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Martyrs
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Arguably, the American film industry is the main driving force that dictates the content and the look of most of the movies that are produced all around the globe. Such a commanding influence does not rest on aesthetic arguments though, but is based on the sheer power of economics. Indeed, even though films are artistic products that reflect the specific cultural landscape of its creators, their distribution often follows the strict financial guidelines imposed by Hollywood.


Furthermore, mass consumption often dictates the aesthetic sensibilities of the filmmakers. That is, the artistic value of a film is a relative quality, which ultimately depends on the specific market where the movie is consumed. As much as certain films are made to a specific target audience, the popular response to such films will in turn influence its marketability and encourage or discourage the production of similar products. As such, it should not be a surprise that sometimes the film market gets saturated with strikingly similar products.


Just consider, back in 1998 our planet Earth got hit by meteors in Armageddon, Deep Impact, and countless low rent imitations. And the year before, the heat of lava and volcanoes melted audiences in Dante’s Peak, Volcano, and countless low rent imitations. Today, the American horror film industry is stuck in a shameless effort of blindly regurgitating the classics of the olden days. In as much as these films continue to be consumed and cheered by modern audiences, there is no motivation for Hollywood and its filmmakers to take alternate routes.


However, even though the history of horror cinema is pretty much equivalent to the history of the American horror cinema, there have been periods were foreign films have been acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. In turn, these small foreign productions have dramatically altered the development of domestic horror films. To better appreciate these influences, let us take a brief tour through the history of horror cinema.


cover art

Martyrs

Director: Pascal Laugier
Cast: Catherine Begin, Robert Toupin

(US DVD: 28 Apr 2009)

Few would disagree that horror cinema was born in 1910 with Edison’s Frankenstein. Even though the previous decade had seen a variety of shorts with fantastic and scary themes produced by the inimitable Goerges Melies, these can hardly be considered as movies, at least within the context in which the art and techniques are understood today.


However, the first aesthetic shift in horror culture took place during the ‘20s, when Germany produced several masterworks that combined creepy situations with a striking cinematography composed of contrasting lights and shadows. Movies made during this expressionistic period include The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), and Nosferatu (1922).


It is impossible to ignore the influence that these films had on the development of subsequent horror films made by Universal Studios during the ‘30s and ‘40s. At the very least, the clever use of cinematography and special effects to convey a sense of dread can be traced back to the German expressionistic period.


As the American horror films dominated the international market for most of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the ‘50s witnessed an important development that took place in Great Britain. During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Hammer Studios revamped the traditional monster figures and completely revolutionized the horror genre. Some of the flicks produced by Hammer Studios include The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). Made in bright color, showcasing generous amounts of blood and gore, as well as a series of adult situations, the Hammer horror flicks resuscitated old monsters for the tastes of contemporary audiences.


Such an explicit showcase of violence and gore is likely to have influenced the important films that emerged from the US during the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Arguably, films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) are indebted to the aesthetic sensibilities of Terence Fischer and Freddie Francis.


And then again, during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Italian horror filmmakers such as Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento redefined cinematic violence once more. Similar to the way Sergio Leone deconstructed the myth of the American Western, these Italian horror maestros profoundly altered the visual and narrative structure of subsequent horror films.


Indeed, films such as Suspiria (1977) and Zombie (1979) were characterized by long scenes showcasing a gruesome and bloody death, at the expense of interrupting the narrative flow the movie. Clearly, these Italian shockers were influential on the structure of ‘80s American slasher flicks. Indeed, films in the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series were often constructed around gory set pieces full of special effects with a negligible contribution to the narrative.


By the late ‘90s, just as the American horror cinema had exhausted the slasher formula, the next influx of originality came from Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. With movies such as Whispering Corridors (1998), The Ring (1998), and The Eye (2002), hardcore horrorhounds all over the world turned their gore sensitive sniffers towards Asia. And even though these movies were small productions, compared to the big blockbusters made in Hollywood, they managed to redefine worldwide horror culture.


Just consider, the US DVD market not only was suddenly flooded with a large number of Asian horror imports, but also Hollywood started to remake these gems of the macabre. Unfortunately, these remakes were tailored to what Hollywood executives believed was the common American viewer. As a consequence, these remakes lost most of the inventiveness and exoticism that had made the original films so unique.

Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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