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This past weekend The Conjuring made waves with critics and audiences alike as the healthy buzz propelled it to the best ever opening for an original supernatural horror film. More importantly its quality mirrored its financial returns and stands as one of the nicest surprises for a horror fan all year. So with staying in that vein, let’s run down what we believe to be the 10 best supernatural horror movies between 2003 and this year.
While it may have spawned a blockbuster level remake in 2005 in the form of Sarah Michelle Gellar starrer The Grudge, it is the original Ju-On that’s worth a watch. Technically from 2002, it didn’t land stateside however until two years later in 2004 (so I’m allowing it). This Japanese import is a creepy piece of work and unlike the American reimagining it doesn’t collapse into laughable stupidity and likewise is more concerned with atmosphere and mood than blatant jump scares. It is somewhat perplexing seeing as how Takashi Shimizu directed both, but one can never underestimate the effects of an inflated budget and the influence of Hollywood. But I digress and will simply recommend you check out the original instead.
In 2010 director James Wan offered up a chilling ride to audiences with Insidious, and they responded by propelling it to a massive sleeper hit (nearly $100 million on a budget of around $1 million, folks). Unlike most of the higher grossing horror films of recent years Insidious didn’t attract attention because of big names or because it was the next instalment in a franchise but because it contained genuine chills, fantastic production and demon design and a third act, that while not as gripping as those before, contained substantial style and vision. If you can’t be completely lean, at least be creative. The potency of Insidious can be embodied in two very different scenes – two which could not be more different. One is a rare daytime fright that uses no sound but just an image to incite terror and the other one where we see nothing at all and get tense merely at what someone else is describing. Throughout, it’s a confident and effective exercise in dread.
8. Paranormal Activity
Another slam dunk sleeper hit and one of the most profitable movies ever made, Paranormal Activity single handily revived the found footage genre (for better or worse) and gave us one of the most stripped down and financially innovate efforts of all time. Using merely some ghostly footprints, bumps in the night and natural character reactions to what was unfolding, Paranormal Activity was able to instil a rare nervousness in audiences. The fact it was able to do so in such a stripped down way and with little aid in the form of a creepy setting or visually realized threat is a testament to the skill on display and the understanding of fear by director Oren Peli. I don’t need to say much more about this film; it spawned one of the biggest franchises ever created and is currently synonymous with the genre. But as is usually the case, the original reigns supreme.
A showcase for one of the best performances of John Cusack’s career, 1408 is a one man show demonstrating in nerve wracking detail the effects of psychological trauma. The famed (and possessed) room 1408 is as much a character as Cusack’s Mike Enslin, manifesting every kind of encounter ranging from spooky to downright bloodcurdling. But as I just iterated, it is the acting from Cusack that sells everything this fright flick is attempting to accomplish. Considering the fact that he has nobody in which to share this experience except his own subconscious and he must relay emotion through his face and often not words, it’s a fantastic accomplishment and one that makes the audience more on edge because of it.
6. The Awakening
So far under the radar it could be likened to a subway car, last year’s The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West seemed to be seen by nobody, which is as damn a shame as I can express. As is the case with even the best of this corner of the horror genre, The Awakening is assembled from familiar parts but thanks to its gothic period setting, excellent and well rounded performances and a surprising twist that doesn’t insult but rather shocks and leaves viewers with some intriguing questions. Hall is certainly the standout and like all great performances in films of this nature she is required to quietly emote and coupled with her backstory, evolution and eventual catharsis it makes for a fleshed out character that we genuinely care about. If you have never heard of this film you are likely not alone but it is because of this I urge you to seek it out.
5. Drag Me to Hell
A triumph of the use of sound and of using general grossness to still evoke fright, Sam Raimi slapped in the face everyone who thought his stint with Spider-Man had made him a mere shadow of the man he was during his Evil Dead days. In every way in fact does he perfect the brand of horror in which he started and crafts a gratifying, creepy, funny and, again, disgusting camp fest, but one with great acting, inspired visuals and the type of conclusion that in my mind at least warrants a (very different) sequel. Drag Me to Hell proves that an R rating is not needed for shock scares, nor does a PG-13 rating mean that the film must feel stunted and incomplete, only that it takes a dedicated and competent director to pull all the correct (and fun) elements together.
4. The Woman in Black
Truly traditional ghost stories are a dime a dozen these days, having been replaced by "boo scare" laden retreads, torture porn and most recently, found footage fare. The Woman in Black is one of the best straight horror entries of the decade and succeeds on all fronts. It offers strong performances from its lead and supporting cast, a fantastic sense of space and atmosphere and ample frights to keep the viewer riveted. Better yet, it manages to avoid the last-act implosion that plagues so many entries from this genre and instead ramps up before its fittingly melancholy conclusion. While there are jump scares to be found, most of the frights announce themselves before the payoff, relying instead on the mood of the scene and creepiness of the antagonistic spirit to bring the terror. The disturbing scenes containing rather gruesome child death only serve to make this a bleaker and more potent old school horror fable.
Unsettling is truly the best word to describe Sinister as to its very core this demonic tale implants itself under our skin and festers there like an itch that can’t be satisfied. What Sinister does best is maintain tension for extended sequences. Even when it’s building its characters or unravelling the mystery, we’re biting our nails because we know the tenseness is bound to return soon. The pagan deity known as Bagul, who serve’s as this film’s boogeyman, is only shown in fleeting instances, usually from afar on a blurry Super-8 film reel zoomed in upon, and rarely shown in crisp entirety. That decision makes this creature truly seem like something ghostly and not of this world. The acting is excellent, the score (from those behind Drag Me to Hell) is unique and fitting, the directing is crisp and artful and most importantly the film as a whole will leave you with a painful lump in your stomach.
2. The Conjuring
Yes, you’re reading this correctly. Last weekend’s horror treat nearly snagged the title as the best supernatural horror film of the last decade, the full review of which you can read here. I won’t reiterate what I’ve just recently stated in my analysis of James Wan’s triumph (a man who has now made two appearances on this list by the way) and will simply say this is a film that understands the nature of fear and executes it in a way that understands how to craft masterful cinema.
1. The Orphanage
J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage is a masterpiece of horror, not just because of its effectiveness as a piece of art that is meant to incite fear but due to its deft understanding of human emotion, tragedy, loss and fear, not just of what lies beyond the basement door but of the unknown. The Orphanage is just a horror film in the way Pan’s Labyrinth is just a fairytale or The Dark Knight is just a superhero movie. Rarely has a film of this nature concluded in such an effectively bittersweet way, capping off preceding acts that offer raw human emotion, tension, scares and ghoulish, sometimes gruesome imagery. Everything combines to create what can only be described as an experience – an immersive journey of fear and yearning, feelings that will stay with you for some time afterwards.