Book Review: A Companion to the Horror Film

companionhorrorfilmA Companion to the Horror Film
Edited by Harry Benshoff
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2014. 588 pages.

My first thought about this book of collected essays was the cost, retail price of $180. Now, this is a very thick and heavy hardcover book, close to 600 pages, written by a group of people that have Professor or other intellectual monikers before or after their names. But is any book worth that much? Are you going to get that much out of it? Well, right away, Tim Lucus’ Bava book comes to mind and yeah, I do think that is worth the heavy price. Plus the fact that Lucus’ tome is quite a bit larger in size, and is chocked full of amazing color photos. With a price of $180, it is going to take a special collector and fan to afford this volume for their collection. But even if you have the money, is it still worth buying?

For me personally, there were a few things that I found very interesting, such as Aaron Smuts chapter “Cognitive and Philosophical Approaches to Horror”. He discusses what is known as the Paradox of Horror, which is a slight take-off of the Paradox of Tragedy, which asks the question of why we would want to indulge in, like reading or watching something, that is “likely to arouse negative emotions.” He asks the age old question of why horror is popular. But at the end of essay, all he does is recap his and others theories but never answers the question that he posed. But none the less, I enjoyed what he was discussing.

Now the second chapter entitled “Horror and Psychoanalysis”, by Chris Dumas, tells me right there that I’m in for some good old fashion Psycho-Babble. And it doesn’t take long because by the second page, Dumas states that no matter what the horror movie is about, it “always trades on irrationality, and irrationality, in psychoanalytic terms, is always sexual in origin.” Okay, so yes, I would agree that when you look at whatever film in “psychoanalytic terms” it is always going to be about sex…BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT YOU ALWAYS POINT IT TO! The film Poltergeist is not about sex. The Omen is not about sex. Halloween is not about sex, even though he states that this film is about Myers who “escapes from a mental hospital and returns home on Halloween night, butchering all the sexually active teenagers he can find.” Unless he has seen a different version of the film, when it comes to the “sexual active teenagers”, the only ones he kills that were Bob and Lynda, and his sister in the beginning. Annie wasn’t having sex. Not sure about the worker they find in the field that he killed to get his clothes. But that wasn’t even Myers’ point or quest upon returning to Haddonfield…it was to kill his sister. So again, putting these movies through the psychoanalytical microscope might lead you to believe you can see something most can’t, but to me, it shows me that while you are looking at one small part, hoping to find that something, you’re missing most of what else is going on.

Now, I don’t want to make this review as long as the book itself, but I do feel that I need to point out certain parts that I have issues with. Not saying I’m right, but that I just don’t agree. For example, in Daniel Humphrey’s essay “Gender and Sexuality Haunts the Horror Film”, he wants to point out that the theme of homosexuality runs rampant in The Exorcist. He mentions a quote from Friedkin who talks about a review of the film which says it really is “kind of a homosexual wet dream about the two priests both being lovers” and so on. Friedkin said it was great but also that it couldn’t be farther from the film he actually made. But Humphrey feels that theory needs to be explained more, mentioning that because we can see a tabloid in the beginning of the film that has a headline about Rock Hudson, that implies the homosexual theme. Uh…what? Could it maybe be that Rock Hudson just happened to be in the headline at the time when this film was being made? He was kind of a big deal back then.

Apparently since Father Karras’ friend Father Dyer likes showtunes, it implies that he is gay. Didn’t realize that only gay men could like showtunes. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

exorcist1One of his theories really kind of irked me. The first encounter between Det. Kinderman and Karras, when Kinderman asks Karras to the movies, Humphrey says Kinderman “pursues a curious, homosocial relationship with Karras”. So…let me get this straight. All these times I’ve had my male friends come over to the house to watch movies, I’m really pursuing a “homosocial” relationship with them? Damn…hope my wife doesn’t find out. Honestly, as a film fan, I think this is just utter garbage, and truly fits into my definition of Psycho-Babble. Sure, if you want to read enough into anything, you’ll find what you’re looking for.

haunting-theoIt seems that these scholarly types love to point out things about sexuality, especially the kind that is not what is consider “normal”. In Christopher Sharrett essay “The Horror Film as Social Allegory”, he makes a few comments that really had me shaking my head. One of the films he discusses is Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Apparently, Theo is obviously gay because when she “rebuffs the advances of Luke, thus making evident (to the group) her lesbianism”. So let me get this straight…if I try to pick up some girl at a bar, and she turns me down…she must be gay? Damn…wish I would have known that in my youth. Honestly, it always boggles my mind when these people with such educated minds, come up with such drivel. Yes, I understand there are elements that lead some to see her character as gay. I’m not arguing that point. But his explanation was just ridiculous, not to mention a sexist statement.

Sharrett then goes on to discuss torture porn films, stating the character of Jigsaw from the Saw films is a decedent of vigilantes like Dirty Harry, mentioning some newer films of that ilk like Death Sentence (2007), the Walking Tall remakes, and then says “..and The Brave One (2007), with the vigilante now a woman (played, astoundingly, by lesbian actor Jodie Foster) avenging her murdered spouse.” What in the fuck does Foster being a lesbian have ANYTHING to do with what he is talking? Not a damn thing. But let’s throw it in there because he’s a Professor of Communication and Film, so he must know what he’s talking about. To me, it seems that Sharrett is more fascinated with lesbians than with anything else.

frankenstein & brideWant more? Here you go. In “The Gothic Revival” by Rick Worland, he states “In the 1931 version (of Frankenstein) Elizabeth reveals that ‘the very day we announced our engagement, [Frankenstein] told me of his experiments’ suggesting how the scientist channels his sexual urges into the creation of life by most unconventional means.” How about I suggest you seek out some help about your sexual urges, because they seemed to be creeping into your writing.

In that same essay, Worland discusses the scene in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein when Cushing’s Baron traps his house maid in the room with the monster “for an implied rape-murder”. Who actually thought the monster was going to rape her before killing her? And why does this guy assume that is what is going to happen. I’m guessing he’s probably seen Young Frankenstein before any of these other films, so he figures all the creatures are like Peter Boyle’s characterization. Or maybe it is because that is what HE would do? I figured since he was implying such silly things, I could too.

He then goes on to discuss Hammer’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness, after Barbara Shelley’s character has been transformed in to a vampire and is about to attack her sister-in-law. Worland states that “vampirism’s often uninhibited bisexual lust manifests itself when she confronts innocent Diana…” Why can’t these educated people get through their heads that vampires are predators the same as any animal in the wild. When a lioness chases down an elk, does she check to see if it is a male or female first? And if it is a female, is she now considered bisexual? Or could it be something so simple that this vampire is looking for food, in whatever body is in front of it?

This last part just made me laugh out loud. In that same sequence, when Francis Matthews’ character pulls a sword out on Dracula, who grabs it and breaks it in half, this is a “clear demonstration of who wields the greater sexual power.” I should have figured that he’d have to get some sort of phallic symbolism in there somewhere. Good lord…dracula-sword

But there is a bit of good in this book. In his essay “Horror in the 1940s”, Mark Jancovich makes some excellent points about how a lot of the films of that era, such as mysteries, thrillers, and even some of the Sherlock Holmes titles, weren’t called horror films, even though they were basically advertise to give the audience chills. Also, probably my favorite essay in the book was Ian Olney’s essay “Spanish Horror Cinema”, who really captured what I think a book of this title should have been. He didn’t spend pages and pages trying to point out some delusionistic (see…I can use big words too…even if I make them up) but gives us some great historical background on that countries’ horror genre, and even more importantly, the people that were responsible for making it what it is today. Mentioning names not only like Jess Franco, Paul Naschy, or Amando de Ossorio, but also someone like Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, who made a huge contribution to the genre, even though he didn’t make a lot of films.

The bottom line, for this price tag and because of the amount of psycho-babble throughout, I really couldn’t recommend this title, unless you have a lot of money, or are have a PhD or are a Professor, (which then would mean you could afford to buy it). But if you’re one of the common horror fans with just a simple high school education, like myself, you probably wouldn’t get enough entertainment out of it, especially after paying that much for it. I’m thrilled that the horror genre, the red-headed step-child of the movie industry, could warrant such a case study by such intelligent scholars, but once again they have proven to me that not only sometimes a duck is just a duck, but when you look hard enough at something, you will see whatever you want to see. It is just a shame that these people are allowed to teach those opinions as more than just that. Opinions. Just like my review.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Companion to the Horror Film

  1. Brilliant review. Horror fans don’t get “negative emotions” from fright flicks anymore than carnival fans get negative emotions from roller coasters. They are the same chords on different instruments. As to the generalizations regarding sexual themes and fantasies, I’m with you and call BS. Our halls of higher learning are obsessed with sex and race with no basis in fact. Peter Cushing said it best, “I think sex is talked about far too much in America… If you want to say that’s what it is, go ahead. But the reason you put a stake into Dracula is to get rid of him.” If I had $180 you just gave me a great reason to continue saving it. Thanks!

    Like

    • Thanks Doug. I wonder if that quote from Cushing was when he was on that Tom Synder show (maybe Tonight with Tom Synder?) along side Leonard Wolfe, who was spouting the same kind of drivel. Cushing told him that was all nonsense.

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