If the quality of mainstream American horror started to wane in the 1990s, that downward trajectory continued unhindered into the 21st century. If a horror movie was in the box office top 10 at any given point, more likely than not it was a remake, or at least a sequel. In a spectacularly unimaginative attempt to revive the genre, studios plundered their back catalogues and churned out remakes of just about every classic post-1970 horror movie, and many of the not-so-classics too. Slasher franchises in particular, many of which barely had any substance the first time around, were revived. James Wan’s movie Saw (2004) was a hit and produced six sequels (though still no Jigsaw Takes Manhattan).
Apparently even more enticing to studios was the prospect of remaking a foreign language movie; since some people simply won’t watch foreign movies then the material is bound to be new to them, even if it has been castrated of its power and packaged into a slick, tedious product. A remake of Japanese horror maestro Hideo Nakata’s Ring was made by Gore Verbinski in 2002; it’s not very good, but it’s one of the better ones. Some of the remakes were by directors who were above it: in 2005 Walter Salles directed Jennifer Connelly in an English-language remake of Nakata’s Dark Water, which he made after his Ring movies. The remake is a pretty dull movie, but at the very least it might attract people to the brilliant 2002 Japanese original. Although Ring left more of an impression on the horror scene, this is the superior movie. It works on a sense of growing dread, and features very few actual supernatural phenomena. For the most part we share in the horror of a single mother trying to protect her daughter; the movie plays on fears of parenthood and loss.
Nakata is able to make the everyday sinister; after Ring, people couldn’t get to sleep with a television in the room. In Dark Water, he somehow makes water ominous: large damp patches increasingly appear in the protagonist’s bedroom, and the supervisors in the building are fairly useless. The whole movie has a hazy, humid look; you feel as if you would be left with a damp residue on your fingers if you touched the screen. The growing damp patch on the ceiling creates an uneasy sense of foreboding, just as the dripping water starts to invade her personal space, dripping on her face as she sleeps.
The protagonist is Yoshimi Matsubara (a wonderful performance from Hitomi Kuroki). She is struggling to bring up her daughter herself, and is divorced and alienated from her ex-husband. She needs a job and somewhere to stay. The authorities are breathing down her neck; she’s terrified she’s going to lose her daughter, Ikuko. She takes a second-rate apartment out of desperation. The water dripping through the ceiling is a perfect symbol for the steadily increasing pressure her life is under; she’s a good person and a loving mother, but having to cope with one damned thing after another. As is often the case with protagonists in such movies, she has something of a history of mental instability and is scared that people will think she’s crazy (the best exploration of this may be John D. Hancock’s underrated 1971 movie, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death). Here is a person, we sense, who must battle the spirits alone.
While the remake was ample demonstration that even a good director can totally miss what makes the original work, the original is a genuinely creepy ghost story with an excellent central performance; Kuroki essentially has to carry the whole movie, and she’s an unusually sympathetic lead. The performance is augmented by Nakata’s skilful direction. While there’s nothing exactly new about the plot – it has echoes of Ring, with which it shares a writer, and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – its relatively straightforward ghost story is elevated into something affecting and genuinely creepy. At some of the dramatic peaks of the film, the audience is played, as Hitchcock used to say, like a piano. The timing and editing of the supernatural moments is in places sublime. The colour scheme adds another dimension; the whole movie has an earthy, washed out palette with the one exception being a bright red schoolbag which is such a contrast it has an almost violent aesthetic effect. The climax, involving the lift (which provides many of the film’s creepiest moments) is miraculous, shifting in one scene from excitement, terror and misdirection to something profoundly moving. It is one of the few genuinely unsettling ghost stories of recent years, and never needs to resort to the extreme violence often associated with modern horror. Better to get under the skin than to rip it off.
There were other notable horror movies, but very few American ones. Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro made The Devil’s Backbone (2001) in Spain, a ghost story set during the Spanish civil war. He returned to this theme in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which isn’t exactly a horror but certainly draws heavily from the genre. Regardless, it’s one of the best movies of the decade, an original and incredibly powerful parable about loyalty and choice. Like many of the best horrors these both bring something new to the genre while simultaneously looking back: Del Toro is a huge fan of monster movies, and his affection clearly lies with the unusual and occasionally disturbing creatures he comes up with; the real monsters in his movies tend to be human. A scene involving a creature with eyeballs in the palms of his hands is as creepy and suspenseful as any I saw this last decade. Del Toro also produced The Orphanage (2007, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona), which is, like Dark Water, a surprisingly emotive ghost story. Inevitably, a remake is in the works.
Other interesting offerings from around the world this last decade included The Eye (China, 2002, remade), The Grudge (Japan, 2000, remade in both Japanese and English), Switchblade Romance (AKA High Tension, France, 2003, not yet remade), Rec (Spain, 2007, remade as Quarantine) and Let The Right One In (Sweden, 2008, remade as Let Me In), one of the best vampire movies I have ever seen. The last was enough to give hope that such tired subgenres as the vampire movie might still have new avenues to explore. In Australia, Greg McLean made the unsettlingly nihilistic Wolf Creek (2005). British director Neil Marshall made the extremely effective, claustrophobic The Descent (2005). Finally, horror-comedies were represented by two very funny zombie movies: Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009). Despite all the trashy horror movies that get pumped out these days, if you look in the right places the genre is as strong as ever, and continuing to grow, mutate, and evolve.
This is the final article in my series exploring 100 years of horror films. Previously: