Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why, I Oughtta Rate the Aughts!

You know what time it is...

That's right. Wheel out your eternally young, probably vampiric music personalities and let's toast to the end of the aughts. I'm actually quite bummed to lose this decade since I only discovered about two weeks ago that I could have been using the word "aught" in daily speech for the last ten years. Such a loss.

And just what is my last post of 2009? A rough guide to my thoughts on the last ten years in horror, with special attention to the highs, lows, and in-betweens. Expect zombie talk. Saw defending. Friday the 13th bashing, Martyrs theorizing, and lots of other 21st century travels surrounding studio horror I happen to remember.

Here goes:

1. The Evolution of Torture Porn
See my list of Lows for how I feel about the brief craze that rocked the mid aughts, but like any art form, good things can always rise from the bad. Eli Roth’s Hostel may have made the bucks, but it was his 2007 followup that explored new aspects of horror by taking us inside the world of a few regular joes ready to get off on the sensation of murder. Similarly, there was Martyrs, the genre fandom’s most divisive film of the 2008. Pascal Laugier’s French shocker disgusted some with its graphic violence and wowed others with its philosophical spin (and genre-bending) take on what was becoming dangerously well-tread territory. I’m thankful that the mean-spirited fad of the mid decade seems to be on the slide, but in hindsight, we shouldn’t deny that some of the more powerful films of the time came out as direct responses to its popularity.

2. Zombie Makeover
Hard to believe that prior to 2002, there hadn’t really been a losable race with the undead since Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City introduced sprinting zombies in 1980. While having great velocity doesn’t make a monster, we can’t ignore Danny Boyle (excuse me, Academy Award winning Danny Boyle) and his contribution to the zombie genre with 2002’s 28 Days Later. From its homages to past Romero films (Dayesque soldiers, Dawnishly undead child filled gas stations) to how it captured a world in the middle of disaster, this sleeper hit revived a subgenre that had spent the last few years in direct-to-video purgatory. 

3. Zombie Cred
Perhaps we’re nearing zombie burnout, but that doesn’t mean we should let a few too many brain flavored treats spoil what has been a pretty interesting decade of literature, films, artwork and video games. The MVP of the era is none other than writer Max Brooks, who put into handbook form what kids that had grown up playing Dawn of the Dead on the playground had been practicing their whole lives with 2003’s The Zombie Survival Guide. Three years later, Brooks gave us a true masterpiece unlike any other with World War Z, a sociopolitical horror show that used a zompocalypse setup to explore international and human relations. It’s hard to believe we’d have Zombieland or Pride & Prejudice & Zombies in the mainstream without the validation brought the genre by Brooks’ 21st century work.

4. Indie Horror
As technology inches closer to taking over our souls (yes, I’ve seen Pulse a few too many times) independent moviemaking has grown in its possibilities to allow unconfirmed artists the freedom and tools to craft their own genuine films. Paranormal Activity will long be remembered for its $15,000 rags to box office riches tale and an inspiration to other do-it-yourself auteurs. Additional strong showings from low budgeted titles like Session 9, May, Hatchet, Zombie Diaries, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer and more proved that one didn’t need a major studio’s permission slip to create a memorable, frightening, or plain ol’ good time .

1. Found Footage Films
The concept of handheld horror is hardly new to the genre. Look to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust or even Belgium’s faux documentary monster show, Man Bites Dog for older evidence. In a world where anybody’s cat can be a star on youtube, found footage and homemade movies rose to a whole new level of social consciousness, from the blockbuster disaster flick Cloverfield to the refreshing jolt of Spanish zombie action in REC. Even George Romero threw his ponytail in the ring with Diary of the Dead, a messily narrated and sadly out-of-date (but not wholly unfulfilling) reboot to his living dead saga. Following the success of Paranormal Activity, it’s hard to believe this sometimes innovative, sometimes nausea inducing style is going anywhere anytime soon.

2. The State of Franchises
For various reasons, I believe it’s fair to say we’ll probably never see another era so defined by famous franchises as the 1980s and their reliance on Freddy & Jason’s annual outings. In the last ten years, however, we did witness a few interesting--if no real champion--attempts to establish a multi-film series to varying levels of success. Final Destination kicked off the decade and has since provided three more enjoyably twisted popcorn flicks, but without a concrete villain, it’s a hard concept to market for Halloween costumes. Resident Evil tossed out a few fluffy hours of video game style zombie fun (soon to be resurrected and--get this--rebooted), but hardly made its mark on the millennium. The true gold medal goes to Lions Gate’s low budget juggernaut Saw, a series still going strong six films in (blame dwindling box office of Part VI on the Paranormal effect and the terrible taste left by Saw V). Love him or hate him, Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw is the closest this century has yet come to creating a horror icon, and while that doesn’t offend my sensibilities, many a film fan is most likely committing their own form of self-imposed torture porn upon themselves at the very thought. Ah well. I’m sure there’s a market for that...

3. Refreshing Remakes
While there were no classic revamps to hold a candle to 1980s power players like The Thing or The Fly (or for that matter, The Blob; apparently, great remakes can only be made with the definite article in their title), it would be a lie to say all 21st century remakes have thus far been sins against the foundation of cinema. 2004’s Dawn of the Dead managed the near-impossible by bringing new life to one of the genre’s most deservedly loved films of all time (even if it had to resort to action movie speed to do so). Last House On the Left remains one of the most unnecessary remakes of recent years, but also ended up being a fairly decent and disturbing 90 minutes of its own. And where would studio horror be without the sharp and haunting Gore Verbinski triumph of 2002’s The Ring? Well, it would be a lot more original and not clogged by uninspired makeovers of other Asian ghost stories, but from Naomi Watt’s strong career-boosting performance to Samara’s TV crawl, it’s hard to really deny the striking power of the film that started it all.

1. Torture Porn
In another ten years, there’s a good chance that this unsanitary subgenre will have become a chuckle-worthy bit of nostalgia along the lines of snap bracelets or rec centers. For a brief period in the mid-00s, however, it was invading every multiplex and firing up censor happy Tipper Gore wannabes with its blatant attempts to shock and disgust. There was certainly merit to be found in its early years--those who’ve read my work before know that I give Saw and its spawn far more credit than most--but when so many studio films hopped on board, it was the the audience that lost with empty violence from films like Turistas or The Collector. Perhaps the biggest offense was 2007’s Captivity, a middling thriller that truly crossed the line by inserting added footage of over-the-top torture post filming to blatantly cash in on the trend. 

2. Lazy Remakes
How hard did the makers of 2009’s Friday the 13th really have to try? Considering some of the dreck found in the middle days of that franchise (Part V, anyone?), and the general lack of any real scare or memorable character in eleven films that spanned three decades, making a decent reboot should have been easier than an open book test comparing Cheetos to Cheese Doodles. Yet somehow, Marcus Nispel’s attempt managed an incredible feat of being so mediocre, uninspired, and hard to actually see, it was kind of impressive in its aggressive blandness. Similarly, 2007’s The Hitcher showed how awful a film can be when its landscape is giving the best performance and The Omen proved that making a film because of its projected release date (6/6/06) is like reading War & Peace just because it’s heavy. And dull. Toss in The Amityville Horror, When a Stranger Calls, Pulse, and a pile of other remakes made with all the energy of a decaf latte.

3. Offensively Bad Remakes
It’s almost hard to pick on Neil LeBute’s laughable remake of one of the greatest genre films of all time, because 2006’s The Wicker Man did in fact have some positive effects; namely, making myself and many a youtube clicker laugh themselves silly for 2 minutes at a time. Still, it’s beyond awful, offensively misogynist, and a true crime against cinema. Similarly, the recent straight-to-DVD remake of It’s Alive was a baffling mess that should never have left a studio (much less a screenplay) and 2006’s Black Christmas managed to remove anything and everything interesting, spooky, and engaging about a landmark film and replace it with hateful characters and a style that literally produced headaches. Guess we were naughty that year.

1. 3D
Having not yet seen Avatar, I can’t really speak to the evolution of this 1950s gimmick originally launched to pry eyes away from that new thing called TV. Two major studio horror films have used it to varying effect: My Bloody Valentine capitalized on what was already darkly camp territory, but The Final Destination seemed to have no clue how to make Death pop behind plastic glasses. Recently, a slew of upcoming horror films have been announced to be receiving that $3 upgrade: Halloween 3, Saw VII, the Re-Animator remake, plus the soon-to-be-released Piranha, so until this lineup proves faulty in ticket sales, it seems like 3D is here to stay. For now. Let’s just hope nobody revises Smell-O-Vision.

2. Twilight
As someone who has yet to sit down and immerse myself in sparkling alabaster skin and flammable hair product, I refuse to make any sweeping generalization of the Twilight saga or how it casts shame upon the horror world. Some of my peers enjoy jumping on its underaged bare chest with a rusty pogo stick of hateful wit, but I like to believe in my Pollyanaish way that moody vampires can be one stepping stone into watching actual drama in something like Let the Right One In or just plain coolness, like Bill Paxton slicing a dude’s neck with his bitchin boot spurs. Generation Aught, prove me right.