Y2K did not plunge us into a world of darkness and despair, much to the chagrin of all the people who’d gotten off of the grid in the 1990s and were living in the woods in a ramshackle trailer, eating beef jerky and drinking their own urine. For what it’s worth, I’m 90% certain that those were the same people who bought into every end of the world and/or conspiracy theory of the past twenty years, their theory evidently being, “I’m bound to be right about something sooner or later.”
The first decade of the 21st century will forever be viewed through the lens of 9/11 and the changes it wrought on us psychically. For at least the first half of the decade, the biggest horror show around was the footage we watched on the nightly news. I may not be far enough removed from the “aughts” to speak with any kind of perspective about those years.
The movies were slow to react, out of both respect and also general confusion. No one knew what to think and where to go to think it. Our framework for horror (make that “terror”) changed in one day. If I can offer any insight into what the darker corner of popular culture reflected at this time, I’d venture to say that horror movies got more personal, and more invasive. The stakes seemed higher and the playful undercurrent that was present in the 1980s and the 1990s is largely absent here. Horror got meaner. More random. More confusing. It’s not a surprise to me at all that the torture porn trend in horror started in the decade where we had to debate, as a nation, if it was okay to torture enemy combatants or not.
Huh. Maybe I have more of a handle on the decade than I thought.
5. The Ruins (2008)
Four college students, vacationing in Mexico, meet another world traveler, looking for his brother, who was investigating Mayan ruins nearby. They agree to make a day of it, and go into the jungle. They find the ruins, and also some villagers who do not want them around, and they are willing to shoot them with arrows to make sure the Americans get the point. Later, trapped at the top of the Myan ziggurat, they start formulating a way out of the jungle, past the villagers. They can hear a cell phone ringing, down in the darkness of the central shaft that runs deep into the ruins. Maybe it’s the missing brother? Maybe they can call for help with the phone? Maybe all of their best-laid plans are going to go pear-shaped on them and make their stone perch into a pressure cooker.
Like The Descent, this movie lives in the “survival horror” sub-genre. However, the film has a really interesting premise that, if you can willingly suspend your disbelief, carries overtones that are nearly eldritch in nature. The story is loaded with mishaps, misfortune, and a menace that has to be seen to be believed. The Ruins is a wonderfully weird little movie that I guarantee you’ve not seen before.
Scott Smith wrote the screenplay, based on his novel (he also wrote A Simple Plan, if you liked that movie). He actually sold the option to the film rights while the novel was being written. Boy, some people have all the luck.
4. The Descent (2006)
A group of women, gathered together for a weekend spelunking adventure (and a show of support for their friend who recently lost her husband and child) strike out in search of the path not taken by exploring a cave system that is not found in their guidebook. But all of their combined experience doesn’t prepare them for what they find, and what it does to them as they quickly go from self-discovery to self-preservation only adds to the tension.
This movie is oddly specific and that’s what I like about it. There is no genre of “Cave Horror” to worry about “the rules” or other movies to compare it to. In that respect, The Descent stands alone, and also, it’s out there where the buses don’t run. This movie covers multiple fears in a single swath. Claustrophobia? Check. Things that go Bump in the Dark? Check. How well do you really know your friends and what are they really capable of? Check. And while it may start somewhat slowly, that pace is very much like climbing the first, largest hill on a particularly harrowing roller coaster.
Neil Marshall, the British director who gave us the excellent werewolf romp, Dog Soldiers, directed this movie, and even though it’s set in America, the production and cast are all British. There’s even a more dour and downbeat ending that the UK audience got that us Americans did not (but if you get the unrated edition, you’ll be able to fully bum yourself out). The Descent is a unique and interesting tension-filled ride that does not let up once it gets going.
3. Trick r’ Treat (2009)
A young couple walking home after a street festival…a school principal with a dark secret…a group of young trick or treaters out for a bit of mischief…a quartet of young, nubile women on the prowl for a good time…a grumpy old man fuming about Halloween…and the witness to all of them, a cute little trick ‘r treater named Sam. These narratives intertwine and collide on the eve of Samhain, also known as All Hallow’s Eve; a time when costumes are worn, candy is distributed, and other time-honored rituals are carried out, and woe be unto whoever decides to break one of those Halloween traditions.
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, this little gem makes the most of Anna Paquin and Dylan Baker, but that’s not a dig on the rest of the cast, who all make the most of their brief screen time. The movie has a lot of gallows humor in it, making it tonally similar to Tales From the Crypt. The non-linear storytelling used throughout is a lot of fun and reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Sam, the little scarecrow kid, is a great invention; half horror host, half harbinger, able to interact directly with the people in the segments. The last character that could do that was Freddy Kruger, but Sam is a lot creepier and not nearly as over-exposed.
Trick ‘r Treat was intended for a wide theatrical release in 2007 and got pushed back until it went straight to video in 2009. As Halloween-themed movies go, Trick ‘r Treat has vaulted to the top of my yearly go-to list. Try it for yourself and see if this doesn’t become the Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown for your Halloween traditions.
2. The Ring (2002)
Four teenagers die seven days after watching a cursed video tape (a local urban legend), and the aunt of one of the girls, played by Naomi Watts, decides to investigate the circumstances around her baffling death. This leads her to watch the VHS cassette, after which, she gets a phone call and is told she has “seven days…” With the deadline fast approaching, the aunt uncovers the truth about the unsettling images on the tape, but she may be too late to stop the curse from taking another life.
When Ringu (1998) made piles of cash at the box office (and ushered in a wave of Japanese horror movies, or “J-horror” as the kids like to say), it was surely inevitable that an American film company would re-make it. Thankfully, the director, Gore Verbinski, was interested in keeping the integrity of the original, resulting in the best American version of a J-horror film, one that stands on its own and (I know this is heresy) is more satisfying in some ways to watch.
The Japanese version of the story (based on a bestselling book by Koji Suzuki) does not bother to explain itself to its target market, and thus, while extremely effective and unsettling, western audiences were baffled as to the what and the why of the story (I know I was). Verbinski made the smart decision to show the audience more of the backstory to better explain what we are seeing (and being freaked out by) on the screen. If you want a better and more credible explanation of how such horrors came to be, this is the version you need to seek out. If you must view a J-horror movie, watch Ju-On (1998) instead.
1. Paranormal Activity (2009)
A young couple move into a suburban home to start their new life together, but all is not Home, Sweet Home. The woman feels that she’s been haunted from her childhood by a presence, and the man, wanting to put an end to all of this nonsense (and also to play with his new toy) decides to set up video cameras in their home. When it appears that there is something else in the house, Katie wants to get help, but Micah refuses to take the incidents seriously, despite all of the paranormal activity…
Paranormal Activity cashes the check that The Blair Witch Project wrote eight years prior. It found a believable premise for its found footage, and kept everything low tech. The actors improvised their dialogue based on scene outlines, and one guy, Oren Peli, wrote, directed, shot and edited the movie in seven days’ time. It cost 15,000 to make, and grossed 190 million dollars and put Blumhouse Productions, currently the most prominent multimedia horror production company in the US.
This movie is incredibly effective, because of its approach: low tech, with practical effects happening in-camera, on video, which lends authenticity to the footage. In the initial screening, several people were so disturbed by the movie that they had to leave the theater. Paranormal Activity succeeds remarkably well (and I’m not even going to qualify it with “for what it is” or “for how much they spent”.) In the age of Deep Fake technology, the scares may not quite resonate as deeply, but the influence of the film can’t be dismissed.