Review of ‘Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film’, by Mark Bernard.

Posted by Glenn Ward on September 22, 2014 in Glenn Ward, Reviews tagged with , , ,

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Mark Bernard

Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film

Edinburgh University Press, 2014

Reviewed by Glenn Ward

An eminent horror film critic once told me that many low-budget, high-gore contemporary American genre movies look as if they are “made by assholes”. I think he meant that the films, like many of their grating protagonists, were brash, crude and motivated by a juvenile wish to offend; to that extent, the on-screen Twenty-Something irritants might sometimes be projections of the filmmaker’s personality. Not wanting to get into a lengthy discussion at a social event, I didn’t pursue the issue but was left pondering the possibility of the author-as-asshole as a new development in auteur criticism.

I was reminded of the critic’s remark as I read Mark Bernard’s thorough and engaging Selling the Splat Pack, an industrial and economic analysis of a cycle of brutal but popular works of the mid-2000s like the Saw series, Hostel and Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance). The cover of Bernard’s book represents the Splat Pack’s unofficial spokesman, the director Eli Roth; on set, pointing directorially to someone out of frame while resting his other hand on his camera, Roth wears a black tee-shirt of the sort often worn by self-declared horror fans eager to broadcast their genre affiliation. The tee-shirt advertises the very film Roth is shooting, Hostel (2005), with an image of an actress with a grotesquely mutilated, half-removed face. The photograph of Roth captures part of what Bernard calls the “self-fashioning” of the Splat Pack directors (the others include Alexandre Aja, James Wan and Rob Zombie) as genre fans, auteurs and outrageous trouble-makers.

The blurb on the back cover states that Selling the Splat Pack examines “the history of the American horror film from an industry-studies perspective”, and the subtitle suggests that “the American Horror film” is its sole topic, but this misrepresents the book’s scope. In fact, although Bernard provides a detailed account of the political economy of ‘independent’ horror in the United States since the late 1960s, his enquiry focuses on the conditions of emergence of a very small group of works distributed by Lionsgate Films between 2003 and 2007, including a French example (Haute Tension) and a British one (The Descent). Attending to the films’ US distribution, exhibition and marketing, Bernard explores how the Splat Pack was made possible by the combined factors of the American ratings system and the film industry’s embrace of home viewing (videotape and then DVD: Blu-Ray, streaming and downloads are only mentioned fleetingly towards the end). If these determinants paved the way for the Splat Pack by solidifying and expanding a lucrative niche market for gore-heavy product, Bernard argues that the cycle – and its target audience – was also constructed and promoted through particular, commodified notions of art, independence and social commentary.

As Bernard reports, the term Splat Pack was coined by the British journalist Alan Jones in an article for Total Film in 2006, which celebrated a new wave of European and American horror films whose levels of brutality harked back to, and rivalled, ‘indie’ horror films of the 1970s like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. Jones’s article also predictably invoked the infamous ‘video nasties’ skirmish in Britain in the early 1980s, a still-mythologised – and marketable – moment in genre history that really should have been laid to rest by now. In this particular case, a miscellany of quite gruesome films-on-video gained the status of forbidden fruit by being the target of a moral panic and subsequently being banned. Whatever the merits of individual ‘nasties’ (and a tiny handful of them are excellent) Jones celebrated the Splat Pack as the genre’s return to a bleak, ‘realist’ tone – an oppositional and ‘gritty’ sensibility that had been all-but forgotten in the wake of jokey star vehicles like the Scream series and allegedly ‘safe’, ‘toothless’ supernatural yarns like The Sixth Sense or Dark Water. As well as constructing a questionable binary opposition between mainstream and independent product, Jones’s perspective is typical in its nostalgia for a golden age of gruelling yet subversive horror movies, revered for their uncompromising violence, spirit of negation and (where some of the American films were concerned) implicit social commentary.

It has become axiomatic that the films of Romero, Hooper, Craven et al are dark mirrors of contemporary social and political turbulence (Vietnam and Watergate are among the usual targets), confronting and exposing social wounds and national traumas. Indeed, the claim that this ever-shrinking canon of films constitutes a politically allegorical American Nightmare has become a truism which – among other problems – ignores significant differences between the films and refuses to recognise the possibility that dread and disgust can also be deeply reactionary. Bernard is refreshingly wary about such horror-as-social-critique claims, although his welcome scepticism arises primarily from the fact that the ‘golden age’ indie shockers were motivated by profit rather than by politics. At least in the first half of the book, the author’s economic determinism precludes him from tackling in depth the politics of representation, style, address or affect in the genre. Whether or not, say, The Hills have Eyes may be more conservative than Dawn of the Dead (and how such a judgement might be made) is outside the terms of Bernard’s analysis.

Especially in his opening chapters, Bernard frames what he calls his political economy approach as a necessary intervention in the perceived excesses of close textual analysis. This is something of a straw man. Few would argue against industrial and economic contextualisation, dyed-in-the-wool psycho-semiologists are becoming an endangered species, and only the most myopic phenomenologists could take issue with Bernard’s insistence that these films are, first and foremost, commodities. But contextual details aren’t always very gripping if unaccompanied by a cultural analysis of what the contextualised objects do, how they work, or why they might matter (other than as exemplary manifestations of film-industry policy). If you find the Splat Pack films meretricious or merely obnoxious, Bernard’s analysis won’t make you reappraise them; if you have never seen them, little here will tempt you to. And it remains the case that many issues which some readers may find more pressing – such as how exactly onscreen fantasy torture mediates real world torture – have to be addressed not only to the intricacies of film-industry economics, but to the films themselves, or to what Bernard calls the “primary cinematic text”.

As it happens, some of the most interesting parts of the book are where Bernard deviates from his own brief. Having problematised the retrospective politicisation of the ‘original’ 1970s celluloid nightmares, Selling the Splat Pack then looks at how the horror business has co-opted and exploited the dubious discourse of subversion and transgression in the digital, cross-platform age. Among several factors driving what Bernard characterises as the genre’s reputational shift from ‘trash’ to ‘art’ are, on the one hand, the academic discourse of film studies and, on the other hand, the development of ‘uncut’, ‘unrated’, extras-laden, luxuriantly packaged collectors’ DVDs. Bernard describes how supplementary materials on DVDs can both underscore and undermine the case for horror as subversive social critique. Self-serving Directors’ Commentaries are evidently a particularly rich vein to tap. Here the filmmakers often waver disingenuously and inconsistently between a desire to deny social responsibility or ideological intent, and a wish to legitimise their product by guiding their fans towards ‘serious’, allegorical interpretations of the on-screen mayhem: the films are said variously to “reflect”, “play with”, “comment on” and “respond to” 9/11, the ‘war on terror’, Abu Ghraib or Afghanistan. Through, as it turns out, quite close textual analysis, Bernard demonstrates that such utterances are often odds with the films themselves. Roth remarks that Hostel: Part II, far from exploiting real-world violence for entertainment, deliberately echoes the harrowing “images of Abu Ghraib”, and that the film expresses “my disgust with the Bush administration and with the fact that these oil guys are getting rich off the death of Americans [in Iraq]”. However, Bernard argues quite persuasively that the gruesome set pieces in the Hostel films draw on a reactionary “hierarchy of grieving” which treats American lives as more worthwhile than ‘foreign’ ones, and which expresses horror at the prospect of waning US power. (In another quote, Roth declares himself a supporter of the death penalty, although Bernard doesn’t pick up on this). Rob Zombie’s efforts fare a little better under Bernard’s scrutiny. Finding that in this instance the ‘horror-as-social-commentary’ claim does have some traction, the author argues that representations of “sympathetic white trash killers [and] despicable middle-class victims” in Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects allow bourgeois DVD-collectors to vicariously ‘slum it’, indulging in cross-class identification with ‘white trash’ characters who revolt against their “oppressed subject position” by violently punishing their oppressors.

By effectively letting Alan Jones and Lionsgate dictate his terms of reference, Bernard produces an admirably circumscribed study of what is actually a quite diverse group of films. But this circumscription also leads to some unexpected inclusions and omissions. For example, The Descent and Switchblade Romance may not strike many viewers – not all of whom are, unlike the ideal viewer in the industry’s imagination, avid readers of Total Film or Fangoria, or collectors of sumptuous DVD box setsas obvious bedfellows for the Hostel films or House of 1000 Corpses. The Descent generally avoids Roth’s and Zombie’s Grand-Guignol excess, and Switchblade Romance is arguably more at home in what has sometimes been called the New French Extremity. Although the latter label is no more reliable a generic marker than the Splat Pack, its exclusion from Bernard’s account is surprising, not least because Lionsgate released one of the most notorious films of that loose movement, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, in 2002.  Similarly, the so-called ‘torture porn’ controversy is mentioned in passing as a largely irrelevant issue, even though the Hostel and Saw films are commonly placed in that category. In other words, Bernard’s tight focus on the one cycle tends to obscure its relationships to (or differences from) wider genre trends and flows. Thus, in terms evidently shaped by Jones’s article, the Splat Pack appears to have erupted only as a reaction against preceding ‘mainstream’ horror films and as a conscious throwback to allegedly more authentic 1970s fare. This means that, apart from a discussion of the slasher movie Friday the 13th, 1980s body horror, splatter and gross-out movies (The Evil Dead, Basket Case etc) are overlooked; near-contemporary Japanese products (e.g Audition, Freezer) are similarly conspicuous by their absence. A short Afterword discusses how streaming, downloads and the Paranormal Activity series killed the Splat Pack; a ‘where are they now?’ subsection traces the waning of their careers, and Bernard writes that “the cinema market for hardcore, gory horror has dried up and diminished”. Yet this narrative of exhaustion and decline belies the fact that hyperviolent, torture-filled fantasy product continues to sell, albeit more slowly and less visibly.

One of the subtexts of Bernard’s book is the question of how horror audiences are constituted, differentiated and stratified in hierarchies of taste. Although “hardcore, gory horror” is implicitly seen as somehow the true, uncompromised essence of the genre (of course, no genre has an essence), Bernard points out that less graphic product continues to attract larger audiences than Splat Pack, torture porn or New Extremity films.  According to Rob Zombie, blockbuster horror films are merely “watered down to nothing [and have] lost all their impact”, an assertion which attempts to underline the director’s own confrontational outsiderdom and specialist appeal, while witlessly assuming that restraint can only ever lessen ‘impact’. If the Splat Packers and their ilk are marketed as the real deal, and gorehound consumers are encouraged to see themselves as horror’s true fans, their differences from the ‘lo-cal’ mainstream are presented in clearly gendered terms. Among its many bonus features, the DVD of Roth’s fetid monument to sexual dread, Cabin Fever, includes a ‘Chick-Vision’ version of the film in which silhouette fingers block the ‘chick’ audience’s view of the (hard)gore. I’m tempted to say that whoever came up with that was probably, at the very least, a jackass.

 

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