Inside Europe’s Horror Fetish

Euforia Film

From stitched-together human centipedes to Nazi zombies, the Berlin International Film Festival has become a key venue for a new wave of European horror.

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 female 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, meanwhile, have been ravaging through their back catalogs to remake chillers from the glory days of the 1970s and ’80s: Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street and many others. 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,” Six says. “I think European horror films are bringing in fresher, sicker and more daring ideas right now.”

That might 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 been and is courting these European scaremeisters, 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, studios will need a new way to scare up business, and there’s plenty of activity lately to suggest that 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 Twilight producers 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. Wirkola is at 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 mindbending narrative switchback, helmed the studio reboots The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. 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 $41 million globally. Those are decent numbers for small, independent films, but not enough — yet — to convince the industry that the Europeans are here to stay.

A more interesting question might 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 FrightFest in London, it’s a combination of factors. The first is economic: The market for European art house has been in decline for the past 10 years. The gutting of the mini-majors has meant the U.S. 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 film tell a very personal story about growing up in a desolate, despairing suburb near Stockholm during the 1980s. Both 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 that a lack of fresh stories is driving the American mania for horror remakes.


“A lot of the scripts we were reading weren’t getting us fired up,” Fuller says. “They were very derivative. The story lines has been covered in the movies we were remaking. If we would have gotten a great horror spec, we would have tried to make it.”

But Fuller also argues that the studio system is a greater barrier to risky homemade horror.  “Most horrors that are rated R, with the exception of Paranormal Activity, top out in the $65 million, $70 million range,” he says. “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, box office-wise. The economics of the European film industry means directors have smaller budgets to work with (typically $5 million to $10 million) but more artistic freedom, which they have used to turn down a much darker path. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in France, where such films as Inside and Martyrs combine the gross-out aesthetic of torture porn with the clinical, psychological depravity of a Michael Haneke movie.

“I love Martyrs. It’s one of the best horror movies ever made — and I’d never recommend anyone see it,” says John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote the screenplay and 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 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,” Lindqvist explains. “European directors have more of a tendency to tell a personal story, which turns out to be a horror film.”

Jones argues that European frightmeisters are rediscovering their own tradition, particularly the gore-meets-erotica of the Italian giallo movement of directors including Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Massimo Dallamano. Even some of Europe’s most accomplished auteurs are returning to scary cinema: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist owed 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 in which Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon who hunts down the man who raped his daughter.

So, despite the allure of Hollywood, many of Europe’s new scream patrol are staying put, convinced they can make scarier movies in the old country. Jaume Balaguero is in postproduction on his new Spanish chiller Sleep Tight. Six is busy finishing his sequel to Human Centipede, which, he promises, will not be holding out for a PG-13 rating.

“Not only does it have way more people in the human centipede, it is also way more controversial,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Part 1 is like My Little Pony compared to Part 2.”

And Lindqvist has turned down all offers — including, reportedly, one from Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures — to adapt his new zombie novel, Handling the Undead, before it has even been turned into a Swedish movie.

Lindqvist describes the project as the reverse of a typical zombie story. “Here the zombies are just dead people wanting to come home,” he says. “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