Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, by Kim Newman. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1988, 2011. Trade paperback, 633pp. $45.00.
The first film writing I ever came in contact with was one of those kid-appreciations of movie monsters. It had a salacious selection of expressionistic publicity stills featuring stunning starlets of the B-through-Z screen caught forever screaming on one side of the frame, the shadow of some inhuman claw creeping at them along a blazing white backdrop on the other; or else a fanged, furried fiend seemed to have halted momentarily on a claustrophobic set to hiss knowingly at the camera before continuing his evil deeds. Again and again I thumbed through these pictures, solemnly, ignorantly studying the remains of tawdry, studio-produced hype as if I were piecing together fascinating clues to the origins of existence. The photo I most often found myself looking at was of an eerily gleeful, vampiric, Dr. Hyde sort of creature sporting a top hat and wielding a great webbed cape, played by the Man of a Thousand Faces himself, Lon Chaney, from the long-lost film London After Midnight. I’d probably still be gazing at those pictures today if a hated relative hadn’t tossed the book on the roof of my house where nobody could retrieve it (or cared to). Over a week or so I remember pouting out to the backyard to look at it up there taunting me. Then one day the book vanished and time passed and I moved on to soak up a thick coffee table-sized book on Hitchcock. Stephen King’s much-quoted Danse Macabre soon followed; finally, academic genre studies came under my bed-lamp analyzing, interpreting, twisting every stupid morbid thing I’d ever enjoyed into an insinuating brew of historical or cultural diagnoses, with charts and graphs and, at the outer reaches of abstruse theoretic construction, Freudian feminist decryptions of civilization’s gross pathology. Obviously I’ve never stopped hoping to find my favorite monster book sitting up on that roof, returned from the mists of childhood. This same impulse, I’m convinced, rests behind the writing of Kim Newman’s “monumental” study of fright flicks, Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, doing research for a project, I happened across the first edition of Nightmare Movies, which had a section on the director Brian De Palma. Unfortunately my library lost it. Years later, doing research again for that same elusive project, I obtained my own copy. This poorly made 1980s book almost at once fell apart. As if by magic, a year later, author Newman announced he had returned to his by now more than 20-year-old study, doubling its size by attaching to it a kind of sequel tracing the developments in the genre since 1987. Newman is not only a critic but a writer of novels such as Anno Dracula, and many others, so that while he can and does marshal most of the usual heavy critical-speak college-educated types are always thinking up to justify loving the tacky and the fun, he’s also tacky and fun with his writing, brings a hands-on understanding to the how and why of things narrative, as previously demonstrated by his marvelous BFI Film Classics monograph about Cat People. That little book shows an excellent example of his method at its most exemplary, disclosing meaning not by an elaborate predetermined idea about what a movie ought to mean, but through a careful description of the work’s production and dramatic structure. Also, he’s perfect for a book like Nightmare Movies because he has an apparently inexhaustible ability to sit through just about anything, no matter how gory, amateurish or trivial.
The now accepted notion that horror went through some kind of sea change in the ’60s is Newman’s jumping-off place. Hitchcock’s black-comic shocker masterpiece Psycho is said, more emphatically than truthfully I think, to have opened the window on a new landscape where the previously heavy-handed gothic traditions could be shaken off as the anachronistic, expressionist faux-19th-century hokum they always were, replaced with a modern world of highways and car lots, motels and mind-numbing jobs, petty motivations and bad marriages, stuff pulp literature had already assimilated. The decline of the entrenched studio system begun after World War II — caused by the growing popularity of television’s keeping lazy folks home on the cheap — along with the collapse of the old standards of morality embodied by the Hays Code, allowed new methods of distribution and markets for riskier product outside the studio’s crumbling infrastructure to thrive, freeing up exploitation filmmakers to, well, exploit. In 1968, with the pretty much unheralded release of Night of the Living Dead, the modern horror film was finally born, unleashing a torrent of cheap, tawdry, often fascinating, occasionally brilliant, usually tasteless films to muck up the public’s sleep. At least according to Kim Newman — it’s easy to dispute capsule histories like this with examples of modern settings and banal characters in pictures before the ’60s (such as in Cat People) and to note that the same old Shelley-Poe-Wilde theatrics are still camping out in current glossy terror films, but it gives Newman a sturdy framework through the two parts of his fat 633-page book to groove and gog and dig all the ways modern horror films are particularly modern, not only in relation to previous cycles, which is pretty much how he grapples with Night of the Living Dead — describing its sudden opening in an ordinary graveyard (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) as a bon voyage to what came before and a precursor of what was to follow — but also scares up the kinds of cult-studies takes mentioned above.
Newman’s at his best when he gives himself space to talk up specific films like Dead or some of Romero’s later work, though I personally think he overrates a rather long-winded film like Dawn of the Dead and gives too much credence to Romero’s obvious liberal sociology, which trivializes issues with silly zombie metaphors; Night works so well not because it exposes the underside of ’60s-era fill-in-the-social-ill but because it’s a squalid, compelling tale about a few pathetic people far too mixed up in the moment to offer any consistent prognoses about the society that produced them and their apocalypse. The titles of Newman’s chapters are always entertaining: “Shoot ‘Em In The Head! Or: The Birth of the Hate Generation,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas or: The Down-Home, Up-Country, Multi-Implement Massacre Movie,” “Tales of Ordinary Madness or: The Close-Up Crazies,” “The Weirdo Horror Film Or: Cult, Kitsch, Camp, Sick, Punk, and Pornography,” “The Lecter Variations,” “Zombie Apocalypse Now.” Each begins with an examination of one of the horror big boys like Night or Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Silence of the Lambs, after which they divide to discuss related issues. In these sub-sections the critical quality tends to thin out to mere “encyclopedic” entries, possibly because the field is really just too unwieldy to cover this way with any depth; aside from giving one an idea of things to see there’s not much to be said about this method at its extreme other than to be overwhelmed almost to the point of vertigo at how much the wheels of the genre keep churning, producers keep repeating, rediscovering, and cannibalizing any little trend or gimmick that’s come along or hasn’t been used for awhile. Some of the examples he gives, like Sam Fuller’s ridiculous TV movie-of-the-week-with-gore White Dog, seem barely related to movie horror. Still he has his reasons for taking on off-subjects like this: in part two of the book, for instance, in a chapter called “More Auteurs,” he devotes an entire section to David Lynch, whom he admits doesn’t really make horror. Newman justifies it by making the sound claim that Lynch’s nightmarish visions have had a genuine effect on the genre, which, frankly, is all the reason anybody needs to talk about such a great director. Tim Burton, though, who’s too cute to be scary, is really more of a “Weirdo Horror Movie” guy somehow gone mainstream, more a footnote and commentary than one of the genre’s true auteurs.
Occasionally his criticism runs to cant like this:
The Youth culture explosion of the late 1960s saw Hair running on Broadway, the Beatles getting into Indian mysticism, student revolt in Paris, “Hell No, We Won’t Go” demos in the USA and the popularization of mind-expanding drugs. Everyone was tuning in, turning on, tripping out, signing off and getting in on the act. By the time the Ohio National Guard used Sheriff McClellan’s tactics at Kent State University, the Swinging Sixties had soured. The California sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll cult had produced such notable examples of Peace and Love and All That Stuff as the Manson Family murders and the death of a Rolling Stones fan at the hands of Hell’s Angels bouncers during an open-air concert at Altamont. With ringing Nixonian evasiveness, the incident was put down to “security over enthusiasm,” which is Newspeak for “Shoot ’em in the head.”1
This, from his opening chapter about the sociological importance of Night of the Living Dead, manages to cram the entire Dark Side of the Twentieth Century into just a few shopworn images, even bringing on poor old Nixon for another curtain call. I’m only surprised Newman didn’t end it Kubrick-style with the exclamation mark of an ever-ready mushroom cloud. In the second part of the book, he takes up the idea that so-called torture porn films such as Hostel and Saw are responses to 9/11 and the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which creepy pictures taken and saved on guards’ cell phones in a converted Iraqi prison were leaked, showing up the “best” of America’s boys (and girls) torturing and sexually degrading prisoners. This then dumped a whole lot of gray into the black-and-white brew of one of the more trumped up military adventures in America’s history. For Newman, movies like Hostel became a way to justify the torture and set things back at the more reassuring black-and-white position on the good old USA’s mental monitor, dramatizing naïve Americans kidnapped and battered to the point that an Us versus Them payback can be made delectably unavoidable: “In an era of Rendition (2007), in which foreigners should worry about winding up at the mercy of Americans, Hostel is all about America’s fear of the rest of the world.” It’s an interesting idea, but I suspect this kind of thing probably means more in the minds of critics and filmmakers than those of viewers, who continue to think in terms of monsters and heroes and testing themselves to see if they can take all the flaying and harrowed flesh without being scared, though I’m not sure how any but the most inexperienced kids could possibly be frightened by the unmitigated, etherized dullness of the Saw films. Oddly, Newman only discusses in passing the endless spate of remakes of seventies and eighties horror films that have been plaguing us over the past decade. He doesn’t make much of the trend culturally, nor does he note the way in which sexual elements have been toned down (with a few exceptions), the violence slicked up. Surely this says something.
Still, by and large, Newman gets away with this kind of pop-criticality, because he’s able to juggle his language with film and television references in a fun way, shooting out a spritzy soda-spray of references whose fizzle never quite goes flat, as in quotes like these:
Pepsi-Cola, the national drink of America, became a best-selling beverage with the slogan, “for those who think young.” The ideals of American culture are youth and vitality, whether displayed by pioneers taming the frontier wilderness, cocky young gun Kennedy carving a legend by facing down doddery old Khrushchev or Frankie Avalon agonizing over the choice between surfing on the surf, twisting on the sand or drag-racing down Route 66. The American tragedy is the menopause and the American nightmare is senility. In the twentieth century, the youth of America is concentrated in the cities, while age is left to rot in the sticks. When Mr Smith Comes to Washington he leaves behind a mid-west that needs, but no longer sustains, his virility . . . Psycho is the first of many suggestions that the bypassed backwaters might nurture a homicidal hatred for the city slickers who have taken over from the cowboys as emblems of Americana.2
Even if he didn’t quite get the name of that Capra/Stewart film right, Newman’s amusing facility for stirring up his British man’s pop-cultural/pop-journalistic clichés almost always entertains. Maybe because they’re so frothy and shallow you don’t have to take them too seriously, just second-thought props for the inexhaustible pleasure he derives from junk.
It’s nice to see some of the contrarian things he has to say about the original version of A Nightmare on Elm Street or his refreshing take on a wildly overrated “classic” like The Exorcist: “The flurry of Reader’s Digest theology that surrounded the Exorcist explosion would have you believe that William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin discovered the Devil drinking a fire and brimstone soda at the counter of Schwab’s Drug Store and made him into a movie star.”3 “Despite Blatty’s claim that his story is based on Actual Documented Facts and that it has an Important Theme in Father Karras’ crisis of faith, The Exorcist, as book and film, is a shocker laced with Rod Serling-style intense characterizations and commercially calculated grossness.”4 “After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Shivers, Dawn of the Dead and commercially available videotapes of Elvis’ autopsy, it seems incredible that in 1973, everyone got worked up about Linda Blair cursing, upchucking green mud and masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Of course it was the crucifix that did it. The cucumber in Thundercrack! is tasteless exploitation; in The Exorcist the image of Christ makes the act sacrilege . . . the masturbation is the key to The Exorcist.”5 “Although The Exorcist may have been touted as blasphemous, its finale is a return to moralizing waffle. Father Merrin, the Savant, dies nobly, passing his God-given task to an assistant, Father Karras (Jason Miller). Karras The Doubting Priest, has an upsurge of faith that enables him to overcome Pazuuzu [demon possessing Linda Blair] with an act of supreme self-sacrifice. Innocence is saved . . .” If like me you saw this film and it struck you as more or less anti-climactic corn, then snippets such as these may help you feel you’re not alone.
However, if like me you’re tired of the De Palma bashing that’s gone on over the years, Newman’s take is very disappointing. His section on the filmmaker trots out all the usual complaints, that he was a Hitchcock ripoff, a sell-out for making his first big hit Carrie, a misogynist and worse. Also, he has a few gripes peculiar to British critics: apparently De Palma’s films, while stylistically brilliant, are seen as always sacrificing dramatic coherence to display. Plus Newman has a complaint all his own, that De Palma’s somehow arrogant on a tragic level: “Brian De Palma, initially a humble thane on the New York underground scene, is the Macbeth of the movies. He murdered his way to a throne with increasingly brilliant, increasingly callous horror thrillers.” The way Newman tells it, the more effective, the more successful De Palma’s best movies, the worse, more nonsensical, and offensive the results. This coming from someone who considers Dario Argento great. Like so many critics, he has a kind of double standard for De Palma that most of horror moviedom is not quite held to: he thinks the director should not be reworking elements of cinematic tradition or exploiting themes of sexual exploitation, except in Sisters, which Newman thinks is De Palma’s best outing. For whatever reason he’s obviously bothered by the depictions of women in Carrie and Dressed to Kill but, despite all his other criticism, never stops to note the fact that The Exorcist is basically saying a tough, independent-minded divorcee like the Ellen Burstyn character pretty much left her daughter open to the devil by having a career and being foul-mouthed. Halloween (whose borrowings from Hitchcock are smiled upon, whose borrowings from Carrie go unnoticed) is — despite director John Carpenter’s assertion that Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Laurie Strode should be seen as sexually repressed and that The Shape, Michael Myers, who kills her normal friends, is the personification of that repression — a celebration of the opposite: her shyness, purity and refusal to smoke pot saves her while her more self-indulgent modern friends get it.
I don’t know why De Palma’s movies, and a few others, seem so politically suspect to such critics, but I think these blind spots lead us into something intellectually important or at least difficult.6 It reveals a type of uncritical critical thinking which is so prevalent in film writing that the underlying assumptions are almost invisible: if you can attempt to show a movie halfway traffics in your progressive political beliefs, then it’s possible to say the film’s OKAY; if not, the movie’s bad and bad for you. This sort of thinking just doesn’t work for a genre meant to provoke a visceral response, which by its very nature is bound to be contradictory and politically iffy. The question to ask about these kinds of movies isn’t, what are they saying about how much our society sucks, but why is it that they do or don’t make us feel certain things when we’re watching them (it’s a genre based entirely on the emotion it arouses, after all). Maybe this could enlighten us about the nature of our society, since social custom often conditions what we find suspicious or threatening, but usually what we get in these kinds of books are critics having certain reactions that make them uncomfortable and then trying to blame the filmmakers for the responses — i.e., Carrie White has a bad time when she gets her first period, which made the critic feel bad, therefore Brian De Palma is saying menstruation is horrible and monstrous. Certainly, making a report card on bad ideology is easier than examining why certain things worked the way they did on the critic, and not how they think they’re meant to work on society, in the first place.
Thankfully, though, Newman’s far too experienced a viewer to throw everything out that rocks his boat — frankly I’m surprised anything at all still does rock his boat at this point — but you can tell he doesn’t always realize that what he likes about these movies is that they’re familiar and nostalgic, which he calls fun, rather than actually being scary. This provokes the question that comes up around horror more than almost any other genre, and which I think these kinds of liberal look-for-the-sociological-subtext arguments Stephen King popularized in his much-quoted study of horror Danse Macabre don’t really smooth over: why do people find being scared, freaked out and repulsed fun? Like so many questions about why rational human beings care about people and things who never existed, a simple satisfying answer can’t be found. A partial solution never discussed with any depth7 is that most horror movies are so terrible that no matter how gory they are, the things just aren’t scary. They’re too badly acted, filmed, conceived to get much more than an occasional “gross!” if successful; a laugh if not. Meaning it hardly matters if I Spit on your Grave (1978) “has the distinction of being among the most loathsome films of all time,” as Newman says, because it’s so poorly made and performed the thing’s closer to John Waters camp than terror; this dubious “distinction” is giving the movie too much credit. A lot of the fun of these kinds of movies (the recent remake of Piranha comes to mind) is tied into their very badness, the corrupt baldness of their plots, the almost naively dumb way they expose women’s breasts and punish bad-doers or the annoying; the way a stupid device, a camera move or murder weapon migrates from movie to movie, etc. And sometimes, in the midst of the very failure of a movie, one discovers an entertaining odd bit of success that may make one overly enthusiastic about the whole, a sudden image or sequence so mesmerizing and emotional it’s like an exciting enigma that draws you back again and again. The ending of Night of the Living Dead comes to mind, filmed through cloth with faraway music, showing several stills of Duane Jones’ dead body being burned on a fire like the zombies he eluded through the night; or the dinner scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre; or the masked, rain-coated killer in Alice, Sweet Alice stabbing a woman’s legs through the railing of an apartment building’s stairs. Ideological takes about freeing and then vanquishing what our society has repressed won’t tell us why these kinds of things can sometimes get under our skin the way the do, why they give pleasure; because so little is being repressed in our society.
I think Newman’s theories are really best understood as being mostly a way of trying to answer that question, and not the impotent, lefty academic’s project for changing the world by “calling it into question.” Therefore what he has to say about director Michael Haneke’s work is a good stopping point. It gives us more of a clue as to what these kinds of movies are doing for Newman than his approval of Night of the Living Dead. Haneke comes up prominently in his discussion of the “torture porn” genre, which he defines by comparison: “slasher movies, in their purest form, are fun; torture-themed movies aren’t.” I think we need to keep this distinction in mind as we read this: “Haneke is an appropriate end-point for discussion . . . Cruelty is his major theme, and Das Weisse Band [The White Ribbon] is even a respectable contribution to the ‘evil kid’ sub-genre with 1914-vintage rural German children perpetrating terrible crimes just out of frame as they apply lessons learned from evil adults. However, Haneke sets out to make films in the way Jigsaw constructs traps or Jean Lerner digs under a rapist’s fingernail: to torture audiences into an admission of complicity or simple cries of self-hating anguish. After ‘why are you doing this to me?,’ the most often repeated line in these films is ‘please make it stop.'” ((Ibid. p. 490.)) Throughout this book he’s said that his favorites have made us aware of our “complicity” with the material. How and why is that complicity of horror so much fun? That’s the question. At some point, as the audience assimilates the genre, the danger or unpleasantness of the material crosses a line, becoming, oddly, warm and fuzzy, a matter of nostalgia. So, whatever the deal, looks like I finally found my monster book again.
- Newman, p. 22. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 72. [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 56-57. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 57. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 61. [↩]
- Another interesting thing about the book is that though he did not rewrite the first, older half, he did go back and add footnotes in which he changed his tune about films that he initially did not like, such as Alien, and also mitigates, somewhat, his opinion of De Palma, which was so downbeat I wondered, and still do, why he even bothered with the section at all. [↩]
- Newman’s chapter on “The Weirdo Horror Film” deals with the enjoyment of trash, but very disdainfully, as ultimately did Stephen King, even though a good many of the films both defend as good are not really that great. [↩]