Saturday, May 2, 2015

Book Review: Jon Towlson's Subversive Horror Cinema

Book Review
Jon Towlson
Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present
McFarland 2014

Subversive Horror Cinema has almost everything that one looks for in a book on horror movies. It reminds you of horror movies you've seen and gives you information on movies you haven't seen. It has a nice collection of stills, an interesting premise (that there exists a tradition of subversive horror movies), and a capable style. This all makes for an entertaining voyage into horror moviedom.

The one thing it lacks is variety in the analysis of films. This is because the movies Towlson discusses are all chosen as examples of one thing: subversiveness. Towlson defines the "subversive school of horror" as "a more radical wing of the genre involving its ideological use for potentially progressive purposes." Two words in this definition stick out: "radical" and "progressive." In America, at least, these are terms of approbation frequently used by left-wingers to refer to themselves. So what this definition really means is "the left wing of the genre." I ought to know; I have been a left-winger all my adult life. As a young man, I believed in anarchism, and now I'm a member of the next closest thing, the Democratic Party. Therefore, I don't mind that some films in the horror genre have a left-wing bent, nor that there is now a book about them. What I mind is how monotonous the book gets when every analysis of a film tries to show the film's subversiveness.

Just about every discussion of a film in Subversive Horror Cinema reaches the same conclusion: it's attacking patriarchy, government, religion, racism, repression, individualism, misogyny, the military, or some other thing some left-wingers oppose. All the other horror movies--the majority of them, says Towlson--"can and should be considered reactionary." "Reactionary" is another buzzword, like "radical" and "progressive." All it means is "right-winger."

Thus, Frankenstein makes the cut, because it undermines heterosexuality, eugenics, and aristocracy; Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man does not. Night of the Living Dead, yes, because it attacks government, racism, and the Vietnam War; Fright Night, no. Indeed Towlson saves most of the good films for his subversive list, and leaves the junk to the rest of us.

In my book on horror films, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, I mention that deformed and destructive beings (ie, monsters) are constructed out of subversive materials. But my use of "subversive" is more in line with its dictionary definition of "intending to undermine an established order." Such an order need not be political; it can be the order of nature, such as the human genetic code subverted in The Fly (1986). Had Towlson followed this definition of subversive, his book might not have been better, but the analyses would have been more varied.

There are a few other imperfections in this book. For example, Towlson reports that Reagan was elected president in 1979, whereas the correct year was 1980. And I recently saw a movie called Girly (1970) that I thought Towlson would want to analyze, but he didn't seem to include it. Then I found it in the book under its original British title, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly. He did have it. Maybe he is perfect.

George Ochoa

No comments: