Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

By: Ian Olney
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Beginning in the 1950s, "Euro Horror" movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York's Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema-including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films-and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.

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Note on Film Titles

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Most of the Euro horror films discussed in this book have at least two different titles: their original, foreign-language titles and the English ones they were given upon their American theatrical or home video premiere. Many, however, have acquired other titles as they have been released and re-released in different markets over the years. Consider the (admittedly extreme) case of Mario Bava’s 1971 film, Bay of Blood, which has played to audiences around the world under more than a dozen titles, including Reazione a catena, Antefatto – Ecologia del delitto, Bloodbath, The Last House on the Left: Part II, and (my favorite) Twitch of the Death Nerve. To avoid confusion, I have elected to introduce the Euro horror films discussed in this book by their original, foreign-language titles, followed in parentheses by the English titles under which they are most widely known and available in the United States today; all subsequent references use the English titles. Thus the aforementioned Bava film would be introduced as Reazione a catena (Bay of Blood, 1971) and thereafter referred to as Bay of Blood. Readers who look up a Euro horror film in the index will find the foreign-language title there, though they will be directed to the English title for a list of the pages on which the film is discussed.

 

1 Academic Hot Spots and Blind Spots: Horror Film Studies and Euro Horror Cinema

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HORROR FILM STUDIES AND EURO HORROR CINEMA

There has been an explosion of interest in horror cinema among film scholars in recent years; in the first decade of the twenty-first century especially, the genre received unprecedented attention in the field of Film Studies. Perhaps the most visible sign of the current scholarly fascination with horror cinema is the record number of books on the subject being published by academic presses in the United States and abroad. Scores of monographs and edited volumes on seemingly every aspect of the genre, from its nature and history to its cultural and ideological dimensions to its notable directors and producers to its reception and fandom, now crowd the shelves. There is even a growing number of texts on horror cinema geared toward the film student – introductory guidebooks that offer overviews of the genre, as well as critical anthologies that collect the most important and influential essays on the subject – indicating that horror film studies has truly arrived as an area of academic inquiry. While the extraordinary number of books on horror cinema available today may be the most visible sign of scholarly interest in the genre, it is not the only one. Hundreds of articles on the horror film have appeared in a wide range of highly respected academic journals. Many of these journals have devoted entire issues to horror, and at least one – Horror Studies, a periodical published in the United Kingdom – has dedicated itself exclusively to the exploration of the genre. One might also point to the countless papers on horror cinema delivered at conferences sponsored by professional organizations like the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and the Popular Culture and American Culture associations. And this boom in horror film scholarship seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future: according to the Dissertation Abstracts Online database, dozens of doctoral dissertations on horror cinema were submitted at universities all over the world during the first decade of the 2000s, suggesting that a new generation of scholars with a substantial investment in the genre has now entered the field.

 

2 Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: The Academic Case against Euro Horror Cinema

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THE ACADEMIC CASE AGAINST EURO HORROR CINEMA

To begin, I argue that Euro horror’s liminal presence in Film Studies is partly due to the fact that when making decisions about which movies to analyze, scholars continue – consciously or not – to rely upon traditional aesthetic criteria. Although ideological rather than aesthetic issues have been the primary focus of film theory and criticism since the 1970s, the old notion that a film must possess some kind of “artistic value” to be worthy of study has endured. The persistence of this notion has stalled the scholarly exploration of some forms of popular cinema despite the powerful influence of Cultural Studies in academia. In particular, as Paul Watson contends, it has led to a pervasive (if largely unspoken and perhaps unrecognized) bias against the exploitation film, that “blatantly commercial product, sold on the basis of its apparent revelatory qualities, and designed to ensure maximum possible return from the minimum investment and resources” (76):

 

3 Playing Dead, Take One: Euro Horror Film Production

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EURO HORROR FILM PRODUCTION

Euro horror movies encourage performative spectatorship because of the way in which they are made. I want to be mindful of the danger of overgeneralizing about the common identity of these films, despite – or rather because of – the fact that they are regularly lumped together by their contemporary American fans. After all, Europe comprises over fifty countries, two dozen languages, and a wide array of cultural, social, economic, political, religious, and artistic traditions. The challenge that such diversity poses to anyone wanting to make grand statements about “the” nature of European cinema is obvious. As Ernest Mathjis and Xavier Mendik write:

 

There is hardly a more difficult object of media study than European cinema. Although seemingly evident by its geographical boundaries, from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean, its cultural, aesthetic, economical, political and ideological demarcations are far from clear. European cinema cannot be pinned down to a small number of production strategies, or reduced to a limited series of intentions or ideological perspectives; it does not even fit barriers of language or nations. It cannot be defined through audience and reception practices, nor through its range of textual meanings. There are no straightforward genres to hold on to, no uncontested canon, not even an undisputed series of countries (Flemish cinema? Yiddish cinema? Turkish cinema? Yugoslavian cinema?), people (Alfred Hitchcock, Luc Besson, Paul Verhoeven?) or texts (Stranger than Paradise, Buena Vista Social Club?). (“Introduction” 1–2)

 

4 Playing Dead, Take Two: Euro Horror Film Reception

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EURO HORROR FILM RECEPTION

Postmodern filmmaking practices provide part of the explanation for the performative spectatorship fostered by Euro horror cinema, but not a full account. For that, we need to consider the uniquely performative ways in which Euro horror movies are now being watched in the United States. To a certain extent, film viewing always involves an element of performativity. In her phenomenological account of the cinematic experience, Vivian Sobchack appropriates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of the “intertwining” or “chiasmus” of subject and object that takes place at the moment of perception in order to argue that watching a movie should be thought of not as an act, but rather as a dialogue that involves the audience and the film as equal participants. Writing that a movie “is as much a viewing subject as it is . . . a visible and viewed object” (51), Sobchack demonstrates that spectatorship is necessarily “a dialogical and dialectical engagement of two viewing subjects who also exist as visible objects” (52). Despite the fact that there are “always two embodied acts of vision at work in the theater, two embodied views constituting the intelligibility and significance of the film experience” (53), though, we often fail to recognize this, missing entirely the “dynamic activity of viewing that is engaged in by both the film and the spectator, each as viewing subjects” (45). Rather than treating the movies we watch as partners in dialogue, we tend to see them as events to which we must play passive witnesses. As a rule, the “returned gaze” (Dixon, It Looks at You 2) of cinema goes unmet.

 

5 Return of the Repressed: Euro Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

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EURO HORROR CINEMA IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURE

As we scan the landscape of mainstream cinema in the United States today, it becomes easier to understand why Euro horror movies like The House by the Cemetery and Troll 2 currently hold such allure. For all its commitment to crowd-pleasing spectacle, contemporary Hollywood cinema simply does not offer audiences the same opportunities for performative spectatorship that Euro horror does. Bland, safe, and boring – despite their emphasis on nonstop action, celebrity actors, and flashy special effects – Hollywood films lack the postmodern qualities that afford Euro horror fans the chance to try out different points of view and play with a range of often transgressive subject positions. Moreover, rather than presenting itself as a partner in dialogue and prompting the viewer’s active participation in a conversation, the dominant cinema is largely invested in masking its gaze and colonizing ours. It denies the intersubjectivity that defines the cinematic experience by presenting itself simply as a vehicle for our entertainment and encouraging us to just go along for the ride. In short, it is a form of disposable entertainment intended to be consumed and quickly forgotten, a roller-coaster ride designed to thrill audiences without asking them to think too much or feel too deeply.

 

6 Blood and Black Lace: The Giallo Film

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THE GIALLO FILM

Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace chronicles in gruesome detail the crimes of a silent, black-clad, white-masked killer, who, armed with an iron claw, stalks and brutally slays half a dozen beautiful female models employed at a fashion salon in Rome. The chain of murders begins in the opening scene, when the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), returns to the salon after a night on the town only to be ambushed on the grounds by the anonymous killer, who savagely slashes her face, throws her against a nearby tree, and finally strangles her to death before dragging her body into the bushes. When her mutilated corpse is discovered the following day, the police are contacted and proceed to question her former employers, the suave Massimo Morlachi (Cameron Mitchell) and the attractive, recently widowed Countess Cristiana Como (Eva Bartok), and her former co-workers, few of whom seem genuinely distressed by her horrific death. Although the motive behind Isabella’s murder is at first obscure – the investigating detective, Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner), initially speculates that the person responsible might be a “homicidal sex maniac” driven to kill by “the female beauty” – it soon becomes apparent that she was murdered because of her intimate knowledge of the sordid private lives of her colleagues. When her incriminating diary is discovered and circulated among the models at the salon, the killer begins to eliminate them one by one. As the bodies pile up, the mystery surrounding the identity of the masked murderer grows, frustrating the police and terrifying potential victims.

 

7 The Whip and the Body: The S&M Horror Film

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THE S&M HORROR FILM

Mario Bava’s kinky gothic melodrama La frusta e il corpo (The Whip and the Body, 1963) stars Christopher Lee as Kurt Menliff, a sadistic aristocrat who returns to his family’s ancestral home after a period of banishment to reclaim his patrimony as the eldest son of the ailing Count Menliff (Gustavo De Nardo) and to prevent his younger brother, Christian (Tony Kendall), from marrying Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), Kurt’s former lover. The sudden reappearance of Kurt, who was exiled by the Count years earlier, throws the Menliff household into turmoil. He terrorizes his family from the moment he arrives, badgering his dying father to write him back into his will and tempting Nevenka to resume their violent, sadomasochistic love affair. Kurt’s reign of terror is brought to a shockingly abrupt conclusion when he is murdered one night by an unseen assailant. Each member of the family is a suspect in his murder, since they all had ample motive; questions of guilt and innocence are soon forgotten, though, as strange lights start to appear at night in the windows of the mausoleum where Kurt’s body is interred and Nevenka begins to have visions of a ghostly Kurt entering her chambers to whip her as she lies in bed – visions that are seemingly proven real when muddy boot prints are found on the floor of her room in the morning. Finally, a desperate Christian, believing that his brother has indeed returned from the grave to further torment them, opens Kurt’s coffin and burns the remains he finds there along with the infamous whip. As he is returning to the house, however, he notices a figure dressed in Kurt’s clothes walking ahead of him. Christian confronts this mysterious person, only to find to his astonishment and horror that it is Nevenka. Fleeing from Christian, she locks herself in a cell inside the mausoleum, where she speaks to Kurt as if he were alive, leading Christian and the audience to understand that she murdered Kurt in an outburst of violent passion and then, regretting her act, “absorbed” his personality and began to carry on a double life as “Kurt” and “Nevenka.” As Christian watches helplessly, Nevenka embraces an invisible Kurt and cries, “I love you, Kurt, only you!” before stabbing herself to death with a dagger. In the final moments of the film, the director cuts to a shot of Kurt’s corpse, still burning in the coffin, and – as the film’s lush orchestral score swells – slowly zooms in to a close-up of his whip, which twists like a living thing as it is consumed by the flames.

 

8 Cannibal Apocalypse: Cannibal and Zombie Films

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CANNIBAL AND ZOMBIE FILMS

Antonio Margheriti’s Apocalypse domani (Cannibal Apocalypse, 1980) tells the story of retired Green Beret captain Norman Hopper (John Saxon), who attempts to settle back into life in suburban Atlanta after serving in the Vietnam War, only to find that he is suffering not only from post-traumatic stress disorder, but also from a contagious virus that is slowly changing him into a bloodthirsty cannibal. The film opens with a flashback sequence detailing a wartime mission he led to rescue a pair of American POWs held captive at a North Vietnamese village. His unit storms the village and locates the two soldiers, Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tom Thompson (Tony King), who are imprisoned in a pit. Recognizing Bukowski as a hometown acquaintance, Norman drops to his knees and extends his hand to help the men out. As his eyes adjust to the gloom, however, he is horrified to see that they are busy feasting on the corpse of a young Vietnamese woman who fell into the pit with them during the firefight. Before Norman has time to react, Thompson lunges toward him and takes a bite out of his arm. The flashback ends, and Norman is back in the United States after his tour of duty, unable to adjust to life at home. He is emotionally distant from his wife, Jane (Elizabeth Turner), suffers from terrible nightmares, and battles an almost uncontrollable craving for human flesh. This craving – which family friend and psychiatrist Dr. Mendez (Ramiro Oliveros) variously describes to Jane as a “contagious illness that manifests itself as a form of rabies” and a “biological mutation due to a psychic alteration” – only grows more powerful when the supposedly cured Bukowski is released from a nearby mental hospital and insinuates himself into Norman’s life. Norman finds himself opening his refrigerator in the middle of the night to stare hungrily at a slab of raw meat that has begun to drip bloody juices onto the shelf below. During a guilty tryst with Mary (Cinzia De Carolis), a rebellious teenage girl who lives next door with her aunt and younger brother, he cannot keep himself from biting her leg in the throes of passion. Even when Bukowski is recommitted after a violent confrontation with the police at a local flea market, Norman cannot rein in his cannibalistic impulses. Ironically, it is when he visits the hospital where both Bukowski and Thompson are being held, desperate for treatment, that he finally surrenders to his urges, feasting on a lab technician and helping a nurse named Helen (May Heatherly), who has also been infected by the cannibal virus, to free his former army buddies. In a climax that recalls the ending of Carol Reed’s postwar thriller The Third Man (1949), the quartet of runaway cannibals are pursued by the police through the sewers of Atlanta, where they are gunned down one by one until only Norman survives. He returns home and dresses in formal military attire before shooting his wife – who has been infected by Dr. Mendez, a victim of nurse Helen – and then himself. Arriving belatedly, the police pronounce the strange case closed. In a twist ending, however, it is revealed that Norman’s teenage neighbor, Mary, and her younger brother have both contracted the contagious cannibal virus and are feeding on the flesh of their aunt, whom they have murdered and stored in their fridge.

 

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