Cross-breed and Contamination: Reflections on the Contemporary Horror Film

by Simon Laperrière Volume 12, Issue 2 / February 2008 11 minutes (2617 words)

Since its beginning, the horror cinema has always found an eager public. Contrary to certain genres which disappear for a while only to resurrect [1] some years later, the horror film is as indestructible as Jason Voorhees. The reason for the uninterrupted success of the horror genre depends on several linked factors. The first, and most important factor, is this mysterious desire audiences have to confront their worse fears in the security of a darkened theatre. Several studies already exist on this subject [2], therfore this article will focus on a second phenomenon which the horror film exercises over its audience: its ability to engender a rare intimacy with its spectator. Witness and critic of current events which are fluently inserted into its stories [3], the horror film’s effectiveness rests in its capacity to directly engage the spectator through multiple references which are familiar to them. The growing popularity of Reality TV (not to mention the medium of television itself) and the easy access to digital cameras has had an important influence on the horror film, going as far as contributing to a new sub-genre which has adopted the aesthetics of the documentary.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes (John Erick Dowdle, 2007)

These films, of which The Blair Witch Project is the perfect example, integrate the horrific within a realistic framework, and in doing so add veracity to the illusion. The spectator recognizes in the choices of the mise en scène (hand-held camera, natural light, direct sound) the codes of “filmed reality.” In these works, where the medium itself is an essential element of the narrative, the border between fiction and reality becomes nebulous. A certain doubt remains which allows the viewer to believe, if only for an instant, that they are watching a real snuff film (August Underground by Fred Vogel), the testimonial of a serial killer (The Last Horror Movie by Julian Richards) or quite simply a documentary (The Poughkeepsie Tapes by John Erick Dowdle). This ambiguity, which the horror film borrows from such reality TV shows as Loft Story and Big Brother, is transformed to yields its own goals. This is but one example among many, since this rapport of recognition between the horror film and its public evolves constantly and is exerted at several levels.

Horror, like comedy, is often a mirror of its target audience. During the “Midnight Slam” series presented as part of the 2007 Montreal World Film Festival six of the chosen ten films had students as main protagonists. Nothing was left to chance. This identification is amplified when the film is set in a well-known location (a holiday camp for example) or context (a festival). Several recent horror films have been set in foreign countries (Hostel, 2005, Hostel 2, 2007, Turistas, 2006). The fact that a larger number of young adults can more easily afford such costly trips partly explains this displacement abroad, usually located in the suburbs or college campus’. To also note, the horror film convention of virginity being a safeguard against death no longer applies. Pre-marital sex is now an accepted and common practice, consequently we are seeing more and more scenes of the heroine, once as pure as snow, partaking in pre-marital sex. Cold Prey, a Norwegian slasher film, could very well be the first film where a girl is killed precisely because, she wants to hold on to her virginity! The recently released Hatchet by Adam Green, which follows the misfortunes of a group of sexually active teenagers during a spring break in the South who fall into the claws of a killer, has all the necessary ingredients of a “crowd-pleaser.” However, for the same reasons, the film works a second type of audience recognition common among recent horror films, one whose playfulness demands a more active participation on behalf of the spectator. The horror film launches an appeal to cinematographic memory and, beyond simple character identification, creates a fascinating game of intertextuality.

In his book The Cinema, Youssef Ishaghpour opens the chapter on the main tendencies of silent film by declaring that, “The American cinema always sought to tell stories that were self-sufficient, whose comprehension required neither a priori knowledge or references. They told stories in a direct and immediately transparent manner, through the perfect unity of the story and the visual style.” [4]

Such assertions, as we will point out further, no longer apply to contemporary US productions (with their mixture of genres), which can no longer avoid past tradition. The horror cinema is not exempt from this rule. Whereas the majority of films during the 1980s wanted to be autonomous and, for better or for worse, conceal their borrowings from major works, the films of the 1990s did not hesitate from openly quoting from their predecessors. By revealing the codes of the slasher film, while situating itself within its tradition, Wes Craven’s Scream approached the slasher genre from a new, postmodern angle which is still in vogue today. [5] Starting from this film, the concept of originality crumbles, and the screenwriter must from this point on take into account the cultural baggage of their spectators, while continuing this trail of laying bare of horror begun by Craven. So The Dead Hate the Living by David Parker enumerates the codes of the zombie film, while Larry Fessenden’s Habit situates the vampire mythology in a realistic context. It is no coincidence that this “new wave” occurs alongside the arrival of DVD technology, which has enabled horror classics to find a new public. The importance of this digital revolution should not be overlooked because it has made it possible for a range of spectators to familiarize themselves with the corpus of such influential auteurs as Dario Argento, John Carpenter and George A. Romero, to name only a few. From this point on directors must confront an audience well versed in horror history and who adore being challenged by knowing winks and cameos from the genre’s icons. With the aim of meeting this new demand, emerging directors multiply the references and offer a product which can be appreciated on several levels. If Hatchet pleases the newbie thanks to its familiar characters, the more seasoned fan will revel in the deconstruction of the traditional slasher film of the 1980s, content in exploring a recognizable universe in which they can cross paths with such slasher fetish actors as Robert Englund, Tony Todd and Kane Hodder. This phenomenon of intertextuality reaches its apex with the recent wave of remakes. On specialized online forums, one can read the many virulent complaints from fans upon hearing that a new version of their favorite film is in production. Directors are aware of this and, with the aim of appeasing the fans, will point a finger at the original work, rather than closing off bridges. By appealing to actors or technicians of the original, re-using the orignal soundtrack, or closely recreating certain key scenes, the director demonstrates a respect for the original film. This can become stupefying when we encounter remakes which address themselves more to the connoisseur than the general public. In this respect, Halloween by Rob Zombie becomes a fascinating palimpst.

Halloween (Rob Zombie, 2007)

It takes a certain courage to give new life to such a gigantic classic as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Rather than starting from zero, Zombie prefers to rekindle flashbacks omitted from the original. Zombie’s Halloween (2007) remake begins a few nights before the fatal night when young Michael Myers savagely murdered his sister and boyfriend. We discover a young boy with violent tendencies living in a dysfunctional family. Preceeding the first murders, this initial familial backdrop adds a psychological reason to the psychotic behaviour of the young Michael Myers. Hence Zombie’s project was to pierce the mystery of Myers’ madness which has haunted fans of the original film. The scenes that follow continue along this path with extended scenes at the asylum and scenes between Myers and his psychiatrist, Sam Loomis (Malcom McDowell taking on the Donald Pleasance role). To the initiated, the result is like seeing an unknown chapter fused to a familiar story. The second part of the remake, which sees Myers escape from the asylum in search of his sister Laurie Strode, plays like an abridged version of Carpenter’s oeuvre, punctuated with variations to elicit some surprise. While Zombie titilates the seasoned fan, he also pays hommage to a broader corpus of films. For example, the film includes a host of actors with a horror cache but no link to the original Halloween: Malcom McDowell, Brad Douriif, Udo Kier, Danielle Harris [6], and others. After watching the remake, fans of the original can sleep comfortably, knowing that there have been few concrete modifications made to their golden fleece and that they know a bit more about a mythic figure that they idolized. It is possible to note other forms of referentiality in many other remakes and independent productions.

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

This play of referentiality operates at a different level when the director, rather than limiting the range of citations, takes on the formal codes of a sub-genre. As a result of such a mise en scène, the pastiche references a larger body of works rather than a single work. For example, in They Live (John Carpenter, 1988) a homeless person, with the help of an altered pair of glasses, discovers that Los Angeles is under the influence of extraterrestrial invaders. Through these glasses the protagonist sees invisible flying saucers across the Californian skies. These segments, filmed as the character’s subjective point of view, appear to us in black and white. The first appearance of the spaceships is surprising because of the retrograde special effects which make the artifice obvious. However, the informed spectator will see this as a direct reference to the technically inferior, black and white science-fiction films of the 1950s. These cases allow the director to position themselves in relation to their predecessors. With They Live, Carpenter underscores the impact of the passage of time on certain classics of the genre. The UFOS, once terrifying, now resemble simple toys. The concept of the dark glasses, logical in a Roger Corman production, seem obsolete, even humorous here. The film itself gives the appearance of continually teetering between parody and drama. With Death Proof, the second film from the Grindhouse project, Quentin Tarantino follows the example set by Carpenter by recuperating the formal properties of the drive-in cinema, complete with all its defects (unnuanced performances, awkward dolly shots, montages punctuated by dubious inserts), but also integrates specific authorial touches, such as extended dialogue scenes dealing with popular culture. These two examples, just like Blood Feast 2 by Hershell-Gordon Lewis or One Missed Call by Takashi Miike, where we see the directors in self-parody mode, awaken spectator knowledge and invite them to adopt a distanced persepctive. By underlining the cliches of the horror film, these works allow a second level reading of the genre.

The Girl Next Door (Gregory Wilson, 2007)

In the guise of a conclusion, I’d like to signal a work whose perversion resides in the way it exploits an audience’s sense of genre expectation. Gregory Wilson’s second film, The Girl Next Door, is based on Jack Ketchum novel, which was inspired by a tragic true story. Wilson is making a horror film, but one with the aim of surprising its audience and rendering its images extremely effective by adopting the mise en scène of a “coming of age” film. One thinks more of Stand By Me than the Last House One The Left during the first part of The Girl Next Door. The direction belies a televisual sterility, an impression supported by the play of the actors, similar to that found in American television serials. On the level of the narrative, one can easily find themselves yawning during the stereotypical scenes of the young protagonist’s sexual awakening in the shape of the pretty, long-legged neighborhood girl. Confronted with this subdued form, the spectator finds himself in a reassuring situation, to the point where he/she may forget that they are watching an exploitation film and not a teen film. When the neighbor’s aunt begins to beat the young girl to death, the seasoned horror fan finds themself absorbed by this depraved act of sadism and, like the hapless hero, is unable to do anything. The audience, too, begins to feel like a prisoner. In veering toward other genres, The Girl Next Door is quite more than reappropriation; it contaminates familiarity to lead the audience astray. However, doesn’t the play of deception depicted here embody one of the strengths of the horror film being studied here: that of cross breeding? If the genre in question reflects the spectator’s cultural baggage, then it would appear normal that it draw its inspiration from other fields which may be familiar to the viewer. As we have demonstrated, a film can refer to its own past, but nothing prevents it from moving into other cinematographic areas, or from representing, through its own devices, sociocultural concerns, such as the fascination with reality TV or sexual freedom. Hammer Studios recently announced their return with a production entitled From Beyond the Rave. It was announced that prior to its theatrical release, the film will have its world premiere on……Ipod Video! This announcement demonstrates how the genre responds to current phenomena and new forms of technology. [7] Horror is thus an active genre in constant evolution and always attuned to its fan base. When a new sphere appears, it is quick to infiltrate within it with the aim of sowing terror. The horror changes, but its goal remains the same. Just like Jason who, in the tenth installment of the Friday the 13th series, finds himself transformed into robot.

Jason X (James Isaac, 2001)

This essay first appeared in its original French in Hors Champ.

Translation from original French to English by Donato Totaro.


1 Think here about the western and the musical comedy, two genres which, at the time of this text’s publication, enjoyed a similar resurrection with such films as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma (a remake of the Delmer Daves film from 1957), Across the Universe and Les chansons d’amour.

2 On this subject, Deleuze and Horror Films by Anna Powell, Men, Women and Chain Saws : Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover and the documentary S&Man by J.T. Petty, all propose fascinating explanations.

3 This is another subject with a lengthy body of research. Think about the many studies concerning Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an object of anti-communist propaganda.

4 Youssef Ishaghpour, Le cinéma, Paris, Farrago, p. 35.

5 This is not to say that Scream is the first horror film to openly quote its predecessors. Several works produced in the 1980s’ also did so (Evil Dead by Sam Raimi, Creepshow by George A. Romero, Dressed to Kill by Brian De Palma, etc). On the other hand, they are relatively few, giving the the appearance of an exception rather than rule. Scream rendered the act referentiality popular, giving rise to a true phenomenon within the genre.

6 This actress (Danielle Harris) has a connection with Carpenter’s Halloween since she interprets one of the main roles in the fourth and fifth episodes of the original series. Roles which gave her the status of “scream queen. ” In the remake, Zombie carries out the dream of many fans by featuring her nude. Even if she falls between the hands of Michael Myers, she is not mudered. Is the figure she represents at this point untouchable?

7 The first film to be produced exclusively for the home video market is a horror film, the slasher film Blood Cult.

Simon Laperrière is currently working on a master thesis on film studies at the University of Montreal. He works as a programmer for the Fantasia Film Festival and has written for Hors Champ, Twitch, and Contamination Magazine. He also hosts Les Écarts, an experimental radio show at CJLO.

Volume 12, Issue 2 / February 2008 Essays   horror