FIVE FILMS FROM...2002
28 DAYS LATER
(Directed by Danny Boyle)
'More infected will be coming. They always do.'
Depending on opinions, the first film to feature "fast zombies" (i.e. not the shambling corpses that Romero populated the world with in his original Dead trilogy) was either Nightmare City (1980) or Return of the Living Dead (1986). You could get into that particular argument and the baffling notion of which is "best" or more "realistic" all bloody day. Having said that, many genre fans associate the emergence of zippy cadavers with this modern classic (BTW: Can something that's 20 years old be called "modern"? Christ, we feel old!). Although, technically speaking, those afflicted with this condition aren't actually dead as such, leading to the popular sub-genre of zombiedom with streets running rampant with hordes of "The Infected" rather than stumbling stiffs with a flesh fetish. All that aside, this wonderfully quirky and game-changing horror was directed by Boyle in a somewhat surprising move after Trainspotting and The Beach. It has a great Brit cast, including; Cillian Murphy (A Quiet Place – Part II), Naomie Harris (the James Bond movies), and Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave).
It all begins with a well-meaning but ultimately clueless group of animal activists releasing a chimpanzee from a research centre. Twenty-eight days later (so there's that title), Jim (Murphy) wakes from a coma in a London hospital after a road accident. He is absolutely confounded by the fact that the entire capital city seems to be now deserted, and he appears to be alone. After some very eerie sequences (especially if you know London well), he discovers that the entire country has succumbed to an accelerated virus called "Rage", courtesy of Mr Chimp at the beginning. It turns people into animalistic individuals driven to violently attack anything that moves, although they mostly enter a hibernation state during the day. Jim finds other survivors as he attempts to survive in this crud new world and avoid infection. He also finds out that just because some people aren't infected, it doesn't mean they can't still be monsters…
In all honesty, 28DL was a ground-breaker and as much of an influence on the global zombie phenomena as Shaun of the Dead, which is a continual source of pride in Brit genre fans. Its fresh take on the apocalypse scenario drew not only on the lore of Romero's Dead trilogy but also on other classic sources such as The Day of the Triffids and grim UK sci-fi such as the BBC TV shows Survivors (1975) and Threads (1984), which showed how humanity would continually screw itself even after society had collapsed. It was also given a documentary-type feel to it due to the use of 16 mm and compact digital cameras and inventive location shooting, which is eerily effective. In fact, the scenes of Jim wandering through deserted London streets and past iconic landmarks became a benchmark for end-of-the-world cinematic atmosphere and a basis for the imagery used to market the movie. Today, this sort of stuff would generally only be attempted with CGI or studio shooting. That being said, an awful lot of the film's memorability also comes from confrontations with the massed infected.
Assisted by a superb soundtrack from John Murphy and artists like Brian Eno, some of the sequences are brilliantly mounted. These include; a lone rage zombie arising from a mass of bodies in a church, Jim pursued down a street by a sprinting zombie that's engulfed in flames, a single drop of blood falling from a height and instantly dooming a sympathetic character, and much more. It also works so well because of the many layers of subtext to it. Yes, it's a straightforward horror thriller, but it can also be read to contain comments on such issues as; the naivety of some liberal movements, the shifting moral compass of society, the dangers of authoritarianism, and the fear of global isolation, and much more. For all the saliva-spitting and frenzied attacks, Christopher Eccleston's military figure simply whispering "slow down" is a real gut punch. Whilst all that might seem a little pretentious, the film isn't, and it's a real white-knuckle ride, punctuated by small moments of solemnity and dignity. Probably for that reason, out of the three proposed conclusions that were filmed, it was the most positive one that made the final cut… and it's needed to be honest. A real genre (and UK) classic that should be on any horror fan's must-see list.
Fun Fact: Stephen King is a huge fan of the film. He bought out an entire showing of the film in New York City for a special screening and even reused some lines intentionally for parts of Doctor Sleep.
(Directed by Neil Marshall)
'It's that time of month.'
While the werewolf movie has some benchmark moments, mainly An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, there are many exploitation furry-fiend films that have since faded from memory and never made so much as a ripple in the horror market. Happily, this was not the case with this wonderfully straightforward and well-filmed Brit-flick, which is fondly remembered by all those who saw it on the big screen back in the day. This is especially true in the UK, where it is strongly regarded as a cult film. The first full-length feature film to be directed by Marshall, it very nearly headlined Jason Statham and Simon Pegg! That said, it does have two fine classic British actors in the form of Liam Cunningham and Sean Pertwee. It partially came about as a way to flip the bird at the awfulness of the much-loathed sequel An American Werewolf in Paris and to harken back to the glory days of practical FX and outrageous gore. And it certainly does that with gusto!
A group of badass UK soldiers are engaged in a SAS training exercise in the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands (although, for tax reasons, it was actually shot in Luxembourg). Unfortunately, instead of army games, they find dead remains … of the SAS team. Sergeant Wells (a great sweary Pertwee) is attacked by some kind of animal and pretty much eviscerated, although he manages to keep breathing. The group finds a SAS survivor called Ryan (Cunningham) and finds sanctuary in a deserted farmhouse. Unfortunately (again), the aforementioned abode is lair to a family … who all happen to be werewolves and get a kick out of eating hikers and turning the occasional traveller into lycanthropes like themselves. But these army guys aren't going down without a fight.
Great, great fun. DS is an unashamed treat that pampers to the needs of the average British horror fan and doesn't feel the need to apologise for it. There is practically no CG, and all the werewolves are basically actors with prosthetic canine heads, very close to the ones glimpsed in The Howling. But it works tremendously, and any shortcomings are diffused by good editing and lighting. It's also helped by the decision that Marshall made to use male dancers as the villains, giving some statuesque elegance to their movements and some malevolent edges to the violence. It's also very bloody. One character literally has their guts hanging out for most of the film, and other cast members have their heads very slowly bitten off or bleed out in imaginative ways.
Admittedly, it's not exactly Shakespeare, and some of the plot twists wave at you from several miles away, but it does exactly what it says on the tin, and you won't need to keep the receipt. It is also gloriously British, having that sense of bravado, foul language, and dumb randomness that makes you feel proud to be from Blighty. There's an awesome fistfight (Yup. Fist. Fight.) between a squaddie and a towering werewolf, along with several other comparable confrontations, explosions, and bullets galore. Add that to some inspired lines that acknowledge other films ("There is no spoon") and are brilliantly judged in their own right ("I hope I give you the shits!"), and you've got the perfect recipe. Sadly consigned to the Sci-Fi channel for its US premiere, it has since picked up more fans worldwide, meaning that a forthcoming Blu-Ray release has been met with enthusiasm in the community.
Fun fact: Some of the corpse prosthetics seen in the cellar were actually created for "Event Horizon" (1997) and can be glimpsed in that film. They've aged pretty well.
(Directed by Guillermo Del Toro)
'You obviously do not know who you are fucking with!'
Given the reputation that the Oscar-winning director has now, it's kind of weird to reflect on this superior comic-book sequel that he made twenty years ago. Most loathers of the superhero/comic-book genre will point to Tim Burtons Batman, Richard Donner's Superman, or the X-Men franchise for kick-starting the MCU and the proliferation that now dominates multiplexes. In actual fact, it was Stephen Norrington's Blade in 1998 and its box-office takings that really started the ball rolling. It convinced the major studios that relatively unknown comic-book characters provided lucrative material for their movies, something which Marvel Studios used as a foundation for their shared-universe schtick and is starting to grate somewhat now. More importantly, for us at least, it also proved that these types of films could be expanded from "family-film" restrictions… and kick some bloody ass. This sequel followed that concept and is one of the few times del Toro wasn't involved directly in the screenplay of a film that he made. However, along with a returning Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson, del Toro's regular bud-meister Ron Perlman and Luke Goss (from Bros!) also star.
Building on the first film's narrative, where Blade (Eric Brooks … no, really, that's his genuine name … played by Snipes) continues his quest as the half-vampire "Day-Walker" and is trying to wipe out the vampire civilisation and co-exists with the unknowing humans. However, in a particular genius hook, a mutant strain of vampirism has broken out in a … *ahem* … "pandemic" and threatens both the survival of "normal" vampires and humans. The bestial "Reapers", with Predator-like mouths containing a tentacular appendage and mandible "stingers", are multiplying quickly and led by the tragic figure of Nomak (a surprisingly good Goss). So the vampire nation forges an uneasy alliance with Blade, forming a "Blood Pack" of mercenaries into the bargain. So it's basically The Dirty Dozen meets Dracula with a touch of Dawn of the Dead. Sorta.
This could have been crap, and most mainstream critics of the day thought it was. Instead, it rocks as much as any mainstream horror-action film should do and is easily the best of the "Blade" trilogy of movies. There are a few solid reasons for this. Del Toro might not be stretching his artistic talents here, but his frantic visuals and the cinematography is absolutely on point. The fact that the legendary Martial Arts star Donnie Yen is one of the "Blood Pack" and also helmed the fight choreography is another pointer as to why the fight scenes are so fluid and awesome. Also, the plot is interesting and unique for a vampire movie. The Reapers make great antagonists, having developed immunity to garlic and silver and even armoured ribcages to prevent stakings. It's all about the UV. They also have green blood, which is much better for an R-rating even when they explode at the point of death.
One of the main criticisms at the time was that the characterisation is paper-thin, and that's mostly valid. There's no development of Blade himself, and he feels almost like a supporting character at times. He does lose some of his hostility towards the more noble version of the vampires due to a near-romance with Nyssa (Leonor Varela), but otherwise, it's still flip-kicking and bad one-liners again. There's more emphasis on sympathy for Nomak and the horrific nature of the Reapers themselves, who are pretty gnarly and spill mucho blood throughout the movie. The addition of the fractious "Blood Pack" and other characters such as Scud (played by a nothing-like Daryl, Norman Reedus) is more entertaining, as are the ridiculous gadgets and endless gymnastics shown in nearly all fight scenes. Del Toro also sees fit to play up some OTT Shakespearian elements with father vs son tragedy, villains killing themselves, and heroes dying for the greater good. Mostly though, it's good mindless, gory fun with a kick. If you only see one Blade film, this is the one…
Fun Fact: According to IMDB, over 30 members of the cast and crew were temporarily blinded by the UV lights being used incorrectly during the autopsy scene.
THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES
(Directed by Mark Pellington)
'You noticed them, and they noticed that you noticed them.' Take a quick scan of most people's horror collections (and I have an entire bookcase dedicated to that cause) and you won't find too many 12A rated films on there - Jaws (1978) and a host of Universal classics aside. Still, there are a few standout entries to note. Signs (2001 - which we will talk about next) The Others (2001), Ghostwatch (1992), The Village (2004), Monsters (2010), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). They are all films that manage to walk that fine line between horror movie and 'suitable for older children', which is no easy task. Due to limitations on gore, violence, swearing and sex – a lot of these films rely on atmosphere and suggestion. Whilst never being scary enough to give most of us nightmares (although Ghostwatch did keep us awake at night for a while when we saw it back in the day), these films all give us just enough to satisfy our horror cravings. And you know another film that you can chuck into this rather exclusive list? The Mothman Propehecies!
The film is based on a 1975 book of the same name, written by journalist and Ufologist John Keel. He investigated a series of strange events that took place during the mid 60s that featured a large winged creature, which was labelled 'The Mothman'. Whilst the film isn't about the investigation that Keel conducted, it uses the titular Mothman as inspiration and even sets it in Point Pleasant, Virginia – which is where the original reports originated from. Richard Gere plays a Washington Post reporter called John Klein, who tragically loses his wife after a freak accident reveals that she has a brain tumour, to which she quickly succumbs to. After she has passed, he discovers a sketchbook she had in hospital which is filled with creepy-ass drawings of a weird giant moth-like creature with red eyes. Fast forward two years and whilst driving, John inexplicably loses several hours of time and soon discovers that he is in the sleepy West Virginia town of Mount Pleasant. His car breaks down and he is forced to walk to the nearest house to get help. However when the front door opens John is greeted with a man aiming a gun at him. Apparently this is the third night in a row that John has woken him up in the early hours asking to use his phone because his car has broken down. A local Police Officer (played by Laura Linney) diffuses the situation and whilst giving John a lift to the nearest motel, informs him that lots of strange things have been happening in the town these last few weeks – with some people reporting having seen a giant moth-like creature...with red eyes. John decides to stick around in Point Pleasant in an effort to get some answers...
This is probably one of the eeriest films of the 2000s. Director Mark Pellington had his budget cut by a few million just days before shooting began and this added to the 12A rating mean that not only do we not get any viscera or gore, we don't really get much in the way of Visual FX either. As a result, we aren't offered up some shonky CGI mothman (well, we get the occasional glimpse). Instead, the film relies almost entirely on suggestion and asks the audience to conjure up all the scary stuff inside our own heads, which let's face it, are quite often dark and scary places. Through a mixture of drawings, witness accounts, flashbacks, sound design and phone-calls, Mothman carefully sheds a woozy, creepy, paranoia inducing atmosphere than is difficult to shake once the end credits are done. It's as much a mystery drama/thriller as it is an outright horror and upon its release it probably disappointed certain viewers who were after a straight up monster movie. This isn't that. It's much more cerebral. It's about death and grief and the randomness of events and our powerlessness to stop them. But it's still bloody chilling at times. Pellington directs with real panache too and there are a handful of standout sequences that in different hands, might not be half as effective – the best possibly being the phone call between Richard Gere and the enigmatic Indrid Cold. 'They're in your shoe...under the bed'. (Urggghh, *shudders). Gere puts in a really accomplished performance as the tormented lead and gets solid back up in the form of Laura Linney and Will Patton.
The first half of Mothman is definitely superior to the second, but the climax is something of a spectacle. Pellington clearly reserved a lot of the budget for that sequence alone (well, along with Richard Gere's paycheque we're assuming). There's an emotional weight to it too, which isn't always the case with these types of films. If you go in hoping for a rollercoaster ride, you'll be disappointed but if you're up for some quietly creepy uncanniness, you'll dig this.
Fun fact: Indrid Cold is voiced by Director Mark Pellington.
(Directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
'There's a monster outside my room, can I have a glass of water?'
By 2002, Director M. Night Shyamalan was considered one of the most talented up and coming film-makers in the world. Both The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000) were commercial and critical hits and showed that he wasn’t a one trick pony. The former is undoubtedly a horror movie but the latter, a fascinating mix of sci-fi, drama and mystery. Shyamalan’s next effort, Signs, somehow managed to combine all of these elements and to great effect too. It’s a film that is often considered to be his last good film before the beginning of his fall from grace. The Village (2004) received a mixed reaction but it was The Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010) that really saw his stock fall. Since then films like The Visit (2015) and Split (2016) have seen him rediscover some form but he has yet to reach the dizzy heights of those first three biggies in our opinion. Signs, whilst maybe not as technically as accomplished as either The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, is still so much fun. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former priest who has lost his faith since the tragic death of his wife in a car accident. Struggling to look after his two young children on his rural Pennsylvania farm, his younger brother Merrill has moved in with them to offer some support. Whilst the family tries to heal, some strange shit is going down on the family’s farm however. Namely, big ol’ crop circles randomly appearing in their cornfield. At first they attribute it to vandals but crop circles and lights soon begin to be reported on a worldwide scale. And when one night, Graham and Merrill pursue a possible vandal through one of their fields, they soon discover that they are up against something decidedly more otherworldly…
Anyone that has see The Visit (2015) will know that Shyamalan can mix humour and horror to great effect. To be fair, he does it in most of his genre films. Even The Sixth Sense has some occasional moments of levity. But Signs offers a type of wholesomeness that elevates its lighter and darker moments. Mel Gibson may be a very straight lead but the Hess family dynamic offers up some genuine laughs and some real warmth too. We like these people and their grief makes them all the more easy to root for. Joaquin Phoenix excels in a rare comedic role and Culkin and Breslin manage to be cute without falling into smart ass kid territory. Independence Day may have its alien invasion play out on a worldwide scale, but by focusing on one family and one family alone, Shyamalan keeps things intimate and personal. And with this comes a sense of peril, when things start to get weird. The film takes its time in slowly ramping up the sense of threat. Glimpses, weird sounds, shadows, hearsay – a lot of the horror in Signs is implied. A great score from James Newton Howard only adds to the sense of impending danger. When we do finally see 'them', it's worth the wait. The found footage segment that plays out on a news report is so well directed and still sends a shiver down your spine when I watch it 20 years on. Merrill's reaction to the clip is how we'd behave too, let's be honest. Despite the disarming family dynamic, Signs remains one of the scariest 12A rated horrors out there.
Is the ending a little saccharine? Yeah. Does it make a whole tonne of sense? Not really, no. It's imperfect, yet satisfying – which is pretty much a perfect summary of the entire film. It may not be Shyamalan's best, but it ain't far behind. And let's face it, a film where even someone like Mel Gibson has us rooting for him has got to be worth a watch.
Fun fact: The production used a new watering technique to make the corn grow faster, which the Delaware Valley agricultural college was then very keen to adopt for themselves.