“Because so many of us were confusing television experience with direct experience of the world, we were not noticing that experience itself was being unified to the single behavior of watching television,” fears Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television—a somber analysis of modern American culture (Mander, 26). Originally published in 1978, his work has only become more relevant after almost 30 years, especially for texts of the horror genre that specialize in the relationship between culture and media. While the specifics of Mander’s Four Arguments are hardly workable for readings of techno-thrillers, a holistic approach to his ideas suits the discussion of the American take on Japanese technology-driven horror. Here, I wish to focus on Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and its U.S. counterpart, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002). While Ringu can be read as a reaction to technology replacing tradition and possibly as a post-war Left film, the American version is imbedded with so much technology that it seems to be confused as to whether the tools of modern society are something to be praised or feared.
Ringu operates around the “mediation and technologisation of ghostly forces” that literally threaten the characters with death unless the past is discovered and passed on (Hills, 166). In this case, the horrible past is represented by Sadako, a young girl with lethal psychic powers. Sadako, whose body decomposes in a well, is not a mere physical entity in Ringu; her presence is embodied by a videotape that will curse its viewers. Upon watching the video, the telephone rings, signaling that the individual has seven days before he or she dies. When reading a simple plot summary, one might assume the film rejects the invasion of technology in Japanese society; yet, the film also uses technology as a medium for allowing the past to occupy the present. “[T]he notion of horror associated with a ghost from the past is further nuanced by the use of technology as a conduit into the here-and-now.” (Tateishi, 298). Because technology permeates modern life so vigorously, the most effective method of communication with the present is through the technology that defines post-industrial society.
Ringu’s depiction of the past is both monstrous and human, constructing a bridge between the traditional Japanese horror film and the Left film. History may be horrific, but it also requires investigation. Sadako’s disfigured body and murderous impulses are juxtaposed with revelations of her character as a victim of misunderstanding and of an unsettling death. In what at first appears to be the conclusion of Ringu, Reiko cradles the festering corpse of Sadako, unconcerned with the girls’ supernatural powers and disturbing appearance. In this example, history is represented as a “process of unmitigated horror from the perspective of its losers” (Kapur, 93). Sadako can be considered the “loser” of history, as she was shunned and murdered by her own family for possessing a mystical gift. This treatment requires the characters of Ringu to actively pursue history even through technology, not to hide from it; “the work of art is ultimately to make the audience want to change the world, not escape it” (Kapur, 85). The hideous results of technologies, such as nuclear bombs for the Left cinema, must be recognized as truth rather than feared or forgotten. By the end of Ringu, Reiko faces a cold reality: the past must be unleashed no matter the consequence and technology is the superior method of transmitting the message. This attitude is captured poignantly with the image of Reiko clinging to her VCR, willing to share the horror with others in order to save her son from certain death.
The American rendition of Ringu stumbles between warnings of a technological enemy and a technological friend, using sensational imagery to evoke undirected anxiety. Unlike the Japanese film, The Ring is saturated with technology; televisions, broadcasting equipment, desktop computers, laptops, digital cameras, video monitors, and cell phones litter the movie. Some of these modern gadgets are manipulated by the ghost of Samara (Sadako) to induce death, while others are utilized as tools of uncovering the past and aiding the struggle to solve the mystery of the videotape. Like Ringu, the technology of copying the videotape rescues Rachel and her son, but it is not regarded as a bitter-sweet victory as in the Japanese film. Aidan quietly asks Rachel what will happen to the person they show the tape to; his grave question goes unanswered as the film cuts to black and rolls credits. Using Jerry Mander as a basis for reading The Ring, it is easier to understand the unexplained consequences of the film, as well as the mixed relationship Americans have with media. “Faced with real darkness, we become frightened, overreact, like a child whose parents have always left the light on. In the generations since Edison, we have become creatures of light alone” (Mander, 57-58). Mander refers to the constant glow of something electronic; and The Ring’s aesthetics are highly engaged with this illuminated technology. Its bluish-green color pallet, which is very different from Ringu’s warm colors, signifies a reality that doesn’t exist beyond the bluish-green burn of the television screen. As the cool colors imply, there is something disconcerting and deeply disturbing about this American culture that hardly registers its technological consumption as existent.
Hills, Matt. “Ringing the Changes: Cult Distinction and Cultural Differences in US Fans Readings of Japanese Horror Cinema,” in Jay McRoy (Ed). Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005. pp. 161-174.
Kapur, Jyotsna. “The Return of History as Horror: Onibaba and the Atomic Bomb.” Horror International. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: Quill, 1978.
Ring, The. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Naomi Watts. 2002. DVD. Dreamworks, 2002.
Ringu. Dir. Hideo Nakata. Perf. Nanako Matsushima. 1998. DVD. Dreamworks, 2003.
Tateishi, Ramie. “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak.” Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe. Steven Jay Schneider. (Ed.) Surrey: Fab Press, 2003, pp. 295-304.
Worthy of the hype? No, but it's good.
Note: Spoilers throughout; I’m assuming you’ve seen it.
I have somehow managed not to see Cube until now. For whatever reason, certainly not for lack of interest, Vincenzo Natali’s film has eluded me all these years. Garnering a remarkable amount of respect and attention from a variety of audiences, I was excited to finally see the movie that everyone was talking about…even if they were talking about it ten years ago.
Cube is a contradiction of a film. It’s original, yet predictable. It’s stunning, yet unattractive. It’s dramatic, yet laughable. It’s methodical, yet inconsistent. Cube is also a challenging film to make and its problems become all the more apparent because of this.
The concept is brilliant. A group of people wake up, with no memory of how they got there and seemingly no connection between them, inside an incredibly complex cubic structure that is rigged with vicious booby traps throughout. Hmm…kinda’ sounds like another film we know…I think it’s called Saw. Regardless, this setup gives us a diverse collection of characters that are forced to work together, utilizing their different skills to escape the common enemy. Did I just sound like a college admissions counselor? The mystery behind the origin of the cube makes it all the more interesting; is it a government experiment or a madman’s sick game? Later attempts to explain this mystery only leave the audience unfulfilled and destroy the horror behind such ambiguity. With a film like this, it’s best to either go all one way or the other: explain it or don’t. Going in between just leads to strange, rambling dialogue that makes your eyebrows arch.
Aside from these flaws, the film is pretty good. There are not as many “cool” deaths as I expected, but the first two are definitely worth it. The production design and art direction deserve so much credit for this film’s success. Indeed, there would be no movie without the world created by the art department. The complexity coupled with simplicity of the cube makes for compelling visuals that force the audience to look hard at what they are seeing. The cinematography could have stepped up to match this superb visual design. While it does have a distinct style (the use of wide angle lenses, deep focus, and canted angles), the power of shallow depth of field and extreme close-ups would have been appreciated in a film that revolves around character subtleties. The spinning-world effect of the cinematography grows old pretty quickly; I would have liked to see the style evolve with the changing of the characters and their slow decent into madness.
I’d recommend Cube because it’s just one of those films you have to see, but I can’t say that I’ll ever watch it again.
Admittedly when I first discovered that a remake of Last House was in the works, I was perturbed. Normally, I don’t get too upset about remakes, but my first thought was: how does a Hollywood studio remake a film like The Last House on the Left? The fiber of the original was comprised of so much anger, rebellion, contention, and shock that I didn’t see the film having its place in this context. Eventually, upon more reflection, I realized: what a great film to remake.
My viewing experience was slightly tainted by the annoying pubescent audience members that snuck in to the movie—only to text, walk up and down the aisles, and frequent the bathroom in groups during the entire film. Some of these kids looked as young as ten and I thought to myself, hmm this is going to be interesting and perhaps awkward.
I'm not sure I would trust these people...especially the last guy on the left
So cute and innocent
As Mari and her friend Paige are persuaded into the hotel room of Justin (the son of Krug), I couldn’t help but get the feeling that some moral lesson was being prescribed: don’t do drugs and don’t talk to strangers. I’m not sure why I felt this pedantic tone so strongly. Maybe it’s because I knew what was coming. It was painful to watch the girls giggling and full of life, while I’m just dreading what’s to come. Normally, I can sink into the moment of the film, but not here. The entire hotel scene was drenched with sick anticipation.
The attack and rape of the girls is brutal. While Iliadis’ film is not quite as depraved as Craven’s, the most vicious moments are more powerful because they are used more sparingly. The rape of Mari is long, arduous, and difficult to watch. The murder of Paige is almost as slow and painful. The cruelty is much more intimate than in the original. Craven’s villains were clown-like and didn’t seem to care much about what they were doing. To use M. Bison’s words, to them “It was Tuesday.” However, the remake’s killers are more cold, calculated, and vengeful. One gets the impression that if Mari and Paige hadn’t put up as much of a fight, they would have merely shot them in the head and dumped them in the lake. However, Krug, Sadie, and Francis are too pissed to let them go without debasing them first.
How can you not feel for these parents?
Some of my only complaints about the film are regarding shot selection. There are some strange choices in shot design and editing throughout the film. When shooting dialogue between people, the shots are typically supposed to mirror one another. The lack of unity made some scenes awkward. The framing on Krug when he was driving the SUV…come on guys! A close-up is forehead to just below the chin, not chin to chest. Sure, maybe you couldn’t adjust the car mount mid-shot. Maybe the studio wouldn’t let you reshoot, but the editor didn’t have to showcase the bad camerawork!
Technical details aside, Last House is a strong film. Incredible story, decent writing, great acting, more-than-capable directing, and some good gore to boot! For the record, I don’t think the ending is as bad as everyone else says it is.
Mediocre never looked so good!
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the droning disco music of a dying seventies era—“prom night.. bumbumbumbump…everything is all right… bumbumbumbump.” Well, maybe I’m the only one that remembers the on-the-nose, musical charm of the original Prom Night, but I’m certainly not the only one who remembers a completely different movie than the “remake” directed by Nelson McCormick and scripted by J.S. Cardone.
I finally got around to watching this film because all my other movie options were longer than 90 minutes. The brevity of this film is appreciated, as well as the snappy editing that tried to fool me into believing Michael Bay had something to do with this film. I didn’t see a Platinum Dunes logo, did I? Prom Night is one of those formulaic, teen slashers that is not only numbed to a blood-shy PG-13 rating, but executed like a shotty 300-knockoff. With speed ramp effects, necessary jump cuts (so that we don’t have to endure the pain of watching the action in between the edits), and a hard contrasty look, you’d think the cinematographer and director thought they were shooting a music video. Of course, I can see how this would be confusing with the ever-so-persistent pop soundtrack.
As for the horror, the kills are pretty tame as anticipated. A lot of the action takes place off screen and the on-screen deaths are handled through cutaways/reactions. The miraculous thing about the world of Prom Night is that corpses don’t bleed. Yup. After multiple stab wounds, you’d think that at least a small pool of blood would collect under the body. Nope.
They do this a lot.
Just ten of the limitless reasons why I (and hopefully others) adore the horror.
1. 90-Minute Rule
Almost all horror films are about an hour and a half long. It’s a benchmark. Very rarely do they drag over two hours. Horror knows the limits of the human attention span, as well as the bladder.
Examples: Halloween (91 min.), Friday the 13th (95 min.), Nightmare on Elm Street (91 min.)
2. Oxymoron: Gratuity Becomes Essential
Gratuitousness is no longer gratuitous because it is purposeful in the horror film. It’s a staple of the generic code.
Example: Would Evil Dead be remembered without the tree rape, the eye-gouging, and the stop motion demon melting?
3. Sequels and Remakes
While most people would consider these negative, I believe they are one of the reasons to love horror films because A) you’re going to get more of what you love and B) you know it’s probably not going to be as good as the original, so you don’t have to get upset…just enjoy.
Example: Friday the 13th. I am overjoyed at the thought of any new entry, regardless of petty details. I don’t care if it’s a remake, a reboot, a sequel, a prequel, etc. I want more Jason!
4. You Can Wish Evil Upon Others…and it’s okay!
The bratty girl, the stuck-up teacher, the rich snob, the obnoxious jock, anyone that’s annoying…you can root for all of these people to die, without risking Columbine status. Let’s face it, annoying characters hardly ever die in other genres and that’s…well annoying.
Example: Trey (you know he’s a jerk just by the name) from Freddy vs. Jason, a.k.a. the guy with the most misogynistic lines: “Babe, you know I don’t like to be touched afterword”; “Babe, don’t make me ask you twice.” There wasn’t a person in the audience that didn’t smile upon him getting folded in half by some sort of a Murphy bed/sofa-couch.
5. Celebrity Has New Meaning
There are three ways to look at the word “celebrity” in the horror film. 1: We will look forward to the death of a particularly gaudy celebrity if they are billed as a co-star in a slasher. 2: We know the movie will most likely suck if a celebrity is cast as the lead, as it will be a dumbed-down, horror-suspense-thriller mutant of a studio replicate. 3: Horror fans are more excited about genre legends than celebrities; a Kane Hodder cameo appearance is worth more than Tom Cruise as the lead.
Examples: We all wanted to watch Paris Hilton die in House of Wax. But did anyone bother to see Diane Lane in Untraceable? Personally, I’d rather check out Hatchet for my own versions of genre celebrities.
6. Are you serious? Of course not!
Horror films generally don’t take themselves too seriously .They are self-aware and conscious of audience expectations. You can laugh when someone dies in the middle of the theatre and you’re not a jerk because of it.
Example: Planet Terror: the missing reel, the grain effects, the El Wray character, Tom Savini, and the generally odd sense of humor
7. The Best Titles Ever
Horror films have some of the most amazing titles ever. Whether or not they actually represent the movie, the 70’s and 80’s produced some of the most bizarre and outlandish motion picture names.
Examples: Splatter University or simply “Splatter U,” Sewage Baby, The Mole People, Attack of the Killer Shrews, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Mountaintop Motel Massacre, C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers), Kill Baby…Kill!, Humanoids from the Deep, Cannibal Holocaust, Blacula, Blackenstein, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, Flight of the Undead, Rabid Grannies, Cannibal Roller Babes, Space Psychos 4, Vampire-Beast Craves Blood, Werewolves on Wheels, The Nostril Picker, The Manster, The Revenge of the Savage Bees
8. Guessing Games
What other genre lets you play games with your friends that revolve around predicting the method of death for certain characters? You get to guess who dies, how they die, when they die, if they’re really dead or not, and sometimes, who the killer is.
Example: Scream—We all know Billy’s the killer, but why does that creepy music swell up when we see Dewey? Isn’t Stu pretty creepy too? Wait…Billy gets stabbed. It can’t be Billy, well then who is it? Oh…but Billy’s not really dead? It’s him! No, there’s more…. It’s….Stu as well!
9. Weird Sub-Genres
I have this thing for sub-genres and there are so many in horror. Sure, other genres have them as well, but some of the wackiest ones sprout from horror.
Examples: High-School Revenge, Rape-Revenge, Evil Children, Killer (insert animal, profession, or any pronoun here), Teen Slasher, College Killer, Lesbian Vampires, Zombies, Running Non-Zombies (diseased people that are practically zombies), Horrotica, Breakdown, Giallo, Schlock, Splatter-Comedy, Exploitation, Survival
10. Horror Fans
Being a horror aficionado is not like being a fan of another genre. There really is no fan-base for dramas or comedies—besides allegiance to a particular film or filmmaker. Sci-Fiction enthusiasts are pretty close to horror fans, but even they seem to be more scrupulous with their genre. Trekkies will wage war against Lucas-lovers. Firefly fans may mock flying saucer films. As for psychotic dedication, Sci-Fi fanatics take the cake with geek-core conventions, elaborate costumes, and the whole going through medical procedures to fashion Spock ears thing. Horror nerds, however, will wear a horror t-shirt, bring DVD’s for genre favs to sign, and then go home smiling ear to ear. Horror enthusiasts will also watch pretty much anything horror. They may not like everything, but they’ll give anything a shot just because it is a horror film.
Examples: Me, You?
The time I met John Carpenter!!!
Back in September of 2008, Mr. Carpenter himself was visiting Chapman University in Orange, CA for a screening of The Thing. I attend film school there and was so excited to meet him. After the screening, a Q&A was held at the theatre. He talked about how lucky we (young filmmakers/film students) were to have new, digital technology that enabled us to make films with very little money. Growing up with camcorders and computers, we were able to explore films early on. Before, all the exploration and mistakes were made later and at a much higher cost. After the discussion, he snuck out back to have a smoke. I followed him (stalker...I know) and got this picture! He also signed my 25th Anniversary Halloween DVD! To properly frame my elation at this moment...Halloween has been my favorite film since I was 13. I have admired John Carpenter for so long and he is one of the few people that I ever truly wanted to shake hands with. Sure I'd like to meet others, but I can't say that they were on a list of people I'd like to meet.
In The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben juxtaposes the wealth of knowledge a day in nature delivers with the plentiful, but insubstantial information television pumps out in 24 hours. “Two thirds of Americans tell researches they get ‘most of their information’ about the world from television,” McKibben informs, displaying the unnoticed dependency on electronic media that many denizens of the U.S fail to admit (18). As Americans, we champion ourselves as independent, free-thinkers; yet we all rely on the same source of information—how diverse and free can our ideas then be? “Messages are passed over, absorbed through the eyes without triggering the entire brain,” he writes (21). What is more, these ideas lack primal knowledge derived from nature. In the past, Americans understood their environment because their survival depended on it. For instance, McKibben describes all the specific information needed to successfully raise cattle on a farm. Today, many might sneer at these skills, considering them too primitive and simple. But that is exactly McKibben’s point. We have not only lost the fundamental knowledge of nature but we have lost the fundamental attention towards it. “This is perhaps the ultimate loss of information—too sophisticated to burn books, we burn the planet. Each day information leaks away—some branch of life that evolved for millions of years is gone, and the next day two more, and six the day after that. The world grows stupider, less substantial” (85). Microwaves make it easy to forget ordinary food preparation. Television makes it easy to be distracted. Vehicles make it easy to pollute. In a world of hustle and bustle, who has time to worry about the ecosphere? And media trains us to maintain this attitude toward the environment by creating a new electronic environment that subverts what is natural. The media is constantly stimulating us with the new and exciting in its “information currency,” so that we ignore the growing and unsettling disconnection between man and nature (19).
“You can buy T-shirts decorated with a new version of the American flag. The fifty white stars have been replaced by a pair of [McDonald] golden arches” (Schlosser 32). In a statement that typifies the title of his book, Eric Schlosser describes the fusing of corporation with culture in Fast Food Nation. Gitlin and McKibben’s books characterized the extreme dislodgment of man from the environment into a fast-paced world of technological consumption; Schlosser specializes in the consumer culture that corporations and media preach. By perfecting the “art of selling things to children,” Ray Kroc, owner of McDonald’s, created a character more popular than Mickey Mouse (33). Kroc’s techniques led children and parents alike to believe that McDonald’s was not only a company, but a family friend. Kroc utilized media to fabricate a McDonald’s culture that would resonate among American families in all walks of life; “America’s fast food culture has become indistinguishable from the popular culture of its children” (48). Indeed the entire idea of fast food—quick, cheap service for the masses—captures the essence of modern media. Commercials cut too fast to count. Television doesn’t cost a thing. Studio films are cookie-cutters of mass appeal. Much of these tactics to brand consumers is discussed in Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, in which he details accounts of subliminal and psychological market research. Packard’s primary concern is of the utilization of intimate psychology to undermine consumers, as the hidden persuaders tap into our minds in order to sell their products. An example that Packard cites, although under great suspicion as to its validity, is a stunning display of subliminal advertising’s immense power over the consumer. In a theatre, moviegoers were shown a few frames of ads that said “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola.” Although the viewers did not consciously see the frames, both popcorn and Coke sales increased dramatically. “The result” of the hidden persuader’s increasing presence “is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our daily lives” (1). As Packard and Schlosser demonstrate, media and corporations intertwine themselves with the American consumerist culture that doesn’t have time to wait, even at the expense of nature and planetary longevity.
The musings and contemplations of Marshall McLuhan summarize much of the criticism media receives; but McLuhan also advocates some radical ideas of his own that few authors dare to approach. Similar to what McKibben and Gitlin argue, McLuhan says, “technological innovations are extensions of human abilities and sense that alter this sensory balance—an alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the society that created the technology” (2). To reiterate an earlier point, we don’t notice the changes in society because we know nothing else. We are used to technology and therefore find it difficult to accept that our senses are altered by the presence of media. “For the past 3500 years of the Western World,” McLuhan states, “the effects of media—whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio, or television—have been systematically overlooked by social observers” due to “narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in” (4-5). One of the concepts that separate McLuhan from other scholars is his sense of the word ‘technology.’ To him, it is not only electronics and mechanics; it is all innovation. He includes the phonetic alphabet in the category of “revolutionary transformations” (7). The manner in which we interact with society and the acuteness of our very senses have been changed with the invention of more technology. Marshall McLuhan, just as the aforementioned authors do, pleads with the United States to reevaluate media and technology in order to resituate itself in the grand sensory illusion.
For years the impact of mass media has been misconstrued by arguments over content and political bias; the real crux of the matter is the media’s methods of reshaping our existence. Inside the media frenzy, we are losing the environment at the expense of efficiency. We are submersed in the depth of images and sounds, but we never swim to the surface for air. We are confusing our identity with corporations so that we can become better consumers. We are becoming a massive supply of guinea pigs for marketers to prod and poke. Most importantly, we are not aware.
Gitlin, Todd. Media Unlimited. Henry Holt: New York, 2002.
McKibben, Bill. The Age of Missing Information. Plume: New York, 1993
McLuhan, Marshall. Interview. Playboy Magazine. The Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrove. Basic Books: New York, 1995.
Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. David McKay: New York, 1957.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Harper Collins: New York, 2002.
Firstly, I don't think most of the criticism claiming that the movie's plot is unoriginal is fair. It's a basic setup--one that has been utilized many times and long before Them. Rather than being trite, I feel like it's a staple of the home invasion subgenre.
Technically, this film is sound. Great cinematography, sound design, and acting. The direction is above average, with the exception of some of the shot design. I genuinely cared and worried for the characters, whether it be their unstable relationship or surviving the night. It is because we are so entrenched in their lives that the emergence of the “Strangers” becomes so unsettling.
Creating some of the most tense and creepy moments I have seen out of any recent horror film, there are scenes that had the audience literally calling out and squirming with anxiety. When the film is going full throttle, it really works and has you hooked.
The biggest downfall to this film is pacing and storytelling. The middle, as many have said, drags. This is for two reasons: repetition of scares and lack of direction. The same scare is recycled over and over (where we see the killer slowly revealed behind the unknowing victim, and then when we return to the same shot, the masked assailant is mysteriously gone). This works very well at first, but then gets tired. The other issue with the second act and early third is that Liv Tyler has little direction for her actions. She meanders through the terrain with little purpose--or at least that purpose was cut from the film, as the film often skips beats or jumps ahead in the narrative without clueing the audience in on the intermediate steps.
Of course, the ending is a bit jumbled and carries on far too long. Perhaps a studio's tinkering job?
The essential feature of paracinema, as defined by Hawkins, is affect: “the ability of a film to thrill, frighten, gross out, arouse, or otherwise directly engage the spectator’s body” (Hawkins, 4). In such films there is an obsession with the body, whether it be a body overwhelmed by orgasm, a body horrified by uncontrollable fear, or a body struggling with emotional heartache. Films that utilize affect are roped into the low culture category, as movies that can’t coincide with level-headed, moral-thinking people. It is for the same reason mainstream audiences degrade paracinema that fans of low-brow films are drawn to them; the appeal lies in the “desire…to see something different’, something unlike contemporary Hollywood cinema” (Hawkins, 7). Hawkins outlines the competing interests in cinema as confrontational—the groups are “polarized into mainstream and ‘alternative’ or ‘fringe’ audiences” (Hawkins, 22). While one group is chastised by the dominant culture, the other is criticized in the text of paracinema. However, Hawkins demonstrates the malleability of high and low art, as they often sit side by side on the shelves of specialized video stores. Fans of schlock also prove to be fans of experimental or art films; and subscribers to paracinema display rather erudite means of deciphering the different texts. “Viewing/reading the films themselves—even the trashiest films—demands a set of sophisticated strategies that…are remarkably similar to the strategies employed by the cultural elite” (Hawkins, 15).
The films of Dario Argento, though initially considered “Spaghetti Splatter,” have evolved to convey rather progressive readings toward gender roles and sexuality. This change in reception may be a result of the poor quality of VHS tapes versus the remastered, reworked DVD titles to hit the shelves in recent years, as supposed by Raiford Guins in “Blood and Black Gloves on Shiny Discs: New Media, Old Tastes, and the Remediation of Italian Horror Films in the United States.” Argento is well-known for literally masking the gender of the killer until the end of the film; this is done through masks, gloves, nondescript clothing, and a raspy voice with an asexual pitch. Adam Knee interprets, “Argento’s films consistently foreground ambiguities of gender and sexuality and repeatedly suggest the instability of power relations” in “Gender, Genre, Argento” (Knee, 215).
Terror at the Opera is no different; it too provides an androgynous killer with gloves, a mask, and a neutral voice. In Opera, the threat is most closely associated with the sexual perversion of the sadomasochistic male. The film’s heroine, Betty, is repeatedly touched by the murderer and utilized as a source of arousal (i.e., her viewing of the murders is a mode of eroticism for the killer). The film’s conclusion ultimately reveals the identity of the killer to indeed be a male; in fact, it is Santini, the police inspector who expresses his enjoyment in watching Betty sing. However, further revelations complicate traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality, as Betty’s mother is discovered to be the instigator of past murders. Her mother encouraged Santini (her lover) to kill for her own sexual satisfaction, as she watched him slaughter beautiful women. Here, both gender roles and sexual gratification are investigated beyond the scope of the Hollywood norm. The power shifts not only between perpetrator and spectator but also between male and female. Santini refers to himself as a slave to Betty’s mother’s desires, so much so that he now seeks a new master via Betty. As Leon Hunt puts it, “Betty is educated into the role of the cold, cruel mother of the masochistic scenario” (Hunt, 334). Opera challenges the status quo’s conceptions of the male/female sexual relationship, making it a reactionary film arguing against the hegemony of social mores.
Argento offends the sanctity of the body in Opera, utilizing affect to highlight its appeal towards audiences of paracinema. A focus is placed on the concept of penetration, both sexual and lethal. Betty’s inability to perform in bed is contrasted with the killer’s able performance, as a lack of penetration in one scene is juxtaposed to the gruesome penetration of a knife through a man’s mouth via close-up. Knee articulates, “no sooner does the female performer fail to perform (be passive, penetrated female) for her boyfriend than she is made to view the killer’s performance (in that her eyes are forced open, penetrated,) which consists of the forcible penetration (graphically detailed, lest one miss the particular resonance) of her boyfriends body with a knifeblade” (Knee, 217). When reading this scene, the body can be read as an object deriving pleasure only through forcible penetration because the complacent female simply won’t satisfy without force. On the other hand, it can also be read as an opposition to the aforementioned reading—a reaction to the dominant alpha male of Hollywood films, such as the John Wayne figure that beats the sense back into women or uses violence to coerce the woman into sex. The bodies of Opera are exposed, ready to be converted into a bloody pulp for the realization of the psychopath’s fantasies, as well the audience’s pleasures.
“The Italian horror films as art-object can also double as a reactionary-object” (Guins, 29). While the normatizing images of gender, sexuality, and body are challenged by Argento’s Terror at the Opera, the film also displays an acute perception of spectatorship that lifts the film to the distinction of art-horror. Questions of horror spectatorship are important when considering the text of Opera, as the film’s complexity grows as one looks deep into Argento’s work. In “A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera,” Leon Hunt characterizes the film as one that is “devoted almost exclusively to issues of visibility, spectatorship, and horror” (Hunt, 333). The opening image of the film is the eye of a raven; it is a dwelling shot as well and one that returns later in the film. From the beginning of the movie, we are forced to reflect on our own gaze. Argento utilizes eyeball violence and themes of spectatorship to involve the audience in the onscreen horror. Betty’s eyes are forced open, risking injury from the needles taped beneath her eyelids. The bullet from a gun passes through the eye of Betty’s friend in a scene where “the weapon is made subservient to the film’s aesthetic organization around the injury-to-the-eye motifs” (Hunt, 330). Nearing the conclusion, the killer’s eye is removed by bloodthirsty, avenging ravens. Hawkins points out the concept of aesthetic distance; Opera seems to invade that respected space by not only projecting images that make us wince but by continually reminding us that we are indeed observers of something horrific. Argento violates the viewer; whether this is intended as a judgment of the human condition or as gore for the sake of gross-out is up for debate. Yet, the text raises inquiries into violence and media whether or not it was intended by the filmmaker.
Opera also points fingers towards the culturally elite upper class. The film mocks the wealthy patrons of operas, as they readily enjoy the violence onstage but gasp in horror at the sight of wild ravens soaring through the theatre. Italy is especially known for its bloody operas. Argento may be asking why his films are shunned for their explicit violence by the high art crowd while the intellectual snobs enjoy the gore of a more sophisticated outlet such as operas. “[H]igh culture—even when it engages the body in the same way that low genres do—supposedly evokes a different kind of spectatorial pleasure and response than the one evoked by low genres” (Hawkins, 6). High and low culture may not be so different, but somehow the aura of elitism sticks to certain categories of art. When Hawkins describes the reactions of the viewer of paracinema—“[t]he spectator cringes, becomes tense, screams, weeps, becomes aroused”—she is not necessarily arguing that these qualities don’t also suit high culture entertainment (Hawkins, 5). Rather, these characteristics are supposedly enjoyed in a more enlightened manner. Argento’s Opera surveys several methods of viewing pleasure—all still focus on the body in sexual, horrific, or melodramatic sensations.
Whether received as low or high art, Argento’s Opera provides for readings that deconstruct the generic conventions of Hollywood cinema. “[H]e establishes a framework within which mainstream assumptions may be thrown into doubt” (Knee, 224). By utilizing gender and sexuality in ways that redefine the power structure between male and female, Argento reworks cinema’s depiction of the relationship. Postulations involving sex are questioned, as the audience of Argento’s films have to treat both men and women as equally capable suspects and victims. Opera additionally attacks the sanctity of the body, demanding attention to the correlation between sexuality and violence. Most importantly, Argento causes us to reconsider “the relationship between the gaze of the woman in the text, the gaze of the spectator, and the violence committed against both” (Hunt, 325). Opera informs us that onscreen violence and sadism are factors that transcend high and low culture.
Guins, Raiford. “Blood and Black Gloved on Shiny Discs: New Media, Old Tastes, and the Remediation of Italian Horror Films in the US.” Horror International. Eds. Tony Williams and Steven Schneider. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Hawkins, Joan. “Sleaze-Mania, Euro-trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture,” Cutting Edge, pp. 3-32.
Hunt, Leon. “A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian horror film.” The Horror Reader. Ken Gelder (Ed.) London: Routledge, 2000.
Knee, Adam. “Gender, Genre, Argento.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Barry Keith Grant (Ed.) Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 213-230.
Opera. Dir. Dario Argento. Perf. Cristina Marsillach. 1987. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2001.
In an era dominated by racial tension, economic stratification, and the dissolution of the family, American horror films of the Seventies represented an anxiety toward societal norms and preexisting mores and thus, they confronted these dilemmas by literally changing the face of the Other. Genre anxiety has given rise to the shifting of the Other from a foreign source of horror to an internal source of identity. Communities, whether they are racial, ethnic, or cultural ones, are joined via exploitation cinema in their ability to build a rapport with the Monster because they view themselves as possessing similar qualities of Otherness. In this essay, I will analyze the appeal of low-brow cinema to the so-called outsiders and minorities. First, we will look at the transformation of conceptualizations of the Other, as Robin Wood outlines in “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” and how her analysis applies to the young fans of exploitation horror. Next, I will relate blaxploitation to Wood’s text and its connection to the black community’s notion of identity in a period dominated by racism.
“[I]t is the horror film that responds in the most clear-cut and direct way, because central to it is the actual dramatization of the dual concept, the repressed/the other, in the figure of the monster,” writes Robin Wood (171). Wood’s interpretation of the horror film evolves around the idea of the Other—a repressed element of society that is perceived as a threat external to the culture. This concept has long been tied to psychoanalysis and identified with repressed ideas concerning sexuality. While the Other is something to be feared by society, particularly the bourgeoisie; it is also a source of attraction, as humans are drawn to exotic, rebellious ideas that may be discouraged by the moral majority. “The ‘ideal’…is as close as possible to an automaton in whom both sexual and intellectual energy have been reduced to a minimum,” as we are instructed to constrain ourselves to monogamous, heterosexual relationships and encouraged not to question this standard of behavior (Wood, 169). Because the repressed fear and desire Otherness at the same time, the horror film becomes an ideal outlet for these conflicting feelings—we can get close to the Monster without actually becoming one.
Wood traces the history of the Other in American horror films, as it transforms from a foreign threat to an internal one. Horror films of the Thirties seemed to proclaim that “horror exists, but is un-American”—as unnamed islands and other continents became the playground of the Other’s immorality (Wood, 183). Two decades later, science fiction horror invaded the cinemas, as the Other was labeled as otherworldly. The parallels between sci-fi invasion scenarios and Cold War paranoia are rather obvious, as Americans on and off screen were looking to the sky for doomsday. What distinguishes these films from contemporary American horror is the proximity of the Other—it not only becomes American but it becomes an element of our own mind/body. In particular, the concept of the picturesque American family is torn down by horror of the Seventies.
American horror adopted exploitation as its new manner of presenting the Other, leading to a popular following of distinct social groups rather than mainstream audiences. Films that gained a bizarre fan base were often shunned by conservative Americans, further widening the social gap between the youth and their parents. Wood illuminates, “[t]he horror film has consistently been one of the most popular and, at the same time, the most disreputable of Hollywood genres” (173). In George Lipsitz’ piece “Genre Anxiety and Racial Representation in 1970’s Cinema,” genre anxiety is defined as “the intrusion of social tremors into cinematic representations in such a way as to render traditional genre icons unsatisfying and incomplete” (216). Exploitation films of the Seventies coincide with this idea, as typical representations of the American family were inconsistent with the reality many teenagers were experiencing. Divorce, war, and sexual freedom were redefining the American experience for younger generations, while this change was ignored by society at large, especially through Hollywood portrayals of the family. Representative of this era and this reformed attitude toward the Other are Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left. All three of these movies challenged the status quo and demanded a reanalysis of what it means to be an American family, as well as what it means to be the Other. Due to its confrontational style, exploitation cinema upsets the Hollywood conventions of the horror film, allowing the marginalized members of society to identify themselves with not only fans of the genre but with the Other itself.
In Massacre, the “travellers [sic] represent normality, and the slaughterhouse family represents the threatening Monster” (Bould 99). Yet, these two families are distinctly juxtaposed to highlight the universality of a will to survive and a need for consumption. In other words, economic and social conditions developed by American choices breed the Monster and thus, the Other is nourished by our own selfish desires. Mark Bould’s work entitled “Apocalypse Here and Now: Making Sense of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” considers the voyage of the teenage group to be an example of “the ugliness and savage heart of the American Dream” (103). Bogged down by a lack of energy (gasoline), the teenagers are ensnared by their own dependency on raw goods. Similarly, the slaughterhouse family converts them into raw material for consumption and ultimately livelihood.
Wes Craven’s first two films shocked audiences with their candid viciousness, but also demonstrated the fragility of American ideals and genre conventions. Like Massacre, Last House also compares two families: a clan of hippy psychos and a happily married couple and their beautiful teenage daughter. The brutality of the killers is clear from the beginning of the film; however, the brutality of the family is slowly teased out as they are confronted with the tragedy of their daughter’s rape and death. After surviving The Last House on the Left, viewers question whether the film was placed in the “horror” genre for the murder of the teenage girls or rather for the methodical torture the avenging parents unleash. Craven snatches Otherness from the typical “bad guys” and places it into the hands of the typical “good guys”—the ideal family.
The Hills Have Eyes is yet another example of a family dichotomy: the rugged, deformed family living in the desert hills and the “normal,” church-going family of the mobile home. Also similar to Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes emphasizes survival and self-destruction. The group of mutants has survived through military testing and extreme conditions, resulting in deformations that render them unable to associate with forms of normalcy. Left to fend for themselves in the hills, they are forced to feed off of road kill—in this case, the all-American family who supports the society that created the mutants’ Otherness. In a time when the United States Military’s legitimacy was in question, The Hills Have Eyes displays genre anxiety by attempting “to create engagement and investment among audiences by inserting contemporary social concerns into a familiar genre,” as worded by Lipsitz in reference to Blacula (218).
Perhaps the most readily identifiable source of genre anxiety and the evolution of the Other is blaxploitation cinema, in particular Blacula, the most popular of the original blaxploitation films. Lipsitz reads the text as a “spasm of genre anxiety”—displaying “the conflict between the conservative continuity reinforced by the persistence of generic forms and the ceaseless pattern of social change that makes almost all generic representations seem inadequate and obsolete” (218). The thread that binds all exploitation horror is the idea of identity—filmic representation of the Other becomes the place to seek identification. Harry M. Benshoff’s piece “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?” explores “ethnicity and race as culturally and socially constructed” entities that build identity with the Other. Frantz Fanon, popular writer on the psychology of colonization and race, insists that the identity of a black man is not defined by himself; rather, the identity is etched in the hate of others. As Fanon declares in Black Skin, White Mask, using Alfred Adler’s psychological approach, “[t]he Negro is comparison”(211). Blaxploitation films are often structured around conflict between white and black—separating the races and their generic forms of cinema only by comparison. The title of Blacula itself implies comparison, as it is undeniably linked to the very European and very white Dracula. Without the popularity of Count Dracula, the character of Blacula would not be as strong of a symbol for the literal and metaphorical enslavement of African Americans (i.e. “[t]he black man’s plight as a victim of white vampirism) (Benshoff, 35). It is because “the count takes away the prince’s African name and gives him a European one very much like his own, transforming Prince Mamuwalde into ‘Blacula’” that we are sympathetic to the film’s Monster rather than its many stock white characters (Lipsitz, 218).
The Other is not only a figure for black men to identify with in Blacula, it also legitimizes the social circumstances of the black community as a reaction to white oppression. For the Other is now a victim; it is not just an internal source of horror but a sympathetic one. “[T]he audience is expected to cheer” on Blacula’s deconstruction of the modern white society that differs very little from the societies of the 17th and 18th centuries participating in the slave trade. This process of social translation of Otherness is referred to in Albert Memmi’s work The Colonizer and the Colonized, in which he describes how the Colonized become the Colonizers they feared. As a consequence of applying the Otherness to the black man, he shall avenge himself and destroy the real Monster: “the racist agents of normality”; but he will then prove himself to be the monstrous Other that white men feared (Benshoff, 37). Blacula’s “aggression in present-day African-America is tied to the destructive legacy of the slave trade” and therefore, he cannot be blamed for the Monster he has become (Medovoi, 7). Blaxploitation provided a ticket for black identity, as the communal experience of the theatre unified their anxiety in a turbulent era.
People ultimately seek ways to break free from the chains of social construction, from the tethering taboos of sexuality, and, in the end, seek reconciliation with the Other. Whether it be through confronting Otherness in the backyard or in oneself, or even justifying Otherness, exploitation cinema vents anxieties formulated from repression and oppression From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Blacula, staples of the genre are reformed to represent the volatile nature of the family and of race in the Seventies. The American horror film maps the quest for identity among individuals who feel that Hollywood conventions fail to represent their story. The appeal of Otherness in the horror film entices social outcasts and minority groups, so that they can reassure their identity as “something else” or “something different” from the status quo.
Benshoff, Harry M. “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?” Cinema Journal. Vol. 39, No. 2. (Winter) 2000, pp. 31-50.
Bould, Mark. “Apocalypse Here and Now; Making Sense of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” in Gary D. Rhodes (Ed). Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland Publishing, 2001, pp. 97-112.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask. Grove Press: New York, 1952.
Lipsitz, George. “Genre Anxiety and Racial Representation in 1970s Cinema.” In Nick Browne (Ed.) ReFiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Berkeley: UC Press, 1998.
Medovoi, Leerom. “Theorizing historicity, or the many meanings of Blacula.” Screen. Vol. 39. (Spring) 1998, pp.1-21.
Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Barry Keith Grant (Ed). Planks of Reason: essays on the Horror Film. London: Scarecrow Press, 1984, pp. 164-199.