2000s horror movies had to adapt rapidly in the new decade. After so many dire things were predicted for the turn of the millennium, January 1st, 2000 came and went without much mishap. Nonetheless, a seismic shift was on the way. Many commentators have identified the true beginning of the 21st century as September 11th, 2001. The events of that day changed global understanding of what it is to be afraid, and set the cultural agenda for the following years. 2000s horror movies reflected the new cruelty.
The film industry, already facing a recession, was hit hard as filmmakers struggled to connect with audiences amid the general trauma. 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). But, by 2005, the horror genre was as popular as ever. Horror films routinely topped the box office, yielding (as they always have done) 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 monsters to escape the miseries of the Depression and encroaching world war in the 1930s.
The monsters 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, while still tapping into the prevailing cultural mood.
A full eighteen months before Flights UA93, UA175, AA77 and AA11 headed for their date with destruction, 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 fuselage, crushed by cascading hand baggage or scorched by ignited jet fuel. In-flight entertainment this is not. A prescient suspense movie that showed us the shape of things to come – perhaps? The director, James Wong, and producer, Glen Morgan, cut their teeth on that most conspiracy theory-friendly of TV shows, The X Files, and that the script was based on an abandoned concept for an X Files episode by Jeffrey Reddick. Along with Donnie Darko (which debuted at Sundance in January 2001 and also deals with teenagers, fragmented jet engines and sidestepped fate) Final Destination marked a change direction in 2000s horror cinema, as well as setting the stage for post-millennial nightmares about Death raining from the sky. Chillingly, these nightmares were soon to be rooted in newsreels, and impact the zeitgeist the world over as ‘the Global War on Terror’.
Soldiers of Misfortune
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.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
British horror films of the 2000s 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)
Often cited 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.
Shot in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, 28 Days Later proved to be uncannily prescient, 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. A new, initially incurable virus, SARS devastated Hong Kong in 2003. 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’s 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 offer 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 cameras 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 generous marketing, 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, while 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 in the New Yorker, January 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
Thanks to the internet, 2000s horror fans could explore international genre offerings. Asian Horror, in comparison with Western fluctuations within the genre, tends to maintain a more consistent focus on the psychological and supernatural. It draws heavily on the spirit rather than the material world, focusing on ghosts, curses and haunted houses, leaving psychopathic killers to the stylised thriller genre. This is perhaps because Asian belief systems (particularly Buddhism, Shinto, and Muism) are open towards the concept that consciousness continues after death and that the departed leave some trace of themselves behind — hence the power of ancestor worship.
By contrast, Christian belief specifically denies the existence of the spirit world. The Bible has some harsh things to say: “As the cloud disappears and vanishes away, so he who goes down to the grave does not come up. He shall never return to his house, Nor shall his place know him anymore” (Job 7:9-10) and “For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, For the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). This dogma weighs heavily on Western culture, which still considers a belief in ghosts to be the result of deviant, forbidden thinking, a turn to the dark side.
If you stroll through an Asian city you’ll notice shrines and ghost houses positioned in all kinds of places, from temples to apartment buildings to major corporate headquarters. They’re convenient portals through which we can acknowledge, appease and even ask favors of the dead. Communication goes both ways — if they can get our attention, some ghosts have urgent business with the living. They have a job to do: murders must be avenged, suicides explained (or, again, avenged), false accusations disproved, curses lifted and remains properly laid to rest. Their hunger for justice or retribution makes them mean — and scary.
Like ghosts the world over, these hungry spirits are often bound to a place or thing that was significant to them when they were alive. Many traditional Asian folk tales and modern urban myths revolve around the delicate dance between haunted objects (and the entities occupying them) and the unwitting or plain unlucky people who become the custodian of the object (including renting an apartment or house). The fear is both tangible (of the solid object) and intangible (the haunting might be all in the custodian’s troubled mind).
This fear was explored in a series of successful Japanese and Korean horror films in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which, rather than rehashing classic haunted house or cursed women themes, explored the ‘What If?” of haunted technology. If a doll or a mirror can be haunted, why not a mobile phone or a videotape? These movies were often based on popular manga and tapped into deep-seated fears of the new communications devices. Historically, the Japanese (with the Koreans and other Asian countries not far behind) have been early adopters of new personal technology, from the original Sony Walkman to today’s latest smartphone innovations. By mixing old beliefs with the latest electronic gadgetry, filmmakers found a way to explore doubts and fears about one of the most significant social changes of the time —our growing daily dependence on high tech devices.
Perhaps the best-known example is the Ringu cycle of movies, based on the trilogy of novels by Kðji Suzuki — Ring (1991), Spiral (1995), and Loop (1998). The books and movies follow the chaos wrought by the vengeful spirit of a young girl, Sadako, who was raped (by her father’s doctor, who also infected her with smallpox) and thrown into a well. Before her death, Sadako manifested the ability to project images from her mind onto video tapes and into television sets— a skill she uses from beyond the grave to express her hatred of the living. She projects images of herself onto a videotape, along with a threat that anyone who views this tape will die within one week. When some foolish teens fail to heed the warning, view the tape, and start dropping dead, journalist Asakawa begins an investigation into the story that takes him all the way to the remote clinic where Sadako met her fate. The ring of the title refers to the last thing Sadako saw in this life, the ring of light around the lid placed on top of the well far above her.
The simple concept of a cursed videotape proved very flexible. Suzuki’s book was adapted first into a TV show (in 1995) and then into the 1998 feature film directed by Hideo Nakata. Ringu was a huge hit, breaking box office records in Japan and Hong Kong, and capturing the imaginations of teens across Asia. Despite some of the cultural specificity (Sadoko manifests as a traditional Japanese female ghost, an onryo, who has the power to return to the world of the living to get revenge on the man who wronged her), the premise translated very effectively internationally. The novel was adapted again in Korea, as The Ring Virus in 1999 and a Seattle-set American version was released in 2002, The Ring, starring Naomi Watts as the journalist and directed by Gore Verbinski. The U.S. version was a huge hit, taking $249 million worldwide. This opened the door for other J- and K-horror remakes, as Hollywood, always short on fresh ideas, realized there was a lot of intellectual property ripe for exploitation.
Next up was a remake of Ju-On, a 2002 J-horror movie about another onryo, Kayako, murdered by her husband who believes she is unfaithful. Kayako isn’t satisfied by returning from the dead to kill her husband in return — her grudge against humanity seems to be everlasting. She occupies houses in Tokyo, cursing anyone who enters to an untimely death, and then haunting the place where her victim dies. Sarah Michelle Gellar, a fan favorite after her years as Buffy, starred in the U.S. version, The Grudge. It was not as successful as The Ring, but it took a nonetheless respectable $187 million at the box office.
From then on, the law of diminishing returns applied. U.S. sequels to The Ring and The Grudge weren’t enthusiastically received, neither were other attempts to cash in on the trend for Asian remakes. U.S. producers tended to miss the subtleties and cultural resonance of aspects of the original and, in trying to translate them into what they thought U.S. audiences wanted, failed to create any tension or generate fear beyond all too obvious jump scares. One of the worst offenders was The Uninvited (2009), a blunt-edged remake of the Korean cult classic, A Tale of Two Sisters. It abandoned the claustrophobia of the original and opted for cheap, highly sexualized versions of the characters who it was difficult to care about. Pulse (2006) starring Kristen Bell, also lacked the atmosphere and emotional tension of the 2001 original, Kairo, a truly haunting film about ghosts emerging from the Internet.
The success of The Ring and The Grudge did, however, pique international interest in Asian horror. Thanks to the Internet, it was increasingly easy to buy or rent subtitled copies of the original Japanese, Korean, Thai and Hong Kong films, and many fans went straight to the source for their thrills. U.K. distribution company, Tartan Films, had a great run with their Asia Extreme collection, introducing Western audiences to the delights of Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy (Oldboy, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), Shinya Tsukamoto’s cult classic Tetsuo The Iron Man, Korean schoolgirl series Whispering Corridors, Thai witch thriller P, the aforementioned A Tale of Two Sisters, Shutter, Thirst and many more. Unfortunately Tartan filed for bankruptcy in 2008, but classic blu-ray distributor Kino Lorber has announced plans to resurrect the Asia Extreme label and make these titles widely available once again.
- The Horror… – An Australian perspective on Japanese horror from The
Age, March 25 2005
- Hong Kong Horror – Grady Hendrix in Senses of Cinema
- Art of Branding: Tartan Asia Extreme Films by Chi-Yun Shin
Many 2000s horror movies were cheaply, even crudely made, thanks to new technology. 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 peaked in the 2000s as advances in digital technology democratised the filmmaking process – increasing opportunities for female filmmakers, among others.
There was a strong market for the ‘microbudget’ DV horror movie, and, using the internet as a means of bypassing traditional distributors, filmmakers made a healthy living getting their friends to wear zombie makeup. Many long-running series also produced straight-to-DVD sequels as producers squeezed the final drops of audience engagement out of tired franchises. Some seasoned horror professionals preferred to work in the straight-to-DVD market, as it means they remained free from censorship. DVD releases don’t fear the NC-17 rating.
- I Was Hooked On Horror Flicks Dumped to DVD – NY Times 10 June, 2007
It’s Alive: Horror is Reborn (Again) – Robert Mancini writing on MTV.com