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Despite several films – many of them particularly noteworthy – made from the origins of the cinema, horror film in Austria has never yet seen a group of filmmakers take a common direction to create a real movement. At least until today.

All the faces of fear

From the end of World War II onwards, the desire of individual filmmakers in Austria to break away from all the clichés and standards that had imposed certain rules in national film production in previous decades began to grow. From then on, therefore, they began to focus on experimental cinema – also thanks to the influences of contemporary Viennese Actionism – and on previously little considered genres. And if, then, Austria can nowadays boast a rich and varied cinema, particularly noteworthy is the horror genre, which, however, represents only a minor section of the national film production. In spite of this, there are, currently, numerous filmmakers who have been devoting themselves almost exclusively to horror films for years, thanks to whom horror film in Austria is now observed with greater curiosity also abroad.

But to better understand how we got to this point, we need to take a little leap back into the past. As we know, the artistic movement of Expressionism was already beginning to take hold in neighbouring Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, and in 1920 – with Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – it also saw its official establishment in the film world. And even though this movement had little impact in Austria, it was thanks to Robert Wiene that Austrian cinema produced its first major horror film. We are talking about the excellent The Hands of Orlac, made by Wiene in 1924, during a long period spent in Austria. This first expressionist work, however, was not very popular and after several decades in which the production of romantic comedies, often also with a musical character, was particularly appreciated at home, the paths taken by filmmakers in the years immediately after World War II were very different.

And here we immediately return to Viennese Actionism, which, above all, aimed to astonish the spectator, to shock him – even with scenes and performances involving the artists themselves, animals, or even blood and faeces – for a sharp critique of censorship and, more generally, of the society of the time, guilty of a strong latent fascism, despite the fact that the war and dictatorship had been over for several years.

The leading exponents of Viennese Actionism include the artists Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Kurt Kren and VALIE EXPORT, just to name a few. Yet, their deliberately shocking and disturbing works and films do not belong properly to the horror genre, although they influenced it in part.

One of the first interesting horror shorts – whose approach already suggested a good inclination for experimental cinema as well – is undoubtedly Der Rabe (The Raven), directed in 1951 by painter and photographer Kurt Steinwendner, as well as the first truly avant-garde film of post-war Austrian cinema. The film consists of a transposition into images of the well-known poem The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe and, from a visual point of view, also shows clear influences from German Expressionism. But even in this case, in fact, we are not talking about a real movement, as the horror films of that time and of the years to come are to be considered as extemporary incursions into the horror genre by filmmakers who used to devote themselves, from time to time, to all sorts of different film genres, in order to highlight mainly the ugliness of contemporary society (Austrian and others).

If there is, in fact, anyone who has enjoyed experimenting with horror film in Austria over the years, this is Michael Haneke, who with his Funny Games (1997) and Funny Games U. S. (2007), staged a disturbing home situation, in which the life of a happy little family is totally upset by the sudden arrival of two strangers. In order to increase the sense of anguish in the audience, Haneke made use of a very successful off-screen, which has become his trademark over the years, just as the great Fritz Lang had experimented with in his masterpiece M (1931). But, in any case, despite the success of these two films, Michael Haneke has not devoted himself (at least until today) to the horror genre. His was only a brief ‘incursion’, as was also that of Jessica Hausner, when, in 2004, with her Hotel, she drew heavily on Expressionism to stage the adventures of a young receptionist, struggling with mysterious disappearances, dark environments, seemingly endless corridors and woods that, during the night, seem to become even more disturbing.

And just with regard to Expressionism, jumping forward in time to the present day, here we find several filmmakers who have taken several cues from the famous artistic movement of the 1920s, imprinting their entire filmography on a similar approach. Impossible not to think, for instance, of the directing couple Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (she is the wife of the great Ulrich Seidl, he is their nephew). Probably the most popular horror directors abroad, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are considered the most important exponents of contemporary Austrian horror film to date.

After a debut in 2012 with the documentary Kern, since 2014 the two have definitively dedicated themselves to the horror genre, making Goodnight Mommy, their first fiction feature, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival 2014. Thanks to Goodnight Mommy, the two filmmakers have finally made a name for themselves also abroad. It is interesting to note how, in this film, a wild nature guardian of the most terrifying secrets and an isolated house with angular and cramped shapes are reminiscent of the successful movement of the 1920s. Just as it was, in 2019, for The Lodge, their most recent work. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala thus are amongst those Austrian directors who, in our days, have definitely decided to devote themselves to the horror genre.

Alongside them, other important exponents of horror film in Austria are Andreas Prochaska (Dead in 3 Days, made in 2006, and Dead in 3 Days 2, from 2008), his son Daniel, who made his debut in the horror genre in 2020 with The Creepy House, Marvin Kren, who used to devote himself mainly to television films, but who in 2013, with The Station, made a sort of remake/homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and, finally, young Dominik Hartl, who, after a debut in 2015 with Beautiful Girl, has definitively dedicated himself to horror by making, the following year, the amusing Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies and, in 2018, the slasher film Party hard die young.

Many names, then, for equally numerous horror films, which are not, however, part of a real unified movement within Austrian cinema. In spite of several films – many of which are particularly noteworthy – horror film in Austria has never yet seen a group of filmmakers take a common direction to create a real movement. At least until today.

Info: the page of Robert Wiene on iMDb; the page of Kurt Steinwendner on iMDb; the page of Michael Haneke on iMDb; the page of Veronika Franz on iMDb; the page of Severin Fiala on iMDb