Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Decade: The Horror Movies

The "'aughts" have been a pretty good decade for horror movies. For the last several years, I've been saying that this has been one of the genre's periodic golden ages. Unlike previous golden ages, you would never know it from the marquee at your local multiplexes. Most of the real action in the genre has been pretty sub rosa. While Hollywood studios have been recycling the genre's past successes with ever-diminishing returns, seriously great horror movies have been creating waves just below the surface. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order. Keep in mind that I have some idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes a horror movie, so if you think one or another of my selections don't actually qualify, feel free (but I don't really want to hear about it). Anyway...links are to old reviews of these movies both here and on my old stand-alone web site.

A Tale of Two Sisters--A puzzle movie and a ghost movie and a showcase for the craft of film making (as many Korean films these days are), this takes the tropes of this decade's Asian horror movies and applies them as an elaborate ruse as we plunge into traumatic memories in a fractured narrative.

Frailty--A religious horror movie that manages the tricky feat of disturbing the viewer regardless of his or her stance on matters of faith. From my perspective, it's a harrowing portrait of the way fundamentalism distorts families, but it pulls the rug out from underneath that quite nicely. Terrific performances, particularly from director Bill Paxton.

May--A film that drinks deep the wine of loneliness. Angela Bettis is superb as a downtrodden outsider, and the ending of this film is kind of magical even while it is deeply horrifying.

Let the Right One In--My favorite queer horror film of the decade, and also a chilly examination of the horrors of childhood.

The Devil's Backbone--I think this movie really kicks into high gear when the ghost of the murdered boy, Santi, walks away from his place of haunting and pursues our young hero through the halls of his boarding school. All bets are off at this point, and when the movie lets the horrors of war intrude at the end, it goes for the throat. A piece of work, this film.

The Host--The monster movie as family farce, this throws the script for the monster movie out the window and marches to its own drummer. It contains, possibly, THE best scene of gigantic monster mayhem ever put on film, and it puts it right up front.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer--The return of the Gothic, this is a twisted examination of obsession, shot through with fairy tale elements from the darkest of European folklore. But where it really excels is in finding a cinematic equivalent of smell. It doesn't even need to rely on smell-o-rama cards.

Inside--Probably the most relentless horror movie of the decade, this pursues its grinding horror with single-minded brutality. That it's even watchable is some kind of miracle, but it pulls this trick by mating its instinct for visceral horror with a surprisingly deft command of suspense film making. Bracing.

Pan's Labyrinth--One of the GREAT fantasy films, this is a companion piece to The Devil's Backbone. Like that film, it throws children into the horrors of war. But it also provides a dream life of children that is, in some ways, just as horrifying.

Spider Forest--The horror movie as epistemological mind fuck, or perhaps it's a cubist horror movie. Whatever it is, it's another fractured narrative from Asia that arrives in the territory of the Gothic novel and its descendants.

For the most part, though, this has been such a rich decade that ten films are just too few to really give a coherent snapshot of the state of the art. I could easily have gone in other directions. Some other suggestions:

The Others
Drag Me to Hell
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary
Dawn of the Dead
The Descent
Seance (Kurosawa's remake of Seance on a Wet Afternoon)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The Ruins
...and any number of other films.

Those people who complain that horror is dead are morons, by the way. There has been quality filmmaking in every sector of horror filmmaking: in the mainstream, in the indie sector, on every continent, and in a broader range of sub-genres than has held sway in a very long time. It's good to be a horror fan right now.


Olga said...

The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth are my favourite ones... it's just a coincidence they are both Spanish.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Olga.

Yeah. Spanish horror has been good this decade. It makes a nice balance against the Asian horror movies.