Around the World in 80 Frights: A primer on horror films around the globe
On Friday, the chilling, intense Austrian horror film Goodbye Mommy enters American theaters. The plot alone sounds a little left-of-center — a pair of 10-year-old twins suspect that the woman covered in post-op bandages is not the mother they knew before, and they intend on getting some answers by whatever means necessary. It’s the execution, though, that really sets this film apart as a unique beast unlike much of what has come before.
Directorial team Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala make their presence so minimally felt, stripping away almost all musical accompaniment and shooting in long, static takes that foster a sense of stark realism. They know enough to let their indelibly terrifying images do their talking for them. With nods to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and the body horror of David Cronenberg, the directors stand by and calmly observe the two young boys indulge in acts of evil few viewers have been disturbed enough to imagine.
Goodnight Mommy could only have been made in Austria, where the antiseptic modernity of their posh homes collides with the penchant for dark surrealism. Drowned cats, roaches swarming out of bodily incisions, holes burned in faces — such haunting, unnatural images rarely find their way to American cineplexes, and when they do, it’s even rarer that they come from American talents.
To commemorate this fine new international horror film’s release, we’ve taken the time to do a little globetrotting, exploring some of the diverse and exotic horrors to be found outside the American border.
Before Guillermo del Toro reworked the Godzilla template for Pacific Rim, before he earned the Academy Award nomination for the magical realism of Pan’s Labyrinth, he fabulated this agreeably Gothic vampire yarn.
A bloodsoaked search for an arcane gizmo with the ability to turn its wielder into a vampire cuts through Mexico, entangling an antiques dealer, a terminal businessman in search of a method of cheating death, and his subservient thug of a nephew (an early-career Ron Perlman, one of the film’s many old-school treats). Del Toro draws on Mexican mythologies as well as creature-feature horror flicks for the stylistic palette in this idiosyncratic remix of traditional vampire lore.
Let The Right One In
Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 film also claims the vampire as its object of terror, and takes an approach just as unorthodox.
For the first act or so, the film doesn’t move with the grim portentousness of a scary movie; we meet a lonesome boy, the subject of merciless bullying from his unfeeling peers. He finds a kindred spirit in the suspiciously quiet girl who moves in just across the way, and gains a protector when she reveals herself to feed on human blood. The tender bond that blossoms between the pair as they allow themselves to lower their meticulously constructed guards is nothing short of touching, and makes the unspeakable violence that follows even more affecting.
Describing Antichrist as a “horror film” is like warning a date that you’re into kinky stuff and allowing her to think that means a little light spanking, when in actuality your fetish has been rightfully outlawed in several states.
From its opening salvo, in which Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg engage in full-penetration sex as their child falls to its death, Antichrist breaks into a full sprint and crosses the line of good taste like a marathon runner. There’s something for everyone: genital mutilation, talking animals, trees made of limbs, and all framed as a cabin-in-the-woods horrorshow. It’s the sort of opera of depravity that could only spring forth from the mind of Lars Von Trier, a fellow with the word “FUCK” tattooed across his knuckles.
Eyes Without A Face
This rediscovered classic of French cinema hit just as the New Wave crested, and while its genre-bound specifics have barred it from the stature enjoyed by The 400 Blows and Breathless, Georges Franju’s 1959 film is no less essential.
At a secluded compound in the country, a mad scientist goes to deranged lengths to restore his daughter’s (Edith Scob, acting her heart out from behind an iconic mask) disfigured face to its former beauty. If that means abducting, murdering, and experimenting on innocent travelers, then that’s just the price that must be paid for perfection. Franju’s discomfiting vision of mutation influenced filmmakers across generations, most notably providing the inspiration for Michael Myers’ vacant, haunting latex mask.
Sharper readers may have already put this together, but the title of the film does indeed translate back as “vampire lesbians.” Upon his passing in 2013, filmmaker Jesús Franco spurred an outpouring of praise, but none of it was for his subtlety or restraint. The man knew what he liked: blood, boobs, and monsters, preferably with as much overlap as possible.
At the very least, Vampyros Lesbos has more substance than Franco’s The Female Vampire, which is pretty much a porno. In the cult classic, a seductress with a taste for nubile passersby entrances unwitting young women into her countryside castle. The rest of it pretty much writes itself, but the film must be seen regardless, if only for its retro-sexadelic soundtrack.
Recent years have seen a pitiful decline through mediocrity into outright awfulness for Italian auteur Dario Argento. The memory of the insatiably experimental director responsible for some of the most ravishing sensual giallo# masterpieces of the ‘70s and ‘80s grows fainter with every passing year, but we’ll always have his magnum opus, 1975’s Deep Red.
An unlucky jazz pianist ends up as the reluctant investigator of a psychic’s grisly murder and tumbles into an expressionist stew of pop psychology, creepy knife-wielding dolls, and psychedelic experimentation. The demented soundtrack from prog-rockers Goblin is the cherry on top of this bloody delight.
Bollywood, the nickname for India’s perpetually booming film industry, is primarily identified with its mind-bogglingly lavish musicals and larger-than-life romances. But the subcontinent plays host to plenty of masterful horror productions, most of which share the other genres’ sense of spectacle and passion for cinematic effect.
The villain of Bandh Darwaza is the Hindi response to Dracula, but it’s the members of his demonic retinue that routinely steal the spotlight. There’s a wrinkly old witch capable of turning people’s blood into poison (I think, it’s a little hard to follow), a priest who has renounced the cloth and turned to evil (I think), and a wizard (that one was pretty clear) in the service of the bloodsucker Neola. The bloated run time — almost two and a half hours, pretty much par for the course in Indian cinema — might be something of a turn-off, but there are wonders here that even the most adventurous viewers will never find anywhere else.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Some horror films’ descriptions read like ten-car pile-ups of incredible ideas. Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, for instance, was trumpeted as ‘an Iranian feminist spaghetti Western vampire romance’ — even if you don’t love the picture, you can’t deny that Amirpour’s breaking new ground.
With breathtaking black-and-white photography, Amirpour follows an inscrutable young vampire identified only as The Girl as she stalks the unwitting citizens of Bad City, biding her time until the moment is right to strike. The film plays with an ice-cold Jarmuschian cool, making vampires as suave and seductive as the first bite.
Mystics In Bali
Indonesian curio Mystics In Bali was a thing of myth for so long, until upstanding DVD distributor Mondo Macabro spruced up the negative and printed a new restoration of this one-of-a-kind freak show. Watching the eye-popping flourishes of surrealism, it sometimes feels as if there are simply no goddamn rules in Indonesia.
The film draws heavily upon the local wives’ tale of the leyak, a demon said to take the shape of a severed head with entrails dangling out of the bottom that flies around and torments the mischievous. But that’s small potatoes in this fantasia of the bizarre and crude, where no act of violence is too monstrous and no special effect is too half-assed.
Ah, Japan. Dear, sweet Japan. You managed to perfect the gameshow format by shooting it through with 150cc of pure adrenaline and dosing it with a pair of crazy pills. And most of the time, that’s what Hausu feels like: a game show where there are no rules, where unanticipated and inexplicable bafflements wait behind every trick door, and the points don’t matter.
No shot is straightforward and no death anything other than unforgettably weird; director Nobuhiko Obayashi let his every slightest impulse go untethered until they cohered into the strangest trip to grandma’s ever conceived on film. Grand pianos sprout teeth and devour schoolgirls, housecats become emissaries of Satan, and as the film approaches its grand finale, the very boundaries of reason itself meet a gruesome demise.
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