x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The horror-film diaspora: a world of scares

Now that Hollywood seems to have lost the plot when it comes to frightening audiences, the industry is growing elsewhere.

Jin Hunters, a documentary that screened at the Gulf Film Festival's Student Competition, relies on the supernatural to drive the horror.
Jin Hunters, a documentary that screened at the Gulf Film Festival's Student Competition, relies on the supernatural to drive the horror.

In the early 1960s, Walt Disney refused to allow Alfred Hitchcock to film at Disneyland because the director had made "that disgusting movie Psycho." By 2007, the American Film Institute had declared the black-and-white horror to be the 14th greatest film of all time. Although far from a typical scary movie, Psycho's rise to respectability illustrates the shift in the way the genre came to be perceived. As a result, horror cinema is now equally noted for its ingenuity as for its focus on the macabre. But despite Hollywood doing more to popularise onscreen monsters than any other film industry, American horror now appears to be clinging on for dear life.

"Hollywood just seems to have completely lost the plot. We're all sick of the remakes and the bankruptcy of ideas," says Alan Jones, the author of The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. With Hollywood's Golden Age of Horror now 80 years in the past and the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s being endlessly resurrected, many have begun looking to places like Asia and Scandinavia to breathe new life into the genre. But with no region dominating the landscape in the way Hollywood once did, the title of Masters of Horror is currently up for grabs.

Many visitors to Dubai's Gulf Film Festival (GFF) in April were surprised to see three horror films, produced within the region, screening at the event. Although nations with long-established cinematic pedigrees, such as Egypt and Turkey, have been producing horror for a number of decades, the genre has always been underrepresented in the Middle East, and nowhere more so than in the Gulf. This is in spite of the huge popularity of imported horror films, particularly in UAE cinemas.

The Saudi Arabian film Hidden Evil, which screened at GFF, was made for just Dh250,000 and with a cast almost entirely made up of first-time actors. It sees a demonic landlord letting out a haunted villa to a series of unsuspecting tenants. In most cases they flee the building after just one horrific night at the hands of mischievous ghosts and djinn. The shaky hand-held camera style brings to mind last year's unexpected hit Paranormal Activity, while the film's dark humor and overblown scares are reminiscent of the classic Evil Dead series.

Another GFF entrant, The Curse of the Devil, was created by the Dubai director Maher al Khaja, who at 26 is already an experienced horror filmmaker. Like his previous movie The Fifth Chamber, this film features a host of characters beset by demons - but this time the film crew are the protagonists. Al Khaja says the movie began as a documentary about the reportedly haunted Jazirat Al Hamra (Red Island) in Ras al Khaimah, but he was so inspired by the terrifying deserted island that he built a fictional narrative into the project. The end result is reminiscent of the indie horror TheBlair Witch Project, or its predecessor Cannibal Holocaust.

"When I graduated from university I wanted to do something different and make a horror film," says al Khaja. "I bought a camera and equipment and then just started making films. The Curse of the Devil isn't as good as Blair Witch, but for the UAE it's something new." Finally, the 33-minute documentary Jin Hunters, which screened in GFF's Student Competition, saw the filmmakers Latifa al Karrani and Shamsa Abduallah, embark on a ghost-hunting trip in the Emirates. All three of these projects (as well as al Khaja's previous film), rely on the supernatural to drive the horror, as opposed to things like serial killers or abuses of science.

Another factor that unites the three films is that they were all made incredibly cheaply. Fortunately, horror is a genre that is often kind to low-budget productions, cases in point, the aforementioned Paranormal Activity and The Blair WitchProject. Filmmakers who find inventive solutions to their budgetary constraints are usually the successful ones, unfortunately however, Hidden Evil and Curse of the Devil both fail to do this (I still haven't seen Jin Hunters). But while it's unlikely any of these films will gain much recognition within the region or beyond, they might represent the beginning of something greater.

"Some cultures do take a while to get horror - it took Russia a long time," says Jones. "All it's going to need is one film to be a massive hit and the rest will follow. The Gulf needs an Exorcist or a Dracula." This could happen sooner than previously thought. A horror film - titled simply Djinn - was among the six new productions, aimed at fostering film in the Emirates recently announced by Imagenation (the movie producing arm of Abu Dhabi Media Company, which also owns The National). The movie, which is being written by the American screenwriter David Tully, will probably have a production budget far greater than any previous Gulf horror flick.

Although Djinn could signal a watershed for horror filmmaking in the region, the proposed story might sound slightly familiar. According to Tully, it will be "a haunted house story", concerning a young Emirati couple who move into a luxury high-rise. The story will also be set on Jazirat al Hamra. But while the Gulf might be new to scary movies, the cinema of the Middle East is not. The wider region's filmmakers began creating horror films in the 1960s and 1970s, which were often knock-offs of Hollywood classics such as The Omen or indeed The Exorcist.

"In general, Middle Eastern cinema produces more drama, melodrama and historical films than horror films," says Dr Lina Khatib, an expert on Middle Eastern cinema, at Stanford University. "Most use the supernatural as the main factor to induce horror in the audience." Dr Khatib says discussing encounters with djinn is "part of everyday cultural experience" in many parts of the Middle East and "debated in a very matter of fact way". Such beliefs could also explain, however, the hesitance of some in the region to explore horror on screen.

"Discussing djinn could be considered a way of bringing them to the room," Dr Khatib says. "It's very comparable with the Christian idea that exposing evil could bring retribution." It has been claimed that several notable Hollywood horror productions (such as Poltergeist and The Exorcist) were somehow cursed, with on-set accidents and the untimely deaths of cast members given as evidence. When attempting to fund and distribute his first film The Fifth Chamber, al Khaja claims he encountered a large degree of resistance from people concerned about such retribution.

"It's really difficult to make a horror film, particularly if you want to talk about demons," he says. "Audiences love these films because they are something new, but lots of people get really angry with me," he says. "They said I was promoting demons and the devil. They think you're crossing a red line." There are few original Middle Eastern horror films, but Dr Khatib chalks it up to the fact that separate film industries simply tend to focus on the genres at which they are most successful.

"You have musicals dominating Indian cinema; whereas in Korea the horror film is very prominent. Middle Eastern cinema focuses on drama and melodrama. It's just the trajectory that it has developed in," she says. "I don't think it's because filmmakers fear any religious issues, because they could easily make horror films about non-religious things." Although aspiring Middle Eastern filmmakers need not be limited to the supernatural, Jones argues that any region's horror movies work best when they tap into pre-existing cultural fears. "If you look at Indonesia or South America, they've actually used their own legends and myths and done something different; those unique boogie men give them a twist. I think [Middle Eastern filmmakers] will go through their own myths, like the Arabian Nights, to find ideas."

Africa The new kid on the international horror scene, religious terror and cannibalism feature heavily in Africa's ultra low-budget movies. Nigeria's film industry (dubbed Nollywood) now pumps out hundreds of movies every year directly to DVD. Despite rapid growth, African horror has yet to make an impact outside of the continent. Notable films include the psychedelic Nigerian possession story 666 (which received some cult acclaim after a review in Vice magazine) and South Africa's Slash, about a rock band terrorised by a homicidal farmer.

Argentina Argentina's love of horror eclipses that of any other South American nation, however the genre has been dominated in the past decade by one figure: Adrián Garcia Bogliano. The writer/director's 2004 film Rooms for Tourists was an international film festival hit, focusing on five city women who spend the most terrifying night of their lives in an isolated town. His follow-up, 36 Steps, was a witty teen horror, described as The Virgin Suicides meets Battle Royale.

Asia The term "Asian horror" usually refers to J-Horror (from Japan) and K-Horror (from Korea), although Thai, Philippine, Taiwanese and Hong Kong films can also be included. Asian horror grabbed the attention of cinema fans after the success of Japan's Ringu in 1998, later remade by Hollywood as The Ring. Subsequent films The Grudge and Dark Water were successful, but criticised for sticking too closely to Ringu's successful formula, usually involving evil children with long black hair.

France Although not restricted to the horror genre, the New French Extremity movement has attempted to shock audiences into consciousness for the past decade. With titles that include 2003's Switchblade Romance (aka Haute Tension) and 2008's Martyrs, the films shun supernatural themes for violent, cruel and realistic drama. But despite widespread international acclaim, horror still represents a tiny percentage of the country's annual cinematic output.

Scandinavia After the shock success of 2008's Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In, Scandinavia has become one of the world's most highly praised hotbeds of horror. It was followed by the hilariously gory Dead Snow (which single-handedly reignited the Nazi zombie sub-genre) and the dark and violent Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first part of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. Spain The past decade has seen Spain add to its reputation as one of the world's foremost exponents of horror cinema. The producer/director Guillermo del Toro (from Mexico, but frequently working in Spain) made films that continued to play on Catholic guilt, such as The Devil's Backbone and The Orphanage. The 2007 film [Rec] used fake documentary footage to create one of the decade's most worthwhile zombie movies. The end result produced something between 28 Days Later and The Blair Witch Project.