Countdown: A New Wave of European Horror Retrospective

Fear has always appeared as an agent of human anxieties. When we look at medieval depictions of a goat-like devil, it’s easy to understand all the fear of cultural difference and rejection of pagan idolatry present in that image. When it comes to modern times, things can be a little bit more difficult to discern. Perhaps that’s because we’re too involved, because the things that scare us are things we are refusing to look at as a part of our cultural identity. Who knows? Still, we cannot refuse looking into the face of the monsters that scare us given the shield of artifice presented in the movie house. In the 2000s the New-Wave of European horror gave audiences a direct window into their own fears through a new school of filmmakers who stressed heightened realism, home invasion, and unforgiving depictions of violence.

First, a little background, I’d say this New-Wave of Horror from Europe really got its sea legs with the release of Funny Games (1997), it took ten years for Michael Haneke to remake his movie for an American audience (though it was basically a shot for shot reshoot of his original vision). Still the seeds were set for a horror trend that focused on brief glimpses of brutality instead of the traditional hour-and-a-half stab-a-thons Hollywood was used to. A cinematic atmosphere in which acts of violence were no longer the salacious acts of cartoonish movie murderers, but instead became atrocities delivered with a veritably vicious and inhumane bend.

Another thing, and the most important common thread that links the movies that came out of this New-Wave, is that these movies usually had something to do with a home invasion and the tragic slaying of an innocent family. Being that the European Union had recently united a bunch of sovereign states into a loosely bound family of nations, and seeing as economic systems have a propensity to crash, it isn’t any wonder that the New-Wave of European Horror has so much to do with families being brutally maimed and slaughtered. If horror movie trends are really an indication of large-scale communal anxieties, then these ones certainly have a bit to do with the xenophobic and apocalyptic fears within the nations of a homogenizing Europe.

Funny Games – The Unwilling Game Changer

funny games

It is ironic that Funny Games laid the thematic groundwork for a new school of graphic horror films considering Michael Haneke’s assertion that “if the film is a hit, it will be a hit alongside a misunderstanding.” Haneke’s goal in making Funny Games, as far as interviewers were able to elucidate, was to address the role of violence in the media head on. Inspired by horrific newspaper stories of youthful acts of recreational violence, Haneke’s film depicted a bourgeois family becoming the victims of the torturous games of two supposedly upper-crust young gentlemen, two abominable young men who take on the innocuous wiles of popular circus clowns.

Funny Games in itself was something of a torture game the director was having on the audience, breaking all rules and expectations, presenting a horrifying tale in which there are no winners and only the nihilistic perpetrators come out alive.

Besides being a film-on-film, genre bending, fourth-wall breaking experiment, Funny Games also clearly pointed the director’s lens towards generational/moralistic anxieties, and the common nightmare of home invasion. Still, Haneke’s perpetrators begin in this movie as welcomed guests, a twist which put a new spin on the cliché stranger-at-the-door scenario.

Funny Games is an unsettling film that begs the viewer to wonder why they have not turned away as they watch a family being demoralized and destroyed by two killers who relish in every slow-burning second of their sadistic playtime while questioning the relevancy of outdated bourgeois sensibilities. Furthermore, Funny Games spawned a wave of European Horror movies which approached the classic horror tropes with a new level of self-awareness, though they seemed to forgo all the commentary about man’s insatiable hunger for cinematic blood-lust.

High Tension – Missing the Point?

High Tension

I would credit High Tension with introducing the United States to what has become known as New French Extremity. A unifying trend that focuses on absurdly brutal murders and ghastly violence to a level that I know I had never seen before. I would say that most of the French movies on this list fall into that category.

High Tension is notable because it was an early example of this sort of a film making it into American mega-plexes. Bringing a new level of fucked-up to the silver screen in suburban communities and city centers on the West Coast and North East.

I think the movie was a big hit not only because of its intense gore (remember, this movie came out right in that window where Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) came out) but also because it spoke to common fears shared between the Atlantic shores. Specifically, the plot follows Marie, a college student who follows her best friend, Alex, to her parent’s home in the French countryside. As the movie progresses it turns out Marie harbors covetous feelings for Alex which are only brought to an extreme when a psychopath shows up and horrendously murders Alex’s entire family.

It’s a powerful movie that says a lot where the upcoming generation stands with respect to the past. Whether it’s Alex’s little brother in his cowboy costume at the beginning of the movie, or the somewhat blasé plot twist at the climax, High Tension is much more than a simple gore porn.

Them – So Much More Than Giant Ants

Them

Them was an interesting film for the way in which it directly delivered upon the goal of repackaging the horror experience in a way that presented the movie monsters of the past in new clothes. From its tropic title, Them, Moreau and Palud played upon the primitive fears of home invasion and pursuit by a faceless monster through a simple and inventive trick, the monsters of Them were simply strangers with flashlights.

The anonymity presented in the darkness and glaring flashlights of Them delivered a horror experience in which the representatives of the irrational violence were shaded from any rudimentary value judgments. Instead, the faceless horrors that haunt Them’s shadowy countryside could be anyone, they are the signifiers of the dread which haunts every lonely dark highway and back country abode. Plus, the killers’ pint-sized frames rob the old “it’s only some neighborhood kids” rationalization of any calming effect.

In presenting common fears in such via simplistic shadow play, Moreau and Palud made it clear that the new horror sensibility would focus less upon what is known and more so upon the terror of the unknown. In eschewing High Tension’s psychological plot twists and Funny Games’ charismatic villains, Them delivered classic scares without the problematic quandaries which made Funny Games a “hit alongside a misunderstanding.” Them is a B-Movie under the guise of what became the New Extremity, terrifying circumstances packing the punch of undeniable realism.

Requiem – Rethinking the Exorcism

Requiem

This one makes the list even though it is not a horror movie in the classical sense, but because it plays with what is the meat of horror cinema and delivers it under far more realistic trappings. Requiem is not a movie that will make you jump out of your seat. There are no supernatural tricks or frights, but it’s a brave and realistic twist on a horror movie trope, exorcism.

Unlike the hoards of Exorcist sequels Hollywood has given us, and not to mention the recent spate of Last Exorcisms that never really end, Requiem is a progressive take on demonic possession that stresses the victims of possession as victims of a mental disorder reinforced by a co-occurring religious fundamentals. It’s an approach to the possession genre that stresses the failure of conservative religious views to adapt to modern realities. This failure of traditional culture to adapt is a powerful undercurrent that ties the movies on this list together, whether it’s a family structure or a religious idea.

The film actually takes its plot from the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German woman claimed to have been possessed by demons who ultimately succumbed to malnutrition because of her family’s unwillingness to send Anneliese to a physician rather than a priest. The story was also given a film treatment with The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which sadly took an overly flashy and supernatural depiction of the case. Requiem might be the perfect swan song for Anneliese Michel, a woman sadly lost to an irrelevant, dangerous, and dated superstition.

Martyrs – Beatifying the Tortured

martyrs

While Hostel II was delivering more of the same humanely devoid torture-porn to American audiences in 2008, Pascal Laugier was making a splash overseas and abroad with his sophomore film, Martyrs. While Martyrs brings with it a stomach churning delight in unbearable scenes of grotesque torture, familial homicide, and unprecedented levels of gore, it does so with the wondering eye of a director probing for a meaning for all the violence.

The film is one half of a revenge story for Lucie, the film’s protagonist and the victim of unspeakable violence at the hands of a seemingly well-to-do family. After brutally slaying said family over their morning breakfast, Lucie discovers that the abuse she suffered as a child was only part and parcel of a much larger institutionalized torture cult for European elites.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but what this film seemingly has in common with Hostel runs only skin deep. Underneath all the incomprehensible violence, Martyrs is a mind blowing take on torture-porn which denies the for-the-kicks mentality of Hostel and Funny Games. I’ll leave it at that, I need to take a shower.

The Strangers – American Home Invasion, European Style

The Strangers

Bryan Bertino’s divisive film The Strangers makes the list for bringing the philosophy of the New Wave of European Horror to American audiences en masse. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, from the slow build up to the seemingly meaningless acts of violence depicted on the screen, The Strangers failed to captivate American audiences and critics. Still, it was unsettling enough to make some sort of scar on the American unconscious and was, in my opinion, an iconic American take on the Euro Home Invasion yarn.

The Strangers was an unadulterated nightmare for the paranoid American audience, it took the unexpected knock on the door in the middle of the night and ramped up the stakes to delightfully intense levels. For some, it became a little too much, and when you see a slasher villain behind the wheel of a car it always does a little to break the hypnotic spell of threatening physicality.

Still, The Strangers gave audiences an iconic set of villains, and a presentation which bled Americana from its minimal folky soundtrack to the sack-cloth mask of the film’s patriarchal trespasser. Plus, many directors could learn a thing or two from this film’s opening twenty minutes, which, in my opinion, is among the best horror movie openings of all time.

Maybe we get enough home-invasions on TV nowadays for this type of a movie to capture a ten-dollars-a-ticket audience. Still, it proved that an American director could create a unique twist on the growing trend in Europe, and in doing so capture a wholesale share the home-owning American nightmare.

Dogtooth – The Other Side of Fear

Dogtooth

By the end of the decade, the horror directors working across Europe had turned the genre on its head, robbed the archetypical horror experience of the fun that had typified it’s early days, and created essentially a new genre which presented realistic terror that refused to look away from the most obscene displays of gratuitous violence. So, then it only made sense that another new wave should rise, carrying with it the things that made New French Extremity such a success while moving away from the exhibitionary displays of chainsaws and torture that made the movement so off putting.

Enter Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 piece of cinematic perfection, not quite a horror movie but as unsettling as any of the great fright fests I’ve ever seen. The story follows a Greek family wherein the children are sheltered from reality to the extent that, even in their twenties, they are not permitted to leave their father’s home and yard.

Dogtooth gave audiences a morally reprehensible display of regressive parental control with its depiction of grown children who are locked in infancy by their supposedly well-meaning patriarch. Dogtooth is a clawing and terrifying vision of reality in which we can see a family wrestling for the control of their environment against an outside world which threatens to destroy the illusions of childhood. It’s an uncomfortable experience which flipped the home-invasion trope on its head and showed how paranoia, xenophobia, and resistance to change cause human beings more damage than any invading monster will. That the family unit will change, and that some of the greatest evils are the product of defending against that change.

Like Funny Games, Dogtooth was a game changer, creating the paradigm which allowed for the Greeks to give us 2011’s Attenberg and the terrific American film Martha Marcy May Marlene.