This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
In the midst of a run of years that have mostly been “solid” rather than spectacular, the 2007 lineup looks like a true bumper crop. The top isn’t necessarily super crowded, but this year goes truly deep, with a plethora of quality releases coming from all sources. As in recent years, indie horror largely leads the way, but this is also an excellent year for big studio horror as well. In particular, something like the Stephen King adaptation 1408 is a pitch-perfect example of what you can achieve within the confines of major studio, PG-13 horror. Although the PG-13 rating was often a bane of studio horror films in this era, it’s definitely not impossible to craft an effectively scary movie without the jump to “R.”
As far as other contenders go for 2007, it’s impossible to overlook David Fincher’s mesmerizing, haunting Zodiac, a film that is startlingly effective in tearing open the wounds of the Zodiac killer cold case and presenting the events in a way that is starkly naturalistic, frustrating and true to life. Here is a film that truly captures the fear of uncertainty in a city that is held in the grip of a killer, and the hopelessness of journalists and police who are powerless to deduce that killer’s identity. Fincher tantalizes the audience with several suspects who each seem to be perfect candidates for the Zodiac—especially the blood-chilling performance of John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen—but yanks the rug out from underneath you each time when those suspicions are dashed. You keep feeling, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith, that if you just take a step back from the problem and reassess it with fresh eyes, everything will fall into place—a perpetual hope that eventually costs Graysmith his family, and a warning against letting obsession define a life. With magnificent performances from several members of its ensemble cast, there’s no doubt that Zodiac is a modern classic.
Also splendid is J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, one of the best pure ghost stories of this particular decade. With dread-inducing cinematography and a classic gothic seaside location, it’s a film that tapped into the power of deep-seated genre tropes and celebrated them in a way that somehow felt fresh. Production and costume design are certainly strong points, as the bag-headed ghost of forsaken orphan Tomás was an immediately iconic image that helped crystalize the aesthetic of the modern Spanish horror scene, of which Bayona is a prominent member. This same year’s REC likewise helped jump-start the late 2000s found footage craze, while not receiving nearly as much attention as Paranormal Activity in the U.S.
And of course, we must talk about Paranormal Activity. In the 12 years since the release of this movie, the series has been disparaged ad nauseum as the progenitor of countless inferior follow-ups and imitators, but we shouldn’t let the negative effects of this movie’s success blind us to the fact that Paranormal Activity, when it arrived, was a shockingly effective, extremely scary horror film. Made on a $15,000 budget, it was the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you needed any serious amount of money to scare the crap out of audiences—especially audiences that weren’t yet inured to the tropes of found footage horror. It kicked off a true phenomenon, catching the same spark possessed only by The Blair Witch Project, somehow causing otherwise logical people to question (at least briefly) if what they were seeing was somehow “real.” It remains the only time I’ve ever seen ushers stand in a theater throughout a screening just to watch the audience react to a movie, which is an experience I doubt I’ll ever have again.
2007 is obviously a great year, even without mentioning the devastating opening of 28 Weeks Later, the heartbreaking final moments of The Mist or the gore extremes of Inside or Frontier(s). With everything taken into account, this is the pinnacle of the decade.
2007 Honorable Mentions:
Zodiac, The Orphanage, REC, Paranormal Activity, Grindhouse, 28 Weeks Later, Inside, The Mist, 1408, 30 Days of Night, Teeth, Funny Games, Frontier(s)
Director: Michael Dougherty
There’s no shortage of horror films that are framed around the angle of Halloween as a holiday, although perhaps not quite as many as one might expect. John Carpenter’s Halloween, for instance, largely uses the date on the calendar as incidental set dressing—there are a few pumpkins here and there, and a reference to trick ‘r treating, but the events of the story could have taken place on any day of the year. This is not so of Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, the film we once called the ultimate Halloween night movie. Where other horror films simply attempt to absorb a little bit of the holiday’s spookiness into themselves via osmosis, Trick ‘r Treat is a true veneration of all the things we horror geeks love about the holiday. It’s a pure distillation of the feeling so many of us possessed as children—the indescribable excitement of venturing out into the night when it felt like the world had become full of macabre mystery. For 82 minutes, you feel like a kid again.
And to think, the world almost never had a chance to see the film at all. Due perhaps to its unorthodox, quasi-anthology structure and lack of big stars, a completed Trick ‘r Treat screened only at festivals for several years after its initial “release.” It was only after Anna Paquin became a bigger star via True Blood that the masses got a chance to see Trick ‘r Treat thanks to its first home video release in 2009, which effectively began the rise of this movie’s cult. A decade later, its status as a classic of the season has just about been established, with appearances at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights and regular airings on cable TV networks. It was just too charming a film to remain hidden forever.
And that is probably the word for Trick ‘r Treat: It is truly charming, rather than outright “scary” most of the time, although there are a few moments that may make one jump, especially in its last 20 minutes. But from start to finish, it charms in its tale of the residents of a small Midwestern town, most of whom seem to take the traditions of Halloween fairly seriously. And it’s a good thing, too, with Sam—the adorable (but vicious), sack-headed avatar of the holiday stalking the streets, keeping an eye on the neighborhood. Disrespect the traditions of Halloween, and little Sam is liable to pay you a visit you won’t forget. Assuming you survive, of course.
Our cast of characters, meanwhile, check off a bevy of horror movie boxes, although the film is fond of establishing expectations for characters that are then subverted. There’s a vampire that isn’t really a vampire after all; a murderous school principal; a “helpless” Red Riding Hood who is more than capable of defending herself; and a gaggle of preteens pulling a cruel prank on one of their own. All the segments, which weave in and out of each other in a nonlinear sort of way, feel comfortably familiar without being rote. They’ve all been freshened up in some way, and benefit from their interconnected nature, and the presence of Sam, always off in the background silently observing. Each and every story concludes itself satisfyingly, giving momentum to the next, right up until a delightfully crotchety Brian Cox finds himself finally facing down Sam and atoning for long-buried sins.
And so, as we close in on Halloween of 2019, remember to keep that pumpkin lit and the candy bowl full. You never know who might be watching.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.