There’s been an interesting movie phenomenon taking place over the last 10 to 15 years. American horror films have started to lose the battle for horror supremacy. The horror genre in America has become fast food, unappealing and bloated. The same handful of plots and foreign remakes are twisted up and offered again and again under different names from different studios with different directors. Occasionally, the films are entertaining if uncreative (prime example: Paranormal Activities 1, 2, and 3). And there are plenty of talented up-and-coming low-budget horror filmmakers who, unjustly, aren’t being trusted with wide releases. But make no mistake–viewers are being fed the same synaptical mediocrity. Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this phenomenon, but that’s not what I’d like to talk about. Namely, I’d like to talk about the new cradle of good horror. Asia has certainly made a mark, but the real king of Horror Mountain right now is Europe.
One of the more obvious examples comes from the New French Extremity. Critic James Quandt defined it:
Bava as much as Bataille, Salo no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.
It is essentially corporeal (body) horror, but with no boundaries. And unlike similar American equivalents, it’s presented a great deal more artfully. It draws inspiration from the French New Wave, amongst many other sources. It boasts several phenomenal films as part of the movement. To name several: Inside (2007); Calvaire (2004); Martyrs (2008); Frontiers (2007); Them (2006); Irreversible (2002); and Sheitan (2006). What’s fascinating is that some directors decline the existence of a movement in France. Pascal Laugier, director of Martyrs, points out that the number of horror films released in France each year is still very small in relation to other genres. My answer to him would be that it’s not about quantity; it’s about quality, and France is and has been producing it in buckets.
Just west of France, the UK has hit stride with the horror genre. Three of the best horror films of the last 10 years were products of the UK–Shaun of the Dead (2004), Attack the Block (2011), and Dog Soldiers (2002). The UK has also provided Severance (2006), The Descent (2005), Monsters (2010), Eden Lake (2008), and The Cottage (2008). The wonderful onslaught of British horror was kicked off by no less than Danny Boyle when he released 28 Days Later in 2002. With names like Edgar Wright, Danny Boyle, Joe Cornish, and Neil Marshall making horror films, it’d be easy to point to the talent creating the product as the source of the UK’s run of brilliant horror. But as British director/producer/writer Simon Sprackling pointed out in a 2010 interview with The Guardian, there’s something bigger at play. “We’re very different from the US because we have a proper gothic tradition,” said Sprackling. “And we have a fatalism to our view of the world, knowing that things can’t possibly work out well in the end.” There are already a few more potential gems on the horizon for US audiences of British horror–The Woman in Black and The Awakening.
It should come as no surprise that northern Europe, the same region that created classic horror masterpieces like Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) and The Phantom Carriage (1921), would be pushing horror forward. The movement started in northern Europe as far back as 1994 when Lars von Trier released his TV miniseries, The Kingdom, in Denmark. More recently, Denmark gave us The Substitute in 2007, starring Dogme 95 veterans Paprika Steen and Ulrich Thomsen. Sweden blew away audiences worldwide with Let the Right One In (2008), which came on the heels of horror/comedy Frostbite (2006) and exploitation horror Die Zombiejäger (2005). Finland provided arthouse horror with 2008’s Sauna and last year’s lovable action/comedy/horror, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Norway has enjoyed a great deal of success as well, rejuvenating the Nazi zombie genre with Dead Snow (2009), drilling deep into country-specific mythology with The Troll Hunter (2010), and providing a fresh take on the slasher genre with Cold Prey (2006).
Spain has helped the effort, with Guillermo del Toro leading the charge with The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Cronos (1993). He also produced Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007). While not technically a Spanish language film, atmospheric 2001 horror The Others was directed by Spanish-Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar. [REC] (2007) received a rush of critical acclaim, and co-director Paco Plaza contributed The Christmas Tale to the 2005 series of TV movies, Films to Keep You Awake at Night.
None of this is to say that American horror is dead. It will surely come back, just as it always does. And the US has provided its own healthy list of fine horror, despite this being (as horror maven/film critic Scott Weinberg calls it) “the worst horror movie year of all time“. However, until the US regains stride, Europe is providing a lot of incredible movies to keep horror fans happy.