What Scares Us Makes Us Stronger
Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001) and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) were each American remakes of non-American horror films, hailing from Spain and Japan, respectively. Given the remarkable box office appeal of each remake, it appears that non-American horror films are on the verge of being mainstreamed into the English-speaking world. One need only consider the Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang Thai film The Eye (2002) and then realize that no less a celebrity than Tom Cruise is currently slated to remake that film.
Yet there is more to Steven Jay Schneider’s new book than a simple appraisal of cinematic traditions beyond American and British models like Universal Studios or Hammer films. The book grapples with one main point throughout: How can virtually unknown but highly entertaining horror films be promoted beyond a small circle of aficionados to reach all moviegoers?
As a partial answer, Fear Without Frontiers offers two dozen articles, many black-and-white stills, and a center panel of color images to excite the reader. Divided into four sections, the book first focuses on individual personalities before moving on to film cycles and genre histories and then concluding with a case study of contemporary Japanese horror cinema. Interspersed among scholarly histories are interviews with the horror auteurs Jorge Molina and Nonzee Nimibutr, as well as close analyses of such films as Alejandro Jodorowky’s El Topo (1970) and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). But it’s the ambitious scope of the book that lingers and boomerangs back to Schneider’s underlying thesis.
The very notion of foreignness, of frightening difference, is arguably what drives every horror movie. Whether those differences are embodied by space invaders, blood borne disease, pagan gods or technology run amuck, horror movies celebrate the collapse of civilization, often through the destruction of individuals. This idea clearly forms the heart of Fear Without Frontiers since non-Anglo, local horror traditions reflect cultural fears that are as terrifying as anything churned out in the better-known model of Hollywood.
In exploring culturally specific horrors like the Indonesian pontianaks (the spirit of a stillborn child whose mother also died in childbirth) or the Italian zombie (the embodiment of Catholic fervor surrounding redemption and ascension to heaven), rather than concentrating on a more general human fear of dying, Fear Without Frontiers investigates how non-Hollywood films expand our understanding of what terrifies us, both generally and very specifically. Of course any attempt to examine movie traditions from countries as diverse as Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Thailand, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea, Germany, Austria, Poland, India, and France, among others, tends to wander due to the sheer breadth of consideration. Even so, Schneider’s shotgun blast is fiercely instructive. His book is more than a curio for cinephiles nursing affection for obscure titles.
Put simply, there is more at issue in Fear Without Frontiers than providing another coaster for overburdened coffee tables. By providing a glimpse into the great expanses of non-mainstream, non-Hollywood filmmaking, Schneider serves as a kind of horror film curator, or at least volunteer docent, prompting us to look beyond our own carefully inscribed entertainment borders to find out what makes us scream.
At its best, Schneider’s efforts will pique the interest of those who are presumably in the “know” about horror movies. An exploration of ignored areas in cinema history is well worth the read, albeit if only to fatten a “must see” list of motion pictures. Here, I’m thinking especially of Gary D. Rhodes and his chapter “Fantasmas del cine Mexicano: the 1930s horror film cycles of Mexico.”
To the uninitiated, the shock of learning what appears on non-Anglo movie screens will also be great. Illustrative is Travis Crawford’s chapter “The urban techno-alienation of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club,” which discusses the eponymous film’s premise of school-aged girls committing suicide by subway train. Gruesome stuff, but also quite provocative in terms of its reflection of Japanese society, as well as how filmmaking technology can simultaneously excite and disgust audiences. Perhaps there’s even a strain of cross-cultural fetishism in Schneider’s book. To fans of certain unheralded filmmakers like Jose Mojica Marins, or to die-hard nationalists anxious to see their tradition treated seriously, this undercurrent is no doubt welcome.
As is often the case in collected works, however, the editorial and conceptual strengths of the volume are offset by weaknesses among individual contributors. While I’ve singled out Rhodes and Crawford for praise, it’s equally troubling to see a list-turned-chapter like Todd Tjersland’s “Cinema of the doomed: the tragic horror of Paul Naschy,” which reads badly and doesn’t encourage further interest in Naschy’s multi-faceted career. This unevenness is no doubt due to the need for a certain page count. Nonetheless, it reflects poorly on a book that so earnestly tries to entice readers into viewing the many notable movies mentioned between its covers.