Monday, December 10, 2012

Horror Moderna: The Best of the 21st Century...So Far - Part 1

I’d like to take a moment to thank all of you for helping me get this blog up to the wonderful 10, 000 mark! (Actually as of today the site has over 10, 600 hits) You all are fantastic and have taken a keen and genuine interest in this blog and have blown it up over the last few months and for that I’m grateful. I’ve gotten many emails from my readers telling me how much they enjoy what I’ve presented here and as I promised – because the the ten-thousand mark has been met and thus surpassed – I’m going to strive to make at least one entry here at least once a week. It’s very satisfying to see that so many horror fans have come to this spot to check out my entries and to get to know me as both a writer and as a fellow horror fan. If you know someone who would enjoy reading this, I invite you to share it on Facebook or by word of mouth. If you’re a casual reader, I invite you to follow this blog so you can be updated every time a new entry is added. Thank you all again for making this blog what it is and cheers to another ten thousand reads!
Now, I know that maybe a few you are wondering why I'm writing about films released after the turn of the century if this entire blog is dedicated to everything with the decade twenty years preceding it. Well, for one, horror is horror and though my heart belongs to everything eighties there are a few gems here and there that I come across every so often that were released after the once-feared Y2K mark that capture my imagination and stay with me. I've actually been accused of being rather discriminative to all things modern in terms of horror and though I have my reasons for being so picky, I'm not completely closed to new experiences. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of engaging in an IM session with a reader of this blog and we got to talking about modern horror and films released since the year 2000. I have to honestly admit that I’m not really into ‘horror moderna’ – only because I’ve sat through a slew of them and am instantly turned off by the production values some of them have. The over-use of CGI, the cookie-cutter and copy-cat elements taken from other films, the great number of tired remakes of films whose originals still remain a hundred times their superior, and most importantly, the endless absurd and/or disappointing endings and lack of originality that have caused my disinterest in the modern horror film. Now, I know there are some of you out there who stand firm and back the modern horror film. But remember, we’re all fans here. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Everyone is entitled to their unique points of view and voice them. That’s what makes the horror community what it is - endless opinions and likes and dislikes that form the huge melting pot that it is.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t dissed them all entirely. I have had the opportunity to sit through a good number of them. Aside from the plethora of torture porn films that came in this strange unannounced wave – which I still to this day will not sit through as I feel they’re a complete waste of time, I have given many films a chance. So the person I was IM-ing with posed to me a very good question, Hey Linus, what do you think are the best films of this millennium so far? The question to me was so intriguing that I thought I’d devote an entire blog entry to answer it. Now, take note that I haven’t seen a great number of films that have been released – as a great number of them have come out of Asia and Europe – but out of the good number of them that I’ve seen, here are what I think are the best ones so far. I’ll put them in random order:

High Tension (2003): Directed by Alexandre Aja, this film is one of the better films I’ve seen in recent day and it remains one of my top favorites of the new millennium and conversely, the oldest film in this particular posting. And it was rated NC-17 upon its initial release? An NC-17 slasher film? Call me pink with barely controlled glee! Though it was numbed-down to an R-rating here in the U.S. when it was unleashed on the movie-going public, I was disappointed that I wasn't able to catch it upon its first run and had to wait until the DVD was released. I would have loved to have seen it uncut with a group of people just to watch the mixed reactions of the audience as this is not a film for everyone. The French horror scene, though fairly misunderstood in this country, is one to be rivaled in recent day and it’s slowly becoming a top contender with other films coming from other parts of the world. When two friends go out into the country to do some studying, they are unknowingly followed by a homicidal maniac who brutally kills the entire family, except the two girls. This films boasts some of the best and well-executed murder set pieces I've ever seen presented on celluloid  and the best use of a piano as a killing device! Lots of blood, lots of slicing, and lots of...well, lots of blood! Borrowing heavily from Dean Koontz’s Intensity (you can deny this all you want but its true as I've read the novel...twice), the film changes the story in its final act and delivers a plot hole so big that you either take it and run or cuss it out with a vengeance. I can already hear you saying, it was all a what?!

Though it’s fast paced and terrifying on a very visceral scale, the ending is completely absurd – and was completely ripped off as Identity used the exact same ending a couple of years earlier. I always tell people jokingly, If you've seen Identity you've seen High Tension!  But as far as the actual horror aspect is concerned, it delivers – and with both panache and undeniable gusto. Aja creates a very terrifying atmosphere, delivering on all levels and even throws a little girl-on-girl undertone to round it out wonderfully. If you’re a sucker for the films released during the golden age of slashers, you are in for a major treat. And if you’re as die-hard of a fan as I am, you’ll see a couple of nods to some of the old films, like a brilliant (and very frightening) homage to the memorable subway bathroom scene in Maniac, and the absolute best [i.e., disturbing] circular-saw murder you will ever see. As far as I’m concerned, this is considered essential viewing when it comes to horror of the new millennium [and French horror, period] and a great launching point for those looking for somewhere to start. Positively fantastic.

Sinister (2012): I was able to get a hold of a bootleg copy of this film by a friend mainly because I didn’t have the time to go into the local theater to see it and I was very curious about both the film’s premise and how Ethan Hawke was going to pull off a horror role. Let me say that I was pleasantly surprised. From the film’s haunting opening image to the horrifying revelation at its close, this film was a welcome entry into my mind and my collection. This is one of those films that I can honestly say that will restore your faith in the American horror film after so many duds that have been churned out with the past few years. If you’re a horror fan, like myself, who has ‘seen it all’ and who has the attitude and idea that ‘it’s all already been done’ - though true, you’re seriously in for a real treat. 
The film’s plot, while being very basic – Hawke, a famous crime novelist,  and his family move into a home in which a case of 8mm films and a projector reveal the murders of several families that have lived there in the past which all tie together in a shocking (but predictable) twist – builds a sense of impending doom and genuine terror. With the help of a local deputy - who is actually a longtime fan of Hawke's character - the two team up in hopes to discover the secret that lies within the house.  I really don’t say this about many modern horror films, especially ones that are American-made, but this one stayed in my head long after it was over and that’s what counts. It knew its mission was to scare and disturb and it did it with a subdued panache and it delivered one hundred percent. The film is actually frightening - I’ll say that with confidence. It manages to crawl under your skin and keep you on the edge of your seat. There is way the film dissects the Oswalt family, having a troubled past that culminates in this one house asking why here? The only downside I found to this great film was that I was able to figure out the reveal – and the ending – about three quarters of the way through. Normally, once I ‘do the math’ I lose interest in the film and fast-forward it just to see if I was right and then turn it off. But, not this time. I actually can’t wait for this to come out on DVD (as most of the film takes place in the dark and the copy I received was even darker). It employs many (and I mean many) clichés and a slew of set pieces and techniques that we’ve all seen and are very familiar with. The marketing campaign for the film was hokey, as well, relying way too much on the tagline, "From the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious". For me, that sentence was the film's own death wish because most people who've seen those two films could automatically (and unfairly) assume that this new one could very well be in the same category yet this one stands on its own. With that said, I will stick to my guns and say that this is one of the better horror films to come out in a really long time. (The DVD is scheduled for a February ’13 release. And *Thanks*, C.K., for providing me with a copy of this!).

The House of the Devil (2009): Ti West’s film set in the 1980’s about a girl who takes a babysitting job to help pay for her new apartment is a fantastic delve into the long-forgotten sub-genre known as “satanic panic”, the endless films that came out during the Reagan administration having to do with everyday people living their lives worshipping the prince of darkness, the consequences that follow, and the innocent people who accidentally stumble onto/become involved in what comes next. This one is filmed with many elements that made the 80’s so fantastic and it works on all levels. It relies on mood and atmosphere to set its tone. From the opening scene (with Dee Wallace Stone!) until it’s strange (but yet predictable) closing, the film delivers an eerie mood of impending doom and does it with a style that completely imitates those films from back then that we hold in such high regard. So may touches that remind us of the 80’s (the disclaimer telling us that the film is based on true events, the opening title card freeze, the zoom techniques and stylistic touches in costume, sets and music) are used well and actually make me miss the slasher boom’s heyday.

The film actually manages to keep it simple and concentrate wholly on building suspense for the first half. It sort of plays like a modern Halloween keeping the gore to a minimum and relying on making you feel uncomfortable and frightened. Now, the third act is something to talk about as it does manage to induce a nightmarish feel just as we discover just what the hell is going on when we finally see why she'd been lured to that spooky house out in the country. The ending, though much too ambiguous for my tastes, did leave me thinking and I actually thought that the story concluded intentionally in the manner it did to provoke a possible sequel. I mean, let's face it, after the sheer terror that poor Samantha (Donahue) had to endure, I would have liked to have known just what happened to her once the end credits rolled and what ever became of that horrific night. At the time the film was released, there was even a clamshell promotional VHS floating around to keep in the spirit of the stylistic intent of the film and there were even several one-sheet posters released (with my favorite of the bunch being showcased above) each using classic 70’s and 80’s art techniques that made those classic films even better. The film is worth picking up as there’s a way West builds tension and fear that keeps you on the edge of your seat proving that he's a newcomer to watch out for. Topped off with great performances by Tom Noonan and Mary Waronov (and a fantastic debut from cutie-newcomer Jocelin Donahue) the film is memorable and a definite must-see. I’ve watched this more than a handful of times and it still gives me chills each time. 

The Descent (2005): I actually got to see this during its theatrical run back in 2006 (when it was released in the States) and was taken completely by surprise. The film follows a group of six friends, all women, who become trapped in a series of underground  caverns and then fall prey to a group of subterranean man-eating humanoids. Sounds absurd, yes? But wait, sit through it and you’ll have a different opinion.

Starting things off with a powerful (and memorable) opening scene, director Neil Marshall concentrates on mood and character development and as we watch the women enter as inseparable friends and end up fighting for their lives, and each other, we slowly feel their plight and begin to root for them a hundred percent. During some scenes in the film, you have to stop yourself and wonder, Could this really happen? Could there really be an underworld of sorts living below us that the human race is completely oblivious to? Could we really visit a place like this in real life and be confronted by something so terrifying beyond human comprehension? The settings are so real, so familiar. I mean, everyone has been to some type of National Park, some recreational place out and away from civilization where we "get away" to forget the rest of the world. A place we see as safe and wholesome. What if were confronted by an unknown evil, forced to fight for our own survival while at its mercy? The film actually makes you think, makes you ponder on the human existence and does it quite well.  There is an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia – and at times literally - and it’s presented on screen in horrific realism – and it actually manages to deliver the heebs on a grand scale. And speaking of the heebs, watch this movie and then look at the picture above - it will give you a good dose of 'em. (If you get the DVD, make sure you get the unrated version, as it contains the original ending that was altered for the American theatrical release.)

The Strangers (2008): From the moment I saw this trailer, I knew that it was going to rock my world. I made sure to see this in a theater back in ’08. A simple story that relies on atmosphere, mood and timing to make it one of the most frightening movies I’ve ever seen and one of the top-notch best this millennium has offered thus far. I've spoken with some horror fans about this one and there seems to be a divide down the middle with some of us on one side, saying it's a complete foray into urban terror while the others have the opinion that this film was built on endless unncecessary "jump scares" and empty shocks. A couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) whose engagement night suddenly takes a downhill plunge - which is actually portrayed quite well -  makes a turn for the worst as their home is invaded by a trio of masked people out to terrorize someone at random. There are scares aplenty, and some of the creepiest scenes you’ll ever see. Sure, I’ll admit that a lot of the movie is just clichés and re-used elements that we’ve seen over and over again but they’re put together to make a completely – in my opinion – original and very terrorizing story.  And by the way, after watching this you will never be able to hear Gillian Welch’s “My First Lover” ever again, period.

Does this movie scare me? Absolutely. Growing up in rural Texas and living out in the country, this could easily have happened to my family, or anyone living around us, which only heightens the feeling of terror for me when I’m actually brave enough to sit in front of it. For me, yes, it's that frightening.  A second installment about the masked assailants following a family who moves on account of the failing economy has been in talks since the release of the first film. Hopefully it will come to fruition as there are rumors that Liv Tyler would possibly be returning. The unrated version of the film accompanies the theatrical version on the DVD, but I do feel I have to warn you – there is a notice at the start of the DVD before the initial menu comes up that claims there is a possibility of damage to your player if you choose to watch the unrated version.  I did, and suffered the consequences. Yes, my DVD player did not work again after this DVD came out of it – which spooked the shit out of me - and had to resort to buying another one. Coincidence? You be the judge.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Ok, I know that I may be risking a lot here by including this one, but I can’t help it as I think it came completely out of left field and knocked my socks off. Having waited since 2010, as had a million other horror fans, I gave up on the notion of ever getting to see this one because it seemed like it was destined to be just another horror urban legend. But then the wonderful news that it was going to be released after all was brought to light and once again I was excited. Was Joss Whedon going to make our wait worthwhile and give us the ‘perfect’ horror film? Was this movie going to rock our worlds like it had been promised for years and years and leave us begging for more? Was this going to be more ‘monster movie’ than slasher as I’d been reading? When it was finally released this past year, I began to see on Facebook from friends of mine that had gotten the chance to see it before I did and was disillusioned by how many people were actually giving it the thumbs down and countless ‘not worth seeing’ reviews. With this, I told myself that I wasn’t going to risk being disappointed and decided to do some research and actually read every spoiler that was available to me about this. I found a website that gave away the entire plot of the film and said ‘oh, what the hell’ and read it because I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to see it based on word of mouth (I should really know better, right?). What I read was absolutely fascinating and I immediately thought to myself how the bloody hell are they going to pull [the plot and ending] off?

So I made my way downtown and bought myself a ticket to make my own opinion. And was I surprised to end up being wonderfully surprised [Yes, I'm aware that previous statement is gramatically reduntant]. And I could understand why: all of these friends that had been dissing the film weren’t horror fans in the least come to realize that the movie had been made for die-hard fans like myself, complete with obscure nods to 80’s films [pay attention during the "basement scene"], references to “the rules” and wonderful tongue-in-cheek jokes that balanced out the horror scenes to make a film that comes completely out of left field in both originality and execution.   I don’t want to go too deep into the schematics of why I ended up loving it the way I did or analyze it completely but I’ll tell you that I may just review it here soon and give you exactly what I think of it. This has been described as a “love hate letter” to the entire modern horror genre that takes every conventional cliché and “rule” and totally turns it topsy-turvy and I couldn’t have said it any better. You go into it at the beginning expecting one thing and it screws with your brain until it becomes nothing like what you thought it would be - smart, savvy, and memorable.  

Inside (2007): I was introduced to this film by a friend whom I trade DVDs with who said to me, you have GOT to see this one! Normally I’m weary of trusting anyone else’s recommendations but his enthusiasm for this one drove me to sit at the computer and look it up. I began to research it and honestly, the cover of the U.S. Dimension Extreme release didn’t do anything for me as it appeared very ‘torture porn-y’. But before I completely dismissed it, I continued to read about its premise and the more I did, the more curious I became. So I made a few phone calls and within a few days, I had a copy of this in my hand. Known overseas as A l'interieur, this is the second French horror film on this list, and for very good reason. A pregnant photographer named Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is involved in a horrible automobile accident that tragically kills her fiancé leaving her alone just as the Holidays are approaching. Come Christmas, she is visited by a strange woman (an absolutely sexy woman named Beatrice Dalle) who knocks on her door and asks to use the telephone. What ensues is not only the most frightening and shocking home invasions ever captured on film, but one of the goriest and brutal films I’ve ever seen, hands down.

 My jaw hit the floor at the start of the second act and let me say that attempting to pick it up was a task as at every turn I was treated to one horrifying scene after another presented with such realism that it has to be beheld to be believed. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed out loud in pure terror as I have with this film and when I started putting together the pieces, the shocking twist – and absolutely disturbing ending - proved that I could still be blown away by a piece of cinema. This is one of those movies that I enjoyed so much that I don’t want to give away anything because you have to see it for yourself, especially for the final cryptic scene. I have to warn you though that this one is absolutely not for the faint of heart. Even for me, the gore hound, this was very difficult to sit through in its entirety. If you can make it to the end in one sitting, you're stronger than I am. Bring it on, France!  (*Thanks* Jay R., for recommending this one - and providing me with a copy!)


In My Sleep (2010): Well, I’m not sure I should actually place this in the “horror” category but it was close enough. I’m not going to beat around the bush or tell a fib, but the one and only reason I even took any interest in this one was because of the one-sheet art: an almost fully-naked man in a white bed holding a knife. That pretty much sold me. Why lie? So you can imagine how excited I was to not only see that Mr. Philip Winchester was in this film, but he spends a good ¼ of the film in just in freakin’ underwear! Now, I hate to be biased but if you know who this mega-hottie is, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. But, I have to be fair and say that after the first couple of minutes- which includes a nice opening scene of Mr. Winchester almost naked in a cemetery, the film had me in its grasp. Simple story: Marcus (played by Winchester) who has a strange sleep disorder called parasomnia which causes him to do things while he sleeps that he can’t remember later. Oh, and to top it off, he’s a nymphomaniac and a sex addict. Yep, a sex addict, and a sex addict who actually attends meetings. Are you fanning yourself yet? (LOL) Things take a turn for the worst, though, when he wakes up one morning to find himself covered in blood and hearing the police knocking at his door. It doesn’t help to find out that his best friend’s wife has been murdered. What transpires is a very interesting and surprisingly satisfying whodunit that relies on good storytelling and character development. Lacey Chabert is in this one as Marcus’ neighbor and though she plays the same character in practically everything she’s in – including this – she emits a likeable quality this time around. And did I mention Winchester walks around in his underwear [and by ‘underwear’ I mean snug boxer briefs] for a good ¼ of the film?!  

oh Joy!

There are a few others that I’d like to mention but for the sake of keeping this article readable, I’ll be writing a second entry for this and share with you all what I think are some of the best stuff that's been made in the 21st century. Feel free to share your opinions or what you think are the best ones so far and leave comments as I’d love to hear what you guys have to say. If you guys have any suggestions or can lead me to any hidden gems - again, anything but torture porn - I'd welcome them. Again, thank you all for the 10, 000 hits – you guys are fantastic!