A new golden age of horror movies

, | Features

Last year Tom and I spent the month of October covering 30 years of horror movies, from the first red blood in a Hammer film on through to the dusty desert vampires of Near Dark. We covered the rise of the genre into the modern era and mainstream acceptance. We wrote about some of the most influential, interesting, and (hopefully) frightening films of that time period and really enjoyed talking about them with folks in the comments and on the forums. For this October, I figured we would pick up where we left off in 1987, and bring you a bunch of great horror movies from that year on through the 1990s.

There was just one problem with that. The 1990s were the worst decade for horror movies in the history of cinema.

After the jump, a single week turns the tables

By the end of the 1980s horror movies had become formula-driven genre chum, mostly cynical and pointless sequels cranked out for tired franchises. Contributing to the decline was how prominently irony and post-modernism held sway in pop culture. The single most popular horror film of the decade was Scream, a movie more interested in being self-referential than frightening. Nothing is a greater enemy of experiential fear than irony.

It sure didn’t seem that change was in the air at the start of the summer of 1999. The most interesting thing on the release schedule was the long-anticipated release of Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. The Mummy dominated the first half of the season, and American Pie looked like the sleeper hit of the latter half. Into all that, Dreamworks had slotted a big budget horror movie for late July, a remake of a 1963 film called The Haunting.

The new version of The Haunting would be directed by Jan de Bont, still a hot name in Hollywood even a few years removed from his speeding bus movies. The cast was solid. The idea behind the remake was easy to grasp. The original 1963 Haunting was an exercise in controlled fear. Constrained by a limited budget, it used sound and atmosphere to create scares rather than elaborate (and expensive) practical effects. The 1999 version would change all that. With stacks of cash to burn, de Bont would gleefully give his audience a full on, garish haunted house bonanza stuffed to bursting with computer generated visual effects.

The Haunting opened on July 23rd of 1999 to almost universal critical derision. It did well enough at the box office for a week or so, but horror fans were distraught. The movie was a rank, indulgent, excessive mess. The special effects were hilariously overdone to the point of self-parody. The script was dreadful, and a fairly talented cast seemed bewildered about what sort of movie they were in.

That could’ve been that, really, a last nail in the horror movie coffin amid an expensive trainwreck (it certainly ended de Bont’s career as an A-list director). It might’ve been, except for plucky independent film distributor Artisan Entertainment. They’d seen a horror film at Sundance that year that had a different feel to it. It set its audience abuzz with genuine, irony-free fright. After acquiring distribution rights to the film, they noted well that The Haunting was scheduled for July 23rd. Smartly deciding to put their little indie horror picture into select theaters the following week, they made the calculus that folks would see the big studio blockbuster and still be in the mood for a real scare the following weekend. Maybe they’d check out the indie flick.

That’s how a revolution happened, though I doubt even Artisan realized it at the time. If The Haunting remake nearly killed the horror genre, the truckloads of cash the Blair Witch Project made gave it new life. It wasn’t just the smart premise of the film, or the low cost of creating it, though those things helped. It also wasn’t the brilliant online viral marketing that created an electric pre-release buzz about the film in the weeks before it opened (years before social media, too) but that helped as well. What really set The Blair Witch Project apart and revitalized the horror genre was just how un-ironic it ended up. We’ll talk more about it in a bit, but what really separated it from what came before was that Blair Witch meant everything it showed the audience, often with almost uncomfortable sincerity.

The Blair Witch Project threw open the gates and heralded a new age in the genre. Horror audiences set out looking for more legitimately scary movies like it, and films from non-Hollywood sources began to crop up all over. When the September 11th attacks brought very real horror into our living rooms, it also dismissed the final vestiges of irony as a mainstay in popular culture. Perhaps partly because of that removal (and certainly assisted by the rise of streaming movie services like Netflix) the years since have seen a large and growing audience for the genre re-emerge. They’ve been treated to some of the finest films in horror history.

Over the next 31 days of October we’ll once again revisit a horror movie each day, the best and scariest chosen from this modern golden age. Thanks to the generosity of some of the QT3 forum’s horror movie aficionados, we’re actually taking a bit of a team approach to talking about the films this go ’round. Bill Cunningham, Jason McMaster, Rob Morton, Grandy Peace and Barac Wiley will be writing about these movies with me for the next month. Think of it as a Horror Movie Treehouse that we’ve built, and you’re all invited to join us! We hope you’ll grab some cider and a handful of candy corn make yourself comfy. We’ll discuss and argue about the movies we’ll be featuring, hopefully with a few good shivers thrown in as well.

Our list of movies was largely driven by regular visitors here at Quarter To Three. A month or so ago, I asked the forum denizens to give me their best scary films of the last 15 years. At one point we had nearly 100 movies under consideration! Amazingly, almost all of them were better than anything that came out in the late 1980s or 1990s. We finally, (often contentiously) pared the list down to 31 movies that are hopefully representative of many sub-genres and chosen from creative forces from around the globe. I can’t think of any better way to get into the Halloween mood this month.

Oh! You need to know what 31 films we’ll be watching and writing about! Here’s our list (in the order we’ll watch them) of some of the very best movies of horror cinema’s modern golden age.

1. The Blair Witch Project
2. Audition
3. Ginger Snaps
4. Session 9
5. Frailty
6. The Ring (US)
7. Ju On the Grudge
8. May
9. 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later
10. A Tale of Two Sisters
11. Shutter
12. Shaun of the Dead
13. The Call of Cthulhu
14. The Descent
15. [REC]
16. The Orphanage
17. Lake Mungo
19. Let the Right One In
20. Splinter
21. Paranormal Activity
23. Cabin in the Woods
24. House of the Devil
25. The Pact
26. Berberian Sound Studio
27. Resolution
28. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh
29. You’re Next
30. The Banshee Chapter
31. Trick R Treat