Monsters and revenants for fright-minded people

The Horror Film
August 24, 2007

For those still sceptical about the value of film or media studies, there must be some grim confirmation of their worst fears in the rise of "horror" as a field of academic study. Here is a tradition that, even if its earliest works have aged into distinction, has surely undermined standards of taste in search of a quick buck.

In Britain, several notorious examples of the genre have left a lasting mark on national culture. Press vilification of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) is widely credited with having ended his career as a director; while some 20 years later the prospect of horror movies such as and I Spit on Your Grave appearing as "video nasties" stoked a moral panic that led to Britain's draconian Video Recordings Act of 1984.

Outside the academy, horror has demonstrated a prodigious ability across the past hundred years to reinvent what might have seemed outmoded by the dawn of the 20th century. Since the first filmed versions of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as early as 1910, each decade has seen a reinvention of the foundation tales, together with a constant stream of novelties, ranging from space invaders and zombies to chainsaws and the highly reflexive films-within films spawned by Wes Craven's Scream (1996). For those not of a nervous disposition, the profligacy and historicism of the horror tradition offers an unparalleled range of raw material.

Rick Worland is a self-confessed fan as well as a deft pedagogue. His brisk working definitions of key terms and concepts in an introductory chapter may raise some eyebrows but are well suited to orienting undergraduates. Thereafter, the problem is how to breathe life (as it were) into an overfamiliar litany of horror that runs from medieval depictions of hell through Romanticism's revenants and monsters, then into cinema's early recapitulations and successive variations.

Worland's treatment is distinguished by his lively interest in the fringes of the genre, in melodrama and science fiction, and his use of archival material to illuminate issues of censorship that are integral to the transgressive aspiration of horror. These are combined in a richly informative chapter devoted to "social reception", which uses documents from various statutory bodies to show the depths of anxiety that horror has caused the official conscience, from the Depression to the Vietnam War.

Worland's perspective is in essence American, and he is fascinated by Lon Chaney, whose deformed creations of the silent era, including the eponymous central figures of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera , set an unequalled standard of dramatic integrity. His detailed analysis of Chaney's 19 masterpiece, The Unknown , in which he played a circus performer who has his arms amputated in the hope of winning the love of a fellow performer, is persuasive. Yet his obvious archival enthusiasms do not deflect him from bringing the record up to date with shrewd accounts of The Blair Witch Project and The Ring .

Questions may remain about how to reconcile qualitative critical judgments with gleeful accounts of horror's excess and frequent absurdity, but Worland makes a strong case for studying horror, enlivened by some sensitive and evocative writing. A bibliography would have been welcome, to confirm the breadth of his references.

Ian Christie is professor of film and media history, Birkbeck, University of London.

The Horror Film: An Introduction

Author - Rick Worland
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 336
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 9781405139021

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