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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain