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Weekend Binge: The 17 best, most trailblazing horror films of the 21st century

This Halloween we’ll be taking a look at the last 17 years, and selecting one outstanding horror movie from each year.

weekend binge Updated: Nov 17, 2017 13:14 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Like most lists, this Halloween one, too, is a Heisenbergian product of blind chance.
Like most lists, this Halloween one, too, is a Heisenbergian product of blind chance.

“I think that we’re all mentally ill. Those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better - and maybe not all that much better after all.” - Stephen King

It’s fitting that we begin with the words of Stephen King; 2017 has been, and there can be no doubt about this, his year. But most years are his years. The writer has been at the forefront of horror literature, and in turn, horror cinema, for decades. He has seen it evolve - from the cocaine-fuelled days of the Shining to the CGI-injected thrills of It - he’s been there, writing essays at first, and then tweets, about his favourite genre.

This Halloween, we’ll be taking a look at the last 17 years and selecting one outstanding horror movie from each year. Like most lists, this one, too, is a Heisenbergian product of blind chance. Tomorrow, it might morph into something else. You might not agree with some of the films you find here, you might not even be particularly fond of them, or maybe, you might be reminded of something you’d seen years ago, and with faint fondness, you might return to it. You might also find movies that you’ve never seen, and perhaps never even heard of. Which makes you the luckiest person of them all: You might discover.

There have been very few conditions these movies have had to meet - but the one thing that unites them, despite their startling diversity, is that they have, in their own way, been trailblazing - either stylistically, technically, socially, or even financially.

Here they are:

Years before the Hunger Games, director Kinji Fukasaku unleashed his dystopian vision of the future - in which children fought to the death in a gladiatorial purge - upon the world. He guided us into the new millennium with one of the most shockingly controversial films ever made. It would be his last. Years later, Quentin Tarantino declared Battle Royale to be his favourite movie since 1991, the year he became a director himself.

Spanish Gothic horror, in the years to come, would become a popular subgenre among discerning horror fans. Arguably, its most acclaimed products wouldn’t arrive until The Devil’s Backbone (2002), The Orphanage (2007) and Julia’s Eyes (2010) - but there’s something special about Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others. There’s something about its atmosphere, its themes, its glorious performances and visuals that set the stage for the others.

While most purists - disciples of George A Romero like Simon Pegg, whom we’ll talk about very soon - took exception to Danny Boyle’s treatment of zombies (he took away their one handicap: speed), this wasn’t his only transgression. With DP Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle pioneered techniques that have now become the norm. If you return to 28 Days Later, you’d notice its oversaturated tones, it’s grainy, almost blurry visuals. Go ahead, check. You see, 28 Days Later was one of the first major feature films to have been shot with a digital camera. 17 years later, they’ve taken over the industry, leaving film facing extinction.

Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters arrived in the middle of a new wave of Korean horror, which remains to this day - perhaps barring the New French Extremity movement that began around the same time - the most depraved period in modern horror history. It blended distinct styles - psychological thriller, Gothic horror, period drama - into a lush, moving tale about family and loss.

While it can be argued with reasonable fairness that Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead isn’t a horror movie per se, there can be no denying that it was born in a pool of blood, feasting on the brains of George A Romero. And like the best horror movies, it tackled important, real themes. And for that, it remains a cult classic to this day.

OK, so there haven’t really been too many controversial picks so far - don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to outrage soon. Scott Derrickson’s insidiously terrifying The Exorcism of Emily Rose did something very few horror films have the courage to do: It reinforced the idea that true horror doesn’t necessarily have to come from the sight of parasitic demons and the sound of breaking bones - although there’s a lot of that here too - but from patiently told stories and carefully written characters.

Looking back - and peeking ahead - it would appear that Guillermo del Toro’s Academy Award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth is the least scary film on this list. But is that such a bad thing? Does ‘true’ horror always need to induce vomiting and goosebumps? Can it not simply be a parable featuring fauns and fairies and children coming of age against a backdrop of war?

2007 proved to be a difficult year from which to weed out a single movie. The aforementioned The Orphanage is a cornerstone of the genre, as are the two outstanding zombie movies, 28 Weeks Later (one of the finest horror sequels ever made) and [REC]. But in the end, it came down to two Stephen King adaptations - the delirious 1408 and the movie we finally decided on: The Mist. As far as Lovecraftian horror goes, it’s among the best. But its most noble achievement is that it gave Thomas Jane an honest shot at Oscar glory. It’s another matter that, like most horror films, it was completely ignored - and chances are, never even considered - by the Academy.

While most films on this list have been selected because of their quality, Cloverfield finds a place for personal reasons. Not that it isn’t good - it’s right up there with the rest of them, thrilling, blazingly original, and filled with interesting sci-fi concepts. However, there could easily be versions of this list, in some alternate reality, which have in Cloverfield’s place the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, or maybe even the gory French film, Martyrs.

Here’s the problem with Paranormal Activity - or, more accurately, its fans: They simply aren’t vocal enough. They’re out there, make no mistake - the first movie made almost $200 million at the box office - but in the years that have followed, its detractors have made louder arguments, basically turning a divisive movie into a laughing stock. But it would be a good time to remind ourselves that when the first Paranormal Activity movie came out - before the pointless sequels and the birth of social media - it virtually resurrected a genre, and did it with the most excruciatingly well-executed minimalism in decades.

Darren Aronofsky’s most recent film, mother!, very nearly made this list. In the end, while it was one of the most visionary movies of 2017 - and perhaps even the last seven years - it wasn’t the surrealist knockout that Aronofsky’s 2010 masterpiece Black Swan was.

Here’s another controversial pick: Kevin Smith’s topical, and scarily foresighted Red State. And it wasn’t like there weren’t other choices either; 2011 was the year that gave us Ti West’s haunting The Innkeepers, Lucky McKee’s abusively feminist The Woman and Adam Wingard’s inventive slasher film You’re Next. But we return to that King quote: What is horror but an attempt to understand the atrocities we see everyday? And Red State is, strangely enough, more vital now than it was all those years ago.

Tragically, the best Scream movies were released in the ‘90s, snatching away from us the chance to talk about them here. But future Oscar nominee (wait, what?!) Drew Goddard’s gloriously meta takedown of horror tropes in The Cabin in the Woods is easily the next best thing. It works on so many levels (quite literally, too) as a subversive love letter to the movies we fans adore, as a bringer of a new era of meta horror, and even as an all-knowing takedown of the concept of God.

It’s easy to dismiss found footage movies. They’re the discarded trash in dustbins most respectable film fans flick lit matches at. Which is why saving them from the burning embers can be difficult. There were bigger films to have been released in 2013 - films like the Conjuring, The Purge, Evil Dead, Stoker - but think about it: Did they push the envelope in any way? Or were they simply good movies that delivered on their promises in an era when such dependability could be hard to come by. Willow Creek, meanwhile, a movie about an adventurous young couple on a quest to locate the Sasquatch (Bigfoot, if you will) is a movie you most likely haven’t heard of - which, if you’re looking for reasons to watch this film, happens to be among the best.

No other film on this list reinforces the notion that all lists are arbitrary than Creep. On another day, it could have been murdered by Ana Lily Amirpour’s strange Iranian vampire Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, had its throat slit by the trippy Starry Eyes, or had its nightmares invaded by The Babadook. But today is Creep’s day. Now, have you had the honour of meeting Peachfuzz yet?

Like Aronofsky’s mother! (even in its absence, it has made its presence felt, has it not?) David Robert Mitchell’s sublime It Follows is an allegorical movie. And like the best allegorical tales, each of you will absorb it differently; you will shiver with fear in moments that make others laugh; while you reflect on your youth, others will contemplate religion.Nothing is ever seen, it is only felt - like real fear. As the critic Mark Kermode once wrote: “Never underestimate the sickness of the average viewer’s mind.”

This isn’t just any old home invasion thriller, even though it owes a great debt to classics like The Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs or Panic Room. Don’t Breathe takes the conventions of the genre and doesn’t so much flip them on their head as it shoots them in the face. Point blank. It understands the limitations of its world and works wonders within them.

While Get Out is overtly about the current racial climate in America, police violence, and the deep-rooted anger different communities harbour against each other, its themes could easily be transported to India.It could be just as powerful a film about the class divide and casteism. And that’s the power of great cinema, especially great genre cinema - it transcends borders, and strikes universal themes. It wouldn’t be too surprising if Get Out breaks the decades-long prejudice against horror movies at the Oscars.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar