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brief histories

Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive, and a Brief History of the Art-Horror Film

Under the Skin, starring Scarlet Johansson as an alien come to Earth in human form, is being billed as a science-fiction film, and it is, on some level. But with early scenes structured around Johansson’s “stalking” of various humans and a finale that echoes back to Frankenstein, director Jonathan Glazer’s film hews closer to horror. Even as that, however, it’s clearly something different, with a narrative and a visual and aural strategy that belong more to the realm of the experimental. In his review of the film, our own David Edelstein said it “takes the horror genre in infectiously strange new directions.” And he’s right. Glazer clearly has more on his mind than telling a tale about something that comes to Earth and harvests men. His film could be interpreted as a meditation on human sexuality, on modern alienation, on the existential chasm between flesh and being — all conveyed through a filmic style that privileges the physical, even as it (mostly) keeps the viewer at an emotional distance.

Similarly, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, about two centuries-old vampires whose love persists even though they’ve largely absented themselves from the world of humans, is a genre movie in name only. Yes, there are vampires in the film, and yes, they drink blood, but Jarmusch is more interested in using the idea of vampirism to explore the idea of outsiderism. His film is as much about the murmur of half-abandoned cities beyond the characters’ car windows as it is about fangs and blood.

These two films are very different from one another, but both are somber, symbolic, even trancelike. As such, they’re perfect examples of “art-horror” (or “arthouse horror”) — a type of film that represents a fascinating byproduct of the collision of art and commerce, of genre convention and personal vision. In the past, you could market a movie as a horror flick and get some unwitting viewers into the theater before they realized the film was something entirely different. That’s not quite possible nowadays, but art-horror does provide one way of giving audiences something new, in the guise of the familiar.

Art-horror films tend to rely more on atmosphere and style to create an unnerving experience than on actual “scares.” They may have characters or situations that lend themselves to typical horror narratives, but very often they work against viewer expectations by unfolding in elliptical ways, or keeping the actual horrors offscreen, or sending their stories in new, surreal directions. But art-horror is also hard to define, since as a sub-genre it is by necessity inexact and fluid. Many horror films can be works of art without being “art-horror.” John Carpenter’s The Thing or George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or Ridley Scott’s Alien are masterpieces of horror, but they’re not necessarily art films. But what about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which spends so much of its running time just building and building, and presents its one actual “kill” as almost a sacrifice to the genre gods? Or David Cronenberg’s The Brood, which is as much a domestic nightmare as it is a F/X-laden gore-fest? Or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which draws so much of its power from its unsettling vision of suburbia than from anything that could be considered thrilling? The fact is that everyone will define “art-horror” in their own way — the same way they define “art film” in different ways. 

A good litmus test for what one considers art-horror is F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire classic Nosferatu. Yes, it’s one of the most influential horror films of all time, and yes, it’s still terrifying, full of images that have since become part of the horror genre’s collective unconscious. But it’s also a rather odd beast: moody, elusive, aestheticized. In many ways, it’s an ancestor to both the traditional horror film and the art-horror film. Murnau had set out to make a genuinely frightening movie — and he did, but the result was less a piece of genre pulp and more a funereal meditation on the uncanny. (When Werner Herzog remade it as Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1979, the result was pure art house, a hypnotic, deliberate film about sexuality, disease, and otherness.)

Nosferatu clearly influenced Carl Theodor Dreyer's bizarre 1932 film Vampyr, which is art-horror par excellence. Hallucinatory and perplexing, it tells the story of a young traveler who, as the opening titles tell us, became so obsessed with the supernatural that “for him the boundary between the real and the unreal became blurred.” That could apply to the film itself, which unfolds as a series of nightmarish images that the protagonist, about whom we know practically nothing, witnesses in and around an old inn. Shadows have minds of their own; men with scythes walk ominously in distant fields; unseen figures seem to hover on the edges of the screen. There’s little rhyme or reason to the plot, and we’re denied any real resolution or explanation. Instead, we’re carried along by the force of the film’s atmosphere and the discomfiting nature of the imagery.

The 1930s was a pivotal decade for horror. The genre became industrialized as Universal Pictures began to churn out now-classic monster movies — Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. But not long on the heels of this phenomenon came a new wave of art-horror. Consider the cinema of producer Val Lewton, who was enlisted by RKO Pictures to make cheap movies, and turned the studio a nifty profit with films like Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943).

Lewton had very limited means, but he and his directors (particularly Jacques Tourneur, who directed those three films) had a surfeit of artistic ambition. And so, they created elegant, serious works, using psychological unease rather than any obvious special effects; very often, you never saw the monstrosity. (In Cat People, a woman is convinced that she has a curse on her that will turn her into a deadly panther whenever she has any strong emotions; I Walked With a Zombie is as much influenced by Jane Eyre as it is by anything to do with zombies.) These films were more than just artful — the use of implied horror suggests that we are witnessing something inward, something about the character’s own subjectivity rather than any outside terror.

If I’m dwelling a lot on these earlier, historical works, that’s because I think people like Murnau, Dreyer, and Lewton (and to some extent Tod Browning, the visionary director of films like Freaks and The Unknown, as well as Universal’s Dracula) in many ways established the template for modern-day exercises in art-horror. You can see traces of their influence in key art films from the 1960s — works as diverse as Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), or even Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), one of the earliest “J-horror” films.

The 1970s saw the emerging popularity of big-budget “serious” horror films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), as well as American slasher films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978). There was also the continental popularity of Italian giallo like Twitch of the Death Nerve (1972) and Suspiria (1977). Again, reasonable minds may disagree, but these films all generally belong in the more traditional horror category, even though many of them achieved new levels of artistry and boundary pushing.

But during this period the art-horror film would also enter an important new phase. In 1977, the first feature film from America’s true giant of art-horror, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, would define the sub-genre for decades to come — with its surreal storyline, its procession of unnerving imagery, and its mesmeric, industrial rhythms. (Before he made The Shining, Stanley Kubrick himself would reportedly call Eraserhead the greatest film he’d ever seen and screen it for his cast and crew.) Lynch’s later films fit the art-horror label to varying degrees: Blue Velvet (1986), for all its craziness, is a fairly straightforward movie, while Lost Highway (1997), uh, is not. But almost all of his films seem to absorb the very monstrousness that they’re depicting. When Lynch portrays fragmented identities and environments, as he does in Inland Empire (2006) and Lost Highway, he fragments the films themselves, and by extension our experience as viewers.

Lynch’s career testifies to the fact that the broad strokes of horror lend themselves well to works of personal expression — the supernatural and uncanny are a perfect excuse to explore the dreamlike and the symbolic. Robert Altman was never more “art house” than he was with his 1972 film Images, a dreamlike thriller about a young wife slowly going mad. The same could be said for Claire Denis, whose demented 2002 erotic cannibal movie Trouble Every Day, starring Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle, might be her most confounding film (it’s also one of her most beautiful).

Ditto for Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1978 cause célèbre The Shout, one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, which features Alan Bates as a stranger who upends the life of a married couple with his ability to kill with a so-called Aboriginal shout. Or Andrzej Zulawski’s twisted domestic thriller Possession (1981), in which Sam Neill has to watch his wife, Isabelle Adjani, make love to a gruesome tentacle creature. I mentioned J-horror briefly earlier. Many of the genre films coming out of Asia in recent decades appear to have taken the lessons of art-horror to heart — particularly in works like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s incantatory serial killer drama-cum-domestic nightmare Cure (1997) and Takashi Miike’s rape-revenge mindfuck Audition (1999). These are films that look pulpy and sensationalistic on paper, but cinematically, they’re highly stylized, experimental, constantly challenging the viewer and seeking to put us in a troubled state of mind.

If these last few films all seem to be about fears of sex and domesticity to some degree, you’re right. In all of these films, you have directors tackling very personal stories about deep, unsettling urges, and about human relationships. If horror’s great theme is the unnatural and uncanny — the idea of revulsion, not just in terms of gore but also in terms of emotion and state of mind, lies at the heart of the genre — then art-horror’s twist is to turn the camera inward. In other words, the films themselves are often unnatural and uncanny. Under the Skin places us in the world of the alien; even though we can’t relate to her, the film is essentially shot from her perspective. As Glazer himself has said, “[The film] had to be told from her viewpoint. Or its viewpoint. So the film had to be her experience.” And one of the things that make the film so terrifying is that the alien’s victims so rarely seem to experience any fear. Are they under a spell? Maybe. Or maybe the alien has no conception of fear yet — and, because we’re essentially watching through her eyes, neither do we.

Meanwhile, in Only Lovers Left Alive, we not only see things through the eyes of the vampires, we inhabit a world where they often seem to be the only presences around. The film adopts their desolate, apocalyptic spirit. Jarmusch’s direction doesn’t feel experimental the way Glazer’s does, but while watching it, you sense that you have a direct feed into the director’s brain. He has never been one to make an anonymous film, but this feels like his most personal work in years – he confirmed as much during my recent interview with him.

In both these films — and other recent examples of art-horror, like the grim Jake Gyllenhaal doppelganger thriller Enemy, or last year’s surreal, gothic family drama Stoker — you can sense an increasing unease about the individual's place in the world. Their characters are at first secure in their isolation, but gradually, their boundaries break down, and they begin to feel lost, adrift. It could be said that their journeys mirror our own. Art-horror alienates the viewer and in so doing forces us to question our relation to the world around us. Remember that haunting, deeply troubling line from Blue Velvet: “He put his disease into me.” You could say that art-horror films try to put their disease into us.