World of Horror

Ten thousand years ago years ago Stone Age people painted half-human/half-animal monsters on cave walls. Flash forward 100 centuries and filmmakers continue to scare the pants off viewers with images of gore and ghouls. But in the last five years the general audience's appetite for terror has increased exponentially.

In 2003 alone, some 300 horror flicks worldwide were released in theatres or re-released on DVD or video, including "House of the Dead" from Germany's Uwe Boll, Briton Danny Boyle's apocalyptic thriller "28 Days Later" and a litany of Hollywood-style offerings ("Darkness Falls" and "The Order"). When real life for many is scarier than anything on the silver screen, why is the lust for fear universal? And do the Japanese find different things scary than the Argentines? Is Indian horror vastly different from French?

When putting together his book Fear Without Frontiers (FAB Press, 2003), Steven Jay Schneider was surprised to learn that horror is just about the only cinematic genre that hasn't been co-opted by Hollywood. Tinseltown has usurped the kung fu genre, and even some Bollywood romances have a taste of the American romantic comedy. But from country to country, Schneider found, horror has retained "specific cultural conventions" -- from 1930s Mexican vampire movies to Austrian home-invasion flicks.

"There are some things that are capable of scaring mostly everyone, cross-culturally -- doppelgängers, being buried alive, castration anxieties, etc.," Schneider explains. "Mostly the types of themes and imagery that Freud wrote about."

But other scariness is very particular, such as Malaysian vampire films inspired by the folkloric figure the langsuyar (a creature who sucks the blood of children through an opening in her neck). And you won't find many zombie flicks in Indian horror because of the Hindu practice of cremation. "The Japanese have a number of horror films with vengeful female killers [including "Freeze Me" and "Odishon"],"says Schneider."This likely has a lot to do with the repression of certain aspects of female sexuality in Japanese society."

Japanese horror cinema has also taken a particularly violent turn (witness the bloodbath that was Shion Sono's "Suicide Club"), and some lay the blame directly on the country's prolonged financial slump. In a recent interview with horror-fan magazine Fangoria, Hideo Nakata, director of the smash hit "Ringu," said, "In Japan, we have a rising tide of children killing parents, parents killing children, as well as killer cults. Horror has changed greatly over the past 20 years. Young people have become accustomed to true terror."

Sam McKinlay, programmer for the Cinemuerte Festival in Vancouver (a film festival specializing in horror films) maintains horror is directly influenced by external events, even years after the fact. The Great Depression, for instance, produced versions of Hollywood horror classics: "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "The Mummy."

"The first wave of slasher films ('Night of the Living Dead,' 'The Shining,' 'Halloween') were a response to the violence of Vietnam," he theorizes. "During Desert Storm, the new breed of funny, self-reflexive slasher films made its official comeback with 'Scream' and its sequels." This summer, immediately following the most recent war in Iraq, horror films took top spot at the box office with "Freddy vs. Jason," followed by "Jeepers Creepers II." Now ironic, tongue-in-cheek horror (of the "Scream" and "Freddy-and-Jason" variety) is being replaced by good, old-fashioned terror. The much-hyped remake of the brutal "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is now in theatres, and another prequel to what many consider the scariest movie of all time, "The Exorcist," is set for release next year.

While films like "28 Days Later" and "Ringu," along with their Indian, Spanish, Italian and Korean counterparts, have created a huge market for smart but relatively cheap horror films, increasingly crosscultural film fertilization results in some surprising hybrids. While Nakata's "Ringu" employed traditional Japanese supernatural stories, he also admitted to being influenced by the "Amityville Horror" series. The Italian giallo (or thriller) genre grew into the US slasher film, but sometimes, the offspring is less than stellar.

If Quentin Tarantino ripped off the yakuza films of Kinju Fukasaku, and Guy Ritchie ripped off Tarantino with "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," and "Dog Soldiers" (a British werewolf flick) ripped them both off, well you get the picture, after a while it becomes impossible to trace references back to their point of origin. McKinlay has some strongly held opinions on this form of filmic appropriation. "The horror industry is like a vicious circle as everyone takes a bit from everyone else, but the US system of killing films for the American audiences will always be a travesty."

Although purists screamed that US-made "Ring" purged all the subtlety from the original, the film's executive producer Roy Lee has no such reservations. As 'Asia's Man in Hollywood' according to a recent profile in the New Yorker he has sold the remake rights to some 17 Asian hit films, including Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on ("The Grudge") to Sam Raimi, executive producer of "The Evil Dead" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Dark Water" (to be released through Disney), another spookfest from Nakata. Lee thinks that horror is the most translatable of genres, because "all cultures are pretty much scared by the same things." While he has mostly mined the film cultures of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, Lee's most recent acquisition is from la hell province: Québécois filmmaker Éric Tessier's "Sur le Seuil."

Directed by Tessier from a screenplay co-written with author Patrick Sénécal, the story revolves around a horror novelist who chops off the ends of his fingers in an attempt to stop himself from writing. "Sur le seuil" is a first for Quebec cinema, but given the popularity of horror around the world, its entry could not have come at a better moment.

Canadian films are on the cutting edge of horror. The big Mack Daddy of Canadian scaries, David Cronenberg was recently chosen as one of the top 40 directors of all time by Empire Magazine in the UK, and a special tribute to his inimitable directorial style will take place at L.A.'s American Cinematheque January 29-February 4th. Screenwriter Karen Walton, who penned the cult hit "Ginger Snaps," admits that most Canadian horror makers are "direct descendants of Cronenberg. I'm from that generation that grew up on his films, his philosophy resonates, the body betraying, illness, lust, the mind, I'm a great fan of psychological complexity of his films."

According to Dr. Andre Loiselle, Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University, Cronenberg's films tap into our fears of "the violence from within." Loiselle argues this stems from Canada's colonial past, when early settlers huddled together over the long dark winters. Isolation led to claustrophobia led to sudden explosions of violence.

British film critic Nigel Floyd has written about horror films for more than 20 years and in that time he's seen them come and go. Unlike the trend of remaking Japanese or Canadian horror for US audiences, Floyd doubts that the same fate will befall British films.

"The British tradition of horror (i.e., Hammer Studios) was very much a product of British society, it wasn't until I saw "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" that I realized horror films didn't have to have people wearing cravats in them. These were very gentlemanly films. Very stuffy and aristocratic. There's always the danger of British films aping Hollywood, and ending up not knowing what they want to be exactly." He admits that the mix of US and British traditions can lead to some hellish results such as Heather Graham channeling Dick Van Dyke's 'mockney' accent in "From Hell." Crikey!

"British horror is always sputtering and threatening a revival," says Floyd "but what you have to realize it is still very much a cottage industry in England. They are strictly one-offs."

While "28 Days Later" was something of an exception with a whack of money from Fox Searchlight, other films like Rob Green's "Bunker" and "Dog Soldiers" were made very much on the cheap. "One of the things that sets these films apart from studio dreck is that they were made by one (oft times insane) individual. These are renegade filmmakers, not some pop video hack making Friday the 13th part bazillion."

Scary movies, as a form of sublimation, may be a psychological necessity during times of stress, as evidenced by the explosion of horror film making during economic depression, war or other real horrors. While Hollywood stripmines world cinema in search of the next big hit, independent filmmakers around the world will continue to churn out fictional versions of the darkest parts of their national psyches.

Dorothy Woodend is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.

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