October is a brilliant time of year to be a horror fan. Suddenly your friends want to watch all your favorite movies, TV fills up with a regular schedule of bloodshed, haunted houses pop up all over the place…lots of good things are happening. One of those things this year is FEARnet’s “Expedition: FEAR” a Friday night block at 10PM ET of foreign horror that brings focus to lesser known festival hits and international films. And that’s fantastic, because some of the best horror out there is waiting just outside American borders. After all, there’s a reason Hollywood is constantly mining foreign territories for the next remake. It’s because, generally speaking, foreign horror kicks ass. Unfortunately, a lot of people still aren’t on board with foreign cinema. So if you count yourself among that number hit the jump to find out why international horror is so amazing and why you’re selling yourself short when you don’t give it a chance.
It used to be kind of difficult to get your hands on foreign films. Blockbuster carried a few, but they were usually limited to classic films and the newer ones tended to be dubbed. Now, thanks to VOD, internet sources like Netflix and Amazon, and Cable channels like FEARnet it has become extremely convenient to watch almost any film from anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. And yet, a stunning amount of people still won’t venture beyond the weekly releases at the local Cineplex for a good scare. Most times I hear it’s because of subtitles, either it’s too much work or they can’t read and keep up with the action of the film at the same time. Even English language foreign features can get the brunt because people have difficulty with accents, but if you tell them to turn on the subtitles you loop right back to the first problem. I managed movie theaters for the better part of a decade and it was always disheartening to see how many people would flood out of a foreign film the minute it started demanding a refund because they “didn’t know it was subtitled.”
So let’s just get this out of the way- if you’ve been putting off watching foreign films because of difficulties with subtitles, it gets easier. It really does. And the learning curve is surprisingly rapid. Barring an actual reading disorder, I’ve never had a friend who couldn’t adjust to it by the end of just one film if they put in a concerted effort. One film. That’s like, two hours, and if you can get through it literally an entire world of cinema is open to you. And it’s an amazing world. As a film nut one of my greatest pleasures has always been introducing a casual filmgoer to a movie that I know they’ll love, but would never watch without encouragement. So consider this article my attempt to do the same for you.
Here’s my plea: If you like horror, if you like being scared, you are missing so much by ignoring the world of film out there. What we see in the Hollywood studio system is essentially a ceaseless exsanguination of trend after trend. It goes something like this: A genuinely scary original film will terrify audiences. Audiences will flock to that film. That film will then basically be remade with a new title and a new cast for the next five years or so until audiences stop going, the money dries up, and then a new trend will begin. Most of you are probably aware of this. Most of you are probably sick to death of nauseating handheld footage of the paranormal. We can only hope that the success of The Conjuring will lead to a trend of classically composed horror films with good actors and likeable characters. I digress. My point is that the Hollywood model largely relies on repetition and the value of investing in a proven formula.
One of the best things about foreign horror is that it is not regularly subject to this formula. It can bypass the rigid scriptwriting demands of Hollywood cinema, the dilution of test audiences, and the strictures of the MPAA. If you’re unaware of the extent to which studio films formulaically scripted I recommend checking out the book “Save the Cat”. It was written as a practical book to help screenwriters get their scripts past the readers’ pile. While I don’t doubt that it has been helpful to writers, I find it most interesting when looked at as a sort of unintentional dissertation of the state of American cinema. “Save the Cat” breaks down, to the minute, the points at which a script must include certain moments or plot developments and, to the beat, the characters that these events must happen to. And the writer wasn’t pulling it out of his ass either. His one-size-fits-all script format applies to a stunning number of films. It’s worth mentioning that a lot of those films are really damn good. This is not a catch-all condemnation of popular film. There’s a power to formula and repetition. I’m a huge fan of slashers, so believe me, I get it. That’s why there are twelve freaking Friday the 13th films, ten Halloween movies, and nine entries in the Hellraiser saga. And that’s why each one made enough money for some executive to justify making another one…which, by the way, you know will invariably happen again in the next few years. People like repetition. We crave it and find comfort in it. But horror isn’t about comfort. The formula is fun, but it is rarely scary. It’s hard to be scared if you already know when something is going to happen and who it’s going to happen to.
As an example, let’s stick to “Save the Cat” for a minute and talk about that title. It refers to a required moment in the script where your protagonist does something super groovy, like say, saving a cat, which proves to the audience that he’s a gee-swell guy and we all should like him. There’s nothing wrong with a likeable protagonist, but sometimes there’s something oh-so-right about letting your hero be kind of a dick. Look at Oldboy. Park Chan-Wook’s celebrated revenge film follows Dae-su, who’s all around a bit of a bastard. We first meet him in police custody acting like a drunken jackass. We come to know that he can literally fill journals with stories of the people he’s hurt (largely husbands of the hundreds of women he’s slept with). And we see him do so much worse throughout the course of the film. And yet we are with him, rooting for him, for every step of the journey. It’s difficult to get into without spoilers (If you haven’t seen Oldboy, you owe it to yourself to do so before the remake arrives), but I think it’s safe to say that some of the film’s effect rests on the fact that you can empathize with the characters in spite of their actions. You can still love a character even if you don’t like them. Walter White, anybody?
However, If American protagonists are overly likeable, it is also true that our supporting characters can be stunningly unlikeable. The loudmouth bro-jock who only cares about getting some. The trembling pretty girl, an empty shell with great boobs. The shrieking middle aged woman succumb to hysteria. The self-righteous older man demanding answers now, dammit! They are usually given a stock persona when you meet them, then they get scared and adopt an even less appealing persona. Then they die. That’s it. That’s all we’re given, and somehow we’re supposed to feel horror over their deaths. Truthfully, what we usually feel is relief. We’re just happy we won’t have to listen to them anymore. This is all about that formulaic scripting. Not only are they stock characters, but we are given no time to care about them, because the bodies have to start dropping by a certain page number or we’ll lose interest in the film, right? Well, I say no and so do a lot of directors around the world. Look at the films of Greg McLean, an Australian director with a unique sense of pacing. Both Rogue and Wolf Creek spend the first act letting you get to know the characters with little to no action. McLean gives you the time to learn about them and start to care about them. So when shit hits the fan, you’re invested. You actually give a fuck. Furthermore, while the characters may act irresponsibly or panic in the face of a threat, they have been developed enough for you to forgive them. The characters are given flaws, but they are not defined by them.
When it comes to investing in characters, foreign films have another advantage, and it’s pretty basic. You will not recognize the majority of the faces on your screen. It is just so much easier to believe an actor’s performance when you know nothing about them. It’s part of the reason why so many serious actors are disturbed by fame and make a great effort to keep themselves private, and I believe it’s part of the reason why overly famous actors get stuck essentially playing themselves. You’re just going to have a really rough time convincing an audience that Bruce Willis is anything other than a badass. We take what we already know into the theater with us and it can be incredibly difficult to shake off.
The best example I can think of is World War Z. Never once in the course of that movie was I concerned for Brad Pitt’s character. He’s Brad Pitt. No matter what happens to his character I know that in “real life” he’s married to Angelina Jolie, that they have a beautiful family, a beautiful life, that he hangs out at George Clooney’s villa. When you’re watching a zombie film the last thing you want called to mind is “real life”. Recognizable actors carry the weight of their own fame, and that fame can seriously interfere with your suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is vital to any film, but particularly to those that deal in the realms of heightened reality, the paranormal, or science fiction. You are already being asked to believe so much, and at a certain point it becomes impossible to invest. By contrast, look at the cast of The Walking Dead. Before the show premiered you were likely unfamiliar with the cast. You may have seen Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually. You probably recognized Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker from a thing or two, but odds are you didn’t know them by name. It was just so easy to accept these strangers as a group of survivors in a zombie wasteland. There was no reason not to. It’s always like that with foreign film. You are given a cast full of blank slates to be perceived only as the director intends you to. You don’t know any better, so your mind readily accepts that a man, though you know he’s an actor, can be a child murder, cannibal, or any other measure of monster. It’s a simple thing, but it’s a hell of a gift to be given as a viewer in the age of the “STARmeter”.
As for the measure of a monster, foreign films aren’t afraid to let that measure be quite large. When it comes to taboo, to cringe-worthy depravity or stomach-churning evisceration, you will find that in foreign cinema these issues are broached with an unflinching fearlessness that is all but absent in Hollywood horror. Here’s where those dreaded test screenings and MPAA rulings come into play. Test screenings are usually comprised of people who have been handed a flier on the street and, lacking anything better to do at the appointed time, show up to watch a movie they know nothing about and might never have watched otherwise. It’s a pretty soulless process in general, but for horror films in particular it can be a kiss of death. After all, horror is kind of a niche genre. It seems counter-intuitive in a time where The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are among the most watched shows on television, but more often than not if you step out of your group of friends and try talking about your love of horror you will be met with sideways glances and a hasty desire to change the subject, if not with outright derision. It’s just not everybody’s thing. So if you get an audience that doesn’t like to be scared, or is easily offended, or finds cinematic violence tasteless and show them an exceptional horror film they will rip it apart, in spite of its merits, simply because it does not fit their taste. That movie might have blown up on the horror scene, might have been beloved for the very things it’s condemned for in that screening. But the studio goal is to make the movie accessible to the largest audience possible and sometimes that means cutting the offensive lines, carnage close-ups, and explosive blood splatters that often thrill a horror fan the most.
Let’s say the film makes it through the screening process in good shape. The audience pretty much dug it. Maybe a couple seconds were shaved off that close-up of a decapitated stump. Small changes, no biggie. There’s also trial by MPAA. While the MPAA was created with good intentions to protect your darling children from mental savaging at the hands of cinema it is, in truth, more or less a censorship machine. Sure, filmmakers could say “screw it” and let the chips fall where they may, but Hollywood is a business and business seeks profit. If your film gets an “R”-rating, the size of your ticket-purchasing audience drops drastically. Teenagers love horror, but they legally can’t buy tickets for the film. There goes your money. If your film gets the dreaded “Unrated”, you’re left with basically no audience at all. Most theaters won’t play anything past an “R”. Either cut it down to what the MPAA deems appropriate or hope like hell for good DVD sales. Let’s not forget that The Conjuring was rated “R” simply for being “too scary”. Warner Brothers was able to turn that into a good marketing ploy, but the fact remains that a horror film was effectively penalized simply for achieving its objective. You know, scaring people.
For the record, the ratings do nothing to stop kids from seeing whatever they want. If you haven’t noticed, teenagers are sneaky little shits. In my years working at the cinema I can’t tell you how often a horror film would sell virtually no tickets, and yet the view from the projection booth showed a theater full of eagerly waiting adolescents. The rating system, by and large, is meddlesome and ineffective, and it dictates the content of every film that goes to wide release. I’m not saying that foreign horror is exempt from any kind of censorship or interference. That obviously varies by nation, decade, and director, but it’s just not anywhere near as prevalent as what we see here. You will find all manner of perversity, bloodshed, and mental fuckery in the films of foreign countries. And it is exquisite.
Up until now everything I’ve said about foreign horror could be applied to some of the great work going on in American independent circuit. There are plenty of directors working outside of the studio system to bring us unusual and unsettling horror films right here in America. But here is the thing that makes foreign horror so damn amazing; fear is cultural and it is specific. Night of the Living Dead is recognized to be an allegory for the socio-political turmoil of 1960’s America. Godzilla is recognized as a manifestation of Japan’s terror at the destruction of WWII. Modern zombies and Godzilla, two of the greatest things in the world, emerged out of the singular experience of the nation that created them. Likewise, each country is endowed with a specific history and culture that breed fears and pathologies as unique as the context they’re born in. The varieties of fear that are suddenly available when you open the door on foreign horror are astounding. When you watch films from all over the world you can be frightened and shocked in ways you have never experienced before, because those fears are born out of a way of life you have never known.
Remember about ten years ago when there was a new ghost story featuring a pale dead kid with long black hair every few months? As I’m sure you already know, you can thank Asian cinema for that. Well, not for all the terrible remakes, that’s totally on us, but for that new imagery, that new atmosphere, that ratcheting creepiness that dominated the early 2000’s. All of that is owed entirely to the conceits of another culture. Here’s why that’s incredible. The first time I saw The Ring I freaked out, probably more than I ever have over a film before or ever will again, because I had never been exposed to foreign horror films. While The Ring was a remake, it was a good one, and it borrowed heavily from its predecessor. All that imagery and atmospheric intensity was learned from the original. I had never seen a single thing like it so I felt deep and true fear. I felt it for weeks. I covered my TV screen at night and slept with the lights on. I also went on to seek out the original film Ringu, and from there the world of foreign horror was opened to me. I’ve been reveling in the intimate fears of foreign nations ever since. This is the primary reason I urge you to seek out foreign horror if you haven’t done so. You simply can’t prepare yourself for a hit that you, not only can’t see coming, but didn’t even know existed. That visceral, panicky terror unlike any you’ve ever felt, the one that will set you on edge for weeks, is waiting for you out there. You just have to look for it.
Hopefully if you’ve made it to this point, you’re interested. You’re ready to tackle the trials of subtitling and experience some of the balls-the-wall greatness that’s out there waiting for you. Basically, you’re awesome. Kudos. But, where to begin? Well, what do you like? If you’re very new to foreign film it’s always a safe bet to start with something that broke through and made good at the American box-office. Films like The Orphanage, High Tension, or Let the Right One In. Another safe bet would be films that have been remade for American audiences like [Rec], The Grudge, or again Let the Right One In (Okay, I just really think everybody should watch Let the Right One In). If you’re a fan of slashers, extreme bloodshed, and butchery try the so-called French new wave, which includes Frontier(s), Martyrs, or my personal favorite, Inside. Check out the Cold Prey trilogy or Wolf Creek. Prefer something a little more creepy and atmospheric? Try Lake Mungo, The Devil’s Backbone, A Tale of Two Sisters or any one of the other excellent Asian ghost stories maligned by American remakes (The Eye, Dark Water, One Missed Call, Shutter, Pulse etc, ad nauseum). Maybe you like horror-comedy. Try out Severance, Dead Snow, or 100 Bloody Acres. If you’re into great revenge stories look no further than the films of South Korea; Memories of a Murder, A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil, and you can’t go wrong with Park Chan-Wook’s vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance). But, you know what? I take that back. Do look further. Look as far and wide as you can. That’s where you’ll find the good stuff. And when you find it, let me know, because I want to watch it too.
Make sure to check out FEARnet’s “Expedition: FEAR” on Friday nights at 10PM ET for some great international horror movies.