Beyond North America: three horror hotspots from the last decade (2020)

Beyond North America: three horror hotspots from the last decade first published by Sight & Sound, Novemeber 2020

Horror’s mainstream is, broadly, North American, dominating our theatres and setting the genre’s rules. Yet it is often at the margins beyond these borders where the rules are broken, where pioneering exploratory work is done, and where horror is renewed, as individual titles, seen on the festival circuit or even granted a broader release or a reimagining, feed their own influence back to the centre. If there are enough films produced in one country, especially if a cottage industry of sorts develops, there is also a national horror.

Around the turn of the millennium, J(apanese)-, K(orean)- and T(hai)-horror changed the entire sensibility of Hollywood’s studio chillers, while spawning countless remakes. Recently Korean horror has made a comeback, resurrecting itself via a late wave of zombie films. Yeon Sang-ho’s loose trilogy of the animated Seoul Station and the live-action Train to Busan (both 2016) and Peninsula (2020) have revealed a hankering among international audiences for spectacularly mounted  (if not especially original) takes on undead apocalypse – with just a splattering of critique directed at patriarchy and late-stage capitalism. More zombies shuffled along in Lee Min-jae’s Zombie for Sale (2019), the Joseon-era television series Kingdom (2019-) and Cho Il-hyung’s #Alive (2020). Meanwhile Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016) – an uncanny, ambiguous tale of a bedevilled community – was one of the very finest Korean horrors of its decade, and entirely sui generis. 

In Russia, there may be little in common thematically between Pavel Khvaleev’s III (2015), Involution (2018) and Sleepless Beauty (2020), Nadezhda Mikhalkova’s Cursed Seat (2018), Ilya S. Maksimov’s The Soul Conductor (2018) and Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die! (2018), but these genre films share a dreamily hyperaestheticised stylisation that instantly sets them apart from other nations’ horror – even as Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has become an international producer in the ‘screen life’ genre (Unfriended,2015; Searching, 2018; Profile, 2018). 

The most exciting genre cinema is currently coming from not so much a single nation as an entire region of historic Iberian colonisation: Central and South America, where a flourishing festival scene complements the emerging industry. For over a decade, Spanish-born Adrián García Bogliano has been making genre-blurring films like Cold Sweat (2010), Here Comes The Devil (2012) and Scherzo Diabolico (2015) in Argentina and Mexico, while his Late Phases (2014) was an America-set US co-production. A community of filmmakers in Argentina including Valentín Javier Diment (The Rotten Link, 2015), Martin Blousson and Macarena García Lenzi (Rock, Paper and Scissors, 2019), all help on each other’s projects, creating a distinctively idiosyncratic local cinema. Uruguayan director Gustavo Hernández’s seemingly single-take The Silent House (2010) was remade in America a year later. Brazil’s Rodrigo Aragão (The Black Forest, 2018; The Cemetery of Lost Souls, 2020) has resumed the diabolical mythopoeia of his late countryman José Mojica Marins (of ‘Coffin Joe’ fame). Lucio A. Rojas’ Trauma uses extremity to expose festering sores in post-Pinochet Chile, while Jayro Bustamento’s allegorical La Llorona (2019) reimagines a local folktale to show Guatemala lamenting its unresolved past. Nowhere else is horror showing such healthy potential for urgency and (re)invention. Watch it grow.

Anton Bitel