A still from Frankenstein's beautifully shot opening sequence.
I usually don't blog about academic or teaching-related subjects but I've been blogging about my love of the horror film for some time now. elucidating its roots in German Expressionism, exploring its defining classics, profiling its greatest monster movies, extolling its immortal masterpieces, calling attention to its best recent iterations, effusing about its Gothic incarnations, and even having fun reviewing some of its mid-range entries. So it seems timely and interesting to jot down the list of films I plan to screen in the horror film class I'm teaching this coming spring, with some brief commentary about my inclusions (and exclusions).* Here goes:
I even seriously considered showing Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), which, despite its oddball, art-film tendencies, is one of the most unnerving and uncanny horror films I can think of. (It is also one of two films -- the other one is The Student of Prague  -- which would most help me teach the concepts in Sigmund Freud's famous essay "The Uncanny," an early required reading selection.)**
Yet in the end I went with Phantom, for two reasons: (1) It is familiar and easy to follow on the story level, anticipating as it does so many of the monster movies that get made in its wake, and (2) Lon Chaney, its amazing star. With all due respect to German stars Max Schreck and Conrad Veidt, Chaney gets my nod for the most important and talented horror film actor of the silent cinema. He more or less sets the standard for what a truly terrifying yet sympathetic monster should be, paving the way for stars like Boris Karloff . . .
Frankenstein (1931, dir. James Whale) and Dracula (1931, dir. Tod Browning). Of these two, I think Frankenstein is the better movie -- it's pretty much the best of the early Universal horror films -- but I could not imagine a syllabus without both. Hell, without Nosferatu in the mix, the Tod Browning / Bela Lugosi Dracula is one of only two bona fide vampire movies I've got!
Night of the Demon). I love the psychosexual dynamics of this film -- it makes the connection between sexuality, ethnicity, and horror quite clear. An exotic (and exoticized / fetishized / animalized) foreign woman (Simone Simon) believes that if she is ever sexually intimate with a man, she will turn into a cat and kill her would-be lover. Nevertheless she falls in love with and marries an over-confident, too-rational American man (Kent Smith) who doubts the reality of her ominous beliefs. Insane erotic-horrific antics ensue.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, dir. Jack Arnold) is my 1950s creature feature selection. As with Cat People, I chose Creature mainly for its unnerving psychosexual and gender(-ed) dynamics. Although I am personally more partial to 1950s entries Gojira and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there is something tonally and visually special about Creature from the Black Lagoon. The underwater photography sequences in particular are haunting, spooky, and magical -- they get to the heart of the creepy sexuality that drives the whole film. Interspecies lust and sexual terror set in a primeval jungle = thematically rich horror film fun.
Specifically, Hammer's version of Dracula lends the vampire tale a lurid, feverish edge via full color cinematography and simmering sexuality. It is, simply put, a really fun Gothic horror film. Plus it can be used to discuss remakes and adaptations: after F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and the 1931 Browning/Lugosi Dracula, the Hammer version is probably the next most influential (and best) filmic iteration of Bram Stoker's novel.
Obviously, Psycho is the more well-known, canonical choice, a truly great film that every cinema lover should see -- more than once. Although there are certain Hitchcock films (Strangers on a Train, The Birds) I like equally to Psycho and some (Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo) I like even better, Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece clearly holds a well-deserved place at the forefront of his impressive oeuvre. Psycho is also traditionally viewed as an important precursor to the rise of the slasher film in the 1970s.
But Peeping Tom is fucking amazing and I could not imagine leaving it off of this course's film list. So it stays too.
This Psycho - Peeping Tom split decision exemplifies what I call "the Godfather conundrum." A few years back when I was designing a course on 1970s Hollywood cinema, I really wanted to show the students Francis Ford Coppola's overlooked masterwork The Conversation (1974). I also knew that they needed to see The Godfather, because the idea of a 1970s Hollywood cinema class without The Godfather is absurd. And while maybe a third to a half of the students came into the class having seen The Godfather before, the remainder hadn't, so I felt I had to ensure that everybody saw the historically more significant film that time around. And due to The Godfather's extraordinary length, I didn't feel right asking the students to watch both Coppola pictures in one week. But for this horror class I'm doubling down on Psycho and the less-seen yet holistically better Peeping Tom.
Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir. George A. Romero). This is not only one of my all-time favorite horror movies, it is without a doubt the single most important and influential horror movie of the 1960s. More than any other film, Romero and company's Night of the Living Dead is responsible for raising the acceptable level of onscreen gore, bringing on the nihilism, and showing a whole generation of North American horror auteurs what could be done on a low budget.
Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento). Really, my whole syllabus is too English-language-o-centric, and omitting influential works by German Expressionists like F.W. Murnau, New Japanese Horror auteurs like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and even recent "New French Extremity" mind-benders like High Tension and Martyrs really disappoints me. But in the end I chose to favor the North American horror film tradition, so as to foreground interpretive issues (like gender and sexuality) over a more historical account noting lines of directorial influence, etc.
Yet at no point could I ever imagine a horror film class that omitted Dario Argento, the Italian director whose work, along with Mario Bava's, exerted enormous influence on the post-1960s horror movie.†† The only difficult decision was "which film?" In the end I went with Suspiria because, while something like Deep Red speaks more directly to the development of the English-language slasher, Suspiria is more creepy and interesting and supernatural and Gothic. Its stands out from the pack. And its provocatively ambiguous use of point-of-view camera is unsurpassed in global horror cinema.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper). I've already written about how the original Texas Chain Saw is my favorite movie, ever. So let me confine my comments here to the film's role in my class: as a representative of the "slasher" subgenre.
Many critics and film historians contend that Psycho set the basic template for the slasher film, though the work of the Italian giallo directors is probably even more directly germane to the development of this popular subgenre. I like Texas Chain Saw because, along with Black Christmas (dir. Bob Clark), it essentially launched the North American slasher film proper in 1974. So I am focusing on the origins here, rather than the commercial heyday, which comes later, at the very end of the 1970s and the first several years of the '80s.
Yes, screening Chain Saw means I'm not showing other classic slashers like Black Christmas, The Hills Have Eyes (1977, dir. Wes Craven), Halloween (1978, dir. John Carpenter), Friday the 13th (1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham), Prom Night (1980, dir. Paul Lynch), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, dir. Steve Miner), or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven). So many great movies, so little time . . .
Videodrome's Max Renn sez: "Long live the new flesh, muthafucka!"
Videodrome (1983, dir. David Cronenberg) is included because Cronenberg is the most inventive and original North American horror director and his work all but defines what it means to do "body horror." I have on-again off-again considered screening his remake of The Fly (1986) instead, but there is going to be a Cronenberg film and it will be hard to pry me away from Videodrome.
I have been occasionally conflicted about this choice. Videodrome is one of my personal favorite films, period. In the context of my class, I really love its depiction of how violence and eroticism get easily combined and tangled up with each other. Plus the whole premise of the in-movie "Videodrome" show (or signal, ee hee hee) is brilliant -- sexuality as (technologically induced) virus, a theme Cronenberg has been mulling over since his early short films in 1969.
Alternatively, The Fly presents us with the slow, horrifying bodily disintegration of a basically decent if overreaching man. The horror consists of seeing him lose his humanity and become a vile insect-monster. The Fly's production values are much higher, and the plot way less twisty and ambiguous, than Videodrome's. While Videodrome may actually be the more cerebral (that is, thematically opaque) of the two, it nevertheless possesses a dark, nihilistic psychosexual streak that makes it more horrifying, if a bit puzzling and confusing as well. (I think I just talked myself back into sticking with Videodrome.)
Ringu (1998, dir. Hideo Nakata) and The Blair Witch Project (1999, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) show that 1999 was a big year for horror. That year, Ringu started a global craze for New Japanese Horror films and consequently, despite the high quality of The Ring (2002) itself, spawned a ton of dull-assed English-language remakes of said films. Meanwhile, Blair Witch made a squillion dollars as a result of its canny, viral internet marketing craze and launched the found-footage subgenre that thrives to the present day.
Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett) is just a great teen horror movie, comedically and postmodernistically self-aware (like Scream etc.) but more interesting in part because of its focus on female sexuality. Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) would be another strong contender with which to explore this theme, but Ginger Snaps is more contemporary and clever and hip. A solid, intelligent, entertainingly gory horror movie.
personal favorite of mine and should pair well with the previous week's Ginger Snaps, dealing as they both do with issues of coming of age and family melodrama. I like that both films tell female-centered stories. The Babadook is my course's only female-directed film.
Horror often vilifies mothers and maternity by making them monstrous: most mothers who appear in horror movies (like Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Voorhees) are evil to the core. The Babadook reverses that trend, giving us a heroic, brave, determined mother who nevertheless must come to terms with her (family's) dark side. The Babadook fuses horror with melodrama to achieve something really special and interesting and cathartic. A must-see.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012, dir. Drew Goddard). This is not a personal favorite though I've enjoyed it both times I've seen it. It's my example of a postmodern hybrid horror-comedy thing -- that is, a "horror film" in quotes. Also, in large part due to the vigorous cult of Joss Whedon fandom, there has been much recent critical ink spilled on the film, some of which I will use to my advantage in teaching the film to students. It's a fun movie with which to conclude the semester.
Films I most regret leaving out:
- Gojira (1954, dir. Ishiro Honda). Though I wrestled mightily between this and King Kong for my representative of a "classic" monster movie, I was leaning pretty heavily toward Gojira when a colleague helped me see that Creature from the Black Lagoon would be the best "creature feature" I could show. Creature speaks to U.S. imperialism and sexual repression from the inside, whereas Gojira grapples with nuclear-age guilt and trauma from the point of view of its real-world victims (the Japanese). Creature also pairs better with Val Lewton's Cat People in representing Golden Age monster movies. Sorry Gojira!
- Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott), a truly great monster movie that, like Gojira, I had to cut for space reasons. Alien is well-executed on every level and stands as one of the best horror / science fiction movies ever made. Furthermore, this is a film I want to expose more students to because I want to weaken or debunk the myth that James Cameron's Aliens is superior to -- or even quite as good as -- its influential predecessor. Alien is much written about in film criticism so I have good analytical essays on it. But I ran out of room, so no Alien.
- The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers). I love this movie, perhaps too passionately and somewhat irrationally. And while screening it could open up interesting discussions about horror film fandom and historical verisimilitude, its main plotline is too similar to Ginger Snaps to warrant its inclusion. (Cue sad trombone.)
- The Thing from Another World (1951, dir. Christian Nyby) and The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter). Fuck yeah! Need I even explain why showing these back-to-back in the same week would be cool? Let me add that I am a big John Carpenter fan and it is disappointing not to have Halloween or especially The Thing on this syllabus.
- Eyes Without a Face (1959, dir. Georges Franju). After Gojira, this is the exclusion that pains me the most personally. As an instructor, I would say that my omission of any German Expressionist films or more J-Horror films or even Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street is more egregious, but as a fan, the absence of Franju's chilling masterpiece really hurts. I just love this movie a lot and it images stick with me and haunt me like few films' do.
- The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick). Regular readers know that I am a major Kubrick fiend, and while in the early 2000s I considered The Shining to be one of the master director's lesser works, I am currently of the opinion that the Stephen King adaptation stands as one of Kubrick's best, most enduring efforts. It is also the absolutely perfect film for teaching about the cinematic Gothic (described here). But alas, I will instead ask Cat People, Suspiria, and both Draculas to perform that function in a course too crowded to incorporate The Shining or other great Gothic outings like The Innocents or Crimson Peak.
- Something -- anything -- by director Wes Craven. Sadly, his early shockers Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes got bumped by Texas Chain Saw for slasher week, Scream was superseded by The Cabin in the Woods for postmodern "horror" week, Freddy Kreuger just got fucked over, and even The People Under the Stairs, which works well (alongside the brilliant Candyman) for teaching about horror movies that explicitly depict racial conflict, got nixed for space reasons. I am so sorry Mr. Craven!
Count Orlok sez: "What about me, you dummkopf??"
* This is a list (and a course syllabus) I have labored over mightily. It has been difficult for me to winnow down the film choices to fit a roughly fourteen-week semester. Ultimately, there are seventeen required-viewing films included -- I couldn't even trim this thing down to my usual one film per week.
** So deep runs my love for Vampyr and so convinced am I that it makes the perfect companion-piece to Freud's "The Uncanny" that in all the early versions of my horror film class outline, Vampyr figured as the first film. But then last spring I had dinner with film studies colleague Dr. Sid Rosenzweig, who asked me if I was starting off my class with Phantom of the Opera. Once he said it aloud, it seemed startlingly obvious to me that Phantom was indeed the best film with which to launch the course. Thanks Sid!
† From "Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker" videorecorded at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 25 Jan. 2002. Available as a special feature on the Assault on Precinct 13 "New Special Edition" DVD (Image Entertainment, 2003).
†† Jason Zinoman discusses Bava's and Argento's work and importance in his enthusiastic and informative book Shock Value (Penguin, 2011) pp. 35, 38, 123.
‡ Videodrome is among my top four or five Cronenberg films alongside Shivers, The Brood, Dead Ringers, and Crash.