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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.