By the mid 2000s, even the Asian filmmakers had exploited to death the themes and structures that characterized the best horror films of the region. As with most things in life, uninspired repetition led to unbearable tediousness and boredom. Today, even though Asia continues to export a considerable number of horror flicks, their quality has decreased in a truly dramatic way.
On the other side of the globe the situation has not been much better. As a matter of fact, it is quite sad to admit that the American horror market continues to be obsessed with mindless remakes of classic and foreign flicks. And this trend continues to be strong, even after decided failures such as the remakes of Last House on the Left (2009), My Bloody Valentine (2009), and Friday the 13th (2009).
Fortunately, in recent years, serious horror connoisseurs have turned their interest to a new wave of brutal and ground breaking horror films. Quite surprisingly if you think about it, the country which is producing these high quality fear flicks is France.
In the past few years, French filmmakers have delighted us with films such as I Stand Alone (1998), The Crimson Rivers (2000), The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), Irreversible (2002), High Tension (2003), The Ordeal (2004), The Crimson Rivers (2004), Sheitan (2006), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008).
Most of these horror masterworks can be characterized by their uncompromising brutality, their devastating sense of desperation and hopelessness, their thrashing of rational thought, and their bleak endings that repudiate narrative closure. In a sense, these films bring to mind the creepy qualities and revolutionary nature of the American horror films made during the 1969-1980 period.
As has been pointed out countless times, these beloved American horror films can be seen as a reaction to the turmoil of the era. The violence and sense of dejection showcased in these flicks can be interpreted as a metaphoric allusion to several social ills, including racism, civil unrest, the collapse of the family institution, Watergate-spawned paranoia, and the Vietnam War. Furthermore, the recent wave of remakes of films made in those years has been theorized to be a consequence of the equally troubled cultural landscape produced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What really makes these observations so perplexing is the fact that the above mentioned French horror flicks are decidedly far more powerful than their American counterparts, and they have been produced on the same time period. That is, if the remakes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Last House on the Left are a reflection of the undeniable nightmarish cultural landscape that currently haunts America, then, why are they relatively tame when compared to Frontier(s) and Martyrs?
Similarly, even though news reports do not show France going through a crisis tougher than any other country nowadays, can we use their cinematic output to conclude that the European country is going through a tough cultural crisis? That is, if the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes were a reaction to the social ills of the era, can we make a similar assertion regarding Frontier(s) and Martyrs?
If you think about it, such questions are not trivial at all. On one hand, the past 30 years have witnessed volumes of academic papers attempting to explain how horror films accurately reflect the cultural climate of the era. On the other hand, we can observe a clear trend of gruesome French films that do not appear to correspond to a troubled social landscape as predicted by modern film theories. Thus, we can ask, is film theory inaccurate on this specific instance? Or better yet, are we failing to see a deep sentiment of anguish and fear in the French consciousness outside their cinematic productions?
In this regard, the problem with film theory in particular, and cultural studies in general, is that they suffer from perfect hindsight and zero foresight. That is, in this field, all the theories and conjectures are based on correlations that have been deduced from observations of past events. Every time a new trend surfaces, cultural theories are modified accordingly to take these social changes into account. As such, to date, their predictive power has been close to nil. But then again, social and cultural effects form complex networks of interactions that are extremely difficult to model and simulate outside the scope of very general trends.
In any event, films such as Frontier(s) and Martyrs are highly recommended to horror fans everywhere. Their ground breaking amount of violence, brutality and gore may earn them some negative comments from the community, but they remain two of the most important horror films ever made. In the case of Martyrs, for instance, the film takes the “torture porn” subgenre to uncharted territories. Far more vicious and wicked than the Hostel and Saw franchises combined together, Martyrs also shows the philosophy, existentialism, poetry, and beauty of torture pornography. By any means, Martyrs is a deeply disturbing film, but it is also a movie that has to be witnessed.
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