Yes, there were arbitrary rules in determining this list. I’ve limited myself to those films released in 2000 or beyond, and only those that emphasize the type of horror I’m looking for: the creeping dread, the weird tale on screen, the bizarre and transgressive and memorably disturbing film emphasizing just how odd reality truly is, just how much stranger the world becomes when the thin skin of existence is peeled away.
Despite, say, Carpenter’s The Thing, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Wise’s The Haunting, all falling onto my favorites list, they also fall outside my time scale.
And though I liked aspects of recent films that do conform to my timeline and capture that dread I’m looking for, certain fare like The Babadook eschewed subtlety and all too often descended into a pastiche of Polanski’s Repulsion; Descent had wonderful makeup designs, but piss-poor dialogue that took me out of the story; Inside is excellent, but it’s more a ghoulish horror comedy along the lines of Evil Dead 2 than the type of horror I’m celebrating on this list; and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night… well, I’m not sure why I didn’t add it here. Maybe because I find vampires dull. Pretend it has an honorary place below.
So 2000 on, weirdness and surrealism over gore and iconic horror tropes, here’s my list of horror films worth a peek in the month of Halloween (I’m also using the American release title translations because I’m lazy. Live with it.):
Greedy Guts (aka Little Otik)— Jan Švankmajer’s surreal, disturbing, darky comical masterpiece. Nightmarish and wonderful.
Kairo— One of those rare films that captures the encroaching dread of a particularly vivid nightmare. The first 30-minutes alone surpasses the vast majority of horror films in invoking terror. So many great Japanese releases in the 00s (Dark Water is another I recommend), but this remains my favorite.
Din of Celestial Birds— I assume Begotten is pretty well known by now (and it’s outside my timeline rules anyway), so I’m choosing E. Elias Merhige’s 2006 film. A decaying corpse as the personification of the evolution of life and consciousness on a cosmic scale are right on my wavelength. Resplendently bizarre images accompanied by an ominous drone truly captures that ineffable state of terror.
The Orphanage— Yes, del Toro produced this, and I could have chosen The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth (maybe Cronos?), but I actually prefer The Orphanage. It balances that abject fear of ghosts with a profoundly melancholy atmosphere that accentuates the sense of loss and hopelessness at the inevitability of death.
Werckmeister Harmonies— One of the greatest films made in the last 25-years, and one that not only boasts perfect performances, cinematography beyond anything I’ve seen since, it also has a decomposing whale as a metaphor for the horrific violence of capitalism. Pretentious? Sure. But one of the darkest and best films made so far this century. Its ambience is far more disturbing and compelling than any Eli Roth hack job or James Wan mediocrity.
Marebito— I was going to go with Uzumaki here, but as much as I like the film, it tends to emphasize the goofiness of Junji Ito’s classic manga and diminishes his mastery of the grotesque and bizarre. Marebito is bizarre. There are elements of misogyny in the film that ultimately harm it in my mind, but Marebito’s depiction of a man descending into another realm— whether that other universe exists or not is irrelevant— allows the narrative to unfold with some uniquely disturbing Lovecraftian strangeness.
Sauna—This one is all about the setting. The atmosphere is so immersive it makes the horror that much more palpable. Ville Virtanen is astonishing. Wonderful film.
Re-Cycle— Mixed feelings here, but the first half is gorgeous, so much so I consider it one of my favorites of the 00s. The Pang Bros might be all about dressing up shit into sumptuous eye-sugar, but that optical candy is as tasty as can be. Watch up to the scene where Angelica Lee enters the city of the dead and the corpses float through the air towards the interloper… well, it’s breathtakingly beautiful in its depiction of dilapidation and decay. Then it all goes downhill from there. If it’s any consolation the Pang Bros insist the film was never meant to be an anti-abortion diatribe. I still feel it belongs on the list.
Lake Mungo— Tired of found footage horror films? This one is so far beyond anything done previously or since, it deserves to be celebrated. Layers of apprehension, a story that vacillates between a traditional ghostly tale, then zigs into mundane explanations that are somehow even more disturbing, only to zag once more and reinstitute that supernatural explanation thus bringing everything to a fever pitch. Love this film.
Brand Upon the Brain— I’m a Guy Maddin fan, so I’ll be the first to admit he’s not for everyone. But his use of the usual Maddin style—or tricks or gimmicks or skill (depending on the viewer)— is so masterfully utilized here, the film becomes this time capsule that depicts a world of ghosts and subversive fears and insanity far beyond most horror films. It’s one of my favorites.
Berberian Sound Studio— Meta analysis and celebration of Italian horror films of the 70s. Berberian’ turns the intricacies of filmmaking inside out, reveals all the nuts and bolts secrets, then submerges the entirety into ambiguity. Toby Jones gives his usual commendable performance. So damned good.
House of the Devil— Even if Ti West never reaches the level of filmmaking he achieved early on ever again, he’ll always have House’. What could be distracting and whimsical nods to 80s horror nostalgia is elevated here by West’s attention to detail: the natural performances, an astounding soundtrack— it all clicks and hums perfectly. The slow burn has rarely been utilized so well, and the apocalyptic climax is both open to interpretation and alarming.
It Follows— What hasn’t been said about this masterpiece? I haven’t much to add, but the superficial “last girl” interpretations and “supernatural venereal disease” reviews are so perfunctory and off-base, I can only implore viewers to pay attention if they decide to watch it again, dammit.
Session 9— A masterpiece of atmosphere, the location is more important than the actors or plot. I think Brad Anderson is a skilled filmmaker who hasn’t received his due yet. My sole gripe is that the last 5-10 minutes of exposition should have been omitted to preserve the ambiguity.
Resolution— Far more than yet another smug meta-horror movie, Resolution is a genuinely creepy take on the nature of storytelling in film. It builds incrementally, offering tantalizing hints that make up disquieting insinuations, all coming to a head in one of the most powerful final scenes in any horror film I’ve seen in years. Excellent.