It’s difficult to really make a great horror film while setting it in modern times. We now live in an age in which we all have mobile phones, devices which can put us straight through to the police while we’re hiding from an axe-murderer in the woods. In a world in which help can be contacted at the simple click of a button, suspense can be tricky to create. And to have the phone’s signal be unavailable or the battery drained of power is now considered a cliché to roll one’s eyes at.
Horror films date all the way back to the late 1890s, really getting its blood pumping in the ’20s and ’30s, a time when Lon Chaney’s goofy make-up in 1925’s “The Phantom of the Opera” had audience members fainting in cinema screenings. Nowadays, we look back at this and laugh, as each new decade sees filmmakers upping the ante and desensitising us to past eras of horror. Currently, it seems to be a popular trend to just cut up your protagonists, focus on their shrieks of anguish, spray some blood on the camera lens, reveal some surgically enhanced tits, and call what you’ve made a horror.
With all its history of mixed attempts at shocking and horrifying, the genre is increasingly difficult to sustain and enliven while keeping it fresh, hence we keep getting these same tired old gore celebrations. It’s true that originality comes only so often from this area of filmmaking, but there are some contemporary horrors that stand above all else of the times. And since the turn of the 21st Century, there have been some right corkers worthy of recognition as slices of gruelling terror. Here is my list of the top 10 horror flicks since the year 2000.
10. “The Descent” (2005)
Following the critical success from his tongue-in-cheek werewolf horror “Dog Soldiers,” British director Neil Marshall continued exploring the genre with a much more serious fright fest. While the cast of his 2002 cult hit was primarily made up of male soldiers, “The Descent” has an all-female cast of six cave explorers who, on their latest adventure, find themselves trapped underground. They also find out that they are not alone down there, as vicious creatures lurk and screech in the darkness, licking their lips at the smell of the women’s blood. Marshall, who also wrote the picture, orchestrates some awe-inspiring tension, the kind that will have you slipping off the edge of your seat and landing hard on your backside. He also caters to the gore-guzzling crowd, as literal pools of blood are swum through by the petrified cast. As a creature feature it’s bloody terrifying, and will require one to buy a night light to get a good night’s sleep after viewing.
9. “The Ring” (2002)
A remake of Hideo Nakata’s Japanese “Ringu” of 1998, Gore Verbinski’s “The Ring” was the first in a trend of American adaptations of Asian horrors, and it remains the best of the bunch. Naomi Watts plays an investigative journalists who learns of a video tape that is said to kill people. Apparently, once the viewer has finished watching the tape, their phone rings and a voice tells them they will die in seven days. And once the week is up, they’re as dead and disfigured as a handicapped dodo. Watts decides to play the tape and is subjected to a slew of unnerving images before white snow crackles on the screen. And then her phone rings… The film has a very eerie atmosphere, Verbinski’s visuals suitably haunting from beginning to end. It’s disturbing, it’s menacing and it is certainly a unique story. And while the premise may be ridiculous, trust me, when the evil Samara climbs out of a TV screen you’ll be soiling yourself.
8. “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)
Another remake, Zack Snyder’s update of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie masterpiece “Dawn of the Dead” is an expertly handled reimagining that thankfully didn’t stain the legacy of the beloved original. The basic plot is the same: a gang of people who are lucky to still have a pulse barricade themselves in a shopping mall to escape the thrashing gnashers of the living dead. However, in this contemporary remake, the reanimated corpses are no longer slow and lumbering, Snyder going for more agile zombies who can leap and sprint. The film does lose the social commentary of Romero’s version, but that doesn’t matter when the film is so exhilarating, James Gunn’s script going for thrills instead of depth. Depth in a modern-day horror film? Ha! Poppycock.
7. “28 Days Later” (2002)
There’s been much dispute over whether or not “28 Days Later” should be considered a zombie film; the rabid monsters that chase the protagonists are not technically dead or resurrected, just infected with a disease that turns them more than a little disgruntled. Zombies or not, they’re a scary swarm of antagonists in a particularly scary film. Danny Boyle’s horror starts with Cillian Murphy waking up from a coma and discovering that Britain has been overtaken by a deadly virus that turns those infected livid beyond reasonable thought. Along with three other survivors, he tries to get to Manchester, where a rescue shelter apparently exists — however, this shelter turns out to be a bit different than he expected. Boyle’s one and only venture into the genre is breathtaking, the film revelling in raw terror as well as effective human drama, given a degree of intelligence by Alex Garland’s script and a bleak charm through its direction. The shots of a deserted London are stunning.
6. “Let the Right One In” (2008)
Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In” is probably the most arty film on here, it going less for scares and more for depth, focusing on the relationship between its two young main characters. The film is Swedish, based on the book of same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and is a tale of young love. The two leading characters are Oskar (Kåre Hedebran) and Eli (Lina Leandersson), both pale-skinned twelve-year-olds who become friends when Eli moves into Oskar’s apartment complex. A bullied boy, Oskar is delighted with their friendship, but is taken aback when he discovers Eli is a bloodsucking vampire. This is an exceptional, one-of-a-kind horror film that’s impressive both technically and emotionally, the cinematography astonishing and the mood effectively chilling. It’s like a deeper, less hormonal version of “Twilight.”
5. “Let Me In” (2010)
Yes, following “Let the Right One In” on the list is its American remake, written and directed by Matt Reeves of “Cloverfield” fame. Relocated to New Mexico, as opposed to the original’s setting of Stockholm, “Let Me In” sticks very close to the storyline of the Swedish film, some scenes practically exactly the same. However, there’s something about the remake that has much more of an impact than its filmic inspiration, the film somehow much more striking than Alfredson’s version. The eerie atmosphere is built upon to perfection and the relationship between Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) carries more weight. The character of the murderous “father” (Richard Jenkins) is also much more intriguing and memorable, Jenkins’ performance oddly sympathetic. And the scene in which this character’s attempt at murdering a young adult in a car goes horribly wrong was one of the best scenes of last year.
4. “Drag Me to Hell” (2009)
Before “Drag Me to Hell,” the last time director Sam Raimi properly touched upon the realms of horror was the “Evil Dead” trilogy, which ended in 1992. And, after concluding the “Spider-Man” franchise in 2007, Raimi decided to take another stab at the spook-em-up genre with this tale of gypsies, demons and murdered pussycats. Alison Lohman plays a loan officer named Christine, who denies an extension on a gypsy’s loan, resulting in the old woman losing her home. Unfortunately for Christine, this gypsy has some friends of the demonic sort, and places a curse on the loan officer after attacking her in a parking lot. Christine then learns that a demon called the Lamia will claim her soul in three days unless she does something about it. Meanwhile, the Lamia taunts Christine and makes her suffer until time runs out and he gets to drag her kicking and screaming ass into the fiery pits of Hell. The film is a comedy of sorts, featuring some brilliantly bloody slapstick while serving up some suspenseful scares, making for one of the most entertaining films of the last decade. It’s not quite “Evil Dead 2,” but it definitely made up for the disappointment that was “Army of Darkness.”
3. “The Others” (2001)
Set in an isolated country house in the aftermath of World War II, Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” is a traditional, old-fashioned ghost story. The film only has six main characters, half of which are Nicole Kidman and her two children, the other half being the newly appointed servants of this family of three. The servants’ arrival is met with some odd events occurring throughout the house, the mother becoming increasingly suspicious that there’s something in the residence with them, something that is not of flesh and blood. “The Others” is partly a drama and partly a psychological horror, showing Kidman at the top of her game as this desperate woman who goes a little off her rocker. It’s a very atmospheric, very gently paced haunted-house ghost story that’s remarkably creepy and sucker punches the audience with an unexpected twist ending that only psychics will see coming.
2. “The Mist” (2007)
Frank Darabont had already directed two adaptations of Stephen King novels before “The Mist,” namely “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” However, it wasn’t until 2007 that he adapted one of King’s famed horror stories in the form of this glorious monster movie. The story is of a group of people who huddle up together in a supermarket to avoid the dreaded mist that has formed outside. Why are they avoiding this mist? Because within the mist lurk supernatural creatures from another dimension that will tear them limb from limb if they step outside. What makes “The Mist” so exhilarating is its decision to make the monsters not the creatures outside but the people inside, as religion comes into discussion and causes the survivors to turn on each other. With an epic bummer of an ending, the film is strikingly poignant and beautiful while having enough true monster moments to satisfy die-hard horror fanatics.
1. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
Now, before you get your pitchforks out, let me first say that I am fully aware that “Shaun of the Dead” is not necessarily intended to be scary. The film is a very sharp satire and a comedy horror that, while revolving around a band of survivors of a zombie plague, was never intended to frighten audiences. Its intention is instead to tickle their funny bones, which it undoubtedly does on many, many occasions. It stars Simon Pegg as the titular character, a slacker salesman who is dumped by his girlfriend the day before a zombie virus breaks out in Britain. Co-written and directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright, it is his first full-length feature and is, in my opinion, one of the most promising and confident directorial debuts in cinema history. Crisply edited and wowing with a side-splitting script that farts wit and personality, the relentlessly amusing “Shaun of the Dead” is a loving homage to the George A. Romero days of zombie horrors.
Honourable mentions: “[Rec]” of 2007 for being a downright terrifying found-footage zombie horror from Spain. Also, “Paranormal Activity” of 2009, another found-footage chiller, this time about a house that’s haunted by a demon. The film split audiences between those who found it traumatisingly suspenseful and those who found it dull and boring. I’m proud to say I’m in the former category.