I have, for work-related reasons, been watching quite a number of European horror films in close succession, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. Yesterday, in the middle of this, I was moved to reflect on what seems to be a fairly significant difference between the British and Continental films. I won’t go so far as to claim that what I’m going to describe is universal, but it is prevalent enough to be, at the very, very least, a marked trend. And it is this: that the Continental variant has a distinctly sleazier feel than do its cousins.
Now, sleaze is an extremely subjective term. How, precisely, does one define it? This is not the place to attempt to answer such a weighty question, but I do feel I should remind my patient reader that, in these quarters, the term is frequently not pejorative, but often a mark of the highest praise. Furthermore, as I said above, this isn’t a universal law. England’s Pete Walker has pumped out a body of work that is emphatically sleazy, as is evident from the titles alone: House of Whipcord, Die Screaming Marianne , The Flesh and Blood Show, and so on. But his films, memorably described by Kim Newman as “defiantly grotty,” stand out as such because they are, relatively speaking, the exception that proves the rule. Hammer is, of course, the paradigm for British horror, and as prurient as some of its later offerings would become (Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, To the Devil a Daughter), there was always an aura of polished respectability about the films. Whereas on the Continent, the films were notably far more sexualized, to the point, at times, of completely erasing the line between porn and horror. Thus, people like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco would move back and forth between making outright hardcore and more traditional genre fare.
Some of Franco’s comments are, I think, helpful in this context. The story goes that it was seeing The Curse of Frankenstein that inspired him to make a horror film (which would be The Awful Dr. Orloff, whose plot is clearly derived from Eyes Without a Face). But if he was so inspired, it does not seem to be as a result of admiration for Curse’s director and Britain’s best known horror specialist, Terence Fisher. Here’s Franco, being interviewed in Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco (Lucas Balbo, Peter Blumenstock, Christian Kessler and Tim Lucas, 1993): “Terence Fisher is one of the worst film-makers that ever was. […] [H]is films are cold, there’s a sort of distance. There’s the same distance that Christopher Lee has when he acts. He never commits, he doesn’t believe in it. […] Terence Fisher hated making fantasy films. He made them for money, whereas I feel that one doesn’t have the right to do something unless one believes in it.”
Franco’s distaste for Fisher, if we take it a face value, suggests an intriguing equation: that sleaze equals honesty. Yes, the Continental films are far more exploitive, but, the argument would go, that simply means that they are upfront about what they, their film-makers, and their audiences are really interested in. And what they are interested in (sex and death, to put it bluntly), is the same as what the British films are concerned with, but the latter either pull back from a fully explicit portrayal with the subject at hand, distance themselves (and their film-makers, and their audiences) with a respectable gloss of artistry (the equivalent of claiming to buy Playboy for the articles), or simply refuse to wholeheartedly revel in and enjoy the dirty business (or at least refuse to admit that they ARE enjoying what’s going on).
I’ll quite happily confess that I’m not at all sure that I am myself convinced by the argument I’ve just put forth, but I thought I’d toss it out there as food for thought.