Historicizing "Hostel"

Eli Roth's Hostel: invoking a plethora of images of torture that circulated during the second Bush administration.

“One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror,” writes Robin Wood in “The American Nightmare: Horror in the ’70s.”  Wood, writing in 1986, makes a convincing case for the value of approaching horror films ideologically—i.e., for resisting the temptation to dismiss horror as something unworthy of critical attention, and for thinking about the horror genre as the royal road to the political unconscious.  Although it has become far more common to look critically at the horror genre in the years since Wood’s landmark essay, our critical faculties still risk being numbed by horror’s power to disgust us.  When faced with the ugliest of horror films—those that offend not only our aesthetic taste but also our liberal political sensibilities—our instinct is still to run away screaming. 


The Films of 2013: I Want Your Love

The trailer for Travis Mathews’ I Want Your Lovenewly released on DVD and on-demand via the gay adult website Naked Sword, which also co-produced the film—is book-ended by blurbs from Andrew Haigh and John Cameron Mitchell, who effectively anoint Mathews as a fellow gay auteur.  Although Mathews’ film doesn’t exactly feel like a watershed moment in gay cinema, it promisingly suggests a direction in which gay cinema might do well to head.  It successfully blends the low-fi, minimalist aesthetic of mumblecore with the sexual explicitness of pornography in a way that recalls the attempts of filmmakers like Radley Metzger (or the fictional Jack Horner from Boogie Nights) to integrate hard-core sex into an otherwise traditional film narrative.  Even in its sex scenes I Want Your Love stays firmly grounded in a realist mode rather than dissolving into sheer fantasy—what is sometimes referred to as “pornotopia.”  The sex scenes are all of a piece with the rest of the film; they arise naturally, and they’re informed by the motivations of the characters, for whom sex becomes a way of better understanding themselves, their relationships, and their goals.


Putting the pieces together, or: epistemology and the horror film, part II

The horror film as game: one of Saw's puzzle pieces.

A while back I suggested that we might make a distinction between those horror films driven by logic and those driven by sensuality, irrationality, or epistemological uncertainty.  It’s been my contention that many of the best horror films belong to the second category.  These films achieve a kind of sublime madness by resisting the urge to cohere.  Since the pleasures of horror are, I would argue, fundamentally unconscious ones, it seems to me that the most pleasurable horror films are not concerned with mirroring the real world or with affirming some sort of truth.  Nor are they narratively complex.  Horror films, like fairy tales, lend themselves best to relatively basic plots, as I discussed recently in response to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films.  Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is a similar example of a dazzling horror film blissfully unconcerned with anything other than sustaining its own hypnotic intensity.  Many of Argento’s fans will be the first to admit that plot has never been his strong suit; rather, the pleasures of his films come from his mastery of sound, color, and art direction, which is to say in their ability to immerse us in a nightmarishly beautiful dream-space.


Horror films as sex ed

Alone in the dark: Barbara Crampton and Bruce Abbott in Re-Animator.

For those of you keeping score at home, I’m still in the process of working my way through a list of fifteen or so horror films from the silent era to the present, a project that will likely be wrapping up around mid-April.  Most recently, I screened Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985)—an utterly zonked, splatter-happy update of the Dr. Frankenstein story—for the first time.  Initially I wondered how, having grown up scouring the cable TV listings for horror movies in the early to mid-1990s, I had never seen it before.  It soon became clear to me why: the film is so gory, and so nudity-heavy, that it never would have survived being cut for television.

The Films of 2013: Like Someone In Love

The year in film starts with a bang: Like Someone In Love, from master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, is an enigmatic and beguiling gem.  It’s a variation on the themes he explored most recently in 2011’s Certified Copy, and it’s just as much of a head-scratcher, even if its plot appears to be considerably easier to follow.  Or is it?  Like Certified Copy, it deals with relationships that are fundamentally ambiguous because they are always, in effect, representations of something intangible.  Kiarostami remains obsessed with ideas of seeing, perception, and truth: what do we see when we look at, for example, a young woman and an elderly man?  Can we trust ourselves to read their relationship accurately?  To what extent are relationships between people ongoing performances played out for an audience of others?  The central couple in Certified Copy entertained themselves—and us—with a series of role-playing games; the young girl and the old man in Like Someone In Love play similar games, though the stakes are higher and the consequences potentially more serious, mainly because they involve a highly volatile third participant.


Excessive laughter

Evil Dead II: the comic excess of horror.

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987) is less a sequel to his original Evil Dead (1983) than a remake of it: both films open with Ash (Bruce Campbell) heading to a remote cabin in the woods with his girlfriend, unaware that he’ll be spending most of the weekend doing battle with murderous zombies.  In his essay “Lethal Repetition,” Richard Dyer suggests that the horror genre is as compelled to repeat acts of violence as its villains are—that, in its endless proliferation of sequels and remakes, it plays out the same scenarios, images, and plots with a single-minded obsession not to be found in other genres.  I would argue that the Evil Dead films do not just exemplify the horror genre’s compulsion to repeat itself across multiple films: repetition is built into the very structure of each individual film, both of which are driven by a series of gags rather than by any real plot.  The films are simply about the progression and escalation of human-zombie encounters, which grow increasingly gorier and more absurdly comic as each film goes on.  They’re determined to sustain this keyed-up, giddy feeling of sublime disgust until, finally, they (and we) collapse, exhausted.


Teenage nightmares

Intergenerational co-operation in Fright Night. 

“Nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires, either.  Apparently all they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.”  So says actor-turned-TV-host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), the teenage boy who has come to him for help in disposing of the vampire who’s just moved into the house next door in Fright Night (dir. Tom Holland, 1985).  It’s a more or less good-natured vampire comedy that attempts quite consciously to fuse the teen slasher subgenre with the vintage monster movie.  Fright Night was released at the height of the slasher-movie craze that more or less defined the horror genre from 1980 to 1989, as the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises churned out a seemingly endless series of sequels.  It’s to these formulaic slasher pics that Vincent refers when he laments the lack of demand for the good old-fashioned monster movies in which he once starred.  We see glimpses of them on Charley’s bedroom TV: they’re affectionate parodies of the Hammer horror films of the 1960s, in which Christopher Lee went skulking about in catacombs hung with cotton spider-webs.