Ian Conrich, Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema

Posted by Rachel Bowles on December 20, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with ,

Ian Conrich, Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema, I B Tauris, 2009, ISBN: 978-1848851511.

Reviewed by Rachel Bowles, University of Stirling

Various art forms and their sub-genres have inevitably always had to fight for their legitimacy, one that must be pried out of the damning clutches of die-hard cultural purists. Novels were low brow prose, subservient to the superior poetic form; Gothic novels were the “trash of the circulating libraries” in the 18th century; films were merely “mimetic” before Rudolf Arnheim in the early 20th century; Peeping Tom was a crude, pornographic snuff film to Britain’s prudish film critics of the 1960s. Unfortunately, horror films and television programmes today are still partial to attacks from such pervasive hegemonic ideas of high/low art. Due to their labelling as genre or “extreme” they can be overlooked as legitimate cultural artefacts and artistic texts, for more auteurist, Cahier du Cinema-friendly fare. Ian Conrich’s book Horror Zone is an informative and engaging collection of essays, determined to debate such assumptions; its introduction clearly states that “Horror is socially and politically a formidable cultural form”. The essays themselves are written from a variety of different perspectives of research, but can be broadly defined as culturally materialist.

The first section of the book, ‘Industry, Technology and the New Media’, focuses on the way in which different entertainment technologies and media intersect in order to generate capital and provide horror fans various different ways to experience the genre. Angela Ndalianis’ ‘Dark Rides, Hybrid Machines and the Horror Experience’ is an informative look into the twin industries of horror theme park rides and horror films, and the way in which they feed into each other. Interestingly, Ndalianis explores the way in which the visceral nature of horror films, rather than their narratives, informs the “dark” experience of horror-themed rides: their hybrid nature, a result of the cross between the scare tactics of horror films, television and comic books with the physical exertion of roller coasters. Ndalianis ultimately calls for a rethinking of what we mean when the term ‘horror’ is used.

Stacy Abbott’s ‘High Concept Thrills and Chills: The Horror Blockbuster’ furthers the hybrid nature of horror, exploring how ‘high concept’ films draw on a multitude of literary, filmic, music and video game cultures in order to market horror films with mass appeal. The essay also explores the rise of the blockbuster sequel and franchise within horror, a timely debate surely in our zeitgeist of Harry Potter and Twilight films. The concluding essay in this section is Linda Badley’s ‘Bring It All Home: Horror Cinema and Video Culture’, a chapter that transfers the discussion from massive Hollywood blockbusters and their various avenues of income, to the democratic world of low budget horror production and DVD circulation. It traces horror fandom back to the video revolution of the 1980s and the notorious ‘video nasty’, before interestingly linking the domestication of cinema and the prevalence of relatively cheap technology to the guerrilla techniques of DIY filmmakers. Badley states that these films, such as The Blair Witch Project, fundamentally reinstated the horror genre as something potentially creative, independent and auteur. Badley ends her essay with the fascinating comparison of our CCTV, post 9/11 age with a general distrust of viral video and internet technologies within horror film, embodied in such iconic films as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and its American remake, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring.

Part 2 is entitled ‘Audience, Fans and Consumption’ and is a wide ranging section, drawing on the consumptive habits of multiple ‘types’ of horror fans, and the cultural attitudes that inform the aesthetic choices they make. Brigid Cherry’s ‘Stalking the Web: Celebration, Chat and Horror Film Marketing on the Internet’ is a piece of almost sociological research into the habits of online horror fans and how they are engaged by Hollywood and independent film makers. Cherry’s essay purports horror fans as active and avid spectators, knowledgeable and engaged in cultural debate and production (e.g. through fan fiction). Rather than exploited, Cherry confirms that horror aficionados are willing to participate in online viral marketing of horror films, if they deem them worthy of their attention. Cherry’s concluding specific data sets are potentially an invaluable springboard for academics wishing to research into this area further. The subsequent chapter, Mat Hills’ ‘Attending Horror Film Festivals and Conventions: Liveness, Subcultural Capital and ‘Flesh-and-Blood Genre Communities’, deals with the interesting issue of the importance of ‘liveness’ as subcultural capital in our ever increasingly mediated society, an argument neatly informed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Hills theorises that the geographical and economic ‘inaccessibility’ of horror festivals, with their various privileged World, UK or regional premieres, talks with Horror directors and actors and one-off screenings result in a ‘livening’ of horror texts, providing horror fans with an ‘authentic’ indicator of ‘insider status’.

The aforementioned and subsequent sections are neatly linked with the ever-prevalent Bourdieu, as quoted by Jeffrey Sconce, in the introduction of ‘Trashing the Academy: Taste, Excess and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style’ – “[cultural] tastes are perhaps first and foremost distates, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others”. Sconce explains the aesthetic tastes of the paracinematic as “trash cinema”, forging a wonderfully anarchic counter-cinema to the reigning elite’s aesthetic choices and discursive assumptions. This ‘canon’ incorporates the extreme, the eccentric and the banal within abject art: found footage, low budget B movies, monster comics, blaxploitation, drunk actors, nuclear safety films, bizarre infomercials, cheap porn, television evangelists etc. Sconce proceeds to debate the politics and ever precarious position of contemporary graduate students and self-educated outsiders, and their identification with the paracinematic and its aesthetic strategies of excess: one that defines this extreme horror cannon as an invaluable sociological and textual artefact, worthy of further scholarly and cultural focus.

Section 3 is a diffuse though interesting grouping of essays under the heading ‘Manufacture and Design’. The first essay, ‘Culture Wars: Some New Trends in Art Horror’ , continues to address the ‘high/low’ art dualism, with writer Joan Hawkins aptly describing it as “a continued replay of the age old taste debate…depressing for scholars who work in this area”. Hawkins uses Asian horror auteurs such as Park Chan Wook and Takashi Miike as culturally important directors and argues that ‘extreme’ horror cinemas cannot be reduced to something akin to a uniformly shocking stimuli. This is something especially problematic in America, as independent, foreign art horror films are less available, and are potentially without their cultural, historical, sociological context, due to delays in release and lack of availability of less successful filmic texts that they engage with. Though an interesting essay and clearly useful as a piece linking the research gap between sections 2 and 3, it doesn’t really fit in well with the proceeding chapters that concentrate on mise-en-scene and surfaces, and perhaps would be better situated elsewhere. The subsequent two chapters, ‘Making Up Monsters: Set and Costume Design in Horror Films’ by Takao Nakara, and ‘They’re Here! Special Effects in Horror Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s’ by Ernest Mathius, focus specifically on the physical labour and expertise invested in the mise-en-scene and argue for their importance as central to the aesthetics of horror cinema. Nakara’s piece is particularly interesting for its detailed and thoughtful analysis of costume and set design in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, musing on the costume changes of Leatherface as crucial to the film’s negotiations of monstrous identity and his house as an embodiment of the family’s incestuous cannibalism. Mathius’ ‘They’re Here!’ discusses the rise of the ‘superstar’ special effects wizard, known for their technical expertise and creative artistry amongst horror fans. Mathius argues that a single special effect may indeed be the crucial set piece of the film that the entire narrative relies on, e.g. in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The section ends with editor Ian Conrich’s insightful essay into the Friday the 13th slasher franchise and the worrying engagement of slasher films with toys: ‘The Friday the 13th Films and the Cultural Function of a Modern Grand Guignol.’ Conrich argues that the concept of American slasher films, orginially inspired by Italian giallo, requires an ever present executioner to provide a successive spectacle of killings. The mask acts as a constant signifier of the execution throughout the various films, though Conrich convincingly argues that it is the concealed human/monstrous face behind the mask that is truly terrifying. The power and passion of horror fandom, arguably fostered by toys and other slasher merchandise, is once again referred to, as Conrich notes the engagement of Hollywood with the fans in such filmic exercises in wish fulfilment as Freddy vs. Jason.

The final section of Horror Zone entitled ‘Boundaries of Horror’ is the most mixed, problematic and yet illuminating part of the collection. It is initiated with the no less than stunning, ‘Parts is Parts’: Pornography, Splatter Film and the Politics of Corporeal Disintergration’ by James McRoy, a defence against the dismissal of hardcore pornography and ‘body’ horror films as trash and degenerative and the general tendency of broad schools of theorists, e.g. Marxists, feminists or psychoanalysts, to fail to go beyond the basics of “elementary gender and class based distinctions of” who is killing or who is getting killed, who is fucking or who is getting fucked, and how spectators respond. As if to illustrate this point, Estella Tincknell’s ‘Feminine Boundaries: Adolescence, Witchcraft and the Supernatural in New Gothic Cinema and Television,’ is situated later in the section, as a broadly feminist reading (a theoretical position which the author never really defines) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ginger Snaps. McRoy, as an aside, praises Ginger Snaps “as promoting more overtly progressive visions, at once depicting the “monster” as heroic (rather than merely sympathetic) and exposing the dominant culture as maintained by an assortment of corrupt – if not decidedly oppressive – institutions.” Tincknell, however, dismisses Ginger Snaps as conservative, as the eponymous sexually active, adolescent girl-monster is killed. This interpretation ignores the film’s aesthetics, pointed out by McRoy, in which Ginger’s death is presented as sympathetic and anti-heroic.

McRoy goes on to argue that the “visual logic” of hard core pornography and body horror films, such as extreme close ups which conflate specific body parts, ‘orgy sequences’, jump cuts, the “blatant recycling of previously used footage” etc. produce schisms of pure intensity that reveal the spectator’s own materiality of visceral perception, and the artificial nature of social and physical constructs that govern that perception and therefore our reality. McRoy uses body horror to quite literally break down physical constructions of identity and gender: “the splattered body, through its very fragmentation, rejects the idea of fixed borders and totalising systems.”

Though Tincknell’s ‘Feminine Boundaries’ does contain insightful points of discussion regarding the idea of adoslescent drama as a “liminal space” in which fears, desires and issues surrounding subjectivity can be thrashed out, it unfortunately does the individual texts the essay is scrutinising a disservice, as it suffers somewhat from such a “totalising system” of an unspecified feminism. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is deemed too conservative, as Buffy is white, Anglo-Saxon, attractive and most importantly blonde, protective of her suburban home against demons. This reading somewhat overlooks Buffy’s Lynchian inheritance of a ‘safe’, white picket-fenced America, populated by middle class whites, as a haven for barely suppressed abjection, corruption and monstrosity. The reading of the human figure of Buffy also sidelines Willow, the world’s most powerful witch, who is incidentally lesbian and red-haired, and Cordelia, the embodiment of superficial and brainless femininity, herself a brunette. More importantly however, Tincknell’s reading of Buffy, by limiting what counts as feminism, overlooks its wider thematic concerns, e.g. its complex negotiations of rape, abusive (homosexual) relationships, humanist ideas of “souls” and monstrous subjectivity etc. Anything that Tincknell finds subversive is glossed over as merely “traditional teenage drama”, though what that is, or why it is bad is never defined or explained.

The final section continues with a sensitive handling of the very difficult subject matter of Nazis as sexualised cultural symbols and concentration camp erotica in film, with Julian Petley’s ‘Nazi Horrors: History, Myth, Sexploitation’. Petley expertly explores and does away with clichéd cultural treatments of fascism, positing that the only cultural blasphemy possible in our secular age is an “inappropriate” rendering of the Nazis and their atrocities. Petley also argues that fascism is naturally linked to sadism and film as it is always about theatre and performance. Overall, his essay raises important questions about how we as a society cope with or attempt cultural exorcisms, and move past reassuring believes, such as fascism was a mere, though horrific, mistake in European modern thought, and has been forever suppressed. These bizarre films as cultural artefacts require further research in order to problematise inherited notions about fascism.

‘Better the devil you know: Antichrists at the Millennium’ by Mick Broderick discusses the millennial rise in popularity of what he defines as the ‘secular antichrist’ film, a filmic text that is steeped in classic, biblical iconography of the coming of the antichrist, an attempted conception of the antichrist or an impending rapture. For Broderick, these are secularised as rather than a straight forward discussion of theology (there are very few antichrist films about the years of peace supposedly caused by the Rapture) religious symbolism is used as a short hand for simplifying narrative elements into good vs. evil, and subsequently undermining human agency. The ‘Boundaries of Horror’ section ends with an important and illuminating article about societal attitudes towards visual culture, gazing, perception and disability, with Angela Marie Smith’s ‘Impaired Visions: The Cultural and Cinematic Politics of Blindness in Horror Film.’ The article contends with the problematic negotiations of visual disability within horror films, as blind characters are potentially caricatured as being inherently vulnerable and weak due to their inability to participate in our visually obsessed and saturated society. Smith argues that, however potentially subversive a portrayal of a blind character in a film, as blind people are generally excluded from “contemporary media”, any interrogations of blindness tend to elide “the seeing culture’s own crisis about vision and disability…and reveal the use of disability to throw into relief our culture’s solipsistic and self-serving vision of itself.”

Ultimately Horror Zone cannot be a strongly monolithic collection of works, as it sets out to incorporate issues within Horror film that have been neglected by previous academic research. Indeed its ability to deal with such an impressive scope of scholarly concerns is one of the book’s key strengths, negotiating niche and criminally overlooked concerns, alongside such academic staples as artistic legitimacy. Horror Zone is likely to be an invaluable resource for academics interested in this area of study, and a fascinating read for many with a passing interest in Horror or the Gothic.

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