2001. Wikipedia and BitTorrent launch. Apple introduces iTunes and the iPod. Rudy Giuliani is Time’s Person of the Year. Britney dons a python. The kids won’t shut up about Harry Potter, and your brother won’t shut up about Ocean’s 11. Movie tickets cost around $5.50.
Hollywood’s horror producers are desperately trying to replicate the success of Scream, The Matrix and The Sixth Sense. Americans are scared of loner teens and tech-savvy serial killers — not yet the foreign terrorists and random, soulless violence that will color post-9/11 cinema.
Nary a vampire sparkles; London, New York and Atlanta remain unconquered by zombie hordes. Saw and The Human Centipede have yet to catapult shock horror into popular culture. It’ll be a decade before horror starts to court critics and Oscar voters again with films like Black Swan, The Witch and Get Out.
Like any year, 2001 embraces cash-grab sequels and schlocky thrillers, and launches at least one new franchise of questionable quality. Yet, The Blair Witch Project (1999) recently demonstrated that low-budget scares can still dominate the box office, even as CGI technology advances. And the 2000 Best Picture winner, American Beauty, proved the seedy underbelly of Clinton-era suburbia was the perfect stage for a psychological thriller.
In the spirit of inducing some Halloween déjà vu, I’ve compiled a list of 11 horror films from 2001 that exemplify the fantastical fears of the Y2K era. Some are classics, others cringey, but all are utterly oh-one.
Into the pantheon of great movie taglines I submit “This Halloween, unleash the Dogg.” Between albums Tha Last Meal (’00) and Paid tha Cost to Be da Bo$$ (’02), Snoop Dogg did a turn as Jimmy Bones, a switchblade-wielding ghost stalking his murderers and sending them to hell. Bones flopped at the box office, but has since been reappraised as a stylish attempt to bring blaxploitation into the 21st century.
Imagine Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter hooked up. Thomas Harris readers don’t have to. Harris’s 1999 novel Hannibal is so bizarre and disappointing, Jodie Foster refused to star in an adaptation of it. Still, the box office prospects of a Silence of the Lambs sequel were too tempting for the studio, so Julianne Moore stepped up to the plate glass and screenwriters got to work trying to salvage the story. Hannibal (2001) did indeed make lots of money, and it is certainly a frightening affair (particularly when Gary Oldman’s disfigured pedophile pig farmer gets in on the murder game), but it wouldn’t fetch the accolades Silence did 10 years earlier.
Sci-fi, psychological thriller
I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad. This indie mega-cult classic follows the young and troubled Donnie (an iconic bebe Jake Gyllenhaal), who falls under the malevolent influence of a giant demon rabbit named Frank who mayyyy not have his best interest in mind. Oh yeah, and Frank says the world’s going to end in 28 days.
A man raised by a god-fearing, homicidal father tells the FBI his brother is responsible for a string of recent murders. Frailty is far from a revelation, but it’s nice to see flickers of the future Rust Cohle in Matthew McConaughey’s performance, and recall the buoyant star power of director-actor Bill Paxton.
Four British teenagers get themselves locked in an abandoned underground bomb shelter. Yes, Thora Birch’s British accent leaves something to be desired. Yes, there’s too much moody teen romance. But this is a star-making performance for 15-year-old Kiera Knightly — and nightmare fuel for anyone with a fear of claustrophobia, starvation or clogged toilets.
David Lynch can’t let a new decade start without making an audience question the fabric of reality. A film better experienced than described, Mulholland Drive stars Naomi Watts at her absolute best (and queerest!), roaming the streets of L.A. to help her new girlfriend solve a mystery. In typical Lynchian fashion, shit gets surreal.
The Mummy Returns
The Mummy (1999), starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a loose remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff classic, was an altogether successful attempt by Universal Pictures to cash in on the late-’90s renaissance of high-budget adventure films such as Titanic, Armageddon and Gladiator, using the latest in computer-generated special effects. The Indiana Jones-esque historical fantasy, buoyed by the charm of its stars and juxtaposed with the creepy, crusty, ooey-goey design of the resurrected mummy Imhotep made a lasting impression on the film’s young fans (see: me). So, of course, a sequel was inevitable. The Mummy Returns didn’t depart too much from the formula of its predecessor, but it marked the acting debut of one of Hollywood’s most lovable, bankable stars: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And, oh, what a debut. The film’s climax has the Scorpion King (The Rock) manifest as a CGI scorpion centaur creature, looking like it just stumbled out of a cheap 2001 video game. But hey, it earned The Rock a spin-off film in 2002, The Scorpion King, and a lucrative film career. And 20 years later, we get to marvel at how mercifully far CGI has come since.
(Not currently available to stream)
A mother and her two photosensitive children start seeing ghosts in their English country home. The Others shares surface similarities with M. Night Shyamalan films — a quiet, family-focused plot and third-act twist — but the WWII setting and sweeping performance of Nicole Kidman (who broke up with Tom Cruise in 2001, good for her!) elevate this eerie ghost story.
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and that’s probably a good thing. This grungy, convoluted ghost flick, edited by Cocaine™, features an eclectic ensemble of ghost hunters — including Tony Shalhoub, fresh off Spy Kids (also 2001), and Matthew Lillard, a year out from his debut as live-action Shaggy — locked in an extremely haunted mansion.
I can’t in good conscience recommend this movie. It was written and directed by Victor Salva, who 12 years earlier was convicted of sexually abusing a child and possession of child sexual abuse imagery. Jeepers Creepers was one of the most traditional and lucrative horror movies of 2001, starring Justin Long and a winged demonic creature that awakens every 23 years to feed on teens. It spawned two sequels, and a third is due to be released before the year is up — the first in a new trilogy, developed without Salva’s involvement. Here’s hopin’, because the Creeper is damn freaky.
OK, I’m cheating a bit — this Wesley Snipesequel came out in March 2002. But it’s still the half-breed progeny of 2001: campy and goth, like Tim Burton’s Batman films; world-building, amid a mini golden era for fantasy film franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings); gory and violent, but not “gritty” like Nolan’s Dark Knight, or stringently family- and China market-friendly like Marvel Cinematic Universe entries. And the emergence of director Guillermo Del Toro as a big-budget horror magnate would be one of the more significant developments of ’00s horror, his filmography influencing current vampire series helmers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (What We Do in the Shadows).
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 299.