Return of the Art House of Horrors?


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, "Melancholia."


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 century.

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 inspire filmmakers.



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" (1922),


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.

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