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By Colin Odell, Michelle Le Blanc
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2007 Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc
All rights reserved.
HORROR IN EUROPE
Europe has always been in turmoil, a collection of tribes and civilisations rising, falling, fighting, absorbing for thousands of years. It's a melange of cultures with different customs and beliefs but all at some point affected by the others. The oral, written and historical tales of the continent feed into the films it produces. Europe's history has given us gladiatorial bloodshed lit by night with human torches, genocide, pandemics, religious persecution, the Inquisition, torture and slavery. Greek legends, Icelandic epics, Beowulf and the literature of Webster, Goethe and de Sade have all fed into the wider cultural absorption of the horror genre. The Malleus Maleficarum was responsible for the torture and execution of thousands. The Crusades decimated the Middle East. In many ways the Europeans conceptually invented the horror film through folklore, literature and real life long before they had the means to realise it. All European countries have a film tradition, all have made horror films, but some countries have developed defined horror movements, while others have singular entries or filmmakers that have made their mark.
In Denmark, Benjamin Christensen's long gestating Haxan (1922) proved to be a revolutionary mixture of documentary, fantasy and reconstruction that is astonishing, even today, with its heady brew of demonic imagery, animation and scale. Christensen briefly moved to America, making a number of elaborate fantasy horror comedies before returning to Denmark. Denmark has a tradition of horror films from Dreyer's Leaves From Satan's Book (1919) to Martin Schmidt's bizarre Sidste time (1995), where a group of misbehaving students are picked off in after-school detention, and events outside the classroom, depicted on their televisions, clash with what they think they see. Maverick filmmaker Lars von Trier's early Epidemic (1987) indicated that the director was more than capable of delivering the goods when it came to horror but it was the groundbreaking television series Riget (The Kingdom, 1994) and its sequel that really shone. The Kingdom Hospital is built on an ancient burial ground where the long dead still exert influence over the living. Its mixture of Twin Peaks style soap opera with outright horror – brain surgery without anaesthetic, zombies, body parts in fridges, ghosts in the escalator – marks it out as one of the more outrageous series ever made. With its Dane-hating Swedish surgeon Krogshøj and the ghost-sensitive patient Mrs Drusse adding to the humour, it's up to genre favourite Udo Kier to provide the series with its most bizarre moments, appearing as a giant mutant baby. Krogshøj must certainly find the blood and guts disturbing, as Sweden's very strict censorship of violence resulted in, until recently, very few examples of the genre outside the grim art- shock of Bergman's more extreme films.
Belgian director Harry Kümel's Les rouges aux lèvres(Daughters of Darkness, 1971) remains, arguably, the finest vampire film ever made, a ravishing and sensual experience. His Malpertuis: Histoire d'une maison maudite (1971) is an even more surreal example of the genre, where prisoners in a doomed mansion are bound by an oath kept from beyond the grave. Kümel's visual lyricism gives his films a dreamlike air but sadly most of his work after this period is unavailable for viewing. The Netherlands has recently seen a spate of horror films, revitalising a scant genre that includes George Sluizer's brilliantly disturbing Spoorloos (1988) and the enjoyable De Lift (1983), which, despite the seemingly unterrifying premise of a killer lift, manages to provide plenty of tension and scares. Director Dick Maas went on to make the gruesomely excellent action film Amsterdamned (1988) and a series of television comedies, but always returned to the sick vein of black humour that typified De Lift, even managing to make a semi-sequel Down (2001) in America. More recently, Belgium's The Ordeal (2004) showed that it wasn't just American films like Hostel (2005) that could be a gruelling exercise in torture and pain.
The now lost Alraune (1918) was an early example from Austria and Hungary featuring a mad scientist who fathers a demonic child by forcing a prostitute to mate with a mandrake root. Its director, Michael Curtiz, would later find fame in the US with another mad scientist film, Dr X (1932), and The Walking Dead (1936). And Casablanca (1943). In Turkey, Dracula Istanbulda (1953) was the first of many vampire films made in the country, while in Russia, vampires, and indeed all manner of supernatural beings, battled it out in the exhilarating Nochnoy dozor (Night Watch, 2004). The notorious Greek shocker Ta Paidia tou diabolou (Island of Death, 1972) launched first-time director Nico Mastorakis onto the world stage and he has continually, if sporadically, found work in the genre since. Widely banned and cut to ribbons in the UK, the film follows a warped couple killing any 'perverts' they find on a picturesque Greek island, although the definition seems a bit rich coming from someone who rapes a goat, drowns someone by forcing paint down their throat and harpoons rapacious hippies. Poland's visionary director Andrzej Zulawski gave us the 'Cthuluesque-tenticular-sex as relationship breakdown' surrealist masterpiece Possession (1981). More surrealism came from the master of animation Jan Svankmajer, the Czechoslovakian director of disturbing films such as Muzné hry (Virile Games, 1988), a criticism of football violence where two teams of the same man brutally kill each other in increasingly graphic and unusual ways – driving a train through a head or mutilating faces with bottles – as well as a number of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.
British Horror Cinema
That British cinema has a long history of horror filmmaking should come as no surprise, and follows naturally from a heritage of imaginative literature that runs the gamut of quality from the heights of Shelley to the weekly Penny Dreadfuls that so outraged middle-class Victorian society even as they were eagerly devoured by the newly literate working classes. Early British horror films tended to appear on the bottom half of double bills or as shorts or serials. There were versions of the Dreadfuls such as Sweeney Todd (1926 and 1928), which, like their literary equivalents, rubbed shoulders with more respectable, but no less horrific, thrillers such as The Lodger (1927 and 1932). It was the success of the Universal films from America that really kickstarted the horror industry in the UK; a common language meant that Hollywood films were accessible and popular with British audiences in the early days of the talkies. Gaumont recognised the market pull of star power and hired (English) actor Boris Karloff, hot from his roles in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932) to make The Ghoul (1933), a rancid portrayal of bitterness and greed whose foetid air makes for serious viewing, offset by the addition of a comedy character who goes some way towards lightening the tone. Professor Morlant is an archaeologist so convinced he has discovered the secret to eternal life he has arranged to be interred in a mausoleum from which he can rise from the dead. He bandages into his hand the life-awakening jewel necessary for the ancient spell to cheat death. He returns from the dead (although his gaunt corpse-like features were the wrong side of living when he was alive) a violent, superhuman killer. The film's financial success led to other productions with Universal's stars including Karloff in The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) and Bela Lugosi in Dark Eyes of London (1940). However, the cost of these productions was prohibitive for many studios. What Britain needed was a star of its own. That star was Tod Slaughter – real name Norman Carter Slaughter.
Horror is a genre that paradoxically thrives in times of depression and war – like comedy, it is comfortingly cathartic. Slaughter was the face of British horror throughout the war years in a series of melodramatic fright pictures that drew on everything from true crime, the Penny Dreadfuls and even the works of Wilkie Collins. The Newcastle-born actor had presented his towering frame in a number of highly successful music hall horror shows so it seemed only natural to bring his talent to a wider audience. However, the resulting films were significantly less explicit than his stage work because of the censorship board. They nevertheless provided lucrative fare in such pictures as Murder in the Red Barn (1935) and his most famous role as Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) – the notorious British character of the macabre. Todd shaves so close that he slices his customers' arteries right open, dispatching their corpses in the basement where they can be stripped of cash, their butchered flesh the vital ingredient in the adjacent baker's famous pies. Despite numerous film and stage versions before and since – including a Sondheim musical filmed by Tim Burton and countless television adaptations – the part is Slaughter's own. Even bereft of the copious blood he employed in his stage version, he still strikes the viewer as a brutal and disturbing individual. Post-war, horror output was generally sparse and at the low end of the budget spectrum, filling in the lesser halves of double bills as 'quota quickies'. Ealing Studios' eventually influential anthology Dead of Night (1945) provided a rare highpoint in Britain's horror output of the period but it would be some time before a definitive movement would emerge. When it did, though, it created a brand that is still recognised the world over as synonymous with the genre.
Hammer films had, under various names, been running since the mid-1930s. Although there were some borderline genre films in its early incarnation – including Bela Lugosi in The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1936) – the studio was best known for producing adaptations of popular radio and television shows. Pivotal to their development was a relatively large-budget distillation of the BBC's Quatermass Experiment, Nigel Kneale's terrifying six-part serial. Hammer slimmed down the screenplay and renamed the film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) to emphasise the X-rated nature of the film. It was a huge success despite its certificate, which restricted screenings to certain cinema chains only. The revenue gained meant that the company could move to colour film stock and embark upon what was to be their most ambitious project yet – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Unable to utilise Jack Pierce's iconic design for Karloff's flat-headed version of the monster, Hammer approached the creature's design as one of decomposing, flaccid, crudely stitched flesh. The horrific monster was inhabited with sympathetic yet primal ferocity by the towering frame of Christopher Lee. His creator, Baron Frankenstein, was played by the gaunt yet athletic Peter Cushing, relishing his part told in flashback from the prison cell where he awaits execution. It's a taut, operatic tragedy played with vitality and gusto. It was quite unlike anything the normally reserved (Powell and Pressburger excepted) British film industry had produced – blisteringly paced and luridly coloured. It was box office dynamite. The pair returned, along with director Terence Fisher, in the similarly energetic Dracula(aka The Horror of Dracula, 1958), confirming Hammer's place as the face of world horror. And so the company, which still continued producing non-genre films alongside its more celebrated output, became the first since Universal (with whom they made a lucrative deal to reinterpret many of their horror classics following these successes) to be accepted globally.
For the next 15 years they would produce a consistently well-received body of work. This included Curse of the Werewolf (1961), vampire films (Twins of Evil , Vampire Circus ), psychological thrillers (Nanny , Paranoiac ), Satanist pictures (The Devil Rides Out ), literary adaptations such as Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and Phantom of the Opera (1962), as well as expanding the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises. But eventually the social climate of the 1970s put an end to the company's cinematic ambitions. They had difficulty adapting to the changing times, and with America producing heartfelt contemporary horror, which was grimy and sleazy, Hammer's period pieces, despite the addition of nudity and more gore, seemed too quaint. Attempts to revitalise the company with contemporary spins on familiar tales, Dracula AD1972 for example, were box office disappointments, the company remaining afloat through cheap comedy spin-offs of domestic television comedies. Their final feature To the Devil a Daughter was released in 1976, cashing in on the demonic kid boom.
During Hammer's golden period other companies sought a piece of Britain's horror pie. Most successful was Amicus, fronted by Milton Subotsky. Among the better productions to come from Amicus were a series of portmanteau films; their standalone features were generally inferior. Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965) marked their first foray into the format, with Peter Cushing as the sinister Dr Schreck, telling the fortunes of five doomed passengers on a train. The tales involve vampires, werewolves and, that perennial horror favourite, the animated severed hand. A large number of cast and crew from the Hammer stable would be involved in these productions although the heads of the two companies were bitter rivals. Later films expanded the basic premise, with Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973) being adapted from the EC Horror comics of the same name. Amicus productions never tried to outdo Hammer in the sex and violence stakes and have a more fantastical or phantasmagorical feel to them than the full-bloodied myth-making of Hammer's best. They, too, struggled as the 1970s progressed, even jumping on the trendy bandwagon with the ill-advised werewolf mystery (complete with a self-imposed break before the beast's identity is revealed so that audiences could see if they got it right) The Beast Must Die (1974). This lame dog of a film saw Subotsky scamper back to familiar portmanteau territory for the hilarious killer cat anthology The Uncanny (1977) and the kid- friendly The Monster Club (1980).
If Amicus were filling a fantastical part of the market without Hammer's visceral grue then other companies with rather less cash in their coffers were happy to try and fill a market gap. Tigon Films may have produced pictures of varying quality but Michael Reeves was definitely one of their better directors. The mind-bending psychedelic horror The Sorcerers (1967), with Boris Karloff, tapped into the dark underbelly of 1960s Britain in a disorientating and disturbing manner, but it was his masterpiece (and final film, he died tragically young) Witchfinder General (1968) that really had an impact. Reeves' tale of Matthew Hopkins' campaign of terror, burning countless women in the name of religion to further his financial and sexual appetites, may have taken liberties with historical fact but made for compellingly dark viewing. There is no fantasy respite here and ultimately no heroes. When Ian Ogilvy finally dismembers Vincent Price's evil witchfinder (in a rare role totally devoid of Price's usual camp overtones) the camera shows us that, after all the rape and killing, he has gone completely mad. There is no room for cosy endings in Reeves' bleak but engaging film. Tigon Films slipped out of the horror market in the 1970s but their place was filled with opportunistic independent entrepreneurs with a love of film and an eye on the X-rated market. With world cinema in a state of rebellion these filmmakers pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on the big screen. Peter Walker gave us, among others, The House of Whipcord (1974), a very British take on underground justice mixed with mild S&M imagery, and the delirious mother and daughter killers film Frightmare (1974) with its groundbreaking use of household tools – most famously an electric drill – as a way of dispatching unfortunates. Norman J Warren gave us the delights of Satan's Slave (1976), Prey (1977) and the Alien (1979) homage, the gloriously offensively titled alien rape film Inseminoid (1980). Like many of the time Warren filled his films with both sex and violence. Aware that the BBFC were occasionally erratic in their approach to censorship, this allowed him to release different versions of the film to appeal to different markets – more sex in the European prints and more gore in the American and Japanese versions.
Excerpted from Horror Films by Colin Odell, Michelle Le Blanc. Copyright © 2007 Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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