SO I FANCY MAKING A NEW HORROR FILM...
Why are Horror films popular?
In this piece of writing I intend to study the popularity of the horror film genre. The horror story itself outside of the cinema is as old as the history of story telling so it is not surprising that it has flourished so much in the relatively new media of film. The reason I’ve picked this topic to discuss is that as I was a child of the 1980s, the advent of the video coincided with my growing up. My fascination with what became known as video nasties was as much apart of my childhood as Star Wars figures and Cheggers Plays Pop. I plan to discover what has made the horror film popular throughout the 20th Century, in its different guises and to also explore the changing aspects of the horror genre.
There are various pitfalls that must be addressed before the reasons for the popularity of the horror film can be explored. There is the problem of analysing the audience: there is a lack of what could be called scientific or precise data, evidence is only really anecdotal as to the composition and preferences of horror audiences. Audiences are also socially and historically specific, that is to say films view ed outside the social context may not have the same impact. As Wells comments,
“…it may be the case that matters of taste, preference and experience may only be understood through individual sensibilities, competencies and levels of access to texts, with the implied coda that any generalisations must be greeted with scepticism”
(Wells 2000, p25)
There is also the problem of defining the genre – the nature and content of horror films has changed over time.
So audiences are not fixed and genres are not fixed. There are, however, some basic similarities and universal characteristics that all horror films possess, otherwise the genre itself would not exist. Horror films are based on fear and monsters, the basic formula being that normality is threatened by a monster, be it a vampire, an invader, a child possessed by the devil or a community threatened by a serial killer. Most horror films are designed to scare and to make you jump or feel disturbed. It is this attraction that I wish to explore. I will also examine how horror films have changed over time and why different types and cycles of films have been popular. Most of the films I refer to are American, with some British films cited. It would be interesting to explore, say, the Bollywood horror films of the 1980s or the Spanish horror films of the 1970s in more detail but within the scale of this essay and also reflecting upon my own general knowledge and expertise, I am focusing particularly on American horror.
An obvious reason for the Horror films popularity is that is gives viewers a thrill. The Horror film is full on narrative tension and a typical cinema will be full of fans hiding their eyes, emitting nervous laughter and holding their breath – and enjoying the experience. As Brophy suggests:
“the gratification of the contemporary Horror film is based upon tension, fear, anxiety, sadism and masochism – a dospostion tht is overall both tasteless and morbid. The pleasure of the text is, in fact, getting the shit scared out of you – and loving it; an exchange mediated by adrenaline”
(As cited by Tudor in Jancovich (ed) (2002) p47)
Johnathan Romney also sums this up well when he comments
“Horror cinema is an act of claustrophobia, making us loath to stay in the cinema but unable to leave”
(Romney in Newman (ed) (2002) p309)
There is also the attraction of experiencing terror within a safe environment. As Monk comments in his book on the sublime,
“When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience”
(Monk (1960), p91)
If we were to encounter the monster and crazed killers of horror films in real life, we would most likely be paralysed with fear and feel completely helpless. This difference between real fear and the controlled fear that is brought about by these films is important. Watching horror films, we know that creature does not exist and we do not have to deal with the practical questions of what to do if we ourselves were in the situation, giving us the time to become fascinated with the monster and the situation. We have the space and security to be entertained. We can derive pleasure from pain when we judge aesthetically. Grixti commented that horror stories are:
“exercises in the discovery and exploration of map-territory relations, in that they provide a safely distanced and stylised means of making sense of and coming to terms with phenomena and potentialities of experience which under normal (i.e. functional) conditions would be found too threatening and disturbing”
(As cited by Tudor in Jancovich (2002), p52)
An important part of the modern horror film audience is made up of devoted fans who like to see themselves as part a fan base or movement and revel in being in the know and in their in-depth knowledge. It allows them to sustain individual identity within a distinctive peer-group context. As Wells puts it,
“They felt they had a special identity as fans of the genre, who instrinsically understood the textual and extra-textual meanings of the films and their making”
(Wells 2000, p28)
This is shown explicitly with in the biggest ‘club’ of all, the internet were you can find hundreds of sites dedicated to listing cuts, effects and such like in incredible detail.
These audiences often enjoy recognising the references within films to other films which are particularly prevalent in the modern horror film. Audiences that were brought up on video bought horror of the 80s were particularly able to gain an indepth knowledge of the conventions of horror movies of that time due to the ability to repeat view. There is also an element of rebellion against high culture here, with fans relishing the stigma that is attached to a generally undervalued culture. These were the audiences that were particularly enamoured with the teenage postmodern horrors of the 90s, which were witty parodies of horror films, with in jokes, rigorously dissecting and discussing formula elements of the horror genre, while at the same time providing the classic thrills of the horror movie. However that isn’t to say all horror film fans have the kind of knowledge to realise this - like fairground visitors, some are just thrill seekers.
The postmodern horror movie cycle of the 90s started with ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (1994) an ironic take on the cult anti-hero Freddy Kruger’s place in the lives of the actors within the original Nightmare On Elm Street series. Then followed Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ in 1996. Other films included ‘I know what you did last summer’ (1997, Jim Gillespie), ‘The Faculty’ (1998 Robert Rodriguez) and ‘Scary Movie’ (2000 Keenen Ivory Wayans).The first being a relatively straight take on the teen stalker movie but with knowing refernces to previous films of that type. The second an ironic take on the classic 50’s body snatchers type horror. And finally an out and out comic pastiche of the horror genre. Kim Newman describes the referencing and knowingness of Scream well,
“ …the scene within scene infinity applied as Randy shouts ‘look behind you’ at Jamie Lee Curtis on screen while the madman lurks behind his sofa, a scene simulataneously restaged in Gale’s remote cast van as Sidney and a technician watch a feed froma spy camera planted in the house, shouting ‘look behind you’ at an equally unheeding Randy. This approach allows for likeable cheap jokes, like Randy’s ‘I never thought I’d be so grateful to be a virgin’ as he survives the climax and Sidney’s quickfire reaction when Randy says ‘and this is the obligatory moment when the killer comes back from the dead for one last scare’
(Newman (2002), p198)
So although this cannot be applied to the horror films of the 50s and 60s, one can see that modern horror films, particularly the run of 90’s postmodern parodies, appealed to a particular type of fan because of the specific knowledge they had of the genre. It should be said that most young horror goers have an appreciation of the irony and conventions that films such as Scream are about and that the popularity of Scream was due not just because of this but because it also offered genuine jumps and scares.
Another aspect of horror films which make them appealing is the comedy factor which often goes along with them. This of course relates to films such as Scream but there is also much humour to be derived from Horror films which are unintentionally funny, particularly those films made decades ago which were frightening at the time but seem dated , absurd and comical now.
Studies have found that stress is placed on the importance of humour in relation to scare effects and was a strong determining factor in the perception of the genre as entertaining. Humour is also a way of dealing with extreme gore and horror. Comedy can be the mitigating factor in the acceptance of extreme scare effects and levels of brutality. There is a fine line between the scream of laughter and the scream of fright.
A major reason for the popularity of the horror film throughout the 20th century is the way it relates to the time in which it is made, i.e. the state of society, the moral debates of the age and the political status quo. Horror films are popular because they are a way of reflecting and expressing the worries and debates of the age. They are more useful for this purpose than straight narrative, action or romance could be because they are less limited within normalcy and have the mechanism of the monster as a way of portraying the enemy/what people are scared of. Wells sums this up well,
“The writers and film-makers who followed in the influential wake of twentieth-century modernity have therefore explored the fears which arise in the contemporary world, and what it is to be frightened. They are the authors of the new fables and fairytales which persist in revealing primal wisdom and collapsing traditional hierarchies. Consequently, the contemporary horror film continues in its own generic tradition of playing along ‘boundaries between fictional forms and social rules’, oscillating between a sometimes highly policised critique of the modern world and a playful engagement with its own conventions to facilitate its own postmodern freedoms”
(Wells (2000), p7)
Horror films of the 1930s demonstrated a particular concern with science and its centrality to the context of social progress, which grew with the advent of the Atomic Bomb. A good example of this is ‘The Invisible Ray’ madein 1936 (Lambert Hillyer) in which Radium X destroys its maker – an obvious comment upon the possible effects of nuclear power (it could be argued that this film is actually science fiction but I think the boundaries are always a little blurry). Films of the 30s also reflected effects of the Depression, as Basil Wright observes when reflecting on films such as King Kong and Frankenstein,
“…in their doomed pursuits of beauty and happiness, the movie monsters…reflected something of the despair of the Depression years”
(Cited in Wells (2000), p51)
History also affects the popularity of the horror film itself. Experiences in World War II compromised the desire to watch anything that was horrific and frightening and a few years after the end of the war saw a drop in the production of horror films. In fact the British Board or Film Censors banned the production, distribution, exhibition and import of horror movies during World War II. 40s Horror was instead more humorous, where viewers were more likely to laugh at the fear of others, e.g. Universal monsters allied with Abbott and Costello. After the Second World War the horror genre was saturated with ghost films. Maybe this reflected the fear of the dead and the fear of the unseen that came directly from the war.
The 1950s was a boom time for the horror film. Horror films played out the tension of the time and anticipated changing styles and cultures, using invasion narratives and outside narratives. A particular type of horror film was the “Creature Feature’ in the US. This was often played out as a battle between us and them, between society and a hideous monster, which was a metaphor for various threats such as Atomic Bomb anxiety, cold war fear and fear of communist infiltration. The Us and Them can also be seen as the conservative/liberal democracy against the communist infiltrators, who were often in the guise of mad scientists. ‘The Thing from Another World’ (1951 Christian Nyby) had at its centre the presence of a ‘bi-pedal, vampiric/vegetable’ (of course this film was remade by John Carpenter as The Thing and is also an example of the science fiction cross over). Other examples are ‘It came from beneath the sea’ and ‘Earth VS the Flying Saucer’, in which a giant octopus pulls down Golden Gate Bridge and a Flying Saucer flies in to Washington DC respectively, both narratives confirming the dreadful consequences of atomic power. ‘Earth VS the Flying Saucers’ also reflected the possibility of actual alien invasion after the Roswell incident of 1947. Horror films in the 50s reflected a growing anxiety about technocracy and mass society.
Psycho (Hitchcock 1960) changed the horror film forever. It moved from what is outside and far away to what is inside us all and familiar. It reinvented the horror film in terms of graphicism and in matters of tone. Up until Psycho, horror films provided closure and empathy and identification. As Wells comments,
“Psycho works as an act of permission for film-makers in the genre to further expose the illusory securities and limited rationales of contemporary life to reveal the chaos which underpins modern existence and constantly threatens to ensure its collapse”
(Wells (2000), p75)
Then in 1968 George Romero introduced another reality based shocker ‘Night of the Living Dead’ with the central character played by a black man. It subtly confronts the issue of racism, this being a very real issue in the US at the time. The monsters in this film being a new kind of flesh eating zombie. There is a child eating parent scene that still shocks to this day.
The 1970s was arguably the most flourishing period of horror film history so far and the films of the 1970s can be seen to reflect their times.. The proliferation of Cannibal films in the 1970s, beginning with the above mentioned film is seen by some as a metaphor for the capitalistic economic order “feeding off” the less powerful and socially mobile. The Spanish Werewolf Horror films in the 70s such as “The Werewolf’s Shadow” ( 1971 Leon Klimovsky) symbolised the tranisition of the apparently ordinary man to violence and brutality as a metaphor of rebellion against oppression and conservatism in Spain and a reference to the pleasure of consumption. Pleasure however derived from these so called Euro-trash movies, viewed out of context in the grindhouse cinemas that inhabited New York’s Time Square throughout this decade, was gained more from their exoticness than as comments on their country of origin’s social problems.
The changing transgression of horror in the 1970s and its boundary breaking content, particularly so-called ‘body horror’ is closely related to aspects of postmodern social experience. As Carroll comments,
“the contemporary horror genre is the exoteric expression of the same feelings that are expressed in the esoteric discussions of the intelligentsia with respect to post-modernism”
(Carroll in Jancovich (ed) (2002) p51)
Body horror films can be seen as an expression of the post modern identity crisis of the 1970s – the experience of social fragmentation and the constantly threatening confrontation between fragile “selves” and a risky and unreliable world. As I speak about later in the case study of The Exorcist (1973), America in the 1970’s was an unstable place - with its failing military campaign in Vietnam and Nixon’s corruption, the USA was a paranoid place suffering huge insecurity.
Films in the 1980s can be seen as a reaction to the Aids anxieties of the time, for example vampire films such as The Lost Boys (1987 Joel Schumacher). The horror films of the 90s and their expression of postmodern irony and knowingness have been referred to earlier in the essay. The last 25 years of horror seems to be reflecting a very unreliable world. This makes the modern horror film popular because its basic codes correlate with our experience of fear, risk and instability in modern societies – this has been referred to as paranoid horror. As Tudor puts it,
“The mechanism and pleasure found here is more active, proposing that social agents recognise in texts features of the everyday world of social experience, transmuted perhaps, but none the less pleasurable in their sense of familiarity and relevance”
(Tudor in Jancovich (ed) (2002) p52)
It is also argued that modern society is shielded more and more from every day life and experiences, there is less of a community and life is more insulated – people can exist without leaving their homes for weeks. The horror film in this context supplies the required thrill they lack. As the directors of the Blair Witch Project comment, horror,
“breaks up the tedium of everyday life. In a society that is increasingly insulated, where we have shelter, alarm systems and police, only horror can put you in touch with the primal fears that we had when we were walking on our hands and which, for the most part, we've forgotten. That's why people like being scared"
The Guardian Newspaper- interview 2000
Horror films from the 50s onwards also reflected changing attitudes to women in society. ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958 Nathan Juran) alluded to the crisis in gender relations and the reconfiguration of masculinity and femininity, as did ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, (1957 Jack Arnold) which interestingly is being remade by Keenen Ivory Wayans of ‘Scary Movie’ fame. The monsters represent the limits of what it is to be a man and the redefinition of the status and position of women.
Some argue that the prevalence of films in the 70s in which the female is the last human alive who eventually defeats the monster, the ‘Final Girl’, particularly slasher films such as Halloween (1978 John Carpenter ) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 Tobe Hooper), is a reflection of the empowerment of women and the rise of feminism, with the postmodern woman moving beyond the traditional expectations of women as victims. However in both these films the final girl theory can also be argued against as their escape is aided by men (in Halloween the doctor turns up to shoot Myers and in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre a random passer by stops and picks up the victim in there truck). Others see the slasher movie as a metaphor for punishment of young people involved in casual sex, which is often the activity of the characters in the build up to the monster/murderer striking in these films. Some horror films see women being played out as the monster itself, e.g. The Exorcist (1973 William Friedkin ) and The Brood (1979 David Cronenburg ) and Carrie (1976 Brian De Palma ) and it is argued that the horror film actually exposes a deep anxiety in male directors about the personal and social impact of women upon men and the changing role of women with feminism. So the horror film has been popular as a way of projecting various views about women and their changing role in society.
The horror film can be seen plainly as a mechanism for confronting death itself. This is partly the reason it is often popular with the young – it is the natural curiosity and desire to see and confront death and to see the multiple ways it can occur and the untimely nature of its occurrence. As well as the desire to see death, there is a desire to come to terms with shock, to enjoy and understand the experience. So, the horror film experience is part of the process of growing up – as Tudor puts it,
“.. the act of genre recognition itself is part of the process of making sense of the social world, a source of shared frameworks through which we come to understand, among other things, what is fearful and what it is to be frightened”
(Tudor in Jancovich (2002), p52)
The horror film also plays on innate fears, such as the fear of the unknown, the fear of other people and the fear ‘for’ other people. Watching horror films often produces a fear for the victims who are being stalked or chased, particularly when we can often see more than the victim can (see the above quote about Scream). It is natural for us to want to protect these characters from harm but we also have a desire to perceive the painful outcome, hence the popularity of horror films. We allow our curiosity to overcome our fears. This being a recurring motif not only by the viewer of the films but also by many victims within the films, how often do we find ourselves shouting at the screen ‘don’t go in there…’ etc. There is then, an ambivalence about watching horror films. One (at least most people) is horrified by evil but impressed by the art and audacity of the killers/monsters. Our moral sense is disgusted but part of us will identify with it. Some horror films monster/killers are not totally unsympathetic, for example in Frankenstein the monster is the emotional centre of the film. As Wood comments,
“ Central to the effect and fascination of horror films is the fulfilment of our nightmare wish to smash the norms that oppress us and which our moral conditioning teaches us to revere. The overwhelming commercial success of ‘The Omen’ cannot possibly be explained in terms of simple, unequivocal horror at the devil’s progress”
(Wood in Jancovich (2002) p32)
Some argue that horror films are a fuel for the violence and sadism of warped individuals, an argument which fuels the censorship debate and which often rears its head when there has been a violent crime perpetrated by a horror film watcher or a copycat crime. Also the idea of the authorities controlling what the viewers see was challenged in the 1980s with the advent of home video and pre the video recording act by the BBFC. The argument against this is that the perpetrators of this crime are already warped and would carry out their evil acts anyway, but many feel that the horror film allows these individuals to take in something they need through the graphic depictions of violence, a sadomasochistic pleasure derived from images of violence. Horror, it is argued, appeals to deep-seated repressed desires and the horror genre serves as a channel releasing the bestiality concealed within (this again is not unlike many horror film monsters being the beast within). Horror in this sense is therefore popular as a mechanism for perpetrating violent and evil crimes.
Far from being a fuel for violent acts, many believe that the horror film is actually a useful safety valve and a way of purging emotions. Audiences watching horror experience catharsis, watching the film they experience the emotions of terror, pity, fear and relief, which is necessary and purifying. In this way the horror film is beneficial way of getting rid of excess emotions and may be a reason for its popularity.
The structure of the horror film is another measure of its popularity. The horror film is in essence a protracted series of discoveries. There is at first the question of whether the monster exists, then once it is revealed we want to know more about its nature, identity and origin and what it is going to do next. For example many horror films only exist because the victims are stupid enough in the first place to let their curiosity get the better of them. The horror story is therefore driven by curiosity and engages the audience by being involved the process of disclosure, discovery, proof, explanation, hypothesis and confirmation. It could be argued that all narratives involve the desire to know , but horror is a special type as it has at its centre something that is unknowable. Therefore the disgust monsters often produce is the price we pay for the disclosure of their existence. You could argue that some horror films have no build up, there is just pure confrontation and pure onset, e.g. Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1980) and therefore how can we use the argument of protracted discovery? However, these types of films satisfy true horrific curiosity, the we are curious about the objects themselves. These monsters are disturbing, distressing and disgusting but also interesting and fascinating, as Carroll says,
“ One wants to gaze upon the unusual, even when it is simultaneously repelling”
(Carroll in Jancovich (2002), p39)
To conclude, the horror movie has been popular over time for a number of reasons. It has been a popular way of reflecting the fears and beliefs of the era it is made in. It gives a group of people an identity, a club they can belong to. It allows people, particularly young people to confront their fears and curiosities. However, I believe the main reason for its popularity is the thrill horror fans get from the experience of watching a film. In his 1991 book The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment through scary stories and movies, Kendrick writes,
"the horror of death and dying is rendered safe; it is turned into a celebration of being permanently alive, forever immune to decay. Death and dying are made to provide pleasure--not of an intellectual sort or even an emotional one, but the gut thrill of deep breaths, shouts, and half-serious clutches at the viewer in the next seat. Fear of deadness has become a reliable reservoir of muscular innervation [i.e., nervous tension] that can be tapped at any time, without much inventiveness, or, it seems, any anxiety that it will ever run dry.
"The cleverest horror films may offer political commentary, even social criticism, thereby winning the approval of those who would otherwise never glance at a horror movie. But such things are extras; they're far from necessary, and they sometimes threaten to impede horror's fundamental errand--to assure the viewer that his flesh will always remain firm and intact, that for all this display of rot and carnage, there is nothing to fear."
(as cited in ‘Morbid Movies Web Page (2004)
The viewing of a horror film is both pleasurable and disturbing, it is a challenge that for me comes from the very basic idea of being able to view something that is there to shock. There are many films I have not mentioned from mainstream PG rated films such as Jaws to the rarely seen Italian shocker The Beyond and as many in between these opposite ends of the spectrum. Just as there are as many different types of viewer who gain pleasure from these types of film. I began this study by talking a little about my personal interest in the genre now as an adult I still love these films but I think for a different reason. As a adolescent the thrill came as I suspect it does for thousands in multiplexes across the country just from getting (safely) a fright. Now I see the social comment, the subversive message and the sometimes abstract beauty of these films.
As for the future of the genre, last year saw a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and also as mentioned a prequel to The Exorcist is on the way. No matter if the horror film is seen by some as a low-culture form of entertainment it is still keeping a lot of people thrilled and chilled and doesn’t look like going away.
As an appendage to this essay I have looked at three American films from the 1970s which have survived and become horror cult classics. The first being William Friedkins supernatural horror The Exorcist (1973 William Friedkin), the second being the ultimate rural gothic horror The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 Tobe Hooper). Finally made in 1979 and what has become known as the ultimate Video nastie and urban gothic Driller Killer (1979 Abel Ferrara). I chose these three films because of the effect they had on me personally - they both thrill and repulse me. What is it about them that has made me go back and watch them again?
The film was released in the US on Boxing day 1973 into an America racked by social unease, Richard Nixon’s government was rapidly unravelling and the US was gripped by paranoia. The film is an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s book of the same name which is based on supposedly true events that occurred in the 1940’s (although these were the possession of a teenage boy under rather different circumstances) in Washington. It is the story of a rich single mother’s daughter on the brink of adolescence who becomes possessed by a demon and is exorcist by two catholic priests. The English film critic and writer Mark Kermode who has championed this film in the UK for years, has made a documentary and written a BFI modern classics book on the film said
“never before or since has a mainstream movie provoked such wildly diverging reactions. In the UK its power lead to it being banned on video. Nearly a quarter of a century after its creation it remains an unresolved mystery with equal power to elate and disturb, thrill and appal, engage or enrage”
(Kermode (1997), p10)
The above comment I think addresses the reasons very well as to why the film has become and stayed so popular (with a prequel soon to be released the film continues to occupy the cinema going publics imagination). I believe this film has a special place in this country also as it became something of the banned film holy grail in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. This is no doubt due to the fact that it had been released on video and although it does not feature on the BBFC’s video nastie list it was soon withdrawn, making it hard to come by. The film stands out even today as a true ‘horror’ film because, I believe, of the use of a child and the child being possessed. We have an inbuilt instinct to protect the child and also an inbuilt belief that the child is innocent. Therefore when we see the child masturbating with a crucifix or saying “your mother sucks cocks in hell” we are all the more disturbed.
"Still, by far, the most intense and unsettling horror film of them all."
Film Review Special no.33 2000 - 2001 Preview p.82 [UK]
The Exorcist is different from the other two films I’ve chosen because it is not an independent production, the director was working within the studio system, albeit at a time when the studio system was experiencing a radical shake up. This fact could for a ‘cult horror’ fan be a problem if it were not for the truly shocking and compelling nature of the film.
I think at the very heart of this film is the type of ghost story we’ve all heard as children and a story of the battle between good and evil were good triumphs (although in a rather down beat fashion) and the victim is saved.
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 exploitation horror film the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ has become a genre defining classic. In the post-Vietnam post-Manson America this film throws its audience in a number of ways. Unlike previous films of the genre the ‘monsters’ are not supernatural but psychotic cannibals, a kind of American family turned on its head. There is no escape into fantasy here, and also no particular hero to root for. As in the later horror sub-genre the slasher film, the victims are picked off one by one before a final female victim (as discussed in the main essay) is captured and brutalised ( in surely one of the most psychologically terrifying cinematic set pieces). It is a comment on the social state of US economics, where the cannibals once worked at the slaughter house their jobs have been mechanised making them unemployed and relying on passers by for their food. As Wells states on this film
“ The Texas Chainsaw Massacre… is a key example of rural gothic which… calls upon the brutalities of a mythic past and distorts the imperatives and philosophy of rural life. Self-determination, survivalism, familial loyalty and the progress in settlement become the depraved and corrupt conventions of a backwood family slaughterhouse, where the chainsaw wielding ‘leatherface’ treats all human life as ‘meat’
(Wells (2000), p87)
This film once again had trouble with the censors who were unable to make any cuts as although the film is terrifying to watch, there is very little bloodshed. It is the constant screaming of the female victim in the later part of the film that causes such unease in the viewer. There are many symbols of classic fear in the film from the opening sequence of sun spots through to the final scenes of the masked chainsaw wielding lunatic that has become a subversive cult icon.
Abel Ferrara’s micro budget 1979 horror set on the grimy bleak New York streets is a uncompromising assault on the senses. From the opening instructions to play the film loud (was this a knowing nod to the fact that the film would be more watched on the new medium of video than on the cinema screen?) there is a sense of punk anarchy throughout the film. It has to be said that this is not a film of beauty in the way that the first two films above are. Its aesthetic is that of dark grunge, poorly lit on grainy film stock with music that’s more a dirge and acting that verges on drug induced catatonic states. That said ,
“The Driller Killer is one of the most notorious films ever. It almost single-handedly spawned the media “video nasty” hysteria of 1984 and the introduction of the video recording act”
Ilc prime videos
The story concerns that of Reno, an artist (played by Ferrara under the alias Jimmy Laine) struggling to keep his work going, putting up with a punk band that live next door, worrying his father is a ‘bum’ and slowly going insane. Reno is a kind of anti hero driven to killing down and outs with a drill through insanity and maybe a fear that he himself may end up like them. The film has no redeeming qualities, but does capture a New York that has disappeared for ever, and has become a cult film just because of these reasons. This summer saw a season of films by the director at the ICA in London so even though as the quote above states the film that was once seen as a “video Nasty” it is viewed now if not as art then certainly as a work which deserves a place in the cultural history of film.
The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch Paul Wells (Wallflower Press) 2000
Horror, The Film Reader Paul Jancovich (Editor) (Routledge) 2002
Science Fiction/Horror Kim Newman (Editor) (British Film Institute) 2002
The Exorcist Mark Kermode (British Film Institute) 1997
Horror - A Thematic History in Fiction and Film Darryl Jones (Arnold) 2002
the sublime Samuel H. Monk (Ann Arbor Paperbacks) 1960
Defining cult movies: The cultural politics of oppositional taste Jancovich/Reboll/Stringer/Willis (Editors) (Manchester University Press) 2003
Morbid Movies – website http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~homespun/hmovies.html
Creeping Flesh: The horror fantasy Film Book David Kerekes (Editor) (Headpress/Critical Vision) 2003
The cinema of George Romero knight of the living dead Tony Williams (Wallflower Press) 2003
The Weird World Of John Waters Filthy Robert L Pela (Alyson Books) 2002
The Gore Score Chas Balun (Fantaco Publications) 1987
Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats Barry Miles (Owl Books) 1999
Exterminator William Burroughs (Corgi) 1966
Totem and Tabboo Sigmund Freud (Routledge) 1950
Hollywood Babylon Kenneth Anger (Dell Publishing Company) 1983
Fragments of infinity-essays in religion and philosophy Arvind Sharma (Editor) (Prism Press) 1981
Existentialism and humanism Jean Paul Sartre (Methuen) 1948
Meet yourself as you really are Prince Leopold Loewenstein and William Gerhardi
The Tao of Pooh Benjamin Hoff (Penguin Books) 1983
Censored-the story of film censorship in Britain Tom Dewe Mathews (Chatto &Windus)
Genre and Hollywood Steve Neale (Routledge) 2000
Cult Horror Films Welch Everman (Citadel Press/Carol Publishing Group) 1993
Anxiety And Neurosis Charles Rycroft (Pelican Books) 1968
Lynch David Hughes(Virgin) 2001
Why do people hate America Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Davies (Icon Books) 2003
The psychology of consciousness Robert Ornstein (Pelican Original) 1994
The Art of the Film Ernest Lindgren (Readers Union) 1950
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