Let me be upfront and admit that I might cheat a little bit this year. A few of these movies, especially the foreign ones, may have technically been released in previous years, but I'm only counting them if they didn't become widely available in the US in theaters or on DVD until 2008.
While we're on this topic, I would like to note that I was disappointed to see that I couldn't technically count either Joshua or Them for 2008. I thought they came out last year, and both would have easily made it to my list of the best horror films of '08. Them was a tense and to-the-point home invasion thriller, that would make a great companion piece with '08's The Strangers to show how opposing approaches to the same premise can yield equally successful results. And Joshua was the most unsettling and unpleasant-to-watch horror movie I'd seen in a good long while. (I mean that as a compliment). Overall I think '08 was a good year for horror movies (maybe not as good as '07), but the absence of these two movies weakens my argument a little.
Right now I'm looking over a list I made of all the new horror movies I saw in 2008, and I'm trying to figure out if there are any important trends I should be commenting on. One thing I think has happened over the past few years is that horror films have gotten really violent again, with a mean streak to boot. And not just the so called "torture porn" movies like Hostel or the Saw movies, but some real mainstream fare, including a Diane Lane movie I'll mention later.
A few years ago I noticed a strong revenge theme in many horror movies, and I always figured that had something to do with 9/11. I.E. you are attacked unexpectedly and you must fight back, but in the process of fighting back you become like your aggressors etc etc. Now, we have the more of the cruelty but less of the revenge. I'm curious as to what this means culturally. Sure, mostly it's probably just a reaction to the success of the Saw franchise, but I have to believe there is something more to it. Maybe it's all the Abu Ghraib and waterboarding stuff, etc etc, going on with our government that has us thinking about this shit.
Enough of that. Now is the time to talk about all the new horror movies I saw this last year, give me final thoughts on them and see where they fit in to the big picture. I will break them up into themed sections.
Day of the Dead - Who needs a new idea when there are plenty of old ones to steal? Just playing, I actually don't mind remakes. At least, not in theory, and especially not when the original movie wasn't very good to begin with. Case in point, here we have a direct to DVD remake of George Romero's worst zombie film, starring the cute Menu Suvari and the unbearable Nick fucking Cannon. And hey, I honestly don't think it's much worse than the original. It's not as boring, preachy or as poorly acted. It is, however, more generic and stupid. I wouldn't even call it a remake so much as it is an attempt to trick people into thinking it's a sequel to the Dawn of the Dead remake by reusing one of its cast members and rehashing the fast-moving zombies. Only for some reason these zombies can also scale walls and weird shit like that, I didn't really understand why. It's a bad movie, but also inconsequential and therefore hard to hate. I think indifference is the right response.
Wizard of Gore - And again, how much can you really mind a remake when the original was a piece of shit? Hell, if you want to be generous, this is a remake that is better than the original. Not that that's saying much. I'll give the Wizard of Gore remake credit for being ambitious, it tries to combine extreme gore with a mindfuck, reality bending plot. It also has Crispin Glover, so I'm going to go ahead and call it the most improved upon horror movie remake of the year. It still sucks though. The plot is convoluted to the point that it's incomprehensible, so instead of drawing you in it alienates you. The gore is mostly CG, and I just can't stand for that. I'll give it points for trying to do it's own thing, it can't easily be lumped in to a subgenre. It just isn't a good movie.
Prom Night - Okay, damn, you think they would have actually tried to remake a good movie at some point, right? They got to this one before they got to Last House on the Left? I watched Prom Night for anthropological reasons, to find out what the state of horror movies aimed at teenage girls was. Not so hot, apparently. My problem with this shit is it doesn't feel like the filmmakers know or care much about horror movies. It was directed by some dude who mostly did TV up until now, and it was probably just a way for him to get into features. It's competently filmed, in the sense it looks nice and the staging isn't awkward, but there isn't even a sense that the filmmakers tried to create atmosphere or build tension. It's just a bullet point on the director's resume that shows he knows how to keep the shot in focus and get adequate performances out of his cast.
Mirrors - If not quite the worst horror movie of the year, it may have been the most disappointing. I haven't seen the Korean movie this was based on, so I'm not disappointed that it didn't live up to the original. I'm disappointed because I thought director Alexandre Aja had potential to be the next great horror filmmaker. His remake of The Hills Have Eyes is one of the best looking, best made slasher movies of the last decade or so, and was a notable improvement over his well-shot but flawed debut High Tension. I thought he was going to go right on improving with each movie, until he released this embarrassing mess. It is a horrible offender of two of the genre's biggest sins: focusing on an overly complicated plot that no one could possibly give a shit about, and having a supernatural villain who does completely arbitrary scary things that don't make any damned sense.
Funny Games - So what if I didn't see it? It's a shot for shot remake of the original by the same director (I guess one-upping Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake?), I know it still sucks. I don't understand how some horror fans have embraced it, when it's the most deplorable horror film of the year: a horror film that tells you that you are an asshole for watching a horror film.
The Return of the Curse of the Blair Witch Project's Ghost
Cloverfield - For what ever reason, '08 marked a major renaissance in the faux-documentary style horror film, popularized 10 years ago by The Blair Witch Project, a movie I wasn't a big fan of to begin with. In all honesty, I don't often like horror movies done in this style. Theoretically it's done to heighten the sense of realism, but instead it tends to underline it's own stagey-ness, i.e. you recognize that the actors are acting and aren't real people, you recognize that everything is pre-planned and not happening spontaneously. And Cloverfield, despite all the love it seemed to get this year, is a particularly strong offender. Even discounting that I didn't much care for the characters or find the story interesting or think that there were any memorable set pieces or whatnot, the movie never worked for me because it felt fake. And I think maybe that had to do with the budget and scope of the film. There were too many special effects, and they always looked like special effects. A more modest film, say one where there isn't a giant dinosaur stomping around New York, would work to hide its special effects and as a result might look more convincing. Somehow when you combine a "realistic" style of filmmaking with an unconvincing special effect, it's extra jarring.
Diary of the Dead - Yeah, with the rise of You Tube and camera phones and all that shit, the return of the faux-documentary trend was inevitable. I said I don't normally like the style, but I suppose it could have seemed like it might be an effective way to comment on the effect this technology has had on our society. "Seemed" being the operative word, because this year George Romero definitively proved that it's an awful idea that should never be attempted again. The observation that our media-saturated culture has left us disconnected from reality just sounds pointless when you say it out loud, and believe me, Romero has his characters state it out loud many, many times. There is some occasional entertaining zombie mayhem here, but nothing about the gimmick enhances any of it. It would all work just as well if done straightforwardly.
Quarantine - I could have counted this under remakes, since this is an Americanized version of Spanish movie that came out in 2007, but I wanted to include it with the faux-documentary set as it is a rare example of an excellent horror film done in this style. No heavy handed themes about isolation caused by modern technology. No over elaborate special effects distracting from the "realistic" style. Instead, it uses the handheld look to create unease in the early scenes, and to add some manic energy during the conclusion. Also, another point I'd like to make is about a smart choice they make about the acting. The main character is a news reporter, so it works that she doesn't feel entirely natural because her character is performing for the camera. One of the year's best horror movies.