European Nightmares: The Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945

Francesco Di Chiara
Francesco Di Chiara

Patricia Allmer, Emily Brick, and David Huxley’s edited collection ‘European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945’ (New York-Chichester: Columbia University Press/Wallflower Press, 2012) is a book with roots that go back to a conference organised by the editors at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006.

As Allmer, Brick, and Huxley state in their introduction, horror films produced in Europe during the past decade have proven to be very popular and successful at the box office, while at the same time the horror genre has become a flourishing field of investigation.

Although a number of books have been published about the Hollywood horror film or about specific national cinemas, a comprehensive analysis of European horror cinema is still lacking. This is the gap that this book intends to fill.

In 2004, another edited collection on European horror was published by Wallflower Press: Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik’s ‘Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema Since 1945’. However, Mathijs and Mendik’s book relies on a notion of the European horror film as exploitation and/or underground cinema.

This is a definition that Allmer, Brick, and Huxley intend to challenge. According to Peter Hutchings, whose essay ‘Resident Evil? The Limits of European Horror: Resident Evil versus Suspiria’ opens their collection, the “Eurohorror” label emerged within the context of United Kingdom horror fandom in the wake of the notorious 1984 Video Recordings Act that heavily censored, or even banned, the home video circulation of a large number of “nasty” European horror productions.

At the time, being a fan of European horror meant taking some sort of a counter-cultural stance. This attitude has remained, even though many of the specifics have changed in relation to European horror production and consumption.

One of the goals of European Nightmares is to oppose to the “old” Eurohorror label with a more open and ductile concept that takes into account European-Hollywood co-productions, such as the ‘Resident Evil’ or ‘Underworld’ series (pp. 13-23). Thus, in the editors’ words, this collection aims at exploring the constantly evolving “European aesthetics” of the horror film, which are defined externally by an opposition to Hollywood horror film production and internally by religious and cultural differences among European nations, as well as by different censorship laws across Europe.

‘European Nightmares: The Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945’ can be split into two parts: the former is devoted to the reception of the European horror film while the latter, containing the bulk of the essays, is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a single European nation (or region).

The first part is theoretical, aiming to define the concept of European horror on the grounds of its reception. In fact, as the aforementioned Hutchings essay points out, European horror films have never been marketed as such. On the contrary, this particular generic identity was shaped by the audience of those films in a perspective that draws its premises from Rick Altman’s work on film genres.

The result of this fan discourse is a European horror film canon that usually includes films that are “extreme” from a visual standpoint (in terms of graphic violence, or stylistic features) as well as objects that seem to be in-between the art film and exploitation cinema, and as such are often either overlooked or explicitly rejected by the critical establishment.

The subsequent sections in the book follow this framework. Case studies, grouped in the British, French, Spanish, Italian, Northern European, and Eastern European areas, range from Italian zombie films to the works of Michael Haneke; from Spanish rip-offs of ‘The Exorcist’ to the Hungarian György Pàlfi’s ‘Taxidermia’ (2006), a film that appears to be more closely linked to Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s surreal sensitivity than to straightforward horror.

In this respect, one of the main problems with this book is a certain lack of consistency between how the European horror film is defined by the first essay in the volume, and how the subsequent contributions shape this same object of investigation. On the one hand, ‘European Nightmares: The Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945’ intends to challenge the old European horror canon as it was conceived by 1980s fandom, by taking into account the recent changes in European horror production, exhibition, and consumption; on the other hand, the selection of essays reverses the book’s course into old Eurohorror territory.

In fact, as noted before, Hutchings defies the Euro horror label in a very provocative way. He contrasts a well-established European generic canon (composed mostly of low-budget exploitation films) with an American-Japanese blockbuster franchise like ‘Resident Evil’, mainly because the films in this series are French minority stake co-productions shot in Germany and helmed by a British director.

By the means of this provocative choice, Hutchings is able to stress how the contemporary European horror film is transnational in nature, aiming at mainstream distribution and often relying on source material that comes from the new media environment.

However, most of the essays chosen by Allmer, Brick, and Huxley somehow contradict this stance by dealing with lowbrow “extreme” cinema from the 1970s-1980s, or with highbrow directors that are supposedly aiming to shock their audiences. Therefore, most of the featured case studies are representative of the European horror film as a counter-cultural subversion of the mainstream Hollywood values of morality and taste. It then becomes a refreshing choice, and more consistent with the overall approach of the collection, to include contributions that are akin to the broader category proposed by Hutchings, such as an analysis of the science-fiction classic ‘Village of the Damned’ (1960) by Wolf Rilla, or a consideration of the early works of Spanish director Alejandro Amenàbar.

Moreover, it is worth noting how Brick, by using the category of the “rape-revenge film” in her essay ‘Baise-Moi and the French Rape-Revenge Films’, connects the sensational low-budget film ‘Baise-Moi’ (2000) by Virginie Despentes to this sub-genre, urging one to explore the link between violence in the French banlieue and other French horror films like ‘Inside/À l’intérieur’ (2007) by Alexander Bustillo or ‘Frontière(s)’ (2007) by Xavier Gens (pp. 93-102).

As is the case with European cinema in general, most of the work on the European horror film tends to focus on Western and Central Europe, leaving Eastern European countries out of the scope of the investigation. This is hardly surprising, given that Eastern European cinemas were state-driven industries, in countries with socialist regimes that were not keen on supporting horror film production.

Nonetheless, during the 2000s, Eastern Europe has acquired a prominent place in the Western horror film imagination. As Christina Stojanova points out in her essay ‘A Gaze from Hell: Eastern European Cinema Revisited’, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and after the Yugoslav wars of secession, the Western gaze began constructing Eastern Europe as “the site of the uncanny Other” (p. 228).

This is apparent in Hollywood productions such as ‘Hostel’ (2005) by Eli Roth, and also in various European films such as ‘The Abandoned’ (2006) by Nacho Cerdà, ‘Them/Ils’ (2006) by Xavier Palud, ‘Severance’ (2006) by Christopher Smith, or ‘Caged/Captifs’ (2010) by Yann Gozlan — some of which are co-productions between Western and Eastern European countries.

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