There is no film genre that arouses generational differences more than the horror genre. Each generation assumes that their taste in horror is wider and better than the preceding generation’s taste – and furthermore, that the taste of the subsequent generation of fans has become degenerate and decadent.
Flashback to the late 1970s. “The best horror films use suggestion, they inspire your imagination, they don’t show everything. Off-screen events, shadows, atmospheric sounds – the masters, from F.W. Murnau to Jacques Tourneur and Roman Polanski knew it!” I heard and read this bit of received, assumed wisdom so many times from my “elders”, that I – and my entire generation of cinephiles – knew it was time to revolt against it.
Yes, Nosferatu (1922), Cat People (1942), The Innocents (1961), Repulsion (1965) and so many others are classics, incontestably great films. But do they offer the Last Word for All Time in screen horror?
Of course not. So it was time for a changing of the guard, both on the screen and in all forms of film criticism. The 1980s were the decade of what Philip Brophy neologistically called horrality – horror and material textuality combined. That meant it was the time for showing, for monstration, no longer merely suggesting.
So the graphic gore of Italian horror gialli, of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and a horde of slasher thrillers reclaimed its spectacular, subterranean history. Borders of taste were pushed, redefined. Buried film histories – such as the one starting with Herschell Gordon Lewis – were reclaimed (Noël Burch had already tried to redeem this particular Lewis – not Jerry or Joseph – in the mid 1960s!). Cinema was now seen to investigate the literal, the visceral, the blunt presentation of trauma and death – and this, too, led to a new kind of imaginary, unconscious, phantasmagoric horror (as I discussed, at the time, in my 1982 essay “Bodies in Question”).
The genre went through other big changes after My Generation embraced it. There was the postmodern horror of the self-conscious Scream movies (1996, 1997, 2000, 2011, then a TV series) spearheaded by Wes Craven; and the so-called torture porn of the 2000s. I confess: I had steadily lost most of my interest in this cinematic form by about 2005. So (as I learned) had Philip Brophy!
By the time I saw the internationally successful Australian film The Babadook – the kind of small, energetic, skilful movie I would usually be predisposed to like and defend – it irritated more than delighted me. Have I become just another cranky, out-of-touch cinephile who grumbles that the true Golden Age of horror cinema happened when I was 20 years old – when those wonderful heads exploded in David Cronenberg’s indelible Scanners (1981)?
Let’s backtrack to 1980 and start over. That’s when I wrote one of my first long, serious essays – on “Fantasy and Horror in Australian Cinema”, in fact – and fell under the spell of a dazzling book of textual theory: Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (which first appeared in 1970). He brilliantly argues that fantasy narratives are classically based on a hesitation between two kinds of explanation or interpretation of events: a rational and a supernatural kind. From Edgar Allan Poe to Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the theory holds good.
But, starting in the 1980s, horror movies began exploring a deliberate margin of incoherence, scrambling Todorov’s classical template. From Scanners to Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a sudden, surprise inversion of the poles of Good and Evil was usually enough to put our hesitation into a vertiginous, undecidable spin. As it turned out, the 1960s-to-‘80s gialli, at their most delirious, were the precursors to this form of cinematic mania, as well.
By the time of The Babadook, however, this vertigo has become a type of opportunism. Jennifer Kent’s film sets up at least three explanations for its horror. First, rational-psychological: it’s all in the head of the mother, Amelia (vigorously played by Essie Davis). Second, supernatural: there really is a bad spirit, and it’s especially honing in on Amelia’s young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Third, something in-between, somewhere between the psychological and the spiritual: dead Dad (Ben Winspear as Oskar) in the basement needs to be grieved. This third option – pitched as equally real and metaphorical – has arisen in many films about the post-colonial situation of indigenous populations, such as Tracey Moffatt’s Bedevil .
The Babadook keeps hopping from one level to the other, depending on which effect it needs: shock, pathos, art-film resonance. But this is (for me, at least) too much hesitation, too much equivocation; there is no centre to the movie, only endless switching. A very similar problem afflicts Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016) – about which, revealingly, the director equivocates mightily whenever directly asked if he thinks ghosts are real … and on which exact level they are real (modern hauntology, à la Jacques Derrida, is a tricky business!).
It’s like in Peter Strickland’s over-celebrated Berberian Sound Studio (2012), where the director’s desire to tarry in a space between giallo and a hyper-material, Peter Tscherkassky-style, avant-garde deconstruction leads to another kind of opportunistic spinning-wheel. The distinction between the real and surreal becomes no longer hesitant, merely matter of blurry transitions. It’s all form, perception, hallucination … with no secure ground on which to base any type of decent equivocation.
Modern horror cinema in the 2010s presents an unsettling case where the aesthetic option of “anything goes” really has come to limit possible artistic achievement.
© Adrian Martin April & September 2015 / July 2020