Last October was my return to blogging regularly after a bit of a break, and I’d decided to do the whole ‘horror month’ thing, attempting to both watch and write about as many horror movies as I could. I was pretty pleased by how many posts I got out, but there were a few that I never quite got around to completing in time. I noticed this one sitting in my drafts a few days ago and decided it would be worth finishing off.
A lot of outlets seemed to be posting similarly-themed lists of 21st Century horror movies last October, and I enjoyed reading a number of them. However I also encountered a bit of an issue when trying to create one; deciding what could be considered a horror movie. The excellent podcast Filmspotting did a list like this at the time in which one of the hosts named David Fincher’s Zodiac his number one pick. He later read out an email from a listener politely chastising him for choosing the film, as naming a crime-thriller as the top horror film added to the notion that horror is a ‘lesser genre’. I have to agree with that sentiment, until he’d mentioned it I’d never considered Zodiac a horror movie at all.
Relatedly, when Screencrush posted their list, it was topped by Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. Now I love The Cabin in the Woods, but it’s a horror-comedy, so I’d have to discount it. Likewise, I honestly like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead more than any of the films on my list, so it would be number one if I considered it eligible. I feel it’s a cheat though, to name what is, in its own words “A Romantic Comedy, With Zombies” as the best horror film of recent years. So in short, for this list I only included films that are inarguably horror films, with no major emphasis on another genre.
05. The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007, USA)
After making beloved films out of Stephen King’s prison stories The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, Frank Darabont turned back to the genre the author was best known for. Adapting King’s 1980 novella, Darabont crafted a brilliantly tense supernatural siege story of small town citizens held up in a supermarket as a mysterious alien invasion goes on outside. While best remembered by many for its devastating gut-punch of a conclusion, the real power in The Mist lies in its eerily plausible depiction of how humans will, in desperate times of unforeseen crisis, turn both on one another and to figures offering false hope, exemplified by a previously unpopular religious fanatic (played by Marcia Gay Harden in an Oscar-worthy performance) becoming a de-facto cult leader. Arriving in 2007, The Mist was a refreshingly mature example of just what mainstream US horror cinema can be.
04. American Mary (The Soska Sisters, 2012, Canada)
Rape-revenge horror movies can often end up being horrible, substance-free depictions of brutality. Young Canadian twins Jen & Sylvia Soska managed to offer not only a rare female perspective on the derided sub-genre, but one you could never accuse of being exploitative or inviting its audience to simply enjoy the prospect of its protagonist’s ordeal. American Mary is much more than just a superior rape-revenge tale though. On top of that, it also manages to offer a new take on body horror worthy of genre master (and fellow Canadian) David Cronenberg, as a struggling medical student (Katharine Isabelle) delves into the bizarre, underground world of extreme body modification. All in all, American Mary adds up to one of the most striking and original horror movies of recent years. I had thought this would mark the arrival of a fresh, bold new voice in horror cinema but since the Soskas have been making more generic material for WWE studios, I do hope they’ll produce something of their own imagination again soon.
03. Audition (Takashi Miike, 2000, Japan)
Audition is the kind of horror movie that is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible. So much so that even calling it a horror movie could be considered a spoiler of sorts. The DVD cover of the movie revealed more information than I’d have ideally like to have known when I first saw it but what can you do? You’ve got to market your film somehow. Takashi Miike’s notorious shocker begins more like a romantic drama, only later revealing its true nature around the half-way point via one of the most startling, un-telegraphed jump-scares in cinema history. It then descends into such increasingly disturbing territory that it really made Miike’s name in the West.
Yeah I know this technically premiered in late 1999, but it wasn’t released anywhere, even its native Japan until 2000 at the earliest. If you’re super-picky, bump the previous entries up and but Neil Marshall’s The Descent or Ben Wheatley’s Kill List at 5.
02. The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007, Spain)
Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage brought a real touch of class to the haunted house movie in 2007. A refreshingly mature and adult-centred horror film, its intriguing set-up concerned a woman (Belén Rueda) attempting to re-open the orphanage she stayed in as a child, only to be faced with the disappearance of her son. A rare film that manages to effectively explore some more rational explanations for its ghostly goings-on while maintaining a consistent supernatural element. The Orphanage proves that an emotionally deep, character-driven story can in fact go hand-in-hand with some terrifyingly effective scares.
01. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008, France)
One of the main reasons I decided to finish off this article and publish it now was that I recently learned that Martyrs has been subjected to the US remake treatment, and I struggle to imagine any scenario in which such a film could do this mesmerising original justice, and will in all likelihood be severely watered down. Martyrs is a film I’ve only seen once, but one that I vividly remember and can’t imagining fading any time soon. The film is an intense, brutal experience that begins with an opening act that is more conventional in scares, though not in story. Then it takes an unpredictable turn leading to some of the most staggering and unforgettable horror sequences I’ve witnessed. Director Pascal Laugier has only directed the unremarkable Canadian supernatural thriller The Tall Man since, but Martyrs deserves to be remembered as one of the key horror movies of the 2000s, it’s an absolute must-see for any genre fan. If this film was ultimately the apex of the mostly awful early-mid 2000s ‘torture porn’ boom, then it was all worth it.