Welcome to 2000s Week! We’re exploring the pop culture that shaped us at the turn of the millennium, and examining what the films, shows, and games from the era say about us then and now. It’s a little #tbt to the days before #tbt was a thing.
We are living in an obscenely good time for horror.
Over the past decade, scary movies have not only , but have also evolved into some of the smartest and most culturally significant films of our times. In 2020, we’ve already seen projects such as and speaking to themes of isolation and existential dread — presciently playing on the pandemic those movies’ creators never could have anticipated.
In recent years, we’ve also seen titles including Get Out (2017), A Quiet Place (2018), Midsommar (2019), and more make impressive progress towards breaching the Academy Awards’ notorious horror blockade, while tempting hordes of “mainstream” moviegoers into theaters amid critical acclaim for the genre’s increasingly complex themes and execution. Now, perhaps more than ever, audiences are paying attention to a movie realm once widely regarded as trashy and niche.
What might surprise you (and definitely surprised me), however, is that the brilliance of horror today can be directly traced to the splatterfest that was the genre in the first decade of the 2000s. Yes, that nightmarish parade of celebrity stunt casting, nearly naked teen victims, mouth-to-anus diagrams, and lethal traps as rusty and menacing as they were stupid and far-fetched.
It’s a decade of terror new enough and divisive enough that plenty of genre fans find themselves unconsciously “skipping” over it in their consideration of the historic horror landscape. (“It goes ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and then uh…whenever Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and the It reboot showed, right?”)
But the 2000s are a period in horror worth revisiting — especially if, like me, you first experienced them not as an era of artistic exploration but as a straightforward, one-note slew of kills and carnage told in tidy summaries posted online.
Image: lions gate entertainment
Every horror fan has an origin story — some movie, scene, or moment that transformed them from quivering victim to bonafide ticket-carrying horror lover. It’s the instant when someone first sees laugh her way out of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), or pick up his iconically groovy weapon of choice in Evil Dead 2 (1987).
But as a child of the 2000s, I found that moment of pure, murderous, movie magic was hard to come by. The horror films at the time were too graphic, too much a theater-of-the-cruel designed to cut to the audience’s atavistic core, at least for a Claire’s-shopping honors student to get in on. Toss in the fiery cocktail of post-9/11 paranoia, rising partisan political warfare, and the wave of disasters (natural and otherwise) dominating the news…and well, it was a lot for a 14-year-old to take. It was extreme horror content forged in a time of extreme, real-world fear; the genre overall was demanding more of audiences than ever before when many had less and less to give.
Still, I was interested. And so my horror fascination stemmed not from the recesses of a dark theater, but from The Human Centipede’s Wikipedia. Mindlessly eating a sandwich and surfing the web during a school lunch break, I became so disturbed at the description of three-person torture my browser hath wrought that I puked in a library trash can and got sent home sick by the nurse.
It’s ridiculous, I know. But I was hooked.
The horror wave could have passed me by entirely.
A decade of shitty remakes and shoddy sequels, many of which were anchored in extreme gore or so-called “torture porn,” the 2000s are often dismissed as a time of lowest common denominator scares. For some, the era can be summarized as a string of hyper-contrived sequels and franchise revivals which rested their hopes on the marketability of alt-rock and sexy women in sweaty tank tops. Think Paris Hilton getting her head skewered in House of Wax (2005) or Nicolas Cage moaning about “” in The Wicker Man (2006).
Stuck in that decade of titles too extreme or too lousy to convert me, I deemed myself “not a fan” early — and began feeding my appetite for fear via the internet. It was a great time for that. We saw the dawning of creepypasta, the rise of viral shock videos, and an increasingly vibrant community of horror appreciators and historians flourishing online.
The ascent of all things digital was giving teens more access to information than any generation before mine. So I devoured popular cinematic nightmares not by watching them, but by reading every summary, review, and analysis available. In the burgeoning digital landscape, there was plenty to choose from. Saw, Hostel, 28 Days Later, The Devil’s Rejects, Orphan, Trick ‘r Treat, Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, My Bloody Valentine 3D, Teeth, Drag Me To Hell, Grindhouse (Planet Terror and Death Proof, obviously), Sorority Row, The Others, Midnight Meat Train — you name it, I had, at the very least, skimmed a brief summary. And turns out, .
As rare as this specific online habit seemed to me, horror experts James A. Janisse and Chelsea Rebecca, known for their “Dead Meat” and , have come to know it well through their modern audience. Simply put, a wide base of fans began with — and continue seeking out — horror synopses online with no intention of watching the films they are based on.
“I can’t think of another genre where this works as well,” Rebecca says over the phone, admiring horror movies’ ability to transfix audiences even when boiled down to their most basic elements. “We’re human, and to some extent, we all like to be scared in at least some kind of way. What’s different is everyone has their own tolerance for where that stops being fun and where that starts being actually horrible.”
Combining funny commentary, behind-the-scenes details, and ample warnings for especially graphic content, Janisse and Rebecca have helped condense and take the sting out of dozens of scary movies for these “arm’s length” fans. It’s a format that’s worked especially well with 2000s content, declawing some of the decade’s more gruesome moments and refocusing critical discussion on films’ influences, merits, and, when appropriate, failings.
“If someone is not inclined to like horror off the bat, when they sit down to watch a horror movie they might be guarded,” Janisse adds. “If they’re worried the whole time about the next scare that’s going to happen, that can kind of distract them from experiencing the movie as a work of art.”
Episodes of Dead Meat’s popular “Kill Count” series that focus on films from the 2000s make up a sizable portion of their content catalogue, and their Saw (2004) episode, posted over two years ago, remains the channel’s most popular video to date with nearly 17 million views at my time of writing.
To be fair, Rebecca and Janisse say even their watered-down versions of 2000s horror films can sometimes be too much for sensitive fans; I can confirm Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween remake seems even weirder when summarized. But generally speaking, the horror buffs think their abridged tellings make newcomers more likely to try out the genre “for real.”
Image: new line cinema
“By first ‘pre-consuming’ the movie in a synopsis or with one of our videos,” Janisse argues, “[timid fans] can not only go back and know when the scary parts are coming so they don’t have to worry about it, but also [when watching] a video like ours they can consume some of the symbolism or historical relevance that these movies have and begin to appreciate that.” (Hearing this, I was reminded of the countless rabbit holes The Human Centipede’s Wikipedia page led me down; namely, detailed lists of and why.)
“Movies do have layers to them,” Rebecca reiterates. “Not all obviously, but [either way] acknowledging that helps promote a wider understanding that horror as a genre has so much more to offer than people sometimes realize.”
The rise of torture porn
Discussing the flammability of two girls killed off in Final Destination 3 (2006), franchise creator Jeffrey Reddick concedes 2000s horror sometimes went too far.
“My least favorite scene of the franchise is actually that ,” Reddick says, acknowledging its status as a . “I have no problem with nudity, but I felt squirmy watching that. It just felt like, ‘OK, we’re going to take her clothes off, and now we’re going to make her bounce around to music, and now we’re going to lay her here topless, and then we’re going to slowly let her and her friend get fried to death?’ I didn’t like that.”
Final Destination, a 2000s standout ranked among the of all time, famously delivered inventive kills via Rube Goldberg-like contraptions carrying out “death’s design.” Organs were sucked out of anal cavities, skulls collided with nail guns, and yes, naked girls had their nipples set alight to the groovy vibes of “Love Rollercoaster.”
But Final Destination wasn’t intended to serve as a backdrop for grisly executions — at least not at first.
Based on Reddick’s idea for an episode of the X-Files written in the late ’90s, the franchise’s original imagining deliberately subverted horror tropes and brought tremendous thoughtfulness to its practical implementation. There was some gore, sure, but it was placed there with a purpose beyond shock.
“We actually had a little bit of a hard time selling it back then. The studio really couldn’t get their head around not showing a killer,” recalls Reddick, emphasizing the haunting element of never seeing your inevitable demise closing in. “That hadn’t really been done before. They’re like, ‘But it’s death. You can’t fight it, you can’t see it.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I know. That’s the point.’”
Reddick’s story placed an invisible force at the center of a genre previously dominated by recognizable slasher villains, and the risk paid off. It became a surprise hit, nearly five times its $23 million budget. Although the “freak accident” element, introduced by other creative forces in the franchise, came to dominate Final Destination’s legacy, Reddick’s chilling perspective on the sudden, unavoidable nature of death would remain at the heart of the franchise’s successes.
“I love the fun splatter stuff, but I also like trying to find a universal theme or fear that everybody can relate to and Final Destination did tap into that,” Reddick says, using Final Destination 2’s terrifying (and epic) to make his point. “People still tell me, when they get behind a log truck on the highway, they still wonder, ‘Is this my time to die?’ I don’t know if a lot of films have had that kind of impact.”
Still, Final Destination movies regularly end up shuffled into lists of 2000s “torture porn” flicks, whether or not Reddick (or anyone else who has actually watched them) think they belong there.
“I’ll use [Hostel 2] as an example,” Reddick offers, in an attempt to make the delineation clear between films with some gore and some extreme gore. “I thought the first Hostel was really good, but the sequel took everything that they did right in the first movie and just fucked it up. They made it about three girls, stripped one of them naked, and just had her screaming and getting sliced up for forever.”
(That poor woman, by the way, was played by Heather Matarazzo, best known then as Mia Thermopolis’s best friend in Princess Diaries. Oh, and Stanislav Ianevski, the actor who made his film debut as Viktor Krum in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is also in Hostel 2. He gets cannibalized in a scene that makes fighting a Chinese Fireball look pretty chill.)
“That all just felt like gratuitous violence for no reason. That’s what I think ‘’ actually is. It’s when some character is just sitting in a room and we’re going to watch them get killed for five minutes. They’re screaming in terror, it feels real, and it’s almost encouraging the audience to get off on someone being brutalized. That’s torture porn.”
In 2020, I have to agree — despite what I deduced of the franchise from Wikipedia summaries as they appeared a decade ago — no Final Destination installment ever really matched that definition.
Tank top horror
Looking back on the dozens of 2000s films that took that bloody path, Reddick is glad to be done with it. “I just hope we hit the peak then and it doesn’t come back,” he says.
Los Angeles-based writer and horror aficionado Jordan Crucchiola, however, takes a different stance on the decade.
“I honestly miss it,” she laughs, remembering a time marked not only by unprecedented gore, nudity, remakes, and sequels, but also by a slew of trends that would lay the groundwork for genre triumphs of the 2010s.
“It was and still is the era of ‘,’” Crucchiola says of a decade that saw Americans enjoying the last vestiges of the MTV era while grappling with terrorism-infused cynicism. More than a throwaway decade of misguided creativity, the 2000s provided tremendous opportunity for horror of both style and substance.
“It was this 10-year stretch where franchising was repopularized following Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, so studios put these casts of impossibly sexy people in horror,” Crucchiola explains. “These weren’t movies that actors were doing because they were ‘on their way out.’ They were doing these because they were in Hollywood and [horror movies] were a money-making event.”
That glossy entertainment fairytale eventually collided with the United States’s overwhelming sense of political turmoil and identity confusion following by the CIA at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. This resulted in writers and directors actively putting unspeakable atrocities into their scripts and forcing characters to grapple with them on screen, seemingly in an effort to explore the country’s profound undercurrent of guilt, mistrust, and, of course, horror artistically.
“We had this perspective shift where we said, ‘People are capable of horrors previously unimagined, and we’re seeing them on the news with these very real leaked images that are now flowing among our nation showing what the government, the people we are supposed to trust, are capable of enacting on others,” Crucchiola explains.
“So then you have this darkness and this brutality and this fucked up-ness and this cynicism and pain and nihilism ramming squarely into the shiny, post-Scream MTV era. Of course, studios aren’t going to pick just one — the pretty actors or the shocking, timely content. They’re gonna do both.”
Image: warner bros. pictures
As Crucchiola makes clear, “No matter what, the money matters… And putting really sexy people in really fucked up shit works, generally speaking.”
This gangbusters combination resulted in an absolute explosion of box office success during the 2000s and consequently allowed for more experimentation within the genre. Studios pursuing this lucrative horror formula weren’t always successful in making excellent films, but they undeniably paved the way for some of the decade’s most lasting and positive impacts on cinematic trends writ large.
At the same time as I and so many other 2000s horror fans were burying our heads in Wikipedia and avoiding gruesome promotional materials depicting pretty ladies in agony — like the brutal Captivity (2007) billboard that resulted in being filed to Los Angeles and New York City public officials — Blumhouse Productions established itself as a which would later make Insidious (2010), The Purge (2013), Get Out (2017), and Happy Death Day (2017.)
Meanwhile, (2009) and (2005) pushed the boundaries of female representation on screen with mixed success. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008) . Saw to reverse anti-LGBTQ blood donation policies in a promotional stunt that helped rebrand the franchise as a force for good (if only for a few days) and helped solidify the annual nature of event horror. And then, Paranormal Activity (2007) heralded a shift towards emotional ghost stories later found in the Conjuring Universe, The Babadook (2014), Hereditary (2018), and more.
Oh, and a bunch of other random, fantastic projects — The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), The Mist (2007), The Strangers (2008), and Rec (2008) to name a few — appeared alongside sensational horror comedies like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010). Plus, we got Sweeney Todd (2007) which just plain and simple slaps.
All of these trends and titles played contributing roles in the “” of the late 2010s, that critically lured summary junkies like me away from the keyboards and into the theaters. As so-called “elevated” horror emerged from a wild, wild west period of faster, further, grosser scary movie making, the promise that just reading a summary once held began to wane. Dozens of scaredy cats, many of them millennials who grew up during the 2000s, finally came to accept that there would be at least some scary movies so sensational that they would have to buck up and watch them.
And a surprise ending (with a sequel stinger)
Watching The Human Centipede over a cup of chocolate pudding last weekend, I was struck by how astonishingly boring that movie is. More than a decade since its release, I feel comfortable saying Tom Six’s notorious gross-out saga isn’t a pleasant watch (the special effects hold up in some unfortunate ways), but really isn’t as bad as I’d feared.
Still stuck in my home thanks to COVID-19, I’ve had an ocean of time to cue up the 2000s movies that I’ve read about but never seen, and reevaluate what I did — and didn’t — miss while hiding out in the pages of Wikipedia. It’s a timely activity, particularly considering Chris Rock’s Saw reimagining, , slated for release next year and another Final Destination reportedly . Enthusiasm for such projects is resurrecting interest in 2000s staples for some fans, who like me rarely went to the theater when that wave of horror was rolling but are more mature (or at least more foolhardy) now.
Image: sandrew metronome
For some enthusiasts, their journeys with this baffling and wonderful genre began with Red Vines, popcorn, and a ticket stub. For those like me, it all started with footnotes, citations, and the warm hum of an early model MacBook. As a horror fan sewn in the 2000s era, I can’t say that I’ll always celebrate the releases of this decade or that I’ll even have a particular nostalgia for them. But I’ll always be grateful for the time I had to prepare for our brave new world of 2020 horrific excellence.