Monday, 10 September 2012

European Nightmares

Following a short general introduction European Nightmares divides into seven sections, each prefaced by a separate introduction/overview from the volume's editors.

The first section deals with the Reception and Perception of European horror cinema, the other six with national or regional horror cinemas, the British, French, Spanish, Italian, Germany/Northern Europe, and Turkey/Eastern Europe.

The first section begins with Peter Hutching’s chapter, in which he emphasises the difficulty of defining Eurohorror as a distinct genre. Hutchings first compares Resident Evil and Suspiria, noting that while both films have US and European elements the former is rarely considered Eurohorror whereas the latter is perhaps the quintessential Eurohorror film.

Hutchings then takes a more historical focus, noting how the 1960s and 1970s typically saw English-language critics refer to continental horror films as Italian horror, Spanish horror, or other nationally specific instances of horror. Eurohorror, as an overarching descriptive label, dated from the 1980s and 1990s.

In the UK this was indirectly encouraged by the Video Nasties moral panic, in that Italian and Spanish films were disproportionately represented in the lists of banned titles, and then by the efforts of fan-critics such as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs to identify common traits. (One productive line of inquiry here may be to see if a random sample of European horror films have what David Bordwell terms a “group style” or if a Eurohorror group style, as implied by Tohill and Tombs' invocation of the fantastique, might be discerned.)

Brigid Cherry’s chapter follows neatly on from Hutchings by again emphasising the importance of Suspiria whilst shifting the focus of attention somewhat from critic to fan discourses (though as indicated in the earlier chapter, these boundaries are permeable). Using material drawn from internet discussion forums, she suggests that a distinction may also be drawn between Eurohorror and Eurogore, with audience preferences for one, other, or both tending to correlate with gender and level of subcultural capital, female viewers preferring horror over gore and older or longer term viewers possessing greater subcultural capital. Unfortunately subsequent chapters will not address this distinction.

Ernst Mathjis and Russ Hunter’s chapter looks at the particular place of horror within Belgian cinema culture, or rather its peculiar absence. For while internationally successful as horror films, The Devil’s Nightmare, Daughters of Darkness, Man Bites Dog and The Ordeal were invariably discussed by Belgian critics in other terms and treated negatively.

The final chapter in this section, by David Huxley, looks at the reception of domestic and continental horror productions in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s from both the censors and critics. He indicates that a range of views were evident from the outset and that generally they became better regarded in the more liberal context of the 1960s.

Huxley’s chapter leads smoothly onto the section on British horror cinema, which has two chapters looking at Village of the Damned and at a number of genre films, including Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later produced during the period of New Labour government (1997-2010).

Both chapters, authored by John Sears and Linnie Blake respectively, make broadly socio-political readings of the films as symptomatic of wider issues such as class and gender.

While the editors’ introduction to the section on French horror cinema mentions Jean Rollin and the lack of recognition and discussion accorded his work in his native land, he is also ironically absent from this collection, with the chapters by Emily Brick and Matthias Hurst instead concentrating upon more recent films, namely Baise-moi and Switchblade Romance.

Brick situates the former film in the context of the rape-revenge subgenre, Hurst the latter in relation to questions of gender, identity and subjectivity. (It is difficult to write about Switchblade Romance without spoiling its twist ending, though a comparison with The Grip of the Strangler, Tenebrae and/or The Stendhal Syndrome might prove constructive.)

By this point the strengths and weaknesses of the collection are becoming evident. On the one hand there is no dogmatic attachment to any particular theory. On the other hand this makes the study a bit less cohesive. This is also apparent in the three chapters on Spanish horror cinema.

In the first Paul Willis notes that most studies of Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have tended to foreground their anti-Francoist characteristics. Such studies, however, neglect the strain of Spanish horror that is more reactionary than progressive. One example of this is the Paul Naschy vehicle Exorcismo, which Willis sees as presenting a negative portrayal of youth culture and a positive one of the Catholic religion that was a bedrock of the regime.

In the second Phil Smith looks at the Blind Dead and the zombie more generally (including those of Romero and Fulci) in relation to the Situationist notion of aimless wandering. While certainly an interesting idea, this is one of those pieces where you suspect the author came to the films via the theory rather than to a theory via the films.

In the third Barry Jordan looks at the contemporary Spanish horror films of Alejando Amenabar, particularly his early shorts. Their place within a distinctive national tradition is, however, somewhat unclear. Amenabar indicates his influences to be Hollywood filmmakers, while Jordan says that he makes his films as if Spanish horror cinema had not existed. As such, it might be questioned whether Amenabar is really a Eurohorror filmmaker in the De Ossorio or Fulci manner.

The section on Italian horror has two chapters. The first, by Mark Goodall, looks at Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh/Hell of the Living Dead and highlights the often under-acknowledged influence of the earlier mondo cycle on Italian horror. The second, by Anna Powell, looks at Suspiria from a Deleuzean perspective, challenging psychoanalytic interpretations of Argento’s work.

If there’s a problem with both discussions it is in not offering much that is new. Goodall, after all, is the author of a book on the mondo film, while Powell had earlier written about Suspiria in Deleuze and Horror film.

While the introduction to the section on German and North European horror films mentions the krimi as a horror/thriller genre the three subsequent chapters focus on the Hollywood career of Robert Siodmak, Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, and Michael Haneke's films, with varying degrees of success.

It is hard to see the relevance of Mark Jancovich's chapter on Siodmak's Hollywood career in the 1930s and 1940s, given the claimed post-War European focus of the collection. Worse, Jancovich could have discussed Siodmak's 1957 West German horror-thriller Nights When the Devil Comes, based on the real story of a serial killer at large in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Samuel Umland's discussion of the relationship between The Serpent's Egg and Fritz Lang's Mabuse films, especially The Testament of Dr Mabuse, is more interesting and thought-provoking, as when he draws out the meanings attached to particular character names in Bergman's film and oeuvre.

Catherine Wheatley's chapter on Michael Haneke's horrors of everyday life emphasises the arthouse at the expense of the grindhouse. It also spends some of its time discussing the French-set (and titled) Cache when, for my money at least, an analysis of Gerard Kargl's Angst would have been more nation-specific.

The concluding section on Eastern Europe contains one general overview chapter, by Christina Stojanova, and two focusing on Hungarian and Turkish horror cinemas specifically, by Patricia Allmer and Kaya Ă–zkaracular.

The overview chapter by introduces John Carpenter's distinction between a left-wing Frankensteinian horror, in which the threat comes from within, and a right-wing Draculean horror, in which the threat comes from outwith. It's an interesting thesis and perhaps one which could have been applied more widely in relation to earlier chapters, most notably that on Spanish horror, given that films were frequently set outside Spain.

That the book concludes with Turkish horror makes sense given the country's position at the margin of Europe and dominant religious tradition being Islam rather than Christianity. Both factors are to the fore in the films discussed, notably the self-explanatory Dracula in Istanbul and The Exorcist rip-off Seytan.

All in all, another useful collection, but also one which points to the need for volumes devoted to particular national horror cinemas beyond the British and the Italian.

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