Here are my choices for places 10 through 6 on my list of top 15 horror films of the last 15 years.
10. The Mist (2007), dir. by Frank Darabont
Outside of the works of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, Lovecraftian horror in film is underrepresented and fairly dismal. I am not talking strictly about Lovecraft adaptations so much as I am talking about films that depict horror from a Lovecraftian perspective: huge, unknown universe that reveals itself and a humanity that is limited in their understanding and is unable to explain these revelations from the void. It seems this type of horror is perfectly suited for the largely materialist presuppositions society holds now, yet few are made effectively. Frank Darabont changed that back in 2007 with his Stephen King adaptation—his third—of the novella “The Mist” from 1984.
With a cast of talented character actors—Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Andre Braugher, to name a few—Darabont creates the disorientation and the tribalism that probably mimics, fairly accurately, people put in a Lovecraftian situation where there is something “out there” that has made it’s way “in here.” With creature effects to die for (and Lovecraftian to boot!) and paranoia and despair in spades insidiously moving its way inside of the small town grocery store, this film delivers the scares, the tension and the unrelenting despair of a universe with no grace or mercy. It also happens to tout one of the most memorable endings. It is not a happy film, but it is one that captures the imagination and says something true and profound about what people will succumb to when they are in the dark. At the end, you will wonder what is more deadly, the creatures or our fellow human being.
9. The House of the Devil (2009), dir. by Ti West
Retro horror has become somewhat of a trend of late and often these films can’t help but wink at the camera: “hey, did you notice that we are doing this in the style of the 80s, but it’s actually the 2010s??” This awareness doesn’t always destroy these retro horror films, but it does cause many horror fans and critics to take them less seriously as film. The House of the Devil is one of the first retro horror films I remember seeing and it has none of the awareness that one might expect from its type of film. Ti West meant to make a serious horror film that looked and felt like the 80s with the walkman and hazy camera lens included. Considering the film is taking a look at the 1980s/1990s occult scare in the United States, it would be hard to build that kind of atmosphere without the 80s setting, because that level of panic is no longer present. This film is successful simply because it could be completely mistaken for something actually made in the 80s. It has no self-awareness.
What it does have, however, is the slowest, most methodical and tense burn of any horror in recent memory. A lot of people probably did not like this film because it takes its time with the scares and with gratification to its buildup. Instant gratification is the name of the game in current horror and a film like this refuses to give that to its viewers, instead it wants you to be unnerved the whole time. It wants you to look at every frame and expect something to be there that is not ever there…at least until the very end. It has the classic setup with the young college girl hired as a babysitter (though a slight variation in this one), largely alone in a huge house and events start taking place that slowly turn banal activities into acts of pure terror. West’s direction and visual style astound and we end up with a film that not only engenders a different time, but also reminds a new generation about real fears in America before they were born. The ending pays off the slow burn in spades and large country estates will never look the same again.
8. Trick 'r' Treat (2007), dir. by Michael Dougherty
Anthology horror is quite simply my favorite subgenre of horror. There is so much room for complexity and creativity inherent in both picking the short horror stories that will appear in the film and in creating an enveloping story or conceit that ties the stories together. Admittedly, very few anthology horror films could be called “classics,” however they are always fun and the viewer gets the most bang for their buck. I have long wanted the anthology horror formula to make a comeback and I think we are starting to see more interest with the V/H/S films and the most recent attempt, Tales of Halloween. However, Trick ‘r’ Treat stands out as, arguably, the best horror anthology film to be made to date. Those are strong words, I know, but I think this film is truly special.
Michael Dougherty (who, most recently, directed Krampus) seamlessly tied together four horror tales that take place in a small, suburban style town with an enveloping story involving the sinister, pajama-wearing, sack-covered face of Sam, as he becomes our omniscient watcher of each tale or horror, himself taking center stage in the enveloping story and the final tale. Most anthology films keep their short films separated from each other usually by having the enveloping story involve a person reading the stories or telling the stories. Trick ‘r’ Treat goes further and allows each individual story to have its exclusive time, but we are treated to moments where the stories blend into each other. Characters from one story find their way into another, giving the whole narrative a truly cohesive film quality instead of a glorified buffet of short films. What makes this even more intriguing is how the film was never released in theaters and ended up going straight to video. I think because of this ludicrous decision by studios/distributors, the film has gained an even stronger cult following since. For sure, it truly does deserve it.
7. The Babadook (2014), dir. by Jennifer Kent
The Babadook is one of two films on this list—the other coming in the top 5—that after my first viewing, I was immediately compelled to watch it again (and I did that next evening). I take notice when films—especially horror—do this since it happens so rarely for me. Jennifer Kent’s feature length debut is a truly stunning film that is able to be an unnerving, atmospheric horror film while still transcending its supernatural horror trappings. At the bottom of this film about an entity that haunts a mother and her son in the wake of a family tragedy, there is a profound message about grief, loss and loneliness. Mr. Babadook is not just a shadowy creature creeping around the dark corners of the house, but it becomes an analogue for the grief of the mother.
The aspect of this film that I really found refreshing was how it revolves around a character in a rather disturbing kid’s story manifesting from the storybook into the real world of the mother and son reading it. This idea of words, read aloud, having the power to live and breath and manifest in the metaphysical realm is something that I found to be really effective in this film. Many stories and films have done similar things with the idea of words taking on flesh, but The Babadook does so with a vivid imagination that doesn’t feel forced or cheap. It feels like it was the only way the story could have been told and Mr. Babadook could have been brought into this world. In other words, Kent gave us a film that made such strange occurrences seem natural to the world and that, in my opinion, is quite an achievement for a debut film.
6. El Orfanato [aka The Orphanage] (2007), dir. by J. A. Bayona
Horror films love masked kids who will lead to the potential demise of the central characters. It is a subject matter that goes against the general wisdom of our age about children being good, pure and innocent and unable to be evil, because evil is something that only adults do, right? El Orfanato may be one of the best examples of how horror can really get under our skin by reversing something that we believe so strongly as a culture. Much like The Babadook, this film also deals with grief after a tragedy, however it has a bit more of a sinister edge than The Babadook. There is a brutal element within the conclusion of this film that causes grief to eventually intersect with blame and guilt. This explores how tragedy doesn’t always just happen to us, but sometimes we cause the tragedy, unknowingly.
While El Orfanato is not a Del Toro film (only produced by him), J.A. Bayona delivers a film that has a similar feel to the works of Del Toro—and is often mistaken for a Del Toro film—with its Spanish setting, its use of light and dark and its gothic sensibility. However, to just say Bayona is a Del Toro wannabe is to do a disservice his own unique fingerprints. Del Toro’s films always seem to be infused with a sense of the fantastical even when the settings are very normal and down to earth. They never completely feel natural which is what, I think, Del Toro wants. Bayona, on the other hand, gives this film from beginning to end a feeling that this story is very much based in this world. It just so happens that unnatural elements invade the natural world in this one instance. Bayona succeeds at creating a truly frightening film instead of a fantastical film like Del Toro makes. The scene showing a game similar to “Peek Around The Curtain,” still to this day, creeps me out and is one of the most memorable horror scenes in my mind.
Come back next Monday for the conclusion of this list!