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Friday
Jun012018

BELGIUM'S HORROR MAESTROS FIND LOVE, FINALLY, IN DOCO LOVE-LETTER 

The horror auteurs of Belgium have often found favour with fans outside of their homeland. Director Harry Kümel's 1971 cult classic Daughters of Darkness is revered the world over; Emmanuel Kervyn’s 1988 gross-out shocker Rabid Grannies helped establish the Troma brand in the US. Yet the devoted filmmakers who have forged a dark, disturbing, occasionally brilliant Belgian horror sector are afforded little respect at home. With his documentary Forgotten Scares: An In-Depth Look at Flemish Horror Films, director Steve De Roover hopes to bring long overdue recognition to those whose visions of the macabre are rarely spoken of with the reverence they deserve…

“Horror has always been a genre that got extra piss poured over it,” De Roover delicately informs SCREEN-SPACE from his Skladanowsky Films office in Leuven, 30 kilometres east of Brussels. “You get a sense of absolute rebellion in many of the films and because a lot of them were made without proper funding, there is nothing which couldn't be shown. Typically, Flemish horror cinema has boatloads of nudity and everything nasty one could think up, just to piss off the establishment.” He cites Rob Van Eyck’s wildly successful Afterman trilogy (1985; 2005; 2013) as representative of his homeland’s approach to horror. “This ‘Mad Max from Belgium’ is full of typical Flemish activities of the old days like farming and hunting, but with a side of boobs, impalings, cannibalism and necrophilia.”

This determination to rattle the cages of conformity is central to Forgotten Scares, which takes as its starting point a claim from ill-informed journalists that Jonas Govaerts’ 2014 boy-scout/monster hit Welp (Cub; pictured, right) was “the first Flemish horror film”. De Roover exhaustively researched an industry that as far back as the mid 1970s was exploring cinema’s darkest, most challenging genre; films that existed in defiance of the nation’s cinema-going trends. Says De Roover, “I do think that this struggle [brought] a lot of extra creativity and an ever bigger drive to succeed.” De Roover admits to drawing inspiration from Australian director Mark Hartley's Ozploitation doc Not Quite Hollywood (2008), which covered a similarly undervalued Australian horror movement.

In an interview with The A.V. Club site, Baby Driver director Edgar Wright calls Daughters of Darkness, “a great movie, one [that] bridges the gap between the arty Roman Polanski or Ingmar Bergman horror movies, and the more campy, sexy vampire films of the time”. Its high brow vampiric eroticism is not often spoken of as 'classic' in its homeland, where it rarely screens. Kümel's masterpiece is given its due by De Roover, who calls it “an exercise in grandeur,” admitting, “It was the very first DVD I ordered online from the US.”

Also featured in Forgotten Scares is Kümel’s follow-up film Malpertuis (1971), starring Orson Welles, along with further works from Afterman auteur Van Eyck (Mirliton, 1978) and their contemporaries Guy Lee Thys (The Pencil Murders, 1982), the enigmatic Luc Veldeman (The Antwerp Murders, 1983), and Johan Vandewoestijne (Lucker, 1986).

The VHS boom years proved fertile ground for Flemish horror, says De Roover. “A lot of the popular films were made with the American market in mind, sometimes even as cheap copies of American cinema trends,” he says, citing The Antwerp Killer and Lucker (pictured, right) as Belgian entrants in the 80s ‘slasher pic’ craze. In addition to the insanity of Kervyn’s hilariously nightmarish Rabid Grannies (“I was in awe of the fun, bloody mayhem of that film,” says De Roover), this was also the era of Léon Paul de Bruyn’s tawdry splatter romp Maniac Nurses (1990) and his ultimately unrealized foray into Nazi-sploitation excess, SS Torture Hell. The documentary features previously unreleased footage from the set of the sado-masochistic epic, which ground to a halt when funding dried up.

Many of the sector’s most influential and revered genre personalities responded to the Forgotten Scares project, happy to step before the camera and recall half a century of Flemish horror inventiveness and artistry. In addition to Kümel, De Bruyn, Vandewoestijne, Govaerts and Van Eyck, De Roover secured the insight of actors Eric Feremans (The Antwerp Killer), Evelien Bosmans (Cub; pictured, below, with De Roovers) and Sven De Ridder (The Flemish Vampire, 2007); director Jeroen Dumoulein (short film De Vijver, 2014); and, the opinionated industry figurehead Jan Verheyen, director of Alias (2002).

De Roover acknowledges that in recent years Belgian horror has edged dangerously close to arthouse, even mainstream acceptance. Pieter Van Hees’ 2008 Antwerp-set chiller Linkeroever (Left Bank), starring Eline Kuppens and Matthias Schoenarts, tackled social commentary within its genre parameters; The Hollywood Reporter compared it to Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man and J-horror classic Dark Water. “Left Bank shows the bleakness of some of the lower-class neighbourhoods in Flanders,” says De Roover, who considers the award-winning a step towards the mainstreaming of Belgian genre cinema. “We have only been finding our own identity in cinema over the last couple of years. It took years to earn respect for our complete cinema output and to be taken seriously [by Belgian media],” he says. Veteran horror helmer Johan Vandewoestijne continues to produce quality work, including the black horror/comedy Todeloo (2014) and the serial killer romp Laundry Man (2016).

One of the many unforgettable sequences in Forgotten Scares: An In-Depth Look at Flemish Horror Films concerns the 2013 vision The Miracle of Life from directors Joël Rabijns and Yves Sondermeier, a mother/son drama that US distributor Troma thought would work better under the title The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta. With Steve De Roover flying the tri-coloured flag of his nation’s horror directors, the glorious madness of such flagrant Flemish film excesses as Rabid Grannies and Maniac Nurses will live forever.

FORGOTTEN SCARES: AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT FLEMISH HORROR FILMS is currently playing the film festival circuit. It can be pre-ordered on DVD from Zeno Pictures.

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