Gosh, it seems like only yesterday that you couldn't go into your local multiplex without running into a long-haired vengeance ghost with Japanese origins. The turn of the millennium belonged to the Japanese and their creepy, atmospheric (and sometimes gruesome) J-Horror. J-Horror, of course, bled into the nearby countries—most notably Korea—and finally came to the Americas, via a steady stream of remakes. But, as it happens when something becomes a culture meme, the market quickly got oversaturated, and Sadako became as much as a stereotype as any other boogeyman. Or, woman, as the case may be.
Meanwhile, French filmmakers have becoming increasingly visible in the genre. While French forays into horror have been spotty (though with a few classic examples), they roared into the consciousness with Alexandre Aja's High Tension (Haute Tension); now, French horror auteurs have become the enfants terribles of the genre.
It seems to me that this new thrust of extreme French horror has three major influences:
1) Torture porn. The obvious forerunner for the French taste for torture porn would be Takashi Miike's indelible (and still unsurpassed) Audition, and, to a lesser extent, Eli Roth's Hostel. Graphic violence, of course, has always been a secret pleasure of horror movies, but recent French directors have turned up the gore level to 11. And while this might not necessarily distinguish them from American directors who have done the same—torture porn itself is an American phenomenon (which has, thankfully, seemingly passed)—recent notable French horror films have been able to imbue their torture with cultural significance, stemming from
2) the French riots of 2005. If one believes that horror films are the culture's way of exorcising its demons, then this is the catalyst for the most recent explosion. After the accidental death of two teenagers in a Paris suburb, the Arab and African immigrant communities burst out in protest. (It certainly didn't help that then-Interior Minister and current-President Nicholas Sarkozy said that those neighborhoods should have been "cleansed with a power hose.") The anger and violence spread throughout France and continued for almost two weeks, until new police powers—including the banning of public gatherings—eased the pressure somewhat. But the racial underpinnings of the riots remain a definite subtext—if not an outright one—in the best of these films. Besides, racial tension is one of the key factors in
3) the changing demographics of France, particularly the Paris suburbs. Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine in 1995 was the first high-profile French film to address the "new generation" of Francophones. Since then, the view has only gotten increasingly bleak. On the upside, though, many of these new films—especially those depicting French youth—have consciously (perhaps self-consciously) introduced a racially and culturally mixed cast as a representation of France as it is today. Granted, most of that cast is offed in various gruesome ways... not to mention the whole violence and pessimism thing... but there does seem to be a distinct, if faint, note of hope towards the upcoming generation, even as the current one heads off towards its doom.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking a look at some of these French horror films, taking a look at some common themes and exploring why France is the new Asia. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.