Horror Films in the 2000s: Dog Soldiers, Deathwatch, 28 Days Later, Final Destination, Land of the Dead, High Tension, Shaun of the Dead, Saw, Wolf Creek, Hostel, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil's Rejects, Night Watch, Slither, Torture Porn, Asian remakes: The Grudge, Dark Water, The Eye
Horror movies in the late 1990s predicted dire things for the turn of the century. Whilst January 1st, 2000 came and went without much mishap, many commentators have identified the true beginning of the 21st century as September 11th, 2001. The events of that day changed global perceptions of what is frightening, and set the cultural agenda for the following years. The film industry, already facing a recession, felt very hard hit as film-makers struggled to come to terms with what was now acceptable to the viewing public. Anyone trying to sell a horror film in the autumn of 2001 (as George Romero tried with Land of the Dead) got rebuffed. "Everybody wanted to make the warm fuzzy movies."(LA Times 30/10/05) There were even calls to ban horror movies in the name of world peace. But, by 2005, the horror genre was as popular as ever. Horror films routinely topped the box office, yielding an above-average gross on below-average costs. It seems that audiences wanted a good, group scare as a form of escapism, just as their great-grandparents chose Universal horror offerings to escape the miseries of the Depression and encroaching world war in the 1930s.
The monsters have had to change, however. Gone were the lone psychopaths of the 1990s, far too reminiscent of media portrayals of bin Laden, the madman in his cave. As the shock and awe of twenty first century warfare spread across TV screens, cinematic horror had to offer an alternative, whilst still tapping into the prevailing cultural mood.
“I told you you were next.”
A full eighteen months before Flights UA93, UA175, AA77 and AA11 headed for their date with global news infamy, horror fans were enthralled by a fictional plane crash. Flight 180 meets its doom in Final Destination (2000) in an orgy of incendiary detail, as passengers are sucked through the fusilage, crushed by cascading hand baggage or have their faces burnt off by ignited jet fuel. In-flight entertainment this is not. A prescient suspense movie that showed us the shape of things to come - perhaps? It's telling that the director, James Wong, and producer, Glen Morgan, cut their teeth on that most conspiracy theory-friendly of TV shows, The X Files. Along with Donnie Darko (which debuted at Sundance in January 2001 and also deals with teenagers, fragmented jet engines and sidestepped fate) Final Destination implies a changing direction in horror cinema, as well as setting the stage for post-milliennial nightmares about Death raining from the sky. Chiillingly, these nightmares were soon to be rooted in newsreels, and impact the zeitgeist the world over as 'the Global War on Terror'.
Ostensibly yet another teen-focused horror movie in which protagonists get picked off one by one, Final Destination marks a significant paradigm shift. By the end of the 1990s the slasher/killer was played out as a horror trope. Not even self-referential parody could make a masked murderer into an interesting antagonist. Even before the first plane hit the North Tower, it seems that audiences were searching for a new source of dread, something less cartoonish, something that couldn't be blamed on an unhappy childhood, or a revenge mission. The new millennium brought with it a new unease, a feeling that the evil in the world cannot be contained inside one masked, wise-cracking human. Step forward the most ancient and enduring of human adversaries: Death.
The Final Destination killer has no cumbersome back story, no mother waiting in the shadows, no daughters/sons unaware of their parentage. It has no Achilles heel. It has everyone in its sights and no one - virgins and geeks are in just as much danger as cheerleaders. The rules are clear and simple: if you are a character in a Final Destination movie, you are going to die. It's just a matter of when, where and - most importantly for the entertainment factor of these movies - how.
This grim premise is actually a very effective crowd pleaser when properly handled, and has effectively sustained three entries in the franchise, with a fourth due for release in 2009. It's all about anticipation. Hitchcock identified this first and best:
Now this innocuous conversation about football becomes very potent. "Don't talk about football, there's a bomb under there", that's what they want to tell us, as the bomb ticks away aand we keep telling the audience there's a minute to go; half a minute and finally ten seconds. That is when it must not go off. If we let it go off, the audience will be as mad as hell with us, they'll be disgusted. They'll say, "Don't go and see that movie or that play".
Your toe MUST touch the bomb at the last minute, you must look under the table, grab the bomb and throw it out of the window, then it can go off; but you and I must be saved. An audience needs that relief after you've put them through the wringer.”
—Alfred Hitchcock quoted in "Heard In The Wings" (1971), edited by Roderick Bloomfield
While Hitchcock-era audiences were aware of imminent disaster, the onscreen characters themselves, however, remained blissfully ignorant of the danger under the table. By the 2000s roll around, the Final Destination protagonists are fully aware of their impending demise, and half of the pleasure of the films (particularly Final Destination 2) is watching them squirm under the pressure. These teens want out of the situation they find themselves in, but there is only one exit. Once Alex (Devon Sawa) figures out his escape from death-by-fireball is only temporary, his goal involves dodging his fate for as long as possible, rather than long term survival. A friendly mortician (genre stalwart Tony Todd) advises Alex and Clear that it's pointless to fight their destiny - we're "all part of Death's sadistic design". Not even the pluckiest Final Girl could triumph over this threat.
Alex and his fellow survivors enter a brave new world where fatal possiblities lurk around every corner. The "heimlich" is now truly "unheimlich" - Freud would have been overjoyed. The underlying perils of middle class, small town American existence are thrown into sharp relief. It's not the big, extraordinary things that get you (a crashing plane), but the small, everyday objects: a washing line, a leaky cup, an unexpected bus. This makes for delicious viewing - audiences are thrust into a sadistic PSA highlighting bathroom, kitchen, and level crossing safety. Each death is accidental, almost self-inflicted, the consequence of a series of small decisions, easily made, ultimately fatal. This approach offers great opportunities for SFX; a hallmark of this franchise. Apart from the spectacular exploding jet engine at the top, the circumstances of each death are played out in loving detail, with skilful cinematography enhancing the suspence. Death is heralded by nothing more than steam from a kettle, or water oozing from a drain. As soon as the sequence kicks in, every object to hand becomes deadly, and the audience are invited to predict which one will deliver the fatal blow. These sequences have much in common with slapstick (Tod flailing around in his bathroom, Mrs Lewton regarding every kitchen implement with paranoid suspicion), only a fatality replaces the punchline. Very quickly, the audience learns what to expect once lights start flashing and leaves start rustling, and the pleasure of this entire movie franchise revolves around the stylish fulfilment of those expectations.
Final Destination is extremely self aware as a text (all the characters are named for horror movie greats - Browning, Chaney, Lewton), and tips its hat to the genre conventions (Alex: "I'm not going Dahmer on you guys, this just is."). But the film-makers attempt to bring us something fresh, not just another post-Scream witticism. Final Destination begins with an explosion, the death of hundreds, the worst thing that can happen. Most horror movies would reserve this kind of destruction for their climax - this approach turns Hitchcock's "bomb under the table" on its head. The "innocuous conversation about football" lasts throughout the remainder of the narrative, with more, smaller bombs exploding at intervals as character after character collides with their delayed fate. It's inevitable that the protagonists we care most about should be left till last, but the narrative baulks at coming to the most logical, merciless conclusion. The movie originally ended with Alex's death, but this failed with test audiences (the film-makers should have listened to Hitchcock and his stipulation that an audience needs relief). $2 million worth of re-shoots reconfigured the ending so his fate is left hanging in the balance - alive, for now, but ultimately doomed.
Post 9/11, Final Destination plays as something of a comfort. Its central message (you are more likely to be killed by a tea kettle than an anthrax attack) reclaims Death as an entity, pulling it back out of the realm of capering, masked, cartoonish killers with supernatural powers and smart mouths. The franchise also represents a world in which tragic mass deaths occur as accidents, not as part of a terrorist plot. In Final Destination, Death is once again real, domestic, mundane, but still the stuff of nightmares. The movie encapsulates a brief moment of innocence at the top of the century when a plane erupting in a fireball could be entertainment. As the 2000s wore on, Death became even more everyday. War casualties dominated news reports until they became too commonplace to report. Cinema audience's tastes ran to torture porn and the straight-to-DVD market exploited censorship loopholes to make "uncut" mean "hacked to pieces with a blood-soaked chainsaw". But for the teenage protagonists of Final Destination and its sequels, Death becomes a fresh concept, as they are suddenly, forcibly reminded of their own mortality. While audiences are entertained by the elaborate accidents that befall the characters, the movies leave a chilling aftertaste. The horrors of Saw or Hostel wash over the viewer, their atrocities so beyond the realm of everyday experience that they have no impact, but Final Destination hits home. Literally. Your kitchen can never seem like a safe haven again.
- Screenplay - read it here
Soldiers of Misfortune: 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers and Deathwatch
Thanks to embedded reporters, live feeds, 24 hour rolling news and events in Iraq and Afghanistan, military images dominated the news - and global consciousness. Media and military technology combined to give the general public a close up view of war like never before, in a daily TV dosage. It was inevitable then, that, as the conflict dragged on and stories of less-than-heroism began to surface, that the rank-and-file soldier should begin to feature as a dominant figure in our mass cultural nightmare.
British horror films were ahead of the curve on this paradigm. Dog Soldiers (2002) pits squaddies on a training exercise in Scotland against an ancient curse. Faced with an unseen slavering threat that is better at surviving in the forest than they are, the soldiers fall apart, and are picked off one by one. Their machine guns and tactics training are useless against a silent, deadly — and indigenous — opponent. Deathwatch (2002) involves a 1917 platoon facing a similarly mysterious threat in their trench. The realisation that team-work might save them comes too late, and individually, they must face a lonely death in the mud. Both these movies set supernatural forces loose in the theatre of war. Otherwise, for 21st century tastes, it's too much like TV.
28 Days Later (2002)
Rapidly emerging as the classic horror movie of the early 2000s, 28 Days Later is a low budget, digitally shot entry into the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. Debate still swirls as to whether or not the zombies really count as zombies - technically they aren't, as they are not dead, just locked by a virus into a state of extreme rage, hellbent on the destruction of those around them. They are also fast - gone are the stiff-legged reanimated corpses of Romero's Night/Dawn/Day.
She warns him there are new rules for living, that involve split-second, murderous decision making. When a fellow human being comes into contact with infected blood or saliva "you've got between 10-20 seconds to kill someone." Selena has been on the streets for 28 days already. She's ready to kill "in a heartbeat".
Some of 28 Days Later's power, unusually for a horror movie, lies in its realism. In some ways, it is the heir to The Blair Witch Project. From the news footage which opens the title sequence — riots, lynching, hangings, sobbing mothers and police brutality — the action is placed firmly in the here and now. This is not Mittel Europe, nor a galaxy far away. The digital footage — the 'home movie' effect — only enhances that sensation. Shot in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, 28 Days Later proved to be uncannily preminiscent, both of familiar cities laid waste by disaster, and of global infection. 9/11 saw the normally crowded streets of New York closed and deserted, and landmarks plastered with "Have You Seen...?" posters. SARS devastated the Hong Kong economy in 2003 as the threat of a new, incurable virus shut schools and public offices, decimated tourism and business travel, and had the whole world wondering if it could happen to them. Whilst SARS receded as a threat, the global medical community is still on standby alert for outbreaks of its close cousin, avian flu. And, although at the time of filming the breakdown of West's platoon might have been a cultural reference to Vietnam war movies, the representation of soldiers, flailing without any moral compass to guide them, was to echo loudly in news stories for the rest of the decade.
The Rise and Fall of Torture Porn
“No physical or mental torture,
nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war
to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of
war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted or exposed
to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.”
—The Third Geneva Convention, Article 17 (1949)
"It’s the moral antithesis of what we want to stand for
as a country."
—Sgt Erik Saar, US Army translator at Guantanamo Bay
"Torture" is an emotive word, trailing echoes of the Spanish Inquisition, the SS, and the Stasi. The act of torture represents the ultimate corruption of power; the torturer has absolute dominance over their victim, they control pain, which is of far more consequence than death. It is usually associated with individuals who work beyond the reaches of law and morality; drug barons, terrorists, secret police.
Torture emerged from the basements of third world dictators and into the headlines in 2004. The New Yorker brought international attention to a leaked report (see below) about the torture and cruelty experienced by detainees at the hands of US Army personnel. 60 Minutes II ran a story complete with photographs and video footage obtained from participants in the crimes. The soldiers casually posed with torture victims, apparently unaware they were doing anything wrong. This outrage was followed by reports of physical and psychological torture carried out on inmates at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. An FBI investigation concluded that detainees - the majority held under suspicion of terrorism — were subject to the kind of treatment outlawed by the Geneva Convention since 1949; food deprivation, heat/cold exposure, water immersion, enforced immobilisation and forced feeding. Torture was suddenly a first world issue, a deliberate strategy employed by the most powerful government in the world.
And it seemed no one at a high level was prepared to admit responsibility or culpability. The rhetoric of the 'Global War on Terror' demands a victory at all costs, and implies the threat comes from forces prepared to play dirty: the gloves are off. Gone is the gentlemanly two-step shuffle of Cold War combat. Torture becomes another technique, to be utilised rather than abhorred. Institutional inclination went hand in hand with new technology: the Abu Ghraib soldiers recorded incidents and images on their camera phones, and distributed the footage on the internet. Civilians armed with camera phones were also making headlines as 'Happy Slapping' became the latest adolescent craze. It was inevitable that this shift in attitude would make the leap from news to entertainment.
Torturing women for entertainment is as old as movie-making itself — think of all those damsels in distress tied to railroad tracks in early silent hits. Herschell Gordon Lewis and his Italian imitators exploited the bums-on-seats value of a screaming, blood-drenched, busty blonde way back in the 1960s. However, several mainstream releases in 2004-5 contained startlingly graphic representations of torture: Hostel, Wolf Creek, The Devil's Rejects, Saw I -V . Individually, these low budget films contain nothing innovative. Wolf Creek and The Devil's Rejects are familiar tales of psychopaths out of control, Saw is a return journey into Se7en territory, and Hostel is The Hitcher's European Vacation. What they share is an aesthetic sensibility: realism. Taking their cue from the intimacy and veracity of 28 Days Later, this new sub-genre of slasher movies positioned the audience right in the middle of the frame. Through dynamic camerawork (HD allows much more flexibility than 35mm camers both in terms of camera positioning and lighting) and editing, they blur viewpoints - both actual and moral - until it is unclear whose eyes the audience are seeing through, torturer or victim?
David Edelstein coined the term torture porn in the January 2006 New Yorker, suggesting that we engage with these kind of movies on a purely visceral level, all considerations of story and character aside. Just like porn, except the focus of the action is torture, rather than sex. The viewer becomes a voyeur, the traditional distance between lens and object is no longer measurable, no longer a constant. The body horror of the 1980s employed similarly graphic images, but used humour and the gross out factor to maintain that distance. The serial killer movies of the 1990s portrayed equally nasty characters, but contextualised them in a fantasy realm through the use of elaborate, overly theatrical mise en scene (Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, The Bone Collector) that kept audiences aesthetically removed from the perpetrators. In the torture porn movies of the 2000s, viewing is about realism, about going to that place in the blood-spattered cellar and coming back, after a couple of hours, at least alive. Little is left to the imagination; the sequences of images are all about the details, the biting power saw, the cracking spine.
The other aspect these movies shared was mainstream distribution. Despite their low budgets, they were studio backed, and, thanks to plenty of marketing dollars, made it onto screens in multiplexes everywhere. Their collective box office take is phenomenal. The most frightening dimension to these movies is not their content, but the fact that in 2005 they represented horror hegemony. These were not video nasties changing hands under the counter; these were blockbusters. Saw took over $100 million worldwide in theatrical distribution, Hostel $80 million (source: Boxofficemojo). Torture made an appearance in other mainstream texts, in the 22nd Bond movie, Casino Royale, and as a major plot device in seasons of 24. It seemed the new aesthetic was here to stay.
But torture porn hit the tabloid headlines in the summer of 2007 as posters for the movie Captivity caused a mini moral panic. The posters showed the distressed female star (Elisha Cuthbert) in a variety of pain poses under a sequence of captions: Abduction. Confinement. Torture. Termination. A definite line was crossed. There was a call for the posters to be taken down (led by Joss Whedon, see below), and Lionsgate responded with an apology - not for the movie, but for the marketing campaign. Captivity, when it was finally released in July, was a flop. Hostel II, whilst managing $30million at the box office, was seen as only a modest success. The big horror hit of 2007 was 1408, about a haunted hotel noticeably missing a torture chamber. Three years on from Abu Ghraib torture was something to be once more swept under the carpet, its existence a dirty secret rather than the main focus of the number one movie.
- Torture In Abu Ghraib - Seymour Hersh's original article in The New Yorker, May 2004
- American Torture, American Porn - Alessandro Camon in Salon, June 2004
- Now Playing At Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn - David Edelstein coins the term in the New Yorker, January 2006
- Why Torture Porn Isn't - Luke Thompson in the OC Weekly, September 2006
- For Your Entertainment - Kira Cochrane in The Guardian, May 2007
- Let's Watch A Girl Get Beaten To Death - Joss Whedon's attention-grabbing post about Captivity, May 2007
- The Horror... - An Australian perspective on Japanese horror from The Age, March 25 2005
- Horror, Japanese Style; Beyond The Grudge - overview of J-Horror from National Geographic
- Hong Kong Horror - Grady Hendrix in Senses of Cinema
The VCR changed the face of horror movie distribution in the 1980s by providing alternative markets for cheaply produced films that were not intended for theatrical outlets, either because their low production values didn't justify them being seen on the big screen, or because their extreme content meant they could not be marketed in multiplexes. This thread of horror movie production has become even more popular as advances in digital technology have democratised the film-making process. In theory, anyone with a video camera and a home computer can make their own horror movie. In practice... Nonetheless, there is a strong market today for the 'microbudget' DV horror movie, and, using the internet as a means of bypassing traditional distributors, there are people who can make a healthy living getting their friends to make up as zombies. Some seasoned horror professionals prefer to work in the straight-to-DVD market, as it means they remain free from censorship. DVD releases don't fear the NC-17 rating.
What is the best horror film of the 2000s?
It's Alive: Horror is Reborn (Again) - Robert Mancini writing on MTV.com
©Karina Wilson 2000-2010