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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

21st Century Terrors, Part 5: 2004

By the middle of the first decade of the century, the horror genre renaissance was in full effect. And perhaps no other single year was more indicative of this than 2004. A few specific movies were at the heart of it, and for various different reasons they all made a major impact on fans and critics alike. To a certain extent, we're still talking about them today as if they just came out, which is more indicative of their influence than anything.

Perhaps most ironically of all, the most beloved of these--and perhaps the most beloved horror film of the entire decade--was actually a horror comedy. Birthed from the minds of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg via their obsessive love of all things Romero, Shaun of the Dead was more than a movie--it was a movement. The zombie fad had been cooking for a couple of years already, but SOTD distilled it into a single, transcendent experience--a film that celebrated not only the zombie genre, but zombie fandom as well.

The misadventures of Shaun and Ed have since become iconic in a relatively short period of time. They were perhaps horror's finest comedy duo since Abbott & Costello tangled with the Frankenstein Monster. And the brilliance of the film was that it managed to be so genuinely funny while still being true to the genre it so blatantly worshiped. The movie works equally well as a zombie picture and as a romantic comedy, hence the now famous subgenre title, "rom-zom-com".

Shaun of the Dead was the kind of film that defines a generation of fandom, and without question represents horror in the 2000s for many people. Yet there is also another film which does that for others, and that's James Wan's Saw, the film that, for all intents and purposes, thrust the "torture porn" subgenre into the limelight (along with Hostel a bit later).

Yet ironically, the film itself doesn't quite conform to the stereotype of that subgenre, not having the trademark explicit depictions of graphic violence and sadism for the ostensible purpose of audience titillation. The original Saw, taken apart from its never-ending stream of sequels, is actually an imaginative, psychologically based thriller, which manages to put a unique spin on the slasher motif and packs one hell of a punch with its rollercoaster of a storyline.

Jigsaw is a character very much of his time, just as Dracula, Norman Bates and Freddy Krueger were of theirs. And his sinister m.o. of byzantine traps and warped morality--inspired strongly by the previous decade's Seven--definitely touched a nerve with audiences. Saw would go on to become one of the most successful franchises of the decade, becoming almost what Friday the 13th was for the 1980s--for better or worse.

The two giants of Shaun of the Dead and Saw gave horror a relatively high profile in 2004, but there was even more going on. For one thing, in addition to the Romero zombie parody, there was also a Romero zombie remake, in Zak Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. For a film that had a lot of ill will pointed toward it, Snyder's film made the most of it, and shut a lot of people's mouths in the process.

James Gunn's script upset many purists with its fast-moving zombies and the ejecting of most of Romero's social commentary, but the finished product can nevertheless stand on its own merits. It's an effective, energetic horror film with characters we can get behind, and quite possibly one of the most impressive opening sequences of all time. For a movie that seemed doomed to fail, Dawn of the Dead stands as one of the decade's triumphs.

Beyond the big triumphs, zombie cinema continued full speed ahead with no end in sight. We got the first sequel to the movie that arguably kicked off the whole craze, with Resident Evil: Apocalypse. And in addition to SOTD, there was another foreign zombie comedy, Night of the Living Dorks, which although far less inspired and extremely overrated, was another testament to the subgenre's worldwide staying power.

Sequels were also in full effect, as they always seem to be in our beloved genre. Yet just as with everything else in 2004, even the sequels seemed to stand out--although not always for the best reasons. Case in point: Aliens vs. Predator, a clunker of a film that managed to murder two adored franchises in one fell swoop. Although long followed enthusiastically by comic book fans, the battle of everyone's two favorite space monsters just didn't add up to cinematic magic.

It seemed like studios were anxious to bring back successful series and characters amidst the burgeoning interest in horror that was going on at the box office. The Child's Play franchise puttered on with Seed of Chucky, a subversive little flick that admittedly went in a completely bizarre and unique direction, delivering laughs as well as scares. Blade hit the wall with Blade: Trinity, a movie that proved that even horror comics aren't immune to the "third movie curse" of comic book franchises. Even the classic Universal monsters got back into the mix with Van Helsing, a poorly received action vehicle from Stephen Sommers, the same guy who resurrected the Mummy in similar fashion the 1990s.

And then there was the infamous Exorcist: The Beginning, the granddaddy of all troubled horror sequel/prequels. Looking to reap more financial rewards from the most successful horror film of all time, Warner Bros. commissioned a new film that would explore the origins of Father Merrin's relationship with the demon. Unfortunately, when Paul Schrader's version was a little too artsy for them, they brought in Hollywood mercenary Renny Harlin and created a whole different picture, which was a notorious disaster. In an unprecedented maneuver, Schrader's version would see the light of day the following year.

Leading the pack of foreign remakes was The Grudge, an American version of the acclaimed J-horror thriller of two years earlier. It seemed like a logical follow-up to the highly successful The Ring, yet failed to similarly capture the power of the original.

Yet don't let that mediocre final note fool you. The year 2004 was a banner one for horror films, and in some ways, it can be argued that it was highpoint of the decade.

Also from 2004:
  • Dead and Breakfast
  • Ginger Snaps Back
  • Ginger Snaps Unleashed
  • Satan's Little Helper
  • The Village
Part 1: 2000
Part 2: 2001
Part 3: 2002
Part 4: 2003


Anonymous said...

I don't think it's valid to saw that Saw thrust torture porn into the limelight. The term was coined a year by New York Magazine critic David Edelstein to describe Hostel. When Saw was first reviewed - in the mainstream and blog press - the phrase torture porn was never used. It seems clear nobody thought there was a new subgenre. Bloody Disgusting, for example, said it was "giallo through and through." It wasn't until the mainstream critics invented the term that genre fans started operating as if there was a distinct subgenre. And that didn't happen until Hostel came out.

B-Sol said...

That's very true, but I do think it sort of prefigured the subgenre in some way, even before people even realized it was part of a new subgenre. Just as I'm sure some of the earliest film noir films were not referred to as film noir, etc.

frgodbeyjr said...

Great post Brian! I tend to agree with you on most of what you said. I hate the subgenre labeled "torture-porn", I feel that throwing "sex" into a good horror movie doesn't do a thing for it. Saw was great without all the T&A of the 80's. Hostel didn't do a thing for me... 2/3's sex and one part torture. Predator had the best "monster" ever in a movie IMO. I used to hate PG 13 horror because it didn't have the "blood" in it that I like. But you know, the tension and fear in these movies has grabbed me and sucked me in. I still love my gore, but I appreciate being scared without all the blood now. Good post!

Anonymous said...

Though the question was did Saw bring the subgenre into the limelight? Since there was no genre to point to at that point, the characterization seems odd to me.

The film noir genre is a great analogy. Film noir wasn't recognized as a genre until the first wave of it was well over. What happened is that French reviewers - who had been starved of American cinema through the war and immediate post-war years - sudden saw all our late 40s and early 50s films at once. It was only in retrospect that these critics saw a darker, more brutal trend. Americans didn't notice it because we were like the proverbial frogs in the slowly heating pot, the change was too gradual to notice. The French connection explains why its the one American genre with a French label.

You couldn't say a specific film "brought film noir into the spotlight." There was no spotlight until later. The genre was created after the fact, when large body of work had been made without any thought to the idea there was such a genre.

Though it brings up an interesting question: Why did horror critics and bloggers utterly miss it? Mainstream critics spotted the trend and named long before the self-appointed monitors and custodians of the genre did.

Chet Of The Undead said...

Gotta agree with you on SOTD...it's a fantabulously good movie any way one chooses to cut it, from brains (the traditional choice ;) ) to brawns, to heart, to balls. It proves ONCE AND FOR ALL that Horror/Zombie fans can laugh with and sometimes at something they love.

Ze Blog here? I dig man! :)

deadlydolls said...

Great article and approach to the decade. I remember the first time I watched both Shaun and Saw, and feeling very much that these were a whole new type of film. Shaun remains one of those glorious experiences in cinema, where I felt like a movie had been made solely for me. For Saw, I had an awful Blockbusters DVD experience where my disc jammed up in the very last scene (go to imdb and view the message board to see me ask "So can anybody tell me what happens after Zed goes into the bathroom?"). Still, it was something innovative for its time, and I still argue it birthed a fine, if uneven, franchise that gets way too unfairly criticized by the horror community.

B-Sol said...

I'm with you on Saw, Emily. Gets a much worse rap than it deserves.

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