Global Horror Cinema Today:
28 Representative Films
from 17 Countries
Ellis Reed reviews Global Horror Cinema Today, John Towlson’s representative ‘snapshot’ of the genre, and interviews the author for Horrified...
If you want to broaden your horror horizons, then Global Horror Cinema Today is a great place to start. British film critic Jon Towlson has written for a string of publications, including the BFI and Starburst magazine; his ‘snapshot’ of international horror is impressively wide-ranging, both in terms of geography and production size.
We are, as he notes, living in the midst of a horror boom, which began with The Blair Witch Project (USA, Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) and shows no sign of abating. Surprisingly, that makes the present renaissance longer than any of horror’s previous golden ages. Towlson’s round-up includes detailed notes on nearly thirty movies, with countless others discussed in passing. For each of the fourteen chapters, he visits a different country – or, in a couple of cases, a handful of closely-related ones – to guide us through the local history of horror on film.
He then chooses two modern films to explore in depth, and his choices are, thankfully, far from predictable. If you thought the UK would get The Woman in Black and Shaun of the Dead – or even 28 Days Later and Kill List – you’d be wrong. Instead, the home team is led by Prevenge (a transgressive black comedy) and The Girl With All the Gifts (a zombie film with a twist). The choice of countries is also very broad; I had no idea that horror films were made in Israel. Of the main choices, the fact I hadn’t heard of the Turkish ones is, perhaps, unsurprising. The fact I didn’t know the American ones is evidence of the author’s thoughtful (rather than purely knee-jerk) curation.
As well as hopping from country to country, Towlson is able to comb the full spectrum of cinema, drawing on his encyclopaedic-seeming knowledge of the artform. Smaller productions include Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead – a ‘micro-budget zombie road movie’ from Australia – and The Fallow Field, which he describes as ‘an almost unknown British film’. Some of these films get a passing mention, while others, like The Fallow Field, get a good few paras of analysis. But it’s important to note that Global Horror Cinema Today isn’t an exercise in needless obscurity; the book includes big name films like The Babadook and Train to Busan, making for a diverse and engaging selection.
In all cases, as well as bringing out the specifics of the film at hand, Towlson does a great job of showing the various trends in each country, such as the lingering impact of ‘Ozsploitation’, the rise of Black American filmmakers, and the British trope of ‘hoodie horror’. He also provides ample historical context, including (for instance) the attitude of the prevailing local ‘establishment’ to genre cinema. All in all, it’s an impressive piece of work, and the analysis – both of the films themselves and the surrounding industries – is convincing throughout.
In terms of the target audience, the pricing of the physical edition suggests that it’s for students and academics, but the Kindle edition is very affordable, and I don’t hesitate to recommend it to the general reader. Even without a background in film studies, it’s a brisk, fascinating read. And let’s face it – in this day and age, if you don’t know what giallo means, you can just look it up online. Well worth a look, and bound to be read more than once.
As well as reading Global Horror Cinema Today, we took the opportunity to ask Jon Towlson some questions…
Ellis: How did you get into horror? Can you remember a single watershed moment that made you a horror fan, and how did you get from there to writing about horror cinema?
Jon: There was indeed a watershed moment and I can give you the exact date it happened: it was July 22, 1978. I was eleven years old and the film was George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973). I saw it as part of a BBC late night horror double bill and it had a huge impact on me. It was my first real introduction to modern horror cinema. Up to that point I had been traumatised by children’s programmes like Children of The Stones (1977), King of the Castle (1977), The Changes (1975) and Sky (1975), and was a fan of Hammer films, especially the Dracula movies starring Christopher Lee. The Exorcist (1973) scared the life out of me – not the film itself but the thought of it – and I still have nightmares about it. I was a monster kid I suppose, although a bit younger than the rest. I had the Aurora models, loved the old Universal monsters. I started to collect magazines like Hammer House of Horror and later Starburst (which I would eventually write for), and that later led to an interest in writing film criticism. I discovered Robin Wood and a number of other critics during my postgraduate study. I directed a number of short films on 16mm (not horror) and that led to teaching. For years I thought about writing a book on horror cinema and that eventually became my first published work (Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages in Films from Frankenstein to the Present) in 2014, alongside magazine stuff and journalism.
E: Global Horror Cinema Today is a snapshot of contemporary horror from seventeen countries. Some of the foreign films must have been new to you. As a horror fan, what was your most exciting discovery?
J: A lot of the films were new to me, actually. I’d been covering UK film festivals like Frightfest, Mayhem and Celluloid Screams in magazines for several years, so I had a pretty good idea of what was going on in horror cinema globally but I hadn’t seen any films from Argentina, for example. So White Coffin (2016) was the first movie I discovered in the course of writing the book that blew me away. There were many discoveries that followed, like Cold Hell (2017) from Austria and Tikkun (2015) from Israel. A lot of films don’t even make it to the festival circuit but might be found on streaming services. I spent four years watching movies for the book, some of them I specifically tracked down, others I stumbled across on streaming platforms like Shudder. Others I discovered in festivals, like Most Beautiful Island (2017) which I saw at the Mayhem Festival in Nottingham. What I found was that at each festival there might be a couple of movies that really stood out for me, like Painless (2012), which I saw at Celluloid Screams. These movies stayed with me and I made them the focus films in the book.
E: In the chapter on Britain, your two focus films are examples of horror-comedy social satire (Prevenge) and post-apocalyptic horror (The Girl with All the Gifts). You also include examples of hoodie horror, traditional ghost stories, and folk horror. Which is your favourite tradition in British horror? And are there any that we’ve neglected in recent years, which you think are due a revival?
J: I really like the eccentric British horror movies like Scream and Scream Again (1970) and Horror Hospital (1973). I guess I like Pete Walker’s films the best of all British horror movies, for example Frightmare (1974) and House of Whipcord (1974). And I saw Goodbye Gemini (1970) for the first time recently and really liked it. I suppose you would call these movies ‘fucked up family’ films because they are about degenerate families. I thought Mum and Dad (2008), directed by Steven Sheil, was a great modern take on these kinds of movies.
E: You devote several paragraphs to The Fallow Field (2009), which you describe as ‘an almost unknown British film’. I’ve ordered a copy based on your recommendation. Are there any other obscure gems you can recommend to our readers?
J: In terms of British films? The Canal (2014) was really good, I thought. The Ghoul (2016) was disturbing and memorable. I really liked The Borderlands (2013), a found footage tale of the supernatural set in Devon. It reminded me a bit of The Stone Tape (1972). A very good film along the same lines is The Casebook of Eddie Brewer made in 2012 on a micro-budget. I don’t know if it got much distribution but I saw it at the Mayhem Festival and thought it was very impressive.
E: In terms of equality, diversity and inclusion, modern horror seems to be doing better in some areas than others. In parts of the book – especially the chapter on the US and Canada – you write about the increasing influence of Black and female filmmakers on shaping and reclaiming horror narratives. In the last ten years, how have you seen this reflected on the UK festival scene, and what do you hope to see in future?
J: I just saw this happening more and more at festivals over the past few years – that the films that really stood out for me were directed by women. The first, I suppose, was American Mary (2012), which I saw at Mayhem in 2012 and wrote about in my first book, Subversive Horror Cinema. In fact, I was so impressed with that film that I used an image from it as the cover of that book. The same year I also saw Chained (2012), directed by Jennifer Lynch. Then there was Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016). The Babadook (2016) was huge. Bear in mind that just a few years before there were hardly any horror films made by women. I loved A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014). I guess you could call these female-centric horror films. More recently we’ve seen the rise of Indigenous horror movies from a number of countries. What I hope to see in the future is a continuation of new voices using the genre to bring new perspectives to it. Digital production has helped a lot in terms of increasing access. I hope there is not going to be a reactionary backlash. The history of the genre shows that censorship is often increased as a response to the genre breaking new ground, such as in the 1930s and again in the early 1980s.
E: By way of contrast, in the chapter on Britain, we read that ‘hoodie horror’ draws on middle class anxieties about the ‘monstrous poor’, which doesn’t sound very progressive. How do you feel about movies and horror tropes that draw on society’s more reactionary impulses?
J: Right now, I am really interested in what Robin Wood described as the genre’s inherent potential for reactionary inflection. In other words there’s always the tendency for the genre to draw on society’s more reactionary impulses, as you say. I think we are reaching a crux in the genre, actually. The horror genre has been really popular for the last twenty years, increasingly so internationally. But I’m wondering if it is going to run out of steam. It will be interesting to see how filmmakers tackle the pressing issues facing us such as the pandemic, climate change, the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation. The Doomsday clock is now at 100 seconds to midnight, closer to global disaster than at any time in history. Society needs to change in order for us to survive as a civilisation. Is the horror genre going to be able to address this in any sort of effective, meaningful way, or is it going to prove inadequate?
E: Some aspects of horror are universal (e.g., body horror) while others draw on specific national trauma (e.g., political oppression in Iran). Of the nations covered, which did you find most interesting, in terms of looking at horror from a different standpoint?
J: The standout for me in this respect was the Turkish film Baskin (2015). I thought it was absolutely brilliant in the way it combined those universal aspects of horror, especially nightmare and body horror with socio-political commentary (such as the construction of masculinity in Turkish culture). But, beyond that, it was one of those rare horror films, like Eraserhead (1976) I suppose, that totally defies rationalisation. By that I mean that it’s impossible to define the nature of fear in the film. The fear is so intangible. You are not sure what you are meant to be afraid of, you just can’t get a grip on why the film is scaring you. I don’t get scared by films very often but this one really got to me!
E: And lastly: what are you planning to do next?
J: I have just written a book on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) which is published in April 2022. In some ways, I suppose it is a kind of apotheosis for me in terms of my writing about horror. Dawn of the Dead is my favourite horror film. I’ve been doing booklet essays for a number of recent Blu ray releases, and I’d like to get into doing Blu ray commentaries, but it’s a very competitive field. I just like to talk about movies!
Many thanks to Jon Towlson for taking the time to answer our questions! You can purchase a copy of Global Horror Cinema Today by clicking the image below.