Review Index

2001: The Year in Horror 

Much drama was had over the past year, but little of it on the movie screens.  I really hate to be a naysayer, but it was a pretty slow year, horror movie wise.

     In compiling a list of the best horror movies of 2001, I had to venture a bit outside the horror genre and include a few flicks that werenít labeled as such--but as youíll see, appearances can definitely be deceiving.  Youíll also see that, even if was a slow year, there were still enough good films out there (although they werenít always easy to find!) that the list went over my originally projected 10 entries.

     Now I, like you, have a life outside the movies, and so wasnít able to catch every horror flick released this year.  Hence, possible contenders like SLEEPLESS, SESSION 9 and JEEPERS CREEPERS remain unseen by me (for now).  On the other hand, the omissions of GHOSTS OF MARS, BONES, CRIMSON RIVERS, 13 GHOSTS, THE GLASS HOUSE and THE OTHERS (sorry, but a    decent Nicole Kidman performance, a stylishly rendered atmosphere and a $100 million plus box office take canít hide the hollowness at this filmís center) are most definitely not accidental!

     So here they are, my favorite horror flicks of 2001:

Proof, as if any were needed, that when David Lynch is ďonĒ nobody can beat him!  But who could have guessed that MULHOLLAND DRIVE, a failed 1999 TV pilot stretched into a two-and-a-half hour feature, would turn out to be Lynchís finest work since BLUE VELVET?  Itís a creepy, maddening, ferociously erotic, mind-bendingly bizarre masterpiece that contains many of Lynchís trademark obsessions--hot chicks caught up in a (literal) nightmare, amnesia, a sunny exterior concealing untold vileness and grotesquerie--but is ultimately unlike any other film made by Lynch...or anyone else!  Iím also pleased that so many mainstream critics have embraced it so heartily (it won the National Critics Associationís Best Picture award, and was even nominated for several Golden Globes).  Now if only those same critics would take another look at Lynchís vastly misunderstood LOST HIGHWAY, which if you ask me was nearly as fine.

The ďcrixĒ may have gotten MULHOLLAND DRIVE right, but they reeeeeally missed the boat with Sean Pennís THE PLEDGE!  I wasnít terribly impressed with Pennís previous directorial outings THE INDIAN RUNER and THE CROSSING GUARD, but he definitely hit his stride with this grim, grotesque, and deeply disturbing thriller, an unflinching depiction of madness and obsession--though apparently a bit too unflinching for most critics.  Of course, Columbia didnít do the film any favors by promoting it like a standard-issue cop caper (rather than the keenly wrought psychological horror story that it is).  Jack Nicholson gives his best performance in years (thankfully bereft of the grandstanding displayed in flicks like BATMAN and AS GOOD AS IT GETS) as a retired cop tracking a killer, based on a pledge he made to the grieving mother of a murdered girl.  This seemingly harmless vow takes on horrific dimensions as Nicholson lets it consume him, and Penn inverts all the values of the traditional policier--in this film the end does not justify the means, and this determined cop finds his sense of reality slowly ebbing away.  A sad, riveting and--yes--scary film.

3. (Tie) CURE and AUDITION
Two amazing--and amazingly grisly--thrillers from Japan.  CURE and AUDITION have taken some time to reach these shores (having been originally released in 1997 and 1999, respectively), but in both cases the wait was worth it.  On the surface, the two films couldnít be more different; CURE is a grim, brooding look into the dark side of the human psyche, while AUDITION is a diabolically clever, even comedic (depending on your sense of humor) take on modern relationships with some truly nasty shocks in the final third.  What these films have in common are structures of astonishing originality that manage to breathe new life into that most hidebound of horror subgeneras, the serial killer movie.  True, both have their share of annoyancesóAUDITION'S agonizingly protracted 90-minute build-up and CURE'S maddening refusal to ever explain itselfóbut remain the state of the art in modern horror, and confirm their respective directors Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa as among the most vital in any genre.

Now hereís something new: a feminist werewolf movie!  And it works smashingly well, with a wonderfully perverse sense of humor and a genuinely subversive storyline that portrays lycanthropy as an integral part (or possibly consequence) of the natural torments of adolescence.  An ingenious script that never shies away from the red stuff and excellent performances from a mostly pubescent cast make for one of the finest Canadian productions Iíve seen in years.  Hey, any movie that starts out with its heroines discussing the glories of suicide and taking snapshots of themselves covered in blood (a gambit that pays off stunningly in the filmís latter half) is a must-see in my book!

If John Hughes were to remake PSYCHO, the results might look something like DONNIE DARKO.  Itís a freaky, surreal, mind-expanding independent production about a misunderstood teen and his best friend, a six-foot talking rabbit.  Debuting writer-director Richard Kelly has created a blindingly original and totally assured mystery about illusion and reality, one whose ultimate ďexplanationĒ resides solely in the mind of the viewer.  The twisty, sci fi tinged climax can be read any number of ways, and managed to pique my interest in a way the yearís similarly themed (on the surface, at least) Kevin Spacey vehicle K-PAX didnít.  One thing is for sure: I strongly doubt Iíll be forgetting DONNIE DARKO any time soon (something I definitely canít say for K-PAX).

An unapologetic attempt at replicating Hollywood ďeventĒ filmmaking, this loud, aggressive, violent French production aims to please--and, for the majority of its running time, does.  Positing that a wolf who terrorized the French countryside back in the 18th Century was actually a giant spiked monstrosity under control of a freaky religious cult, it mixes MATRIX-like kung fu ass-kicking with gory monster movie action.  Sure, itís often long-winded and pretentious (it is a French film, after all!), but director Christophe Gans really knows how to do this stuff, and pulls off some of the yearís most satisfying action sequences.

I didnít much like Spanish horrormeister Guillermo Del Toroís previous film MIMIC (and Iím not exactly breathless with enthusiasm for his BLADE 2), but I canít deny the brilliance of this Spanish Civil War-set historical fantasy.  The story concerns a ghostly presence loose in a Catholic boarding school, one of the last standing refuges in a blitzed-out desert.  Frankly, I found the supernatural elements to be the filmís weakest; far better is Del Toroís flawless evocation of a war-torn Spain, as well as the unflinching brutality perpetuated by the schoolís charges.  This has to be one of the least sentimentalized (and hence, truest) portraits of childhood ever committed to celluloid--which, of course, is where the real horror resides.

For retro drive-in movie fun, you canít go wrong with the films of John Dahl (excepting his 1996 dud UNFORGETTABLE).  Early features like KILL ME AGAIN and RED ROCK WEST are virtual object lessons in how to make a neo noir, and this white knuckled thriller continues the tradition.  I usually HATE teenybopper horror movies, but Dahlís striking visual sense and unerring knack for suspense kept me riveted throughout this lean Ďn mean thriller about college dweebs on a nightmarish trip through the Nevada desert.  Featuring copious gore, car crashes, cute chicks, psychotic truckers, freaky voices on CB radios, barroom fights, a nighttime chase through a cornfield, and at least one large scale shoot-out--what more could one ask for?

This Jack the Ripper saga, loosely based on the acclaimed Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell graphic novel, is a mess--but what a striking mess it is!  The directors Allen and Albert Hughes (MENACE II SOCIETY) arenít exactly known for period horror movies, but theyíve conjured up a stunningly rancid evocation of 19th Century London.  The full-bodied, Tim Burton-esque world on display--of dark alleys, whores and pestilence--is definitely an eye-full--but that does NOT get Johnny Depp off the hook for his sleepwalking lead performance, or the script for its severely underdeveloped love story.

More fun from France!  In this quietly unsettling film from director Francois Ozon, Charlotte Rampling plays a woman whose beloved husband mysteriously vanishes one day.  Rampling consoles herself by pretending heís still around, even going so far as to carry on conversations with this apparition, who seems more real each day.  The story is a bit like that of the above-mentioned PLEDGE (Iíve long believed that if Pennís film were dubbed into French and subtitled, its critical reception would have been far more welcoming!), but told with an eerie matter-of-factness that makes its heroineís descent into madness all the more chilling.  Rampling should have won every acting award there is (of course she got none), as hers is probably the best female performance of the year (well, along with Naomi Watts in MULHOLLAND DRIVE).  The problem is that, like many European films, this one started production without a finished script, meaning it has a riveting first hour or so, but collapses in the final third and meanders toward an unsatisfying coda.

This 1999 Korean slasher had a VERY limited theatrical run here in the US.  Letís hope a DVD release is on the horizon, because this is powerful stuff: sleek, stylish and unflinchingly gruesome.  Itís a serial killer drama that, unlike CURE and AUDITION, does NOT manage--or even try--to transcend its subgenera.  Itís closer to BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF in the way it slavishly adheres to tried-and-true Hollywood formulas; but, like that film, itís such an impressively rendered piece of work that I was more than able to enjoy TELL ME SOMETHING on its own (admittedly limited) terms.

Steven Spielberg did the world a big favor by stepping down from the directorís chair for this, the third installment of his hugely successful dinosaur series, and handing the reins over to Joe Johnston (HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS).  What emerges is a far from great film, but still the best of the three, forsaking the kid movie pretentions of the others to proudly wear its B-movie pedigree on its sleeve.  Thankfully ignoring the concept of social responsibility, and stretching its PG-13 rating to the breaking point, this is one film that (to borrow a phrase from Stephen King) just wants to getícha!  Still, I canít help but wonder why Spielberg and co. didnít save themselves $90 million and just re-release THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.

This mega-budgeted Ridley Scott adaptation of Thomas Harrisí bestseller had some pretty imposing shoes to fill--its forerunners, after all, were Jonathan Demmeís SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and Michael Mannís MANHUNTER (the best of the three, IMO), both horror movie benchmarks.  Does it live up to such auspicious fare?  Nope.  At its best HANNIBAL is mildly diverting, but little else.  Still, I have to give this movie credit for its outrageous brain-snarfing, face-ripping, bowel-spilling thrills.  Itís been a long time since a big studio production went out of its way to terrorize audiences the way HANNIBAL does, and it inspired a number of hysterical commentaries by weak-stomached dorks pontificating about the downfall of Western Civilization.  If cinematic brain munching is enough to trigger the apocalypse, all Iíve got it say is: Bring It On!!!

     And so ends my list of the best horror movies of 2001.  I would, however, like to give one more recommendation, in the Honorable Mention category:

Yeah, you read that right: A.I., Steven Spielbergís flawed but fascinating--and vastly misunderstood--film initiated by the late, great Stanley Kubrick.  No, itís not a horror movie, but it is one of the yearís strangest and downright creepiest films, as well the most interesting Spielberg-helmed project since his similarly underrated 1987 J.G. Ballard adaptation EMPIRE OF THE SUN.  If you were put off seeing this one because of the woefully misleading advertising campaign (which made it look like E.T. GOES BACK TO THE FUTURE), then I urge you to check it out on DVD.  Yes, the film does have its mawkish side, but that doesnít obscure the very real sense of grief and longing at the storyís center, bequeathed by Kubrick, whose spirit clearly had no small influence on the finished product.

     So there you have it.  Hopefully this list will stand as an alternative to most of the others out there, whichóletís face itótend to be pretty much the same (film critics are among the most herdlike of all mammals).  Iím also hoping youíll be inspired to check out the above-listed films you might have missed.  Most are out on video and DVD by now--needless to say, youíre advised to jump on Ďem ASAP!

     As for 2002, I can only hope the rest of this yearís genre offerings are better than recent releases like THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES or RESIDENT EVIL (two flicks that will definitely NOT be making next yearís Best Of list!).  Otherwise Iíll have no choice than to agree with the views of the unnamed commentator mentioned in the HANNIBAL listing, that Western Civilization is indeed at an end, and the mothmen can have us!

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