I've been friends with Andrea Keller since she became the life partner of my former cohort in film reviewing on the radio and fellow blogger coffeefortwo. When the coffeeman and I presented The Reel Thing together in the early 90s, it was given that I would handle the reviews of Horror movies ("Here, you like this stuff"), which usually left my partner underwhelmed. The fact that he is now legally bound to someone whose eyes sparkle at the mere mention of Luther the Geek is cosmic justice meted out, ensuring that their connubial Netflix queue include, between the Fellini and the film noir, a few direct-to-DVD that all but hemorrhage. Let me tell you - should you visit their moutaintop aerie to discuss cinema, you'd best bring your "A" game. Hell, I think even the dogs are conversant in the filmography of Lars von Trier.
I'll be very upfront with my motives here: I think that Andrea will be a major voice in the Horror blogosphere, and she is welcome around these parts anytime she wants to drop by. Shower her with encouragement, friends - we're all gonna be the better for it. And so, without further ado...
My horror tastes are clearly a product of my early over-exposure to adult cinema: The Shining (is nine too young? Yes.), Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Halloween, to name a few. However, I did deep-dive into the straight-to-video horror produce of the late 80’s and early 90’s on many a beer-laden Saturday night, and have ridiculously strong emotional attachments to a few gems of the era (The Unnamable and come to mind). That said, my viewing lagged in the 00’s due in part to the nasty trend of snuff-level horror that pervaded the theaters, the ridiculous number of soul-dampening remakes (thanks for nothing, Rob Zombie), and the endless Slasher flick knock-offs. Thus the following list may fail to recognize many of the more obscure productions, and perhaps they are overly-appreciative of a few as a result of going in with low expectations and coming out the other end in love with the genre all over again.
Pitch Black (2000)
If the “Is Riddick the killer?” suspense doesn’t quite satisfy, you’d still be hard pressed to give up on this beautifully imagined alien world populated by lethal nocturnal inhabitants living on a 22-year planetary cycle. The re-entry crash sequence alone is worth mentioning, for its ability to outshine most slicker productions (The Core as a prime example), but things really get hopping when the sun cycle sets, the winged, exoskeletal creatures take to the skies, and the only person able to see them is the one person who shouldn’t be trusted. The visual artistry, predictable (in the best way possible) deaths, and characters like the fantastically tortured and tough Captain-by-default Carolyn Fry, make this film more engaging than most.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
This movie requires total immersion. Let yourself sink into the culture, the orphaned children’s point of view, the war, the architecture…and you end up with a visually distinct, moody, and complex ghost story that grabs you and doesn’t let you shake it loose. One of those truly chilling films, it manages to tap all your primal childhood fears (dark corridors, murky waters, threatening adults) and stir them up to the surface. With time, the plot may get hazy and the history lesson may fade, but the images that made you flinch in terror will always lurk around the corner.
Coughed-out contagions, slip-sliding skin peeling off in reams, gun-toting hillbillies, and a gaggle of horny college kids trapped in the woods…perfection. There isn’t a wrong note hit in this film as it takes the cliché’, runs hard with it and delivers all the gore and laughs that a self-aware film can deliver. This is the sort of picture that inspires you to dredge through the straight-to-video shelf, desperately seeking those sparks of brilliance that walk between wit and wickedness.
Trapping six women with competing personalities and painful histories in a small confined space for a weekend sounds like a recipe for horror regardless of the cinematic genre. But the gorgeous reds and blacks that develop underground as the women fight for their lives against a reasonably-concocted albino humanoid population brings the complexities of female relationships to a visually graphic level. This may be the first straightforward horror flick that showcases the physical and emotional strengths of women without any external interference (read: boyfriend, detective, truck driver, rescuer…the list is endless).
The Host (2006) aka Gwoemul
Going into this with medium-expectations (not a fan of the recent slew of Asian horror imports), this film delivered a fantastic thumping, diving, eating-machine of a monster terrorizing the local population and leading to some entertaining subtext on both the South Korean government (information control) and the U.S. presence in their country (heroic on the one hand, manipulative on the other). Tadpole-like in concept, the monster is the star of the show – but the heroics of teen school-girl Ko A-sung (can’t escape those mini-skirted uniforms can we?) came in a close second.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) aka El Laberinto del fauno
Fairy-tale, parable, war-time fable…but with horror in its heart. Pan’s Labyrinth delves into the emotionally painful real world and the monstrous, quest-laden imagination of Ofelia as she tries to survive her brutally harsh situation in fascist Spain (circa 1944) at the hands of a sadistic stepfather. The fairy-world is vividly imagined with gorgeous details and childlike formations of fear, but the real world is where the true horrors exist. Of this entire decades-worth of film I doubt you could find a torture sequence so chillingly executed and with such editorial precision as to allow one’s mind to fill-in-the-blanks to such a gruesome effect.
The Orphanage (2007) El orfanato
Seeming traditional enough at first, this film falls into the supernatural/haunting category as it follows Laura, Carlos, and their adopted son Simon into an old converted orphanage with a dubious history. Then Simon disappears and the film starts to twist and turn…is it a revenge tale, the house itself, or perhaps the mysterious “imaginary friends” of Simon? The direction and acting are superb and the jump-sequences are worked at with Hitchcockian, finesse. If more bump-in-the-night stories were handled with this level of dedication I’d be a bigger fan of the sub-genre.
The Mist (2007)
Perhaps appreciated best when viewed in the luscious B&W version, Frank Darabont’s inspired adaptation (and direction) of a middling The film gracefully slides between the horrors inflicted by the bevy of monsters and the horrors humans inflict on each other. Nothing typifies this theme of a lack of faith in humanity as when the improbable hero/store clerk Ollie states “As a species we are fundamentally insane.”
Let the Right One In (2008)
Vampire movies these days tend to reach for the Goth, Angel-esque slick tone more often than not - eschewing the more animalistic, raw elements of this age-old myth. Entirely dumping the sexualization of the Vampyre and instead dwelling on the symbiotic needs between bloodseekers and the sheep-like human population, the film showcases both survival at its basest and how relationships can make life itself worth continuing, Let the Right One In delivers a moody, dark and gutteral story of a boy in need of a friend, and a vampire in need of a companion, and it delivers gore in such a realistic, slaughter-house literalism that our own fears of mortality rise a bit closer to the surface.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
One trend that can’t be ignored in the 2000’s is the renewal of the Zombie Movie. For better or worse, from Zombie Diaries (realism) to 28 Days/Later (zombies on speed), it is the decade of the Zombie…and perfectly timed within this era comes this fantastic spoof/homage. The zombies are slow, stupid, and ripe for the picking. The non-zombies are degrees of slow, stupid, and ripe for the picking. Horror with a dash of humor, humor with a dash of the macabre, the two are inexorably intertwined in our psyches and it is with relief that one can, when a good thing comes along, laugh outright at the gore on screen.
Worthy mentions: Bag Head and Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer