Monday, May 14, 2007

Die Yuppie Scum!

As I continue work on my seemingly interminable T.S. Eliot project, I find myself thinking a lot about the function of criticism. To my mind, what is generally most useful in criticism (whether it be criticism of literature or cinema) is not the critic’s evaluation of a work, but the information that a critic provides to help readers/viewers understand the work within a larger context – as the product of a particular time or culture, or as the intention of a creator or group of creators. Despite what the “new criticism” of Eliot’s generation would have us believe, context is inevitably a determining factor in our understanding and appreciation of a work. We can hardly read a book or view a film without bringing our own baggage to the table: Is the story relevant to us? Does the world it presents ring “true,” based on our own personal experiences? Can we relate to the characters? How does it compare to others books we’ve read / films we’ve seen? The more we know about where a work comes from, the better equipped we are to understand it on its own terms, and appreciate it as art.

Some readers might wonder what this has to do with horror films of the 1980s. Even some devoted horror fans may wonder how anyone could come up with 829 pages of intelligent things to say about this particular decade in horror film history, which is rarely discussed in terms of art. This was, after all, the decade of bad Stephen King adaptations, cheap slasher movies and their innumerable, money-grubbing sequels.

John Kenneth Muir, pop culture guru and author of the new Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland, 2007), acknowledges this problem. After reviewing 328 films, he says that “it is downright disconcerting to realize that there is simply much less variation in 1980s horror cinema than one might prefer.” A few years ago, Muir wrote an award-winning book on horror films of the 1970s, the decade that popularized the modern horror film and catapulted a generation of young auteurs to fame. Those auteurs remained at the forefront of horror cinema throughout the 1980s, and some even reached their creative peaks during the decade… but for every worthwhile film they made, along came three or four (and, in some cases, several dozen…) cheap imitations that plagued discriminating viewers.

Despite the unfavorable odds, Muir’s book attests that no true horror fan can say that the decade didn’t boast its fair share of charm, innovation… even moments of genius. In fact, the 1980s was an era ripe with ideas for cinematic exploitation. As in our current decade, Americans were living in a “culture of fear” (economics fears, nuclear fears, etc.), but the fears of the 1980s were well concealed behind a cheerful decadence. That duality – “Be afraid, be very afraid” / “Don’t worry, be happy” – sums up the decade, which the author gleefully describes as “a time when Ronnie [Reagan] and Freddy [Krueger] ruled America, and dead teenagers piled up like jelly beans.” Throughout the book, Muir wears his politics on his sleeve, and credits a portion of the success of the horror films of the 1980s to the Republican administration and its Janus-like leader, who helped to manufacture a schizophrenic culture of fearful angst and fearless image. The hidden Other is a major theme in films from the time period, with monsters ranging from werewolves to shape-shifting aliens to madmen and dream demons.

The author’s observations about how the subtexts of various films reflect the social and political consciousness of the times are just one reason to appreciate the book. Readers have come to expect such analyses from Muir, so there’s no surprise there. What did surprise me is how useful I found the author’s evaluations of each film, and of the progression of ideas through the course of the decade.

He has essentially broken it into three phases. Phase 1 is defined by the notorious slasher film, which glutted (gutted?) the market. Phase 2 is defined by the “rubber reality” film, an imaginative variation on the slasher that was initiated by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Phase 3 is largely defined by the home video market, which prompted anyone and everyone with a camera to make their own cheap horror film and market it direct to video. Muir persuasively argues that the most important element of the slasher film is pathos, while the most important element of the rubber reality film is internal logic. As for the home video cheapies… may we recommend film school? Had the author been able to convey these simple observations to filmmakers in 1980, we’d probably all be better off.

At the beginning of the book, Muir concisely explains the slasher paradigm and its conventions in order to justify his basis for evaluation: “For this writer, the joy in broaching each new slasher film is how it subverts, undercuts and reinforces the paradigm.” He then creatively illustrates the paradigm by outlining his own slasher movie, called The Library. Okay, so it’s not a very catchy title… but the plot description makes it sound far more amusing than a lot of slasher films that got made. Through his reviews, Muir keenly points out that the effectiveness of slasher films depends on a naturalistic, rather than theatrical, approach – something that a surprising number of filmmakers apparently never considered. Finally, he judges the individual films based on a standard of decency – not by superimposing his own moral code on them, but by demanding that the films themselves have a moral code of their own. For instance, he defends the notorious Maniac (1980) against “moral” criticism on the basis that “the approach is always responsible, and more than that, three-dimensional.” On the other hand, he decries Mother’s Day (1980) because it “fails to deal with rape honestly or responsibly,” and explains, “I’m willing to take a trip to the gutter if I’m going to learn something about human nature there, or even about film stylistics, but if it’s just for the sake of stupidity, count me out.” In short, it is possible for a film to be “vile and worthwhile.”

Muir’s take on the rubber reality films of the mid-decade is just as clearly defined, though no doubt some horror fans will take issue with it. In his review of Waxwork (1988), he says, “Rubber reality is hit or miss as a subgenre because movies of this type can spiral out of control if the rules of the game aren’t made clear to viewers.” Just as Muir requires slasher films to have their own moral code, he requires the rubber reality films to have their own system of logic. If a film establishes that its monster can shape-shift in dreams but not in reality, then it must play by those rules or risk the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. (Like a true fan, he also expects films within a series to adhere to a single system of logic – though he’s fairly lenient on that point, since it almost never happens.)

No doubt this is why films by a certain Italian filmmaker stick to the author’s ribs. In his review of Lucio Fulci’s cult classic The Beyond (1983), he says, “Fulci’s films may be dread-filled excursions into surrealism and dream imagery, but in the real world, they don’t hang together.” This is admittedly true, but it seems to me that the author is holding the films up to his own standards of logic, rather than allowing them to follow their own logic. It is fair to suggest that viewers should not be forgiving of narrative laziness, but also fair to note that fear can be conjured independent of narrative logic. I have always been intrigued by a passage in Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956 – 1984 (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994) which proposes that some films ignore narrative logic in favor of a more symbolic logic – a construction of carefully-selected, often recurring, images and musical notes – that works on the viewer’s subconscious. I believe this can be applied to many of David Lynch’s films, and that it’s also true of Fulci in his best moments. Of course, different viewers have different levels of tolerance for this sort of thing, and it is admittedly difficult for a filmmaker to scare an audience if he has annoyed them enough to shatter their suspension of disbelief. To his credit, Muir doesn’t begrudge anyone their taste. “To each his own.”

The fact that the author goes to such great lengths to explain his evaluations of the films, and to remain consistent in his responses, makes it easy to gauge one’s own response to a film based on his reviews – regardless of any differences of opinion. It is never difficult to understand where Muir is coming from or why, and that allows the reader to make careful selections from among these 328 films, and avoid some of the pitfalls of the casual viewer. I, for one, am grateful to have a guide through this extremely varied lot of films – from top (The Thing, 1982) to bottom (Home Sweet Home, 1980) – since I’d rather read about some of these films than have to sit through them. I have no doubt that 2006 was a trying year at the Muir household, as John and his valiant wife Kathryn burrowed through the muck, but I’m glad they did it so that I don’t have to. Horror Films of the 1980s has already steered me clear of a few turkeys, made me watch and re-watch a few gems, and even forced me to reevaluate my opinions of one or two…. I have always considered the ending of Wes Craven’s film Deadly Blessing (1981) to be a cop-out, but John’s reading puts it in a different context than I did, and has made me see the film with new eyes… That’s exactly what good criticism is supposed to do!

The book also contains a series of scattered interviews with filmmakers whose work deserves to be plucked from relative obscurity: Thom Eberhardt (Sole Survivor and Night of the Comet), Lewis Teague (Alligator, Cujo and Cat’s Eye), Kevin Conner (Motel Hell), James L. Conway (The Boogens), Richard Franklin (Road Games and Psycho 2), Tom McLoughlin (One Dark Night and Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives!), and Ken Russell (Altered States and Gothic). These friendly interviews in addition to Muir’s wry, incisive commentary make this a must-have for horror fans. Like the decade it depicts, Muir’s analysis is both complex and amusing – in final analysis, more entertaining than many of the films themselves.

To order online, visit, or call 800-253-2187.

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