Monsters without borders: East meets West
For weeks now, the biggest thing in entertainment has been Netflix’s Squid Game. It’s been the subject of countless reviews, hot takes and think pieces linking its popularity to everything from the cost of healthcare in the US to the personal debt levels of the average South Korean.
Reviewers like to point out that part of Squid Game’s relevance comes from its being set in the present, rather than in some post-apocalyptic future or fantasy world, like many other entries in the deadly game (show) genre — The Running Man, The Hunger Games and so on.
Squid Game deserves its success, with its smart writing, well-drawn characters and sudden, startling bursts of gore and brutality. But it also connects with movies that have come before, most notably Battle Royale, the 2000 Japanese horror thriller about a survival contest featuring schoolchildren, that Quentin Tarantino has called his favourite film.
Japanese cinema has a long tradition of horror, from pop culture phenomena such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998; about a child who dies alone in a well) all the way back to iconic creature features like the original 1954 Godzilla. After all, the country has known horror — from nuclear attack to the tales of angry spirits called yokai that are woven through its history and religion.
Japanese horror even holds a record of sorts. Takashi Miike’s Audition (about a dating scam gone wrong; featuring extreme torture scenes and based on the 1997 novel by Ryu Murakami) unsettled so many people at its showing in 2000’s Rotterdam Film Festival that it had a record number of walkouts, and one viewer went up to the director after the show and told him that he was “sick”.
Before and after
The traditional distinction is that terror comes first, horror comes after. As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Horror traditionally refers to the after-effects of the event, the revulsion caused by it.
In that context, the 1970s were probably horror’s best decade. Not just in Hollywood, which saw the release of The Omen, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, Halloween, and Jaws, but around the world.
In the UK, while the reign of Hammer Studios — which had made household names of actors like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price — was drawing to a close, the studio still was able to churn out the odd gem, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), with its elegiac performance by Cushing, being a case in point.
There was also The Creeping Flesh (1973), which also starred Cushing and Lee, and the classic The Wicker Man (1973), which may be credited with the codification of the folk horror genre.
In Italy, at the time, there were the giallos. Taking their names from the yellow covers used for paperback crime novels, the giallo films combined plenty of nudity and gore in an effort to shock and thrill audiences. The ’70s saw the release of genuine classics in Italy too, such as Dario Argento’s L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970), peopled by some truly bizarre characters: one man eats cats, another has to end every sentence with the same couple of words to keep from stuttering. And then there was Suspiria (1977), initially dismissed as yet another Exorcist rip-off but a film that has since seen its reputation grow.
Argento may have ruled the 1970s, but the giallo genre owes most to Mario Bava, the master of Italian horror. Bava was hugely popular, despite working on low budgets in a generally sidelined genre. His macabre, stylised and exquisitely shot Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), which follows a doctor new to a spooky village in central Europe, was influential not just in Hollywood but also inspired a range of Japanese horror.
It’s tempting to link the explosion of horror content in the 1970s to the feeling that these were the hangover years after the partying of the 1960s. There was also a greater acceptance of what could be shown on screen, from nudity to gore. These were inarguably the best years for horror since the 1930s, where Hollywood set the bar.
In the beginning
While the earliest horror films were made in Hollywood (Edison Studios made a version of Frankenstein as far back as 1910), there was another country where great movies were being made that early on. Movies about monsters and madness, murderers and machines, incredible films that by directors like Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang and FW Murnau. Movies that would inspire directors from Hitchcock to Tim Burton.
Film scholars link the German Expressionist movement and the great films created at this time to one technological advance — the spread of electricity. Between 1910 and 1920, 70% of Germany’s households were connected to the electric grid, and where there was light, there was shadow.
The German directors used this, along with distorted perspectives and strange angles, to create unforgettable and unsettling visuals to shock their audiences.
Perhaps the most famous film to come out of Weimar Germany was Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a 1920 film starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt. Caligari’s plot revolved around crime, obsession and insanity, and was despite its dizzying visuals and narrative structure, a huge commercial and critical success. Also in 1920 was the release of Paul Wegener’s The Golem, the first of three movies with the titular monster. And 1922 saw the release of Nosferatu, Murnau’s seminal vampire film. In 1928, The Man Who Laughs was made in Hollywood by German director Paul Leni, based on Victor Hugo’s book of the same name. That laugh still echoes on page and screen today. It inspired the birth, in 1940, of one of the most horrific villains of pop culture: The Joker.