Does the 'slasher' still make the cut?

Genre and Contemporary Hollywood
October 31, 2003

As popular genres have long been the staple of Hollywood's assembly-line success, so has genre analysis formed the basis of film scholarship, at least since the late 1940s when Robert Warshow wrote The Westerner and i. But the Hollywood production mode has been much altered since, and film studies has not always tracked those changes. Playing catch-up, then, is this thoroughgoing British Film Institute collection edited by genre specialist Steve Neale.

As the 20 essays here attest, certain genres are perennially attractive to filmmakers, but only if they draw adequate audiences do they survive and evolve. Sometimes the genres mutate in the process and new hybrids emerge. For instance, Neale suggests in his own essay that we have witnessed a long-term revival of the Western since the mid-1980s, as the genre incorporated new traits, "revisionist in matters of gender, race and convention": from Posse and Bad Girls to Wild, Wild West .

Such mutations occur because studios are perpetually in search of "crossover" - engineering their products so as to consume multiple segments of the demographic pie. Thomas Austin contributes a diligent piece here on the commercial success of the critically derided Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), which rebranded this quintessential horror tale as an epic bodice-ripper, casting Anthony Hopkins (who had played Lear) with Keanu Reeves (who played Ted in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure ).

But these days, as Tino Balio notes in a jaded contribution, the only truly reliable ticket-buyers are "teens and pre-teens", accompanied where possible by their parents. So family pictures have had a resurgence, shrewdly addressed to what Richard Schickel once called "the most common problem of the entertainment consumer: 'where can we take the kids?'"

Disney remains the market leader, but there are rival brands and franchises, as any adult who sat through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets can attest.

Other contributors point out interesting changes in familiar Hollywood fare. J. P. Telotte suggests that musicals since Saturday Night Fever are no longer built around singing performers so much as kinetic dance sequences cut to non-diegetic pop tunes. Michael Hammond proposes that the war genre was revivified by Vietnam pictures such as Platoon , and that a subsequent spate of releases about the second world war reflects America's continued unease over its Southeast Asian debacle while also incorporating a more shocking depiction of combat injury. And Andrew Tudor argues that "slasher" horror films have been successfully reupholstered ( Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer ) while lacking the power to disturb of their 1970s precursors.

Some arguments are a tad more laboured. For instance, Frank Krutnik contends that romantic comedy has made a comeback but in a regrettably conservative form. He scolds the lively Goldie Hawn picture Housesitter (1992), comparing it unfavourably with Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) because it is insufficiently scathing of the property-owning classes. One doubts that Hawks would have favoured such a distinction. But, just as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady vainly inquired why a woman can't be more like a man, so film theorists bemoan the dissimilarity of Hollywood movies and dialectical materialism.

Still, a good proportion of the writing here is lively, and some of the contributors are even interested in how the movies were made, which makes a change. Genre studies clearly has a future, although when Keith Bartlett suggests that we can expect "further debate" about Hollywood adaptations of John Grisham's legal thrillers (or rather, "the texts in the Grisham cycle"), the only critical reflex that springs to mind is, "Oh yeah?"

Richard Kelly is the author of Alan Clarke and The Name of this Book is Dogme 95 .

Genre and Contemporary Hollywood

Editor - Steve Neale
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Pages - 322
Price - £49.99 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 85170 886 2 and 887 0

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