It's then interesting to think of how attitudes toward Horror have changed over the years because of two things that were born at roughly the same time, and then advanced together: Cinema and Psychoanalysis. Both arenas were fascinated with our private nocturnal demons and projected them onto a stage of exposure, though one could say the more conscious we were of these hidden monsters, the less frightening they became – or rather, the more desensitized we became. As the films have gotten more violent and intense, we become more tolerant to their assaults, like Mithra, the Persian king who drank a little bit of poison every day so as to become immune. One could say that in order for Horror to be effective, it must acquire a deal of verisimilitude removed from the classic form of expressionism or Gothic Freudian metaphor, as the most effective horror films in the recent generation have the conceit of home video recording and verite film direction. But in all cases, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu of German Expressionism, through the classic Universal monsters of the 1930s, Val Lewton's psychological mazes in the 1940s, the B-movie invaders and infiltrators of the 1950s, Psycho and the appearance of the "human monster" in the 1960s, the religious skepticism and apocalyptic anxiety of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, the zombies of George Romero, the slasher nuclear families of Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and Larry Cohen, the venereal bio-horror of David Cronenberg, the nihilistic reflexivity of Brian De Palma, the puzzling ambiguities of The Shining, the reactionary sexual Puritanism of Halloween, the gothic nostalgia of prestige 1990s Hollywood Horror (e.g. Coppola's Dracula), the deranged serial killers of Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en, the torture porn of Saw and Hostel, the hand-held contrivances of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, even to the true life nightmares of United 93 and A Mighty Heart, Horror is about the primal base of our Being bursting through the civilized veneer of a "structure" and "system," where assuredness and comfort are negated by the cthonian monster, like the shark in Jaws, or even the anti-humanist provocations spoken to a progressive man of science in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Horror is, when abstracted, about a kind of invasion, where the alien force paradoxically comes from within ourselves, being the revelation of a shadowed self, the grossest and most memorable example being the "birth" scene in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).
The Horror genre emerged very conscious of itself, being that German Expressionism, which thrived in the Weimar Republic after the Great War, was popular as Freud's ideas on the nature of the unconscious were becoming common to intellectual circles. From Horror’s outset, madness was linked to the paranormal and unexplained, as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) has a narrative where the mad and conniving Dr. Caligari of the title, controlling bodies and having them carry out his murderous will, is revealed to be an inmate’s invention at the doctor’s asylum, thus linking Robert Wiene's film directly to Shutter Island 90 years later, where the love-starved "hero" is a delusional patient. The illusion does not, however, negate the atmosphere generated by Caligari in being haunting. German Expressionism emerged from theatrical traditions where light, shadow, and production design visually expressed a state of mind, of dreams, of nightmares. It's almost certain that the great architects of Expressionism like Wiene, F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, the first adaptation of Dracula in 1922), and G.W. Pabst, were familiar with Freud; Pabst's 1926 film, Secret of a Soul, was even made with Freud's participation, and set out to be a kind of explanatory film of psychoanalysis, as the simple problems of the protagonist result in murderous thoughts. The year of Caligari's release, 1919, was also the year that Freud published his paper "The Uncanny," where he directly dealt with the supernatural in literature. Freud defined "the uncanny" as a sense where an object is as immediately familiar as it is eerily alien. Whatever it is that we see is alien because it is hidden or repressed from our conscious waking selves, contrary to all physics and logic, but it's also a part of ourselves, being that it has emerged from our own unconscious. Horror is a confrontation with the manifestations of our neuroses and our repressed past, the descent into the Shadowy Mirror.
The newness of Freud's ideas (though they had existed in literature for quite some time) working hand-in-hand with a new cinematic medium that was so memorably executed assured that the execution of German Expressionism would be electrifying. The Expressionists were riding the waves of new artistic trends that were also evolving in painting, literature, and music, and in particular, within the Weimar Republic; watching Nosferatu, Dr. Caligari, or Fritz Lang's M., about a serial killer (Peter Lorre) unable to contain his murderous impulses, is much like reading the stories of Kafka or absurdist plays from early 20th century Eastern Europe. The dark visions of the mind hauntingly portend the emergence of a nightmare carrying monstrous machine logic that will swallow the world in darkness, transforming and deranging the most civilized hearts into barbarians fueled by primal ecstasy, the ugliness of Art moving onto a world stage of historical occurrence where the performance is an atrocity exhibition. Dr. Caligari, when viewed today, becomes very frightening when we understand its historical context, and note how Werner Krausse, the actor who plays the nefarious title character, would join the Nazi Party. The relationship between Horror and History has always been significant, and when in particular we see the faces of Death in 1920s Germany, bookended by documentary films made less than 20 years later, it is impossible to take comfort or solace in the thought that "it's only a movie." The Nazi (From Caligari to Hitler) subtext that Scorsese has in Shutter Island, and which I believe is central to the architecture of the whole film, recalls this restless thought that the history of Germany and its arts are elements within us, that the Shadow of the most brilliant mind in Reality is capable of monstrosities that the most unhinged and uncensored imagination can only hint at through paint and ink.
As Germany underwent detrimental changes in the 1930s, its influence, and much of its talent, either migrated (Murnau, Lubitsch, Lang) or fled (Wilder, Zinnemann) to America. This coincided with the classic period of the Hollywood frights, in particular the Universal monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, King Kong, and also Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, and Island of Lost Souls. Adapting Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevensen, and H.G. Wells, and given iconoclastic performances by Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Frederic March, and Lon Cheney, this period made franchises out of literary figures, being massively successful with – and frightening for – Depression audiences, tame as they seem today. It is a testament to how much our tolerance for fear has changed over the decades, when in 1938 a double bill of Dracula and Frankenstein at the Aster Cinema in downtown Minneapolis would offer $25 to any woman that could sit through both films without leaving the auditorium.
The two most famous films of this period – Dracula and Frankenstein – were more influenced by the respective stage plays that preceded them than by the actual Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley novels, published in 1897 and 1818. Nor were they, in the churning machine of Hollywood production, equivalent to the lofty artistic ambitions of much German Expressionism. Directors were professionals more than they were visionaries, though they may have coded their films with hidden meaning, and were no doubt skilled craftsman, in particular James Whale. Regardless of Lugosi's flamboyance as Dracula in Todd Browning's 1931 Dracula, the film is otherwise flat and uninteresting, even on a visual level, when compared to Whale's Frankenstein films, or the superior Draculas that preceded it (Murnau's Nosferatu) and followed (the Hammer Dracula films with Christopher Lee, and versions directed by Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola). It also lacks the erotic energy of other films of the period, like Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a film which may be the era's gothic masterpiece.
However, Dracula's success and Lugosi's indelibility in the performance launched Hollywood's infatuation with the repressed Horror unconscious. The vampire is the most blatant symbol of sexual repression being unleashed uncontrollably, as the victim willingly submits to a charismatic alien force. Frankenstein, which wasn’t greenlit until Dracula’s success, continues that descent into the unknown and darker self. Lugosi was again slated to play the role of the Creature created by Henry Frankenstein (a name revision; in Shelley’s novel, he is Victor), and it's troubling to think how our popular culture may be different today, to say nothing of the iconography of classic horror, had Lugosi, a vain and somewhat narcissistic showman, had played the mysteriously blank and primal Creature instead of the modest, amateur actor Karloff, whose absence of force, making the Creature a kind of black arena of mystery with its deathly stare and shrunken mouth, is so important to its impact. Though most of the "thrills" of 1930s Hollywood Horror have cooled, Karloff's enigmatic Creature, when we first see him, with only the crackle of the bare soundtrack to compliment his close-up and no music telling us how to feel, is genuinely frightful.
Whereas Browning's Dracula has little to offer aside from its legacy (Browning's subsequent film Freaks is much more memorable and satisfying), Frankenstein is regarded as a great work, and its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, though it makes no attempt to be frightening, is even more entertaining, humorous, visually arresting, and dramatically compelling. It is perhaps the first sequel film to be considered superior to its original. Much of the success for the Frankenstein films is owed to the direction of James Whale, who does make use of Expressionist techniques pulled from Germany, in addition to the conscious juxtaposition showing the opulent and bourgeois calm of the Frankenstein household contrasted to the madness, shadows, electricity, and arcane stone of the laboratory. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a man pulled in two directions, between mannered respectability and the frenzied dreams of greatness which acquire a kind of raw libidinous quality. It is no coincidence that the Monster's creation coincides with the Henry's decision to marry his lifelong love and companion, Elizabeth. The Creature is the marker for the unbounded id, threatening civilization’s stability. Instead of being embraced and reconciled with this Dark Half, Henry Frankenstein rejects, disowns, and denies any relationship to it – an aspect of the Frankenstein films that Scorsese, an admirer of Whale, would carry into Shutter Island, where Andrew Laeddis disregards any empathy toward the other inmates of Ashecliffe Hospital ("Screw their sense of calm.") Scorsese also alludes to one of the most disturbing moments in Frankenstein, where the Monster, at first playful with a little girl who doesn't outright reject him, throws her into a lake where she drowns, an act fueled by uncontrollable impulses, in turn provoking the local villagers to find the Monster and kill it. In Shutter Island, it's Andrew Laeddis' wife (Michelle Williams) who drowns the children, driven by her own mental imbalances that deprive her of conscious will. In despair, Andrew kills her and loses touch with reality, the lush lakeside setting of the incident being eerily reminiscent of the similar scene in Frankenstein.
Bride of Frankenstein is a refinement on the original’s rough edges; in the five years between the two films, Whale had continued to trailblaze as a campy yet technically proficient horror filmmaker with The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House, a darkly comic gothic gem about stranded travelers who take refuge in a house inhabited by the most peculiar of dysfunctional families, reinforcing the important horror motif that Horror Begins at Home. Bride of Frankenstein closely examines the domestic foibles of familial longings, dysfunction, and impositions, which Whale also, allegedly (it has been argued back and forth) injects with gay subtexts, smuggling in his own obsessions to a mainstream production. Whale casts Ernest Thesiger as the overtly gay Dr. Pretorius, a comical villain who "seduces" Henry Frankenstein into creating a mate for the Monster, and the dynamics of their discussion have led many to believe that Bride of Frankenstein references a homosexual yearning to make children; in addition, Karloff's Monster, now more of a victim than an antagonist, may be seen as the gay progeny, rejected and scorned by the values and sexual norms of heteronormative civilization. It is a giveaway when the Monster, seen with his arms strung up behind him by the mob, does more than resemble Christ. Rather, he resembles the martyr St. Sebastian, a homoerotic emblem of "the beautiful boy," tormented, lovely, and stripped; the physical ugliness of the rejected Monster is something that does not compare to the ugliness of society’s prejudices. The Bride's rejection of the Monster leads to the most melancholy resolution. The Monster, a doomed outcast unable to love or be loved, would rather die than live. One can read Whale's own despair and loneliness in a world where his desires are anathema. The wonderful 1998 Bill Condon film, Gods and Monsters, where Ian McKellan plays Whale, dramatizes the director's entrancement with a desirable youth (Brendan Fraser), and draws equivalencies between the content of the two Whale Frankenstein films and the director's known sexuality, while also poking mischievous fun at the much more successful George Cukor, another gay director, though closeted, who had a status of acceptance that is denied Whale, the irony being that Cukor has spent his career making successful films reinforcing the sexual norms of the heteronormative culture, far from the gothic despair of Whale's Frankenstein films.
Perhaps the best of all the early Monster movies was Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1931, though financed by MGM and not Universal. The production values, themes, and performances here are surprisingly sophisticated, featuring an Academy Award winning performance by Frederic March as Robert Louis Stevenson's doctor whose repressed urges monstrously transform him into a murderer. The Shadow Id of repression would be enough to read Freudian psychology into the plot, but Mamoulian doesn't smuggle the way that Whale does. Made prior to the Hays production code, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is shockingly overt with how it is the urges of sexuality that drive the respected doctor to madness and murder. A prostitute's bare thigh swinging back and forth in the doctor's mind, like a clock's pendulum, will not allow him to rest, and precedes the appearance of Mr. Hyde. Mamoulian reminds us, like Freud, that the domestic roots of Horror are not just denoted to Family, but to the sex drive. Whereas Dracula and Frankenstein's 1930s film incarnations wink to us messages of sexuality and its unconscious power, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde howls it. It is perhaps more provocative an exhortation on the dangers of repressed sexuality than Hollywood would nakedly deal with for quite some time.
As Universal Horror began to exhaust itself by the early 1940s, its last original production being The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941, RKO Pictures would attempt to have a competitive venue. After the failures of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, RKO shifted its assets away from Orson Welles and towards the command of newly hired producer, Val Lewton, a former protégé of David O. Selznick at MGM. A modest and unassuming squat man whom RKO believed they could easily control, in contrast to the boy wonder Welles, Lewton was put in charge of the studio's new B-horror unit, engineering films that would be easy to produce, promote, and consume: simple entertainment was the goal, RKO's new slogan being, after the fall out with Welles, "Showmanship Before Genius."
But Hollywood couldn't have imagined the legacy that Lewton would create for the Horror genre. Though Lewton was quiet, a good worker, and modest, he was also intellectually precocious, and understood that the B-grade formats of generic pictures were also treasure troves for rich material, in which the smuggled ideas and emotions were much more significant than the concrete corners of the plot. In the nine films Lewton churned out during his tenure – Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man, Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Veil, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam – Lewton and his collaborators, including Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Marc Robson, constructed a gold mine of intelligent films filled with quiet and yet provocative insinuations about the bizarre – and horrifying – possibilities of human psychology.
Lewton was given the titles to his productions before he even had a story to work with; the studio had posters already ready for theaters and Lewton was to make the movie to match the silly title (e.g. Cat People). Drawing from his childhood wonder, Lewton understood the nature of fear better than any of the Universal monster makers, and perhaps even the German Expressionists. Fear, understood Lewton, is based on what you don't see. Clarity is fear’s foe. In making Cat People, which features a Serbian immigrant who, when sexually aroused, turns into a deadly panther, Lewton and director Tourneur decided to never show the big cat, but rather use sound and shadow to haunt the locality of attack. Lewton's genius was the knowledge that to define a monster was to kill its power, and by using the dark, the most commonplace of human fears, he was able to sustain the suspense of the Fantastic. This worked in accordance with B-movie melodrama, the nature and context of the suspense giving the film meanings beyond the plot: the subtext was text. The darkness of Cat People is the dark place to which all members of an audience may relate, regardless of sophistication. The B-level material is in retrospect more respectable than most "A" pictures from the 1940s – and even most serious productions to this day. Steven Spielberg would make good use of Lewton and Tourneur's technique of obscuring the Monster with Jaws, just as William Friedkin would deprive rational explanations and clear definitions in The Exorcist, or Polanski would keep his witch séances off-screen and muffled through the walls in Rosemary's Baby, and then finally David Lynch's horrifying construction of the dreamlike abstractions in both Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE.
Lewton's next production, I Walked With a Zombie, again begins with a generic "B" title, but is a mind-boggling journey into the female protagonist's psyche as she travels to the Indies and has encounters with somnambulism among the natives. Again, the film works not because of shocks or startles, to say nothing of plot contrivance, but because of Lewton's command of atmosphere, presenting the Fantastic in a way that is familiar in its simply "being there," just as it is jarring. The tribal beats during the night as the characters descend through the tall tropical grass and into the mess of Nature like the dark space of the Mind get underneath the audience’s skin. Lewton, like Lynch 50 years later, understood that the incidents and occurrences of a dream are not what make the dream impactful. It is the mood, how the emotions have their own kind of power, free from concrete causality. This is what separates a casual dream from a dream that disturbs and has an impact on the waking state of an individual.
As Boris Karloff wanted to get away from his Frankenstein persona, his departure from Universal Pictures as a contract actor luckily landed him in Lewton's hands, and the two would collaborate on three projects, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and the color asylum thriller Bedlam. All three, though still in the Fantastic/Horror genre, gave Karloff roles that were far from the hackneyed repetition Universal was offering him. They dealt with madness and ghostly horror inspired by repression, where wills are destroyed by insanity. In the historical portrait of early American horror movies, maybe The Body Snatcher deserves to be noted here. Adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story, where a respected scientist enlists a disreputable graverobber (Karloff) to procure him with bodies to keep the professorial anatomical business booming, The Body Snatcher features the final acting collaboration of Karloff and his counterpart, Bela Lugosi, who plays the scientist's lowly assistant. It is a sad memento to the careers of both men, and how differently they wound up, with Karloff still being dangerous, powerful, and mysterious, complex in his criminality, as Lugosi is pathetic, sickly, greedy, and impotent, easily killed by Karloff's body snatcher after feebly attempting blackmail.
New changes at RKO prompted the end to Lewton's horror unit, and the producer was soon out of a job. His subtle commiserations of meaning and emotions between the lines would heavily impact the next generation of movies, as noir took off after World War II, reflecting the malaise of what America experienced more urgently, and the films of American prosperity poisoned by unseen anxieties and prejudices, seen in the 1950s work of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. Lewton's influence on Shutter Island has been acknowledged by Scorsese, who in 2007 produced and narrated Kent Jones' documentary about Lewton, Man of the Shadows, something more interesting when one contemplates the allusion, given that we note in Andrew Laeddis' delusional state, where he is Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, the figure of "Laeddis" haunting Teddy's dreams is played by Elias Koteas -- who supplies the voice of Lewton in Man of the Shadows. A scar running down his middle in a way that also triggers cinematic memories of The Shining and even Robert De Niro's Creature in Kenneth Branagh's middling Frankenstein, Koteas' Laeddis is the enigmatic shadow heart of Scorsese's gothic horror, just as Lewton is the dark and enigmatic heart of the American Horror canon, far ahead of his time, as Alfred Hitchcock would make Lewtonian psychology the standard for Horror in 1960's Psycho.
In American film, the Monster was foreign. The Universal horrors are all set in Europe, far removed from the social worries of an American audience. Even Lewton's more sophisticated productions identify the nefarious forces as "Other": the "Cat People" are Serbian; I Walked With a Zombie is set in the Indies; the Karloff films are set in either London or Greece. With the Cold War, horror films could be said to become increasingly xenophobic. The "aliens," from without or within, are probably representative of the Communist threat. In 1948's War of the Worlds, for example, the news mentions every significant country has been attacked by Martians – with the conspicuous absence of the Soviet Union. The anxieties of The Body Snatchers are the same anxieties of invasion that Kubrick will satirize in Dr. Strangelove, or Reagan-era Hollywood would make sincere again with John Milius' Red Dawn. The sense was Us or Them, and the devil was always Them, outside; the psychological complexity of the horror genre had been subdued by the repressive atmosphere of a prosperous time, with a few exceptions (The Fly, 1958).
Psycho did much to change that. Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a B-horror movie, such were the craze at drive-ins, yet with his finesse and depth. Beyond the brilliance of Psycho's techniques, structure, and subjectivity – though tied to all – is its removal of the Monster from an "Out There" position, extended from humankind, and placement within an American human being, Norman Bates, and what more, being that our subjectivity is shared with Bates, us. The demon is us, within us, within our nature, within our country, our family, our houses, our basic relationships, and so, as we sympathize with Norman – or at least empathize and want him to get away with killing Janet Leigh (just as we wanted Janet Leigh to get away with her much less violent – though much more consciously "sane" - crime at the beginning), we as viewers in a theater are complicit. Psycho changed cinema on a variety of levels, bringing the corporeality to horror with its bloodshed, just as it emphasized the reality of the body in general, being the first studio film to feature a toilet flushing. It challenged viewers to reflect along with the film as its own conscious entity, and asked us about our morality as film viewers.
Michael Powell would do the same thing in Britain, with his no less brilliant and influential Peeping Tom, also a horrific psychological thriller that so shocked audiences with its story of a neurotic cameraman who impales women with his tripod, that critics damned it and Powell's career was ruined until the film was reevaluated decades later. History has redeemed Peeping Tom, and like Psycho it is viewed as a film about viewing, a commentary on images as it is a commentary on twisted psychology, something Michael Mann further explored in his magnificent 1986 mix of serial killer anxiety and Nosferatu-tinged invasion, Manhunter.
The third significant picture of this style of horror featuring the Human Monster malfunctioned and held imprisoned by compulsions caused by mysterious childhood (domestic) traumas is Roman Polanski's 1965 Repulsion, with Catherine Deneuve as a sexually neurotic Belgian woman living with her sexually active sister in swinging London, where savvy men are aggressively on the prowl.
Repulsion stands as a singular entry in the genre, as it incorporates the influence of Hitchcock and Psycho, along with Polanski's Eastern European background, hearkening to Expressionism and Surrealism, apparent when we see hands reaching out of a wall and groping the protagonist in a hallucinatory state, or the grotesque rotting rabbit decomposing throughout the course of the narrative, mirroring the protagonist's state of mind. Whereas Psycho, Peeping Tom, M., Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en present us deranged individuals whose fantasies tip us off to a deliberateness in the selection and execution of victims, Repulsion stands out because, although we are almost entirely restricted to the protagonist's cinematic space and subjectivity, there is no exact diagnosis for her neurosis. She remains a mystery to us, and is all the more haunting for it. We are given a childhood family photograph, in which she stands apart from everyone else and is clearly disturbed. There are indications that she may have been the victim of molestation -- but it's never certain. That Polanski never answers the questions, just as Catherine evades the questions of her aggressive male suitors, makes her, and our identification with her, more cringing. Her acts of violence are presented by Polanski as carrying their own logic, and so, beyond the "movie shock" of Psycho's murders, with Bernard Hermann's shrieking strings, the effect is a complete sense of absurdism. Polanski, who experienced the horrific efficiencies of World War II Poland, from Nazi mass murder followed by Soviet oppression, in addition to being artistically influenced by the works that portended such an outcome for the 20th century, perhaps grasps the horrific dimensions of the human mind in all of its startling capaciousness more than any other director that has attained mainstream status.
The 1960s and 1970s saw American Horror evolve in a plethora of directions. Roger Corman was responsible for launching the careers of many young directors working on his B grade productions, like Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich. In Britain, Dracula was resurrected by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the Hammer productions, while the deep saturated colors of Dario Argento in Italy bathed victims in blood. But the most interesting vectors for me are the underground films of George Romero, Larry Cohen, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter, along with the key "high end" films of the period, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Shining. All of these works reflected a cultural mood, in addition to being frightful.
If Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Nashville, and The Conversation reflected a national consciousness, it's appropriate then to remark that the less respected visions in films like Night of the Living Dead, It's Alive, The Last House on the Left, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reflected the national unconscious. Superficially dismissed as bloody cheap thrills by many, the underground horror films of the 1970s are important gauges for the temper of the times in which they were made, and they function, much like Lewton's films, as subtextual treasures of meaning, though it may be a flaw to say that the meanings are hidden. "Hidden?" George Romero remarked regarding the 'hidden commentaries' on consumerism in his Living Dead zombie films. "It's more like a pie in the face." These filmmakers were projecting their sense of American disenchantment and annihilation just as much as Arthur Penn and Robert Altman were. It speaks volumes that the last surviving main character in Night of the Living Dead is an African American, and that the armed posse of good ole boys exterminating the zombies shoot him down, not differentiating him from the walking dead. The photographs of the dead bodies during the end credits evoke photographs of lynchings from the 1960s.
Larry Cohen's It's Alive is, I think, the most politically vibrant of the 1970s underground horror films, just as it may be the funniest. Similar to Rosemary's Baby, it's about a "normal family" whose newborn turns out to be a cannibal mutant, slaughtering anyone who approaches it, including the whole Labor and Delivery room staff. The Monster's definition is something that the film wants us to question. "When I was a kid, I always thought Frankenstein was the Monster," the Father says. "When I grew up, I read the book and realized it was only the doctor's name. It's funny, how the identities get all mixed up." Cohen, a political radical, is saying that it is our "stable" bourgeois capitalist system will give birth to monsters that will destroy us all in the future.
Though politically conscious, these films work because of their atmosphere more than their themes, the nightmarish rawness which may be mistaken for unsophisticated craft being the element that makes them so disturbingly effective. It's the energy, rooted in the unconscious, giving the work aura and power. Leatherhead in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not given a detailed motivation for his derangement – his family feeds on human flesh, but they still are not clearly defined for us. They are made of dream stuff, nightmare energy, and are Tobe Hooper's nuclear projection of an imploding political landscape. Wes Craven, a former English professor, says that he took all of the emotions that were disturbing him about Vietnam and the United States and vented them into The Last House on the Left's screenplay; there is no concrete allegory, but the atmosphere is meant to communicate the anxieties of a time. Political dimensions of the low-grade horror film persist, with the xenophobic fears exploited in Eli Roth's Hostel, and most interestingly in The Descent, a story about a group of British women who follow an American down a deep hole; the American turns out not to have a map, and is in fact leading them to Hell. The Descent is one of the definitive movies about the Iraq War.
Rosemary's Baby showed that the horror film could be respected as art, just as it could thrive as commerce. Produced by B-movie legend William Castle, Polanski made the adaptation of Ira Levin extraordinary by working on more cylinders than the usual horror filmmaker. Like Kubrick's The Shining 12 years later, Rosemary's Baby would be strewn with ambiguities so as to make an audience question the validity of what is being seen (is it real or delusion?), but it would also have an extraordinarily devilish sense of humor, a hallmark of other films by Polanski and Kubrick. By its conclusion, the nonchalance of the coven surrounding the Adrian’s crib, the son of Satan who "has his father's eyes" (said so matter-of-factly), along with the memorably comic faces toasting Satan, Rosemary's Baby is the most sardonic of dark comedies. The film is more anxious-ridden than startling, and more cynically hilarious than anything else. The Shining also provokes more nervous laughter than it does thrills, and all to its advantage. Perhaps by avoiding facile humanism, the dark visions of Polanski and Kubrick become more unsettling. It's then interesting to think of their later "uncanny" efforts in the late 1990s. Polanski's The Ninth Gate and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which are both very sardonic and vague about defining the particulars of their horror puzzles, baffled their audiences, who in the decade had become more literal, obsessed with backstory, and logical, precise definition. The humorous edges and sophisticated nuances were completely missed.
But of the three defining high-end horror films of the 1970s, I'd like to focus on The Exorcist. Though William Friedkin's subsequent failures have undercut his reputation and made him something of a fluke, it's a disservice to underestimate his intelligence in addition to appreciating his hard-edged rawness as a director, far removed from the mainstream. The Exorcist was a prestige motion picture, becoming the top grossing film of all time in 1973 (just one year after The Godfather had claimed that achievement), but it's not a hollow one, nor as a horror film is it exploitive, using its startles as a crutch. The Exorcist is as much a motion picture about its times as the period’s other great films. It ponders the buffer of "movie escapism," where we can go to the movies to be thrilled but rest assured that "it's just a movie." The Exorcist does not make it so easy for us.
For one thing, something often neglected in discussions of The Exorcist's legacy is the fact that the protagonist, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), is a Hollywood actress, currently starring in a big budget film entitled Crash Course, apparently involving the geopolitics of the Vietnam era, set on Georgetown's university campus and referencing the violent war protests and shutting down of classes. There is a humorous commentary on the cynicism of motion picture production regarding important topicality that is produced within the system. We notice the camera set-up as Chris assumes her character after being heavily made-up and marches onto the location set, swarmed with young extras playing radical campus protestors. She takes the megaphone away from the leader of the mob and tries to bring sensical order to the unrest, insisting that shutting down classes will not work for anything. "If you want to affect change, you have to do it within the system!" she shouts, a very simple and didactic declaration for this film, “Crash Course,” that we can assume is probably not as complex as many other popular films from the early 1970s. Chris will later on refer to the film, of which she makes no other mention and seems to feel no intimate relationship with, as "the Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story." This awareness of how safe cinema can be, particularly in a popular, highly funded arena of production existing in a world far from the immediate troubles of our daily lives, is consciously injected into The Exorcist, being that Friedkin and William Peter Blatty are taking a broadbrush concept – demonic possession – and using cinema to examine it. To go beyond the safety and camp of the generic horror film, The Exorcist will seek not to overtly define its concepts and terrors, but leave it silently unspoken, incoherent, and unresolved. The Exorcist realizes that not only do we, in our daily lives, keep horror at a safe distance by categorizing it as entertainment, but we unwittingly, as good believers, do the same thing with our religion – in Christendom at least. We are safe from Horror – and for that matter, mortality and judgment – because we are safe from God, whom our secular comforts conveniently blot out; and with God being absent, so too are we safe from the Devil. This is Chris' household, a Hollywood secular one, on location in Georgetown, in a high-price rented house on a hill. Like we are every day, they are safe in simply living – until they aren't. This leads me to the film's startling and ambivalent prologue.
The beginning of The Exorcist is in Northern Iraq, and the effect of the first ten minutes or so are troubling. For one, it is disorienting because of Friedkin's choice of film-speed; the way characters are moving within the frame, digging for archeological finds or pounding metal, is eye-catching and throws us off. We also have a troubling sense here of the Muslim Iraqis being "Other" from us; they are, in our perception, different, tied to an ancient culture that we might even see as unholy. As Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) supervises the dig and observes them, we may be tempted to view the Muslims as the Devil’s servants. The discovery of an ancient artifact, which research to us shows is an Assyrian god named Pazuzu (anthropologically discussed in John Boorman's 1977 sequel, The Heretic), troubles Merrin, and his perceptions of the Iraqi locals may be felt as "satanic," for example a man with one eye staring at him, which we may automatically assume is a vessel for the Devil, Merrin's nemesis. Is The Exorcist racist or xenophobic? It's a good question, but maybe the troubling presentation of the Iraqis is owed to our own uncomfortable relationship with the Sacred, the Supernatural, and with God. The Muslim songs that begin and end The Exorcist are not hymns to Satan – they are songs praising God: "Allahu Akbar," "God is Great." Merrin is fond of his Muslim collaborator in archeology, embracing him tenderly before he departs. Another indicative moment is when we see Merrin cross a path in front of a line of Muslims, all bowing in prayer. What The Exorcist is here pointing out – and it's an issue that we would do well to think of in our own time – is how the people in this poor and less stable culture take God very seriously, and understand that God is very much present, just as the Evil One is. Though in the Western world we think of ourselves as being a part of Christian Civilization, our definition is based on a hypocrisy, as our secular comforts do well to let us forget about the elliptical possibilities. Western apathy is no foe to the Devil, but rather his greatest enabler. "Evil against evil," the Muslim archeologist says as Merrin looks at the demon relic. It's a puzzling line that is never drawn out, but it works on a very subconscious level, as the clock behind Merrin suddenly stops. Going back to the archeological dig site, he stands opposite to the Devil’s statue, which is made of animal features (including a serpentine penis). Friedkin cuts to dogs viciously fighting. The carnal imbalance of Nature, of unmeaning, of ceaseless consumption, waste, and devouring, stand in opposition to compassion, composure, and structure – it's an all too real conflict for Merrin, but the contradictions of the simple binary shows, to me, that The Exorcist is not a Good vs. Evil narrative. That's the stuff of Hollywood movies, like the Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story, or even the apocalyptic conflicts of unmeaning and meaning, where meaning's Order wins out, in recent films like Signs or The Book of Eli. Friedkin was a maker of what Robin Wood called "incoherent texts," films with a lot of space around the edges, where much remains undefined; this was the character of his previous film, The French Connection, and his subsequent films, which were consequently dismissed, many of which I would argue unfairly so: Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). The Exorcist has a dichotomy of Meaning vs. Unmeaning, but its final sense is irresolution. The prologue begins a conflict that sets out to be solved – but never is.
It does however work to build a solid foundation for the religious conflict of cosmic forces at war, tying the modern to the ancient, and this works towards The Exorcist's effectiveness as a horror film. Friedkin was a gritty streetwise Chicago-born director, and he has the same visual sensibility of his earlier films (The French Connection) on the streets of Georgetown and New York here. Verisimilitude is his strategy for making the uncanny work; Evil is present, but it's in contradiction to our whole expectation as a viewing audience. For example, having the mysterious flash-frame of the demonic face with wide staring eyes assault us in its close-up as Chris' possessed daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), undergoes clinical scientific testing, works on our subconscious fears so effectively because the setting is the public space of a doctor's office, with many clinicians and technological machines, their processes shot with the curiosity of a documentary filmmaker. The reality of the Demon reveals a wholly new dimension to the setting and makes it uncomfortable. The ancient and demonic, ageless and unholy, is immune to our comforts. It's the peripheral oddness – the spirit of the Uncanny – that makes The Exorcist work, and when Friedkin is too over-the-top with his horror images, like with the Regan’s rotating head or spider-walk, the jolting shock of the images dulls the fear. When his demons are puzzling, brief, and undefined, they are more dangerous to us; that's why the dark horse coach in the Iraq sequence – with a mysterious rider in black – is so frightening, or the flashing demonic face, or the disorienting sounds of Regan speaking backwards – memorably disarming and chilling, because we don't know what's being said, but a lot IS being said (this won the film its much deserved Oscar for Sound). Another example would be the homeless man Father Karas (Jason Miller) sees on the subway. "Father, do you have a quarter? I was a Catholic," he says, staring at Karas. The fixed close-up as the subway lights flash against the unblinking eyes of the hobo makes the moment chilling, as if the devil may be lurking there, mocking Karas. The homeless man remains undefined, and we may suspect that his presence has a demonic significance (his appearance compliments Karas' struggle with faith), but we can't be sure.
Uncertainty relates to the general crisis of faith. Secularization and liberation, in addition to apparent social disorder with the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate, to say nothing of a world that perhaps had not fully recovered from World War II and the Holocaust, led to a disheartening feeling that there was no God, no Order, no Meaning. In Rosemary's Baby we notice a Time magazine cover from the period, "Is God Dead?" In the presence of other films, like The Omen, about the antichrist, there is apocalyptic fear boiling through its discontent. The Exorcist asks us how we feel if Good does not win, and so then chaos reigns. Father Damien Karas has been appointed a counselor for other priests, and he must listen, all day, to the private insecurities of men who are supposed to be strong pillars of belief. Early on, Chris walks past the parish and overhears a priest speaking to Karas: "There's not a day in my life that I don't feel like a fraud." Later on, Karas admits that he's also losing faith.
The realities of his day-to-day life contribute to this; particularly his relationship to his mother, whom he fears he abandoned. His mother is old and crippled, can barely speak English, and cannot keep her apartment or afford good hospital care. She ends up in an institution for the hopelessly senile, where Karas knows she does not belong, and yet he is powerless to place her somewhere else. His uncle scolds him, "You go to school to be a psychiatrist, you could open a private practice and put your mother up in a good apartment in Manhattan. But you're a priest, and she's here," adding, "If you'd been a psychiatrist, and not a priest, we'd be rich." The suggestion is that the Eternal does not matter when compared to the conveniences afforded by money. Karas is haunted by his past decisions. The sense of history in his mother's apartment, in addition to the photographs that tell a story on his dresser, to Chris' house, which is ornate, beautifully decorated and personalized, but is only a temporary vessel for a migratory Hollywood household. The photographs pertinent to Chris are on magazine covers, some of which she dislikes: "I didn't have my makeup artist that day."
Karas' life choice of sacrifice and faith has been one not of holy reward, but of being forsaken. He tried to live a holy life in a profane world, and it is not working out. Friedkin inserts a shot of his dresser drawer, decorated with photographs. We see that he used to be a boxer, and so has an aggressive streak; we also see a photograph of a young woman, possibly an ex-girlfriend. Friedkin, again, does not feed specific information, and so Karas is a much more fascinating and complex character than he would have been otherwise. What is it that drives a man to be a priest, for example? Could Karas, so masculine, be homosexual? The idea is insinuated later on during the climactic exorcism, as the Devil gets under the subconscious skin of the priests; whereas we can believe Merrin is heterosexual (the devil asks him to fuck Regan), the Devil tells Karas, standing behind Merrin, "Fuck him! Fuck him, Karas!"
One can draw links to various forms of repression having their revenge in The Exorcist, as the arcane elements of history, of our whole humanity, are obscured by everyday banality. Cosmic Jungian spiritual repression is happening with the Devil's possession on a secular family, just as classical Freudian repression is at work in both Karas' struggle with guilt (sublimated onto a punching bag) and Regan's fragile relationship to an absent father – a psychological explanation for her demonic possession. Spiritual and immediate anxieties go hand in hand.
The mystery and repression of Sex and its inability to be reconciled with our everyday lives, is the chief instigator for our neuroses. Beginning with Pazuzu's serpentine penis, Regan's playful insinuation that Chris is having her director, Burke (Jack MacGowran) "over" at night, the mysterious sexuality of the celibate priests (Father O'Malley, who flamboyantly entertains by playing the piano at Chris' dinner party, has a gay aura), and then the shocking moments of carnal assault later on, The Exorcist is very anxious about sex. The vessel for possession is a girl on the cusp of sexual maturation. The demon's wrath relates to Regan's sexual character. Her examining doctor tells Chris, who doesn't believe that her daughter uses profanity, "She told me to keep my hands away from her goddamned cunt." Chris' reaction is shock mixed with stifled laughter. But the subsequent events make the Devil's focus on Regan's sexuality more distressing: the shaking bed; her monstrously contorted voice shouting "Fuck me!" repeatedly to the visiting clinicians (all men) as she lifts her gown up; the famous moment when she masturbates with a crucifix, saying "Fuck Jesus!" while doing so, then grabbing Chris and pulling her face to the bloody vagina, yelling "Lick the bitch!"
Why the sexuality, and how does this relate to the crisis of faith or contribute to the general psyche of Horror beyond simple repression? The idea goes to the serpentine genitalia of Pazuzu, standing over the desert dogs tearing each other into pieces. Sex is Nature, proliferation and propagation, subordination and submission. It is Flesh, the World. In the Bible, Satan is referred to as "the Prince of the air of the Earth," a notion that reinforces a dualism between the nobility of spiritual thought and the messy taboos of Nature, which is to say, Sex.
Regan fixates on animals, creating clay sculptures and drawings of them, most markedly a bird with wings that resemble the arms of Pazuzu, and a striped beak that matches a desecrated Virgin Mary statue in a local church, where the statue has been given three phallus-like beaks, attached to her breasts and her genital region. Sex and demon possession are about submission to the Body, to the nameless carnality of our nature, or of Nature, not constructed of words so much as the green ooze that spews from Regan's mouth. The ooze of Nature, though, speaks Truth – an uncomfortable Truth that we must reject in order to live with ourselves, like the notion that Karas abandoned his mother, or that he may be, as Regan's insistence of "Fuck him" indicates, homosexual. We can see similar interaction during Chris' party, when the hopelessly drunk Burke pesters Chris' butler, Carl, an elderly German immigrant. Burke insinuates that Carl was a Nazi, his taunts mirroring Regan's demonic mockery of the priests. And Burke may be right about Carl, as he's certainly hit a nerve with the old man who, if he were not a man struggling with private guilt, would not react so violently. Carl's attempt to strangle Burke is echoed at the climax of the exorcism, when Karas, his insecurities of faith and history repeatedly provoked by Regan, does the same to the possessed girl. Burke, like Regan, is an unconscious soothsayer, his intoxication by alcohol having shut down his capability for conscious judgment; he is a slave, like Regan, to his body’s impulses, which are ugly, even if they reveal truth. More interesting is that Burke's target should be a "good" man, who is probably guilty as a collaborator in the greatest collective human evil, indicating that we are all subject to such an assault on our conscious lives, as we are all capable of being swept up in the self-abandonment of the flesh, rage, sexual desire, and genocidal furor.
In the film's extended cut, Merrin voices the reasoning for the devil's animalistic strategy. "I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as being animal and ugly, to think it impossible that God could never love us." Our better selves, constructed and deliberate, far from unchecked carnality, are capable of reason, romance, compassion, and wisdom. The nihilism of the carnal is the fearful obliteration of the Deep Self, and a descent into constant consumption and murder. Karas discovers the name that Regan's possessor uses: "I am no one." So the dichotomy seen at the conclusion of The Exorcist's prologue is not simply a conflict between Good and Evil, but Chaos and Nothingness (Pazuzu) vs. Identity and a Reflecting Self (Merrin). Both have pitfalls ("Evil against Evil"), as one is purely destructive, while the other falls prey to egotism, apathy, selfishness, and materialism – a contrast to the reverent Muslims who kneel steadfastly to God. The casting of Von Sydow as Merrin references the strong knight he played in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), who plays chess with Death, stubbornly needing a sense that life has meaning. But there is no meaning, only whatever love and delight one has before Death comes. Subsequent to that, von Sydow also played Jesus. As Merrin, he is a symbol for the spiritual and existential conflicts of his time. He is strong and heroic, but also vulnerable.
Merrin's death is another important matter, often glossed over. Karas discovers the lifeless corpse by Regan’s bed. There is a sense that Good has lost this battle to Evil, but it's much stranger than that. Before Regan starts to cackle at Karas, she looks dumbfounded, as if Merrin's death has been a traumatic experience for the demon. The paradox here, which relates to the binary established at the beginning, is the necessary coexistence of Good and Evil; without one, the other is lost and muted; this is a codependent relationship of Eternal Struggle and Rivalry, a destruction that must always play out to give any sense of meaning whatsoever. Unmeaning is only frightening when hope for meaning exists. Regan is quite benign as she, with demon face, looks at Merrin's lifeless body. Not until Karas asserts his own power does the demon's power return. Karas, whom in an earlier scene had been pondering the New Covenant of Christianity, merges with the demon and cancels its power out, throwing himself out Regan's window to his death, his selfish rage and selfless altruism forming a perfect marriage that restores balance to the household.
The exorcism has been a deeply disturbing occurrence with its visual – and more especially aural – assaults on the film audience, just as it has been for the characters. The particulars of Christianity are not reinforced too strongly, and that makes for a more uneasy horror experience; there is an unsteady sense of irresolution here, that Good does not always triumph, and that we can be certain of nothing. It's a movie, though, isn't it? The film ends with Father O'Malley talking to Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a cop with an interest in Regan's case. Kinderman likes talking about movies, and at the conclusion, as in an earlier scene with Karas, he offers to take the priest out to a movie; the films he mentions are Othello with Jackie Gleason, and Wuthering Heights with Groucho Marx – obviously made-up tongue-in-cheek film projects, but we should note how the reference is to how the tragic and important work of Shakespeare and Bronte have been rendered comical and disposable by casting comical actors in the leads ("The Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story"). So too is The Exorcist just a movie, Kindleman is reminding us, and as the great themes of literature are often debased by our escapist pact with the movie theater, that Kindleman wants to see these films with a priest indicates that the same has happened to our experience of Religion and the Eternal concepts of Good and Evil, within that other great auditorium, the Church. But the film then reminds us that we aren't safe, as Friedkin pans away from Kindleman and O'Malley and rests on Regan's window, now boarded up, it's own kind of relic like the Pazuzu statue at the beginning. On the soundtrack we hear "Allahu Akbar" – God is great – being sung, as if distantly, the past reaching forth into the banal present. Our comfortable sanctuary of the theater, or the Church, is not an escape, but rather, The Exorcist asserts, an encounter. It is an encounter with the undefined malice of Horror, of the Uncertain, the Uncanny, and the Unreasoning Unknown, telling us that those ancient and primal echoes are always following us into our presumably most safe and familiar territories.
The carnal "ooze" of horror, free from the elliptical questions of the Eternal, haunts our feelings regarding Mortality and Meaning. Horror juts out in a different direction when it is freed from God and the Devil, ghosts and goblins, but it is just as discomforting. Perhaps more so. David Cronenberg's "bio-horror" films from the 1970s and 1980s are most demonstrative of this: Rabid, Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers. Fascinated by both science and literature, and brought up an atheist, Cronenberg found plenty of despair in the corporeal elements of the human body, projecting how human desires, longings, and fears were contained within our tissue and chromosomes, in the Body. Even in his more serious recent films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, bodies are markers that communicate information, be it Ed Harris' deformed face or Viggo Mortensen's tattooed gangster.
The early Cronenberg films were made in the tradition of other panic-filled horror films of the time, but the Monster was bacterial, and the bacteria a metaphor for human themes. Shivers is about a venereal disease taking over humanity, transforming the afflicted into sexual predators bent on spreading the disease. The disease has a purpose separate from any sentimental notion. The thing so problematic about Cronenberg's scientific horror films is how the flesh has its own cold logic, and he does not judge it. It just is, and it feeds to survive, like all organisms do: "All flesh is good flesh." Our human desires, particularly sexual, are an extension of that unconscious hunger. That same hunger extends beyond our biology and into technology, the "New Flesh," just as impersonal as our base impulses. Observe Cronenberg's technological creations in his adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991), where Bill Lee (Peter Weller) has a typewriter with a hungry anus, reflective of Lee's repressed homosexual desire; the guns in eXistenZ (1998), which are fleshy and uncomfortably shluppy. Most outrageous is his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash (1997), where Cronenberg deliberately lulls the audience into a pornographic complicitness with the film, our sexual agitation being connected to the agitation of the promiscuous characters who are sexually aroused by the churning metal of car crashes. The "human" elements of art are dispensed with; we do not emotionally relate to the characters’ human motivations; the film, another force of technology, is manipulating our bodily fluids, affecting our consciousness. Crash then is an astounding achievement to be approached cautiously.
The most frightening of Cronenberg's early films may be The Brood, where a woman undergoing a new kind of depression therapy gives birth to demonic children seeking to kill the people responsible for her psychological trouble: parents, her child, her estranged husband, and any women who may be a prospect for taking her place as wife and mother. Cronenberg's literalization of the metaphor, as Freud asserts dreams do to our emotions, is never undermined by the abstraction. The Brood reveals how the demons of the unconscious are powerful and here, and we are doomed by our bodies.
Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009) has the same kind of carnal anxiety of Cronenberg or animal questions seen in The Exorcist. Von Trier was suffering from depression when he wrote the screenplay about a husband and wife struggling with the death of their son, and in doing so, he refused to censor himself. The love between man and wife is countered with the miniscule ugly chemicals thriving at the bottom of a flower jar, and Nature here is not lush, but filled with selfish copulation, chaos, and no assurances. Woman, linked to Nature, is Satan's mistress, and has no control over her body and impulses. The forest shrieks with Charlotte Gainsbourg as she ferociously masturbates in front of a tree. The husband (Willem Dafoe), a liberal therapist, is devastated by the woman's deliberate provocations; indeed, just as he collapses under the weight of it, we as a progressive audience do also, feeling assaulted by von Trier's exhortations of sexual blasphemy and misogyny. A fox eating its own entrails looks at us and says, "Chaos reigns," very matter-of-factly. Antichrist is a horror film that is scary on a subterranean level, because it questions the moral foundations of our civilization, which may be crumbling beneath an exposed Ugly Truth imperiling the most sacrosanct ideals.
Similar discomforts of an apocalyptic fabric are in David Fincher's Se7en (1995), a detective thriller which is, I believe, a horror film that captures the panic of religious fundamentalism on the upswing during the 1990s. The serial killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), kills his victims and fashions them as atrocity exhibitions, symbolic monikers relating to the seven deadly sins of St. Thomas Aquinas. The precise grimness of Fincher's direction does the reverse to the horror films of "UnMeaning" – this is the horror, rather, of meaning.
As John Doe's work is close to coming to an end, his "masterpiece" nearly complete, his prophecy of something coming feels real, and it is terrifying. The secret package he has to deliver to the detectives (Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt) feels like Armageddon in a box; it has an elliptical weight, as if it was from a vengeful God judging the apathy of liberal Clintonites. Seven is a world where the fear is that God does exist, that our sins do have ramifications, which, when we realize that Gwenyth Paltrow's head is in the special box, is more unsettling than a godless world of existential randomness. The Coen brothers, in A Serious Man (2009) have the same attitude regarding the Almighty, and there are times in the film where the "Monster" stalking the protagonist is indeed Yahweh, the effect equivalent to the technique of classic Horror. God is out to get us, just as the Devil is.
In the 1990s there was a literary horror nostalgia, donned with garish prestige. Studios secured large budgets, famed directors and stars, and the most skilled artisans and craftspeople to design sets and costumes, in attempts to rekindle interest into specters and monsters made countless times before: Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featuring Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins; Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Robert De Niro as the Creature; Wolf, a modern werewolf story with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Mike Nichols; Mary Reilly, a revision of Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde story, written by Christopher Hampton, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich; Hollow Man, a reboot of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, directed by Paul Verhoeven, with Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Shue; and Sleepy Hollow, loosely based on Washington Irvin's satirical chronicle of the Headless Horseman, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. All of these projects had relatively large budgets, and in addition to the cast and filmmakers mentioned, were filled with recognized supporting players. Coppola, whose financial career was saved by Dracula's surprising commercial success, can be credited with starting the revival, as his American Zoetrope production company immediately launched production on a Frankenstein reboot.
However, with the exception of Sleepy Hollow's modest bow in 1999, all of these projects did middling business and received mostly negative reviews. Mary Reilly became perceived by many as a fiasco, having its release delayed by nearly a year due to poor word of mouth. Though technically marvelous and visually sumptuous, and in spite of their gore, these projects were not at all scary. Coppola acknowledged this in Dracula, where, if he was going to make the title character dramatically compelling – and Gary Oldman's Dracula is arguably the most compelling rendition of the vampire – the alien otherness that makes the vampire mysterious and malevolent would be lost. Instead, Coppola consciously chose to focus on the sexual subtexts of Bram Stoker's novel, in addition to a singular stylistic format of naïve old-style special effects, giving the film a very off-beat and puzzlingly disorienting quality, but also a dazzling resonance regarding the theme of time, technological change being the prime mover. The gamble of focusing on the Romantic layers of the story paid off, as Coppola's Dracula is still a favorite to this day, especially with women, in addition to being a visual marvel for movie buffs. It is ultimately a remarkable companion piece to Coppola's One from the Heart, as both films glorify the artifice of cinema in addition to focusing on sensuality.
The singular eccentricities that gave Dracula a unique aura are not repeated in the other pristine horror films of the 1990s, which are often beleaguered by heavy-handedness of period movie sentiment and opulence, the ornate designs blocking out anything frightening. The dependence on stylization for scare tactics comes to something hollow with constant camera movement, zooms, quick edits, and loud noises only playing up the picture’s emptiness. Coppola knew he had to be eccentric and play up the romance in lieu of losing suspense, using Jean Cocteau and Sergei Eisenstein as his guides. But in Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh promises to "curdle the blood" with Mary Shelley's introductory narration and Patrick Doyle's blaring score on the soundtrack, the title "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" jumping out at us. The subsequent movie cannot do so; it's too frenetic and loud to be eerie, too condescending to be eccentric. The film proposes to work dramatically once it settles down and Robert De Niro's Creature enters the narrative, being followed with a more relaxed camera and a less noisy score. Yet the horrific arcs of the story, where the Creature seeks revenge on Creator, are too hyperbolically performed to be engrossing, and painted too feverishly to be frightening. Only with the film's invented climax, original from Shelley, where Branagh's Victor Frankenstein reanimates his dead bride (Helena Bonham Carter), and the Creature tries to steal her, does the film achieve a perversity worthy to its style.
One wonders what the film would have been had Coppola's first choice as director, Roman Polanski, been able to make the project in Prague, with Willem Dafoe as Victor. Polanski's sense of history, the absurd, and guilt would be perfect for Mary Shelley, in addition to his cinematic incomparability in creating suspense and adopting subjectivity. Branagh, as with his Shakespeare adaptations, venerates the material too much to align himself with its dark heart; compare the staleness of Branagh's Shakespeare films, which are beloved, with Polanski's Macbeth, which many Shakespearians resist because of how unabashedly it embraces the subject's murkiness without being patronizing.
The other films would follow the same route, only Burton's Sleepy Hollow offering any pleasures with the director's offbeat humor, though it misses the satirical points of Irving's writing. The lesson of this decade's prestige horror films is that to make a genuinely scary film, it must, with very few exceptions (The Shining) be rough around the edges. Low budgets, which are closely related to desperation, work well in creating genuine fever dreams.
Reality TV and the proliferation of a videoscopic culture, not held under surveillance so much as framed as a self-portrait, found its way into the horror genre as something of a gimmick, though I would insist a very effective one, in The Blair Witch Project (1999) and 10 years later, Paranormal Activity, where the action is a home movie shot by the doomed protagonists. The latter is the more interesting – and scary – of the two, as we actually see things happen during the night videography while a victimized couple sleeps; that premise alone works a very basic level of fear. A demon from the young woman's past has followed her into maturity; her romantic partner jokingly wants to investigate the spirit with a video camera. Here again is the idea of using the lens as a safety buffer, something not unfamiliar to the too-much-irony world of YouTube, when post-modernism has gone into its 30th "post."
The couple sleeps and we see things, as they will the next day upon examining the recordings. As the paranormal occurrences escalate, the relationship between the two grows uneasy and strained. The man (like in Antichrist) cannot control the situation, while the woman surrenders to it. By the conclusion, the audience has an affinity with the malevolent demon, in how we are annoyed by the man's demand to record everything. Paranormal Activity becomes an indictment of our entire YouTube culture. The demon may be the woman's private self, unreceptive to the public displays of the Life-as-TV generation. Her final action is leaping at the camera, the Demon's other antagonist – which is also to say leaping at us, the mass enablers of our videoscopic world.
Shutter Island is filled with eyes too, with references to panopticons and the judging all-seeing God. Scorsese fills his film with living allusions to preceding horror visions, giving his own resonance and meaning. Our minds are processing Reality like the shutter exposing light to film. The film understands the horror of our history, of the Holocaust, and how the fantastic of the imagination cannot compare to what our nations can do by themselves. One of Scorsese's best decisions was to score his film with existing modern classical music, particularly Penderecki (also featured in The Exorcist and The Shining), Ligeti (whose "Lontano" is in The Shining), John Cage, and John Adams. This kind of music is thunderous and yet lacks clarity, denoting ambiguity. It relates to a confusion about our nature, about there being any coherence to existence. It relates to something insoluble. The most horrifying part of the film is Michelle Williams' smile, after she tells Andrew that she's taken the children "to school." It gives a face to match the music, a new mask to the deathly femme fatale of movies, warped beyond measure or logical comprehension.
That smile evades definition – and that is why it's so horrifying. It speaks much, but the words – like the words in the music – are muffled. Once you define or diagnose the Monster, it's dead: the world makes sense. There is also a loss of benevolence in the incoherence of Horror. God has either gone missing, or he doesn't play by the rules that you thought applied. Our humanism is moot – which is why Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is more horrific – which is not to say more immediately "scary" – than Stephen King's novel. King believes in a rational universe with a God. Kubrick doesn't. The death of Halloran – who saves the day in the novel – destroys our assurances, corrupting the stability of convention. Ultimately, in Horror we are taking part in the volley of disturbed minds and the possibilities of human imagination, the dark half of our human experience, tasting mental illness that thankfully misses us in real life. The horror film is far from frivolous entertainment. It is the genre that reminds us how much the Mind truly does matter.