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The 50 Greatest Horror Films of the 21st Century

35

Antichrist (2009)

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 Carl Theodor 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. Bill Weber

34

[Rec] (2007)

Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza give the enervated “found footage” genre a fresh infusion of creditability by splicing together strands of the ungovernable viral epidemic from 28 Days Later and The Evil Dead franchise’s fixation on sudden demonic conversion. An innocuous documentary on firefighters leads reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) to an apartment building whose residents are quickly succumbing to some kind of plague. With its lean-and-mean 75-minute run time, [REC] unreels almost in real time, giving viewers precious little breathing room between increasingly ferocious attacks. As the survivors fight their way toward the penthouse, surely there’s some diabolical revelation at hand. What’s more, the film’s final image of a woman dragged off into all-consuming darkness has been endlessly imitated ever since. Wilkins

33

The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers does an admirable job of synchronizing The Witch’s paranormal and domestic spheres, setting up a vice-grip scenario in which Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has no possibility of escape. Her family’s restrictive religious practices are as domineering as the forlorn, featureless landscape which surrounds her, and this atmosphere only grows more stifling as the family pins blame on the girl for their mounting misfortunes. Positioning itself among a specific vein of highbrow phantasmagoric spiritualism, the film owes a serious debt to the unsettling ambiance of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Roman Polanski’s politically tinged psychological thrillers, and Ken Russell’s gonzo period pieces. But by allowing the monster to win, the film overcomes the sense of familiarity, as its reworking of a tired horror trope into a transformed feminist symbol stands out as an impressive act of genre revisionism. Jesse Cataldo

32

May (2002)

Navigating a tonal tightrope between tenderness and terror, Lucky McKee’s May ultimately resembles the patchwork creature that’s pieced together in its gruesome final act. This monstrous meditation on E.M. Forster’s motto “Only connect!” chronicles a pathetic, pent-up wallflower’s (Angela Bettis) attempts to establish “normal” relations with colleagues at a veterinary surgery and a potential love object or two. This proves a fool’s errand, since McKee surrounds her with a supporting cast of disobliging caricatures—predatory lesbian, self-absorbed artiste, daft L.A. punk. There’s a sly sense of humor at work here, never more apparent than during a risibly pretentious student film. McKee delivers several queasily disturbing set pieces along the way, especially one involving a roomful of blind children and lots of shattered glass. Wilkins

31

The Strangers (2008)

The Strangers is practically an abstraction, an old-school spooker spun from the blood splatter on a wall, a nearby record player scratching an oldie, a CB radio in the garage, a creaky swing set in the backyard. Bryan Bertino is beholden to genre quota, skidding the relationship of pretty young couple Kristen and James (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) before subjecting them to an after-dark home invasion. But he offers no profound rationale for why she refuses his marriage proposal; like the shadowy stranger that comes knocking at their door (eerily asking, “Is Tamara home?”), it’s something that just happens. Plying an old-school artistry that begins with a creepy montage of bumblefuck houses and holds up almost without fail until the strangers offer a creepy non-justification for their transgressions, analog-man Bertino teases with the unknown until he’s left no pimple ungoosed. Sometimes avoiding the synapse-raping bad habits of splat packers Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja is its own reward; doing so without also submitting to Michael Haneke–style hand-slapping is nearly monumental. Gonzalez

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