If the 1980s wore out horror conventions such as knife-wielding maniacs, wish-granting demons and comedic vampires, in the 1990s horror underwent another transformation. Clever films like The Sixth Sense had made money by generating atmosphere rather than gore. And the found footage phenomenon that (re)started with The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood that horror was big money. In the 2000s alone there was: The Collingswood Story, Incident at Loch Ness, Welcome to the Jungle, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Paranormal Activity, REC, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Home Movie, Quaratine, REC 2. All found footage.
Unfortunately, the growth of independent horror did not stop studios rushing to release a slew of remakes and sequels. Probably, the major studios perceived that here was a generation of moviegoers who had probably never seen the original version of many profitable 1970s horror movies. Like a helpless slasher victim, these films became easy prey for money men.
The 2000s also saw the birth of three giant movie franchises. “Final Destination”, “Resident Evil”, and “Underworld”. The first feels like a lacklustre retread of “The Omen”. The second is based on a computer game. And the third features Kate Beckinsdale in PVC. All of these made enormous amounts of money from exactly the audiences they aspired to, and spawned numerous sequels and even a reboot in one case. But for those who prefer their horror with more more… well, horror, here we go…
(On a side note, M Night Shayamalan, whose “Sixth Sense” was such a hit in the 90s, went on to write and direct the enjoyable superhero romp “Unbreakable” as well as the rather unbelievable sf/horror “Signs” and the totally insane “Lady In The Water” before returning to horror with “The Happening”, a half-serious tale of killer plants that I actually found to be entertaining. Sorry, M Night, but you just miss out on this list.)
Ginger Snaps 2000
Our first movie is an off-beat gem, typical of those that were getting more prominence as the film market became truly global. In this very original Canadian werewolf movie, lycanthropy is portrayed as a metaphor for a young woman’s sexual awakening. The result is a highly entertaining and funny movie with some genuinely emotional scenes, as Ginger’s gradual transformation (no lunar change this, but a full on, irreversible devolution) is seen through the eyes of her younger sister. A worthy addition to the genre, and a sign of things to come. Foreign horror films would become increasingly important in this decade.
Pitch Black 2000
Another example is this Australian sci-fi/horror feature starring a then-unknown Vin Diesel. A female spaceship captain and her crew, including one very dangerous prisoner, are stranded on a desolate alien world. But once the planet’s three suns go down, its nocturnal critters come out to play. And nasty critters they are too. A great concept that is carried out with suspense and great special effects. It spawned two sequels, but these were essentially just star vehicles for Diesel and never added to the original story.
Shadow of the Vampire 2000
Another off-kilter story, this time a “re-imagining” of FW Murnau”s filming of the silent film “Nosferatu”. Willem DeFoe is superb as Max Shreck aka Count Orlock aka Dracula, who has a very specific reason for allowing the filmmakers to shoot their film in his castle. A great black comedy horror with some excellent performances. Again, the film shows how great horror movies were flying under the radar.
Jeepers Creepers 2001
Yet another off-beat tale. This well-crafted horror comedy has a post-modern twist in that it is a brother and sister who stumble across a demon while on a road trip, rather than the usual suspects of teen movies with the obligatory love interest. Thus it subverts the genre and keeps it fresh. The demon itself, “The Creeper” is intriguing, indestructible, and capable of surprising the audience on a few occasions. Very enjoyable, it was a great success and had an inevitable sequel that wasn’t half bad, though less original.
London + rush hour + zombies = not good.
28 Days Later 2002
Just when we thought the zombie movie had been done to death (pun intended) along came Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, with a gritty tale of sort-of-zombies set in England. London and Manchester, to be precise. Giving the genre a modern twist, the film opens with environmental terrorists releasing a monkey from a biological warfare lab. Things rapidly go downhill from there. In a terrific scene, Cilian Murphy wakes up in hospital to find a London devoid of people. When we do meet the zombies, they are not the shambling undead of the Romero films, but sprinting, slavering contagious madmen. A nightmarish thrill-ride from start to finish, the movie carries on the glorious English post-apocalyptic tradition begun in “The Day of the Triffids”. It also set the stage for the zombie invasion that was about to come…
Naomi Watts is a good screamer.
The Ring 2002
Bringing Asian horror movies to the public consciousness (or “J-Horror” as it is sometimes imprecisely called), Gore Verbinski’s remake of a successful Japanese horror movie hit theatres in 2002. Naomi Watts is compelling enough as the ill-fated journalist who watches one VHS tape too many. But to audiences, it was the ghost who was the star, especially one sequence when the ghost appears on television, and then walks out of it. Others may find that the whole film is rather tame and relies upon creepy images which are actually not all that creepy. However, it was a huge success, and showed Hollywood that Japan was a rich, untapped well of source material (what is it with these puns?).
House of 1,000 corpses 2003
Performance artist and singer Rob Zombie’s first major feature. On the surface, a “Texas Chainsaw Masssacre” rip-off, it is actually much more than that. The film introduces a host of bizarre, demented and downright nasty characters who steal the show from the protagonists and would show up again in the even grittier sequel “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005). Zombie directs with assurance and a great deal of visual style. This movie boasts the most evil, seedy clown ever and what may be film’s most violent femme fatale!
It is easy to see why audiences liked Saw upon its release. The film has a very slender plot – a madman compels people to outwit deathtraps to teach them life lessons. It also has many clever twists. However, the main (and supposedly the cleverest) twist is not so believable. More importantly, the film was cheap to make. The result was a rash of sequels and a ton of money. Hollywood was waking up again to horror.
Dawn of the Dead 2004
The logical conclusion based on the success of 28 Days Later was to remake George A Romero’s beloved classic from 1978, with modern special effects. Thankfully, somebody hired scribe James Gunn and director Zack Snyder to do the job. The result is an insanely entertaining film that is full of modern CGI tricks while staying respectful to the original. Some standout performances from Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley and Jake Weber help. A great addition to the canon that cemented the zombie in the popular consciousness and led to many, many more zombie movies.
Shaun of the Dead 2004
And with success, comes parody. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s hilarious horror comedy tackled what would happen if a zombie apocalypse invaded suburban England. Hardly anyone notices. A watchable but less funny version is 2009’s Zombieland, although it’s hard to follow such a great double act as harried store-worker Shaun and his anti-social layabout friend Ed setting about a zombie in a pub to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”.
This is exactly what the zombie invasion would look like.
Let the Right One In 2008
Amid the plethora of Hollywood remakes, sequels and reboots, this obscure Swedish horror movie somehow managed to become a success in America as well as Europe. A simple tale of a young boy who meets a young-looking vampire and becomes friends with him/her, the movie has a genuine emotional core. There is a fair bit of gore, too. Hollywood soon cottoned onto this and did an English-language remake, as it would with almost every successful foreign horror film in the ‘Noughties.
House of the Devil 2009
What this list doesn’t show is the quite shocking amount of remakes and sequels that abounded. While independent moviemakers were becoming more well-known, studios chose to give us more of the same rather than take creative chances. The result was some less-than-memorable movies.
In the 2000s alone we had remakes of: Dracula, 13 Ghosts, Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, House of Wax, The Amityville Horror, The Fog, The Omen, The Hitcher, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Wicker Man.
Add to that English language remakes of: Let the Right One In, The Grudge, The Ring, Phone, Eye, Dark Water, Into the Mirror and Pulse, plus an enormous number of sequels.
And yet for all that, a few horror movies still shine through as being really good examples of the genre. Some come from surprising places like 2003’s “Into the Mirror” or 2006’s “The Host”, both from the expanding market of Korea.
It seems poignant, then, to end with a low-budget movie that is an homage to the classic 1970s independent cinema shockers of John Carpenter and Wes Craven.
House of the Devil was written and directed by Ti West, one of the genre’s most promising newcomers. From the opening scene, it feels like we have stepped back in time to 1978 and all will be well again. The shaky camera, the 70s clothes, music and even the “final girl” all make for a very believable 1970s “feel”. Yet the film still manages to wrongfoot us and shock us with clever plot twists as a young college girl is lured to a remote mansion by some very odd Satanists.
House of the Devil deserves far more praise than it has been given. West has gone on to be one of the leading lights of independent horror.
Horror cinema itself became divided in the ‘Noughties. On the one hand there were the big-budget, SFX-driven remakes and blockbusters, and on the other independent filmmakers such as Rob Zombie and Ti West, whose love for horror reminds one of those heady days in the 1970s, when independent filmmakers seized the night, and a new breed of low-budget horror was born.
The 2010s! Can the found footage genre prevent itself from being buried? What will happen to independent filmmakers in the wake of the Hollywood behemoths? Horror is saved by the haunted house movie (sort of)! We meet some rather unbelievable monsters, and some very unusual cannibals. Yum!