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

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.