2008: The Year in Horror—Mike’s Best and Worst Movies

An archive from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · December 29, 2019, 6:53 PM EST
2008-Let the Right One In.jpg

This past year was a pretty damn good one for horror—as long as you didn’t depend on the mainstream. While most of the wide-release features conformed safely to formula, much more daring and interesting stuff was cropping up all over the art-house, festival and DVD scene.

Perhaps no better example can be drawn than the fact that while the bloodless, predictable Twilight was sucking millions of bucks out of tween girls at the multiplexes, the small Swedish import Let the Right One In, a modern classic on the same theme, was quietly knocking out audiences on a much smaller scale. Not everything the studios gave us in 2008 was negligible; a couple of titles from the majors made my top 10, and The Ruins and The Strangers would be among the runners-up. But there are far more indie features swarming like piranhas just below my list…

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (pictured above): The kind of genre masterpiece you hope to see at least one of every year, Tomas Alfredson’s remarkable adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel (scripted by the author) is a full-fledged, frightening horror tale that also explores a wealth of other emotions. As a bullied young boy and a shy bloodsucking girl forge a deep bond amidst heartstopping scenes of violence, the movie evocatively delves into the pain and loneliness of both childhood and vampirism. There weren’t a pair of performances, by children or adults, in the past 12 months better than those of young leads Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson.

[REC]: Technically a 2007 film, but one that (way too few) American audiences only got to see on the big screen in ’08. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza prove here that there’s still plenty of life (and death) left in the vérité-horror form, sending audiences on a camera’s-eye-view trip through hell, i.e. an apartment building where the residents succumb to a zombielike infection. The U.S. remake Quarantine recaptured some of its scares on a scene-by-scene basis, but couldn’t duplicate the sheer gibbering panic elicited by the original. (Special mention to The Orphanage, another superb Spanish film that began its U.S. release in very late ’07 but was seen by most U.S. fans in the subsequent months.)

STUCK: Stuart Gordon’s best film since From Beyond, and his funniest since Re-Animator. With the help of a razor-sharp script by John Strysik and a pair of pitch-perfect performances by Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea, he transcends the story’s ripped-from-the-headlines origins to deliver a gaspingly gory and hilarious account of a drug-addled young woman who smashes her car into a homeless man and leaves him impaled in the shattered windshield as she tries to figure out her next move. There’s a streak of sociopolitical commentary too, complete with the first genuinely amusing O.J. joke in at least five years.

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY: You want monsters? Guillermo del Toro’s got ’em. He loves them, too, which makes this more of a fantasy/action/drama than a horror film, since the writer/director encourages our empathy with, or at least understanding of, even the ghastliest supernatural beings with the most vicious motives. There are some “normal” people here too, but easily the most human moment sees the film’s red-skinned, hell-born hero and his fishman friend getting drunk and singing along with Barry Manilow to ease their aching hearts. All this plus one setpiece after another of knockout action in a fully imagined universe where the boundaries between the world we know and the realm of the occult are getting thinner all the time.

CLOVERFIELD: Some people argued that its protagonists weren’t sympathetic, but the true achievement of Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams’ found-footage epic is that it puts the viewer directly into the action, making you a sixth (then fifth…then fourth…) survivor trying to reach safety in a Manhattan under attack by a marauding monster. Flawless special FX of both the creature and its devastation (not to mention its icky, rapacious arthropod parasites) help keep the tension at a high boil throughout. Kudos also to Michael Giacchino’s music accompanying the lengthy end credits, a symphony of homage to the great kaiju composer Akira Ifukube.

TRICK ‘R TREAT: Probably fewer than 1,000 people got to see this film in its special screenings this past fall, and that’s a damn shame. No film since John Carpenter’s original Halloween has captured the creepy spirit of the holiday like writer/director Michael Dougherty’s anthology of intertwined All Hallows’ scenarios. Smart, stylish and jam-packed with grisly highlights, it’s now a proven crowd-pleaser and could easily kick the ass of any genre film put up against it in seasonally timed release. So what is Warner Bros. waiting for?

ROGUE: Writer/director Greg McLean’s long-delayed follow-up to Wolf Creek shoulda been a major theatrical release, but instead got consigned to a token smattering of bookings on its way to DVD. Too bad; this one chews up and spits out the bulk of its nature-gone-wild brethren, capturing the real terror you’d undoubtedly feel if you were stranded in a remote corner of the Australian wilderness with an oversized, people-eating crocodile stalking you. Well-drawn and -acted characters combine with vividly realized croc FX to make this a memorable modern monster flick.

6 FILMS TO KEEP YOU AWAKE: I’m cheating a bit by including a DVD boxed set, but this is arguably the most vital genre disc release of the year, belated giving this made-for-Spanish-TV collection of short features their Stateside debuts. There’s something for everyone here, from the intense terror of Balagueró’s To Let to the quiet, inexorable chills of Alex de la Iglesia’s The Baby’s Room to the twisted holiday-themed revenge in Plaza’s A Christmas Tale. While some of the movies are better than others, collectively the quality is of a very high caliber, and no devotee of Eurohorror or modern genre fare should be without this package.

4BIA: The Asian genre scene has waned of late, but this quartet of terror tales by four different Thai directors is as bracing and eerie as anything to come from the Far East in the past decade. Well, OK, the second segment is more annoying than frightening with its overcaffeinated camerawork and editing, but the first and final entries each provide a great case of the creeps, and the third is a laugh-out-loud dissection of A-horror clichés that nonetheless has its own share of spine-tingly moments. Here’s hoping an adventurous distributor will take this movie beyond the festival circuit and give it the wider U.S. exposure it deserves.

FUNNY GAMES/THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: A tie between two galvanizingly unsettling tales of domestic dread. In Funny Games, Michael Haneke remakes his own German-language shocker with a top English-speaking cast (led by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) to equally powerful effect, as a home invasion by two polite young men implicates the audience in the brutality that follows. The Living and the Dead, written and directed by Britain’s Simon Rumley, spotlights one of the year’s great, largely unsung genre performances by Leo Bill, as a mentally damaged young man who is ill-advisedly left alone with his bedridden mother in a crumbling mansion. You can’t take your eyes off him, even as the abuse he inflicts on himself and others makes you want to look away.

And now, a selection of the year’s worst:

PROM NIGHT: Everything that’s wrong with mass-market horror cinema today can be found in this not-really-a-remake, which is absolutely bereft of creativity, wit, thrills or any ambition other than to separate the PG-13 crowd from their money. Depressingly, it worked, meaning that a direct-to-DVD follow-up (which in this case could only be an improvement) is undoubtedly just around the corner.

ONE MISSED CALL/THE EYE/SHUTTER: By the time the last in this triple threat hit screens last spring, it demonstrated that the only thing more redundant at this point than a remake of an Asian horror film is a remake of an Asian horror film that’s actually set in Asia. If this was the best Hollywood could offer the films’ talented foreign directors (Eric Valette, David Moreau & Xavier Palud and Masayuki Ochiai, respectively), it’s clear they would’ve been much better off staying and working at home.

SAW V: Since SAW VI is evidently guaranteed to take in $30 million its opening weekend next October, could it at least please be more than a rehash of setpieces from the previous movies with an extra character or two lurking behind the walls?

SEED: Uwe Boll claims this pointless, unpleasant and dramatically illogical wallow in serial-killer nihilism sprang from his anger at being panned for his previous movies. It’s enough to make you want to go back and say nice things about House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark.

LOST BOYS: THE TRIBE: Feel free to substitute the crass, tacky, repetitive, unimaginative straight-to-video genre sequel of your choice.