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A Horror Omnibus

Review of The Horror Film, edited and with an introduction by Stephen Prince (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 272 pages. 35 b&w illustrations. Bibliographical references and index. Hardcover, ISBN 0-8135-3362-7 [ISBN-13: 978-0813533629], Paperback, ISBN 0-8135-3363-5 [ISBN-13: 978-0813533636].

Jörg Waltje

The Horror Film, edited and with an introduction by Stephen Prince, cover image
Other Voices, 4.1 Aesthetic Violence
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No matter how grotesque the onscreen mayhem, no matter how powerful the assault on unblinkered eyes, the horror critic is at hand to offer some valuable and transcendent critical nugget that lies unseen—masked by a bloody, but permeable, scrim.1

There has been no shortage of academic publications on literary horror and horror films in the last two decades, just as there has been a noticeable intensification in art horror's production cycle via countless reworkings of and sequels to time honored staples of the genre. It is often assumed that horror and science fictions, more than other genres, appear in cyclical waves and that they reflect the fears and concerns of their respective eras. David Punter suggests that "an artform or a genre derives its overall vitality, the ground on which specific excellence may be achieved, from its attempt to come to grips with and to probe matters of concern to the society in which that artform or genre exists."2 If that is the case, what does the increasing proliferation of and the critical interest in horror films and literature in our time indicate? To answer this and other pressing questions concerning horror, "our most contemporary of genres and perhaps the one that speaks in the most urgent and insistent way to its viewers" (4), Stephen Prince took it upon himself to collect 13 essays, some of them reprinted, some especially written for this anthology. The book is divided into two sections and arranged according to the genre's historical progression. The first part focuses on the Silent and Classical Hollywood eras, while the second part covers the whole gamut of the modern era including, but not limited to, slasher and splatter films, the obscure tradition of the mondo movie, a discussion of the postmodern elements of contemporary horror films, and observations on audience reception and spectatorship. Prince's volume is set up to be an omnibus, an accessible reader that is devised to cover a wide range of interests instead of merely singling out one small facet of the horror genre or one particular school of thought. It has to be commended upfront for not dissecting its patient ad nauseam while hiding behind unfathomable lingo as is often the case in such critical anthologies.

In the first essay, "Shadow Souls and Strange Adventures," Caspar Tybjerg offers illuminating insights into early European silent films and debunks the widely held belief that Universal Pictures produced the foundational works of the horror genre. The genre, or seminal elements thereof, did indeed exist long before the 1930s, and Tybjerg is not only able to point out that there is a generic rather than a merely stylistic continuity between early expressionist films, but also comments on the fact that the burgeoning artform of film and its newly-invented techniques perfectly accommodated representations of the unreal, that in fact "the essence of film art could be found in the fantastic" (32), an idea that can be traced back to early writings by Sigfried Kracauer and to Lotte Eisner.3

Ian Conrich's essay "Before Sound: Universal, Silent Cinema, and the Last of the Horror-Spectactulars" takes a look at what he calls Universal's neglected 1920s. Huge and expensive horror productions were affected by Universal's lack of exhibition control and resulted in miserable box-office returns. Universal's decisive change of direction away from silent film to talkies, its tightening of production budgets, and the early demise or loss of some of its biggest stars (Lon Chaney, Paul Leni, Conrad Veidt) changed the development of the horror genre under the Universal moniker considerably. Conrich's essay provides an interesting glimpse at the European influences on major American studios and the modes of film production at the time.

An excerpt from Carlos Clarens' Illustrated History of the Horror Film corroborates the immense influence Universal Pictures had on the development of filmic horror further. "Children of the Night" focuses on the golden age of Universal Horror and in its discussion of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Werewolf of London points out how Universal's depictions of these archetypal characters became the definitive templates for all movie monsters to come and thus neatly ties in with Tybjerg's opening essay.

David Skal's "The Horrors of War" from his classic study The Monster Show illuminates the connections between monster and mad scientist films in the 1930s and 40s and the simultaneous rise of European fascism which eventually lead into World War II. Wartime anxieties and the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their allies found their cinematic expression in stories of doubling and second selves—especially in the portrayal of the wolf man, interestingly enough an icon that was simultaneously cultivated in the lore and propaganda of the Third Reich itself.

Offering a good introduction to the genre, the four articles that make up the first part of the book work very well together and manage to lay the foundation for the discussion of historical, aesthetic and psychological characteristics of more contemporary horror films that forms the second part of this volume. Isabel Cristina Pinedo contrasts features of classic and postmodern horror in her essay on "Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film" and is thus able to delineate the essential traits of post-1960 horror fictions. Lack of narrative closure, questionable validity of rationality, body horror and the transgression and violation of boundaries are the main elements she sees operating in contemporary horror. Almost in passing she is able to give a fascinating albeit short insight into the way reflexivity and comedic elements work with blood and gore. However, since her piece predates more recent horror releases such as, for example, the Scream franchise it falls a bit short on this end.

Concerning the concept of boundary violations and transgressions, Stephen Prince's essay "Dread, Taboo, and The Thing" offers further insights while avoiding an over-reliance on Freudian approaches and individual psychology. Prince points out that horror film needs to be considered as a social product, and that the genre cannot be satisfactorily theorized by relying on the apparatus of psychological enquiry alone. He suggests an anthropological approach as a valid alternative in order to construct a "social theory of the horror film" (118). Incorporating concepts distilled from the works of Margaret Mead and Mary Douglas, Prince points out that the horror film may have a conservative (if not reactionary) function since it "addresses the persistent question of what must be done to remain human" (129). By exorcising the demons threatening human existence and identity, horror films can re-arrange and validate the established social categories. This essay, together with the immediately following studies by Steven Jay Schneider and Jonathan Crane, not only forms the middle section, it is also one of the highlights of the book.

Schneider's entry "Toward an Aesthetics of Cinematic Horror," which was written especially for this volume, moves away from the persistent examination of why people seek out scary movies, what the monsters stand for, and where the boundaries of the genre need to be drawn. Instead, he tackles the very significant but often ignored or overlooked questions of 1) what exactly makes horror effective and 2) whether horror movies really need to horrify? He points out the scarcity of studies that pose medium-specific and "middle-level" (i.e., small-scale, as opposed to all-encompassing "Grand Theory") questions concerning the "techniques, principles, devices, conventions, and images that have arguably proven most effective and reliable when it comes to frightening viewers over time, across geographic and cultural borders, and even after repeated viewings" (131). He encourages scholarship into audience reactions to cinematic horror to provide insights into "how" horror works in an effort to get away from the possibly unanswerable question of "why" it attracts its audience.

In Jonathan Crane's highly entertaining and enlightening essay "Scraping Bottom: Splatter and the Herschell Gordon Lewis Oeuvre" some of the ideas discussed in some of the earlier readings reverberate, for example, the fact that it is hard to delineate the boundaries of the genre and that there are no consistent standards by which critics can judge the "worthiness" of a particular horror film. Crane provides an amusing and stimulating reflection on the last three decades of horror criticism before he goes on to describe how H. G. Lewis set the stage for his successors (Cronenberg, Romero, Raimi) by pioneering incoherent story lines, narrative implausibilities, hyperviolence, and the myriad strategies of "reducing the human body to meat" (162). Lastly, he draws attention to the fact that one outgrowth of cinematic horror after Lewis was its quasi-teleological descent into the snuff film: "The only plane available for the increase of terror is to leave off illusion and enter the real" (163).

Where Crane leaves off, Mikita Brottman picks up the thread of the de-narrativization of horror and the genre's focus on extreme physical trauma in her essay on "Mondo Horror: Carnivalizing the Taboo." Leaving the fictional narrative worlds of the horror film and focusing on a genre generally ignored by critics interested in horror, her examination deals with the pseudo-documentary offerings of assassinations, suicides, executions, and violent accidents found in series like Faces of Death and Death Scenes, an oeuvre that Brottman fittingly labels cinema vomitif. Brottman explains how, by stripping away the aesthetic distance traditionally provided by plots and fictional characters, this genre aims to arrive at the purest expression of unmediated filmic horror in order to create extreme states of fright and disgust in the spectator.

Cynthia Freeland's "Horror and Art-Dread" describes the total opposite of the mondo movie, films such as The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Blair Witch Project, and The Others that are very much in the tradition of subtle horror where the emphasis is on the atmosphere of mystery and impending doom, as opposed to unabashed depictions of blood, gore and shock effects. Though her definition of art-dread and her subsequent exploration of its manifestations in contemporary films is engaging at times, Freeland's conclusions remain very much on the surface and seem simplistic and self-evident. Insights like "[s]ome movies of art-dread are very dark" and "some of the humans seem to be defeated by dark forces of the cosmos" (203) leave much to be desired and one wishes Freeman would have pressed a little harder here.

In "Horror and the Holocaust: Genre Elements in Schindler's List and Psycho," Caroline Picart and David Frank point out that due to the horror genre's increasing popularity since the 1970s horror film tactics have permeated popular culture and can show up in the most unexpected places. Although Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List aims at an objective documentary style and poses as a realistic narrative, it relies heavily on elements from the horror-psychological thriller genre in its use of framing shots, subjective/gazing camera angles (as in the shower scene), and in its portrayal of the monstrous perpetrator Amon Goeth and his hapless victim, Helen. The authors shed light on the connections to Alfred Hitchcock's pivotal scenes in Psycho, but never allude to the fact that Spielberg himself is firmly rooted in the visual construction of horror, both as a producer and as the director of such films as Duel, Something Evil, and Jaws.

The last two essays in this volume depart from the beaten track of filmic interpretations and are mainly concerned with viewer responses to filmic horror. Joanne Cantor's and Mary Beth Oliver's "Developmental Differences in Responses to Horror" looks at the diverse reactions of children and adolescent consumers to scary film fare and points out that these reactions are very much age dependent. The authors also attempt to delineate which common horror film tactics and stimuli are able to trigger these reactions and to distinguish between short and long-term responses. Thus, the essay harkens back to the earlier piece by Schneider which also pondered the question of what elements exactly make horror effective and frightening.

In "The Appeal of Horror and Suspense," Mary Beth Oliver and Meghan Sanders finally examine social and psychological approaches in yet another effort to unearth why individuals seek out horrific narratives and what turns these fictions into something enjoyable. The authors point out how many critics fail to acknowledge that viewers make clear distinctions between horror films and suspenseful thrillers. It is possible for a film to serve a variety of different viewer motivations. These motivations are closely tied to multiple factors predictive of audience reactions, depending on either demographic characteristics or simply individual personality traits (for example gender, age, social differences as opposed to violent, aggressive, risk-seeking personalities). Oliver and Sanders rightly emphasize that self-reporting is not a very reliable way of measuring reactions to horror films and that future research will have to include more systematic explorations of the kinds of gratification different viewer types derive from horror and suspense.4

What emerges in the end are the limitations an omnibus edition like this one will have for a readership that is already well-immersed in the topic. What for some might be the main attraction to this collection of essays--namely the fact that it attempts to cover a wide array of interests surrounding the general theme of filmic horror--might appear as too unfocused for others. Those who prefer a more narrow or tightly organized approach may be able to find more appealing fare in a reader such as Steven Jay Schneider's collection The Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmare (2004) in the Cambridge Studies in Film Series, or Barry Keith Grant's anthology The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas Film and Media Studies Series, 1996). Yet, it would be a misjudgment to call The Horror Film all-over-the place: it is not a mixed bag, but rather a fine collection of articles that work well together and are in dialogue with another while scrutinizing some of the same themes from different perspectives. Prince's anthology is engaging; it will serve well as a textbook for a class on horror film and may even offer some new pearls to the aficionados of the genre with its discussion of more uncharted territories such as Herschell Gordon Lewis, the mondo film, or the last two essays that explicitly focus on viewer reception and the different "operationalizations of enjoyment of frightening films" (Oliver and Sanders, 256).

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Endnotes:

1. Jonathan Crane, "Scraping Bottom: Splatter and the Herschell Gordon Lewis Oeuvre," in this volume, 154.

2. David Punter, The Literature of Terror, vol. 2 (London/New York: Longman, 1996) 181.

3. see Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1969) and Sigfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995).

4. Readers with a working knowledge of German who are particularly interested in sociological explorations of horror spectatorship may find it rewarding to peruse Rainer Winter's Der produktive Zuschauer: Medienaneignung als kultureller und ästhetischer Prozess (München: Quintessenz, 1995).

About the Reviewer:

Jörg Waltje received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder in Comparative Literature. He was an Associate Professor in Modern Languages at Ohio University and is now the Director of the Language Resource Center at the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor. His book Blood Obsession: Vampires, Serial Murder, and the Popular Imagination (Peter Lang, 2005) won the Lord Ruthven Award for the Best Nonfiction Work about Vampires, International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, 2006. His article "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Theory of Translation in the West-Eastern Divan" appeared in Other Voices 2.2 (March 2002).

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Waltje, Jörg. "A Horror Omnibus: Review of The Horror Film, edited and with an introduction by Stephen Prince" Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. November 17, 2017 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/jwaltje/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Jörg Waltje, A Horror Omnibus: Review of The Horror Film, edited and with an introduction by Stephen Prince. Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/jwaltje/index.php› (accessed November 17, 2017)

APA Style Citation:
Waltje, Jörg. (2010, March). A Horror Omnibus: Review of The Horror Film, edited and with an introduction by Stephen Prince. Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/jwaltje/index.php


 



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