Please allow me to preface this article with a warning and a statement: Beware! Dozens of movies are discussed and spoilers will exist, so please keep that in mind as you read.
And I’m not a movie historian or expert, just a cinephile, probably like you, who enjoys horror movies. I also like to reflect upon times and situations in our history and ask: Why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, as well.
If you’ve read my three-part article on horror cinema of the 1990’s, then you’ll remember that I argued the ‘90s was a good decade for movies in general, but the worst for the genre of horror. This time, I’m here to tell you the opposite: I submit that the 2000s were one of the best decades for films and probably the best for horror.
Okay, okay, I hear you: What about the Universal Pictures’ movies of the ‘30s? What about the slasher craze of the ‘70s that lead to the boom of the ‘80s? Great decades, no doubt, but I think the ‘00s have them beat.
LIFE AND TIMES OF THE EARLY 2000s: A (Very) Brief Summary
While the world of the ‘90s seemed to be split in two: the first half being not so great and the second half being pretty good, the 2000s seemed to be punctuated with moderate peaks and very low valleys.
The decade starts with one of the worst events in American history: September 11, 2001. If you’re of a certain age, your life is probably divided between pivotal, oftentimes tragic events in your life (e.g.: before and after a close family member dies unexpectedly, etc.). For Americans, and perhaps for other parts of the world, our pre-9/11 and post-9/11 lives are added to that list.
The requisite War of Terror followed, but soon devolved into the quagmire that became the Iraq War.
In 2002, as if to snap the American public back into normalcy, the Washington D.C.-area sniper was on the loose, scaring the hell out of folks just like the Son of Sam and Zodiac Killer of yore.
In 2004, a devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed hundreds of thousands, becoming one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
The one common denominator in all this: Almost everything was caught on video for the world to see, sometimes playing out in real time. More on this later.
So, that was the bad; let’s get to the good…
EARLY 2000s HORROR: Crawling Before We Run
1999 gave us two of the best horror movies of that decade, so we had every right to think that we were heading into better times for the genre, but maybe not as fast as we thought.
The modern “found-footage” phenomenon was kicked off with The Blair Witch Project, but it would take years for another recognizable film of this subgenre to emerge, and more than a half-decade before the found-footage franchises found audiences (more on that subject later).
Night Shamalyan’s, The Sixth Sense, reinvigorated the ghost story and psychological horror subgenres, but it’s not until 2001 until we get another good one with Nicole Kidman in The Others, an effective haunted house story that I feel would have been even more successful if it wasn’t a victim of poor timing as audiences had already seen the very similar ending in the aforementioned Sixth Sense. I’m not sure when the script for Others was written or when the project went into development, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the story and screenplay had been around for years, maybe even before Sixth Sense, but alas, that movie was released first, stealing some of The Others’ thunder.
Somewhat paradoxically, I feel the first horror movie to really get the 21st century going is The Ring, the 2002 remake of Japan’s J-Horror Ringu from 1998. I say “paradoxically” because the plot-points of this movie are based on technology that seemed primitive only a few years later, but the film still holds up overall after more than a decade later. The movie was well-received by critics and was a huge hit at the box-office, launching a stream of Japanese horror remakes to varying degrees of success. Naomi Watts returned in 2005 for the obligatory sequel, The Ring Two (which is just awful), but she won’t be back for the third film, RINGS, tentatively set for a 2017 release after many delays (not an optimistic sign, unfortunately).
THE ASIAN INVASION
Remakes seemed omnipresent in the 2000s (for better or worse, but more for worse, and more on that later), but as previously stated, the success of The Ring caught Hollywood’s attention and made them research what horror-movies that Asia, particularly Japan, had for them to acquire the rights to. Most of what followed was lackluster at best: Dark Water in 2005 was panned, despite its stellar cast; Pulse, even with Wes Craven penning the screenplay, floundered in 2006; One Missed Call became one of 2008’s most worst reviewed movies; and Shutter remade the exceptional 2003 Thai horror in 2008, but couldn’t capture the same magic.
The outlier in all these films is 2004’s creepy The Grudge, a financially successful remake of Japan’s Ju-On: The Grudge. After banking almost $200 million dollars worldwide, two sequels were to follow in 2006 and 2009, and you guessed it, they aren’t as good.
2004’s seminal movie, Saw, written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, is perhaps responsible for a couple things: re-starting franchise films like we saw in the 1980s, and being part (although a small one) of the start of a new subgenre: torture porn.
In case you’ve lived on Mars for the past thirteen years, Saw tells the story of the Jigsaw Killer, who compels his kidnapped victims to make terrible choices, but are given a chance to live if the “right” choice is made, ultimately teaching them lessons on taking life for granted. What would you do?
Saw mixed creepy visuals with blood and gore, and concludes with a surprising, though fairly implausible ending. It’s a real “fun” ride.
Though, unsurprisingly, it received mixed reviews, Saw was a hit with audiences, grossing over $100 million dollars at the box office and spawning seven sequels over the next thirteen years.
Both Whannell and Wan, especially Wan, capitalized on the success of Saw, and both have established themselves as leaders in the horror genre ever since.
ZOMBIES RETURN FROM THE DEAD
28 Days Later, written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, became a surprise hit in 2002, both with critics and movie-goers, eventually grossing over $85 million dollars on an $8 million dollar budget. The British film put a new twist on an old tenet of how zombies hunt you down. No more would they lumber around. They now had the speed of Usain Bolt, and it works perfectly. Essentially a road-trip movie, our crew of protagonists are en route to a destination they think will be safe, only to find out that the living are worse than the dead. We’ve come to find out over the years, the film actually has several alternate endings, which I’m pretty sure you can check out on later DVD releases, or on YouTube.
What 28 Days Later launched was a seemingly unrelenting stream of zombie movies, the more notable being:
2004’s horror/comedy Shaun of the Dead with Simon Pegg.
Zach Snyder’s directorial debut with the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
2006’s Canadian horror/comedy Fido.
Will Smith starred in 2007’s I Am Legend, which somehow has bad C.G.I. and should have kept its original ending.
2007’s Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s entry in the double-feature with Quentin Tarantino.
George Romero returned in 2007 with his found-footage zombie film, Diary of the Dead.
2008’s Pontypool, while not a personal favorite, has definitely developed a bit of a cult following over the years, so I can’t deny its impact.
2008’s controversial Deadgirl (not to be confused with 2006’s The Dead Girl, the depressing Brittany Murphy crime-drama).
2009’s crazy French film, La Horde.
2009 gave us Zombieland, a funny and poignant horror/comedy with the exceptional Woody Harrelson, and probably the zombie/post-apocalyptic movie that uses the ubiquitous “rules to survive” plot-points the best way.
NEW FRENCH EXTREMISM
In the early 2000s, while France was being derided for its anti-democratic pacifism and chided by such clever jokes as “Freedom Fries” (get it?), film-makers from or affiliated with the country turned out some of the most transgressive movies in cinema history. Here’s a sampling:
Trouble Every Day is a 2001 Vincent Gallo marathon of eroticism and blood that has become more recognized fifteen years later.
Irreversible, though perhaps not technically in the horror genre, is a 2002 Gasper Noe film that unfolds in reverse chronological order. Despite not being labeled a horror, the movie has some of the most horrific, hard to watch scenes ever shown, the most infamous being the nine-minute, uncut rape scene of Monica Bellucci’s character. Controversial immediately upon release, Noe has defended the movie against criticism of homophobia ever since.
Haute Tension, a gory slasher movie from 2003, became infamous for the scenes they had to cut for an R rating, a twist ending that defies logic, many title changes, a version with odd voice dubbing, and, ultimately, a plot a little too similar to Dean Koontz’s Intensity. Despite this, the movie received as many good reviews as bad, and tripled its budget with almost $7 million dollars in box office sales.
Ils (Them) is a 2006 home invasion horror with a simple set-up: A young husband and wife are alone in a huge house located in a remote area, and evil’s come-a-callin’. It’s a pretty cool reveal when that evil is identified at the end. (The home invasion subgenre will be discussed further later on.)
Frontieres, with themes as relevant in late 2016 U.S.A. as they were when this was released in 2007 France, so let’s hope this gore-fest from writer/director Xavier Gens isn’t prophetic.
Inside, a 2007 home invasion horror that transcends that subgenre, is equal parts scary as it is bloody…and I mean bloody. The surprise ending works perfect and makes sense out of the carnage and antagonist’s motivation. It’s a great entry to this list.
Martyrs, last on the list, but definitely not least, is a 2008 movie from Pascal Laugier. Where to start with this movie? There’s just nothing like it. Divisive, to say the least, you can categorize this gory film as torture-porn, but it’s so much more than that. You’ll go through so many different emotions during its 94 minutes. Oh, it’s home invasion? Who’s the bad guy? Wait, it’s torture-porn? What’s the point of all this? Oh, there’s a point, my friend. Wait for the ending you’ll never forget that makes sense out of everything you just watched. I obviously can’t do this movie the justice it deserves; please, just watch it.
England’s Neil Marshall brought us two of my favorite horror movies of the early 2000s, one many have seen and one many might not have: The Descent and Dog Soldiers.
With the werewolf subgenre being a personal favorite, Neil Marshall’s 2002 Dog Soldiers is a great addition to this catalogue. We set out to the Scottish Highlands with a squad of British soldiers on a training mission who become hunted by werewolves. Even though a plot-twist or two can be seen coming, the movie perfectly mixes action, horror, and gallows humor, all on a low budget. It’s very well done.
The Descent from 2005 is a superior monster movie, telling the tale of a group of women who set out spelunking in the Appalachian Mountains. One of the ladies suffered a tragedy a year earlier – a gory car accident we witness in the prologue where her husband and daughter are killed, and this trip is supposed to be cathartic and strengthen the bond of friendship between the women. Way before any creatures become apparent, the danger and claustrophobia of their adventure is horror enough. Once the monstrous cave-crawlers appear, the movie really takes off, with the most notable scare coming from a camera’s night-vision function. The film was a hit with critics and audiences, eventually earning almost $60 million dollars, which was fourteen times its budget. A 2009 sequel was released with Marshall serving only as Executive Producer, but the movie couldn’t capture the magic the first film did. How could it have…
As for Neil Marshall himself, he hasn’t written or directed any original material recently, but has gone on to have a successful Hollywood career, directing episodes for Game of Thrones, Hannibal, and Westward.
I would be remiss to not mention the following films that bettered the horror genre in the early 2000s:
American Psycho is a 2000 slasher/serial killer movie adapted from the novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis and, ironically, written and directed by two women: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. Starring Christian Bale before his stardom, the film tells a tale of misogyny and excess in the backdrop of 1980’s Manhattan, with Patrick Bateman, a wealthy investment banker, who moonlights as a serial killer…or does he???
Ginger Snaps, a 2000 Canadian werewolf story of two teenage sisters. Though you’re run over like a truck by its themes, the movie tells a poignant coming-of-age story and the bonds of siblings.
Final Destination, in 2000, started a supernatural gore-fest that would eventually lead to five films in the franchise. Perhaps trying to capitalize on the late-90’s teen slasher craze, our young protagonists try to escape Death, but of course, it wouldn’t be a movie if they all did.
Jeepers Creepers, in 2001, also capitalized on the late-90’s teenage slasher film, this time telling the story of a brother and sister who set-off on a road trip during the worst time imaginable and end up stalked by a demonic creature. Grossed $60 million dollars on a $10 million dollar budget.
Session 9, 2001’s psychological horror, which pops up on almost every “Best of 2000s” list, went unseen by yours truly and a lot of other folks when it was first released, but has since become a cult classic in the genre. Directed by Brad Anderson, who would go on to have a Hollywood career of ups and downs.
May, written and directed by Lucky McKee in 2002, while well-received critically at the time, has developed a big cult following ever since. With obvious parallels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Angela Bettis plays the titular character, who many audience members identify with.
That gets us warmed up, so stay tuned for Part 2 of 2000s Horror, where real fun begins…
(Photo of Saw‘s Cary Elwes from Netflix Life.)
Crash Palace Support Team
Paul J. Williams is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, and his short films have appeared in numerous festivals. Although Paul’s the man behind Rolling Dark Productions, he’s also a detective in Morris County, New Jersey. Paul’s a Medal of Honor recipient from the City of Newark for actions on December 14, 2002