Within the ranks of film aficionados there has been a quiet discussion of the merits of horror movies released recently. Many feel that the genre is sacrificing compelling storytelling for predictable scares and too much blood. I happen to disagree and put forth the following seven movies to demonstrate that if you look hard enough, great contemporary horror movies are out there.
“28 Days Later (2002),” directed by Danny Boyle
There isn't a more fitting movie to kick off a post-millennium horror list than “28 Days Later”. Director Danny Boyle took the post-apocalypse zombie genre mastered by George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”) and added a few energetic tweaks.
For starters, zombies in the Boyle universe don't mope around like brainless pawns; they chase you down. In “28 Days Later,” the innumerable menace doesn't wait for you to be surrounded, it hunts you. In fact, to call the creatures “zombies” would be a bit of a mischaracterization. Technically, they're humans infected with a scientifically developed super virus known as RAGE. When infected, the host's body gains a boost of super-adrenaline and an insatiable craving for flesh.
The most potent scares in “28 Days Later”, however, are the implications of society's downfall, as witnessed firsthand by a recently awakened coma victim (Cillian Murphy). Shot in digital film to give the movie a documentary feel, the opening scenes follow Murphy as he wanders the eerily abandoned streets of London witnessing the swift and devastating toll taken by the international pandemic he's missed. It reminds us of the terrifying fact that we are all one small step from being alone on this planet.
“The Descent (2005),” directed by Neil Marshall
The first half of British director Neil Marshall's largely unnoticed monster movie follows six women hoping to cheer up their friend with a spelunking trip multiple stories underground. Inside the bleak cavern, the newly reunited women squeeze through tight spaces and barely avoid a cave-in only to discover that one of their friends has taken them off the beaten path. No one knows where they are and no one is coming to rescue them. If claustrophobia gives you the creeps, you'll find the first half of “The Descent” unbearable. Marshall and his team of creature designers are careful to hold off on the real horror payoff until later in the movie.
Once the women realize their peril, tensions rise until they're about to snap on each other. “The Descent” introduces the Crawlers, a band of humanoids that have evolved during their time living underground. These monsters first appear in a brilliantly executed night vision shot I'd rather not spoil (it involves two of the women falling into a giant pit of bones). Like most creatures in horror movies, the Crawlers hunt humans. Gore hounds will find their fair share of blood spilled. The ending, which was modified for American theaters, pulls the film back full circle to a tragedy these friends have suppressed. “The Descent” is a modern exploration of the effect horror and paranoia can have on a group dynamic not seen since “The Thing” (1981).
“The Devil's Backbone (2001),” directed by Guillermo del Toro
A unique aspect of “The Devil's Backbone” is that the ghosts in the movie have a purpose for their existence beyond the movie's horror devices. Typically within the horror genre, paranormal beings exist solely as objects to frighten the audience. Their actions are limited to jumping out at the right time before swiftly jumping back.
Spanish director Guillermo del Toro, whose other films include “Pan's Labyrinth” and “Hellboy,” uses his visual flair to illustrate a modern gothic fairy tale. Set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, “The Devil's Backbone” centers on a group of young boys convinced that the grounds are haunted by the ghost of Santi, a young boy who mysteriously disappeared. The orphans grow braver and begin to learn that Santi's ghostly communications carry tragic but ultimately true premonitions. As the events transpire in a devastating fashion, the children learn the truly terrifying and far-reaching effects of war.
“Ghost Adventures (2006),” directed by Zack Bagans & Nick Groff
In recent years, shows like “Ghost Hunters” and “Paranormal State” have gained a lot of attention from viewers trying to get close to haunted locations from the comfort of their not-so-haunted couches. People today don't just want to watch something scary, they want to experience the horror as well. For all the ghost hunting voyeurs out there, “Ghost Adventures” is the ultimate payoff.
Bagans and his team of two take a guerilla approach to ghost hunting. Armed with cameras and digital voice recorders instead of a team of investigators, the three filmmakers lock themselves in two Nevada hotspots which are rated among America's most haunted places. The film is right at home in our new “You Tube culture,” bringing viewers as close to the action as possible.
The results of their investigations need to be seen to be believed. “The Las Vegas Weekly” called “Ghost Adventures” the most convincing proof of the existence of the supernatural. They were well within good reasoning. A little teaser: the group is able to capture a full-bodied apparition and has a brick hurled at them from a particularly unruly poltergeist. Check You Tube for the full movie installments.
“High Tension (2005),” directed by Alexandre Aja
One sub-genre of horror films that has seen steady decline since the 1980s is the slasher movie. There has been no apparent heir to the title of teen mutilator since the days of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. Director Alexandre Aja aimed to fill that gap.
Two college students, one of whom is played by acclaimed French actress Cecile de France, drive out to the countryside for a family vacation. Much to their dismay and eventual horror, a ruthless killer known only as “Tom” has followed them to their secluded country cabin. As Tom begins methodically killing off the inhabitants of the cabin, the two young women flee the countryside with the murderer still on their heels.
Blood is spilled and after an epic car chase scene, “High Tension” also uses a device common in horror canon: the twist ending. I won't give it away, but the final shot leaves a chilling and inescapable resonance not matched by the other films on this list.
“Kairo (2001),” directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Would you like to see a ghost? This simple question sets off a series of events in “Kairo” (which loosely translates into English as “pulse”) that lead to the self-annihilation of humanity.
The story follows a small group of botanists that come to work one day and discover their friend has gone missing. At the same time, ghostly images begin appearing on the group's computer screens depicting people sitting alone moments before they commit suicide. As the group investigates further, they realize how massive the epidemic has become, with reports of suicides and missing persons flooding in across Japan. Soon we learn the source of what's been causing so many to willingly end their lives and the apocalyptic implications modern technology and an individualistic culture may have. Humanity remains trapped in the middle of a large-scale existential crisis, trying to return out of loneliness to the planet they once populated.
The only thing “Kairo” shares with other Japanese horror (known as J-horror or J-pop) hits such as “The Ring” and “The Grudge” is the nation of its origin. Kurosawa, who shares no relation with a certain legendary filmmaker of the same last name, sets a distanced, dark mood instead of using traditional methods to scare his viewer. Jump scares are replaced with eerie setting and open-ended philosophy. It's a brooding movie to say the least, shot in a dreamlike metropolis.
Some viewers will hate the film for all the questions it leaves unanswered. Some won't get it. But when you lay down alone to sleep at night you won't be able to stop dwelling on the movie's lasting pessimism. And do yourself a favor: skip the American remake.
“Shaun of the Dead (2004),” directed by Edgar Wright
Horror has always held a soft spot in its heart for humor. At times the brutality can get so overwhelming that the only reaction a viewer can have is to shrug it off and laugh. One can only watch so many people be impaled, decapitated and murdered on screen before they eventually grow desensitized or jaded to the action. Horror comedies exist on this fringe, keeping the violence and trading the danger for jokes about the subject matter. Some of these movies (“Manos Hands of Fate” and “Dead Alive” come to mind) have gained notoriety for being unintentionally humorous due to their low production values and ridiculous plotlines.
“Shaun of the Dead” is not a low-budget production. It is also intentionally funny. Made on a Hollywood-sized budget, this parody of zombie movies doesn't skimp on the rotting flesh or the funny moments. The story follows Shaun, a repressed young manager at a department store who's having trouble trying to convince his girlfriend that he's mature enough to be her long-term partner. Holding Shaun back is Ed, an oversized part-time drug dealer who always manages to get the pair into trouble. Eventually Shaun's girlfriend has enough of Shaun and Ed's late nights and drinking, so the two separate. In despair Shaun and Ed head to their favorite club, the Winchester, to blow off some steam, only to wake up to the zombie apocalypse.
The rest of the film centers on Shaun and Ed's attempt to collect their friends and relatives, including Shaun's mother and ex-girlfriend, and bring them to the Winchester for shelter. The landscape that Shaun and his group trod through is very different from the London seen in “28 Days Later.” The London they explore exudes light. The disaster has left infrastructure fractured in silly ways. Society doesn't seem as distant as in Boyle's vision. In “Shaun of the Dead” our worst fear is not being stalked mercilessly, but that we'll run out of peanuts waiting for the military to rescue us.
Want to watch their inspirations? Here are a few classic horror movies to check out-if you're feeling brave enough.
“Suspiria (1977),” directed by Dario Argento
“Dawn of the Dead (1978),” directed by George Romero
“Cannibal Holocaust (1980),” directed by Ruggero Deodato
“The Shining (1980),” directed by Stanley Kubrick
“The Thing (1982),” directed by John Carpenter
“The Evil Dead II (1987),” directed by Sam Raimi
“Session 9 (2001),” directed by Brad Anderson