Global cinema’s best Halloween thrillers
By Matt Martin
No one can be number one forever.
For a long time in film history, you could only see the movies made by the culture you were in. In the early days of film, from the late 1800s until the late 1930s, most countries, including America, would never see each others’ movies. The art form was simply too new and the tools of distribution too few for any kind of global exposure.
It wouldn’t be until World War II and the resulting clashing of cultures that people began to explore the films of other countries. Interest in global cinema rose in the 1960s and truly bloomed in the 1970s, as films from around the world and across time were finally seen in large numbers, through revival screenings and the birth of videocassette. By the end of the 20th century, cinema would have no boundries, as growing global access to fast media pushes films from every single country to every corner of the planet.
As access to films around the world has grown, people have been able to see and study the differences in how various cultures approach storytelling through cinema. Across the history of movies, every genre from Westerns to comedies to science fiction films has been explored by almost every country on Earth.
But perhaps no genre is more universally explored than the horror film. Every single country that has produced films has had a rich tradition of horror stories on the screen. But from the 1930s until the 1990s, no country produced more horror movies that America. And the whole world loved them.
In terms of cinema, it’s always been one of our specialties. Beginning with the gothic Universal Studios horrors of the ’30s (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, hundreds more), continuing wih the revisionist horrors of the ’60s and ’70s (Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and into the ’80s with the rise of the slasher flicks (Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street), American films have dominated the attention of horror film lovers around the world for much of cinema history. Our celluloid nightmares became the world’s fears, as hungry movie fans everywhere have become obsessed with our horror flicks, raising some cinema villains (like The Frankenstein Monster, Freddy Krueger and hockey mask-wearing Jason) to a level of global recognizability on par with Ronald McDonald and Santa Claus. Truly, for more than 75 years, America OWNED the horror film.
Until now, that is. Starting in the 1990s, the American horror film began to decline. Hollywood studios began a policy of producing fewer films across the board, and this resulted in only the most obvious money-making prospects getting made, usually exhaustive sequels and not-too-scary PG-13 “thrillers.”
In some cases, the studios simply took territory usually explored in horror films to mainstream levels, like the serial killer film (Seven, Silence of the Lambs) or the vampire film (Interview with the Vampire). And a simple comparison of “best of” horror lists online will yield similar results, showing hundreds of great American horrors made from the ’30s to the ’80s, and only a scattered few from after that.
By the end of the century, American horror had been “de-fanged,” reduced to double-digit sequels, videogame adaptations, and direct-to-DVD garbage. Then came the most obvious sign of genre death: remaking films. More than three dozen of our best horror films have already been remade into mostly inferior retreads. For cinema dollars, nothing is sacred.
Don’t get me wrong though: America is still producing a good horror flick here and there (The Loved Ones, House of the Devil, Session 9, Feast, Slither, The Devil’s Rejects). It’s just not as many, never as good. But in the last 15 years, global horror films have exploded, as if to fill the vacuum left by the departing American presence in the genre. The three most popular horror series right now find their origins outside of America: the first Saw films were made by Austrailians, the creator/writer of the Paranormal Activity films is from Israel, and The Human Centipede films are from the Netherlands.
And as digital cameras and readily available editing software make it easier and cheaper for anyone to make a movie, most of these films are being made outside of studio systems, free from the constraints of studio bureaucracy and profitability-over-content constraints. This freedom has allowed for some seriously brilliant horror films to be made, pushing the lines of what the horror film can artistically do and, most importantly, bringing back the fear.
For a complete list of horror movie picks and suggestions from across time and around the world, check out my Ultimate Horror Movie Guide from the October, 2011 LampLighter. But this Halloween, make sure you’ve sampled some of the new wave of horror world cinema from the last 10 years. Here’s a list of eight ground-shattering fear-fests from overseas that will surely make you cringe, gasp, and scream your way to a great holiday. Trick ‘r’ Treat, planet Earth.
1) Martyrs (2008, France) – Wow. This powerful, excruciating descent into revenge and suffering was so controversial upon its release that it forced the usually unregulated film industry of France to consider a rating system. Years after a horrifying abduction and torture that she barely survived, Lucie embarks on a violent quest for vengeance, when she enlists a female friend to help track down her oppressors. But neither are prepared for the vile truths behind the group that abducted her. As outright creepy as it is insanely disturbing. Devastating. A must-see, but be prepared. You have been warned.
2) Audition (2000, Japan) – A lonely widower, anxious to meet someone new, expresses his sadness to a friend, a film producer, who suggests a novel plan: Together, they’ll have a casting call for a fake movie, using the auditions to look for a prospective mate. The plan works, as the widower becomes enamored with one particular girl. But looks can be deceiving, as the burgeoning romance goes horribly wrong. The breakout film from madman director Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, 13 Assassins) builds to a climax so painful that few can avoid squirming. See it with someone you love.
3) The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Spain) – One of the first films from director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, the upcoming Pacific Rim), this brought the ghost story back with a vengeance, mixing mature adult drama into its supernatural scares. Set in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War, a young boy is left in an isolated orphanage after his soldier father dies. As approaching facist armies descend on the place, the boy begins to communicate with a ghost that offers dire warnings. Creepy, moody, smart, and emotionally rich, it manages to hit on real-world fears in the midst of its haunted horrors.
4) Dog Soldiers (2002, England) – Sometimes the simplest ideas can have the biggest payoffs. A British military squad is on a training mission in the Scottish highlands when they find the tables turned, as a different kind of enemy has begun to hunt them: werewolves. The first film from rising horror director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday), this singlehandedly redefined both the man vs.nature genre as well as brought an aggressive, terrifying ferocity to the usually dull werewolf film.
5) Let the Right One In (2008, Sweden) – A young, overlooked and bullied boy finally finds friendship when a fragile, isolated girl moves next door. But when he begins to suspect the troubled girl might be some kind of vampire, he decides to help her survive, no matter the cost. Critically acclaimed the world over, this one took the tired vampire genre into dark, contemplative directions covering everything from the abuse of children to the failures of parenting. Disturbing, stoic and utterly believable. The American remake was decent and well-made, but completely unnecessary.
6) Inside (2007, France) – Another reason why the French can truly claim the mantle for currently being responsible for the best horror films on Earth. On Christmas Eve, a young pregnant woman rests in her country home when a knock on the door begins a night of hell. On the other side, another woman claims the child inside her is actually her own … and she wants it now. What follows is truly a woman’s worst nightmare, as the unnamed attacker begins an assault on her home, her body, and of course, her child. This bloody, painful, claustrophobic film is easily one of the most potent shockers in recent memory. Each agony seems to eclipse the last. Absolutely not for the faint of heart or stomach, but for those who can take it, its harshness is only equalled by its brilliance.
7) The Host (2006, Korea) – Not since Jaws has a giant monster movie been this good. A diverse, but loving family does good business in the small diner they own on the banks of the Han River in Seoul. All is ordinary and peaceful, until a strange creature emerges from the murky depths to begin abducting people. When the family’s youngest daughter is taken, they decide to hunt down the creature and get her back. Equal parts creepy, exciting, funny, and touching, The Host set new records in its native land and kick-started another monster trend in post-2000 cinema. There’s talk of an American remake — please say it ain’t so.
8) [REC] (2007, Spain) – Point-of-view horror films have a small history, but didn’t get really noticed until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project broke most horror records with its undeniably creepy but still flawed approach. Since then, POV horrors (as they are called) have become big business with movies like Cloverfield and The Chernobyl Diaries. But none have used that technique to its full potential until a small, barely noticed Spanish film called REC (as in, RECORD) began sweeping festivals and underground film groups.
A reporter and her cameraman are called to cover a possible crime in an old apartment building. Following police and emergency workers inside, they find that something terrible has infected some of the tenants, turning them insane and murderous. But when they find a panicking police force outside has locked them all in the building to contain it, they bear witness to a nightmare unfolding, capturing it all on video. Finally, a POV film that uses its limited camera vision to accentuate dark corners and impending doom. Tense, clever, believable, and chocked full of jump shocks. Sadly, this was remade in America two years ago and called Quarantine. It’s not even a fraction as good.
Dozens more phenomenal horrors from around the world have emerged lately. Be sure to also see High Tension, Frontiers, 28 Days Later, A Tale of Two Sisters, Memories of Murder, Three Extremes, The Descent, Taxidermia, The Orphanage, Thirst, I Saw the Devil, The Horde, and Shutter. This Halloween, pack each night with as many horror movies as you can. Just make sure you get out of your own backyard and try some movies from across the pond.
Now pass me the candy corns — they’re my favorite.