The Best Contemporary Horror Movies for Grown-ups

I suppose it sounds snooty, but I'm really tired of those teen horror movie entries that get trotted out every Halloween.

I mean, we have children who are worried about getting employment and don't even go trick-or-treating anymore. Who could believe that soon-to-be codgers like us would want to watch I Know What You Did Last Summer, Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy's Revenge or Scream 3?

I crave build-up, atmosphere, and perhaps even a dose of intelligence and originality with my scares. I also want to see something relatively new, having screened the Universal Horror classics endlessly over the decades. (True, I never tire of them, but still...)

So- where to look? Why, overseas, of course!

Sorry, Hollywood, but the best horror movies for adults made since the millennium are coming from foreign shores. Here's a list of my own favorites, a few of which may not even be on your radar.

If they're not, they should be.

The Devil's Backbone
(2001)- Guilermo Del Toro's film is part ghost story, part thriller. At the tail end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, a boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) enters a decrepit boarding school that houses orphans of the Republican forces' leadership and military. A former student named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is now a member of the staff, but his behavior is suspicious. It turns out Jacinto wants to steal some valuable gold hidden on the grounds. To make conditions even more ominous, there's a ghost of a young boy haunting the school who has a secret to share with Carlos. Backbone is a shudder-inducing treat that shows artful restraint in the telling. Del Toro evokes the hard price of war in the school's run-down state and the frayed nerves of the adults who run the place, played by veterans Federico Luppi and Marisa Paredes. The ghost of Santi (Junio Valverde) is presented at intervals to jolt us back to a state of fear, but we also know Santi holds a key to the story's bigger mystery. Finally, a huge unexploded bomb is embedded in the center of the school's courtyard, an ingenious visual device that presages explosions yet to come, explosions you won't want to miss.

28 Days Later (2002)- Bicycle messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from an accident in a London hospital and confronts a living nightmare: a monkey-borne virus has spread all over the country that turns human beings into flesh-eating zombies. With the city virtually deserted, he meets up with a handful of people who have escaped infection thus far, including Selena (Naomie Harris), Mark (Noah Huntley), and Frank (Brendan Gleeson). The group's only chance for survival lies in eluding these rampaging beasts, finding other survivors and somehow getting to safety. But is there anywhere that's truly safe anymore? Though the premise sounds frighteningly close to George Romero's zombie movies, this entry comes off fresh and fierce, thanks to Danny Boyle's tight, gritty direction, an English setting and two solid Irish actors, the boyish Murphy and the always appealing and reliable Gleeson. Recommended only for hard-core horror fans, this graphic, nerve-jangling film is sure to keep softies up at night.

A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)- Sisters Su-Mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Su-Yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) return to their father and stepmother's house after time away recovering from the trauma of their natural mother's death. Several ominous factors are quickly evident: one or both of the girls may have been in a mental hospital; also, there's no love lost between the girls and their stepmother; and finally, their father's house may be haunted, perhaps cursed by the bizarre event that caused the death of the girls' mother. The plot only thickens from there, and the line between reality and illusion, sanity and insanity, blurs almost beyond recognition. South Korean writer/director Kim Jee-Woon's psychological horror tale is a chilling, unnerving puzzler. As layer after layer of the dense, twisty story gets uncovered, we gather another small increment of insight into what's behind all the mental mayhem. Visually arresting and extremely well played by the four principals, "Two Sisters" will raise those hairs on the back of your neck. Talk about family dysfunction!

Inland Empire (2006)- Looking to adapt an old gypsy folk tale for the big screen, bigwig director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) decides to offer the lead role to actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), warning her randy co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) that Nikki's husband (Peter J. Lucas) is a notoriously jealous man. Nikki and Devon's lives intertwine and their sense of reality begins to collapse after they learn that a previous attempt to film the story stalled when the two leads were brutally murdered. Shot on high-definition video, David Lynch's twisted, disturbing, often puzzling Hollywood fable immerses us in the same bizarre nightmare world as his previous provocation, Mulholland Drive. But it's Dern, with her plain Jane looks and pained expressiveness, who anchors the film in a role that requires her to meld the identities of a chipper L.A. actress, a trashy Southern woman, and a victim of Polish-underworld intrigue. With its lost-in-the-funhouse feel and almost hallucinogenic sense of dread, "Empire" is never less compelling. At times, especially with those eerie close-ups of Dern, it is downright terrifying. This is Lynch at his weirdest and best! (For the record, I'm qualifying this as an international entry because even though parts of it were shot in L.A., it was financed abroad.)

The Host (2006)- After an American military man (Scott Wilson) authorizes the dumping of toxic waste in Seoul's Han River, a giant amphibian mutant springs from the water, devouring sunbathers and wreaking havoc, then snatches precocious schoolgirl Park Nam-il (Hae-il Park). Now her dense, bumbling young father Gang-du (Kang-Ho Song) sets out to find the creature's lair with the help of his dysfunctional family. But with the city in a state of emergency after the creature's deadly attack, he'll first have to evade the authorities who want him quarantined. This highly entertaining Korean film breaks all the rules of the classic monster movie (we see the fish-behemoth in the first ten minutes) and invents a few new ones, including layering the action with a sharp critique of American militarism, toxic-waste dumping, and police brutality. Bong's flashy combination of humor, pathos, and chills elevate this above other Godzilla-esque retreads, and the special effects in particular are elegantly rendered. With its squabbling clan of screw-ups hunting for the lost girl, The Host may have its amusing, even farcical moments, but nobody's laughing when that sea creature makes an appearance!

[REC] (2007)- On a slow news night in Barcelona, TV reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) are assigned to cover the routine at a local fire- house. When a call comes in that a woman is trapped inside her apartment, Angela and Pablo follow the first responders into an old residential building. Things heat up considerably when the woman they're rescuing turns out to be a plague-carrying zombie. When authorities seal off the building to prevent the virus spreading, everyone is trapped inside. As death and mayhem rage around them, the journalists record everything. Directors Juame Balaguero and Paco Plaza craft an ingenious horror hybrid, melding familiar elements of the zombie picture with the hand-held immediacy of The Blair Witch Project -- only this time it's all being filmed by a professional! The result is totally believable and thoroughly petrifying. Velasco's transformation from bubbly, photogenic talking head to quivering wreck will leave you quaking right beside her. While at times you might wish Pablo would turn his camera off, still you can't look away. Don't miss this tight little horror entry- it really packs a wallop.

The Orphanage (2007)- When the children's home where she grew up goes up for sale, Laura (Belen Rueda) buys the old seaside manse with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), with the intent of turning it into a home for special-needs kids. But almost as soon as they move in, their young son Simon (Roger Princep) begins to act out, speaking eerily of imaginary friends. One day, he vanishes into thin air, and Laura, distraught and convinced she hears her child crying, seeks the help of a medium, Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin- Charlie's daughter), to find him. Produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona's maiden feature is a chilling, often shocking horror drama about a woman who uncovers dark secrets about her own past in the spooky manor where she spent her youth. Bayona handles all the jumps and starts like an old hand, drawing us toward the truth with one heart-arresting set piece after another. Did someone abduct Simon? Has he been murdered? And who's the creepy kid in the sackcloth mask? See The Orphanage for smart thrills, fine acting, and a grave finish that could leave you in tears.

Let The Right One In (2008)- Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a lonely, fragile 12-year-old living in suburban Stockholm. Bullied at school, Oskar fills notebooks with news reports of grisly local crimes and fantasizes about revenge. His life takes a turn, though, with the arrival of next-door neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), an eccentric, disheveled-looking girl he befriends. Soon enough Oskar begins to suspect that Eli may be responsible for committing some ghastly murders around town. With a remarkably sure hand, director Alfredson turns the immortal vampire genre inside out with this ingenious teen romance/fright flick, whose emotional depth and resonance is almost Bergmanesque. Alfredson doesn't so much play up the gore factor of Eli's bloodsucking habits as he focuses on the tender feeling that bonds his two melancholy misfits, movingly played by Leandersson and Hedebrant. Sink your teeth into this moody, artfully scary meditation on loneliness and prepubescent longing. For horror fans everywhere, this is the "Right One" indeed.

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