It’s been written off as a simple, sadistic slice of “torture porn” – and, in fairness to this viewpoint, the film’s (seemingly endless) string of sequels have certainly gone all-out when it game to the elaborate gore. But don’t be too quick to dismiss the movie that kicked it all off.
In James Wan’s gripping little 2004 horror-thriller, two men find themselves trapped in a room, each chained by the leg to opposite ends of their prison – with instructions that one must kill the other by 6pm that day or risk the death of his family. A corpse and a gun lie between them, while cassette recordings relay their tasks. Meanwhile, through flashbacks and cuts to scenes of police work, we learn more about the enigmatic man behind their predicament, the so-called Jigsaw Killer. The film, believe it or not, is relatively restrained, teasing us with the horrifying choices it presents – the men eventually twig that the saws they have been given are not for their chains, but for their legs – and building up an impression of killer who will always have one up on his victims, and his audience.
Along with Hostel, Saw was a film that defined an era – and went on to spark a hugely successful franchise. If possible, however, it’s still best to watch the original without knowing too much about what comes next.
The Descent (2005)
Horror went underground in 2005 with The Descent, a frightening movie set in a subterranean cave system, that took the refreshingly bold step of having an all-female cast. (The superficially similar but absolutely awful US film The Cave, which came out the same year, serves as a useful reminder of just how good The Descent is). While Marshall’s 2002 Dog Soldiers, about a group of army recruits who have a run in with some werewolves, arguably felt like a very male kind of horror, the director went out of his way to make a different kind of film with The Descent, focusing on his female characters, their relationships, and their emotions.
The combination of plausible personalities, all-too-believable inter-group tensions and a unique setting combine to make a monster movie that is both jumpy (think horrible creatures dwelling in dark places) and psychologically chilling (friends betray each other, and it’s impossible to know who to trust). Claustrophobes and those with a fear of being buried alive should probably avoid.
Wolf Creek (2005)
Ah, Wolf Creek. Pay attention, horror aficionados: this is how you do a holiday-gone-wrong movie. It’s also how you do a “torture porn” movie.
A slow, indulgent build-up gives us time to properly get to know the film’s trio of young tourists – and, at first, it’s only the isolation, as the three travellers disappear into the vast Australian desert, that disquiets. People can get lost in deserts, we remember. People can disappear. Of course, this being a horror movie, there’s a friendly Aussie face on hand to help with the actual disappearing: sadistic killer Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), who tortures and dispatches those unlucky enough to stray into his path in an array of nightmarish ways. (Head on a stick, anyone?)
The film spawned a sequel, as well as a TV series – but, for sheer mesmerising nastiness, plus expertly escalating tension, the original takes a lot of beating.
Inland Empire (2006)
A horror film? You betcha. Just as Mulholland Drive trapped us inside the disintegrating psyche of a would-be starlet, Lynch’s epic, abrasive, wildly divisive follow-up charts the alleged comeback of faded actress Nikki Grace (an astonishing Laura Dern), who disappears down the rabbit-hole of her own delusions. The abyss she tumbles into is one of the scariest of its decade, offering no identifiable exit and bringing her face to face with… well, her own face, in a ballooned-out form that’s as nightmarish an image as Lynch has ever inflicted.
Don’t search here for Mulholland’s death-dream puzzle logic, just hold on for dear life, in a devastating ordeal of a psychodrama which often feels like it’s being broadcast to you from Purgatory.
The Orphanage (2007)
This Guillermo Del Toro-produced film begins as a conventional but beautifully atmospheric supernatural chiller: a mother, Laura (Belén Rueda), her husband Carlos and their young adopted son Simón move to an abandoned orphanage, Laura’s childhood home, where the son begins communicating with an unseen “friend”. But things take a turn halfway through, when Simón disappears without trace, and Laura, driven frantic by grief, begins digging into half-forgotten secrets from her own childhood.
Ultimately, The Orphanage is all about the parent-child relationship and the lengths a mother will go to for a son – and it’s Rueda’s stunning performance that gives the film its emotional heart. But the creepy mood also deserves a mention (think perfectly-maintained eeriness, rather than silly shocks), as does the intricate plotting. Early on, we see Simón play with treasure hunts, and the structure of the film itself echoes this idea: clues lead to further clues, long-buried answers (and decades-old bones) come to light, and we move towards the tragic final reveal in perfectly measured steps.