129. Shadow of the Vampire (2000- dir. E. Elias Merhige)
Like a bloodsucker after that first mouthful of vein juice in the evening, horror entered the ‘90s reinvigorated and ready to break some rules. The genre’s first great flick of the decade accomplished the seemingly impossible by taking a newfangled approach to the hoariest of movie monsters. With satisfying appropriateness, screenwriter Stephen Katz twirls the clock all the way back to the first true horror film to posit the question: “What if Max Schreck was not just the star of Nosferatu, but actually was nosferatu?” Director E. Elias Merhige is off and running from there with a witty, stylish period horror movie boasting an inspired cast of weirdos. John Malkovich is director F.W. Murnau, who must keep his movie rolling while contending with the morphine addiction of his lead actress, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), and the far graver habits of his vampiric star. As Schreck, Willem Dafoe is brilliant: menacing, sad, repulsive, and very, very funny. His lackadaisical night creature is a hilarious foil to frantic Murnau. After the grainy, avant garde experiment Begotten, Merhige was as unlikely a choice to helm a mainstream film as David Lynch was when Mel Brooks chose him to make The Elephant Man after Eraserhead. But like Lynch, Merhige adapts his style with consummate artistry and professionalism. His art crew’s recreations of the original Nosferatu sets captured in shadowy full color and scratchy black and white are as glorious to behold as the sparks that flicker between Dafoe and Malkovich.
130. The Others (2001- dir. Alejandro Amenábar)
131. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002- dir. Don Coscarelli)
Like Shadow of the Vampire, Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s Bubba Ho-Tep reimagines history, but with even madder results. Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy are alive, though not particularly well, in a Texas nursing home having faked their deaths all those years ago. Or are they simply a pair of delusional old men, who also attribute the natural deaths of their elderly neighbors to a soul-sucking, redneck mummy haunting the premises? Bruce Campbell as the King (who claims he switched places with an Elvis impersonator who met his maker while sitting on the porcelain throne in ’77) and Ossie Davis as J.F.K. (who claims he had himself dyed black to hide his identity after Oswald’s assassination “attempt”!) are so convincing in their respective roles that matters of truth and fiction soon fade to the background. Funny without being cynical or smug, the ultra-campy premise is played surprisingly straight, allowing the moments of suspense and the endearing bond between Presley and Kennedy to ring true. The title mummy is memorable, but Bubba Ho-Tep is more of a supernatural character study than a monster movie.
132. May (2002- dir. Lucky McKee)
With an over-saturated DVD/video market and a lack of an active Midnight Movie market, building a cult phenomenon was much different in the ‘00s than it had been in decades past. Some films arrived with built-in cult appeal (Shaun of the Dead). Others were self-consciously pushed as cult movies (take your pick of Samuel L. Jackson vehicles). On occasion, a picture still built its following the old-fashioned way. May took some time to catch on, playing in few and scattered theaters, picking up steam on DVD, then winding up back in theaters, which is when this writer first saw it. Lucky McKee made a film with all the right elements for a cult horror classic: shocking violence and excessive quirk. Initially, the quirk feels ostentatious, but as May unravels, it reveals itself to be something of a critique of the hollow idiosyncrasies of so many post-Pulp Fiction independent movies. A cast of hipsters revels in their own pre-fab weirdness, yet don’t know how to react when they meet someone genuinely weird and very, very disturbed. That’s title character May (Angela Bettis), a poorly socialized seamstress whose best friend is a creepy porcelain doll encased in glass. She’s also attractive enough to catch the attention of hunky Dario Argento-wannabe Adam (Jeremy Sisto), sexy co-worker Polly (Anna Faris), and dopey punk Blank (James Duval). Each of these characters fancies him/herself edgy, but can’t cope with May’s violent tendencies. She ends up disappointed in each of her suitors, not just because of their innate normalcy, but because of minor physical “flaws” she finds off-putting. This all builds to a climax that is bizarre and sad, even monstrous. Like May’s would-be boyfriends and girlfriends, McKee’s film isn’t perfect. At times he too stumbles in the name of edginess. An awful sequence finds a classroom of blind kids crawling over broken glass. Missteps aside, May is an excellent contemporary twist on classics such as Psycho, Carrie, and Frankenstein deserving of the cult it continues to build.
133. 28 Days Later (2002- dir. Danny Boyle)
134. House of 1,000 Corpses (2003- dir. Rob Zombie)
135. Open Water (2003- dir. Chris Kentis)
In an episode of “The X-Files”, Agent Scully tells her partner, “My father always told me to respect nature, because it has no respect for you.” This is the lesson to be learned from Open Water. A couple of workaholic yuppies, who even use cell phones to speak to each other at home, take a scuba-diving trip to relax and reconnect. Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis) (Jaws fans, take note of those names) don’t find much relaxation but are forced to communicate in the most primal manner when they’re stranded in shark-ridden waters miles from the shore. Like The Blair Witch Project, Open Water derives its terror from starkness and verisimilitude but without the “found footage” conceit. And whereas Blair Witch depicts nature as almost predatory, Susan and Daniel are the intruders in Open Water. While venturing in a place humans are not meant to be, they are left to suffer the consequences of their lighthearted trespass. Nature is not malicious as it is in Blair Witch or vengeful as it is in The Birds. It is impassive with a complete disregard for human arrogance. The sharks that hunt Susan and Daniel are not monsters like the giant great white in Jaws. They’re just hungry. Because they don’t look like Spielberg’s mechanical monster, the real Caribbean reef sharks Chris Kentis and Laura Lau wrangled for their film aren’t as horrific. They look like the mid-sized, lean fish that they are. But the predicament is absolutely terrifying, and Susan and Daniel’s mental and physical deterioration is deeply disturbing. They exit their story meekly, leaving behind only the primordial essence of nature: sea and sky. It’s a near apocalyptic conclusion to a harrowing film.
136. Shaun of the Dead (2004- dir. Edgar Wright)
A brief zombie parody in their sitcom “Spaced” got Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg thinking about developing the idea into a feature film. Both huge Romero fans, they combined the post-modern humor of “Spaced” with the gory shocks of their mentor and produced the funniest horror-comedy since Evil Dead 2. Shaun of the Dead stars Pegg as a lazy ne’er-do-well who just wants to drink with his slovenly buddy Ed (“Spaced” co-star Nick Frost) at their local. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) wants him to grow up. The reluctant Shaun is forced to do just that when a zombie plague breaks out across London, and it’s down to him to lead a band of family, friends, and not-so-much friends to safety. An instant cult hit boosted by both “Spaced” and Romero’s hardcore fan bases, Shaun of the Dead received great praise for its hilarious set pieces. And it has these in spades: Ed’s “apologetic” flatulence and his goofy profiles of the Winchester pub’s regulars, the battering of a zombie in time with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”, Ed and Shaun’s discussion about choosing the right Prince album to use to execute the walking dead and their drunken trio of “White Lines” with an (unbeknownst to them) zombie. The film also works really well as a true horror film. The kills perpetrated by both villains and heroes are as shocking and graphically gory as those in any “serious” zombie picture. The final showdown at the Winchester is fraught with tension, because writers Wright and Pegg wisely keep the stakes high by allowing their characters to die. Because these characters— even the motherfucker stepfather (Bill Nighy), the failed actress (Lucy Davis), and the twat (Dylan Moran)—are so likable, their ends are sincerely moving. With its wholehearted horror, humor, and humanity, Shaun of the Dead may be closest in spirit to An American Werewolf in London, but it remains a thoroughly unique “zom-com”… particularly in light of all the inferior ones that bobbed up in its bloody wake.
137. The Descent (2005- dir. Neil Marshall)
The Descent is a monster movie in which the monsters are the least of its characters’ problems. A group of women go spelunking in a cavern they learn is uncharted only after a cave-in cuts off their egress. Trapped beneath the ground, their already serious interpersonal problems intensify. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is still getting over the deaths of her daughter and husband, who may have been having an affair with Juno (Natalie Mendoza). Cuckolding is not the worst of Juno’s crimes. She is responsible for leading her friends to sure death by dishonestly telling them they are not the first to traverse the cavern’s subterranean corridors. Ironically and tragically, it turns out she’s right. A race of prehistoric people, who’ve evolved bat-like traits to survive in its depths, hunt the lost spelunkers, who devolve into animal states of pure instinct to fend off the vampiric “crawlers” and each other. The human cruelty and claustrophobia-inciting spelunking sequences are so nerve-grinding that the monsters —as cool as they are—are almost anticlimactic when they finally appear toward the end of the film. Despite that and its many lapses in logic, The Descent is a ferocious fusion of Open Water-style survival film, Don’t Look Now-style plunge into grief, and Alien-style monster movie. Neil Marshall’s original ending, preferable to the one that finishes the American edit of this British film, heightens the film’s crushing nihilism. You may not be able to shake that dreadful feeling for a long time after the credits roll.
138. Severance (2006- dir. Christopher Smith)
A group of employees of a weapons-manufacturing company go on a teamwork-building retreat in the Hungarian woods and discover they must test their own products for the first time when a small army of psychotic Russian war criminals declares war on them. The tension is intense as the pencil pushers battle to survive a series of shocking ambushes and Rambo-style traps. Director Christopher Smith made significant modifications to James Moran’s script, boosting the humor and putting its political implications into focus. The Palisade Defense employees, who’d expected nothing more perilous than a game of paintball, must face the horrific uses of weaponry first hand. The poetic justice of high-tech weapons makers being wiped out by relatively primitive machetes and shot guns is righteous. That all of these characters are extremely likable complicates enjoyment of their comeuppance. The cast gives the broad stereotypes they play extra dimensions they surely didn’t possess on the pages of Moran and Smith’s script. Like Shaun of the Dead, Severance commits to its sundry emotions: uproarious when it strives for comedy, wrenching when it wants your tears, spellbinding during the passages of suspense, stomach churning when it goes for gross outs (which it does often). A gag involving a bear trap encapsulates all of these in one excruciatingly hilarious scene. Severance also imparts what may be the most valuable lesson offered by any film on this list: never, ever eat a pie you find sitting around in an abandoned lodge in the middle of a Hungarian forest.
139. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006- dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Pan’s Labyrinth is Guillermo del Toro’s most complex and mature film to date. The constantly multitasking filmmaker grafts the graphic gore of Cronos, the politics of The Devil’s Backbone, and the big-budget phantasmagoria of Hell Boy into a completely distinctive dark fantasy set after the Spanish Civil War. Guerrilla fighters still stalk the woods surrounding the compound of Captain Vidal (Sergi López i Ayats), a sadistic officer in Franco’s fascist military. The film divides into a parallel narrative following Vidal’s servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who is smuggling supplies and information to the guerrillas, and his stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who embarks on a fairy tale quest to prove she is actually an enchanted princess. Del Toro’s narrative explores the analogous relationship between Mercedes’s heroism in the real world and Ofelia’s in fantasyland, while also drawing similarities between Vidal and the fantastic monsters that pursue Ofelia. As the film progresses, the dual storylines merge. Vidal becomes more monstrous after Mercedes slices a gash in his cheek, leaving him looking like the Joker. Believing it to be part of her mission, Ofelia steals her little brother from Vidal, inadvertently leading him into a guerrilla ambush. Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautifully scripted, filmed, and acted (Baquero gives one of the great child performances) study of heroism. It’s also damn scary. A gaunt creature (Doug Jones) with eyes embedded in its palms lumbers toward Ofelia after she makes a foolish lapse in judgment. A creepy faun (Jones again), who may be friend or foe, doles out dangerous tasks to the little girl. She must contend with a grotesque giant toad lurking beneath the ground. Del Toro puts his heroines in real danger, and there are real consequences to their actions. Pan’s Labyrinth is too intense for young viewers, but it is a dark fairy tale for older ones that never turns patronizing and never cops out on the costs of the real world.
140. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007- dir. Tim Burton)
Tim Burton’s mastery of style is often undone by his desire for blockbuster success. He spent the years following his superb bio-pic Ed Wood attempting to shoe-horn his distinctly Gothic style into pointless remakes fit for the whole family. Burton’s “auteur of the people” experiment was a complete failure (and his recent shambling version of Alice in Wonderland indicates it’s an on-going one), but he managed to slip out one unexpectedly excellent live-action movie in his post-Ed Wood slump. Fans of Stephen Sondheim’s original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street were disappointed that Burton excised some of the musical’s best-known songs— particularly its most famous piece, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”—but even Sondheim agreed that certain drastic changes were necessary to keep his play moving on the screen. Some also questioned the appropriateness of casting Burton-regular Johnny Depp in a title role requiring a strong set of pipes. Depp’s voice may not be powerful, but it is appropriately seething and sufficiently tuneful. And doesn’t he sound a lot like David Bowie? Burton’s Sweeney Todd is a musical for horror fans skeptical of musicals. Sondheim’s songs are uniformly witty, sometimes side splitting. Depp’s face off against a show-stealing Sasha Baron Cohen as a rival barber (rival barber!) is a fabulous comic set piece. In other cases, the music can be unsettling, as when Depp sings a love song to his “friend”: a prize straight razor. That razor is what thrusts Sweeney Todd decidedly into the horror nook. This is without doubt Burton’s bloodiest film, and perhaps its quality has something to do with the R-rating that eliminated the family-friendly pandering that ruined so many of his recent films.
141. Let the Right One In (2008- dir. Tomas Alfredson)
The vampire film is an odd duck. Most movies based on Stoker’s Dracula are good to great (Coppola’s asinine Bram Stoker’s Dracula being an ironic exception). Four versions of that story (and one version of a version of that story) appear on this list. Otherwise, the genre is extremely inconsistent because it is too often exsanguinated of its menace and transfused with po-faced Gothic romance. Thomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Låt den rätte komma in transcends the limitations of the romantic vampire film because it never tumbles into melodrama. It is serious, yet a subtle drip of quirky humor streams through Let the Right One In. Eli (Lina Leandersson) is a sexually ambiguous child-vampire who dispatches her obedient yet conflicted servant Håkan (Per Ragnar) to keep her in blood. Lonely Eli strikes up a friendship with rudderless young neighbor Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant). Though his film is disturbing and bloody, Alfredson was far more interested in the relationships in Lindqvist’s novel than the scares. In adapting his own book, Lindquist scales back the horror action and creepy plot developments (Håkan is no longer explicitly portrayed as a pedophile; the violent tale behind Eli’s gender is absent). Alfredson keeps the pace measured and dreamy. The results are a sort of twist on the coming-of-age film, focusing on one child literally doing so by learning to contend with his bullies and discovering sex, though both occur in highly unconventional ways. The other “child” has actually come of age quite a long time ago, but remains trapped in a young person’s body that leaves the vampire in perpetual adolescent limbo. Pre-teens Leandersson and Hedebrant turn in restrained yet intense performances that capture the thorny tentativeness of adolescent sexuality beautifully. The resolution of their characters’ relationship is satisfying yet troubling. That’s also an adequate description of Let the Right One In as a whole.
142. Coraline (2009- dir. Henry Selick)
Scary movies essentially reduce us all to children. They claw from behind the closet doors of our memories, resurrecting long dead irrational fears. Neil Gaiman knows this well. His 2002 young adult novel Coraline peers through the tiny door that conceals a girl’s most horrendous fear. Coraline’s mother—the person who is supposed to protect and love her—harbors a demonic shadow-self living in an alternate world accessible through a corridor hidden in her new house. The other world—with its button-eyed doppelgängers, ghosts, and strange creatures—is an imaginative landscape ripe for realization on the screen. Henry Selick, the stop-motion wizard responsible for bringing Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas to life, was the perfect filmmaker to do the same for Gaiman’s book. He understands the worth of presenting undiluted horror to a young audience too often patronized with watered-down fare. As voiced by the cooing Teri Hatcher, Other Mother is a scary villain in the tradition of the corrupted maternal figures of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Carrie. Selick’s stop motion is utterly magical and a welcome organic alternative to the soulless computer-generated effects that have dominated animated since the late ‘90s. Coraline is also that rare film to actually benefit from the use of 3-D. The effect engulfs the viewer in the fully dimensional sets, which are breathtakingly detailed and, well, really trippy.
143. Drag Me to Hell (2009- dir. Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi had nothing left to prove by the end of the ‘00s. He’d earned himself a cult following for life with the Evil Dead movies and proved his box office worth with the Spiderman franchise. For his next project, he and brother Ivan adapted a short story they’d written more than a decade before the web-slinging superhero fell into his lap. Drag Me to Hell flaunts Raimi’s every strength. It has the energy, humor, and inventive grossness of his Evil Dead series and the complex morality and character-development of his fine, lesser-known works A Simple Plan and The Gift. Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a loan officer who makes the difficult and unfortunate decision to evict old gypsy woman Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) in order to further her career (message to horror-movie characters: never, ever piss off an old gypsy woman). As Brown struggles with her decision, Ganush terrorizes her from both sides of the grave. This creates an interesting push and pull: do we root for Christine, who is the ostensible hero of the picture even though she did something unconscionable? Or do we side with Ganush, who was certainly wronged but resorts to some rather nasty means to extract revenge? Either way, Raimi’s film is a winner, hyper-activated by his supersonic camerawork and crammed with twists that keep spewing out right up until the final frame.
144. Paranormal Activity (2009- dir. Oren Peli)
Paranormal Activity pulled many of the same tricks as The Blair Witch Project did ten years before it. It’s a low-budget, largely improvised, star-free exercise in subtlety that draws half of its dreadful tension from the threat of supernatural evil and half from very human conflicts. Katie Featherston (Katie Featherston) has experienced visitations from a supernatural entity since childhood. The experiences intensify after she moves in with boyfriend Micah Sloat (Micah Sloat), who sets up cameras around the house to capture the incidents. He does this more out of an interest in amateur video making than belief in his girlfriend’s predicament. Micah’s skepticism causes a lot of friction in the house, which is manna to the demon haunting it. Although it does not crackle with the novelty of Blair Witch, and its characters are not as interesting or sympathetic as that film’s, Paranormal Activity fine-tunes some of the quirks that many viewers disliked about Witch. The supernatural elements are much more explicit here. The terrifying ending is unambiguously satisfying. The biggest boon to Paranormal Activity is its bedroom setting, which personalizes and internalizes the picture in ways that Blair Witch couldn’t achieve. It’s pretty easy to avoid camping, but how do you avoid sleeping in your own bed? The film also houses a political subtext very similar to that of Drag Me to Hell but imparted with greater subtlety. Micah—a wealthy, materialistic jerk who arrogantly courts trouble even though he knows he’s putting others in danger—makes his living playing the stock market. In the shadow of the financial crisis of the late ‘00s, Paranormal Activity can be viewed as an allegorical depiction of the demons of greed coming home to roost.
145. Antichrist (2009- dir. Lars von Trier)
Its possible political subtext was the least discussed aspect of Paranormal Activity upon the movie’s release in 2009. Emerging that same year, Antichrist was consumed by politics. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Lars von Trier’s grueling horror film was branded “the most misogynistic film ever made.” Chris Tookey of The Daily Mail called it “offensively misogynistic” and growled “its maker almost certainly needs psychiatric help.” If one were to judge Antichrist solely on its synopsis, Tookey might have a point. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe play a married couple generically identified as She and He. They are mourning the accidental death of their son. She is a graduate student crippled by grief and intense anxiety attacks. He is both her husband and her therapist. He prescribes a trip to Eden, the forest cabin she visualizes as the epicenter of her fears. There he subjects her to a series of psychotherapeutic exercises. When He learns of the physical abuse to which she was subjecting their son while working on her doctoral thesis at Eden, She rebels violently and terrifyingly. Tookey and his ilk reacted strongly to She’s monstrousness, her psychotic assaults on her husband, her defense of the misogynistic witch-hunts, and her insistence on the inherent evil of women. Tookey probably also read “A Modest Proposal” as a sincere call to eat poor children. Von Trier’s allegorical horror film is staunchly feminist, although the contrarian filmmaker might be the last person to admit this. As is the case in all of his films, von Trier’s villain is not women; it is patriarchal society. As the representative of his gender, He seeks to control his wife’s feelings of grief and guilt regarding their son’s death through infantilizing psychological exercises. He controls her sexuality by telling her when it is and isn’t proper to have intercourse. And although He insists her sex is improper, He still succumbs to it. Although He controls and undermines her at every opportunity, He feigns horror about the misogynistic conclusions of her thesis. She is understandably twisted by the shame-inducing, contradictory messages of her domineering male counterpart. Their relationship is more like that of Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature than that of an equal husband and wife. And like Frankenstein’s Creature, She revolts; acting in the bestial manner that most offends and horrifies the cold, scientific logic of her creator. When She proves beyond his control, hypocritical He kills her and burns her, just as the persecutors He criticized once burned “witches.” She is gone, but the film’s haunting final image implies that She may be a martyr in a much larger cause and the destructive reign of men may be nearing its end. Politically complex, Antichrist is also a sly comment on horror past (its subtle references to Frankenstein and explicit ones to witch hunt movies and The Shining) and contemporary. The unbearable sequences of physical torture shame any similar scenes in the so-called “torture porn” movies popular throughout the ‘00s, partly because of their unflinching presentation and partly because of the intense, human emotion at the heart of these scenes. The most unpleasantly violent movie on this list of unpleasantly violent movies is also transcendentally beautiful. Von Trier’s use of the Phantom v4 camera to shoot scenes at 1,000 frames per second is extraordinary, as is his use of Händel’s aria “Lascia ch'io pianga”. Antichrist is a sublime, thoughtful, and terribly misunderstood masterwork, a grand way to wave the first decade of the 21st century to a close.
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