Hollywood horror is now an endless stream of remakes, sequels and general lack of originality. There are some exceptions – It Follows while being reminiscent of classic horror makes ordinary people a reason to be fearful, which is to be admired – but these are few and far between. The other side of the Atlantic is Europe: the land of Grimm’s fairytales, Vlad the Impaler, and Mary Shelly.
It is a fertile soil for Horror films, and has been since the beginning – French innovator Georges Méliès is credited has having created the first film with horror elements, The Devil’s Castle in 1896 (Pre-dating his sci-fi masterpiece A Trip to the Moon by 6 years). A lot has happened since then – sound, colour, practical effects, CGI, digital, HD, 4K and beyond – but Europe is still scary as ever and being out of reach of Hollywood taste-makers it can create its own unique brand of scares.
The following list is 20 of the most note-worthy European horror films since the year 2000. It covers home-invasion, found-footage, torture-porn, pastiche, body-horror, New French Extremity, ghost stories, zombies, vampires, werewolves, trolls and the occasional thriller. Shaun of the Dead is exempt as everyone has seen Shaun of the Dead, (if you have not, go watch Shaun of the Dead) but anything else vaguely horrific made in Europe in the last 15 years is fair game. Enough with the foreboding, tension-filled set-up – here is the list.
20. Anatomie (2000, Germany)
An entertaining German Scream-alike fascinated with the gruesome idea of awaking during an operation and being able to see the process happen first hand. Starring Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente as a promising surgical student, the plot revolves around an anti-Hypocratic society that is dissecting terminal patients while they are still alive for the purposes of research. There is a through-line to Nazi experimentations, and while the film as a whole is fairly spotty there are enough good jump scares, photo-realistic gore and heads in Aldi bags to keep Anatomie from falling apart.
Compared to the stoic dramas for which Germany is now most known (The Lives of Others, Downfall) the film’s humour is a welcome addition. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional dissected penis joke. That Anatomie is one of few German Horror films of any merit from the last fifteen years is sad and somewhat surprising considering their pre-war calibre with all-time classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, M and proto-vampire film Nosferatu.
Possibly after the real-world horrors of the Holocaust, horror for entertainment’s sake seem in bad taste. Either way – try to find a version of Anatomie with subtitles opposed to the unintentionally hilarious dubbing. There is a sequel, with the same director but with different actors and less spark.
19. Them (2006, France/Romania)
Cinema at its most elemental has everything to do with light. Without light there is no picture. But in absolute darkness, and in the darkest shadows, the human mind imagines the worst terrors. What is hiding in that shadow, that flicker to complete darkness? In this way Them uses light, and lack of light, to highly frightening effect – claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, semi-transparent hung plastic sheeting and a lone television illuminating a room are some of the best examples. A threadbare home-invasion scenario is all the plotting directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to hang their intensely suspenseful and thrilling film.
Despite the coincidental title Them is not an European remake of the classic U.S. 1950’s B-Movie Them! which revolves around giant mutant ants. The French/Romanian Them is much more sinister; less a judgement of nuclear weaponry, more a statement about how desensitized to violence children are now. Based around an apparently true story where a group of Romanian schoolchildren brutally murdered a husband and wife, their defence being that “they didn’t want to play with us”. Within an exceptionally efficient 72 minutes Them creates a thriller all the more effective for how close it is to reality. This could be your life or death.
18. Night Watch (2004, Russia)
A hyper-stylised Russian thriller where supernatural beings walk the streets of modern day-Moscow – like the Underworld films if they were not terrible. Writer/director Timur Bekmambetov creates this fantastical world around a plot so complex that another couple of films were needed to completely tell the saga, but generally boils down to a centuries old feud between the beings of light and darkness and the battleground between night and day.
The Matrix-inspired action sequences and a canny combination of CGI and practical effects accompany some of the most fun realisations of vampires and werewolves in recent memory, with a creativity in world-building comparable to The City of Lost Children’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Originally commissioned as a four-part mini-series until the powers that be decided the material deserved the cinematic treatment, Night Watch became a record-breaking box office hit in Russia. While sometimes slipping into the realms of all-out action, the touches of gore and horror mythology are what makes the film stand out. Though the characterisations are fairly faceless, Konstantin Khabenskiy’s Anton plays a very convincing put upon protagonist, shrugging off his plot responsibility in a pair of lopsided shades. Night Watch is proof that whatever Hollywood can create, Russia will create a darker, and more idiosyncratic version.
17. Taxidermia (2006, Hungary/Austria)
Characters, if characters are written well, should have wants and desires: To get the girl, to win the thing, to defeat evil. In Taxidermia the girl is a pig corpse, the thing is a eating competition and the evil is the character’s morbidly overweight father. Despite the outlandish and repulsive acts and imagery on screen they are always grounded in reality, and are there to hold a mirror up to society and its sex, image and success obsession.
A grimy, grotesque film – more a black comedy with shockingly graphic and vile imagery than a thriller. Focusing on a trilogy of disgust – the separate stories of a sexually frustrated World War II soldier, a world-champion Cold War-era eater, and a present day taxidermist joined by the loose theme of being equally disgusting.
Non-mainstream acts of bestiality, paedophilia, necrophilia, pyrophilia, extensive gluttony, hyper-obesity, dismemberment, and obviously taxidermy all feature to repulse and educate the viewer. The nearest US comparison for uneasy laughs would be Todd Solondz’ Happiness, but Taxidermia is far more concerned with the amount of bodily fluids it can splatter on screen – blood, faeces, vomit, sweat, semen, urine all play their part, small or otherwise. Not recommended while eating, for those with a strong stomach.
16. Let Us Prey (2014, Ireland)
A supernatural, religious-bent horror in which a bearded trench-coated man is found wandering the streets of a small Irish village, with a murder of crows in-tow. The majority of the film is set in a local police station: A teacher, a doctor, a hoodlum and a squad of police personnel, all with their own grisly guilty secrets. From first time director Brian O’Malley, Let Us Prey revels in its Irish accoutrements: the small town rural setting, jagged accents, dry humour and blatant Catholicism criticism.
Grounding the more fantastical elements of Let Us Prey is the acting – particularly from survivor Pollyanna McIntosh and the mysterious man in cell six, Liam Cunningham. The creepy simplistic electronic score is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s soundtrack work, which is fitting considering that the setting and plot is identical to Assault on Precinct 13 – the sergeant’s name is even cribbed from Kurt Russell’s character in The Thing. Plus it has some creative gore to marvel at – a table leg forced into an eye-socket, a face made to kiss a shoe-buffer, and a broken window decapitation are some highlights. Brian O’ Malley: one to watch.
15. Kill List (2011, UK)
An allegory for the current British recession, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is an bile filled, reactionary black mass of a film. Neil Maskell’s Jay is an husband and father whose been without work for eight months, money is low and tempers are high. A barely restrained dinner party ends in domestic discourse, but also a deadly job offer for Jay – the titular Kill List. A priest, a teacher and an MP all symbolising the apparent downfalls of society that need to dealt with in the least subtle fashion possible.
With a cast culled from the best of British television talent, and using mostly residential settings, Wheatley creates a micro-budget horror that never looks cheap. What elevates the film from a standard thriller is how unsettling everything is: the jarring jumps and cuts to black, the droning score, the abrupt leaps into violence all keep the viewer unsure and uneasy. The film’s signature hammer execution is only a preface for the depraved shocks to come. The similarly sinister Sightseers and A Field In England continue Wheatley’s particularly British set of horrors, but Kill List wins out by sheer bloody-mindedness.