I look back at a disappointing era for the horror genre as the 2000s gave us very little to shout about. We retread old ground too often as the “re-imagining” took over…
Rightly or wrongly I look back at the last decade of horror films as one that gave us nothing new. We retread old ground, often with poor remakes or as they became known during the period – the re-imagining. Instead of western audiences enjoying new and interesting tales from the East – a craze that started in the late 1990s with the likes of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 chiller “Ring” or Takashi Miike’s 1999 film “Audition” – we had American producers nicking the stories and replaying them for English-speaking audiences with pretty Californian teenagers. These films have largely arrived thanks to producer Roy Lee who has made it his business to discover interesting tales from the Far East to recreate in the US of A.
One of the worst symptoms of the period was Rob Zombie – the musician-turned-film director – who gave us at least three of the most terrible examples of horror during the 2000s. The worst of which was the hideous, completely misjudged and misguided re-imagining of John Carpenter’s masterpiece “Halloween”. It was an origins story (another product of the 2000s that came from the need to instil something fresh into the superhero genre) to a horror plot that worked initially so beautifully because it had no origins. There was no reason, there was just evil. For a filmmaker with a name like Zombie, you would expect a better grasp of the fundamentals of what makes horror tick.
Genre cinema had its forward-thinkers…but did Horror?
Whereas the heroes had their “Kick-Ass” and “Dark Knight”, the fantasists had “Lord of the Rings”, and the children had “Harry Potter”, horror had nothing of the sort. There was no “Scream” to make us…er…you get the idea.
During the 2000s it was easy to lose count of the East Asian horror film remakes. Some were enjoyable such as Gore Verbinski’s stylish re-run of “Ring” while David Moreau and Xavier Palud cemented their filmmaking credentials with their version of “The Eye”. But there were too many by-the-numbers remakes like “The Grudge” and “Dark Water”. And lets not forget the sequels too!
Yet, Hollywood wasn’t content on remaking horror films American audiences had never heard of. There was an even easier way to make money through simple re-marketing of old products, styled and moulded around the current torture porn and gore craze. So, in the 2000s we got copious amounts of American classic horror remakes. Many of these movies are cult classics in their right. The remakes were always going to lack the authenticity and angst and anger of the filmmakers that made the originals. These new re-imaginings are just overtly glossed shockers that play to convention, packaged like an MTV music video. Some were reasonable films that tried something different with the plot (“The Hills Have Eyes”), but most were just mindless trash (“The Amityville Horror”, “The Wicker Man”, “The Last House On The Left”, “Prom Night”, “Black Christmas”).
Poor Stephen King
The famed horror novelist Stephen King has been a go-to source for Hollywood horror tales since Brian De Palma brilliantly brought “Carrie” to the screen in 1976. From Rob Reiner’s “Misery” to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, King’s work has provided Hollywood with plenty of inspiration. However, there’s also been some poor adaptations, usually occurring when King himself decides to write the screenplay, produce, direct, edit, and do everything on the film set including casting himself in one of the roles. Yet, King can’t be blamed for the vacuous, special-effects heavy films adapted from his work in the 2000s.
The key with King’s writing, and most importantly the fantasy of his work, is that he relies on the reader’s imagination to take the story places even he can not comprehend. Therefore, in any adaptation to the screen, where everything is visual and the audience’s imagination is rather more dictated to, the filmmaker has to take the essence of the literal form and make it cinematic. The best example is Kubrick’s “The Shining” which stripped a lot of plot out of the story and concentrated on Jack Nicholson’s character and his gradual road to madness. Also, Rob Reiner has become a master of adapting King’s work by realising what to keep in the movie and what to leave out, making the classics “Misery” and “Stand By Me”.
It’s little wonder King’s shorter stories have made for better films, where the hard work of the screenwriter and filmmaker to know how to formulate a visual story from the text is taken out of their hands somewhat by shorter prose. “Stand By Me” was based on one of King’s novellas, as was audience favourite “The Shawshank Redemption”. De Palma’s “Carrie” – the first film version of a Stephen King book – was based on one of King’s shortest novels. Yet, again, De Palma focussed the story on the character, and knew what to keep from the novel and what to leave out. It is essentially deciding what works from a visual perspective and what only works in a reader’s imagination when written on paper.
The 2000s has seen many adaptations of King’s work for film, short film, and television. Not one has been any good. The 2003 version of King’s “Dreamcatcher” was always going to have it tough. The novel isn’t one of King’s best, or his most original. The film suffers from being overlong and far-fetched, it simply doesn’t know how to draw the audience into the fantasy.
Perhaps the other films of the 2000s – all based on King’s shorter works – would fare better? Unfortunately not. “Secret Window” suffered, amongst other things, a terrible twist, “1408” was special-effects heavy (and even a great cameo from Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t save it), and “The Mist”, which had the most potential, was botched by director Frank Darabont who couldn’t satisfactorily bring together an ensemble of characters and gave us the worst ending of any film during the decade.
The failed William Castle experiment
In 1999, “Back To The Future” writer-director Robert Zemeckis set up Dark Castle Entertainment with producers Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler. It was obviously seen as a positive move by Warner Bros. who backed the production company with marketing and distribution support.
The idea behind Dark Castle was to remake William Castle horror films from the 1950s and 1960s for a modern audience. Castle was a film producer who became famous for his gimmicks at screenings of his movies. “13 Ghosts” was accompanied by a handheld plastic viewer given out to audience members that would remove ghosts from the screen when placed in front of the eyes. He also had skeleton’s flying amongst the rafters during screenings of “House on Haunted Hill”, and seat buzzers used to shock audiences during screenings of “The Tingler”.
There may have been an intention to implement similar gimmicks in Dark Castle’s output but these never became widespread. What wasn’t taken into consideration was that without such gimmicks, Castle’s work was largely mediocre. Hence, the first film to be released by the new studio – “House on Haunted Hill” – went by rather unnoticed by cinemagoers and took a panning from critics.
The failure of the film didn’t deter Zemeckis and co. In 2001 they released “Thirteen Ghosts”, a poor haunted house film, and in 2005 “House Of Wax”, another by-the-numbers scare-a-thon that lacked any scares. “House of Wax” also had the unfortunate side effect of casting Paris Hilton – a complete lack of any discernable talent. Of the non-William Castle remakes, “Ghost Ship” in 2002 and “Gothika” in 2003 were passable horror films targeted at the youth market. There was a distinct deficiency of quality and originality. After two more trashy films – “The Reaping” and “Return to House on Haunted Hill” – in 2007, the producers decided, quite rightly, to branch out and make films other than horror. The first of these was “RocknRolla” in 2008.
If it’s possible to single out one studio for its poor horror film output in the 2000s it would be Dark Castle Entertainment.
A bit of inspiration
Of course, James Wan threatened to inspire the genre in 2004 with his twisty thriller “Saw” that took the brilliant concept of “When A Stranger Calls” (which would itself become one of those unfortunate re-imaginings I was talking about) and placed it into a unique setting with two principle characters locked in a room with no recollection of how they got there. But this appeared to spur the likes of Rob Zombie on and the franchised which transpired became only interested in outdoing the previous film for blood and gore.
Were there any films of the 2000s worth remembering in the horror genre? There were a few. They were the ones that managed to borrow from their peer’s best work and update that work with style and substance for the 21st century audience. They weren’t new, they didn’t examine any cultural phenomenon, and they lacked any political bent.
Neil Marshall found his niche with straight riffs on the likes of “Alien”, “Aliens”, “The Thing”, “Carrie”, and a whole host of other horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, to produce the derivative but hugely enjoyable “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent”. Jaume Balaguero with Paco Plaza, and Oren Peli recalled arguably the best horror film of the 1990s – “The Blair Witch Project” – with the camcorder, character-filmed “[Rec]” and “Paranormal Activity”.
“Eden Lake” and “Them” were the best examples of the modern day “The Hills Have Eyes” (which also succumbed to a remake that was actually quite good), displaying a feral, god-less youth terrorising good-looking European middle class couples. Hollywood had a go at this type of film too with the much less effective “The Strangers”. Michael Haneke updated his “Funny Games” with an English-language remake starring Naomi Watts which also followed a similar formula.
John Dahl updated “The Hitcher” with “Joy Ride”, Shane Meadows made the masculine equivalent of “I Spit On Your Grave” with “Dead Man’s Shoes”, and Danny Boyle relocated the zombie apocalypse to London with his Night of the Living Dead-inspired “28 Days Later”.
The greatest horror film of them all – “The Exorcist” – made a comeback in the 2000s with Paul Schrader’s prequel. It just goes to show that quality was shunned by Hollywood in favour of commerciality when they told Schrader his film was rubbish after viewing dailies and hired Renny Harlin to re-shoot the entire thing. Harlin gave them what they wanted – eye candy. Schrader’s character-study was considered lost forever. But, in 2005, Schrader managed to cut together his footage and release his original vision. Check out both Harlin’s “Exorcist: The Beginning” and Schrader’s “Dominion” to decide which one you prefer.
Finally, a few shining examples
Hidden amongst these entertaining movies were a few gems that will live long in the memory. Alexandre Aja’s “Switchblade Romance” was a tour-de-force of violence and tension, while Tomas Alfredson’s “Let The Right One In” updated the vampire story without the silly teenage angst of “Twilight”. And, most surprisingly, “Aliens” actor Bill Paxton directed the fabulous “Frailty” – a dark murder-mystery with a menacing, foreboding tone that Paxton maintains brilliantly coupled with strong performances from Paxton himself, Matthew McConaughey, and Powers Boothe.
Obviously, we mustn’t forget one of the best horror movies of the period was one of the few truly unique tales. Mary Harron’s “American Psycho”, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel, introduced us to Christian Bale who played the infamous Patrick Bateman, a high stakes New York investment banker who has a taste for sadistic sex games and murder.
Honourable mentions to some passable but entertaining horror films of the 2000s must go out to Wes Craven’s “Red Eye” and werewolf revamp “Cursed”, David Twohy’s “Below” (which I enjoyed a lot more than “Pitch Black”), John Fawcett’s “Ginger Snaps”, and Rob Schmidt’s “Wrong Turn”, as well as the horror-comedies “Bubba Ho-tep” and “Severance”.
Although the irony of my anti-Hollywood hyperbole culminating in a favourite movie with ‘American’ in its title is not lost on me, there was, overall, a distinct lack of quality coming from the major studios. Hollywood, like it has been since 1977, was all about marketability. Quantity over quality. It is unsurprising, therefore, that my top 10 features mainly horror films produced in the UK and mainland Europe, or independent American productions. Indeed, only one of the top 10 was attached to a major studio.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2000s