situation.

Unlike us, Samantha doesn’t know that Megan is dead, but she does suspect that something‘s up. However, since she has no concrete evidence,2 she just thinks she’s losing it, tells herself to “get a grip,” and sits back down to watch TV. Until, say, she hears some weird noises… and the cycle starts all over again. This is a movie about irrational fear. And since it keeps everything at such a low register, the smallest frights feel exaggerated – like the off-putting cadence of the pizza man’s voice (“See you in thirty…”), or the shots that peek into the house through the window, or worst/best of all, the hair in the bathtub. It’s a sublimely disturbing moment would feel at home in Psycho, when Lila Crane is rummaging through Norman’s childhood possessions. Samantha looks into the bathtub, gasps, and after mere seconds of agonizingly sustained curiosity, it’s revealed: numerous clumps of dark hair. It’s so much less gory than what we’d expect, but it’s so jarring and unexpected that, in the long run, it’s way scarier than a hacked-off limb could ever hope to be.

After all of these minor incidents and their chilling implications, I won’t deny that the climax is something of a let-down. But it’s necessary, as well as intensely scary. I don’t really know who/what that goat person was, but the makeup creates just the right blend of a corny urban legend-type satanic priest(ess?) and a “holy shit!” materialization of all the anxiety we’ve been experiencing. And it’s hard not to feel Samantha’s pain as those diabolic snippets flash through her poor head. Granted, we’ve got some shakycam, and Samantha dispatches those satanists with remarkable ease, but let’s not split Mary Woronov’s creepy hairs here. It’s a fitting culmination to all that accelerating unease, finally releasing the tension in one quick and amazingly gory burst. It’s almost so gory as to be a parody of traditional horror climaxes, one that puts the rest of the movie’s menacingly quiet style in perspective.

Whatever the purpose, it’s a satisfying grand finale, leading in to the film’s coup de grace: the hospital scene. Again it’s menacingly quiet, we’re privy to some suggestive reports about the moon, and a nurse utters that crushing last line: “You’re going to be just fine. Both of you…” After that, what is there to say? I’d prefer not to discuss the bleak implications, and instead to say that The House of the Devil is the movie to show that silly friend of yours who whines, “Horror movies are nothing but stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death!”3 It’s a very functional argument for the power of suggestion; it’s an eerie depiction of how hard it is to get rent money; it’s just a great horror movie overall. The House of the Devil is a house of awesome, and with that, I turn it over to Ashley.

Ashley:

I don’t know if I’ve ever sympathized so much with a horror movie heroine as much as I do with Samantha from The House of the Devil. I am pretty much in the same situation she is; desperate college student with next to no money trying to find a place to live. If some old couple said they needed a sitter for their mother right now and they offered me $400 I’d be all over that shit, even if the situation was kinda weird. Sam’s desperation is very real and relatable and she feels like a very real girl. This movie, with all of its slow-burning horror and sluggish pace, would just not work without the amazing cast. Everyone, even the landlady who is in the movie for about five minutes, feels real and the performances are amazing. For me, this film works because I really honestly give a shit about the characters and am emotionally invested in what happens to them.

Samantha, as far as horror film heroines goes, is definitely comparable to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Lori from Halloween (who just happens to be one of the best Final Girls in horror). They are both calm, intelligent girls who are victims of circumstance: Lori just happens to be babysitting in the town where Michael runs amok (and also just happens to be his sister) and Samantha is a cash-strapped teenager in a desperate situation who takes a chance on a ‘babysitting’ job. When Megan flips her shit (like a real friend would; theirs is one of the best friendships ever committed to a horror film) and tells Sam that she’s stupid for sticking around after all the weirdness is revealed, we are torn. We know that Megan is right because we know that this is a horror movie but it’s not like Sam, who doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie, is making a completely outrageous decision that is beyond belief. She’s a smart gal in a weird situation but we don’t fault her for it because it’s understandable.

Since Andreas did an excellent job with plot summary/analysis, I want to focus more on isolated incidents of terror/outright creepiness. There are probably three or four major shocks in this film (if you’re excluding the straight-forward horror climax, which I am) depending on how you look at it: Megan’s death, the bodies on the other side of the door, the hair in the bathtub and the last line of the film. But outside of those shocks the film is peppered with such clever, suggestive dialogue and foreshadowing, it makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience. Megan, who is probably one of the best characters EVER (Andreas says he wants a Megan-centric prequel and I have to agree with him), has some of the best lines including “What if the kid’s from hell?” in reference to the babysitting job. We as the audience take note of that because we know the title of the film, maybe even laugh at it; it seems like a moot point later when we learn that there is no child for Sam to babysit. But then it comes back to haunt us with the final revelation of the film: the kid is from hell.

Megan is also a very well-done example of Death By Genre Savviness; she’s not so snarkily self-aware as some Genre Savvy characters but she knows what’s up. She knows a fucked up situation when she sees it and she states it flat-out:

Sam: It’s $400! For four hours? This equals first months rent and then some! It’s too good to be true.

Megan: Did you ever think it is too good to be true?

Sam: Megan, please. I need the money.

Megan: It’s so stupid. It’s so stupid. I’m so mad at you.

This exchange not only reflects Megan’s genre savviness and Sam’s desperation but also reinforces the friendship between these two. And it makes the next scene all the more jarring and horrible. I am firmly of the opinion that “Are you not the babysitter?” has the potential to go down as one of the greatest, creepiest horror lines ever uttered on film. It could be the new “They’re here” or “Come play with us”. The scene is set: creepy cemetery, nervously smoking a cigarette, random guy with a beard pops the fuck out of nowhere. And Megan’s Death By Genre Savviness lines continue even then: “I almost died. I almost had a heart attack and died.” He doesn’t seem too threatening other than the fact that he’s in the cemetery for no good reason and is trying to make small-talk. The way that line is worded is so odd: he could have said, “Are you the babysitter?” but no, it’s “Are you not the babysitter?” The thing that really gets me about this scene is that it’s NEVER explained in full detail. What part of their Satanist plan included him waiting in the cemetery? Was it to make sure, if their last resort girl decided to bail, that she wouldn’t get away? What was he supposed to do if she had been the babysitter? These questions are never answered and all we’re left with is Megan’s face splattered against the windshield.

Other than Megan and obviously Sam, one of the most important characters in this film is Mr. Ulman. This character is so intensely interesting to me (I told Andreas that I wanted a prequel about Megan and Mr. Ulman; that could totally work, right?) because, again, he doesn’t seem that threatening. He’s odd, yeah, but he doesn’t seem like he would hurt you. He doesn’t even seem like he could hurt you. His desperation to find a sitter for ‘mother’ seems very sad and driven by his wife (whom he sometimes appears to be afraid of) and is a direct parallel to Sam’s desperation. She’s desperate for cash, he’s desperate for her to stay. The first time we hear Mr. Ulman (after he somehow calls Sam back on the payphone she just called him from), his voice is so soft, gentle and yet somehow implicitly creepy. I think that a lot of the things that I perceived as creepy in this film, seemed that way because I knew this all had to part of a Satanist plot; it all seemed way too normal and that was really, really off-putting. The first time we see Mr. Ulman is even stranger; it’s framed in such away that the girls gaze up at him and his face is cut off from view. Again, extremely off-putting.

The horror of this film is deeply entrenched in the concept of Nothing is Scarier: the idea that the building tension and expectation of seeing something creates a more palpable horror than actually showing us the blood/monster/whatever. And it fucking works, man. There were so many scenes where it’s just a static, unmoving shot; Sam is walking around, in and out of frame and we’re just sitting here waiting for something to happen, for something to move, for someone or something to come into frame unseen by Sam but it never happens.We never get that release of adrenaline and so we have tension building until it feels like it’s about to snap. The few moments we do get are all the more powerful because of this. When Sam is outside the door that she almost opens and is speaking through to the nonexistent ‘mother’4, we’re finally treated(?) to something gruesome. And it’s very jarring because we’ve spent the last 50 minutes being teased and wound up by the atmosphere and style of the film.

As an homage to the ’80s, this film is top-notch. I was born at the very tail end of that decade but I watched many ’80s horror films and was then bombarded with the recent deluge of nauseating ’80s nostalgia, throwback wank-fests that are currently popular. Why we as a society feel so attached cinematically to this decade is beyond me because it wasn’t a very stellar decade  for film, especially compared to the ’70s (this is just generally speaking of course; there are a some very good and/or fun films from the ’80s, as with any decade). A lot of these throwback homages that we see tend to glorify some of the dumber aspects of the decade. The House of the Devil captures the nostalgia perfectly without having to be kitschy or garish or completely in your face about it like it’s yelling “REMEMBER THE ’80s, WEREN’T THEY AWESOME?!” As noted by Scott Tobias in The AV Club’s New Cult Canon:

…West evokes ’80s horror while making a movie that’s infinitely more skillful than the ones he’s referencing. And that’s what nostalgia, at its best, can accomplish: It makes our memories sweeter and more perfect than our actual experiences at the time…Because as much as people like myself—and I’m sure West, too—like to reminiscence about our formative slasher-movie days, the reality was hours of precious time squandered on artless, exploitative, retrograde garbage. The House Of The Devil gives at least 96 of those minutes back, with interest.

The House of the Devil is damn near perfect, especially if you’re not a fan of the typical Kill ‘Em All slasher flicks. It moves slowly but with purpose and slowly builds you up; by the time we get to the (somewhat ridiculous) climax, it hardly matters that this isn’t as scary as what we’ve been watching because we’re finally getting the release of tension that we’ve been denied for most of the film. And there must be something said for a film that’s bloodiest part, isn’t nearly as terrifying as the 80 or so minutes of bloodless tension we’ve been served.

1 (of the Devil)

2 I mean, those photos in the closet sure are ominous, and so is Megan’s failure to answer her phone, but (for Samantha, at least) they hardly prove that anything’s going on.

3 Although it can be fun to watch stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death.

4 The idea of the mother not even existing completely freaks me out and brings up a lot of unanswered questions, the most prevalent being why did they even feel the need to tell her that it wasn’t a babysitting job? Why not just lie and say “The baby will sleep throughout the night, you won’t even need to check on it”? And I think the answer to that question, other than the Ulmans are just effing weird, is that if they had done that we wouldn’t have had the scene where Mr. Ulman tells Sam the ‘truth’, which is a very good, important scene and it sets up the rest of the film for us.

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