Is there anything left to say about horror films in cultural context? I admit that when I picked up Jon Towlson’s new book Subversive Horror Cinema, I was feeling skeptical – especially since Towlson covers some of the most-analyzed horror films of all time, including NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and DAWN OF THE DEAD. But as soon as I started reading, I realized that the author is savvy enough to know what’s been said before, and insightful enough to contribute something new.
Like many of the genre’s most intelligent critics, Towlson takes his initial cue from Robin Wood (and, by extension, Adam Simon’s documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE). He examines horror films not as “cultural artifacts” but rather as conscious polemics that “challenge the status quo during times of ideological crisis,” and so he has selected particular titles based not on their popularity but on a careful definition of “subversive.” Subversive horror films, according to Towlson, are (1) anti-authority, (2) sympathetic to outcasts and monsters, (3) unwilling to reaffirm the status quo at the end, and (4) taboo-breaking.
Importantly, his work shows that such films are not subversive by accident. Sometimes a film will reflect the zeitgeist in ways that the filmmaker never explicitly intended, but in-depth critical readings of such tenuous connections can get heavy-handed and self-important very fast. Likewise, when a filmmaker is more concerned with politics than storytelling, the films themselves can get heavy-handed and tiresome. In a study like this, a writer needs choose films that are both intentionally thematic and genuinely entertaining. Thankfully, Towlson has done that.
The structure of the book is chronological, beginning with Universal horrors (specifically FRANKENSTEIN and FREAKS) and ending with a chapter on “Post-9/11 Horror.” For every film under his microscope, Towlson synthesizes previous interviews with the filmmakers and important essays on the subtexts of the films themselves (“a fusing of personal preoccupation and national trauma”) in support of new ideas. For example, he draws on the biographies of directors Tod Browning and James Whale to demonstrate their personal commitments to social criticism, then looks at how their films protest the idea of a eugenics-based society. This chapter serves as a stirring reminder that Americans were relatively open-minded about eugenics until Hitler came along with ideas about a “master race,” and that realization is bound to have an affect on anyone's viewing of FRANKENSTEIN and FREAKS.
Towlson does the same thing for Val Lewton’s psychological horror cycle of the 1940s and Herman Cohen’s teenage monsters cycle of the 1950s. Lewton is a popular topic of study—but I had never thought of Cohen in the same light, as a producer-auteur with a unified body of work. Towlson points out that it was Cohen’s idea for AIP to target a new demographic with I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, and to repeat the formula in I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, BLOOD OF DRACULA, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and BLACK ZOO. This jives with the recent work of Justin Humphreys, whose interviews with the directors of four out of six of these films reveal a distinct lack of auteurist sensibilities. (Which is not to say that Cohen should be recognized as the auteur behind these films. He just happened to be the one with a marketable vision.)
Despite the glaring problems of applying the auteur theory to any film or series of films, I find it rewarding to consider the “teenage monster” movies in this new (to me) context. Towlson tracks minor adjustments to the basic formula in order to show how the films changed with the times—and that illustrates the most exciting possibilities of a critical study like this.
The author continues into relatively uncharted territory with the next chapter, an examination of the works of British filmmakers Michael Reeves and Pete Walker (with David McGillivray). David J. Pirie has written brilliantly about THE SORCERERS, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FRIGHTMARE and HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN—situating them all within the context of the British Gothic literary tradition and British filmmaking in general—but Towlson helpfully presents these films as lesser-known analogs to modern American horror classics like PSYCHO and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST. He also relates them to the theories of social psychologist Erich Fromm, producing sophisticated insights that go well beyond the usual horror film criticism.
The subsequent two chapters examine the “modern American horror movie” (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE… as well as the more obscure but equally important DEATHDREAM and Romero’s THE CRAZIES) in relation to war movies and westerns. In recent years, I have become fascinated by the similarities and differences among America’s most violent mythologies, so I was thrilled to read a comparison of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to the hyper-violent anti-western SOLDIER BLUE. I’m pretty sure Wes Craven would appreciate the comparison too. When I interviewed him a few years ago, Craven told me he had been a big fan of westerns when he was growing up (excepting HIGH NOON, because the other kids would often tease him about a line from the theme song that refers to “a coward, a craven coward”), but had become pretty jaded about “the John Wayne myth” by the time he made LAST HOUSE. Towlson highlights a related theme —that “any society based on aggressive values is bound to collapse”—in Romero's work.
The highlight of this section on modern American horror is the author’s focus on Jeff Lieberman’s BLUE SUNSHINE as the connective tissue between David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS (a philosophically ambiguous story of revolution) and George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (the “culmination of 1970s apocalyptic horror"). The quotes from Lieberman are original to Subversive Horror Cinema, and very welcome.
Chapter 8 is a penetrating analysis of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and AMERICAN PSYCHO as critiques of Reaganomics. This chapter again illustrates the author’s deft selection of material for study. A more obvious choice would have been John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, but that film is a pastiche, painfully obvious in its satire, and lacking the taboo-breaking quality of a subversive horror film. Instead Towlson compares these two cutting-edge slashers with the forerunners of the “yuppie nightmare movie”: SOMETHING WILD, AFTER HOURS, and VAMPIRE’S KISS. And again, his stretch beyond the obvious horror genre staples is refreshing.
Chapter 9 tackles the work of Brian Yuzna, as well as the films of Peter Jackson and Frank Henenlotter. Towlson sums up Henenlotter’s vision perfectly (“transgression inevitably brings with it self-destruction”) and he should be praised for shining a light on Yuzna’s unfairly neglected work. Hopefully this reappraisal will direct horror fans back to Yuzna’s work in much the way that Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value prompted reassessment of Dan O’Bannon’s work. I’ve always been a fan of SOCIETY and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3, but now I'm inclined to pay serious attention to THE DENTIST. And maybe even THE DENTIST 2!
Subversive Horror Cinema concludes with some insights on 21st century American horror, including a cycle of “new feminist horror” films (particularly TEETH and AMERICAN MARY) and a scattershot survey of transgressive shockers. Towlson's analyses (STAKE LAND as a post-modern GRAPES OF WRATH!) remain exciting and astute.
The research is thorough. The organization is brilliantly methodical. The writing is precise, almost surgical. This is just my long-winded way of saying: If you’re a serious horror fan, you need to read this book.