When I was in high school in the late 90s and early 2000s—also known as the Y2K era—horror movies weren't what you would call "scary."
Somehow at the turn of the millennium, the tech-paranoia of Canadian horror master David Cronenberg, and the testosterone-fueled action of Aliens, gave rise to what I call nu-horror: a mix of monster horror with sci-fi action, enhanced with computer animation. The movies were plot heavy, often adapted from video games, filmed in bright colors, and they were full of un-spooky subject matter like space travel and the internet. It was an exciting new high-tech millennium, and these were apparently our high-tech new fears.
Movies that set the stage for nu-horror included The Faculty, Event Horizon, and Blade. Examples of the subgenre at its height include Thir13en Ghosts, Resident Evil, Jason X, The House of the Dead, Dracula 2000, Ghosts of Mars, and How to Make a Monster.
In the Y2K days, horror's sister musical genre, metal, was going through a similar rough patch. Bands like Korn, Mudvayne, P.O.D., and Linkin Park were stretching the term "metal" to its breaking point by making what we now derisively call "nu-metal"—the term I'm obviously co-opting here.
NME called nu-metal "the worst genre of all time." The nu-horror era in movies is not fondly remembered either.
According to film scholar Steffen Hantke, horror fans in the Y2K days were in a panic about their precious genre coming apart at the seams. In Hantke's 2010 book American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium Hantke wrote that "from a pessimist's point of view, the last ten years have seen American horror film at its worst." He also noted that the movie blog Bloody-Disgusting.com hosted a discussion in 2005 called, "'Do you think horror movies are done for?'"
A lot of this geek anger was in opposition to teen slasher movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and a glut of American horror movies that were just inferior remakes of Japanese movies. Still, much of the blame also lands at the feet of the cheesy, sci-fi-tinged horror I'm labeling nu-horror.
Here's a very brief history:
In the late 90s, Robert Rodriguez's aliens-ate-my-teachers movie The Faculty, and the blue-tinted gorefest in space Event Horizon, helped set nu-horror in motion.
The Faculty starts out as a garden-variety Invasion of the Body Snatchers–style paranoia thriller, but set in a high school so it can be marketed to teens. But then at the end, the monster is revealed as sort of a mix between the alien from Alien and the plant from Little Shop of Horrors, and computer animation takes over. Event Horizon is sorta the opposite, starting as a space opera on a grand scale, and then making a left turn into horror movie territory, with demons, torture, and glimpses of hell.
In the ensuing few years, things like space travel, computer read-outs, and shootouts with aliens became commonplace in ostensibly scary movies. Also, in 1999, The Matrix came along, and as a cultural juggernaut, its influence can definitely be felt in the horror movies of the time. For instance, Uwe Bol's 2003 House of the Dead includes several shots that mimic "bullet time," The Matrix's time-stopping camera technique (link is NSFW).
The Matrix is no more or less scary than one of the high water marks of the nu-horror subgenre: 2001's Jason X, in which Jason Voorhees wakes up on a space ship, having been frozen for 445 years, and starts killing the sexy astronauts he encounters. The sexy astronauts fight back with killer robots and super guns. It is not a scary movie, but it is an immensely entertaining movie.
The year 2001 was the biggest for nu-horror. Thir13en Ghosts (which I think is pronounced "Thir-one-three-en Ghosts") is the most useful all-around snapshot of the subgenre I can find. It offers the viewer the kind of bright, colorful sets and lighting design they might typically expect from a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical, costumes reminiscent of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, the visuals of a Slipknot video, and a Ghostbusters-style mix of science fiction and horror.
There's also a needlessly convoluted story, in which (deep breath) a giant steampunk house is murdering people, but ghosts also live in the house, and a cursed document written by the devil is all over the walls, which can be used to trap the ghosts, and the characters who are still alive can only see the ghosts if they wear hi-tech glasses that work like the glasses from They Live , and in addition to the house being able to kill people, the ghosts can also kill people.
The plot doesn't stay with you, and neither do the attempted scares. Instead, after watching Thir13en Ghosts, like so much Y2K-era culture, you just remember a kind of strobing, screaming, technicolor mess.
Because of their low budgets, horror movies will always be laboratories for cheap special effects that look dated a few weeks after the movies leave theaters. And because they're for teens, horror movies will always try to riff on the cultural fads of the moment, and the results will be ridiculous. So nu-horror may not be some uniquely crappy era in movies, but just possess a unique lack of aesthetic limits, as if the filmmakers were hitting you with every sight, color, and noise they possibly could.
The time period itself had its high points as well, with non-nu-horror horror movies like The Blair Witch Project and Gore Verbinski's Ring remake. In that vein, over the next few years, non-Hollywood horror movies like High Tension, Wolf Creek, and The Descent came along and injected some new ideas—restraint mostly—into Hollywood's horror vocabulary. Say what you will about the flash-in-the-pan that was torture porn, movies like Saw and Hostel helped usher in a new era of gritty, pared-down movies.
These days, instead of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the audience and hoping some of it scares them, filmmakers are working on a relatively microscopic scale, making horror movies like The Witch and Green Room, and audiences seem to dig them.
But then again, another Resident Evil movie will hit theaters next January. So maybe nu-horror isn't dead.
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