I was just reading "How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered
Highbrow Fiction," an article in
the "Atlantic" that argues that over the last 10 years highbrow literature has
been tapping more and more into mainstream genres, horror in particular. A
prime example: MacArthur Fellowship winner Colson Whitehead's new novel, "Zone One,"
which sounds like a literary version of the standard zombie plague scenario.
That got me thinking that the same thing might be happening with
movies. Recently I went to a screening of a new picture in which someone wakes
up chained to the wall of a filthy cell with no knowledge of how he got there.
Also in the film, a mad scientist engages in grotesque surgery on a hapless
human victim. Was the movie "Saw 3?" "The Human Centipede 2?" In fact, it was Spanish
auteur Pedro Almodóvar's new film, "The Skin I Live In" Even the title sounds like that of a torture porn horror flick.
How about that horror standby, the end of the world? The art
house these days has plenty of doomsdays to offer. For example, the apocalyptic celestial
collision premise, familiar from blockbusters such as Roland Emmerich's
"Armageddon," looms over Danish aesthetic daredevil Lars Von Trier's new movie,
And a planetary intruder also
hangs heavy over Indie filmmaker Mike Cahill's festival favorite "Another Earth." If you prefer your end
of the world to be along more biblical or environmental lines, there's Jeff
Nichol's critically acclaimed
(though not so much by me) "Take Shelter,"
which is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's enigmatic and
terrifying "The Birds." And as for creepy "family" members stalking victims, not unlike (though not quite as gruesomely) "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," you'll find them in Sean
Duncan's "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
Is this a new phenomenon? Or, like its counterpart in literature
discussed in the "Atlantic" article, has it been going on for a while? Judging
from the rarefied list of "The 25 Best Horror Films of the Aughts" recently
posted by "Slant," it, too, has been a trend at least since the beginning of the
Oh, and speaking of Roland Emmerich, what is the director of
"Independence Day," "The Day After," and "2012" doing dabbling with the Bard in his new film "Anonymous?"
Maybe this cross-pollination of lowbrow
genre and highbrow art works both ways.
Or maybe there's no real distinction at all. After all, as
"Anonymous" demonstrates, Shakespeare was the mainstream master of his time,
drawing on all the then popular genres, including a kind of Elizabethan version of horror , as in
his gruesome "Coriolanus," "The Hostel" of his day.
When you think about it, horror has been a mainstay of literature
since the start of the oral tradition. How about the Cyclops in Homer's "The
Odyssey," Grendel in "Beowulf," the Monster in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein,"
the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, or the whale in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," just
to name a few random examples from over the past 3,000 years?
Similarly, in film, though lately dominated by tawdry franchises
like "Halloween" or "Friday the 13th" or battered into numbness by increasingly
graphic special effects, horror started out as one of the first genres to
debuted on screen back in 1910, a big hit for the Edison Company and a template for many horror movies to
come, such as James Whale's iconic 1931 version starring Boris Karloff.
Vampires made their mark early in film history, too. The
brilliant F.W. Murnau helped spawn German Expressionism with "Nosferatu"
his still astonishing silent adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula."
Since then many other redoubtable directors have staked their claim to the
undead, including Tod Browning with "Dracula" (1931) and Carl Dreyer with "Vampyr"
(1932). Not to mention such "remakes" as
Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979)
and Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992).
I could go on, but maybe the decline of horror from art form to
commodity can best be summarized by the rise and fall of
"The Thing," a version of which has been coming out every three decades.
Originally a short story
by Joseph W. Campbell Jr. titled "Who Goes There?" "The Thing" has
metamorphosed from Howard Hawk's literate, nuanced, though f/x challenged "The
Thing From Another World" (1951),
to John Carpenter's black comic, brilliantly
scarifying "The Thing" (1982), to the new prequel, which, admittedly, I have
not seen, but which from most reviews appears to be a standard issue horror
product, made for mindless consumption, and readily forgotten.
So maybe instead of the art crowd slumming in the horror genre,
they are reclaiming it from those who have debased it into pabulum for a mass market. Is it too late? Maybe the Art House of Horror
has returned, but whether anyone lines up to enter remains to be seen.