[Horror History] Netflix & Kill (The 2010’s)

@craiggors

This is the 11th and Final Part of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 as well

If the 2000’s was the decade that planted the seeds to revitalize and adapt the horror genre, then the 2010’s certainly saw the fruits of that labor. Whether it was New French Extremity, the deliberate excess of torture porn, or the ever-evolving found footage sub-genre, horror was experiencing a renewed interest and priming itself to head in bold new directions. The 2010’s were packed with variety when it came to spooks and scares. The experimentation, range, and quality exhibited had not been seen on such a massive scale since horror’s Golden Age during the 1970’s. Whether the films of the 2010’s will become as seminal and influential as those of the 70’s remains to be seen, but it can’t be denied that the sheer number of offerings on hand made it a peak time to be a horror fan.

The 2010’s saw an abundance of young, visionary directors crafting interesting, thought-provoking work, and a hungry, willing audience growing by the day eager to consume their work. There was horror for everyone in the 2010’s, no matter what your favorite sub-genre was, and the amount of creative freedom for filmmakers was unparalleled. Thanks to affordable digital cameras, social media, and widespread high-speed internet, it was easier than ever for filmmakers to get their ideas onto screens big and small without having to rely on the traditional studio pipeline that would have hampered more offbeat efforts in the past. The rise of streaming platforms allowed for limitless options, and by the end of the decade, everyone wanted to get in on original horror content. It seemed the first decade of the 21st century whetted the world’s appetite for horror. Now it was time to feast.

Pictured: someone who appreciates going HAM

After the mostly financially successful remakes of classic properties in the 2000’s–chief among them The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2009), it was no surprise that studios stuck with the very easy model of outfitting the old guard for a new era. Old fans were drawn in out of curiosity, while new, younger fans came thanks to name recognition and marketing hype. As the decade began, the remake train was going full steam ahead, with many of the most formative and beloved horror films of the 70’s and 80’s getting made over with A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), The Crazies (2010), Piranha (2010), I Spit On Your Grave (2010), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), Fright Night (2011), Maniac (2012), The Evil Dead (2013), Carrie (2013), with Poltergeist (2015), Suspiria (2018), and Child’s Play (2019), and Rabid (2019) sprinkled in later. If it wasn’t remakes, it there were still new entries. The Thing (2011) was a prequel that detailed what happened to the Norwegian base immediately prior to the events of Carpenter’s 1982 film, while Texas Chainsaw was given yet another reset/odd continuity scuttle with Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013). Aside from it’s remake at the end of the decade, the Child’s Play franchise first saw two new installments with Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017), all priming people for the television series Chucky airing now on Syfy. Perhaps the most high profile sequel was Halloween (2018), David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original and the start of a new trilogy that saw the return of Laurie Strode in a celebration of the film’s fortieth anniversary. On the other end of the spectrum, Hellraiser: Judgement (2018), the tenth entry in the Hellraiser series, gained little fanfare outside Cenobite loyalists.

Though the bankability of established properties was undeniable, critical reviews and audience reception were not always as kind. As such, the word “remake” came to carry a stain by the mid-2010’s, and later decade efforts to continue famous franchises started using words like “reboot” and “reimagining” and “alternate version” to dissociate from those clearly cash-grab prior efforts. The Halloween and Texas Chainsaw properties were particularly fond of this strategy. These efforts have their admirers, and there is certainly solid work in the bunch, but by and large even the best remakes of the 2010’s still bore the caveat “but we’ve seen it before.”

Yet outside of the redo-cycle, those aforementioned new creatives were experimenting with wild abandon, often to great success. James Wan, who had made a mark for himself with his inventive and low budget Saw (2004), was ready to make his comeback in partnership with Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse, which had struck gold thanks to Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009). The story of that success became the Blumhouse model: make relatively low budget films in which the writers and directors have complete creative control, get good actors, and distribute widely. The strategy is heavy on return on investment, meaning that while Blumhouse produced some of the best horror of the 2010’s, it also produced some of it’s most abysmal stinkers. But it was Blumhouse who invested in Wan’s return effort, a script written by his old friend and writing partner Leigh Whannell: Insidious (2010). The resulting film breathed new life into the haunted house sub-genre, drawing heavily on atmosphere, tension, direction, and expertly timed jump scares. While not as earth-shattering as Paranormal Activity, the film was still a hit commercially and critically, paving the way for Wan to take on an ambitious new project, The Conjuring (2013).

The sheet was uncredited, but man what a performance

Based on the real-life reports of paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, played with serious chemistry by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring channeled new life into the possession/exorcism sub-genre, a massive feat considering the film is not particularly fresh when it comes to its scares or tactics, but Wan’s direction, the strong script, and the film’s deep understanding of horror as a genre crafted a perfectly tense film that appealed to a wide audience and became one of the most successful horror films of all time. That same year, wan released Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), another box office success that led to Bumhouse’s growing stable of powerhouse franchises alongside Paranormal Activity, Sinister (2012), and The Purge (2013). Wan went on to helm The Conjuring 2 (2016) and consult on the expansion of the so-called Conjuring Universe, a series of interconnected spin-offs including Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021).

Blumhouse was not confined to their super-franchises, however. They also produced lower budget efforts that proved to be some of the most effective horror of the 2010’s, including Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013), Hush (2016), and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), meta-sequel The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), and Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice’s Creep (2014) and Creep 2 (2017). Flanagan quickly proved himself to be one of the most inventive directors of the new horror class, with a range that is hard to find in any filmmaker, let alone a horror filmmaker. His debut feature Absentia (2011), his Blumhouse productions, and his Stephen King adaptations Gerald’s Game (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019) are all vastly different types of films that nonetheless brought fresh twists and dark angles to the tried templates of the ghost story, the home invasion, and the possession tale. Similarly, Creep was credited with breathing new life into the found footage parade with its unpredictability and intimate nature. The unease generated by the Creep films was an element not always found in other 2010’s found footage features, though a handful did stand out in the crowd, including The Last Exorcism (2010), V/H/S (2012), As Above, So Below (2014), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), The Houses October Built (2014), Hell House LLC (2015), and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015), another Blumhouse effort that hit just the right notes of suspense and terror.

Blumhouse’s model of low budget, low risk, creative control filmmaking quickly caught on with studios large and small. As the decade wore on, a growing number of visionary talents emerged, backed by studios willing to let them steer their own ships. A discussion arose surrounding the lowly financed, highly creative outputs of these filmmakers, one of so-called “elevated horror.” For perhaps the first time, horror was regarded in the mainstream as a genre that could produce “high art” alongside the “low art” of the slasher and the gore fest. Studio A24 became the focal point for this discussion of respectability in the middle of their decade thanks to Robert Eggers’ Puritan panic, The Witch (2015), though their under-the-radar arthouse films Enemy (2013) and Under the Skin (2013) had quietly started the discussion a few years prior. “Elevated horror” was meant to distinguish films like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014) from more traditional horror, but its usage as a critical term immediately came under fire from longtime horror fans who found the language elitist and implying that non-arthouse horror had no intellectual value. They argued that smart, complex, creative horror has always existed and was only recently overshadowed by over-produced studio fare. The true growth of creative-led indie horror in the 2010’s is thanks in large part to technology. Hi-def video cameras became more affordable, impressive special effects could be completed on a laptop, and self-produced horror could thrive at festivals and stream online thanks to Netflix, Shudder, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or any of the other endless streaming platforms desperate for subscribers. Even Blumhouse was technically late to the game. Smart, original, and terrifying low-budget movies like The Battery (2012), Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), They Look Like People (2015), The Invitation (2015), and Southbound (2015) had already made their mark on the indie circuit well before studios realized there was a massive audience for creative-controlled storytelling.

Dost thou wish to have butter on thy popcorn?

Stephen King, whose works had been adapted in every decade since 1976’s Carrie, saw a number of his stories and novels get high profile screen translations in the 2010’s. CBS’s Under the Dome (2013-2015) kicked things off, followed by Hulu’s 11/22/63 miniseries (2016), both of which were more well received than the film adaptations in the early half of the decade. Carrie (2013), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), and Cell (2016) were all considered lazy affairs. This was not unusual for King works that made it to screen, however. For every The Shawshank Redemption (1994) there was always a Dreamcatcher (2003). Then, in 2017, two major King properties with large fanbases made their theatrical debuts after toiling in production hell: The Dark Tower (2017) and IT (2017). Pennywise had previously graced small screens in the 1990 miniseries and had been workshopped for a studio film since 2009, while The Dark Tower was meant to kick off an entire franchise that combined television and film in an epic crossover, but poor reception of the film squashed that idea, at least temporarily. IT surpassed expectations critically and commercially, becoming the most successful horror film of all time. It didn’t take long for others to hop on the newly invigorated King train. Netflix dropped Gerald’s Game (2017) and 1922 (2017) within weeks of IT’s release while Hulu launched Castle Rock (2018-2019) as a means to play with old King stories while creating new ones in a familiar setting. Though Spike’s The Mist (2017) didn’t draw in the viewers or accolades that the 2007 film did, executives weren’t daunted. Audience adapted Mr. Mercedes (2017-2019) to decent reception, and Mike Flanagan took on his second King project with his chilling adaptation of Doctor Sleep (2019) and HBO enjoyed equal success with their miniseries of The Outsider (2020).

King-based TV wasn’t the only horror to soar on the small screen in the 2010’s, and it’s hard not to discuss the genre during the decade without acknowledging the renaissance horror television went through. The explosion of streaming services in the 2010’s changed the rules of both cinema and television. The general approach to horror TV pre-2010 was to take the fantasy and/or supernatural route. You could be frightening here and there, but it was best avoid real terror. Shows like Buffy (1997-2003) and Supernatural (2015-2020) filled that niche well, with Dexter (2006-2013; 2021) scratching the itch for serial killer enthusiasts. And while both True Blood (2008-2014) and The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) capitalized on the post-Twilight vampire craze, it was really AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s long running zombie comic series The Walking Dead (2010-present) that entered horror TV into the prestige category. The juggernaut series became AMC’s flagship, sparking dozens of imitators capitalizing on undead mania. With the stigma of low-quality television broken, other efforts came pouring in from networks, premium cable outfits, and streaming services alike. FX’s American Horror Story (2011-present) began as a well-crafted, genuinely scary exploration of themes, characters, and horror iconography not previously seen on the small screen, and it’s initial success opened the floodgates for hardcore horror on TV like Bryan Fuller’s multilayered arthouse Hannibal (2013-2015), moody Psycho (1960) prequel Bates Motel (2013-2017), the delectable Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), and anthology series like Into the Dark (2018-present), Channel Zero (2016-2018), Slasher (2016-present), Scream (2015-2019), and the Creepshow revival (2019-present).

The undisputed champion of 2010’s horror television, however, would turn out to be Netflix. They struck gold with their 80’s-set sci-fi/horror hybrid Stranger Things (2016-present), a nostalgic blast from the past that used incidental music in the style of and from the period to envelop audiences into the time entirely. The blend of coming-of-age drama with horror action proved a massively successful formula, breaking streaming records and setting the cultural tone for the latter half of the decade. Netflix continued to prosper thanks to their partnership with the decade’s rising star Mike Flanagan and his The Haunting of Hill House (2018), lauded as one of the most inventive and scary television shows ever. A masterclass in acting, storytelling, and atmosphere, the series weaved together aspects of the Shirley Jackson novel with a tale of grief and trauma. While other Netflix horror efforts like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-2020) didn’t quite reach these heights, they nonetheless kept horror fans continually checking in with the streaming service to see what horror offerings they would produce next.

Eight bedrooms, six baths, one Bent-Neck Lady

With Blumhouse and A24 paving the way for horror’s cinematic renaissance, and Netflix doing the same for television, options for genre creatives in the late 2010’s were vast. Thanks to their influx of subscribers, Netflix was now able to begin picking up distribution rights for films at festivals to avoid competing with production studios and thus provide an alternative route to market, and thus return on investment, for filmmakers uninterested or blocked by the traditional and often difficult cinematic release or derived straight-to-disc path. This helped lesser known indies like The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), American Mary (2012), and Starry Eyes (2014) not get lose in the shuffle and find audiences that otherwise would have missed them. This indiscriminate model sometimes resulted in successes for Netflix like The Ritual (2017) and The Perfection (2018), but also opened the doors for a number of weaker, cheap efforts that felt rushed and incomplete.

Many of these lesser known indie films were able to rise to prominence outside of both the major Hollywood studio system and the ever expanding streaming market. Frozen (2010) had skiers questioning if they’d ever take to the mountains again. The Innkeepers (2011) reminded us that it’s best to leave some ghosts alone, while Mama (2013) demonstrated that family can be deadly. Cyber horror exploited the very technology that integrated itself so completely into daily life in the 2010’s: Followers (2017) used found footage to examine social media, while Megan is Missing (2011) and Share.Like.Follow (2017) took online stalking to frightening new levels and The Den (2013), Cam (2017), and Girl House (2014) revealed just how dangerous spy cams and voyeur culture were getting. Cyberbullying was the subject of a number of films, most notably Don’t Hang Up (2016) and Unfriended (2014). It was an eclectic decade, where everything from salacious slashers like You’re Next (2011) and meta-horror comedies like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) enjoyed as much success as extreme exploitation flicks like The Green Inferno (2015) and home invasion inversions like Don’t Breathe (2016). It was also the decade book-ended by award-recognized horror. Black Swan (2010) and Get Out (2017) drew critical acclaim from the highest halls of film criticism, earning Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, but it was Jordan Peele’s Get Out in particular that sparked important conversations about contemporary and historical traumas surrounding racism in and outside horror. The allegorical film was quickly recognized as a watershed moment for horror, and though Peele’s Us (2019) didn’t garner quite as much praise, Peele was nonetheless solidified as one of the elite class of working horror filmmakers whose projects would be followed as closely as Flanagan, Wan, Eggers, and Ari Aster, whose back-to-back gut punches Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) made it impossible for anyone to deny that horror had the potential to be as respectable and philosophical as any other genre.

Crying over all the Oscar snubs, obviously

With genre-focused services like Shudder providing new and original films and programming alongside classic horror too, and major studios, indie outlets, and streaming services all wanting a pie of the spooky pie, the options for horror fans going into the 2020’s are leaps and bounds ahead of where the genre was even at the beginning of the 2010’s. The rise of independent production companies working closely with streaming has changed the game for horror. Creatives have more avenues than ever to produce the work they want unencumbered by hindering oversight. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put theater-going into a dangerous limbo space, horror as a genre has already proven itself adaptable and capable of not just surviving but thriving in the current state of content consumption, much as it always had been since the days of bats on strings and camera tricks in the days of Edison and Méliès.

It’s unclear what the 2020’s will bring for horror, but it’s certain to be interesting, engaging work reflective of the times. As we await what the next decade will bring, genre fans can rest easy knowing that, like the monsters and slashers and killers that populate the films we love, horror will always be back bigger, stronger, and smarter than ever. Here’s to the next decade, and beyond, of all things horror.

Keep up the creep, Chatterers.

This concludes the Horror History series of posts tackling the history of horror films decade by decade. Share your thoughts in the comments and thanks for reading!

WORKS CONSULTED:
Armitage, Matt. “Horror Movies in the 2010s.” Horror Obsessive, 18 July, 2020. https://horrorobsessive.com/2020/07/18/horror-in-the-2010s-part1-the-house-that-wan-built/amp/

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/.

[Horror History] Terror Time (The 2000’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 10 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 as well

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.

Had it been released in 2002 as opposed to 2005, Land of the Dead would have been a very, very different film

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).

The ultimate slow burn with the ultimate reward

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.

An interesting outing, Cherry Falls remains both forgotten and relevant 20+ years later

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.

I totally SAW that ending coming…not

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…

WORKS CONSULTED:
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/.