2008 was an election year, which made the year horrible enough all by itself. The US was dealing with potential economic collapse as well as the ongoing threat of terrorism and adjustment to the idea of a more multilateral future in the world. Maybe all that tension is what made it such a fantastic year for horror films.
Of the four years we will be considering, 2008 was by far the most challenging from which to pick a favorite. Apart from traditional movies or DTV productions, 2008 saw a boom in web-based horror with such efforts as Beyond the Rave, an online serial from the newly resurrected Hammer Studios. The burgeoning age of instant media also inspired Cloverfield, a truly innovative take on kaiju stories. From Sweden, Let the Right One In told a new kind of vampire story, and vampires were everywhere in 2008, so this was no mean feat. Zombies were pretty common too, though their numbers would increase in the following years, and no zombie tale was more innovative or entertaining than the Canadian Pontypool.
But our pick was a 100% American film, rooted in the country’s eternal fascination with the epic of westward expansion. “Post-colonial” in every sense of the word, respectful of Native American culture without dancing with wolves, and genuinely horrific, no other fright film in 2008 was quite as effective as The Burrowers. Directed by rising star J.T. Petty, who may be the smartest horror director currently working, The Burrowers owes debts to John Ford and to countless monster movies from the last half of the 20th Century, while also managing to be spectacularly original. Whether viewed as allegory or as straightforward horror, The Burrowers is relentlessly entertaining, even when it’s hard to watch.
Like Ford’s The Searchers, Petty’s script tells the story of a band of white men in search of a stolen girl, and plays with all the familiar trappings of classic Westerns before turning them inside out like a gutted deer. Making the very best use of a small budget and full of great touches, The Burrowers may be the best horror film of the entire decade. All of Petty’s movies are worth seeking out. His 2001 debut, Soft for Digging, is probably the best horror movie ever made for less than $10,000 (no, that’s not a typo). He has a new film, Hellbenders, which should be out any day now.
Drake and I will be the ones at the head of the line.