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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Five contemporary horror movies to scream about

Published: October 14, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

When people think of good horror movies—as opposed to the cliched schlock that is thrown at us so often—they think of such classics as 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” and 1973’s “The Exorcist,” a movie that will prevent me from sleeping if I think about it too close to bedtime.

These days, most “horror” movies are either just gross, like the “Saw” franchise, or just stupid, like the “Saw” franchise.

There have been, however, some truly terrifying and superb horror movies in the past 10 years. Here are five.

“The Others” is probably going to be the best movie on this list. The 2001 film from director Alejandro Amenábar was stylish and understated. The movie, set in Jersey toward the end of World War II, follows Grace, played perfectly by Nicole Kidman (before she got that atrocious plastic surgery), as she struggles to maintain the manor house with her husband away at war while caring for her two children, who suffer from photosensitivity, a deadly allergy to the sun.

Just as Grace hires three new servants to replace those that abandoned her, odd things begin to happen. It appears that her home is haunted and these ghosts are not friendly. We do not see the ghosts; there is no gore. We hear loud noises off-screen and listen as characters recount their paranormal experiences. This only adds to the suspense though and it brings a stylish classiness to the film that many films today are lacking.

The best part of this movie, however, is not the talented Kidman but the young actress who plays her daughter. Alakina Mann, who was only 10 years old during filming, shines as Anne, the rebellious child who interacts with the ghosts most often. Often children in films—especially horror films—are painful to watch. They tend to be poor actors whose main job is to whine and cry. Mann does not do this. Plain and simple, she is eerie; she is precocious, yet not overly precocious.

Also, the ending of this movie is to die for. It is truly a must-see.

“The Descent,” a British movie, is director Neil Marshall’s 2005 all-out horror-fest and probably used all of the unused gore from “The Others.” The movie follows a group of adventurous young women as they go spelunking in a cave system that also inhabits—don’t freak out—subterranean man-eating creatures. It sounds stupid but is actually terrifying and very well done.

Admittedly, the first 20 minutes of the film are painfully slow as they attempt to set up camaraderie between the women. Upon first seeing this movie, I was scared the entire movie would resemble a chick flick. I was quickly reassured when they descended.

The mixture of the natural horrors of spelunking—lowering yourself into the darkness and squeezing through holes barely larger than you are—with the supernatural menace leave the audience with a rapid heart rate and the unfortunate affliction of jumping at every noise.

Perhaps the true brilliance of this movie is that the murderous cave-dwellers are never explained. We never find out what they are, what they want, etc. It is the mystery that truly terrifies us.

Unfortunately, 2006’s “Silent Hill,” from director Christophe Gans, did not follow this formula. Its rushed explanation of the odd happenings in the destroyed town of “Silent Hill” hurt the movie’s ambiance.

That said, “Silent Hill” is still a great movie and is truly enjoyable, despite being based on a video game. It follows a woman as she searches an abandoned mining town for her lost daughter. This is the film for those artsy people out there. The scenery and the special effects are simultaneously terrifying and breathtaking. As the scenes change from the eerie, white-washed dream-world that most of the movie occupies into a hellish, dark pit of fright at periodic times throughout the movie, one has to admire Gans’ mastery.

While the movie is not believable—and I am not talking about the hell monsters so much as the policewoman who wears tight leather and sunglasses at night—it is enjoyable and will get your heart beating.

Also, this is again a case where a young actress, Jodelle Ferland, does a phenomenal job and steals all her scenes rather than merely irritate the audience.

“The Mist,” a 2007 movie directed by Frank Darabont about giant creatures emerging from the mist and forcing the few survivors of this one town to take refuge in a supermarket, is surprisingly good for a movie based off of a Stephen King short story. Admittedly, as genius as Stephen King is, a lot of his better sheer horror novels and short stories do not translate into movies well—cough, cough, “Firestarter.”

“The Mist” capitalizes on many of King’s favorite tropes, such as the father-son relationship, the crazy religious lady and the mind-numbingly terrifying creature(s) slowly killing off the characters. But there is a reason that King uses these themes over and over again—they work!

Marcia Gay Harden is spectacular as the crazy religious lady. Her southern twang mixed with her stellar acting talent make her wholly believable. As she gains supporters and rants about how sacrifices must be made to appease God, she becomes more terrifying than the monsters outside the supermarket.

This movie nearly made the mistake of over-explaining that “Silent Hill” made but, at the last moment, a scene explaining all about where the monsters came from was cut. Thank you. The ambiguity keeps the audience from becoming bogged down by details and lets them instead focus on the terror.

Over-explanation seems to be a big problem for horror movies and it is certainly an error that 2008’s “Pontypool” made. This Canadian film from director Bruce McDonald falls victim to that by coming up with the most ridiculous explanation in the history of explanations to tell us why zombies have popped up and are attacking.

The first half of the movie, however, before the explanation begins, is heart-stoppingly scary. The movie follows some radio journalists as they slowly begin to hear reports from their outside reporter that people—not even identified as zombies—are behaving oddly. Slowly the tension builds as more and more reports come in. “Pontypool,” like “The Others,” gives us a lot of terror off-screen. For people who have been deluged by the in-your-face horror that many of today’s movies favor, this is welcome.

As I said, the second half of this movie falls down flat, dragged down by a bogus explanation, but the amazing first half makes it all worthwhile.

The classic horror movie is not dead, or even undead, although it has changed a great deal. There are still quality horror movies being made. Of course, your safest bet is probably just to go and watch “The Silence of the Lambs” or “The Exorcist.”