Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Best Films Pt. 1 - The Horror

The Horror genre has taken a degenerative turn in the last decade. Some variety still exists, but the predominance of two sub-genres is very obvious; first we have the torture flicks (your HOSTELS, SAWS, AUDITION etc.) and second there are the remakes (THE OMEN, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, TEXAS CHAINSAWS, HALLOWEENS, and an abundance of Japanese horror remakes). I'm no saying that all these films are bad, I'm actually somewhat generous with THE OMEN remake, HOSTEL 1 and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (which is both a torture film and a remake). AUDITION could be considered a forerunner to the torture film in America and it is certainly a more cerebral and sophisticated film that its progeny (it even made the AV Club's top 50 list), but I don't think it's very memorable beyond the final act. So, I guess my beef with this new century horror cinema is its lack of originality, especially in the United States. If Hollywood finds something that works once, it goes into mass reproduction, but, to be fair, the 90's didn't offer much in the genre either with its bevy of teen slasher flicks. Horror has really been in a lull since the mid-80's. However, within the last decade, a few films of such exceptional quality have been produced that they belong on my list. Representing their genre are:

50. THE DESCENT (2005, Neil Marshall)
THE DESCENT was a quiet film at its release. It made its way into my local cineplex, but was relegated to the small, out of the way screen. An all-female, action-horror film didn't sound very good to me, but something drew me into that theater. I'm sad to say that I didn't even pay to see it (something I hope is made up for by purchasing it on DVD), as I snuck in after seeing another movie. What that movie was escapes me, probably because of the trauma I received at the hands of THE DESCENT.

This film is horrific on many levels. The shocking opening exposes us to the horror of real-life tragedy, loss, grief and their effects. The subsequent bulk of the story is spent caving in the Appalachians. During this time leading in to the appearance of the monstrous bat-creatures is when I found myself mosy uneasy. After becoming trapped in the caves, our group of ladies must crawl through many tight spots, running the risk or being entombed permanently. Marshall deftly induced claustrophobia in the viewer, bringing to mind the escape of Andy Dufresne and the long crawl of Bishop the cyborg. The idea of being trapped in the darkness with no hope of escape had me seriously considering running out into the light of day. I've walked out on a couple movies before, sure, but never out of panic or fear. A fall resulting in a compound fracture had me at my wits' end. And then came the bat-people! I feel that if you started the film from their appearance, you might not find them so terrible, but the everything leading up to that works you into such a frenzied state of ill-ease that they function as a sort of coup-de-grace for your senses. The creatures create many horrific moments, but by the end they're playing second-fiddle to the drama between the two survivors, stemming from an accidental murder and betrayal. When the final survivor makes it to the surface, you breath a sigh of relief, but that is short-lived, as the conclusion leaves you collecting you bearings. Even after everything the film puts you through, you come out questioning what exactly just happened. THE DESCENT is the most effectively horrific film I've seen in my life and for that it belongs on this list.

Stats and Awards : Rottentomatoes - 84%, Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, British Independent Film Award for Best Director

A sequel was made, but I don't know if it will get a wide theatrical release. Even though it was not helmed by Marshall, a sequel does possess several possibilities and I'm certainly interested in getting a chance to see it. It's been several years and I think I'm just about ready to return to the cave.

Here's the trailer for it:

49. 28 DAYS LATER (2002, Danny Boyle)
Another sub-genre that has risen to prominence this past decade is the zombie flick. Sure, there have always hundreds of low-budget undead films, but now they're going mainstream. More people have probably seen the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD than the original. ZOMBIELAND gained a nice box-office and critical praise last year. A "World War Z" adaptation is in the works, which promises to be the biggest zombie movie of all time. This little resurgence in the genre's success might be partially attributed to Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER. It might have muddied the waters with track-team infected, but I'm not going to argue nerdlinger zombie-semantics. This movie deals with a highly contagious, personality changing, violence-inducing disease with doomsday implications, thus I feel comfortable filing it under "Z".

Danny Boyle is an immensely talented director, which goes without saying, though I just did. This film had me from the opening chimp attack, which starts off a rhythm of quiet, eerie stillness punctuated by terrible violence. The 'man waking from a coma to find his world ravaged' idea has been done before, but it's hard to do it this well. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland might have made a movie about the outbreak itself and humanity's (or just Great Britain's) struggle against the Rage Virus, but they chose to inject Jim (Cillian Murphy) into the waning days of the dying epidemic. His confusion is our confusion, we know that Rage took over, but we don't know what shape it took in those 28 days. The streets are bare (an effect that took great effort to achieve), not teeming with lunatics. His surprise/horror/shock is ours as well when he has his first encounter in the church.

Avoiding the infected and trying to stay unpolluted is a nervewracking tightrope to walk for the cast of characters because of the aggressive nature of the virus itself, which we learn more about as the film progresses. An early survivor is bit on the arm and he's immediately hacked apart by a companion to stop his transformation. Brendan Gleeson's Frank looks up at a body being eaten by crows only to get a drop of blood in the eye, which he instantly recognizes as fatal. He quickly uses his remaining seconds in control to tell his daughter that he loves her in a heart-wrenching scene which results in him being dropped dead.

The remaining travelers, Jim, Selena, and Frank's daughter, Hannah, miraculously find their way to a military compound only to experience more terror. Like any good horror film, 28 DAYS LATER isn't simply about the monster, curse, or, in this case, the virus; that element takes a backseat to some manner of commentary, most of which we find in the company of the soldiers in this film. The soldiers are a rational-minded threat to the main characters, namely the two girls. The Rage infected can't help but be monsters, but the soldiers choose to be. They embrace the part of their nature that's destructive and cruel just because their situation allows them to.

The scene that really solidifies this film's greatness is after Jim has dispatched the soldiers and saved the day when he happens upon Selena and she is terrified of him because he is covered in blood and frenzied in a manner similar to the infected. He isn't, of course, it's just the rage within his humanity.

Despite all its terror and gloom, 28 DAYS LATER ends on a positive note, which isn't something I usually care about, but it works for this film because you really do invest yourself in the fates of the survivors.

Stats and Awards: Rottentomatoes - 88%, Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, Empire Award for Best British Film

The Horror continues with - SHAUN OF THE DEAD and AMERICAN PSYCHO

50 Best Films of the Past Decade

I may still need to tweak my list in the coming month or so, but I figure I can start in on the sure things. This isn't going to be a one-and-done deal where I simply make a list. I want to provide mini-essays for each film. Given that I have included them in my list, I must have some strong feeling toward each of them and I'll attempt to explain why.

My disclaimer would be that this is not meant to be the definitive listing of the very best with no possibility for revision. I have not seen every film released in the past 10 years and I'm sure there are many good ones that I've missed. I'm always open for suggestions as to possible candidates and I will give them due respect and consideration if they come up. This list is more of a "My Favorites" compilation, but since I have a fair amount of confidence in my taste and opinion as far as film is concerned, I feel confident in labeling them the Best Films of the Decade.

A couple more disclaimers: These film are not necessarily ranked, I'll probably save my favorites for the top ten, but the remaining 40 will be organized however I choose to organize them. It's too hard to compare them all to each other. Also, I'm not going to go into great detail describing every film, just commenting on them. I'll provide a link to a synopsis.