Sicker, Darker, More Twisted: The New European Horror Film at Berlin
Dutch director Tom Six had a dream. He wanted to make a movie. A movie about a psycho German doctor who kidnaps unsuspecting tourists and sutures them together: mouth to anus, to create a man-made arthropod. Six made his movie. The Human Centipede was one of the sickest, scariest films of 2009. Buyers who dare can catch it at the Berlin International Film Festival's concurrent market.
Six is sick. Seriously. But he's not alone. For Martyrs, France's Pascal Laugier sent two woman, child abuse survivors, to exact bloody, very bloody, revenge on their tormentors. You probably don't want to know the details. In Inside, fellow Frenchman Alexandre Bustillo took a pregnant woman and unleashed Beatrice Dalle, armed with tailor shears, knitting needles and whatever else she lays her hands on, determined to claim the unborn child.
It makes Dead Snow from Norway's Tommy Wirkola – Nazi zombies prey on nubile Scandinavian ski bums – look tame.
Hollywood seems to have run out of ways to mutilate and terrify – the "torture porn" of the Saw and Hostel films has been – ahem– beat to death. The studios, like cannibal zombies, are ravaging through their back catalogues to remake chillers from the glory days of the 1970s and 80s: Halloween, TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street. But Europe, whose cinema is better known for costume drama than corroded corpses, is scaring the hell out of us.
"(Europe) has a more aggressive style of filmmaking compared to the American horror," agrees Six. "I think European horror films are bringing in fresher, sicker and more daring ideas right now."
That may all be about to change. The average U.S. moviegoer might not have noticed yet – subtitled horror, like subtitled anything, remains a niche market domestically – but Hollywood has and is courting these European scare-meisters, eager to cash in on the next horror wave. Indeed, with the inevitable decline of the Twilight vampire craze and the slow death of torture porn, the studios are going to need a new way to scare up business, and there's plenty of activity lately to suggest these edgy Euro auteurs are up for the job.
The studio remake machine has already chomped up and spit out U.S. versions of the sublime Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In (as Let Me In) and Spanish shakey-cam shocker REC (translated into Quarantine). The producers of Twilight have signed on to remake Marytrs.
And when a U.S. producer needs a new name to make a horror retread look trendy, they head across the pond. Tommy Wirkola is in currently in Studio Babelsberg, prepping Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters for Paramount. France's Alexandre Aja, whose local-language High Tension took the standard, psycho slasher film and added a mind bending narrative switchback, helmed the studio reboots of The Hills Have Eyes and Pirana 3D. Pascal Laugier was attached to a remake of Hellraiser before deciding on the Jessica Biel vehicle The Tall Man.
Whether European horror proves a game-changer or a bloody flash in the pan remains to be seen. Let Me In-- which launched this Euro horror wave after selling in Berlin -- earned $12 million domestically. Quarantine made $32 million. Those are decent numbers for small, independent films but not enough -- yet -- to convince the industry that the Europeans are here to stay.
But a more interesting question may be why now? Why is Europe driving so many horror auteurs to rethink the genre while Hollywood remains trapped in that past?
For Alan Jones, a genre film expert and director of the Film4 Fright Fest in London, it's a combination of factors. The first is economic: For the past 10 years, the market for European art house has been in decline. The gutting of the U.S. mini-majors has meant America is buying fewer European films and paying less for them. And Europe's traditional booster of indigenous art house - public television – has followed the U.S. lead and is programming more reality and less challenging cinema.
"Across Europe the film industries have seen that nobody is watching their indigenous art house films," Jones says. "(Most of the European films) that screen in Cannes and Venice, they're not really relevant to anyone anymore. But with horror a European director can reach an international audience. A horror fan doesn't mind reading subtitles. I mean, so what if Dead Snow is in Norwegian? A horror fan will watch it because it's an incredibly cool movie."
So what's does an ambitious European auteur do? He makes his disturbing avant-garde movie. And throws in a few zombies.
Thomas Alfredson took that approach when he adapted the Swedish novel Let The Right One In, a film already being hailed as a modern classic by many critics.
The book and the film tell a very personal story about growing up in a desolate, despairing suburb near Stockholm in the 1980s. Both film and book are rooted in a gritty, kitchen-sink reality familiar to fans of traditional European drama. Oh and then there's the 12-year-old blood-soaked vampire next door.
For horror fans, Let The Right One In was a revelation. In the U.S., Twilight was about to defang the vampire genre – taking out all the violence and eroticism and making horror suitable for the PG-13 crowd.
Producer Brad Fuller of Platinum Dunes, which delivered the reboots of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th among others, admits a lack of fresh new stories is driving the American mania for horror remakes.
"A lot of the scripts we were reading weren't getting us fired up. They were very derivative. The storylines has been covered in the movies we were remaking," Fuller says. "If we would have gotten a great horror spec, we would have tried to make it."
But Fuller also argues the studio system is a greater barrier to risky homemade horror. The genre thrives on being down, dirty and cheap. The majors, he says, want "big franchises that will earn hundreds of millions."
"Most horrors that are rated R, with the exception of Paranormal Activity, top out in the $65 million, $70 million range. It's an indication of what the top end of those movies can do. But studios don't want singles or doubles anymore. They want home runs."
European directors have rarely aimed for the fence, boxoffice wise. The economics of the European film industry means directors have smaller budgets to work with (typically $5 - $10 million) but more artistic freedom. Freedom the Europeans have used to turn down a much darker path.
This is no where more evident than in France where films such as Inside and Martyrs combine the show-it-all gross-out aesthetic of torture porn with the disturbing, clinical psychological depravity of a Michael Haneke movie.
"I love Martyrs. It's one of the best horror movies every made. And I'd never recommend anyone see it," says John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote the screenplay – and the original novel – for Let the Right One In. "I don't think I've ever felt so bad after watching a film. I saw the director (Langier) at Frightfest in London and he said he made the film because he was extremely depressed and the film was a vehicle for dealing with the depression. I think that's the European approach.
"Typically in an American horror film there's a shock early on to tell you it's a horror film," he explains. "Then it goes quiet, then another shock. It's very obvious you are in a horror movie. European directors have more of a tendency to tell a personal story which, then OK, turns out to be a horror film."
But the very things that make recent European so unique – they are personal, disturbing tales of physical and psychological anguish – make them resistant fodder for the Hollywood machine.
Martyrs is arguably the Citizen Kane of the new European horror wave. Jones calls it "One of the best films, period, of the last 10 years, it points the way forward for where horror will progress, beyond torture porn to something more powerful."
It's already clear however that the American version of the film will exorcise much of what made the French original so powerful. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Daniel Stamm, the German-born director attached to helm the remake acknowledged he was going to pull some punches with his translation of the nihilistic French original.
"The American approach [that I'm looking at] would go through all that darkness but then give a glimmer of hope," Stamm said. "You don't have to shoot yourself when it's over."
"The American studios aren't ready to be that bleak," adds Jones. "They still want the easy resolution, the way out. The stuff the U.S. is making right now – I'm thinking the new films from Wes Craven or John Carpenter – are very old school, very old man horror."
Instead of aping the American way, Jones argues that European freight-meisters are rediscovering their own tradition, particularly the gore-meets-erotica of the Italian giallo movement of directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Massimo Dallamano. (Belgium chiller Amerwas a straight-up homage to the giallo legacy).
Even some of Europe's most accomplished auteurs are returning to scary cinema. Lars Von Trier's Antichrist owned more than a small debt to torture porn's body bashing. The plot of Pedro Almodovar's upcoming The Skin I Live In is straight out of B-movie midnight madness: Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon who hunts down the man who raped his daughter.
So, despite the paycheck allure of Hollywood, many of Europe's new scream patrol are staying put, convinced they can make scarier movies in the old country. Jaume Balagureo is in post-production on his new, Spanish chiller, Sleep Tight. Six is busy finishing up his sequel to The Human Centipede which, he promises, will not be holding out for an PG-13 rating.
"Not only does it have way more people in the human centipede, it is also is way more controversial," he wrote in an email. "Part 1 is like My Little Pony compared to part 2."
And John Ajvide Lindqvist has turned down all offers – including, reportedly, one from Sam Raimi's Ghost House – to adapt his new zombie novel, Handling the Undead before it has even turned into a Swedish movie.
"I don't want an American movie first – I want a Swedish movie first," Lindqvist says. "I promised it to a Swedish director – Kristian Petri, who is a very dark, intellectual filmmaker. I know he'll make a very slow, very sad, very disturbing movie. That's the movie I want to make."
Lindqvist describes Handling the Undead as the reverse of a typical zombie story. "Here the zombies are just dead people wanting to come home. They are very sad, very lonely. The horror only comes when the living start to attack them. And then fight back. It ends exactly where a conventional zombie movie starts."
Sounds strange. Even a little sick. We can't wait.
Pamela Rolfe in Madrid and Borys Kit in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
BLOODY GROSS: They rarely become blockbusters, but horror releases remain a solid draw at the international box office
The Human Centipede (2009; Netherlands)
Global Boxoffice: $252,000
Box office might look modest, but director Tom Six is already at work on the sequel.
[Rec] 2 (2009; Spain)
Global Boxoffice: $18.5M
Let the Right One In (2008, Sweden)
Global boxoffice: $11.2M
A solid hit in Sweden, the American remake Let Me In made a disappointing $22 million.
Martyrs (2008; France)
Global Boxoffice: $750,000*
The Orphanage (2007; Spain)
Global Boxoffice: $78M
Juan Antonio Bayona’s thriller attracted a large audience by focusing on mood instead of gore.
Inside (2007; France)
Global Boxoffice: $750,000*
[Rec] (2007; Spain)
Global Boxoffice: $15M
High Tension (2003; France)
Global Boxoffice: $6.3M
Source: BoxofficeMojo; *French box office only, based on distributor estimates