A beautiful expression of existential terror that doesn’t come with the noxious sexual baggage that typically dooms its horror ilk, Wolf Creek immediately stands apart from the pack, beginning with the stunning image of sunset-tinted waves crashing onto the sands of an Australian beachfront. For a split second, this expressionistic shot resembles a volcano blowing its top, and the realization that it’s something entirely more mundane exemplifies the unsettling tenor of the film’s casual shocks. Like two of the best horror films of the ’80s, Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, Wolf Creek is propelled by a lyrical sense of doom, and the ease with which first-time director Greg McLean creates a compelling sense of place and characters worth rooting for is truly something to behold. Gonzalez
The Devil’s Rejects
If House of 1000 Corpses successfully transposed the grotesqueries evoked by Rob Zombie’s music onto film, then The Devil’s Rejects cemented his status as a filmmaker worth noticing. Zombie’s sophomore effort, ungodly violent and gruesome as it is, would be nearly unbearable to watch were it not so wonderfully aestheticized. His most noticeable trait as a stylist is, unsurprisingly, a knack for selecting the perfect songs to both match and offset the morbid goings-on of his film, but there’s more at work here than mere artifice: Zombie infuses an unexpected somberness where his debut tended toward camp. His sideshow-esque cast of characters, while far from sympathetic, have evolved into genuinely fleshed-out beings whose unexpected pathos only intensifies the terror they evoke. The rejects’ long string of satanic ritual murders make for a carnivalesque experience far more viscerally stimulating—and strangely watchable—than it seems to have any right to be. Nordine
Lars von Trier’s two-hander psychodrama Antichrist draws heavily from a rich tradition of “Nordic horror,” stretching back to silent-era groundbreakers like Häxan and Vampyr (and Dreyer’s later Day of Wrath), in particular their interrogation of moral strictures and assumptions of normalcy. In the wake of their son’s death, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) follow a course of radical psychotherapy, retreating to their wilderness redoubt, Eden, where they act out (and on) their mutual resentment and recrimination, culminating in switchback brutal attacks and His and Her genital mutilations. Conventional wisdom has it that von Trier’s a faux provocateur, but that misses his theme and variation engagement with genre and symbolism throughout, rendering Antichrist one of the most bracingly personal, as well as national cinema-indebted, films to come along in a while. It’s heartening to see that real provocation still has a place in the forum (let’s not say “marketplace”) of international cinema. Weber
Soullessness and emptiness manifest physically in the form of screaming night crawlers in Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the ultimate prison movie devoid of any trap door for escape. What starts out as a weekend spelunking trip between female friends quickly degenerates into a claustrophobic master class in visceral directionality and piercing sound design, a setup that builds repression and cripples inertia in equal measure. Since every shadow holds the potential for sudden attack, Marshall instills a feeling of being emotionally, physically, and psychologically stuck, layers of simultaneous dread that are terrifying for both the characters and audience alike. Considering the dank corners of the mind Marshall explores in the film’s batshit-crazy ending, a denouement crawling with ambiguity, The Descent ultimately shows there’s nothing like extreme panic and betrayal to make even the sunniest parts of the physical world a very dark, confined place. Heath Jr.
Jason Vorhees and a thousand other disposable serial killers have long tried to diminish the essence of Michael Myers, a shell of a man devoid of morality, nothing less than evil manifest. Less a sequel than a continuation of Rob Zombie’s own remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, Halloween II restores Myers to his deserving, iconic status, holding a candle to the original film in the process. As artful as it is ferocious, Halloween II quickly numbs the viewer to the effects of physical destruction and random violence (“Cow! COW!”) as a primer for the inward, downward spiral experienced by the victims, who must now attempt to reassemble their lives after such horrible events. Compared to the existentially tinged levels of bloodshed, the film’s media satire is practically an afterthought, but one is thankful for the spurts of levity amid Michael Myer’s expressions of primal rage. The incomparable Brad Dourif provides the emotional anchor, his familial tragedy another confirmation of Zombie’s deeply felt empathy. Like a gnarly David Lynch joint, the film isn’t necessarily pretty to look at, but it most definitely is beautiful. Humanick