10/25/2018 – 2000s: Three… Extremes (Saam gaang yi) (2004)
Directed by Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike
Last decade, we witnessed the horror industry in a downturn quality wise after a stellar one before that. Towards the end of the ’90s, the genre at least was rebounding in popularity. The 2000s saw a major split develop between the mainstream and the indie/foreign film scenes. The former moved largely towards remakes, action horror, and extreme horror while the latter would start to rebuild and, in many cases, build up its clout.
We already looked at Katharine Isabelle in American Mary, but her breakout role came alongside Emily Perkins in the feminist werewolf film Ginger Snaps which remains the best in the genre to date. It would also spawn a pair of mediocre sequels in Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning. I’ll toss a mention to the Hellboy films (I prefer the original) since IMDB and the Saturn awards seem to think they are horror and for their quality, but they share far more in common with action and fantasy. While we’re at it, I’ll also mention the underrated Tideland from Terry Gilliam which I wouldn’t call horror, but if David Cronenberg would, who am I to argue?
2004’s Shaun of the Dead would pay tribute to the Romero zombie films as well as appealing as a hilarious comedy film as it brought the Spaced team of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost into the spotlight. The zombie genre as a whole would experience a sort of explosion in popularity starting in the 2000s. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… would establish a new breed of zombies in 2002, far faster than the old kind with more of a tie to rabies than the living dead. It’s a film that like a number of his works starts strong with Cillian Murphy waking up in a desolate London but falls off later when they reach the mansion. It would receive a nearly equal follow-up five years later with 28 Weeks Later and similar zombies would follow in Zach Snyder’s surprisingly good remake of Dawn of the Dead. Shaun of the Dead too would receive an American counterpart in Venom director Ruben Fleischer’s great Zombieland.
The Canadian comedic zombie movie Fido is fun, but its countrymate Pontypool did is the one that did the most interesting take off on the genre and an impressive film to boot. Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror made for fun bloody violence, but the rest of the (non-zombie related) film is just as worth discussing. With its great simulated grindhouse feel, fake trailers, and two great horror movies (even if Death Proof is the weakest of Quentin Tarantino’s career), Grindhouse is a fun experiment that at its best honors the kind, look, and feel of the (frequently crap) cheap films made in the ’70s (Rodriguez better at making a consistently enjoyable film instead of one that takes half of it to get going, Tarantino the better at capturing the feel). I Sell the Dead and Dance of the Dead would also offer pretty good takes on zombies, but one notable missing name from my praise is George Romero.
After turning out a zombie film a decade in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, he would take the ’90s off from the genre. 2005’s Land of the Dead should have been his big comeback, continuing to expand the scope as the series had been doing, but instead merely turning out decently as others had come and surpassed him. He’d only wait two years before making his next zombie film, this time the found footage reboot Diary of the Dead whose biggest sin being that it merely felt like a generic and forgettable follower instead of anything groundbreaking. Survival of the Dead would return to a more traditional set up and be the first direct sequel, and yet it was the weakest and most uninspired of the lot.
Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) would make his best film with the claustrophobic female focused cave horror of The Descent that played off the tension of the setting, the relationships of the characters, and the monsters as a bonus. James Gunn first got my attention for his direction of Slither, a modernization of all sorts of low budget ’70s and ’80s films including Night of the Creeps starring Nathan Fillion. Trick ‘r Treat may have been robbed of a proper theatrical release and delayed for a while, but when it did come out, it proved to be the definitive Halloween themed film. Last but far from least is Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! The Genetic Opera, a personal favorite of mine that will likely alienate many of the readers here. An almost entirely sung through musical that blends together horror, sci-fi, body horror, Saw-style gore, a camp sensibility descended from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a truly bizarre cast. It’s messy, uneven, ridiculous, and I love it and the music all the same.
Before I dive more fully into the next tier, that mention of Saw warrants a further discussion of the most controversial subgenre of the period, “torture porn”. I’ve touched on it before, but it is worth repeating that the designation is both ill-advised and frequently mislabeled. In fact, that first film that frequently gets tossed in there with them, 2004’s Saw, is far less gory and features more of an emphasis on suspense than the genre expects (it’s also a good film). Its sequels, of which Bousman would direct the first three to declining returns (and by Saw IV make the series no longer have any value), are instead far more prototypical examples of the genre, focusing on various creative and gruesome traps masterminded by Jigsaw. The franchise would survive the rest of the decade in yearly installments released around Halloween.
Besides the Saw sequels, the label also typically gets thrown at such films at Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, the unimpressive Aussie outback horror Wolf Creek, the surprisingly improved Rob Zombie sequel The Devil’s Rejects, the mediocre border cult horror of Borderland, the controversial arthouse Lars von Trier film Antichrist, the by most accounts pathetic The Human Centipede (First Sequence), and most notably the incredibly tedious Hostel films. The New French Extremity films also sometimes get lumped in there or at least considered right alongside in depravity (if not necessarily popularity to the biggest splatter films), with the genre highlighted by Them in quality, but Trouble Every Day, High Tension, Frontier(s), Inside, and Martyrs (first three alright, the last two I haven’t seen and if Netflix had them were choice one and two this year) more brutal.
Tarsem’s The Cell is messy, the acting is mostly subpar, the story is nonsense, and the CGI has aged noticeably, but it’s still beautiful to look at and the interesting enough that I don’t care about the rest. Shadow of the Vampire tells a fictionalized tale of the making of Nosferatu based on the simple premise of “what if the actor portraying a vampire was really a vampire”, but that premise, the on point visual replication, and performances from John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, etc. carry it. Pitch Black introduced the world to Riddick and Vin Diesel’s performance is captivating as an unstoppable murderous badass here before they (well he) made the mistake to turn Riddick into an action star in the sequel. Speaking of compelling villains, Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman is American Psycho‘s greatest strength in all his sociopathic glory.
Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others is technically a Spanish film, but it’s entirely in English, telling a psychological horror tale highly influenced by The Turn of the Screw. Blade II (it’s better to not discuss Blade: Trinity) from Guillermo del Toro would improve upon its superhero horror predecessor, becoming for refined in just about every way. Eight Legged Freaks is stupid fun as is eventual Hostel director Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, the reason I assume people still give him chances. Bubba Ho-Tep could have just been stupid fun about Bruce Campbell playing Elvis still alive and in in a nursing home and Ossie Davis as JFK, but instead it also added moments of genuine poignancy about old age and was this close to being something truly great.
2002’s The Ring is regularly and deservedly known for being for one of the select few remakes (a number greater than people like to admit) to improve upon its predecessor, crafting a better atmosphere and removing some of the extraneous explanations that took away from the mystery and creepiness. It’s also the first of an important trend in the ’00s Hollywood, remaking foreign (namely Asian) horror and remakes in general. That particular variant would be kicked into high gear by the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from Platinum Dunes. It’s not as bad a movie as you’d expect, but like so many of these remakes, it coldly missed the entire point of the original for a blander and bloodier update. There were good ones to find in this era with Willard and My Bloody Valentine 3D offering equal or greater versions to their solid originals, and Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes marking a significant upgrade in quality,
The Call of Cthulhu makes a genre which I don’t particularly care for (the silent film) and turns it into a great adaptation of the Lovecraft short story. Feast despite its roots as the products of the third season of Project Greenlight, still turned out as a fun creature feature. The Last Winter is a visually impressive indie horror film with some well-rounded characters held back only by its script. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes a different direction with its metatextual elements from Scream, going with a mockumentary and making for well-made slasher title. Rogue is much better than you’d expect from a killer croc movie and an improvement from Greg McLean’s previous film Wolf Creek. Wrong Turn 2: Dead End was the good sequel to a crappy original that inspired me to watch three more films in this dreadful series.
Stephen King adaptations continued to decline in quality but the two good ones this decade both came in 2007. The psychological horror of 1408 and the sci-fi horror of The Mist both have their ups and downs but are worth seeing. Also, worth seeing is Dreamcatcher for being spectacularly terrible and an absolute disaster. The pure bit of fanservice My Name Is Bruce (directed by and starring Bruce Campbell) is very divisive and understandably so, but I enjoyed it for what it was). The Clive Barker adaptation The Midnight Meat Train is suitably brutal while Splinter has some nice effects to enjoy. 2009 gave us the fun Aussie teen horror The Loved Ones, Sam Raimi’s go-for-broke but keep it PG-13 Drag Me to Hell, the divisive Splice which suffers from a poor narrative decision or three as well as Sunshine syndrome. The twisty and exciting British-Australian Triangle gets a much stronger recommendation though as it is often unfairly overlooked.
While The Blair Witch Project made most people aware of the concept of found footage, adoption was slow. 2007’s [Rec] from Spain remains the defining film in the genre, getting a great if inferior sequel two years later and an American remake (Quarantine) the following year. Earlier in 2008, a film shrouded in secrets was released in Cloverfield that turned out to be a found footage kaiju movie and a huge success. It took until the truly massive success of Paranormal Activity for the found footage boom to take off, however. Making $193.4M on a $15,000 budget and featuring trailers largely showing the reactions of audiences, it launched countless sequels and imitators which hide the fact that watching the original in the theater was a good time until that hilariously bad end that seemed to get everyone but made me laugh.
I generally ignored slashers to this point for the obvious reason that most were pretty terrible. Genre saver Scream petered out with its third installment in 2000 while the lazy Scary Movie franchise (a parody of a parody) also started that year. While the first approximates humor, it would quickly go downhill. I discussed what happened to Halloween and it ain’t pretty while Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th met up for the long awaited and very mediocre Freddy vs Jason (though certainly better than either of the two Alien vs. Predator films). The Final Destination series would get its start and barring the fourth installment, they were remarkably consistent in quality. Granted that quality was merely fine with a couple cool kills per installment as death caught up to each teen. The Hatchet series also started up, but the first installment was merely solid.
Resident Evil and Underworld may have taken different approaches to the screen with the former a zombie film based on the video games and the latter a vampires vs. werewolves story, but both launched within a year of another (2002/2003) in the action-horror genre with heavy and increasing amounts of CGI and most importantly, two badass female leads. They also shared the attributes of making a ton of money and not being very good, emphasizing the action part of action-horror. Other video game titles such as Doom and Silent Hill (an actually decent film) would see slightly lesser success while the video game horror titles Uwe Boll got his hands on would be cast into the pits of hell.
The last couple notable English-language titles are the notoriously bad remake of The Wicker Man, the extremely successful if not any good third attempt at I Am Legend, the more clever in theory Teeth, and the lame Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus which put the awful studio Asylum on the map and their brand of intentionally awful titles.
The English-language films are only one part of the horror scene as the new millennium brought a boom in foreign horror. Digital film and globalization made it easier to make and distribute films abroad, allowing countless nations that had never produced a horror film before or one of any stature to finally leave a mark. In addition, numerous changes in governments, enabled more freedom to produce the films in many of the countries where making a horror film (or any for that matter) had been impossible.
The most famous nation during this period was Japan, whose film had become the principal foreign target for pillaging by American studios. I’ve already hit a few already, but the highlight of their efforts was Takashi Miike’s remake of The Quiet Family, the musical comedy complete with stop motion and karaoke and all sorts of other delightful madness The Happiness of the Katakuris. The country would also produce Sion Sono’s Suicide Club which would receive a sequel in Noriko’s Dinner Table, the supernatural horror Ju-on: The Grudge (actually the third in the series) and Dark Water, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s tech horror Pulse, and a pair of Godzilla films in the very good Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack and alright Godzilla: Final Wars.
Elsewhere in Asia, as part of South Korea’s overall establishing film industry, the three most prominent directors would each make a horror title in Kim Jee-woon’s wonderful looking and well-acted psychological horror A Tale of Two Sisters, Bong Joon-ho’s metaphorical kaiju movie The Host which peaks early, and Park Chan-wook’s unconventional vampire film Thirst. I’ll also throw in a notice for Nepal’s Monkey’s Paw adaptation Kagbeni which we covered earlier this year.
Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro would direct one much more traditional horror film in the fantastic Spanish Civil War set gothic horror film The Devil’s Backbone. His 2006 dark fantasy masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth often gets tied to the genre and as eager as I am to cast a wide net for horror, it’s not a distinction I generally make. Other great Spanish horror films (while del Toro is Mexican, both films were filmed and set in Spain) include To Let (the highlight of the otherwise solid 6 Films to Keep You Awake collection of TV films) and the time loop film Timecrimes. Hungary would make the messed up Taxidermia while Norway would contribute the amusing Nazi zombie film Dead Snow. It would be Sweden however that would make the decade’s best horror title in the romantic vampire drama Let the Right One In from Tomas Alfredson which is an incredibly sweet, beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted bit of horror.
Three… Extremes was actually a sequel to an earlier lesser known film Three from 2002. Both films share the same format however being anthology films from three Asian countries. The first of these films Dumplings would be made by Hong Kong director Fruit Chan, director of Made in Hong Kong and Durian Durian. It also would be expanded into feature film length though I can’t say that I watched that extended version as well. Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) buys dumplings from a woman known as Aunt Mei (Bai Ling). The dumplings are said to make the skin great but taste terrible.
SPOILERS1 The story is the kind of fucked up I was hoping for with those awful slurping sounds made while Mrs. Li eats up the dumplings only adding to it. Bai Ling’s cheery performance adds the appropriate amount of dissonance though the (as is not uncommon with many of Asian horror titles) unusual choices of music undoes a lot of the atmosphere.
South Korea’s Park Chan-wook (then known for Joint Security Area, and the first two thirds of The Vengeance Trilogy) goes next with Cut and surprisingly his is the weakest of the bunch. After a couple fakeouts with a woman feasting on the neck of an older man and then melodramatically acting it up only for it to be revealed to be a movie within a movie and then the smooth camerawork and unbroken shot giving way to that distinct terrible handheld cinematography (an opening I’m convinced was added only to tease us with how it could have been worse), we get to our movie proper. A director returns home and after his lights go out, someone drinks his disgusting veggie smoothie, and he’s knocked out.
He wakes up tied up by the waist while his pianist wife’s fingers are tied with piano wire to the piano on the set. An extra from five of his films resents that he has everything and is also a good man, offers to let the wife go if the director kills someone, some random girl he picked up. There’s some amusement to be had from watching the extra dance about, reenacting his roles, SPOILERS2, but his schtick grows old and the segment outlasts its welcome. There’s some nice surreal imagery SPOILERS3 and most of is shot well, but it’s not enough to make the story interesting.
The extremely prolific Takashi Miike is last up with Box. After a woman dreams of a box being buried outside in the snow, she wakes up and hands off her handwritten manuscript. Upon discovering a music box, opening it, and playing it, she starts seeing her twin sister with whom she performed in a dark, creepy, yet colorful circus as a youth. SPOILERS4
The segment has long periods of silence from characters, even periods where there is almost no sound at all. It’s also the one that works best, tying the whole story up into metaphor in the end SPOILERS[footnote]with the twin sisters being both still alive and conjoined twins and it all a dream. The “it’s all a dream” feels less a betrayal considering the whole segment’s dreamlike feel, the emphasis from the start on pointing out the dream aspects of the story, and the hints to the conjoined nature. It’s also the most stylistically impressive between those colorful circus scenes, the stark snowy shots, and more and Miike is assured throughout about his tone and story.
Calling it Three…Extremes does the film a disservice since it isn’t a particularly extreme movie. There are certainly some taboo and probably shocking to some moments throughout, but if you are looking for something that pushes boundaries, there are far better Asian examples from the period (including from Miike). Strictly as a horror movie though, like just about every anthology it was uneven, but two of the three were really good and the third was still alright which is about as much as you can hope for from one.
Bonus Episode #35 – A – 1940s: Night Monster (1942)
Directed by Ford Beebe
Largely a remake of Doctor X complete with Lionel Atwell as a Doctor. At a home called The Towers located on a foggy swamp (for bonus gothic horror points), mysterious experiments being conducted in utmost secrecy. Something has been seen walking around at night and there has been a number of murders in the area with no explanation. Three doctors have been brought in to help the leader of the house, who has been confined to a wheelchair, walk again while a mystery writer and a female psychiatrist also arrive at the house, the former taking the latter there after her car broke down.
A woman has been locked away in the place and there are constant attempts to try to dissuade people from seeing her, telling them that she doesn’t want to see them most notably by the housekeeper Miss Judd and the butler played by Bela Lugosi. In addition, one of the people staying in the house is mystic who uses his mind to disassemble and reassemble objects to change the rate of vibration in substances. One by one, the doctors wind up dead as the film switches to a whodunnit.
With this film, I’ve now seen one bonus film from each decade and I can safely say it is a movie. Even beyond Doctor X, the film shares so much in common with countless other films of the period and they just all start to blend together. The horror elements are slight and it’s just a mediocre entry in the genre. That’s not a bad thing for those like me that love these Universal horror films, it’s just not one to specifically track down.
Next up: Anna Biller’s retro The Love Witch