There is a growing body of high-quality critical writing about the horror film, both classic and contemporary, and part of this criticism has begun to address the ongoing dichotomy between the often confused and disparaging reception of horror films on the part of mainstream film critics and the insistence by writers, directors, and an increasingly sophisticated viewing audience that horror films are narratives rich in psychological symbolism and subversive subtexts. Two recently published works from Scarecrow Press offer insight into the cultural and psychological reasons for this dichotomy with an emphasis on the political and psychosexual values that lend emotional resonance to the horror movies.
In The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931-1941, Reynold Humphries, a professor of film studies and author of The American Horror Film: An Introduction (2002), uses Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to examine the political, economic, and social influences of the classic horror film. Humphries deftly uses both his research material and his academic background in Freudian-Lacanian psychology to support his thesis: it is the very fact that horror films contain dark psychological material that normally remains repressed that proves so disquieting to mainstream critics and censors that they often either completely misinterpret horror films or undergo a psychological process of “forgetting” that compels them to disavow the often disturbing stories unfolding onscreen.
Despite the sometimes impenetrable style of Humphries’ prose, which comes across as being gratuitously psychoanalytic (references to “the mother phallus” – whatever that may be – proliferate faster than tribbles in a binful of quadro-triticale grain), this book manages to succeed in being a valuable contribution to horror film scholarship. Foremost is Humphries’ research material, which includes numerous communications from the archives of the Production Code Administration (PCA) at the Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills to trace how censors and critics both sought to repress the often subversive aspects of classic horror film and instead ended up reshaping those films in ways that allowed for unintended – and often subversive – interpretations. It was the very gaps left within the edited and censored narratives that left the text open to radical readings: “By eliminating an aspect of the film that upset them, the Hollywood censors merely succeeded in creating an absence into which meaning could be read, meaning could now be more diffuse, less tied to its representation” (p. 43).
A second reason horror film scholars may find this text useful is for Humphries’ detailed analysis of the camera work used in making the classic horror films. Not only does Humphries contribute to the language of film production, but his comments on how various camera techniques, including point of view shots and long slow pans, are used to create effects such as slowness and silence, and how these effects in turn create moods that capture psychological states. This contributes to the critical response to rationalize away the experience not because it fails to be realistic, but because it succeeds too well at being too real (an idea that reminded me of Douglas E. Winter’s essay, “The Pathos of Genre,” with its claim that horror is not a genre, horror is an emotion. In passages such as the one that follows, Humphries seems to have some sharp insights into how these emotions may be simultaneously experienced as liberatory by the audience and unintelligible by the critics:
Freud argued that the further the representation of the repressed (in a patient’s discourse, in a work of art) is from the desire being repressed, the less likely we are to recognize it. Conversely, the closer the unconscious representation comes to giving that desire access to symbolization, the more likely it is that the original unpleasure associated with the repressed desire will become manifest again, provoking incomprehensible feelings of anxiety. Horror creates effects of a special kind on audiences, and critics are part of those audiences. This last point should be a question of stating the obvious, but it is not . . . . My concern is to show that certain discourses on the classic horror film demonstrate, in diverse ways determined by the films themselves, that something fundamental is being repressed, that the subject matter contained within these films influences unconsciously the way critics wrote and are still writing about the films in question. We shall see that certain situations produce reactions that cannot be explained away by ignoring them or adopting the attitude that they are mere incongruities or signs of incompetence or incoherence, a favorite tactic of defense in critical disavowal. When the films depict certain characters and situations in ways that elicit responses of puzzlement, rejection, laughter, incomprehension and so forth, then there is something wrong. When the critics draw attention to element X without stating why is it worth a mention, or when element Y is repeated many times within a large number of films without drawing critical attention, then I would maintain that the films are staging the repressed in ways that are making its presence felt in the discourse of the critics…If we consider the horror film to be a collective fantasy, then the inability to tell the difference between reality and fantasy is productive and not necessarily the path to a refusal of reality (introduction xiii).
A third notable thread in Humphries’ text (which may prove to be especially valuable to science fiction studies scholars interested in film portrayals of science and medicine) is his examination of the tradition of the mad doctor and mad scientist. Certainly Humphries’ description of the role of the mad doctor, as described below, seems relevant to quite a number of more recent horror movies (Blade Runner and the Alien series in particular comes to mind).
The mad scientist bears a striking resemblance to that of global capitalism and the ideology of neoliberalism, concerned as they are with mastery and control of people and nature, to be achieved in a climate of overweening self-interest and indifference to the desire of the other who is transformed into an object to be exploited. The search for knowledge has now become the search for profit and the discourse of the mad doctor, who usually claims to speak “in the name of science,” is in reality the economic discourse of the neoliberal big Other displaced onto the individual. The mad doctor’s obsession with probing, dissecting, and reconstructing the body produces a state akin to that of the transformation of workers under capitalism into a sort of “fragment” of the whole production process. This in turn leads to alienation and a desire for wholeness to combat its negative effects…(introduction xiii-xiv).
Reynold Humphries’ The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931-1941 is a valuable text for scholars interested in psychoanalytical approaches to classic as well as contemporary horror film and for anyone studying the production and critical reception of horror cinema (providing the reader is willing to decode the extremely complex Freudian-Lacanian language).
Despite the fact that I have little knowledge of horror cinema outside that of America and the UK, I found Steffen Hantke’s Caligari’s Heirs to be an absolutely fascinating work. Each of the scholars who contributed to this collection demonstrated knowledge of both academic theory and pop culture resources, including fan communities and online publications. Perhaps it was due to the ways in which these very different domains were combined, but the anthology collectively is a very original work that challenges some of the assumptions about German horror cinema specifically and horror cinema in general.
While the main focus of this collection is to attempt to establish that German horror has contributed as much to the international horror film as other national traditions, such as the Italian giallo of the ’70s or the Japanese horror of the ’90s, it also creates a very persuasive argument that challenges the idea that German expressionism was the beginning and end of German horror film. As made apparent in the title of editor and contributor Steffen Hantke’s introduction, “Postwar German Cinema and the Horror Film: Thoughts on Historical Continuity and Genre,” the critical construction of German expressionism that restricts German horror to a narrow place and time – that of the Weimar Republic – contradicts the fact that horror cinema existed before the Weimar period and continued to exist afterward even if, as Hantke points out:
If these critics do pay attention to popular film at all, it is to the type of film that draws large audiences, like Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981) and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (2004). Horror film, much like other cinematic genres with a dubious reputation, falls by the wayside; so much so, in fact, so that Randall Halle, in an essay on German splatter films, can state that there is “a certain urgency to have another look at horror film in Germany, given that contemporary studies of German film have largely disregarded the horror genre.”
Hantke goes on to say that what he hopes to do is not rewrite this historical record, but rather to reframe the reasons and modes of interpretation that led critics to wish to disallow and disavow post-World War II German horror cinema:
Reframing of the concept of genre strikes me as particularly relevant for the case of postwar Germany, a culture haunted by the historical trauma of the Third Reich, by unsuccessful attempts at suppressing this traumatic past rather than confronting it. Postwar Germany’s search for a viable national identity is, in many ways, fertile soil for the horror film. With its multiple investments in the concept of trauma, and its interest in articulating the return of the repressed, horror film might be particularly useful in helping audiences, in Eric Santner’s words, to “inhabit the heterogeneous language games that constitute the modest forms of community which mark the postmodern landscape” (p. ix).
Part 1 is titled “The Long Shadow of Weimar: Expressionism and Postwar German Horror Film” and consists of three essays: “Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse Trilogy and the Horror Genre, 1922-1960” by Blair Davis, “Peter Lorre’s Der Verlorene: Trauma and Recent Historical Memory” by Tony Williams, and an essay on Robert Siodmak by Hantke. The Lang essay, like the essay titled “The Shadow and the Auteur: Herzog’s Kinski, Kinski’s Nosferatu, and the Myths of Authorship” in the next section of the book, is fascinating in its direct challenge to the premise of the auteur. It becomes apparent that auteur theory is one of the means by which film critics frame certain horror directors as the exception while still disparaging the horror genre in general.
Part 2 is titled “German Autorenkino and Horror Film: Influences, Dialogues, Exchanges” and is made up of two essays: “The Shadow and the Auteur: Herzog’s Kinski, Kinski’s Nosferatu, and the Myths of Authorship” by Linda Badley and “History, Homage, and Horror: Fassbinder, Raab, Lommel and The Tenderness of Wolves (1973)” by Richard J. Hand, with the Herzog/Kinski essay framing the relationship between the director and his most famous actor within the narrative of Shadow of the Vampire, a film which contains both an imaginative and historical commentary upon the making of Herzog and Kinki’s most famous film, Nosferatu.
Part 3, titled “New German Horror Film: Between Global Cinema and the Hollywood Blockbuster” examines the mutual influence Hollywood and German horror had upon each other in the 1980s, while Part 4 is titled “Beyond Aesthetics, Against Aesthetics: German Splatter Films” and examines the emergence of splatter film which, once framed as it is within specific social and political contexts, hints at some of the subversive aspects to the slasher film. The final section of the book consists of interviews with three German horror directors, providing even more powerful commentary on how horror cinema often serves to express the unspoken and the unspeakable.
In closing, I must note that this collection is notable for the final reason that all of the essays are eloquently and clearly written, and the resources in the notes and bibliographies should prove extremely useful to any scholar of horror cinema. In addition, the very accessible writing style makes this anthology a useful resource for the dedicated fan who is reluctant to subject herself to the tortured prose of more academic writing.
(Scarecrow Press, 2006)
(Scarecrow Press, 2007)