The common wisdom, inherited thanks mostly to the 1968-1978 boom of great American horror movies that accompanied some of the nation’s most turbulent and hopeless years (at least among those that could be reflected via moving pictures), is that the worse off things are, the more relevant and powerful our cinematic nightmares become. That the halcyon days of horror are directly proportional to the index of actual human suffering. If that’s so, the entire world has spent the last decade counting down the few remaining seconds left on the Doomsday Clock. While the few years leading up to Y2K brought with them a set of snarky, masturbatorily meta slasher movies that ensured audiences not only felt superior to the movies they were raised on, but also absolved them of any sense of socio-political obligation, the dozens and dozens of new horror classics that have swarmed out of every corner of the globe since then (not unlike the teeming cockroaches that burst out of E.G. Marshall’s chest at the climax of Creepshow) seemed to impress upon us all that the biggest nightmare of all wasn’t that the world would end, but that we’d have to continue living on in the colossal mess we’ve cultivated.
Or, worse, that we’d have to continue cultivating a culture of killing. It’s both too glib and too jingoistic to suggest that 9/11 perhaps ushered in what has clearly become another golden age of horror, easy though it might be when we’re examining a time span during which political speechwriters used the word “terror” with more wanton relish than William Castle, Roger Corman, and the Crypt Keeper combined. Though the instantaneously repulsive spectacle in lower Manhattan and the deadening slow-mo retaliation certainly primed the world to absorb a whole lotta hurt, the new millennial horror paid forth brutalism in a multicultural banquet of carnage, grue, and dread. Some of our great new horror movies look to the past for assistance, others resonate with bleak nihilism for our future. Want stone proof the aughts sucked? Recue the blunt climax to the most diverting movie in our entire list of the 25 scariest post-2000 movies: Drag Me to Hell. We’re totally fucked. Eric Henderson.
It’s difficult to talk about The Orphanage without talking about Guillermo del Toro. As melancholic as it is frightening, the film (which del Toro produced) makes us mournful even as we’re dreading whatever lies in wait on the other side of a door or tucked behind a crawlspace. This uncomfortable blend, an unfortunate rarity these days, is something the creature-obsessed del Toro excels at, and it finds a uniquely clear expression under the careful direction of J.A. Bayona. The Spanish director privileges character and quietude over corpses and cheap tricks, lending the film a feeling of transcendence over the genre that its makers understand so well. Michael Nordine
Drag Me to Hell
Many horror films from the 2000s are so eager to splatter and slice their way into our hearts that they end up covering their canvases in bloody clichés. Not so with Sam Raimi’s masterfully paced throwback, which is smart enough to withhold its more disturbing visceral elements until the very last moment. This directorial restraint allows the perfectly calibrated sound design and dread-inducing mise-en-scène to drive the viewer mad with anticipation. Anchored by Allison Lohman’s brilliant performance as a loan officer fated for Hades’s gallows, Drag Me to Hell is as much about greed as it is culpability, or more specifically our arrogant attempts to cover up sin even when the devil herself is staring us down. Glenn Heath Jr.
A formally accomplished director when it suits him, Takashi Miike can be so shocking because he’s willing to discard his conventional gifts and dive face first in the muck; he doesn’t play the distancing art-house games that characterize the hypocritical Michael Haneke. Miike’s most popular contribution to the horror genre is Audition, which acted as a correction to the self-serving immorality of Fatal Attraction and its endless clones. Visitor Q, on the other hand, acts as a correction to the relentless popularity of reality TV, a phenomenon that invites us to vicariously feast on human misery as distraction from our own daily indignities. The story follows a family as they casually film one another indulging in incest and necrophilia as well as a long list of other similarly taboo activities, and Miike stages each escalating atrocity with a flip, tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes nearly slapstick manner that’s authentically horrifying. Yet, the filmmaker, as Audition made clear, is a moralist deep down, and the brilliant, surreal Visitor Q—so powerful and disgusting that many will probably find it unwatchable—is the ultimate middle-finger to media sponsored narcissism. Chuck Bowen
Sion Sono kicks things off with one of the great openers in recent horror cinema: Holding hands and chanting “a one and a two,” 50 uniformed Japanese high school girls throw themselves under a subway train, drenching bystanders in gouts and gallons of gore. Investigations into the ensuing outbreak of teenage suicide pacts, headed by Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), leads to a tween-idol girl group disseminating hidden messages that exhort listeners to promptly snuff it, concealed in the media blitzkrieg surrounding their ear-candy megahit “Mail Me.” Boasting plenty of splatter for the fanboys (much of it blatantly artificial CGI), Suicide Club at times deepens into an existential inquiry, even if it raises more questions about social media manipulation and interpersonal disconnect than it can hope to answer. An outrageous finale takes its audience behind the music, and through the looking glass, into a harsh realm filled with gerbils, raincoat-clad tykes, and new uses for woodworking tools. Budd Wilkins
The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
The most remarkable thing about Dutch writer-director Tom Six’s now-infamous provocation is that nobody seems to agree as to what it is. Even the critics that saw and despised it, of which there are many, don’t all think Six takes the film’s eponymous monster seriously. To be clear, he doesn’t, and that’s the crux of The Human Centipede (First Sequence), an effectively queasy chiller that constantly keeps you off-balance by anti-climactically pulling the rug out from under its viewers in almost every other scene. Dieter Laser’s evil Dr. Hieter is a hilariously campy mad scientist, but the threat that he poses to his very scared victims is very serious. Vile though it may be, Six’s vision is clever enough and jarring enough to make the story both rather funny and deeply unnerving. Simon Abrams