When the Mexican horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was a child, he imagined things lurking in his bedroom. Bloody things, with burning eyes. Even then, he was doing what great horror directors have always done, what American horror films have abandoned, and what many foreign-language directors continue to do: use metaphor to cloak fears too awful to face head on.
Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a tale of Americans turning into soulless conspirators, made during the Red Scare as a parable about paranoia and conformity. Think the German silent film Nosferatu (1922), the first great vampire movie whose shriveled blood sucker personified a larger vampire that the audience knew well, World War I, which had drained the life out of Europe.
Scared of even the random acts of violence from contemporary life? Director John Carpenter covered that in 1978 with the original, deeply unsettling Halloween, about a serial killer who quietly steps into the everyday world of an Illinois suburb.
So pick a fear, any fear. For del Toro, as a child, it was darkness.
Eduardo Noriega and Irene Visedo star in Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone.
“This was in Guadalajara, Mexico,” he said. “This was in a house I lived in as a baby. My mother says, ‘You cannot remember that,' but I tell you, I recall the house, the monsters. Horror is my first memory, and horror is horror the world over.”
He invented monsters to bargain with. Anything is better than the silence of whatever lurks in a dark bedroom. Del Toro's beasts had multiple sets of eyes and teeth. Some fluttered their cobweb wings in the corners of his eyes, while others scurried across the ceiling, quiet enough that the vampires outside, scratching their nails across his window panes, could be heard licking their lips.
“I remember one time I stood up in my crib and saw a goat demon peeking out from behind the armoire,” del Toro said. “He was smiling. We had this shaggy carpet, too, very much from the 1960s, and when I saw it, it looked like a sea of green fingers waving in the moonlight. I had this urge to go to the bathroom and I couldn't because of these things. I'd say to the monsters, ‘If you let me go to the bathroom, I will be your friends forever.' They let me go and ever since, I have loved monsters.”
Today he is “thoroughly monogamous with the genre,” he said. His first film, the Mexican vampire movie, Cronos, won the critic's prize at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. His second, Mimic (1997), was about giant cockroaches in the Manhattan subway system, and his third, the upcoming The Devil's Backbone, is an old-fashioned ghost story set in a Spanish boarding school for boys during the Spanish Civil War.
“I want to show that a ghost is not a transparent being but something, anything, that haunts you,” he said. “Something pending, a love never confessed. The Devil's Backbone is actually what the Spanish called Spina Bifida before it was diagnosed, so the ghosts here are of childhood and the ghosts of possibilities.”
And you thought horror films were all about the boo.
“One of the best uses of horror entertainment is to let us process traumas without actually experiencing them,” said David J. Skal, a horror film historian and author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. This ability to take the shape of any modern anxiety has allowed the horror film genre to endure while others, like the musical, became more marginal.
It's too early to say how horror films will handle the terrorism crisis. “But maybe we'll see more 1950s-style paranoia films, with invisible invaders,” Skal said. “No explicit violence though. Hopefully that'll force filmmakers to rely on storytelling instead.”
What's safe to say is that after 70 years of producing the gold standard in horror flicks, Hollywood seems ill-equipped to handle these new fears with any subtlety. Aside from a rare, out-of-left-field class act like The Sixth Sense or The Others, the genre has sunk to exploitation levels: computer-generated animals, vegetables, or minerals mowing down new twentysomething actors each week.
Where will the new metaphors come from? Probably from the impressive array of foreign-language directors tackling horror, filmmakers like del Toro, who switches between studio films and foreign films, and grew up obsessed with Universal's Great Depression-era monsters like Frankenstein (1931).
Some of these filmmakers are veterans: The Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa recently discovered the ghost story with his new film Pulse. (He's still looking for American distribution.) “The film is actually about alienation and isolation,” he said - the teen heroes are possessed by technology - “but horror offers something greater, too: an opportunity for a deep portrait of death. I'm interested in what happens to characters after death. Not until the recent teen ghost-movie boom in Japan could I even get the funding to explore it.”
Some are rookies. But collectively, they stand to reclaim horror from American directors.
Take Alejandro Amenabar, the Spanish director whose hit, The Others, became the sleeper film of the late summer. Or take Christophe Gans, the French filmmaker who recently scored a huge hit in his homeland with a werewolf movie, Brotherhood of the Wolf - the first French monster movie in a century.
He describes himself as a son of John Carpenter.
“At cinema school in France, everybody loves Carpenter and the quiet meaning in his films.”
Brotherhood is based on the French legend of the Beast of Gevaudan, but it's also about politics, Gans said.
“In the 18th century, more than a hundred women and children were killed by something and it was never caught. We were at war with the English and they were saying, ‘If the French can't even catch a wolf in their own country, how would they catch us?' The king was hurt by the buzz and it became a political issue, so a wolf was caught and blamed - but the killing went on for months after.”
An audience favorite in Europe, French critics savaged the film. Nevertheless, when Brotherhood opens in the United States early next year, it'll become an art house release. Same thing with del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. Still, the Mexican filmmaker said he is not going to avoid Spanish horror film for a wider audience. Horror is too rich to be dumbed down.
Horror movies, he said, are a little bit like the old saying about pizza - even bad pizza is satisfying.
“When it's great, it works beautifully on a metaphorical level. But when horror is bad, it's still pretty entertaining. I mean, how many genres hint at, without murdering the audience with pretension, the cosmic emptiness of being alone in a universe with this much darkness?”