Mais, Les Zombies Sont Dans Le Lac

A Brief History of French Horror Cinema

France's tradition of filmmaking is as long and as rich as any country's, if not more so. Although more renowned for high drama, edgy experimentalism and art house existentialism, France also has an eclectic, poetic and important history within the horror genre, that continues quietly and steadily to this day.

Even before it ever had a real movie industry, France displayed an obsession with macabre mainly through the popularity of the Grand Guignol Theater in Paris, a forum dedicated to horrific plays that climaxed in gruesome violence. Naturally with the birth of film it didn't take long for the country to adapt its dark curiosity to the fledgling cinema.

Georges Méliès, famed for creating the first science fiction film with 1902's A Trip to the Moon, had, some six years earlier, directed what is believed to be the first ever horror movie, a three-minute short entitled The House of the Devil. A simple short film minus any plot but with, as then unseen, imagery of bats, witches, ghosts, skeletons, cauldrons and Satan himself, it proved to set an early precendent for supernatural cinema and it's future. Méliès followed that up with a dozen horror-themed shorts over the next decade, with titles such as The Devil's Laboratory, The Infernal Boiling Pot, The Cave of the Demons and Summoning the Spirits. Méliès' films were extravaganzas of early SFX (or magic tricks as they were perceived then), creating the sort of visual awe and grotesque displays that would characterize global horror cinema for the next couple of decades.

Much like Méliès, filmmaker Abel Gance directed early supernatural shorts, such as The Mask of Horror (1912) and Help! (1924), but made a far more stark and indelible mark with his feature films. In 1919, he directed J'Accuse, a blatant anti-war response to France's involvement in World War I, and a film in which for the first time screen saw the birth of the Zombie. J'Accuse culminated in the corpses of dead soldiers rising from their graves to declare their opposition to war.

In 1929, surrealist Luis Buñuel directed one of the most famous examples of French avant-garde cinema, and unknowingly stareted the grand tradition of gore cinema, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), featured horrific imagery aimed primarily at shocking the viewer  -- including the famed shot of a woman's eye being slit with a razor -- much like Herschell Gordon Lewis would do in his legendary gore movies 30 years later.

Despite the groundbreaking early work of French filmmakers, many French horror movies made between the late '20s and the early '60s recycled old literary works. For instance:

  • In 1928, Jean Epstein brought Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher" to the screen.
  • Maurice Tourneur's La Main du Diable (Carnival of Sinners) (1943) is a retelling of the age-old Faust legend, with a man selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for wealth and success.
  • Beauty and the Beast (1946) was one of the most important films of this era, horror or otherwise, for its breathtaking visuals, set design and cinematography.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956), starring Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo, was a natural choice to film in the actual Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
  • Acclaimed director Jean Renoir made his only venture into horror in 1959 with a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, entitled The Doctor's Horrible Experiment.
  • The Hands of Orloc (1960) revisited a lesser-known tale of a hand transplant gone awry, which had been filmed twice previously, first in Germany and then in the US.
Primarily this lack of invention and innovation stemmed from French cinema concentrating more on it's 'movement' mentality, with Noir, Pre-New Wave, New Wave, Minimalist etc. Thankfully with 1955's Les Diabolique, however, French suspense-horror began to show the sort of cutting-edge artistry that characterized the country's other film genres. Easily on par with Hitchcock's best, this tale of murder and revenge was a sensation around the world, eventually spawning an (awful) American remake four decades later.

As the 1960s rolled around director Georges Franju delivered Eyes Without a Face, often considered the best French horror film of all time (an opinion of which this author has no doubt of...). Both horrific and eerily beautiful, Franju's work is a modern Frankenstein tale of sorts, with a mad doctor frantically trying to find a suitable donor for his disfigured daughter's face transplant. With outstanding camerawork and a strong but oft silent cast, Eyes Without a Face is almost dreamlike in it's execution, and is surely the standout for French horror as a whole.

Less artistic but equally innovative was Jean Rollin, who's often credited with directing the first French vampire movie, 1967's The Rape of the Vampire. The film established a formula that would become Rollin's trademark: gothic, artsy, erotic horror that often revolved around female vampires. Substance plays second fiddle to style in his work much like the Giallo masters of Italian cinema, which stirred up controversy due to its extreme sexuality commingled with graphic violence. Rollin would later establish levels of gore previously unknown in French horror with the zombie inspired The Grapes of Death (1978).

This new wave of progressive horror bore little fruit in the '80s, however, when horror cinema around the world came to be dominated by low-brow slashers and zombie flicks. It wasn't until the turn of the 21st century that French horror began to generate enough quality content on a consistent level to make a name for itself once again.

Modern French horror and suspense is among the most edgy of any nation's cinematic efforts currently. The films thrive on unsettling the audience, whether on a psychological level -- as in With a Friend Like Harry... (2000) or Caché (2005) -- or on a visceral, violent level, as with High Tension (2003), Sheitan (2006) or Inside(2007). Like all envelope-pushing art, they sometimes spur controversy -- see Trouble Every Day's notorious blend of sex and cannibalism or the Frontier(s) violence so extreme that it was threatened with an NC-17 rating in the US -- but at the same time, French horror continues to prove it still has innovation, imagination and passion on its side.

The haunted orphanage tale Saint Ange (2004), for instance, predated the similarly-themed Spanish hit The Orphanage by three years, and They Came Back (2004) put a dramatic, realistic spin on zombie lore. Meanwhile, movies like Brotherhood of the Wolf, Requiem and Blood Mallory mix horror with action, comedy and other genres to craft an undefinable style. All in all French Horror cinema is still a living, breathing, vibrant entity, that once unearthed can prove to be a treasure trove of wonderous experiences for the viewer... so what are you waiting for... aller l'expérience de l'obscurité du cinéma français.

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