The new decade/century/millennium forced horror to adapt practically from jump. After so many dire predictions, January 1, 2000 came and went without much mishap. Nevertheless, a seismic shift was on the way: the events of September 11, 2001, which many argue is when the 21st century truly began. 9/11 changed the global understanding of what it means to be afraid, and it set the cultural agenda for the following decade, if not longer, and horror movies of the time quickly began to reflect this new cruelty.
Hollywood, already facing a recession, was hit hard as filmmakers struggled to connect with audiences amid the collective trauma. Anyone trying to sell a horror film in the autumn of 2001 (as George Romero did with Land of the Dead) got rebuffed. Everybody wanted to make warm, fuzzy movies with uplifting, encouraging messages. There were even calls to ban horror movies in the name of world peace. But, by 2005 the horror genre was as popular as it had ever been. Horror films routinely topped the box office, yielding, as they always had, above-average gross on below-average costs. It seemed that audiences wanted a good scare as a form of escape from stories of war, suicide bombers, and devastating natural disasters, just as their great-grandparents had turned to the Universal monsters to gain a reprieve from the miseries of the Great Depression.
Those monsters had to change, however. Gone were the lone psychopaths of the 1990’s, too reminiscent of Osama bin Laden hiding in his cave. As the shock and awe of 21st century warfare spread across TV and computer screens, cinematic horror had to offer an alternative while still tapping into the prevailing cultural mood. The result was a mix of terminal terror, soldiers of misfortune, and the rise and fall of torture porn all competing against a wave of Asian-inspired horror and direct-to-DVD shlock.
The first mini-boom of the 21st century were knockoffs of The Blair Witch Project (1999). It was a particularly easy trend to hop on because it required the least in the way of budget and resources. There were no solid rules to follow here, aside from eschewing Hollywood gloss in the name of getting down and dirty with whatever tools you had on hand. First came parodies like The Bogus Witch Project (2000) and The Blair Underwood Project (2000), most of which had higher budgets than the film they were imitating. Soon after came copycats like The St. Francisville Experiment (2000) and Blood Reaper (2003), turned out by amateurs with camcorders walking around the woods wondering why their films didn’t reach the box office bonanza proportions of Blair Witch. The official sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) was a conventionally scripted affair that made little impression on audiences and strangled the franchise in its infancy. But there were a few zero budget, shot-on-digital-video efforts that showed imagination and ingenuity, most notably the Internet-themed The Collingswood Story (2002), the chilling Session 9 (2001), infection/zombie flick [REC] (2007), giant monster creature feature Cloverfield (2008), and the breakout hit of the decade, Paranormal Activity (2009).
Psychopathy continued to be a major theme even as the psychos themselves took on new form. Mary Harron filmed Bret Easton Ellis’s “unfilmable” novel American Psycho (2000), introducing filmgoers to Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a high maintenance Wall Street yuppie from the 80’s obsessed with pop music, designer clothes, and obsessive grooming. The film consigned the fearsome figure of the serial killer to the dead past, but other filmmakers failed to take the hint. The serial killer sub-genre now began to incorporate the famous faces of true crime with films like Ed Gein (2000), Ted Bundy (2002), and The Manson Family (2003). American Psycho was also an entry in the increasingly crowded “rubber reality” twist films following in the footsteps of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Fight Club (1999), and the bendy rug-pulling of The Matrix (1999). These sorts of twists, which relied on a warped mind or sense of reality, became commonplace in the early years of the 21st century. On some level, they may have been a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11; in many films, there is an attempt to turn away from, revoke, or rewrite a reality that has become too much to bear. Into this category fall ghost stories like The Others (2001), Session 9 (2001), and The Orphanage (2007); time/memory gameplay like Memento (2000) and The Butterfly Effect (2004); psychotic subjective realities such as The Cell (2000), The Attic Expeditions (2002), Frailty (2002), and Identity (2003); murderous imaginary friends/ doppelgängers in The Machinist (2003), Secret Window (2004), High Tension (2004), and Hide and Seek (2005); and bizarre combos of the above themes with The I Inside (2003), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Jacket (2004), Trauma (2004), and Shutter Island (2009).
The rise of the Internet meant 2000s horror fans could more easily access and explore international horror, and there was a particular fascination with Asian horror. In contrast to Western horror, which has fluctuated with various trends and cycles within the horror, Eastern horror has maintained a consistent focus on the psychological and the supernatural with only a few rare exceptions. Asian horror draws heavily on the spirit, perhaps because predominant Asian belief systems like Buddhism, Shintoism, and Islam are more open to the concept of the dearly departed leaving some trace of themselves behind, hence the predominance of ancestor worship. The struggle to cope with the massive and senseless loss of life in the name of terror may have had a factor in the increased fascination with Eastern-inspired horror. Whatever the reason, a flood of ghost stories in the pattern of Ringu (1998) from Japan, Thailand, China, and South Korea flooded the market in the early 2000s. Lank-haired, big-eyed, malevolent girl ghosts were everywhere, as were curses spread through viral means and investigative female protagonists learning secrets that would eventually destroy them. And almost all of them had downbeat endings. The most successful of the bunch included The Eye (2002), Unborn But Forgotten (2002), Dark Water (2002), The Grudge (2004), Pulse (2001), Phone (2002), and Into the Mirror (2003). Western cinema soon began to not only import these types of films, but try their own hand at them as well. First the conventions were paralleled in What Lies Beneath (2000) and The Mothman Prophecies (2001), then they were outright imitated in Feardotcom (2002), They (2002), and Gothika (2003). Eventually, Hollywood figured out they could remake the original Asian films for an American audience that had never seen them. With The Ring (2002) and Dark Water (2005) succeeding at the box office, Hideo Nakata (director of the original Japanese versions) was brought in to helm The Ring Two (2005), a direct sequel to the American film and in no way a remake of his Japanese Ringu 2 (1999). Other prominent Asian movies of the decade that didn’t fit the ghost mold included the puzzlebox Spiral (2000), schoolgirl zombie bash Stacy (2001), Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002; Oldboy, 2003; Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2004), and Takeshi Miike’s controlled and chilling Audition (1999).
British horror also enjoyed a renewed international interest in the early 2000’s. Rob Green’s The Bunker (2000), in which Nazis are plagued by guilt-induced phantoms, paved the way for a number of horror stories with wartime settings. They all led up to the World War I-set Deathwatch (2002) and Neil Marhsall’s werewolves-ate-my-platoon feature Dog Soldiers (2002). Additionally, fans of war-horror could also get their fill with haunted submarine flick Below (2002) and the Korean Vietnam spooker R-point (2004). British horror mimicked the the teen-centric Dimension movies with a few efforts like Long Time Dead (2001) and Nine Lives (2002) but mostly they took old themes and revamped them for the modern age with The Hole (2001), The Last Horror Movie (2003), Lie Still (2004), Severance (2006), Wishbaby (2008), and Black Death (2009). Breakout hits from the U.K. were Marc Evan’s reality TV slasher My Little Eye (2002), Danny Boy’s fast zombie/apocalypse shocker 28 Days Later (2002), Edgar Wright’s surprisingly pertinent Romero nod Shaun of the Dead (2004), and Neil Marshall’s cave terror film The Descent (2005).
Meanwhile, Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy (1999) kick-started a new trend for action-oriented horror/fantasy films that brought the monster movie into the new millennium. Playing with the tradition of dark superhero films that began with The Crow (1994), Sommers followed up his successful first outing with Imhotep with The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004), which resurrected many of the classic Universal monsters by pitting Hugh Jackman against Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and involving Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley) and the Wolf Man (Will Kemp). The action-horror boom continued with efforts like From Hell (2001), Queen of the Damned (2002), Underworld (2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Constantine (2004), The Brothers Grimm (2005), and a remake of The Wolf Man (2010), as well as a number of Blade sequels. These are slick, glossy films that do their best to imitate the effectiveness of the Spider-Man and X-men films they were going up against, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the strongest result from this trend was Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2003) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), though far more interesting are his pure horror creations from the decade: The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007). Reviving classic monsters with odd, self-reflexive efforts didn’t last long, however, though Tim Burton and Johnny Depp managed a respectable result with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). The monster/fantasy hybrid films were designed to work in an era dominated by the Lord of the Rings films. This is perhaps most evident in two foreign superproductions from abroad: France’s Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Russia’s Night Watch (2004). The best variant on the classic mode of the werewolf, however, was the small, cleverly written Canadian teen-centric Ginger Snaps (2000), which even managed a few interesting sequels.
But the dominant force was still mainstream, studio-backed teen horror. Interesting, self-aware variations like Cherry Falls (2000) and psycho stalkers like The Watcher (2000) soon found themselves edged out by spoofs like Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th (2000), Club Dread (2004), and the Scary Movie franchise. Despite this, the fairly ingenious Final Destination (2000) managed to found its own franchise centered around contrived death sequences given metaphysical weight. It was the rare 2000’s horror film to birth a series and not immediately die in infancy. Countless franchise wannabes stalled after their inaugural installment–Bones (2001), Soul Survivors (2001), Darkness Falls (2003). Others eeked out sequels that went direct-to-DVD–Boogeyman (2004), Reeker (2005), and Vacancy (2007) being just a few examples.
The decent reception of the remake of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill in 1999 triggered a frenzy for raiding the back catalogue of past middling efforts and giving them a makeover for a second chance, namely Thirteen Ghosts (2001), Willard (2003), House of Wax (2005), 2001 Maniacs (2005), and The Wizard of Gore (2008). Into this category we might also put Ghost Ship (2002), which was not a remake but for some reason was designed to seem like one. These remakes weren’t the only old properties given new life in the 2000’s. The surprising critical and commercial success of Bride of Chucky (1998) got the powers-that-be behind the major slasher franchises thinking, resulting in such films as Jason X (2001), Freddy vs. Jason (2003), Beyond Re-Animator (2003), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), and The Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). At some point, someone realized that halting the sequels and straight-up remaking the original entries to franchises that still garnered public interest would be far more profitable, as the remakes could be marketed as events. From this mindset came the remakes for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), The Amityville Horror (2005), The Fog (2005), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), Prom Night (2008), My Bloody Valentine (2009), The Last House on the Left (2009), Halloween II (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Though some of these remakes succeed in their own right, many of them are just good lucking, slick productions lacking what made their namesakes interesting in the first place. While his masterpiece was being retooled, Tobe Hooper also got in on the remake game with a little remembered update of The Toolbox Murders (2004). George Romero, meanwhile, used the clout from the Dawn of the Dead remake to get financing for his comeback, Land of the Dead (2005). It wasn’t quite on the level of his first three Living Dead films, but it still had something to say. He kept it indie for the remaining entries in the series as well, Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). These, combined with Dawn and Shaun of the Dead, brought about a zombie apocalypse boom that saw several Resident Evil sequels, I Am Legend (2007), Dance of the Dead (2008), Dead Snow (2009), and Zombieland (2009) gain mainstream success while smaller, creative takes like The Signal (2007) and Pontypool (2009) enjoyed rave reviews among genre enthusiasts of all sorts.
Those enthusiasts were now getting in on the game themselves. Raised on 70’s and 80’s horror, the new generation of horror filmmakers moved into the filed in earnest in the 2000’s, each of them trying their own variations on established themes and igniting a debate about whether paying homage was enough to make a film stand on its own. This trend began with a little cluster of horror/road movies that rediscovered the unease of the flyover country that exists between America’s cities. Urban teens found themselves subjected to rural horrors and going up against the terrors of the sticks. The creature feature Jeepers Creepers (2001), psycho stalker Joy Ride (2001), vampire flick Forsaken (2001), and the ghostly Dead End (2003) were among the pulpier, lower-budgeted efforts, while bigger budget outings like Cold Creek Manor (2003) and The Skeleton Key (2005) updated 70’s plots about unwary townies moving into creaky old mansions for the modern, skeptical audience. Wrong Turn (2004) and Dead & Breakfast (2004) were combo efforts that used larger budgets to capitalize on “hick fear,” though both paled in comparison to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (2005).
The most pervasive movement within horror during the 2000’s, however, was the so-called “torture porn.” Featuring grindhouse levels of violence and mutilation, the seeds of the sub-genre were planted with Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002), but were brought to fruition with James Wan’s Saw (2004) and solidified by Roth’s Hostel (2005). These are cynical, bleak films that force the audience to endure every minute of their numerous tied-to-a-chair-and-tortured sequences. Evoking the images of suspected terrorists imprisoned and “interrogated” at Guantanamo Bay, torture porn at once became horror’s hottest trend and its more derived deviation. Saw spawned the most successful horror franchise of the decade, with annually-released sequels developing the original idea into a serial-like story of labyrinthine complexity and increasingly elaborate set-piece kills. More life, intelligence, and interesting film-making tends to be found in foreign torture porn, however, particularly French films of the New Extremity movement like High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008). These are films made by grown-ups for grown-ups, and immediately earned sinister reputations for their frequent bans and limited availability.
Perhaps the last great boom of 2000’s horror was the vampire resurgence made popular by the Twilight series of novels and subsequent films (2008-2012), the outstanding Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008), and TV shows like True Blood (2008-2014) and Being Human (2008-2013). Though the vampire had an annoyingly sparkly day in the sun, it was the zombie who reigned supreme as the second decade of the 21st century dawned. Within that decade, horror would thrive thanks to increased attention to international efforts, generous budgets from major studios, a plethora of indie auteurs creating dynamic, challenging work, and a scarier, more complicated world that demanded scarier, more complicated horror films.
Read about all that and more in the final Horror History post that will examine the spooks and scares of the 2010’s…
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.
Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.
Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.