Time and time again, history demonstrates that current events wind up reflecting in the period’s genre films as well, and the turn of the century proves no different. September 11, 2001 wasn’t just a dark day stateside, but it reverberated globally as well thanks to continuous media coverage of terrorism and military focus. The early 2000s brought the rise and fall of the sub-genre dubbed “torture porn.” New developments in digital technology and laptop software, in conjunction with a recession that affected the filmmaking industry, meant new voices in horror that may not have arisen prior to this decade.
International turmoil and continued rapid pace advancements in technology meant the rise of international horror. Asian horror was already on the rise thanks to breakout hits like Ringu late last decade, the French emerged as a powerhouse of brutal horror in what’s been dubbed New French Extremity, and the Spanish unveiled an uncanny ability to delivery supernatural chills. Despite the economic and cultural mood, the 2000-2009 was a fantastic decade for horror, and here are the best:
American Psycho (2000)
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, of which he received death threats upon publication for its content, Mary Harron’s masterful adaptation tows the perfectly balanced line between horror and biting humor. A social satire on Wall Street excess and investment banking, New York investment banker’s hatred for humanity gives way to dark psychosis and indulging in violent fantasy. Christian Bale’s performance as Bateman was a revelation, setting his career afire instead of ruining it as he was warned it would prior to accepting the role. As bloody as it is funny, Harron had to trim some scenes to get the film down to an R-rating from its initial NC-17 cut. As memorable as the sequence that sees Bateman chase his victims down with a chainsaw while naked is, so is the scene of passive aggressive business card exchanging.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
John Fawcett’s coming of age werewolf tale is lower budget perfection. A lycanthropic metaphor for puberty, sexuality, and fitting in, werewolves have never had their pulse on what it’s like to be a teenaged girl like Ginger Snaps. The practical effects are great, but what really makes the film something special is the performances by Katharine Isabelle as Ginger and Emily Perkins as her sister Brigitte. Their deep bond as sisters grounds the film, but their diverging path the moment Ginger is bitten by a werewolf unleashes an inevitable emotional devastation.
Final Destination (2001)
On paper, James Wong’s Final Destination looks like just another teen horror, with a plot set around a teen who predicts a plane crash and therefore avoids the accident, only for death to catch up to he and his friends. Wong applies the Hitchcock Bomb Theory to the inevitability of death, drawing out an unbearable tension to almost each death as fate slowly sets in. Sometimes humorous and often self-aware, it’s the suspense and intricately designed deaths that inspired an entire franchise.
28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s surprise hit revitalized the zombie sub-genre by creating a unique, contemporary vision of the viral apocalypse set against an intimate character study. As terrifying as the rage virus was, including its infected to attack and quick speeds, it’s the realization that the humans are even more evil and terrifying that makes this so effective. Except Boyle doesn’t make it so simple; posing the question of necessity when humanity is at stake. Aside from Boyle’s cinematic style, 28 Days Later is bolstered by a fantastic cast lead by Cillian Murphy, Naomi Harris, and Christopher Eccleston, all of whom make us care about what’s happening to these characters.
Lucky McKee made an impressive debut with May, with an equally impressive performance by actress Angela Bettis. Bettis’ May is both heartbreaking in her loneliness and chilling in her murderous disassociation with reality. An outcast since youth thanks to her lazy eye, May’s only true friend is her porcelain doll, and her desire to forge a meaningful friendship is rebuffed again and again. May’s determination and awkward attempts are both humorous and endearing, but as equally terrifying when she takes matters into her own hands.
Saw is often credited as an early pioneer in the maligned “torture porn” subgenre, but the surprising truth is that it offered mostly suggested violence and very little gore. What it did do, however, is launch the careers of James Wan and Leigh Whannell and an entire franchise that grew increasingly grisly. Though the subsequent sequels would ramp up the gore and violence, Whannell and Wan’s shocker relied more on weaving a unique murder mystery and clever narrative twists. Saw nailed one of the biggest surprise endings of the decade and delivered an iconic horror villain in Jigsaw in one fell swoop.
When the fervor for long-haired Japanese ghosts had started to wind down, Thailand enters the arena and proves there’s still a lot of life left. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom craft a captivating murder mystery all while making Polaroid cameras the stuff of nightmares. For a photographer and his girlfriend, strange images begin showing up in their photos after an accident. Soon, supernatural occurrences begin to ramp up until the past catches up to them. The tropes laid out previously in J-horror still exist, but Pisanthanakun and Wongpoom manage to make them feel new, especially wrapped with a tragic mystery. They also deliver some of the most bone-chilling sequences on film, making this long-haired ghost on par with the likes of Sadako and Kayako.
The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall’s seminal creature feature is notable for a couple of reasons. One, the cast is almost entirely female, and two, Marshall’s ramping up of dread set against a claustrophobic setting is so effective that it almost doesn’t even feel like a creature feature. The friendship and emotional stakes in conjunction with the tense atmosphere are so well done that no one ever notices that it takes a full hour of run time before the bodies start piling up. The Descent is extremely bloody and scary, but it’s also impressive in how it redefines women in horror. These are tough spelunkers that never feel one-note or forced. Though Sarah may have been the lead heroine, Juno wins for being Crawler slaying MVP.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Rocker turned director Rob Zombie surprised critics and audiences alike with the follow up to his 2003 debut House of 1000 Corpses. Gone was the vivid coloration and dark, twisted humor and replaced with sepia-toned ‘70s grit and nihilism. The much more narratively polished sequel follows the Firefly family’s exploits, making them somehow (somewhat) sympathetic despite leaving a path of carnage and death in their wake. Zombie’s magnum opus is so stylistically different from its predecessor that it borrows more heavily from Bonnie and Clyde than House of 1000 Corpses in just about every way. Even haters of Zombie’s filmography have a tough time hating this one.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Scott Glosserman’s clever spin on the slasher sub-genre inexplicably slipped under the radar for many, but it remains one of the decade’s best. What begins as a sort of documentary style break-down of slasher tropes with Nathan Baesel as the charismatic Leslie Vernon in his quest to become one of the slasher greats like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, then shifts into a more traditional style for the grand finale. While there are notable cameos by Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, and Zelda Rubinstein, it’s the explored relationship between Vernon and his chosen final girl that makes this slasher break-down so amazing.
Written and directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, this no holds barred standoff between to fierce females delivers one of the tensest cinematic experiences that eventually builds into one of the bloodiest, brutal finales ever. Beatrice Dalle is ferociously terrifying as La Femme, and the Maury and Bustillo take the most mundane of household items and turn them into deadly weapons. Knitting needles, scissors, toasters, and more are all weapons of cringe-inducing destruction.
The Orphanage (2007)
J.A. Bayona’s directorial debut sees Laura returning to her childhood home, an orphanage for the disabled, with the intent to reopen it once more. When her son begins making new unseen friends, and then goes missing, Laura is sent on a frenzy to find her son and uncover the truths of her past. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, there’s a lot in common with his films; the emotional core, the gothic setting, and weaving of creepy supernatural elements against a more profound cultural story. A heartfelt ghost story that also manages to really deliver on the chills, The Orphanage is at the top of its class.
By 2007, the found footage subgenre was feeling tired and worn out thanks to cheap imitators after the surprise hit of The Blair Witch Project. Enter Spanish filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, who created not only one of the most terrifying films of the decade, but proved that anything can be reinvigorated and exciting again with clever minds behind it. The cast is comprised of mostly relative unknowns in their native Spain, including Manuela Velasco, also a TV presenter like her character Angela Vidal. Plaza and Balagueró also kept their cast in suspense, only doling out the script bits at a time so they’d never learn their characters’ fate until the day of filming. Nor did any of the cast know the fireman would fall to his death early in the film. Basically, the cast was as terrified while shooting the film as the audience was watching.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Michael Dougherty’s expertly woven anthology celebrates the spirit of Halloween in ways that no film has come close to touching. Covering all aspects of the holiday, from costumes to trick or treating, Trick ‘r Treat lays out the rules while delivering the cutest Halloween mascot of all time; Sam, the pint-sized terror with the cutest of weapons. Every frame is saturated with the holiday, from the look, feel, and tone of the horrors and fun of Halloween. Not only did Dougherty nail the very essence of Halloween, but he also changed the rules of what an anthology could be. A decade later, fans are still clamoring for more.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Adapted from the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, this mature spin on vampire lore is deceiving by its lead cast of two youths. A strange, haunting love story between 12-year old bullied Oskar and the peculiar Eli, who has a thirst for blood, the beautifully shot film is an intelligent break down of what it means to be immortal and lonely. It’s a romantic horror in the darkest sense, friendship and devotion giving way to revenge and death that’s well past Oskar’s 12-years. In terms of vampire movies, there’s nothing quite like it.
Pascal Laugier’s is extremely divisive for pushing theological and spiritual exploration to brutal, visceral limits. It’s also a narrative that seems to be comprised of multiple movies in one; beginning as a story of revenge for a woman tortured as a child before escaping before switching to a story of cultish torment leading to cringe-inducing terror. Love it or hate it, there’s no forgetting the horrific imagery Laugier presents on screen. Martyrs is a study on pain and suffering, and the very definition of nihilistic horror.
The Strangers (2008)
Bryan Bertino’s impressive feature debut stands out in a decade where home-invasion was popular. Memorable for its bleak, depressing tone, The Strangers also is regarded for its chilling randomness. While the young couple at the center of the story is suffering the breakdown of their relationship, they also fall victim to three masked assailants who terrorize them at their isolated cabin. Why? Because they happened to be home. The very concept that this could happen to anyone, anywhere, combined with Bertino’s mastery of atmosphere, gave this a more realistically rendered approach that terrified audience goers.