It's only a movie: horror films may claim cultural relevance but their main appeal is shock or terror
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Blood money: how the market affects what horror makes it to Hollywood

Recent torture pornographers such as Eli Roth arguably have aligned themselves with 1970s American horror auteurs not only to legitimise their work but to cash in on their rebel credibility.

Merchants of Menace: the Business of Horror Cinema 
Edited by Richard Nowell
Bloomsbury Academic, 280pp, £21.99

Selling the Splat Pack 
Mark Bernard
Edinburgh University Press, 224pp, £70


The drab, yellowy walls at the edges of the photograph are what I remember best, perhaps because what dominates the foreground is so horrific: a young woman smiling at the camera, leaning over the corpse of a prisoner on a black sheet. His face is cut and bruised; crop the image and hers wouldn’t look out of place on a pinboard in a student dormitory. She makes a thumbs-up gesture. It’s hard not to turn away.

A decade since that picture and several others started to trickle out of Abu Ghraib, the cruelty on display is no less repulsive. The Iraq torture scandal was a reminder of the fragility of civilised behaviour. The smiling woman, Sabrina Harman, was the Virginia-born daughter of a homicide detective. Charles Graner, another of the disgraced soldiers shown posing among the abject prisoners, was once a member of his Pennsylvania school’s drama club. They weren’t psychopaths or bogeymen. If their actions were evil, that evil was both banal and unknowable.

The photographs were published in the spring of 2004. It was a visual moment, replete with instant icons: the towers of naked men, the hoods, the metal bars, the characterless corridors. When, a few months later, James Wan’s horror movie Saw was released in the US, the New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden noted its “uncomfortable resemblance” to the scenes captured at Abu Ghraib. The spartan, squalid-seeming room, the arbitrariness of the victims’ situation, the killer’s “impulse to humiliate and torture . . . and justify it with some twisted morality” – the comparison suggested itself, even though the film, as Holden acknowledged, had been completed before the Iraq images emerged.

It wasn’t long before horror directors such as Eli Roth were claiming that their work could trace a direct lineage to the “war on terror”. “I really try to load up the films with ideas,” Roth insisted, citing with pride the university seminars discussing his Hostel series as “a post-9/11 response to Iraq and torture”. The ecstatic violence of that franchise at first attracted the scorn of many reviewers, who dismissed it as “torture porn”, but Roth’s articulate justifications for his on-screen cruelties seem to have won over the academy.

This strategy of media management isn’t new – Night of the Living Dead’s George Romero said in 1973 that his pioneering zombie film was intended as “a statement about society”, and its semi-documentary style and black hero, murdered by white authorities, served to corroborate his claim. Yet, presenting Romero with a lifetime achievement award in 2009, Quentin Tarantino characterised his movies as consisting of “heart-stopping violence, explosive bloodshed, undead flesh-eaters and dismembered ghouls”. So does the political content really give life to the films, or is it ancillary to the thrills of gore and suspense? And does the meaning that a film-maker attaches to his lurid tales ultimately matter?

Much writing on cinema draws from auteur theory, which privileges directors’ preoccupations when discussing their work. A film culture centred around notions of an auteur’s sole agency also facilitates what the industry rather gruesomely calls “product differentiation” – making what are, in effect, franchises out of disparate movies – while indulging nerdy connoisseurship. Horror fans’ satisfying sense of their own expertise is nourished, even in the popcorn-scented multiplex, by cod-scientific classification: does Hitchcock, often cited as the catalyst for the slasher picture, belong in the same phylum as the Italian Dario Argento, another serial dismemberer of beautiful women? And what of his relation to Carrie’s Brian De Palma, whose films self-consciously draw from Psycho, Rear Window and the rest? Auteurism creates bodies of work and the critic-fan has long been cheerfully employed as their mortician, tagging identifying labels to their toes.

Two new books – Mark Bernard’s Selling the Splat Pack and Merchants of Menace, a collection of essays edited by Richard Nowell – challenge this consensus by exploring the business end of horror movie-making. Like Jason Zinoman’s excellent 2011 book Shock Value, they focus on industry machinations; but where Zinoman framed his account of horror’s “eccentric outsiders”
as a tale of subgenre heretics conquering Hollywood largely through force of will, these latest studies take a cooler, less personally invested view of how the market affects what nightmares make it on to the screen.

In Merchants of Menace, Joe Tompkins argues that “the horror auteur” is, in effect, a “brand”: directors are sold as subversives to attract consumers weaned on the appeal of the “radical artist”. So recent torture pornographers such as Roth arguably have aligned themselves with the 1970s cohort of American horror’s “golden age” – Romero et al – not only to “legitimate themselves as artists” but to cash in on the rebel credibility of those film-makers. The irony of this is that each of those directors used conventional media to sell his work, which competed in the same market as the big studio movies for the same dollars. The fixation on an individual’s influence masks that of the industry and alchemises product into art.

As a VHS-hoarding fan boy, I prefer the more romantic narrative of heroic mischief-makers testing the limits of taste, but it is hard to deny that some of horror’s most recognisable innovations were influenced by the demands of business. Bernard bemoans how an “overdependence on textual and filmic analysis” comes “at the expense of industry analysis” and his case for a shift in emphasis to the latter is persuasive.

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Cali­gari (1920), widely considered to be one of “the foundational films of the horror genre”, has been celebrated for its ability to offer “a glimpse into the cultural chaos of the historical moment” – that moment being the aftermath of the First World War. Its power lies largely in its expressionist style, which seems to psychologise its settings, using shadows and weird architecture to evoke the characters’ interior worlds. Bernard counters this reading with the suggestion that its look was, in part, just another form of branding – a way of making a niche for German cinema as a more crafted alternative to Hollywood.

Meanwhile, it’s a given that the US horror directors who emerged around or shortly after 1968 embody the freewheeling spirit of their age; that they stuck it to the man, making their own rules. Yet many of their creative choices were in line with changes in the business. In the late 1960s, the restrictive Production Code – guidelines set by the industry to police itself, the better to avoid government meddling – was scrapped in favour of ratings ranging from G (for general audiences) to X (for adults only). Although an R (restricted) or X certificate would result in fewer ticket sales, the new system suddenly allowed film-makers to push boundaries in sex and violence with less risk of their work being banned. Perhaps they took this as a challenge: within half a decade, Leatherface was hanging pesky kids on meat hooks (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and a demon-possessed girl was masturbating with a crucifix (The Exorcist).

By focusing on film cycles and their modes of production, Selling the Splat Pack and Merchants of Menace broaden the terms of discussion and help liberate the genre from the dungeon of worthy cultural interpretation. As Mikal J Gaines writes in the latter, even Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which “provides some of the richest social critique of any horror film before or since”, was a hit with black audiences at the time of release not for its progressive political message but for the promise that it “contained spectacles of the abject body”. (It was run in a double bill with the less forward-thinking exploitation picture Slaves.)

Although it would be a folly to dismiss interpretative readings of the horror genre entirely, I am sceptical of the claims of critics and film-makers alike that a zombie or torture movie is primarily to be approached as political allegory. That attitude seems to conform to an apologetic attitude to art, in which the work serves, at best, a medicinal function: the Hostel series is valid because it negotiates, even purges, society’s anxieties about Abu Ghraib, and so on. Yet Eli Roth is not Noam Chomsky. And who thinks about Nixon or Vietnam when confronted with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

Horror is among cinema’s most visceral genres and its final meaning, if it must have one, is located in its affective power. A film such as Saw doesn’t just signify some real-life horror – our bodies respond to it as if it were something truly horrific. The Australian cultural theorist Claire Colebrook once described her experience of watching movies as follows: “I watch a scene . . . and my heart races, my eye flinches and I begin to perspire. Before I even think or conceptualise, there is an element of response that is prior to any decision.” In films about killers, monsters and ghosts, this pre-intellectual state is surely at its most profound. After all, as H P Lovecraft put it: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.”

Forms of expression and media that cause physical reactions are usually shunted to the lower end of the cultural hierarchy – pornography being a case in point – but such a valuing seems to me somewhat squeamish and arbitrary. Horror films scare us and the fear they evoke enriches us by making us more alert to our senses. Maybe Yeats was right when he wrote, “Only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind: sex and the dead.” By which reasoning, The Exorcist, say, or Carrie, is as serious as art comes. 

Yo Zushi’s new album, "It Never Entered My Mind", will be released in October by Eidola Records

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis