Whenever you impose a hard-and-fast limit on discussing movies (say… oh, I don’t know… limiting yourself to only talking about the best 101 horror movies from the past 20-odd years), there’s always going to be a few great movies that slip through the cracks. After all, as much as there are a ton of great movies coming out every year, not all years are equally great. Some years, by necessity, are going to have less to show for themselves than others. That’s not to say that they’re strictly speaking “bad,” of course, just that they hardly stand out against the likes of, say, a 2001 or a 2007.
Such is the case with 2003: an otherwise solid year at the multiplex that, sadly, just can’t hold its own in retrospect. When all was said and done, only 1 solitary movie made it onto this countdown from back then (but more on that one later), which is a shame, because there really were some great thrillers and chillers coming out at that exact moment in time. And it really would do well to remind ourselves of that fact in light of how few movies would otherwise be highlighted from then. I’ve spoken at length about how J-Horror was having a real moment at the turn of the millennium, as was then-emergent V-cinema director Takashi Miike, who had finally broken out onto the international scene with his gut-wrenching one-two punch of Dead or Alive and Audition in 1999 (and who followed it up with a string of decidedly “out there” arthouse and genre fare that made him something of an underground staple of global cinema for years to come). 2003 highlighted these twinned moments in time perfectly with Once Missed Call: a perfect distillation of J-Horror movies into a single film (in which students receive viral voicemails from the moment of their impending deaths). Although its concerns are much more nakedly commercial than higher-minded features like Pulse or Ju-On, Takashi Miike imbues the familiar tropes and tableaus of post-Y2K Japanese genre cinema with his signature visual flair, twists them into a story that’s just different enough from its contemporaries and creates something of a Rosetta Stone of this entire moment in Asian horror cinema.
So too does something like Freddy vs Jason (2003) deserve something of a mention. A feel-good monster mash that pits the two most infamous names in slasher cinema against one another, this admittedly hit-and-miss crossover ended up being far better than it ever deserved to be (certainly far better than fans of either franchise could have ever expected, given its long and tumultuous production history). There’s a few clever kills, a couple of well-observed moments between the titular teen-slaying titans and a third-act blowout that has got to be one of the most viscerally satisfying stretches of the genre in quite some time. Given that it was the best that either franchise had been for the past decade, and that both would be rebooted in only a few years’ time, it served as a satisfying coda to its sanguine moment of horror history. Lately, it seems like quite a lot of people have been singing the praises of Final Destination 2 (2003) above and beyond that of the first movie in that franchise. While I can hardly get on board with it being a better movie than its predecessor, Final Destination 2 is ultimately a much more interesting one, pulling on the thread of Death’s missed opportunities even further, imagining all of the collateral damage went unseen due to the events of the first movie. An incredibly fun follow-up with a number of memorably elaborate kills, it is a testament to the unsung inventiveness that is bedrock to this particular genre.
High Tension (2003)
The actual, unqualified standout in 2003 horror movies, High Tension is one of the cornerstones of the New French Extremity: a turn-of-the-millennium moment in French horror movies where the underlying brutality that the French had been harboring since the end of the second world war erupted onto the silver screen, baffling audiences, repelling critics and utterly horrifying the so-called guardians of good taste. Described by the esteemed Roger Ebert as being “filmed with a shotgun and edited in a blender,” this psychotic home invasion feature serves as a three-way mashup of Stephen Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Putting newcome director Alexandre Aja on Hollywood’s radar and acting as the proof-of-concept for the forthcoming The Hills Have Eyes remake three years later, High Tension is a razor-bladed cry against the inherent lie of French propriety.