Review: Richard Nowell (ed.) Merchants of Menace: the Business of Horror Cinema

Posted by Matt Foley on February 04, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Merchants of Menace: the Business of Horror Cinema.
Edited by Richard Nowell
New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-6235-6420-9

Reviewed by Ann Davies

merchants of menace

Richard Nowell’s introduction to this collection of essays is subtitled ‘There’s Gold in Them There Chills’, a phrase which summarises the common thread that unites the essays: the Gothic and horror as industry and money-making opportunity. This reflects the increasing academic interest in film production and industry more widely in Film Studies, but is in any case a different approach from the usual tendency to analyse horror film through the prism of either psychoanalysis or cultural studies. Merchants of Menace offers case studies of how horror has been marketed in Anglophone cinemas (the USA, UK and Australia) with a brief nod to Asia as a source of remakes. Some inclusion of cinema outside these three countries would have been welcome, but even within the Anglophone countries covered here there proves to be a broad scope for inventive, practical, misconceived and occasionally downright worrying marketing tactics that suggest the complexity of the volume’s theme.

Part One takes us through  a historical span of industrial strategies in the USA, starting from Kyle Edwards’s study the Universal stable of horror in the 1930s, then moving to Todd K. Platt’s take on zombie film production in the 30s and 40s. After that Peter Hutchings offers an essay on film and literature crossovers in the 60s and 70s, focusing on Rosemary’s Baby and Audrey Rose; then the books skips to the 21st century and Kevin Heffernan’s chapter on remakes of earlier horror films. Much of the latter chapter stresses remakes from Asian horror, which leads us to perspectives beyond the USA, with a concluding chapter by Mark David Ryan devoted to the recent upsurge in international distribution of Australian horror films.

The second part returns to the thematic approaches Nowell critiques in his introduction, but this time the themes and styles are explored in the light of economic and industrial considerations. Thus Tim Snelson opens this section with an essay on the representation of psychiatrists in postwar horror, emphasising the industry response to criticisms by the media and medical organisations.  Robert Spadoni compares the competing demands of narrative and atmospheric style, concluding with an analysis of The City of the Dead. An intriguing essay, its connection to the underlying theme of the collection is tenuous (as Nowell acknowledges in the introduction). Nowell’s own contribution surveys industry efforts to tone down horror for a wider audience, through the star persona of Jamie Lee Curtis: the industry in question is once again Hollywood (though the title as printed refers to ‘non-Hollywood’, which does not fit with the overall tenor of the essay). Valerie Wee wraps up the section with a scrutiny of industry efforts to attract the teen audience at the turn of the century, using the Scream franchise as a case study.

The third and final section tackles branding and distribution, placing economic and industrial imperatives more squarely in the spotlight. Mark Jancovich opens proceedings by reviewing the marketing, release strategies and target audiences of the major Hollywood studios between 1938 and 1942, in particular the efforts to entice a wider and more mainstream audience (demonstrating that Hollywood efforts to gentrify horror with Jamie Lee Curtis was simply another in a long line of marketing tactics). Mikal J. Gaines studies the role of press coverage in black newspapers in attracting black audiences to horror during the civil rights struggle, illustrating how a specific genre can be marketed to a specific audience. The next essay, by Joe Tompkins, takes Timothy Corrigan’s approach to the auteur as commodity in order to explore how horror directors such as George Romero function as a brand name that guarantees horror quality.  The final two chapters of the section, and the book as a whole, turn to British cinema: Johnny Walker looks at the low end of the British horror market in order to tease out the impacts of direct-to-video and informal distribution channels as markers of cult branding. The best known British brand of horror is doubtless Hammer films, and Matt Hills concludes with a study of efforts to resurrect Hammer in the current century: the tension between Hammer’s legacy and its efforts to seem contemporary make for an intriguing tension which the studio does not always manage effectively.

Hills’s chapter raises the notion of horror as nostalgia, a strong contrast to the pioneering chills of Universal with which we began. The thread which connects such disparate ideas is that regardless of horror style, all horror films are marketing objects. What I found particularly intriguing were the variety of approaches to selling films and the hit and miss quality of many of them. The latter may be a loss if it meant that good horror films did not reach the audiences that would have appreciated them, but it also suggests that film marketing is not as monolithic as we might suppose. The yearning for respectability on the part of many film studios does not match up well with the perennial aura of disreputability that haunts the horror genre but also attracts an audience. The collection as a whole thus offers not only useful analysis of specific films but also some valuable insights on horror marketing, while posing some pertinent questions about both production and reception of the genre. As such it well merits the attention of film scholars and horror fans – and also of students of marketing.

Ann Davies

University of Stirling

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