The last ten years in horror have been defined by two names: Jigsaw and Toby. The former is the central antagonist in the insanely lucrative Saw movie franchise, the series marked by elaborate torture sequences that dominated Halloween film seasons from 2004 through 2010, when the final installment, Saw 3D, opened. The latter: the mysterious ghost/demon/who-the-hell-the-knows that's the driving force behind the Paranormal Activity movies, those inexpensive, found-footage haunted house flicks that, up until this month, had owned October's since the first one became a box office juggernaut in 2009.
Years, even decades, from now, cinema historians will cite both Saw and Paranormal Activity as two of the horror genre's most important and influential properties. They've certainly been horror's biggest releases since 2003.
And yet not a single film from either franchise ranks among the 10 Best Horror Movies of the Last 10 Years. Which speaks volumes about the genre's serious level of quality since 2003, a ten-year span that has seen the rise and fall of what critics dubbed "torture porn," the emergence of festival-owning international filmmakers (with bonus points going to France for killing the game), and the first-person POV trend that's given us more shameful lows (Apollo 18, anyone? No? Good.) than exceptional highs ([REC]).
Settling on the final ten movies here wasn't easy. If we were to compile a separate feature comprised of the "Honorable Mentions," we'd give special love to High Tension (2003), The Orphanage (2007), Let the Right One In (2008), The Descent (2005), The Devil's Rejects (2005), and Martyrs (2008). Again, the fact that none of those excellent films made earned a spot here tells you something about where horror's been over the last ten years. Yes, many of you will want to get all Victor Crowley on us and ram hatchets into our skulls for what we've had to cut here. And that's fine—Jigsaw and Toby are no doubt plotting their own revenge against Complex.
10. The House of the Devil (2009)
9. The Strangers (2008)
Director: Bryan Bertino
Stars: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glenn Howerton, Kip Weeks, Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis
Release date: May 30, 2008
You’re supposed to feel safe at home. More than any other place, home, behind a locked door, should be where everything is fine, where nothing can get to you or hurt you. This is why home invasions make for such terrifying movies. They zero in on this presumed fact—that you should be safe in your bed at night—and turn it inside out, leave it raw and exposed as a lie.
In Bryan Bertino’s first and only film, The Strangers, the trouble begins with a knock at the door. It’s after 4 in the morning, when a ringing phone or a buzzing doorbell only mean problems. James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are already in a bad way. At a friend’s wedding earlier in the day, James proposed to Kristen. She didn’t answer in the affirmative, making the drive to James’s family’s country home a quiet one. The preemptive rose petals and bottle of champagne are now embarrassing.
You feel bad for the couple. Rather than ask you to side with one or the other, the movie pays equal attention to how lost they look on the other side of this moment, something that, for a happier, tighter couple, would have been an occasion for celebration and joy. James misread the situation; Kristen didn’t feel ready. Again, you feel bad for them. That’s what makes what comes next especially difficult.
“Is Tamara here?” asks the woman standing before the front door, her face obscured in shadow, at 4:15 a.m. The question is haunting for its innocuousness. She isn’t here, this isn’t the right house, James assures her. But it is the right house. “See you later,” the unexpected visitor says, another seemingly innocuous phrase made ominous by the circumstances: the secluded country home, the late hour, the dark.
What makes The Strangers great is how little happens at first. There’s a pounding at the door, the phone goes out. All of the moves are designed to turn the home into something dangerous and unpredictable, the very last things you want in a house.
The film’s greatest sequence: Kristen stands in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette to calm her nerves. She’s in the foreground of the frame, looking in the direction of the back of the house. In the frame’s background, from a shadow a figure in a suit and a mask emerges. He's standing at the edge of the living room, where she isn't looking. Nothing happens. He watches her. We watch them. It’s terrifying and simple, a long take that makes you want to claw your face off out of tension and mounting dread.
After a cut that brings the camera around 180 degrees, so that you’re looking into the kitchen instead of the living room, Kristen peers out the window above the sink. A cut back to the previous angle reveals that the figure has disappeared. Kristen’s alone in the frame again. But not in the house.
In middle school, a few friends and I got into ding dong ditch. It’s made out to be this harmless prank, something punk kids do that sends elderly neighbors into fist-waving bouts of exasperation: These no-good brats! We got bored with that. We took to going out later and later. We got tired of the doorbell, switched things up by knocking on windows well after midnight. I'm not proud of this. We once pounded on the windows of a house where the people inside where sitting up late, watching television in the quiet. I saw their faces in the blue TV glow as they shot up from the sofa before I ran off into the woods beyond the yard, out of sight. They looked afraid, truly afraid.
The sleeplessness I experienced after watching The Strangers for the first time felt like retribution for those nights. It was punishment. —Ross Scarano
8. Let Me In (2010)
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elias Koteas, Richard Jenkins, Dylan Minnette
Release date: October 1, 2010
Adolescence is the big suck. Your tween/teen body is an awkward, sprouty, hormonal thing that belongs to neither the child or adult worlds. Your ownership of it is questionable anyhow because the older authority figures you still legally depend upon tell you what you can and cannot do with it. And peers try to hide their own titanic insecurities by trashing you, sometimes literally stuffing you into a can.
It’s no wonder why teen vampire dramas have become so popular with puberty’s prisoners. In escapist fantasies like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, young bloodsuckers are powerful, attractive, and everybody wants a hickie from them. These properties are sugary fluff that gets stuck in your braces, but they serve their purpose of distraction.
For those who’d rather stare down the often ugly and painful reality of childhood, the adolescent “vampire movie” to watch is Let Me In, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves’ 2010 American remake of Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish film, which former bullying victim and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted from his 2004 novel. Why the quotes? Because Let Me In is about vampires like The Wire is about surveillance equipment.
Unlike movies that make life after death look fang-tastic, both of these adaptations use vampirism as a metaphor for everything that’s difficult about adolescence. You’re trapped in a strange body. You’re limited in where you can go and when. Nobody understands you. You feel like ripping people’s throats open.
A dark and violent coming-of-age love story between a scrawny, bullied, 12-year-old boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), his new vampire neighbor who’s been trapped in her bloodthirsty, sun-averse girl body since she was turned lifetimes ago, Let Me In goes to some disturbing places. When Abby meets Owen in his apartment complex in Los Alamos, New Mexico, his existence is a lonely one. His dad is absent, his mom props herself up with alcohol and religion, and outside of regular physical and verbal abuse from school bully Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his two sheepish friends, Owen has little interaction with classmates. He fantasizes about revenge, hurling the same emasculating insults he receives at a mirror and tree, stabbing the latter repeatedly with a pocket knife. In Abby, he finds an equally isolated and sad spirit, and someone to help him fight back for real.
It’s rare that we’ll tout a remake over the original—there were plenty of calls to put Let the Right One In on this list—but Let Me In is not your typical underwhelming and unnecessary exploitation of American moviegoers’ allergic reaction to subtitles. Both films are quite good, and remarkably feature flawless performances from child actors, but as dark as Alfredson’s version is, Reeves’ even grimmer take on Lindqvist’s novel does more with the themes. Perhaps it’s American sensitivity to bullying and school violence, but the little Swedish bullies seem more like Martin Prince from The Simpsons than the hate-filled dangers of Let Me In. Owen’s terrified cries and pants-wetting when he’s given a wedgie that could literally tear him a new asshole, or when boys drag him half naked to the pool to put the scare of drowning in him, are terribly upsetting.
Similarly disturbing in Reeves' version is the more feral quality that he and Moretz bring to Abby when she's in vampiric thirst mode. She’s ugly, scary, and barely able to control her impulses and survival instincts, and yet she’s all that Owen has, and a sympathetic figure in her own right. (Personally, I could have done without the occasional CGI vampire movements, which are present in both films but featured more heavily in the remake, but mountains and molehills, you know?)
To complicate the viewer’s rooting interest in Owen and Abby’s romance more than Alfredson did, Reeves further developed the tragic figure that is her creepy "father" (Richard Jenkins), who begrudgingly stalks and kills people for Abby as she drifts away from him. He also replaced the original’s innocent—but not entirely likable—local drunk, who pokes around where he should not, with an entirely decent homicide detective (Elias Koteas) who investigates what he believes are satanic cult murders.
The line between innocent youth and monstrosity gets blurry. And bloody. Reeves' beautiful, masterfully orchestrated, and superbly acted film ultimately asks more questions than it answers, which is perfect for a horror exploration of the confusing period that is adolescence. After all, it isn't until your early twenties that you think you know everything. —Justin Monroe
7. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
6. [REC] (2007)
Director: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Stars: Manuela Velasco, Ferrán Terraza, Pablo Rosso, David Vert, Martha Carbonell, Carlos Vicente, Claudia Silva
Release date: July 14, 2009 (U.S. DVD)
Billing a new horror movie as "found-footage" in 2013 does more damage than good in the eyes of the genre's biggest fans.
There once was a time when the first-person, shaky-cam POV style wasn't a gimmick. In 1980, Italian director Ruggero Deodato employed the technique in Cannibal Holocaust, a film—about documentarians running across a cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon Rainforest—so realistic that Deodato was arrested and charged with making a snuff film after its initial release. Nineteen years later, indie co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez struck box office gold with The Blair Witch Project, a found-footage milestone and one of the most profitable motion pictures of all time.
J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves revitalized the conceit in 2008 with the creature feature Cloverfield, leading into the October 2009 debut of Paranormal Activity, the suburban haunted house juggernaut that spawned a lucrative franchise and, unfortunately, inspired lazy, unimaginative film producers both independent and major to run found-footage into the ground. For every respectable new entry, like the Spanish chiller Atrocious or the 2010 box office hit The Last Exorcism, there have been two to three POV embarrassments, like Apollo 18 (2008) and The Devil Inside (2012).
And then there's the best found-footage movie ever made: [REC], written and directed by Spanish collaborators Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. There's no debating this—[REC] is the end-all, be-all of horror's first-person sub-genre. If you've seen the surprisingly respectable but largely copycat 2008 American remake Quarantine and think there's no reason to see the original, check your head and find the nearest copy of Balagueró and Plaza's O.G. version. Its final 20 minutes comprise the best sustained sequence of horror of the last 10 years, not to mention one of the all-time greatest. "White knuckle" isn't a strong enough term to describe [REC]'s conclusion, an all-out explosion of chaotic infection, first-person-shooter-like mayhem, and the superb use of night-vision camerawork.
Everything that precedes those last 20 minute is first-rate, too. The premise is easily digestible: Perky and gung-ho television reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), along with her cameraman, Pablo, head to the local Barcelona fire department to document the night shift for her TV show While You're Asleep. At first, it's mundane, with the firemen showing Ángela around and killing time by playing sports, but then a call comes in. She trails the firemen all the way to an apartment building where an elderly woman is trapped in her flat. Turns out, the lady's infected with some kind of virus, and she attacks one of the fire guys. The franticness and confusion gradually gives way to full-blown horror as the mysterious infection spreads throughout the apartment complex, which has been locked down by health officials and surrounded by armed guards. Ángela, Pablo, police officers, and the tenants are stuck inside what becomes a playground for supercharged, homicidal maniacs, all of whom move with the intensity and speed of the antagonists in 28 Days Later… and are inexplicably bleeding from their faces.
Those aforementioned closing 20 minutes are when all hell literally breaks loose, with Ángela and Pablo working their way up to the building's penthouse apartment, plowing through and fleeing from one infected maniac after another. Once they're inside the penthouse, [REC] takes a hard left turn into a completely different horror sub-genre, and the effects are simultaneously macabre and ferocious. As a whole, [REC] is a master's class in oppressive claustrophobia, in which Balagueró and Plaza continually make slick work of the building's tight corridors, minimal lighting, and lack of exits. In that, they utilize the best advantage of found-footage cinema: its immersive, participatory quality.
When its handled properly, POV filmmaking makes the viewer feel like he or she is, in fact, living out the on-screen action. And in [REC], you bond with the charming Ángela, whose face-to-face interplay with Pablo and his camera always seem authentic. Credit Manuela Velasco's performance for that, too—how she naturally evolves from jovial to petrified is truly impressive. Like Pablo, you want to keep her safe, but you also want to survive the night.
With its success in Spain and universal acclaim, [REC] spawned a found-footage franchise of its own—consider Balagueró and Plaza's series the international answer to the Paranormal Activity brand. Unlike PA's sequels, though, [REC] 2 (2009; another Balagueró/Plaza co-direction) and [REC] 3: Genesis (2012; directed solely by Plaza) have been consistently strong, and next year's franchise-ending [REC] 4: Apocalypse (directed by Balagueró) promises to be just as satisfying. But neither of the sequels—with [REC] 2 concentrating more on action and [REC] 3: Genesis mostly dropping found-footage for horror-comedy yuks—match the 2007 original's scare factor, or overall brilliance.
Found-footage movies aren't going away anytime soon. In January alone, there will be two new ones from major studios: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a Latin-tinged PA spin-off, and Devil's Due, a Rosemary's Baby-on-steroids flick that, one can presume, will feature tons of people being yanked away from the camera by unseen forces. Outside of the studio system, indie horror also shows no signs of giving POV films a break—peruse the VOD lists from IFC Midnight, Magnet Releasing, Tribeca Films, and other lo-fi distribution companies and you're guaranteed to come across several found-footage trend-humpers. Passionate horror fans will notoriously watch anything at least once, from the crappiest of DIY garbage to the lamest of films with actual budgets, so they, like me, won't be able to resist the next grip of Paranormal Activity ripoffs. But we'll always press "Play" or buy tickets in hopes of re-experiencing the sensation of seeing [REC] for the first time, which isn't likely to happen.
Every kind of horror film has its recognized apex. For exorcism movies, it is, of course, The Exorcist (1973). Zombie fans acknowledge Night of the Living Dead (1968) as grandaddy of cinematic flesh-eating, but George Romero's follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978), is the ultimately superior movie. Vampire lovers will always have Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931). It's still too new to accrue that kind of time-earned distinction, but [REC] will eventually be accepted as the all-time best found-footage movie, not The Blair Witch Project, though people may be too scared—figuratively and literally—to admit it. —Matt Barone
5. The Mist (2007)
4. Insidious (2011)
Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Leigh Wannell, Angus Sampson, Ty Simpkins, Andrew Foster
Release date: April 1, 2011
If you catch my head shaking at Fast & Furious 7, it’s not because I have anything against Universal’s nitro-boosted street racing franchise or Vinny Deez. On the contrary, I’m hoping that the next chapter kills at the box office in summer 2014. But my joy at seeing director James Wan crush with his first mainstream blockbuster will be tempered by sadness because the horror community has lost one of its greatest talents.
The movie that cemented Wan’s genre genius was 2011’s Insidious. A masterfully paced, near-bloodless ghost story that flips the tropes of haunted house movies, it was a complete departure from the gory, seven-movie Saw franchise, which had devolved from Wan and co-creator Leigh Whannell’s clever 2004 debut, about a “serial killer” who teaches people to value their lives by trapping them in deadly puzzles, into far less inventive annual torture porn for Halloween. Pegged as gore guys—their uneven ventriloquist horror thriller Dead Silence, and Wan’s underwhelming vigilantism crime drama Death Sentence, failed to register enough in 2007 to change perceptions of them—the pair went old school to make a bigger splash than another bucket of blood ever could.
The central idea of Insidious is that ghosts and demons, which exist in a place called The Further, are desperate to inhabit the living body of astral projectors whose spirit departs their physical form when they sleep. What begins as a well executed haunted house story turns into a unique possession pic when two concerned parents (Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson) learn that malicious spirits are eager to occupy their son, who’s fallen into a comatose state that doctors cannot explain.
Wan’s slow pacing and subtle use of haunting devices like creaking doors, pitch black shadows, and whispering voices builds tension that explodes with perfectly timed jump scares punctuated by Joseph Bishara’s score, which introduces unnerving scratchy violins and thunderous piano bangs to moments of silent terror. These elements, combined with the freaky design of the story’s red-faced demon (played by Bishara) and an assortment of creepy smiling spirits that clearly are not as friendly as they appear, had my neck hairs standing at chilled attention on first watch. Subsequent viewings have only increased my appreciation for the movie’s intelligent ideas and construction.
They’ve also made me sad that Wan is taking his considerable talents, seen again in this year’s strong genre efforts The Conjuring and Insidious 2, elsewhere. I’m sure they’ll be put to great effect in F&F and wherever his career takes him afterward. And who knows, perhaps someday Wan will pull a move like Sam Raimi on Drag Me to Hell and return to the genre that started it all for him, rejuvenated and full of new ideas. And hopefully he'll avoid making a For Love of the Game in between. —Justin Monroe
3. Kill List (2012)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer, Harry Simpson
Release date: February 3, 2012
Kill List isn't an easy film to write about. Its greatest strengths come from the element of surprise.
Directed by the supremely gifted British genre filmmaker Ben Wheatley, who also co-wrote the script with his wife, Amy Jump, Kill List is a disorienting free-fall into the darkest of nightmares, a downward spiral for lead character Jay (Neil Maskell), an ex soldier and retired hitman whose world is riddled with stress. His wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), constantly nags him about their lack of income, the result of Jay's ongoing unemployment, and exacerbating matters is his good friend/old hired-gun colleague Gal (Michael Smiley), who's talked Jay into accepting new jobs from an enigmatic and wealthy man simply known as "The Client." Their marks include a priest and a child pornographer, both of whom let Jay and Gal kill them, but not before they calmly thank Jay for doing so. Something's off about these assignments. As his world gets darker by the minute, Jay loses his grip on right and wrong, and his wife and young son, Justin (Ben Crompton), are inadvertently becoming involved.
From that plot description, one wouldn't be incorrect in questioning Kill List's status as a horror movie. It's never the least bit pleasant, powered by an overarching sense of dread, but an existential drama about a hitman's moral compass doesn't, at first glance, seem to belong on the same list as films like The Strangers and The Cabin in the Woods. But trust—Kill List is horror of the highest order.
Kill List has a singular kind of post-viewing impact—once it's over, and Wheatley socks you in the gut with the film's sickening final images, you may find yourself unable to breathe for a second or three. After my first time seeing it, I didn't move. I just sat in the darkly lit theater, trying to process what I'd just witnessed and wondering if I hadn't just watched a movie but, rather, been slugged in the stomach and cranium for 95 minutes. And I couldn't wait to re-watch it as soon as possible.
Wheatley's film is impossible to comprehend after only one watch. It's borderline impenetrable. Wheatley and Jump constructed the film like a puzzle, with clues to its secrets intricately sprinkled throughout and key pieces of background information left to suggestion. Jay's history isn't paraded around with overdone exposition—he's as much of a question mark as he is an antihero. Similarly, the magnitude of his current predicament's horror is hinted at with seemingly out-of-nowhere cutaways, like when a houseguest randomly carves a bizarre symbol behind Jay's bathroom mirror—these images linger in your mind, even if they're never mentioned by any of the characters after the fact.
Kill List's true horror is revealed in a tremendously staged nighttime, woodland sequence that plays like a fever dream. You're engrossed in the film's hallucinogenic aura. The sound design—all eerie whistling, tribal drums, and otherworldly strings—burrow into your eardrums and won't let up.
During my January 2012 interview with Wheatley, he talked about the benefits of audiences giving Kill List multiple looks, and how the film was engineered for that type of consumption. "You really have to be careful with the clues you lay into the film—if they’re too heavy-handed, or you’ve pandered to a slightly stupider audience, then you’ve spoiled it for the people who are even slightly smart. That’s the worry. Also, a lot of people enjoy that teasing out of information and how that makes them think about it even harder. Otherwise, you might as well just have a banner up at the beginning of the movie that flat-out says what’s gonna happen and where it’s gonna go."
That's why Kill List is its own unique beast on this list. David Lynch enthusiasts argue about whether his movies, like Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006), can be accurately classified as horror or not, but with Kill List, Ben Wheatley successfully tapped into the Lynchian storytelling formula (intentional murkiness + unsettling imagery = What the hell did I just watch?) in a film that's undeniably horror. Read the signs. —Matt Barone
2. 28 Days Later... (2003)
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson
Release date: June 27, 2003 (U.S. theatrical)
I was raised on zombie movies. The first horror movie that ever truly terrified me was George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which I watched behind my parents' back, in their bedroom one Saturday night when my older brother was supposed to be keeping an eye on me but wasn't. It was an old VHS copy I found buried deep within the hallway closet, and the film seemed like forbidden fruit. The hook was instant, giving way to my hunting down every zombie movie ever made. Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979), and then every other gruesome Fulci picture. The hammy but strangely unsettling Italian oddity Burial Ground. All of those The Return of the Living Dead films, including the shitty second one where a ghoul who's inexplicably dressed up as Michael Jackson dances as its being electrocuted. Even Michael Jackson's Thriller fair game.
Nothing I'd seen prior, though, had prepared me for Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. This was a new kind of zombie movie, one in which, technically, the antagonists aren't quite zombies. They're infected English folks, stricken with an extremely contagious and deadly virus stemming from lab-tested chimpanzees. And these zombies, or "the infected," were unbelievably fast—as in, moving at speeds that made the running corpses in the original The Return of the Living Dead seem like David Ortiz rounding first base. As directed by Danny Boyle, the filmmaker behind Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) who was on the comeback trail following the 2000 dud The Beach, 28 Days Later roared with a singular intensity. The cinematography, all naturalistic and gritty, brought Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's "Dogme 95" aesthetic into horror (credit Boyle's cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, a Dogme veteran), crackling like old vinyl on the screen, looking like the grimiest camcorder footage imaginable. Boyle's unruly edits and cuts kept his zombies largely obscured, save for the occasional close-up of their glowing red eyes.
One thing was obvious: These weren't Romero's or Fulci's breed of once-human monsters. Boyle, along with screenwriter Alex Garland, had reinvented my beloved horror sub-genre.
And it scared the you-know-what out of me. To this day, 28 Days Later remains a one-of-a-kind knockout. Boyle wastes no time going for the jugular, opening the film with a claustrophobic and nightmarish prologue during which a group of well-meaning animal liberation activists unknowingly unleash the apocalypse, and leading into one of those rare moments of breathtaking cinema we so rarely encounter. Hospitalized bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in an empty, messy emergency ward, stumbles through the hospital's ramshackle halls, and ventures out into the streets of London, but something's not right—there aren't any people. Jim's all alone, to the point where you think it's just Cillian Murphy and Danny Boyle, by themselves, having somehow cleared the streets of one of the world's busiest cities.
How Boyle transfers Jim's sense of loneliness and disbelief onto the audience is remarkable. So when he's suddenly blasted by what's really going on, via s chance run-in with an infected priest inside a body-ridden church, the audience is just as rattled as he is. Just like that, the film's pin-drop-quiet desolation is violently replaced by run-and-gun hysteria.
The stylistic madness never lets up, but Boyle and Garland don't preoccupy themselves with only the horror. 28 Days Later is strikingly character-driven, devoting as much time to its terrifying set-pieces as its desperate, disparate survivors. In addition to the gradually heroic Jim, there's Selena (Naomie Harris), a tough badass who's been made warrior-like by her surroundings—you get the sense that, at her heart, she's warm, but she's not able to be that way. Unlike Frank (Brendan Gleeson), the jolly father of teenager Hannah (Megan Burns) who goes out of his way to be pleasant because, well, their bleak world needs that from him. Together, the film's quartet of good-guy characters form a band of unlikely comrades that's easy to root for, and, since 28 Days Later is a horror story, impossible not to sympathize with when one of them dies.
28 Days Later is a film of two distinct halves. The first establishes the situation and brings the aforementioned foursome together; the second half, set on the grounds of a mansion overtaken by a malevolent, all-male group of soldiers, owes much to George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), an influence that both Boyle and Garland have publicly acknowledged. And for that, it's slightly less effective than 28 Days Later's first section, though it's still powerful and unpredictable. Besides, Day of the Dead is one of my personal favorite zombie movies. Any allusions to it are welcome—overt homages from a gifted filmmaker like Danny Boyle are a living dead fan's dream come true.
In those later scenes, particularly when that "Bub"-like ghoul turns on its former military colleagues, 28 Days Later briefly feels like those zombies I grew up watching and adoring. They bridge the gap between classic Romero and new-age Boyle. And through that, on top of the film's overall excellence, 28 Days Later achieves "all-time greatest zombie movies" status. —Matt Barone
1. Inside (2007)
Director: Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury
Stars: Alysson Paradis, Béatrice Dalle, Nathalie Roussel, François-Régis Marchasson
Release date: April 15, 2008 (U.S. DVD)
When you've grown up on horror movies, it becomes difficult for them to truly make you squirm. The good ones will always rattle you, no doubt, but leave you quivering, with your arms tired from repeatedly covering your eyes? That's rare. Recent gross-out movies like The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film want to have that kind of impact, but they're all nastiness and no art. Meaning, their longevity only lasts as long as it takes for the next director to find new, revolting ways to dismember pretty, anonymous faces.
Telling people what happens in the French horror film Inside provokes knee-jerk responses along the lines of, "That just sounds gross." They're not wrong. Superficially, it exists in that same lane with The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film. Inside, co-written and co-directed by first-timers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, is an intense succession of brutal kills, horrifying gore, and bodily harm of the you've-never-seen-this-before variety.
I first saw the film as part of Lincoln Center's "Rendezvous with French Cinema" series in March of 2008, in New York City, after spending months on end reading about its triumphant festival screenings, all of which, naturally, took place at midnight. My screening was in the afternoon, but Inside's visceral force wasn't diminished by the brightness outside. I pride myself on never covering my eyes during horror movies—I've seen it all. Right? Well, I thought I had before Inside. I can vividly remember four moments when I closed my eyelids. Actually covering my face with my hands, though, that only happened once. During the film's big closing number. Which I'm not about to describe and spoil here, but know this much: I've since shown Inside to no less than 10 of my friends, and they've all lost their shit during that sequence, accompanied by comments like, "No, no, they're not really going to show that," and, "Jesus, what the hell are we watching?" I've also screened The Human Centipede for those same friends. Their comments were variations of this sentiment: "Pretty gross, but so damn silly."
No one who sees Inside will ever call it "silly." It's as brutal and unpleasant as horror movies come. The mood begins melancholic, with protagonist Sarah (Alysson Paradis) walking through life in a deep depression, saying very little and smiling never. It's Christmas Eve, and she's rather pregnant—as in, ready to give birth on Christmas Day. But she's also alone, drifting in the wake of a devastating car accident that left her husband dead. Sarah's mother, Louise (Nathalie Roussel) wants to spend Christmas Eve with her, but Sarah's not having it. She just wants to stay home, by herself, in misery. That's how her night starts out, but, before long, there's a knock at her front door. A mysterious woman, dressed in all black (and played with brilliant menace by Béatrice Dalle), wants in. She knows Sarah's name, that she's pregnant. And she's not about to leave the property.
As the rest of the night unfolds, the woman, billed as "La Femme," turns Sarah's life into a living hell, slaughtering anyone who's unlucky enough to enter the house and leaving Sarah herself mangled—sliced, slashed, her face caked in blood. Accumulating such a staggering body count isn't what La Femme set out to accomplish, though. She wants Sarah's baby. Not once the child is born—she wants it now, and she's determined to remove it by any means.
Bustillo and Maury structure Inside as a quasi-anthology, a three-act nightmare comprised of the same characters in three tonally different creepshows. The first third plays like a quiet and subtle exercise in the supernatural; we know La Femme's prowling around Sarah's house, but with her black garb and Dalle's soulless eyes, La Femme takes on a spectral quality. One of the most impressive shots you'll see in any horror movie made since 2003 occurs during this section of Inside, and there's not a drop of blood or a forcible jolt to be had. Sarah's asleep on a couch, Bustillo and Maury's camera fastened tightly on her face. They slowly pull the camera back, showing just how dark everything is behind Sarah in her empty house, but something feels off. The darkness seems to be mobile. The darkness, it turns out, is La Femme, who's suddenly inside the house and who's been hovering behind a slumbering Sarah. How did she get in? Is she even human? It's a genius piece of directorial misdirection that gives the viewer assurance. You're under the control of two inventive and technically proficient directors.
And they're behind-the-camera prowess increases tenfold once the carnage begins. Inside's death scenes operate on a whole other level of audience punishment. Bustillo and Maury maximize every possible means of directorship, punctuating each jabbing of La Femme's knife, or piercing of someone's skin with her rusty and abnormally large scissors, with close-up shots and a pulsating sound design, hypnotizing your ears with a sonic assault that's like Skrillex if he swallowed a bottle full of downers. Inside's second act turns Sarah's home into a chamber of homicide, where genitals are prodded with scissors, throats are slashed, and heads are blown clean off. The film's final third, while no less graphic, is slightly toned down, limiting the action to a one-on-one showdown between Sarah and La Femme, which both subverts everything you're anticipating while also delivering everything you've been hoping for but don't exactly long to see. And in the end, Bustillo and Maury close Inside on an image that's beautifully haunting. Whether one considers it to be a happy or bleak ending is up to the respective viewer, and Bustillo and Maury are bold enough to allow for such individual response.
Inside premiered as part of a new wave of uncompromising French horror cinema, alongside the works of Bustillo and Maury's fellow contemporaries Alexandre Aja (High Tension), Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), Xavier Gens (Frontiere(s)), and David Moreau and Xavier Palud (Them). All three of those contemporaries films are worthy of making this list. High Tension, for its part, sparked the movement and features a 15-minute sequence (with a killer decimating an entire family in their isolated cottage) that's pitch-perfect horror filmmaking, while Martyrs, the most narratively ambitious and abstract of the lot, leaves you reeling from a conclusion that's physically exhausting and mentally traumatizing. But Inside hits the hardest. It's lean—running time: a mere 82 minutes—and sadistically audacious, constantly pushing the viewer to his or her limit and always exceeding his or her expectations.
Hollywood distribution heavyweights Harvey and Bob Weinstein—whose horror roots began by producing the 1981 slasher flick The Burning and boomed with Bob steering Dimension Films into genre supremacy via the Scream franchise—picked up Inside's U.S. rights after its festival run, to release through their straight-to-DVD label Dimension Extreme. The disc hit shelves in mid-April 2008, about a month after I sat it inside Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. I purchased it immediately.
Five-and-a-half years later, I've watched Inside eight or nine times, give or take. The most recent viewing was two weekends ago. The film hasn't lost any of its power. That one scene that made me cover my eyes back in March 2008 prompted the same reaction. And, once again, I was left in awe of what Bustillo and Maury achieved. —Matt Barone