Between 1980 and 1988 the ways in which we watch movies changed for ever. At the beginning of that period, only 1 per cent of US homes owned a VCR. By the end, the majority of feature films were watched primarily on video, with the format’s profitability subsidising the financial losses incurred by the cinematic distribution of films. In time, VHS itself was superseded, first by DVD and Blu‑ray and then by the opportunities for downloading and streaming offered by the internet.
Caetlin Benson-Allott’s highly readable study explores the ways in which such alterations to viewing practices have impacted on film form, on the ways in which we must now read film and how, indeed, we should conceive of the spectator herself. Hers is a textually sensitive and theoretically astute critique of a range of canonical horror films – horror being a genre that is uniquely suited to an exploration of cultural anxiety in the face of social change. She revisits George A. Romero’s entire zombie cycle (shot over four decades and deploying, in succession, film, video and digital formats) to illustrate how the cinematographic limitations of video came to shape the visual lexicon of subsequent horror cinema. The body horror of David Cronenberg’s controversial 1983 film Videodrome is explored from a specifically Canadian perspective – although mention is made of the British “video nasties” controversy of 1982 – evoking contemporary concerns about the intrusion of video into the home and the invasion of national film cultures by Hollywood. The Ring (2003) is shown to presage the rise of the DVD, with a haunted videocassette becoming itself a repository of evil. There is an engaging reading of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007) that illustrates the impact of multiplatform distribution on film form, while the post-9/11 phenomenon of “found footage horror”, exemplified in films such as Cloverfield (2008), is linked to the industry’s concern with illegal downloading. In such films, it is convincingly argued, the ghoulish spectator watches the horror unfurl through the point of view of a film-maker who is, by necessity, dead.
The readings of each of these films are insightful and original (which is no mean feat given the enormous amount of critical attention they have received), and overall the book makes a highly convincing case for a new theorisation of the spectator in a post-cinema age. But while the ideologically manipulable cinemagoer of the 1970s (who so troubled the Screen Theory generation of scholars) would appear to have been replaced by today’s multiplatform video consumer, Benson-Allott warns that ours is only a fantasy of choice. It is this politically significant point that I would have liked to see further developed. For all the contemporary spectator may be able to stop, rewind or fast-forward film time with the click of a button or a mouse, she cannot, as the author acknowledges, re-edit the footage, add material of her own or make significant alterations to the soundtrack. The video spectator is every bit as powerless as the cinematic spectator of old, with an economy of choice that is quintessentially illusory.
It is clearly beyond the scope of this book to engage at length with the ideological implications of this illusion of choice. Nonetheless, a more concerted analysis of these films as works of neoliberal culture that respond both to real-world economics and to the postmodern turn in film-making practice and critical praxis would have granted further insight into both the films and the people who so enthusiastically consumed them. It is to be hoped that such work will emerge in response to this genuinely significant study.
Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing
By Caetlin Benson-Allott
University of California Press, 312pp, £52.00 and £24.95
ISBN 97805205102, 05126 and 0954496 (e-book)
Published 12 April 2013