The 2000’s: A Vital Decade in Horror Cinema (pt 2)
Special Mention: The Fake Trailers from Grindhouse (2007, USA): The four fake trailers featured in the otherwise disappointing Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-feature: Machete by Robert Rodriguez, Werewolf Women of the SS by Rob Zombie, Thanksgiving by Eli Roth and Don’t by Edgar Wright-are all very entertaining trips down horror/exploitation film memory lane and are easily the best part of the film.
2) Other Notable Horror Films Of The 2000’s:
This list focuses on films that are partially successful and even touch on brilliance at times but ultimately don’t pull everything together to fully deliver on their promise.
Intacto (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2001, Spain):
This film about a group of people blessed with supernatural good luck has a great premise, several great scenes-the revelation of the plane crash early in the film, the blindfolded race through the trees and the Russian roulette climax-plus the welcome presence of Max Von Sydow but falls short of being truly successful as a whole.
One of the highlights of the film is the excellent cinematography by Spanish director of photography Xavi Gimenez, who also does fantastic visual work on Jaume Balaguero’s The Nameless and a number of other Spanish-made genre films including Rodrigo Cortes’ highly anticipated but ultimately weak foray into psychic phenomena Red Lights (2012, Spain).
Director/co-screenwriter Fresnadillo went on to co-write and direct the disappointing 28 Days Later sequel 28 Weeks Later and the easily forgettable supernatural misfire Intruders (2011, Spain/USA).
Blade 2 (Guillermo Del Toro, 2002, USA):
This sequel is easily the best of the Blade film series despite some obvious flaws including Wesley Snipes’ typical self-conscious performance style that features him breaking character several times in the course of a Blade movie to act what viewers could only conclude he thinks is “cool”. Professional wrestling moves during an otherwise very serious fight scene, anyone?
The action-oriented dance club scene where Blade and his vampire “magnificent seven” fight a group of mutant bloodsuckers and the group’s subsequent hunt in the sewers are classic sequences that unfortunately render the final showdown between Blade and renegade vampire Nomak a bit stale and repetitive.
While director Del Toro is better known for the Hellboy films (2004 and 2008, USA) and his smaller scope Spanish language horror films The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Spain) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spain), he does some excellent action-oriented work here.
H (Jong-hyuk Lee, 2002, South Korea):
A pair of police detectives investigates a series of murders that mimics the methods of an imprisoned killer in this atmospheric film. A very strong performance by lead actress Jung-ah Yum (A Tale Of Two Sister, Ji-Woon Kim, 2003, South Korea) anchors this film that should have been better despite obvious strengths. Especially notable flaws are two scenes-one showcasing the male police detective in action and the other introducing the imprisoned killer in spectacular fashion-presented in the “deleted scenes” portion of the DVD release that would have added so much to the final film in terms of character and story that it’s absolutely absurd they were cut out.
Compare H to director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997, Japan), which tells a similar story of mind control and murder in a very different way. Director/screenwriter Jong-hyuk Lee, despite showing real promise in his feature film debut H, is not listed as having made another film since.
The Last Winter (Larry Fessenden, 2006, USA): Director/co-screenwriter Larry Fessenden presents an ecological
horror film influenced by, but by no means in the same league as, John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing (USA). While not entirely effective, Fessenden delivers his best film to date with this tale of an oil company crew in the Arctic that releases lethal supernatural forces, far outdistancing his previous horror features No Telling (1991, USA), Habit (1996, USA) and Wendigo (2001,USA).
Since The Last Winter, Fessenden has been much more active as a producer than director, marshalling such low budget horror films as the critically acclaimed but overrated The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009, USA) and the excellent post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land (Jim Mickle, 2010, USA).
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2006, France): On a scale of 1 to 10, this film about the victims of a bizarre cult gets a 10 for audacity and a 5 for execution. Undeniably committed performances by lead actresses Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi, powerful sequences like the surprise shotgun attack on an unsuspecting family and visually striking imagery like the skinned girl in a coffin-like tub of clear gel are undercut by too many things that just don’t work.
These stumbling blocks include the early introduction of a horribly scarred torture victim that is very obviously a figment of a tormented character’s imagination even though the film attempts to present it to the audience as real. This unsuccessful manipulation robs the appearance of an actual identical torture victim later in the film of all power.
Despite its critical accolades, Martyrs is not a great film but rather a signpost that announces Pascal Laugier could make a great film. After a long delay-the type of which also plagued INSIDE directing duo Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury-Laugier returned with his third feature film as director/screenwriter, the atmospheric but incredibly disappointing and misguided The Tell Man (2012, France/Canada/USA).
Nightmare Detective (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2006, Japan):
Japanese maverick Shinya Tsukamoto, director/screenwriter of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), delivers his most mainstream film since the creature feature misfire Hiroku The Goblin (1991, Japan). In Nightmare Detective, a suicidal man who can enter people’s dreams teams with police to solve a series of suicides that might actually be murders. While it contains some great scenes and memorable imagery, the film never quite ignites to fully capitalize on its premise.
That said, in this film, director Tsukamoto does deliver one of the most beautiful images in all of horror cinema: As our protagonist makes his exit from one of his journeys to the dream world, he lands at the bottom of an ocean poised on the tail of a wrecked airplane. An American remake was announced several years ago but never happened. Tusakamoto followed this film with a little-seen sequel Nightmare Detective 2 (2008, Japan).
Three Extremes (Fruit Chan, Chan-wook Park, Takashi Miike, 2004, Hong Kong):
This is an omnibus horror film made up of three short films by notable Asian directors. Each piece is presented on its own as opposed to the traditional approach of grafting some kind of wraparound sequence onto the works in an attempt to connect them in the style of the fondly remembered Amicus horror anthology films like the Robert Bloch-penned trio Torture Garden (Freddie Francis, 1967, UK), The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1971, UK) and Asylum (Roy Ward Baker, 1973, UK).
The first segment is Dumplings – the not so shocking tale of a bizarre diet and reclaimed youth that is highly predictable but was popular and critically acclaimed enough for director Fruit Chan to develop into a full length feature film of the same name (also 2004, Hong Kong).
The second segment Cut by Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengenace and Thirst (2002, 2003, 2005 and 2009, South Korea) director Chan-Wook Park is far more successful, spinning another of the director’s trademark tales of revenge with his usual unique approach. This time it’s a famous film director being targeted by a scorned actor.
The final segment is Box – a dreamlike story of two sisters from prolific director Takashi Miike (Audition, 1999 and Ichi The Killer, 2001, Japan) that is one of the director’s best works with absolutely beautiful cinematography by Koichi Kawakami.
Hostel Part 2 (Eli Roth, 2007, USA): This film was by and large dismissed by both fans and critics, causing what was good about the film to be overlooked. While deeply flawed and by no stretch of the imagination entirely successful, Hostel Part 2 is a far better film than Roth’s original Hostel (2005, USA). That said, it bears stating that contrary to much of what has been written about it, the first Hostel film isn’t a bad film because it featured gruesome torture scenes. It’s a bad film because it has no suspense and poorly executes its solid central story idea on nearly every front with the exception of the brief but incredible performance by actor Rick Hoffman as a frighteningly eager client in the film’s best scene.
Hostel Part 2’s real strengths are the excellent acting performances by Lauren German, Roger Bart and Richard Burgi that include a character turnabout near the film’s end that’s borderline brilliant.
Despite financial success that made them vital contributors to the horror film production boom launch of the 2000’s, Roth’s Cabin Fever (2003, USA) and the first Hostel are weak films but the strong points of Hostel Part 2 show real potential for director/screenwriter Eli Roth, who has also emerged as an intelligent and well-spoken defender of the too often maligned horror genre. Roth is currently making a return to the director’s chair with the Cannibal Holocaust-inspired Green Inferno after years of focus on producing and acting.
As we look at this decade in horror cinema, it should be noted that the critical response to Roth’s Hostel films and the many imitators that inevitably followed spawned the frequent use of the grossly inaccurate phrase “torture porn” in a wide variety of print magazines and websites. It’s an unfortunate litmus test of the quality of current genre film reviewing/criticism when widespread use of jargon takes the place of actual assessment of films. Film writers should be telling readers why a film works or doesn’t work instead of spouting a fashionable and incredibly misguided catch-phrase.
Making the problem worse is the fact that most writers using this term don’t even know where it originated, which was in a New York Magazine article by David Edelstein dated January 28, 2006. Why writers with real passion or claims of real passion for the horror genre would start casually using a phrase from an article that clearly seeks to condemn the films it discusses is puzzling to say the least.
Adding further insult to injury is the fact that Edelstein and the writers who continue to thoughtlessly perpetuate the phrase “torture porn” in horror film writing seem to be completely ignorant of the fact that there is real torture pornography available that features real-life torture and pornography, unlike graphic fictional films that routinely get stuck with that label like the Hostel series and Martyrs.
Note: Check out Andy Copp’s excellent May 13, 2009 article on his Exploitation Nation 2 blog for a deeper, well-researched condemnation of the use of the phrase “torture porn”.
The Chaser (Hong-jin Na, 2008, South Korea):
As with aforementioned films like Crimson Rivers and Empire of the Wolves, psychopath horror gets mixed with crime and suspense thriller elements in this story of a crooked cop turned pimp on a collision course with a serial murderer who has killed members of his stable. Stylish and brutal but suffering from stretches of slow pacing, this film was the first feature from director/co-screenwriter Hong-jin Na, who followed this breakout hit with the superb crime film The Yellow Sea (2010, South Korea), starring the lead actors of The Chaser Yun-seok Kim and Jung-woo Ha.
Home Movie (Christopher Denham, 2008, USA):
While somewhat predictable, director/screenwriter Christopher Denham’s found footage tale of a married couple attempting to deal with a pair of very sinister children is much more effective and creepy than the significantly more high-profile Paranormal Activity series (Oren Peli, 2007, Tod Williams, 2010, Henry Joost, 2011 and 2012). Let’s hope Denham, an actor making his feature directing debut here, makes another film.
3) The “Almost List:
These are films that almost made the Other Notable…section of this article but ultimately didn’t for various reasons.
Death Note (Shusuke Kaneko, 2006, Japan), Death Note: The Last Name (Shusuke Kaneko, 2006, Japan) and Death Note NOTE: L: Change The World (Hideo Nakata, 2008, Japan):
These two adaptations and one spin-off of the very successful manga series that pits two college-aged geniuses against each other-one a brilliant detective, the other with the power to dispense death at will-are largely undone by the presence of cartoonish CGI gods of death that undermines the first two films’ attempts at intensity and suspense.
The subject matter cries out for a more adult approach but the three films never rise above the level of teen fantasy/horror even in the “L” character spin-off where the detective tries to avert a terrorist group’s attempt at global mass murder. An American adaptation is currently in the works.
Carriers (David Pastor & Alex Pastor, 2009, USA):
Spanish directing/screenwriting duo the Pastors are hampered by an American studio mandated PG-13 rating in this post-apocalyptic tale that features some very memorable scenes but lacks the harsher, visceral edge the story demands. The Pastors perhaps look to realize a less compromised vision of societal breakdown outside the American studio system with their upcoming Spanish production The Last Days.
4) Most Overrated Horror Films Of The 2000’S:
These are all critically and financially successful films that made many “best of decade” horror film lists but just don’t live up to their acclaim.
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002, USA):
This American remake of director Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from 1998, rather than improve on the Japanese film, manages to bungle the best part of the original: the ending. In the Nakata version, the Sadako character comes toward the viewer and crawls out of the television in a chilling, uninterrupted sequence. In the Verbinski version, this scene adds unnecessary visual effects and is intercut with another character racing to save the victim, eliminating all suspense and tension.
Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003, USA):
A pair of scuba divers gets left behind by their tour boat and have to contend with an ever-growing number of sharks in this film that did very well at the American box office during its 2004 theatrical run, especially in relation to its low production cost. The problem is that the film is never as gripping or suspenseful as the premise would suggest and inane dialogue about watching “Shark Week” on The Discovery Channel doesn’t help. Open Water does manage to hit one amazing note as, very close to the film’s end, one of the divers looks below the water’s surface and realizes just how hopeless the situation is. For a much more successful take on a very similar story idea, seek out Andrew Traucki’s The Reef (2010, Australia).
Saw (James Wan, 2004, USA):
Great premise, bad movie. The film starts off with an intriguing opening sequence that reveals two men trapped in a room with a dead body-reminiscent of the kind of set-up you’d see in an episode of the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series (1995-1962, USA)-and goes downhill fast.
Extremely poor, sped-up, music video-style directing robs what should be very tense sequences of victims trying to escape lethal traps of any suspense. This misguided directing style takes the audience off the hook at the exact moment they should be most ON the hook. Saw suggests a situation where a filmmaker sees Seven, loves it but has no idea why it works, then decides to make his own film about a killer with a morality-based agenda that plans elaborate deaths for a series of victims. SAW is not the first weak film to spawn a series and be very influential and it certainly won’t be the last.
The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005, UK):
This popular and puzzlingly critically acclaimed film is loaded with jump-scares, dream sequence clichés and action scenes that are so poorly edited, it’s difficult to tell what’s going on. This film raises the same question that could be asked of any number of contemporary genre film directors: Why waste the time on detailed planning, choreography and intense acting performances if the end result is going to be an incomprehensible blur of motion that leaves the viewer scratching their head?
Director Marshall’s follow-up Doomsday is an underwhelming combination of sequences directly lifted from several other films including Escape From new York (John Carpenter, 1981, USA), The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981, Australia) and The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979, USA). Combine this creatively dead collage approach with Neil Marshall’s trademark poor action sequence directing and the results are predictably groan-inducing. Marshall’s next film was The Warriors -influenced period action film Centurion (2010, UK) wherein he manages to waste the talents of Michael Fassbender, one of the best screen actors in the world.
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007, USA):
While this micro-budget, series-spawning film released in 2009 remains the most financially successful entry in the current found footage subgenre boom that it helped create, Paranormal Activity simply doesn’t create the tension and suspense it needs to in order to work in light of its focus on bland characters and long stretches where very little happens.
Trick ‘R Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007, USA):
Director/screenwriter Dougherty delivers a Halloween-set horror anthology film with connected stories and the result unfortunately falls flat. Heavily influenced by EC horror comics, the film’s multiple attempts to be whimsical and “fun” create a confused tone and undermine the viewers’ ability to be drawn into the film.
Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008, USA):
The found footage subgenre goes giant monster movie with this account of an attack on New York City. Simply put, after the awesome kaiju-eiga spectacle that director Shusuke Kaneko provides in his Gamera trilogy (1995, 1996 and 1999, Japan), showing brief, shaky glimpses of a colossal creature wreaking havoc on a city comes off as a huge, underwhelming step backwards.
Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009, USA): If you like your supernatural revenge movies flat-out silly with a heaping side order of goofy, you might want to see this film if you haven’t already. Otherwise, Drag Me To Hell is recommended for Sam Raimi completists only.
5) Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda:
These are films with a great core story idea that the filmmakers ultimately failed to execute.
Highwaymen (Robert Harmon, 2004, USA):
A film about a serial murderer who uses his car to kill his victims sounds all the more interesting knowing it’s in the directorial hands of the director of the 1986 classic The Hitcher. Unfortunately, expectations are dashed by a weak screenplay. Director Quentin Tarantino works in similar territory and drops the ball after a relatively strong start in his half of the double-feature Grindhouse.
The Kovak Box (Daniel Monzon, 2006, Spain):
A science fiction writer attending an event on an isolated Spanish island discovers that a rash of suicides is part of a mind-control conspiracy based on ideas from one of his early novels. This fascinating Twilight Zone-style premise sadly doesn’t catch fire in the hands of director/co-screenwriter Monzon. One can’t help but think that this story could’ve really come together with a team like Identity’s James Mangold and Michael Cooney.
The Burrowers (J.T. Petty, 2008, USA):
A posse hunts a group of marauding Indians and comes under attack by a pack of flesh-eating subterranean creatures. The attempt to create a horror Western should be applauded but Petty’s screenplay and directing just don’t pull it off despite creating some memorable scenes.
Pathology (Marc Scholerman, 2008, USA):
A group of medical students commit a series of killings in an attempt to create the perfect, undetectable murder. The main warning sign here is that this film was written and produced by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the directing/screenwriting team behind the pointless CRANK films (2006 and 2009, USA) and the so-bad-they’re-not-even-like-movies Gamer (2009, USA) and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011, USA).
Blood Creek (Joel Schumacher, 2009, USA):
A pair of brothers battles a monstrosity born of decades-old Nazi occult experiments in this supernatural misfire. The original screenplay by David Kajganich called Town Creek was well-reviewed but director Schumacher has a long track record of both re-writing scripts and making bad movies, not a winning combination when presented with a good story idea.
High Lane (Abel Ferry, 2009, France):
A group of climbers becomes prey for a cliché, non-threatening villain in director Ferry’s failed attempt to combine a rural massacre film with acrophobic thrills. For a far more successful attempt at combining these elements, see director Julian Gilbey’s A Lonely Place To Die (2011, UK).
The Horde (Yannick Dahan, 2009, France):
Corrupt cops face off with gangsters in an apartment building as it’s overrun by a growing zombie plague. A zombie film tinged with explosive crime film elements? Sounds great but despite a few interesting scenes like a character fending off a parking garage full of flesh-eaters from the top of car, The Horde fails to deliver.
Pandorum (Christian Alvart, 2009, USA):
A spaceship crew wakes up from a deep sleep with no memory and has to piece together what their mission is while under attack from a horde of mutants that have infested the ship. This film, a fusion of two original screenplays, had incredible potential but just doesn’t come together. Among the multiple problems here is a bland acting performance by a severely miscast Dennis Quaid.
6) Notable Omissions:
These are films that appeared on many “decade’s best horror films” lists that, despite being made with varying degrees of craft and vision and containing some memorable elements, didn’t make the Best Of… or Other Notable … sections of this article due to their failure to truly ignite as a whole.
The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001, Spain).
Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001, USA).
KAIRO (aka PULSE, Kyoshi Kurosawa, 2001, Japan).
The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001, USA/Spain).
Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001, USA).
Ju-On (aka The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu, 2002, Japan).
A Tale of Two Sisters (Jee-Woon Kim, 2003, South Korea).
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004, UK).
Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005, USA).
The Host (Joon-Ho Bong, 2006, South Korea).
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006, Spain).
Right At Your Day (Chris Gorak, 2006, USA).
Them (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006, France).
The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007, Spain).
The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008, USA).