Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Best Horror Movies of the 2000s: 50-41

There are those that would say that horror is dead; I would say that those individuals haven't been paying much attention these last ten years.

I must have been ten years old when I first discovered the visceral thrill of having your pants scared off. When my parents, after much prodding, allowed me to watch a late-night showing of Hitchcock's "Psycho", I went to bed peering at every shadowy corner of my room, vowing to swear off showers for life---but I felt strangely alive. This was my awakening---and seeing "Halloween" on October 31st a couple of years later with my middle-school girlfriend cemented that I simply loved to sink my teeth into a good horror film.

The last decade of horror, of course, has proven that horror films, like most forms of fiction, have largely run out of original ideas. We've cycled through watered-down remakes of Asian horrors, jump scare bonanzas, reimaginings of late-night creepshow classics. The best of these are tongue-in-cheek homages or innovative spins on the originals---the worst are the retreads that didn't need to exist in the first place. Still, as the genre that captivated me as an adolescent soldiers bravely onward, bolstered by the efforts of a handful of visionaries who respect and love the form, true fans of terror know that the horror movie is far from dead. In fact, the inventiveness and craftsmanship of the best horrors of the new millenium is refreshing when stacked up next to the near-barren decade that was the '90s, all slick and self-aware teenage slashers (remember the WB era?) or 80s horror last gasps.

And so, faithful readers, I bring you the cream of this millenial crop. At their worst, they bring heaps of entertainment as they derive shamelessly from the classics; at their best, they are classics in their own right, destined to fill shelves next to the very films of your that inspired them. They are the best horror movies of the 2000s.

50. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010, Samuel Bayer)

It isn't easy to recreate iconic horror: horror's Big Three (Michael, Jason, and Freddy, natch) have all been retooled in the last five years, sufficiently pissing off their legions of devotees. The worst of these was "Friday the 13th", a remake that neglected every one of classic horror's assets in favor of, well, boobies. "A Nightmare on Elm Street" may not stand shoulder to shoulder with its original incarnation, but its ace in the hole is the remarkable Jackie Earle Haley, an actor of such ferocity that he couldn't help but to make Freddy the monster he was always meant to be. It's a performance that wisely steers away from camp and imitation in order to inspire fear---Englund as horror's clown prince was always a delight, but rarely truly scary. Haley is more monstrous than flippant. Combined with keen visuals and a deceptively smart screenplay, this new "Nightmare" hits more than it misses.

49. Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorcese)

Horror in the Hitchcock mode, this genre exercise by movie master Martin Scorcese may rank as lesser Scorcese stacked up to some of his gems. Still, even with that pat ending, "Shutter Island" emerges as a terrific mystery, and a chilling carnival of grotesques. Still not convinced that it qualifies as horror? The big reveal, the flashback that unveils the true nature of Leonardo DiCaprio's pain, is the sucker-punch to the gut that solidifies it. The Master of Suspense would be proud---it may only be a genre exercise, but Scorcese makes it one of the finest of its kind.

48. Open Water (2003, Chris Kentis)

Despite the fact that I literally can't find another human being that approves of this movie, I continue to sing the virtues of the refreshingly simple "Open Water". As a vacationing couple floats in the ocean while hungry sharks circle, the film emerges as a basic exercise in noose-tightening. The suspense creeps from a heightening sense of hopelessness, and a clever inversion of the stages of grief. When reluctant acceptance comes into play, it's one of the best, most bone-chilling moments of any film here.

47. Hard Candy (2005, David Slade)

A torture movie that quickly reverses the expected outcome, "Hard Candy" exists in that exciting space of the moral conundrum; is the true villain the guy trolling for underage tail on the internet, or the precocious young pixie (a terrific Ellen Page) who takes him hostage and makes him confront his moral choices---torturing and possibly maiming him in the process? A clever, nasty little thinker, "Hard Candy" is an edgy take on the Little Red Riding Hood mythos---albeit with a Big Bad Wolf who chooses to devour his prey in a much more unsettling manner, and with a Riding Hood who wants to lop off the Wolf's balls.

46. Identity (2003, James Mangold)

A clever inversion of the "victims in isolated setting get picked off by one of their own" trope, "Identity" effectively uses its setting---a rain-soaked motel---to excellent effect, and turns over each one of its cards slowly. Each reveal is a delight, and while we wait for those reveals, we have considerable suspense and terrific performances to tide us over. In the post-Shyamalan resurgence of the big twist ending, "Identity" provides us with one that's not totally lame, and a wonderfully nasty final shot to boot.

45. Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)

Say what you will about Rob Zombie, but when watching each one of his movies, you understand that he a.) loves horror, b.) has seen every horror movie ever made, and c.) understands what makes good horror work, even if he can't always replicate it himself. His take on "Halloween" is miles away from the original, which of course is the Greatest Horror Movie Ever Made. By comparison, "Halloween" is small potatoes. As its own film, though, Zombie's "Halloween" is a compelling peek into the psyche of a movie monster, a sort of "Michael Myers: Behind the Music". That it truncates the events of the original into the final 40 minutes or so is immaterial: a bland retread like the "Friday the 13th" would do the original a much larger disservice. No, Zombie delves into the why and the what in equal doses, and comes up with something reverent, glum, and on occasion, legitimately frightening. The less said about his "H2" the better---still, be glad that in the decade of "Halloween: Resurrection", Rob Zombie made everyone's favorite ghoul a little bit human.

44. Vacancy (2007, Nimrod Antal)

What is it about travel lodging that makes it an ideal breeding ground for terror? Is it the disorienting feel of an unfamiliar setting? Or is it the pervy night manager who has every room wired with video and audio so, when you're murdered by unnamed intruders in the middle of the night, he has new horror movies to watch every night? "Vacancy" hypothesizes that it's the latter---and, barring a climax that relies too heavily on action to resolve itself, its position is pretty convincing. Quick, nasty horror of the highest caliber.

43. Cabin Fever (2002, Eli Roth)

Forget Eli Roth's forays into torture porn---his entry into the "cabin in the woods" subgenre of horror is what really works. This gleefully nihilistic tale of a flesh-eating virus always infuses its uglier sensibilities with a hearty dose of humor, vintage Raimi-style. Long before he was plucking out eyeballs and feeding genitalia to dogs in the "Hostel" films, Roth, like Rob Zombie, was an expert homage-ist, paying tribute while forging his own path. This funny, flippant, gruesome little shocker is a testament to that. The credit montage is a hilarious example of mean-spirited black comedy done right.

42. The Children (2008, Tom Shankland)

Possibly the only truly good horror movie to come out of the well-intentioned but ultimately bargain-basement Ghost House Underground series, "The Children" presents an intriguing moral dilemma: when your children are slowly taken over by some sort of virus that possesses them with the instinct to kill you, can you lethally retaliate? "The Children" goes places that most horror movies wouldn't dream of---these adorable moppets quickly turn brutal, and must be taken down. "The Children" wisely doesn't play this for camp: every frame is somber, every decision agonizing, every death deeply felt and not glazed over, every kill legitimately horrifying. This is what makes it work as a singularly grim work of horror art.

41. Orphan (2009, Jaume Collet-Serra)

Impressively subversive, people who took the time to give this run-of-the-mill-seeming "evil child" chiller were smacked with one of the most over-the-top, audacious twists of the Twist Era. But, unlike so many Twist Ending Movies before it, "Orphan" doesn't rely solely on its reversal. No, its simply the cherry topper on a grisly, edgy sundae---treading much of the same ground as "The Children" in presenting the audience with the conundrum of a child who must be stopped, "Orphan" quickly ups the ante, having its titular mini-monster dispatch antagonists in a series of increasingly horrible ways. Expertly realized, and refreshingly ballsy.

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