Contrasting American and European Horror Movies

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Contrasting American and European Horror Movies

A common complaint about many film critics is that they tend to fall over themselves in praising anything with subtitles, regardless of quality. For most critics it seems there is a simple equation in analyzing foreign pictures: subtitles=great moviemaking that is not exploitative. When the borderline hardcore French film Romance (1999) was released critics were effusive with their lauding of a film that deals (arguably) with sex in a realistic manner. Even respected guys like Roger Ebert confessed to "not really enjoy[ing] it, and yet I recommend it." Apparently Ebert was not aware of the fact the movie uses filmmaking techniques similar to hardcore porno (the editors cleverly cut away from scenes before the "money shot" can occur) and follows the trajectory of many pornographic films in which a nubile young lass goes from man to man in an effort to find orgasm.

The same pattern also applies to foreign horror. Foreign horror is "moody" and "atmospheric" while American horror is "cheap" and "exploitative." What many fail to notice is that both foreign and American horror use many of the same images and devices. In the distinct universe that is the horror film both the higher end pictures (in this case the foreign horror movies) find themselves amongst the so-called exploitative low-end (American horror). Frequently in film analysis it is, as Joan Hawkins writes, "overlooked or repressed...to the degree to which high culture trades on the same images, tropes, and themes which characterize low culture."

A fine example of the separation of foreign and American horror can be found in a comparison between Dario Argento's Suspiria and Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980)...

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... equally gory and equally exploitative Suspiria is Friday the 13th's emphasis on physical violation. Suspiria also works toward creating fear through physical torment, but it is set in what could be best termed a "dream world," whereas Friday is set in a more realistic (to American audiences at any rate), non-dreamlike setting. Therefore the physical violation in Friday is made more urgent, it hits closer to home, than much of the surreal killing in Argento's piece. In watching Suspiria the audience is permitted to know that the filmmakers know that all they are doing is playing a head game, while in Friday the 13th the audience is stuck in their chairs watching killing after killing occur without benefit of a psychological explanation. There is a lack of what Williams terms "aesthetic distance...viewers feel too directly, too viscerally, manipulated by the text."

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