[30 July 2009]
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.
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.
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.