The horror film’s energy seems to move in cyclical patterns from country to country. At different points of the genre’s history, the best work tends to cluster geographically. I admit that my evidence for this is rather anecdotal, but let’s look at the patterns.
France is where it all begins, with Georges Méliès creating the first horror movies in 1896. The genre is, admittedly, in very embryonic form at this stage, but in the early years of the 20th Century, this is where the action is. The American film i…dustry, in its infancy, produces its fair share of early horrors (most notably the Thomas Edison-produced Frankenstein in 1910), but its day in the sun had not yet come. The real nexus of creativity for the first feature-length horror films would be Germany, beginning in 1913 with The Student of Prague, and hitting full steam with the Expressionist movement and the likes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, Nosferatu and so on.
Hollywood would produce the likes of The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, but it is in 1931 that it becomes the home of the horror film with the release of Dracula and Frankenstein. That decade is the Golden Age of Horror, and it is also not insignificant that a number of filmmakers involved with it had come over from Germany.
And on the pattern goes: the American horror film stagnates in the 40s, dies out altogether in 1946, and though the early 50s would see a return of sorts in the SF thriller, the traditional horror film would move to England for a revival in the capable hands of Hammer. The Italians get into the act in the 60s. I could go on. But let’s jump forward now to the current state of affairs. Horror came back big-time at the box office in 1999. While there have been a number of good efforts coming out of the States, too many release have been remakes or rehashes. Precious little work that can be called innovative has come out of Hollywood. Instead, for most of the last decade, Asia has been at the forefront of the genre. But now there are signs of stagnation there, too. Do we really care to see yet another long-haired female ghost?
I submit that the creative centre of the genre has shifted again, and the evidence (again, anecdotal) suggests that we have come full circle, and should be looking at France once more, or at least, French-speaking Europe, as Belgium is part of the new extreme French-language cinema as well. Here are just a few examples. Not all of them are straight horror films, but they are all horrific.
Baise-Moi is several years old now, but I mention it since I see it as an early champion of new extremity if French cinema. More hardcore Thelma and Louise than outright horror, its rawness, cruelty, and refusal to compromise at any level still make it important to lovers of the field. Similarly, the just-released 13 Tzameti is, strictly speaking, a thriller, with its tale of a clandestine Russian Roulette betting ring, but its mystery and throat-clutching suspense also make it worthy of note. Closer to the pure horror are High Tension and Calvaire. The former has an ending that will divide viewers, but the ferocity of its carnage is impressive, and is still, to my mind, a stronger film than the director’s follow-up, The Hills Have Eyes. The latter, a Belgian film, like High Tension, applies the lessons of the 70s, and acknowledges that decade’s inspiration, without rehashing or remaking. Instead, it is its own, exquisitely nasty beast. The future of horror is there, my friends. Take a look.