As an ardent cinephile and horror fanatic, I’ve made great strides to expose myself to a vast array of cinema, extending to all corners of the globe. Granted, my transition into the enticing world of foreign film didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, I remember a period in my life when the idea of sitting through a foreign film (subtitles and all) struck me as decidedly unattractive. As embarrassing as it is to admit in hindsight, such bias is not uncommon amongst Americans. In the United States, audiences are weaned from youth on Hollywood cinema above all else and, misguided though it may be, it’s how many of us come to define the way movies should look and feel, with blockbusters that embody the narrative and tonal qualities which Americans have come to crave: fast-paced action, unchallenging narrative structure, steamy romance, and loads of bombastic effects and explosions.

For those who have a narrow berth for world cinema, it’s no reason to feel ashamed or uncultured. Those who are born and raised in other parts of the world come to define their own views of cinema based on their own homegrown film industries as well. American studios and audiences often judge what constitutes a “good” motion picture based on its ability to generate income, whether or not it can draw a preponderance of audience members, and whether a concept proves entertaining and pliable enough to be extended into a franchise. Above all (this applies especially in today’s technological climate), can it retain the capricious attention spans of modern audiences and draw their eyes away from their phones for 80-120 minutes?

I am currently 27 years old, and as such, I try to eschew the urge to seem critical of younger generations of cinephiles for whom adjusting to foreign cinema is an increasingly difficult and intransigent task. However, I must point out that I encounter increasing numbers of people in my day-to-day life whose cinematic tastes are strictly limited to American fare. Many of these individuals are of a younger persuasion, though not always. I say this not to appear pretentious or conceited, but simply to express an observational concern. But, I get it. It stands to reason that in an age of constant social media interference and the availability of entertainment at the touch of a button, it can be an uphill battle to retain the interests of younger viewers. Foreign languages and subtitles certainly don’t help matters, either. However, I think I may have a solution. A way in which to break through the stigmas associated with world cinema—namely that foreign films are somehow slower, difficult to understand, or less entertaining than American fare—and begin to embrace a larger filmic worldview, rife with narrative richness and endless promise. We all have our own unique tastes when it comes to culture and entertainment. If you’re reading this on Daily Dead, I venture to guess that, like me, you have a taste for the dark, the morbid, and the macabre. And guess what? That’s a perfect entry point into foreign film. Interest in a specific genre is a wonderful gateway into the wider cinematic universe. It certainly worked for me.

To give some background on myself, I attended college at an arts conservatory from 2013–2017 in my home state of North Carolina, where I studied film. Now, there are many disparate groups of thought on the benefits (or lack thereof) of attending a film school, but I’ll spare you the boredom and simply state that there are both pros and cons. One of the major pros, in my experience, was an exposure to cinema history through film studies courses. While it’s certainly possible for one to educate themselves in film history with nothing but a television and a Blu-ray player, there’s something to be said for having an instructor (who are themselves hardened cinephiles) provide historical context for a specific film or film movement as movies are screened in a classroom setting. When I attended college, I took cinema studies ranging from American cinema, world cinema, French New Wave, realism, surrealism, Black cinema, and many more. My colleagues were fairly varied in their film exposure—some were ardent fans of the arthouse scene (perhaps embodying the prevailing stereotype of the type of person who would gravitate towards a film education), some were extremely literate in specific genres, and some had probably never sat through a foreign film in their entire time of living. I fell largely into the middle category, and was extremely horror literate, having screened a plethora of films on my own during middle and high school and reading numerous books on the subject. In doing so, I was galvanized not only to seek out the most important American genre entries, but to branch out to world cinema as well.

I dare say that my introduction to Italian cinema (which had a monumental impact on American auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino) came with my first viewing of Dario Argento’s Suspira (1977), which remains one of the most hypnotic and profound horror films ever made (and one of my personal favorites—I still haven’t been able to bring myself to sit through Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake). Thus, the door was then open for me to explore the works of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Michele Soavi, and others whose films I had so often read about and heard praised by cinephiles and film historians alike. I learned that exposing oneself to foreign film not only advances their knowledge of other cultures and the world at large, but also widens their understanding of their own country’s cinema.

For example, most American audiences are well aware of the found-footage genre, which greatly expanded in popularity thanks to The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007). However, there are significantly fewer people who know that the found-footage concept actually originated with Ruggero Deodato’s caustic and controversial Cannibal Holocaust (1980, released almost 20 years before The Blair Witch Project). While I certainly don’t endorse the film’s repugnant use of real-life animal cruelty footage, Cannibal Holocaust remains a fascinating and important genre document, essential viewing for the tried-and-true horror film disciple. By the same token, if not for my love of horror leading me to dip my toe in the vast pool of Italian cinema, I most likely never would have made the logical connection between Mario Bava’s sordid 1971 giallo, Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) and later American slasher films like Friday the 13th (1980).

While I may not have been an expert on Italian cinema by the time I got to film school, my modest exposure up to that point had allowed me to appreciate the works of auteurs like Fellini and De Rica when the time came. Argento and Fulci had already schooled me enough on the country’s unique filmmaking qualities so as not to be turned off by aesthetic choices endemic to Italian cinema such as the use of surrealism, garishly elegant color palettes, and other idiosyncrasies. In truth, Italian cinema is perhaps the most sensible gateway into foreign film for adventurous Americans, as most of the early Italian movies were dubbed with English audio tracks prior to hitting the international market.

By the same token, prior to studying the great Ingmar Bergman and seeing The Seventh Seal (1957, Bergman’s most iconic and best-known work), I had become acquainted with the Swedish existentialist’s body of work through his surreal psychological horror masterpiece, Hour of the Wolf (1968). For readers who are as surprised and intrigued as I was when I read about Bergman’s first and only excursion into the horror genre, I highly recommend seeking it out. While it remains one of Bergman’s lesser-known efforts, Hour of the Wolf is one of the most unsettling films of the ’60s, having had a profound effect on horror cinema going forward. One need only look as far as modern horror maestro Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and many of his contemporaries for proof.

Unfortunate though it may be, reading is a practice which has fallen increasingly out of favor with younger generations weaned on the internet, where brevity and clickbait headlines are king. I could compose an entirely separate article arguing the intellectual benefits of reading books and articles, but I’ll refrain. The point is, younger generations of Americans thrive on visual information—concise, fast paced, and to the point. Therefore, the reading of subtitles as it relates to foreign film remains a genuine obstacle towards getting certain people to invest in and enjoy world cinema. But again, I believe the task becomes significantly easier when we allow our passions for genre to lead the way. Before I even thought of delving into Asian cinema, I was indirectly exposed to it through American remakes of classic Asian horror films, which were exceedingly popular in the early 2000s when I was coming up (conveniently for younger me, most of these films were rated “PG-13,” so I encountered little resistance from my parents when renting them from the video store).

While remakes like The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), and The Eye (2008) are all of significantly lesser quality than their overseas counterparts, I never would have thought to seek out the superior originals if the Americanized remakes hadn’t first piqued my curiosity. As a result, I came to realize: (1) Subtitles aren’t nearly as distracting as they seem once you get used to them, and (2) Ju-On (2000), for example, is significantly more terrifying than its American remake, The Grudge (starring Sarah Michelle Gellar). Once again, my horror fandom paid off in spades by helping to sharpen my cinematic literacy, and films like Jigoku (1960), Onibaba (1964), House (1977), Ringu (1998), Audition (1999), The Eye (2002), and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) eventually paved the way for the likes of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood) and John Woo (Hard Boiled, The Killer).

An extra benefit of viewing foreign films (in this case, specific to the horror genre) is an insight into the fears and social/cultural anxieties endemic to other nations’ cinematic expression. For example, no film better illustrates Japan’s fear of atomic power following the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki than the original Gojira (aka Godzilla, 1954), in which an irradiated prehistoric monster wreaks havoc on civilization as a result of man’s inhumanity to both the environment and his fellow man. To give a more modern example, one notices in watching Takashi Miike’s brutal Audition that the monstrous villainess Asami functions as a morbid counterpoint to the cultural image and expectations thrust on women by traditional Japanese society.

Becoming acquainted with corresponding film movements in other countries additionally allows the aspiring cinephile to compare and contrast similar groups of films within their own country. What are the similarities? The differences? Is there a higher degree of censorship? Is there a difference of opinion on political/social issues? How do other countries handle depictions of sex? Of violence? Early on, one film in particular served to enlighten me not only in the aesthetics of French cinema, but in other countries’ distinct and diverse approaches to the horror genre. As much as I revere the gothic decadence of Universal horror, the atmosphere and subtlety of the Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton days, and the atomic monsters and invaders from outer space inherent in American genre cinema of the ’50s, no American film prior to 1960 had the visceral impact of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959).

France, like Japan, has always had a reputation for going balls-to-the-wall when it comes to their horror, and Franju’s early masterpiece is responsible for setting the standard. Leagues ahead of its time, Eyes Without a Face, which concerns a disgraced surgeon who, in his attempt to repair his daughter’s scarred visage following an accident of his own making, kidnaps young women so that he may find a successful skin donor to repair his daughter’s disfigured face. For a film released in 1959, Eyes Without a Face pulls no punches. There are startlingly realistic scenes in which women’s faces are carved up and removed… in full view of the camera, no less! Such moments would be unheard of in American or British films of the same era, where the censorship boards were far less lenient.

More than 40 years later, France still remained ahead of the curve in terms of its sordid depictions of violence. I speak, of course, of the New French Extreme Movement, which began in earnest with such films as Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) and Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) and coincided with America’s superficially similar and equally politically motivated “torture porn” movement. For all the gorehounds and extreme cinema fans out there, if you think the Saw and Hostel films are tough, how about trying Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008) on for size? The latter two films make American torture porn’s themes of cruelty and nihilism seem utterly toothless by comparison. Just as the Saw and Hostel movies were, at their core, confrontational responses to the Bush Administration’s self-proclaimed “War on Terror” and state-sanctioned “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) tactics in the Middle East, many of the French Extreme films were radical responses to that country’s own concerning increase in extremist right-wing politics. And so, as you see, international horror cinema serves to unite us as human beings, as political activists, and if nothing else, to give us an unpleasant reminder of how fucked up our respective governments are.

What could be more difficult than getting someone to strap in for a foreign film in 2021? Getting them to sit through a foreign silent film. For this, I come back to my own film education where, months before my class progressed to the “talkies,” we spent hours studying and screening key silent films of the 1920s, when cinema as an art form was still in its infancy. Fortunately for horror fans, the early silent fright films are undoubtedly some of the most memorable, interesting, and dare I say, watchable movies of the entire silent era. I speak of such works as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which served not only as the beginning of what would later become known as the horror film, but as a monumental influence on American filmmakers like Tim Burton, who used Caligari’s distorted set pieces as inspiration for the environments in his own Batman (1989) and Edward Scissorhands (1990).

There’s also F.W. Murnau’s masterful (and still genuinely frightening) Nosferatu (1922), which marked the beginning of vampire cinema (for those who prefer something a little heavier to the original, classical music score, there’s also a DVD version out there called Nosferatu: The First Vampire which features musical accompaniment composed entirely from songs by Brooklyn goth-metal titans Type O Negative). And there’s Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922), a devilishly lurid pseudodocumentary about devil worship, black magic, and the witch hunts of medieval Europe, which left its satanic imprint on just about every occult-based horror film moving forward. Häxan, for what it’s worth, is also my personal favorite silent film of all time and is endlessly watchable, despite containing no dialogue and running 105 minutes in its original form.

Considering that I had already acquainted myself with these silent classics well in advance of my attending film school, I arrived three steps ahead of many of my peers (some of whom had never sat through a silent movie in its entirety), making it that much easier for me to adjust to the limitations of silent cinema as well as appreciate all that it has to offer and teach us about the development of the art form. As a horror fan, I (and I’m sure many of you reading) have sat through so much cinema over the years—of quality ranging from masterful to fair to execrable—that as a true horror connoisseur, it’s now my duty to “sift through the gravel,” so to speak, in order to unearth the true gems. This applies both to new films and those of years past, the brilliance of which may have been overlooked or unfairly maligned at the time. As such, it stands to reason that this metaphorical “mining” process becomes much more productive when one opens themselves up to cinema from all corners of the world. Often, particularly during periods when quality American horror falls into a “drought,” it is the foreign films that rise to the top.

To give a very recent example, I found that the two most effective horror films of last year came not from America, but from Canada (Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor) and Australia (Natalie Erika James’ Relic). In years past, I even felt that the foreign market dominated, rather than simply contributed to the horror pool: in 2016, for example, Julia Ducournau’s French cannibal coming-of-age opus Raw blew all of its American competition out of the water. In 2010, Kim Jee-woon’s vicious revenge horror I Saw the Devil easily stole the crown of that year. And who can forget 2008, when a little film from Sweden called Let the Right One In all but reinvented the modern vampire movie and established itself as a modern horror classic?

To put it simply: a viewer’s willingness to take risks and branch out into foreign markets equals more great horror to choose from. The greatest achievements in American horror as of late—Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) —were borne of the independent, festival circuit.

And so, what I hope I’ve been able to illustrate through this piece is three-fold: (1) passion for a specific cinematic genre (i.e., horror) is an excellent means of expanding one’s taste in international cinema, (2) Staying abreast of the latest trends and developments in world cinema keeps one informed of the fears and social concerns plaguing the rest of the world (many of which overlap with America’s own), and (3) as a horror fanatic, the best thing you can do for yourself is branch out to other countries and watch more horror! In his 1981 nonfiction novel Danse Macabre (which, for my money, remains one of the greatest books ever written about horror fiction), Stephen King aptly points out in the chapter entitled “The Horror Movie as Junk Food” that “the true horror film aficionado is more like a prospector with his panning equipment or his wash-wheel, spending long periods going patiently through common dirt, looking for the bright blink of gold dust or possibly even a small nugget or two.” This being said, if you’re a horror fan largely unacquainted with foreign film, it may be time to branch out and increase those prospects…

  • Gray Underwood
    About the Author - Gray Underwood

    Gray Underwood is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, film reviewer, and devout cinephile. Gray became drawn to horror when he was six years old and discovered that Halloween was his favorite day of the year.

    After a relatively sheltered childhood, during which he discovered films such as Spielberg’s Jaws and the Universal Monsters catalog, Gray made it his mission- beginning in middle school- to study horror cinema and expose himself to every notable film, both classic and contemporary.

    Gray attended college at University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he obtained a Bachelor’s in screenwriting. He lives and breathes the macabre, both in his professional and personal life, and is always on the lookout for the latest advancements in dark culture, both as a storyteller and an avid consumer.