I'm not a regular reader of CineAction, although it does touch on horror-genre subjects with probing and fascinating articles. I just find it difficult to keep up with the more academically-oriented analyses and arguments. Reading academic jargon-filled discursive suppositions gives me a feeling I can only describe as watching a textual dog eating it's subtextual tail, round and round in a circular narrative. I get dizzy when the words semantic, syntactic, trope, and anthropomorphic are used in the same paragraph. I know. It's me.
But this issue has two horror movie-related articles that piqued my interest enough for me to pick it up: James Whale's Frankenstein: Re-animating the War and Black Christmas: The Slasher Film Was MADE IN CANADA.
Sara Constantineau's excellently argued Black Christmas: The Slasher Film Was MADE IN CANADA is a blunt statement inviting discussion, so let's talk about it first.
She posits that 1974's Black Christmas not only predates John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), but it also contains many of the slasher movie tropes Halloween adopts (and many later slashers bore us to death with). No argument from me there. There are important differences, however, which she contrasts and compares along a main theme of how Black Christmas uses a "prominent feminist subtext," because Jess, the Final Girl, is sexually active and lives, while Halloween is more sexist-oriented: women who aren't chaste incur punishment while the virginal Laurie, the Final Girl, lives.
Another key difference involves how patriarchal authority is viewed: Black Christmas pokes fun at authority figures while Halloween, through the sage Dr. Loomis, positions them as "privileged." Constantineau sums it up best: "Black Christmas has the same generic principles as the American slasher, but it does not propagate the same ideology. Halloween arguably punished female sexuality."
Yes, it did, but considering that promiscuous males in Halloween and other American slashers, generally speakig, get their gonads handed to them (sometimes literally) , I don't fully accept the sexist argument as a complete one. I'm sure a body count taken across the slasher movie spectrum may quantify this issue for better clarity, but for now I don't have any qualms saying there is a sexist element to all slasher movies, but I'd also give equal weight to the thematic subtext of miscreant youth being "corrected" for their misbehavior in order to preserve societal norms (aka, making the slasher movie commercially reputable by including a strong moral message).
Looking at Constantineau's notes for her article I'm not sure she went back far enough, however. Wikipedia's entry on slashers mentions one movie I wasn't aware of, and one I already consider a slasher:
Possibly the earliest film that could be called a slasher, Thirteen Women (1932) tells the story of an old college sorority whose former members are set against one another by a vengeful peer, seeking penance for the prejudice they bestowed on her because of her mixed race heritage. Another film important to the sub-genre is Michael Powell'sPeeping Tom (1960). (from Forerunners of the Slasher Film, Wikipedia)
Granted neither of these movies contains the more intense structural and semantic elements now comprising the slasher as we know it--including Black Christmas and Halloween--I'd still include them in any discussion of the slasher genre, which makes Constantineau's presumption that slashers were MADE IN CANADA appear somewhat presumptuous.
On another note, the real wonderment in James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is to be found in the diverse ways you can view and interpret them. That's when all those subtexts and hidden narratives pop up to amaze and befuddle you, providing new depth to a familiar landscape and revitalization of enjoyment. Christiane Gerblinger's James Whale's Frankenstein: Re-animating the Great War, is enlightening in its juxtuposition of Whale's wartime experiences and his direction of Frankenstein, and how the destruction of a world war permeates Frankenstein's laboratory (when seen as metaphor for the battlefield) and the Monster (when understood as a simulacrum for the shattered soldier reborn).
I love this stuff.
Whether you agree with Gerblinger or not, it's an informed argument that helps us appreciate the reality inherent in all cinematic artistry, and allows us to understand, a little more, how a director's life experiences can influence his movie in overt or subtle ways, even when the script, written by others, is firmly envisioned and budgeted.
Whale was a second lieutenant in World War I and spent most of his time held as a prisoner of war. His experiences led to fame through his stage play, Journey's End, in 1928; a play about "war's conflation of life and death." Whale's early movies also carried war themes, including his Old Dark House, whose "lead character was a cynical war veteran."
Gerblinger views Whale's indelible, life-pummeling wartime moments through the actions of the Monster and the villagers, and the set pieces of his Frankenstein ("Whale re-used the outdoor sets [from] Universal's 1930 film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front"). When filtered this way, the Monster becomes an amalgum of the Everyman and the sacrificial soldier re-animated from the dead toward a higher purpose, and the villagers become the disheveled society left behind, economically displaced and uncertain after the war. Turning on the Monster they reject their own guilt from failure to live up to the immense sacrifice by rejecting Frankenstein's re-animated creature.
Even more interesting is the notion that Frankenstein's failure to accept his responsibility toward his laboratory offspring is reflected by the community at large in their refusal to recognize the Monster as anything but a monstrosity to be feared, hunted, and chained.
While Shelley's Frankenstein's refusal to meet his creature's requirements was portrayed as an abnegation of basic responsibilities, in Whale, this is transposed onto the villagers and their efforts at persecution. These instances of "increased callousness and neglect towards the weak in general" grow in force and vehemence in the 1935 film. This suggests that it is the conduct of the masses being held up to scrutiny, not Frankenstein's irresponsibility, because Whale's emphasis seems to be overtly upon the mass positioned against the individual (echoes of Metropolis reverberate).
Gerblinger broadens her discussion to include the forces of the Great Depression and the Forgotten Men of World War I, and briefly hits on a revelatory explanation--to me, at least--for the reason everyone is dressed in that hodgepodge of time periods fashion, one which goes beyond the obvious budget and production rationales.
There's a lot more to enjoy in CineAction # 82/83, especially the article on Georges Melies' influence on sci fi cinema. Considering how much I enjoyed this issue, I may even bite the bullet and read more CineAction. I wonder what they've written about zombies? Their so academic these days, you know.
Good addition you make note of; the 1945 movie does have a direct moral enforcement theme, or, as I like to call it, "you done me wrong, so die you bastard." Hey, that'd make a good slasher movie title...
Posted by: zoc | December 29, 2011 at 04:31 PM
Another work created around the same time as the Thirteen Women film that isn't suprisingly viewed as a proto-slasher is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. In that one, the "moral enforcement" theme inherent in 70's and 80's slashers is personified in the Judge Thatcher character whose literal purpose is to punish his victims for past wrongs. It's also interesting to note that Bava's film Twitch of the Death Nerve (which borrows a fair amount of story structure and similar settings from Christie's book) is generally acknowledged as being one of the slasher genre's founding fathers more than Agatha's novel itself.
The Frankenstein article sounds fantastic! Funny how now I can so clearly picture the Monster tramping across wasted battlefields, knocking over stone monuments...
Posted by: Jose | December 29, 2011 at 04:20 PM