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Much of the glory—or in some cases, lessons in humility—of genre fandom rests on the shoulders of encyclopedic knowledge, the question boiling down to this: What do or don’t you know? Seen or haven’t seen? But while jaded exploitation aficionados’ trips to the cigar humidor of horror now come invariably with time-honored foreign imports and the trivia-minded pinpointing of their influences on contemporary fare, seldom are questions about the revolutions that fueled content publicly deemed “taboo” acknowledged at length.
Offering an answer to the former by cataloguing the breadth of Swedish exploitation flicks you’ve likely never seen, writer, musician and self-proclaimed sensationsfilms addict Daniel Ekeroth’s revealing filmbook SWEDISH SENSATIONSFILMS: A CLANDESTINE HISTORY OF SEX, THRILLERS, AND KICKER CINEMA (Bazillion Points, out April 1) hopes to answer the latter as well, in a multifaceted account of the sensational sleaze of the ’60s and beyond (a subset about which the author of SWEDISH DEATH METAL knows more than his fair share).
Modern horror filmmakers going for audiences’ jugulars as a means of intentional divisiveness comes today as standard practice—an experiment in shock and awe to be tested on specimens of the theater. But Ekeroth recalls the nature of Sweden’s early sensationsfilms as far more emblematic of their time and place when held up to progressive filmmaking trends of late. “The climate in society has changed a lot over the past few decades when it comes to filmmaking,” he says. “SAW or HOSTEL can go as far as they please in terms of gruesomeness. Almost every mainstream film today includes a steamy sex scene. There isn’t any moral panic or much debate anymore. The films are super easy to get your hands on and consumed with tons of popcorn by laughing teens. Nobody cares. Filmmaking was taking place in a different universe in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. There was social upheaval and revolt in the air, directors and producers confronting conservative censors and the stern, moral majority. The films of those days used sensational elements to get attention, but there was also a political side to it.”
“The thing to remember,” he continues, “is that you had to go to the theaters to see films in ’60s and ’70s. Since the ’80s, you’ve been able to watch everything safely at your home. It took a lot more effort and guts to get your dose of sex and violence back in the days. Today, you’re just one click away from a smorgasbord of sensations on your laptop at any moment.”
That stern moral majority Ekeroth speaks of wasn’t loosened over night. The author notes that while films like KÄRLEKENS SPRÅK (Travis Bickle’s date movie of choice in TAXI DRIVER) and I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) paved the way for an abundance of sexually explicit 1970s features, defiant works like THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (starring Christina Lindberg, Tarantino’s point of reference for KILL BILL’s Elle Driver) and SMUTSIGA FRINGAR provided censors with a new scapegoat: violence. “When cinematic sex was finally accepted, [filmmakers] had to come up with something new in order to challenge the censors,” he explains. “It wasn’t until Peter Jackson’s DEAD ALIVE was released uncut in 1992 that censors finally started to cave in. The over-the-top humor was extreme enough for even the stiffs in the board of censors to get it.”
Ekeroth also recognizes a profound impact of the infusion of the Swedish sensationsfilms movement on American grindhouse and mainstream cinema—and vice versa—for better and for worse. “Swedish porn really got going after the success of DEEP THROAT,” the author says. “It proved that you could make big bucks with hardcore films. We even imported some U.S. directors and actors to do the work for us, like Joe Sarno and Harry Reems. There was a heavy influence from violent cop-thrillers during the ’70s; DIRTY HARRY and THE FRENCH CONNECTION sure made an impact. We might not have been able to replicate the car chases, but Swedish filmmakers embraced the roughness of the genre. There were also a few attempts to make some Westerns over here, but the Swedish minigenre of ‘lingonberry-Westerns’ quickly faded into oblivion.”
Horror being the country’s most detested genre by censors, Ekeroth regards its role as something of a double-edged sword—both a motivator of directors’ punk spirit and a liability that doused any preexisting flames of inspiration in the microcosm of the Swedish studio system. “[DEAD ALIVE] led to a decline of delirious Swedish film productions,” Ekeroth notes. “Without the opposition, filmmakers lost interest. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE should have gotten some productions going; it was the prime target in the Swedish Video Nasty debate. Since Swedish censors despised horror and splatter so much, it might be that filmmakers thought it wasn’t really worth the effort. Sweden was never really able to establish a functional horror genre. On the other hand, if you look at the few horror films made in Sweden, like BLÖDAREN, it might have been talent that was lacking! Then again, we might just have been too obsessed with sex!”
Perhaps most mistaken as “obsessed with sex” is JUNGFRUKÄLLAN (THE VIRGIN SPRING here)—sensationsfilms’ strongest case as high art, director Ingmar Bergman’s only work to receive the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the quintessential rape-revenge film and the template for countless revisions and imitations, among them Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Even from the perspective of Bergman, the sum total of its parts has been knee-jerked into obscurity. “You know how it is,” Ekeroth says. “Some filmmakers want to be considered artists and just can’t take that some people like their films for elements they don’t consider important. Stellan Skarsgård has also repeatedly expressed shame for his involvement in the sensationsfilms of past days. I don’t think this is a common attitude in Sweden, there aren’t that many Bergmans or Skarsgårds around. On the flipside, many directors don’t seem to fully understand that what they are doing is sensational. Torgny Wickman, director of countless sleazy sex films, has stated that to him sex is the most natural thing in the world and he just can’t believe that anyone would get upset by it. The producers of I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW), thought that the sexual aspects of their film wouldn’t be controversial at all. At most they believed that the political aspects of the film might cause some commotion, but sex was just something that was a part of normal life.”
But while the attitude toward extreme content from all angles has seen better days, Ekeroth remains hopeful for the state of darker Swedish works that have begun to rise to the forefront of mainstream cinema, mentioning his fondness for one slow-burn vampire tale that’s since been solidified a horror community and Fango fave. “Since the National Board of Film Classification finally disbanded on January 1 2011, it’s hard to imagine any bigger comeback of [sensationsfilms],” he says. “The small film industry of Sweden has to make ends meet, so what’s the point in doing sensational films that won’t cause any commotion? Still, this might be a breeding ground for a new kind of moody horror films. I hope LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is just the start of a new era.”
As for the teeming embrace of RIGHT ONE and the resonance of Stieg Larrson’s MILLENIUM trilogy film adaptations, Ekeroth sets forth his own thoughts and theories on the formulas of their crossover success. “Somehow, I think these films stand out due to their obvious ‘Swedishness,’ ” he says. “Events and scenes are allowed to take their time. The gloomy look is something different than what we see in American productions. The films are not primarily targeted for teens, and I guess people like that. In the case of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, they finally got some fantastic original source material to work on. The novel by John Ajvide-Lindqvist is just fantastic, and though the film only contains a fraction of the horrors of the book, it still works as a great adaptation. The film has a genuine Swedish atmosphere, and I’m very happy about its success.
“I am mostly confused about the success of the MILLENIUM films, since I personally found them pretty routine crime thrillers,” Ekeroth adds. “If people are into that, SMUTSIGA FINGRAR is a great place to start, or BREAKING POINT if you want to go mental. Incredible just how mad films could be in the past!”
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