Euro Horror, Revised and Expanded Edition: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

Euro Horror, Revised and Expanded Edition: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

by Ian Olney


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Euro Horror, Revised and Expanded Edition: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture by Ian Olney

Beginning in the 1950s, "Euro Horror" movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York's Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006523
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/13/2013
Series: New Directions in National Cinemas Series
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ian Olney is Associate Professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania, where he teaches film studies. His publications on European cinema and horror film include articles in Quarterly Review of Film and Video and Literature/Film Quarterly.

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Euro Horror

Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

By Ian Olney

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Alexander Ian Olney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00652-3


Academic Hot Spots and Blind Spots


There has been an explosion of interest in horror cinema among film scholars in recent years; in the first decade of the twenty-first century especially, the genre received unprecedented attention in the field of Film Studies. Perhaps the most visible sign of the current scholarly fascination with horror cinema is the record number of books on the subject being published by academic presses in the United States and abroad. Scores of monographs and edited volumes on seemingly every aspect of the genre, from its nature and history to its cultural and ideological dimensions to its notable directors and producers to its reception and fandom, now crowd the shelves. There is even a growing number of texts on horror cinema geared toward the film student – introductory guidebooks that offer overviews of the genre, as well as critical anthologies that collect the most important and influential essays on the subject – indicating that horror film studies has truly arrived as an area of academic inquiry. While the extraordinary number of books on horror cinema available today may be the most visible sign of scholarly interest in the genre, it is not the only one. Hundreds of articles on the horror film have appeared in a wide range of highly respected academic journals. Many of these journals have devoted entire issues to horror, and at least one – Horror Studies, a periodical published in the United Kingdom – has dedicated itself exclusively to the exploration of the genre. One might also point to the countless papers on horror cinema delivered at conferences sponsored by professional organizations like the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and the Popular Culture and American Culture associations. And this boom in horror film scholarship seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future: according to the Dissertation Abstracts Online database, dozens of doctoral dissertations on horror cinema were submitted at universities all over the world during the first decade of the 2000s, suggesting that a new generation of scholars with a substantial investment in the genre has now entered the field.

This represents a remarkable reversal of fortune for the horror film, which was at one time regarded within Film Studies as something of a bête noir – primarily because of its status as popular cinema. In the 1960s, scholars fighting to establish Film Studies as a legitimate academic discipline tended, out of necessity, to marginalize popular forms of cinema like horror. Against the notion – widespread in academia at the time – that movies were mass culture kitsch unworthy of serious attention, they argued, adopting the tenets of the newly imported auteur theory, that a film can constitute art if it expresses the unique vision of an individual "author." By creating a pantheon of auteur directors – including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, and Orson Welles – and differentiating the "personal" work of these masters from the "impersonal" (that is, generic or formulaic) dross of popular cinema, film scholars were able to generate cultural capital for a certain kind of "highbrow" cinema and mobilize crucial institutional support for their emerging discipline. In the process, though, they effectively placed horror and other forms of "lowbrow" cinema beyond the bounds of academic study.

Horror's standing in the field was further diminished during the 1970s with the rise of "Screen theory," a potent combination of semiotics, structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and feminism forged in the pages of the British film journal Screen. Screen theory argued, in essence, that popular cinema buttresses the power relations underpinning the dominant culture by symbolically "suturing" spectators into predetermined viewing positions that reflect and reinforce the social positions they occupy in real life – all under the guise of catering to their voyeuristic and narcissistic fantasies. Horror movies were mainly seen as pernicious examples of the way in which popular cinema caters to the male gaze, taking women's sexual difference as the basis both for their fetishization and for their punishment. Progressive readings of the genre were rare. True resistance to the dominant social order, it was generally agreed at the time, could only come from outside popular film – preferably in the form of a forbidding avant-garde cinema that would, in Laura Mulvey's memorable formulation, strive for the "total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film" (16) and destroy "the satisfaction, pleasure, and privilege" (26) of the spectator.

It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that film scholars learned to stop worrying and love the horror movie, largely because of the growing influence of Cultural Studies in academia. Often described as being less a unified academic field than an eclectic methodology that cuts across disciplinary lines, Cultural Studies deemphasized traditional, ahistorical textual analysis in favor of an examination of the diverse cultural contexts in which texts are created and received. Crucially, it also privileged the notion that mass culture products are worthy of study because their production and consumption involve not only processes of ideological manipulation or indoctrination, but also acts of resistance and appropriation on the part of both producers and consumers. This led to a reassessment of previous attitudes toward popular cinema and the horror film, in particular, during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Academic writing on the genre displayed a new sensitivity to the ideological gaps, contradictions, and ambiguities inherent in horror cinema, as well as to the ability of viewers to resist or recast the "dominant," or intended, meaning of horror movies. The horror film was reconceptualized as a dialogical text: a network of competing and conflicting discourses not reducible to a single ideological imperative. Furthermore, the experience of watching horror movies was refigured as an active and lively dialogue between spectator and screen, an intense form of negotiation not reducible to a simple process of normalization. What had been a critically ignored or maligned genre, seen simply as the province of revolting bodies, was now viewed as the home of bodies in revolt. If, in the 1960s and 1970s, horror cinema was a bad neighborhood to be avoided by film scholars at all costs, by the turn of the twenty-first century, it had been almost completely gentrified and made safe for academia. Today, it is a vital hot spot in the field of Film Studies – perhaps the single most written-about genre in the discipline.

It is all the more surprising, then, that despite its explosive growth, horror film scholarship remains quite narrowly focused in one crucial way. The vast majority of the books, articles, and papers on horror cinema focus exclusively on Anglo American horror. Relatively little has been written in English not only about non-Western – say, Latin American, Asian, or African – horror movies, but also about Western horror movies made outside the United States and the United Kingdom in countries like Italy, Spain, and France. The scholarly neglect of non-Western horror, while absolutely lamentable given the unique genre traditions in question, is perhaps not totally unexpected. As Steven Jay Schneider and Tony Williams comment, it can be seen as the result of a certain amount of Western prejudice combined with "difficulties accessing films from other parts of the globe, as well as the relative lack of interest shown by several national cinemas in this genre until the last decade or so" (1). More mystifying is that classic European horror cinema of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s – Euro horror, as many of its contemporary American fans call it – has suffered such neglect. Clearly there is no cultural prejudice at work here, since other forms of European cinema dating from the same era have received much attention in Film Studies. Nor is there any shortage of films to discuss, as horror movies emerged from Europe in staggering numbers from the 1950s – when the postwar recovery of European film industries, an international surge in the popularity of horror cinema, and the decline of the old Hollywood studio system triggered a boom in horror film production on the Continent – to the 1980s, when a combination of factors, including declining movie attendance in Europe, the rise of new Hollywood blockbuster cinema, and the diminishing American market for foreign films, conspired to end Euro horror's golden age. Nor has it been particularly difficult to see these films in the years since their original theatrical releases – especially in the twenty-first century, as I will demonstrate in a moment.

There are several readily apparent reasons that classic European horror movies deserve the consideration of film scholars. In the first place, they differ markedly from British and American horror movies of the same period. As Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs note, Euro horror drew upon a wide range of distinctly European cultural sources, including "surrealism, romanticism, and the decadent tradition, as well as early 20th century pulp-literature, filmed serials, creaky horror-movies and sexy comic strips" (5). The result was a new type of horror cinema that dispensed with the artistic unity and narrative logic privileged by Anglo American genre films, prizing the "pictorial, the excessive and the irrational" (ibid.) instead. Euro horror movies also "blended eroticism and terror" (ibid.) in a novel fashion, exploring the boundary between sex and violence in ways that were rare in the more puritanical British and American horror movies being made at the time. Finally, Euro horror produced an array of unique directors, stars, and genres completely unknown in Anglo American horror cinema. In short, to quote Tohill and Tombs: "Compared to the U.S. and U.K. [horror] scene, the developments in Europe were wild and untamed" (6). Clearly, then, an examination of Euro horror could expand our understanding of the genre and deepen our appreciation for its richness and diversity. Similarly, it could allow us to better understand and appreciate other forms of European cinema dating from the same time that have already enjoyed a great deal of attention from film scholars.

This is especially true in the case of European art cinema, which has a special, reciprocal relationship with Euro horror. Both arose from the same cultural, economic, and political milieu and responded to the same historical traumas: World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and the process of decolonization, for example. Both often made use of the same production facilities and creative personnel. Studios like Rome's Cinecittà – which hosted the production of not only Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (1960) and Luchino Visconti's La caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1969), but also Dario Argento's Il gatto a nove code (The Cat o' Nine Tails, 1971) and Jorge Grau's Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, 1974) – turned out both European art films and Euro horror films. Stars like Barbara Steele – whose credits include Riccardo Freda's Lo spettro (The Ghost, 1963) and Antonio Margheriti's Danza macabra (Castle of Blood, 1964), as well as Fellini's 8 ½ (1963) and Volker Schlöndorff's Der junge Törless (Young Törless, 1966) – worked both in Euro horror cinema and in European art cinema, as did a variety of producers, writers, cinematographers, art directors, and other craftspeople. Both drew inspiration from earlier forms of European avant-garde cinema like Expressionism and Surrealism, as well as from classical Hollywood cinema of the studio era. Finally, the character of European art cinema is not so different from that of Euro horror cinema. Both tend to favor loosely structured plots and intense psychological subjectivity, and both push the envelope of what was then considered acceptable with regard to the onscreen depiction of sex and violence. Moreover, both share a tendency toward bold experimentation with design, color, lighting, camerawork, editing, and sound. In fact, the line between art cinema and Euro horror can be difficult to discern. Art films were often directly influenced by Euro horror, as when Fellini's Toby Dammit, a segment of the omnibus film Histoires extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead, 1968), borrowed key imagery – the figure of a pretty little blonde girl with a bouncing ball as the embodiment of evil – from Mario Bava's Operazione paura (Kill, Baby ... Kill!, 1966). In turn, Euro horror movies were often inspired by art films, as when Argento's Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975) again cast David Hemmings, the star of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), in the role of an artist who witnesses a murder and becomes obsessed with solving it. The result, as Joan Hawkins has observed, is that many European pictures of the period – she offers Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face, 1960) as a key example – occupied "double niches" as art films and horror movies, effectively blurring the boundary between the two categories (72–85). A serious consideration of Euro horror thus reveals, among other things, not only how horror cinema participated in art cinema's "high" culture project of exploring new means of formal and narrative expression, but also how art cinema, in its quest for the shock of the new, was partly defined by its kinship with "low" culture genres like horror.

Euro horror cinema has also had a considerable impact on other films both within and outside the horror genre. The rise of Euro horror in the mid-1950s heralded the worldwide renaissance of the genre after a fallow period in the years following World War II, a time when, as Wheeler Winston Dixon writes, the horror film in Britain and America was "truly dead": "The classic monsters ... had been recycled, teamed with other of their brethren, and finally relegated to foils for burlesque comedians, and no one seemed to have any idea of how to restore them to 'life'" (History of Horror 63–64). Although the gothic revival movies made by Hammer Film Productions in Britain or the horror teen-pics made by American International Pictures in the United States are often credited for resurrecting horror in the late 1950s, they were actually preceded by landmark Euro horror films like Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les diaboliques (Diabolique, 1955) and Riccardo Freda's I vampiri (1956), both of which not only helped jump-start the genre, but also exerted a powerful influence on the subsequent direction of its development. Indeed, Euro horror has often played a key role in determining the course of the horror genre over the years. The giallo, or Italian murder mystery film, pioneered by Mario Bava with La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963) and Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964), is widely regarded as an important catalyst of the original slasher film cycle in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Euro horror has also been identified by film critic David Edelstein as a major influence on what he calls "torture porn" – a new, ultraviolent type of horror cinema that includes such hit movies as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) (par. 2). Another measure of Euro horror's impact on the genre is the number of Euro horror films that have inspired remakes. Bava's atmospheric sci-fi/horror movie Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires, 1965) served as the basis for Alien (1979), while his rural giallo Reazione a catena (Bay of Blood, 1971) inspired Friday the 13th (1980). At the time of this writing, it is being reported that David Gordon Green, the director of George Washington (2000) and Pineapple Express (2008), is preparing to remake Dario Argento's occult thriller Suspiria (1977), one of the most popular and well known of all Euro horror films. When Euro horror movies have not been remade outright, they have frequently been the subject of elaborate homages that speak to their currency within the genre. Hostel: Part II (2007) features two Euro horror stars, Edwige Fenech and Luc Merenda, in key roles and gives Euro horror director Ruggero Deodato a cameo. Grindhouse (2007), Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's retro horror double feature, heavily references Euro horror movies like Umberto Lenzi's Incubo sulla città contaminata (Nightmare City, 1980), Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 (Zombie, 1979), and Argento's The Cat o' Nine Tails. The same is true of contemporary European horror movies like Amer (2009), Ubaldo Terzani Horror Show (2010), and Masks (2011), all of which quote liberally from classic giallo cinema. Euro horror's influence has not been limited to the horror genre, however. As I have already noted, it had a significant impact on the European art cinema of its time. Likewise, many recent "extreme" European arthouse films – such as Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day (2001), Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (Irreversible, 2002), Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997 and 2007), Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009), and Pedro Almodóvar's La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In, 2011) – have been strongly influenced by Euro horror, as I discuss in more detail in the conclusion of this book.


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Table of Contents

Note on Film Titles

Part 1. Toward a Performative Theory of Euro Horror Cinema
1. Academic Hot Spots and Blind Spots: Horror Film Studies and Euro Horror Cinema
2. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: The Academic Case against Euro Horror Cinema
3. Playing Dead, Take One: Euro Horror Film Production
4. Playing Dead, Take Two: Euro Horror Film Reception
5. Return of the Repressed: Euro Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture
Part 2. Case Studies in Euro Horror Cinema
6. Blood and Black Lace: The Giallo Film
7. The Whip and the Body: The S&M Horror Film
8. Cannibal Apocalypse: Cannibal and Zombie Films
Conclusion: From the Grindhouse to the Arthouse: The Legacy of Euro Horror Cinema

Works Cited

What People are Saying About This

Macalester College - Linda Schulte-Sasse

Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, 'real' vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.

author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema - Peter Hutchings

Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.

author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film - Harry M. Benshoff

From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.

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