European Horror

10 Great European Horror Films (2019)

10 Great European Horror Films first published by BFI, Nov 2019

Includes capsules of: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; Vampyr; The White Reindeer; Eyes Without A Face; Who Can Kill A Child?; Possession; Cemetery Man; Let The Right One In; Amer; Berberian Sound Studio

Europe was the birthplace not just of cinema, but also of the world’s first horror film, Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle (1896). Méliès and Segundo do Chomón made many ‘trick films’ on horror themes, while Alice Guy-Blaché (the first female director) adapted Faust and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Regarded as the world’s first blockbuster, Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro’s L’Inferno (1911) depicted the architecture of Dante’s Hell. 

With The Student of Prag (1913) and Der Golem (1915), Paul Wegener and his collaborators were spearheading a German horror movement that, after the Great War, morphed into Expressionism (as seen, for example, in Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, 1920 and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu,1922), while Victor Sjöström’s Swedish The Phantom Carriage (1921) and Benjamin Christensen’s Swedish-Danish Häxan (1922) would also influence the tropes and imagery of horror cinema. 

Britain’s Golden Age of horror arrived in the mid-Fifties with production houses like Hammer and Amicus. In Italy, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci championed the stylised murder mystery of giallo, while sometimes mixing in the supernatural (e.g. Argento’s Suspiria, 1977). Spanish horror was dominated by Paul Naschy‘s idiosyncratic gothic and the prolific Jesús Franco’s libertine psychedelia and sadoerotica. In France, Jean Rollin slyly steeped genre in poetry and politics, while this century has brought a New Extremity, and introduced female directors like Marina de Van, Julia Ducournau and Lucile Hadžihalilović

The following ten titles, spread across different countries and decades, represent something of the continent’s rich contribution to the genre. 

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) Robert Wiene, Germany

In this story of sleepwalking, serial killing and psychiatry, Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells of his encounters with mysterious showman Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulant sidekick Cesare (Conrad Veidt) – before a final reveal reconfigures these characters’ connections. 

Robert Wiene’s six-act silent was extraordinarily innovative and influential. With angular, painted studio sets designed in a graphic style by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, the film’s deep shadows and distortions of perspective introduced to cinema the psychedelic techniques of German expressionist painting and architecture, launching a homegrown film movement and inspiring the stylisations of American horror and film noir. The twist that all these grotesque vistas represent the delusions of a patient in Caligari’s insane asylum, sleepwalking his way through a reality beyond his mental grasp, paved the way for a psychological brand of narrative ambiguity that would creep into much subsequent horror (and even, recently, into Todd Phillips’ Joker, 2019).   

Vampyr (Vampyr – der Traum des Allan Gray,1932) Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark

Hermann Warm returned as art director to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first talkie, although, unlike Caligari, all of Vampyr was shot on location. This grounded reality is disrupted by a range of disorienting effects, by DP Rudolph Maté filming everything through gauze, and by a narrative structure which frames what we see as a dream, but never expressly marks the point at which that dream ends, so that the viewer no less than protagonist Allan Gray (played pseudonymously by the film’s aristocratic financier Nicolas de Gunzburg) is never reawoken from the irrational nightmare.

Loosely adapted from parts of Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection In A Glass Darkly, but more akin to the surrealist experiments of Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) than to any straightforward horror melodrama, Vampyr was not initially successful, even inspiring a riot in Vienna when a cinema refused to refund disappointed viewers. It has since been reclaimed as a masterpiece of unease. 

The White Reindeer (Valkkoinen peura, 1952) Erik Blomberg, Finland

The pure whites that dominate Dreyer’s work have bled their influence into Erik Blomberg’s snowy Sámi saga, based on the folk song with which it opens, and coming with an ethnographic attention to regional practices and rituals. 

Left alone at home by her new husband, bored, horny Pirita (played by the director’s co-writer and wife Mirjami Kuosmanen) becomes a shapeshifting deer under guidance from her village’s drunken shaman, and vampirically seduces and preys upon local male hunters. While Pirita’s predations mark her as a monster, she is also, as a “child of Lapland”, an embodiment of the indigenous pagan past, pitted against encroaching Christianity and patriarchy. A spirit of aggressive sexual agency and female independence, she will eventually be tamed by her husband’s cold iron phallic spear. So the film allegorises Sámi culture’s shift towards modernity as a triumph on the surface, while concealing tragedy beneath its icy drifts. 

Eyes without A Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960), Georges Franju , France

Half menacing, half jaunty, the manic hurdy-gurdy three-step of Maurice Jarre’s score sets the unhinged tone of a film unfolding where the gothic horror of Frankenstein (1931), the fairytale lyricism of La Belle et La Bête (1946) and the charnel-house realism of Georges Franju’s own previous documentary La Sang des Bêtes (1949), all shockingly collide.

Arrogant pioneering plastic surgeon Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) kidnaps and butchers young women in his hope of finding a viable face transplant for his innocent daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), horrifically injured in a car accident, and now haunting the country villa like an insubstantial ghost in a mask. The graphic medical scenes are offset by the strange poetry that Christiane’s doe-eyed, floating presence brings, as Franju’s mannered expressionist, even noirish, work cuts surgically along the line where the concrete rigours of modern science intersect with the abstractions of youth, beauty and ephemerality.

Who Can Kill A Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño?, 1976) Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, Spain 

“As always, the worst affected by the tragedy are the children,” says the voice-over accompanying monochrome newsreels of various global struggles, civil and otherwise. This introduction contextualises in geopolitical reality the full-colour atrocities that follow as English couple Tom (Lewis Fiander) and pregnant Evelyn (Prunelle Ransome) head off to a Spanish island, still bickering over his desire that she get an abortion. In different ways, the title’s question has already been answered by the film, at both a societal and individual level. 

What then happens on the island is a fantasy of intergenerational revenge, free-floating somewhere between Village of the Damned (1960) and Night of the Living Dead (1968). For the children, infected with a contagious disease, have turned on all the adults around them, and only the terrified couple stands between them and the mainland. This is sunlit horror at its most morally discomfiting and bleak.

Possession (1981) Andrzej Zulawski, France-West Germany

Nominated for the Palme d’Or, yet banned in the UK as a ‘video nasty’, Andrzej Zulawski’s singularity attracted respect and revulsion alike, reflecting its focus on characters with riven identities in a divided Berlin. Mark (Sam Neill) is a recently returned double-agent, while his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) leads a double-life two-timing Mark with Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). Yet as Mark seeks comfort in the arms of Helen (also Adjani), Anna gives monstrous expression to her own conflicted desires as wife, mother and lover in the tentacles of an inchoate creature that gradually assumes Mark’s form. 

Intense and deeply irrational, this body(-snatching) horror is an unnatural hybrid of the personal and the political, the physical and the psychological, the human and the bestial, the erotic and the alienating, the intimate and the apocalyptic, exposing the divisions and duplicities that exist in any marriage, or indeed any nation.   

Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore, 1994) Michele Soavi, Italy-France-Germany

Adapted from a novel by Tiziano Sclavi, and starring Rupert Everett (whom Sclavi’s most famous comicbook creation, Dylan Dog, is said to resemble), Michele Soavi’s horror curio concerns Dellamorte Dellamore, impotent caretaker in a cemetery where the dead keep returning to life, and where reality itself keeps shifting. The film’s generic boundaries prove equally unstable, as what starts as a conventional zombie film soon becomes necromantic comedy, giallo-esque slasher and hallucinatory psychodrama. 

Inscribed in the protagonist’s very name, love and death are key themes here, eternally returning in a hermetic loop without end, as the deceased never stay that way long, and even the lovelorn eventually find their mojo restored to life. An elegantly eccentric folly that is also an infernal nightmare in a damaged brain, Soavi’s film elaborates its paradoxical puzzles as though translating the enigmatic entrapments of Last Year In Marienbad (1961), or the snow-globe of Citizen Kane (1941), into genre’s scuzzier dialects.    

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komme in, 2008), Tomas Alfredson, Sweden

In 1981, amid news that a Soviet submarine has violated Sweden’s borders, 12-year-old loner Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is engaged in his own escalating Cold War against vicious school bullies, when he effectively summons out of nowhere his new neighbour, friend and protector Eli (Lina Leandersson), who teaches him to stand up for himself. Eli is presented as an unageing, asexual vampire, served and fed by an older/younger minion (Per Ragnar), but the film leaves the door open to reading the newcomer as a projection of Oskar’s own darkly aggressive revenge fantasies.

Unexpectedly but assuredly helmed by comedy director Tomas Alfredson, these pre-adolescent rites of passage show a disarming compassion for the very worst of characters (including bullies and even stone-cold killers), and although Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful wide lensing keeps us at a distance, it still lets in, along with the autumnal chill, a surprising amount of human warmth. 

Amer (2009) Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, France-Belgium

Around a family villa whose walls are festooned with portraits of staring male ancestors, we see three critical stages in the life – and maybe death – of Ana: her hallucinatory first childhood encounter, figured as Svankmajer-esque freakout, with sex and death; her first tentative walk on the wild side as a teenager whose burgeoning sexuality arouses her mother’s jealousy, presented as Tinto Brass erotica; and the middle-aged, thoroughly repressed Ana’s return to the crumbling villa, and to a giallo-like psychodrama of razor-sharp cat and mouse. 

These three faces of Ana (Cassandra Forêt, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud, Marie Bos) offer a dizzying, hyper-sensual kaleidoscope of perverse images and amplified styles, showing simultaneously an internalised attraction and undercutting resistance to the male gaze. Belgian couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani push their loving pastiches of passé genres into the realm of fetish, while interpenetrating their neurotic feminised vision with homegrown Magrittean surrealism.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) Peter Strickland, UK-Germany-Australia

Peter Strickland‘s mannered meta-horror pays heavily qualified homage to a bygone European genre of film and filmmaking, as English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) works on a film’s postproduction in a Seventies Italian studio. The film-within-a-film, a witches-and-torture horror called The Equestrian Vortex, is never actually seen (apart from its opening credit sequence), but rather conjured through fruity foley work, sound effects and postsynchronised screams – but its misogynies bleed into the studio space as a succession of female dubbing artists are exploited and abused by the key male crew. A stranger in a strange land, Gilderoy tries to hide behind his English reserve, but gradually is confronted with his own implication in the unfolding nightmare. 

Exquisitely evoking the analogue production methods and giallo stylings of the past, this is a sophisticated if accusatory journey through a mind in deep denial about the causes and effects of on-screen violence against women.   

Anton Bitel