Europe: The New Cradle of Horror

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.

Martyrs (2008)

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.

What horror fan doesn't love Nazi zombies?

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.


Filed under Foreign Film, French Film, Movies, Swedish Film

13 responses to “Europe: The New Cradle of Horror

    • Yep. It’s in there. Last sentence of the Spain paragraph. It’s easy to lose because [ is a weird way to start a sentence. Fantastic movie, BTW, but I made the mistake of watching the American remake first (not knowing there was an original Spanish version).

  1. You are so right. Although I am not a fan of being scared whilst watching a film, I do agree that there is a really healthy (or SICK) breed of horrors coming out of Europe.

    Have a good weekend matey

  2. I’m not sure if Shaun of The Dead and Attack The Block would qualify as outright “horror” films, would they? The former I’d class as a splatter-comedy (like Peter Jackson’s Braindead) and the latter would be more an action/monster/sci-fi flick.

    I think it depends on what the classification of “horror” is – scary movies like The Descent seem less a horror film and more a monster movie with some good scares. When I think of horror I think of films like Nightmare On Elm Street and the Jason movies – the Saw franchise being the modern go-to series where young teens met grisly and gruesome deaths. I define horror as films in which human beings are the subject of the carnage, less so than monster films or ghost stories. Am I too naive in my thinking? Isn’t “horror” a film where some lunatic stalks underdressed teens with a cleaver?

    Body horror seems to be more horrific than ghost stories like The Others (a terrific and vastly underrated film) or [REC] which I’d probably describe more as thrillers than genuine horror.

    I know I sound argumentative but horror, to me, should have plenty of blood and guts, or at least some gore to make it genuinely horrific.

    • I’d say that’s a very, very limited definition of horror and that you’re blurring the difference between what you find scary and what others find scary, and even what works within the working definition of horror. Removing monster movies from the equation would eliminate movies like, say, The Wolf Man or Frankenstein or Dracula from the horror genre, when those movies were actually the ones that played a major role in defining the genre. In fact, the reason people started referring to the existence of a “horror” genre in the first place was because of the popularity of Dracula and Frankenstein in the early 1930’s. It would also eliminate a huge portion of the modern horror market–J Horror, which deals so much with vengeful ghosts and the like.

      Shaun, Attack the Block, and The Troll Hunter (amongst others) are definitely genre-benders in that they’re also sci-fi, comedy, etc…, but they are most certainly horror at heart. All three are listed as “horror” on their respective IMDb pages. Even by the Wikipedia definition of a horror film, they pass: “Horror films seek to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s most primal fears. They often feature scenes that startle the viewer through the means of macabre and the supernatural, thus frequently overlapping with the fantasy and science fiction genres. Horrors also frequently overlap with the thriller genre.”

      Going on with the Wiki definition, it almost seems like the films you’re referencing- slasher films- are the true outliers, the ones that had to gain acceptance: “Horror films deal with the viewer’s nightmares, hidden worst fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown. Although a good deal of it is about the supernatural, if some films contain a plot about morbidity, serial killers, a disease/virus outbreak and surrealism, they may be termed “horror”.”

  3. Great post John.

    This is a trend I’m rather fond of, especially the French and Belgian ones as you know from my blog, and as you pointed out there are also some strong horror films coming out of Spain lately, [REC] is outstanding.

    Aside from Let the Right One In, I haven’t been overly impressed with the Scandinavian ones though.

    Also one I think deserves mentioning is A Serbian Film, one of the most f**d up films in recent years.

    • The Scandinavian ones definitely have a different feel to them. They’re much more light-hearted, if that’s even a reasonable way to refer to a horror movie. They’ve got a lot more humor to them (with Let the Right One In being the exception).

      I have yet to see A Serbian Film. One day, I’m going to have to brace myself and dive into it.

  4. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    I am confused by the Nazi Zombie genre. Once a Nazi becomes a zombie then wouldn’t his human political ideology be irrelevant? Isn’t it bad enough that they are trying to eat people’s brains? If these zombies were able to carry over their extremist political ideology, if anything, Jewish people would be safe from these zombies because Nazi zombies probably wouldn’t want to non-Aryan brains.

  5. Staci Alexander

    With the massive success of “Let the Right One In”, I’m surprised they haven’t turned John Ajvide Lindqvist’s second book Handling the Undead into a film. Particularly with the zombie craze still in full swing.

  6. I agree with you completely here. Europe has churned out some amazingly good horror films. One of my favourites which doesn’t get much mention is Gaspar Noè’s early film, the intense and disturbing I STAND ALONE. If you can find that one, it comes highly recommended.

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