Part 1 of my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s is here. Part 2 on the monstrous families of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes is here. Part 3 on those charming rape-revenge films of the 1970s is here. Part 4 on the monstrous children of films like The Exorcist and The Omen is here. Part 5 on the monstrous parental figures of film like Alien and Halloween is here.
Part 6: Conclusion
‘It’s people that I’m afraid of…’ (Tobe Hooper, 2000)
In Gregory Waller’s introduction to his book ‘American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film’, he states that ‘the horror film has engaged in a sort of extended dramatization of and response to the major public events and newsworthy topics in American history since 1968’ (Waller, 1987. p.12). The year of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was the beginning of a trend towards progressive horror films that dealt with themes of civil unrest and the negative effects of the capitalist, patriarchal society that America was at the time and still is. Films such as Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) remained progressive in their representations of nuclear families as monstrous products of capitalism. Other films such as Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Carpenter’s Halloween (1979) dealt with the youth of the 1970s and maintained a reactionary view of the world that children were being brought into, with absent fathers and liberated female sexuality rife in society.
Waller also suggests that ‘horror films have proven to be among the most significant documents in America’s public debate over the status of the independent woman in a society still dominated by men’ (Waller, 1987, p.5). The rape-revenge films in particular deal with independent women, both within the family, as in Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), and also as I have suggested of Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), in opposition to the family. These films seem to be a return to reactionary views of the family where the independent woman is considered a threat to the nuclear family unit. In particular ‘the recent horror-of-personality films seem to reflect as well a disturbing hostility toward women, which seems a direct response to the feminist movement’ (Derry, 1987, p.165). Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) signal the full on return of reactionary representations of female sexuality that would continue in the ‘stalker’ films of the 1980s, including Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) and Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and their many sequels.
‘The Michael of Halloween (1978), the Jason of Friday the 13th (1980)… do not develop out of the characteristic monsters of the ‘70s; they represent a refusal of everything they embodied’ (Wood, 2001). The characteristic monsters of the 1970s include Leatherface, the possessed Regan, the bourgeois families of Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Ordinary people forced to extreme violence by society and the family of which they are a part. These films are progressive in that they share the theme of ‘the Other as both the “same” as well as “different” from ourselves and somehow implicated in family life’ (Sobchack, 1987, p.177). Michael, Jason, and Scott’s Alien (1979) are not in the same category in this respect. They are ‘purely and simply evil’, reactionary forces out to punish women for being liberated in terms of sexual freedom and also in the case of Ripley, for being equal in the workplace with men.
The relevance and importance of these 1970s horror films is painfully clear in light of the slew of remakes that have been made in the last couple of years. Mark Kermode (2003, p.13) suggests in Sight and Sound that the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003) is ‘a hallmark 1970s horror product cunningly rebranded for a jaded 21st-century audience: a perfect example of a trend currently sweeping the horror genre.’ Remakes, sequels and prequels are all abundant to the 1970s horror films discussed in this paper. Most recently there has been the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2003) and the prequel, The Exorcist: The Beginning (Renny Harlin, 2004). However there is also an upcoming remake of Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Romero’s fourth in his ‘Dead’ series.
Unfortunately Kermode argues of Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), ‘Thematically, however, Nispel and Bay add nothing to Hopper’s blueprint.’ (Kermode, 2003, p.14). Nevertheless, this is arguable, as the film seems to represent the family as a refuge from the selfishness of living as individuals. However it does clearly lack the Marxist themes that can be read in Hooper’s original. Similarly in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2003), new progressive themes are addressed, for example a dying woman is tied to a bed so that she can give birth. This suggests that women are tied to motherhood because of dominating men who will not consider ideas such as abortion and euthanasia. On the other hand these films can still be considered reactionary in their representations of women as mother figures as demonstrated by the ending of Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that has the heroine rescuing a small baby from the monstrous family.
However the resurgence in 1970s style horror can also be seen in films that range from The Blair Witch Project (Myrick and Sanchez, 1999) to Wrong Turn (Schmidt, 2003). These films seem to be a partial return to the characteristic horror monsters of the 1970s, but are not attacks on the family like their predecessors were. The nihilism of many of the 1970s horror filmmakers seems to have been lost in most recent horror and the family is generally not even an issue anymore. This is the result of the reactionary forces at work in America ever since the end of the 1970s to the present. The family seemed to be the most attacked of all sources of authority and in modern America the ideal of patriarchal family values is no longer to be questioned, especially recently. The nihilism of the 1970s has all but disappeared, after all, ‘If technology, science, medicine, government and other so-called human authorities are ineffective, what possible future can exist?’ (Muir, 2002, p.268)
I think that the American horror films of the 1970s are the last films that dared to challenge such firmly established traditions such as the family. They were a product of uncertain times where America was changing dramatically, in particular with regard to women’s rights. The successors of these classic horror films are generally either mindlessly commercial or purely reactionary in that the family is never questioned or represented as anything other than good.
And here is my bibliography in full for anyone interested!
Brottman, M. (1996) Once upon a time in Texas: the Texas chainsaw massacre as inverted fairytale In: Black, A. (ed.) Necronomicon book one: the journal of horror and erotic cinema. London: Creation Books
Clover, C. (1992) Men, women and chainsaws: gender in the modern horror film. London: BFI Publishing
Clover, C. (1996) Her body, himself: gender in the slasher film In: Grant, B. (ed.) The dread of difference: gender and the horror film. Austin: University of Texas Press
Creed, B. (1993) The monstrous – feminine: film, feminism, psychoanalysis. London and New York: Routledge.
Creed, B. (1996) Horror and the monstrous-feminine: an imaginary abjection In: Grant, B. (ed.) The dread of difference: gender and the horror film. Austin: University of Texas Press
Derry, C. (1987) More dark dreams: some notes on the recent horror film In: Waller, G. (ed.) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Dickstein, M. (1984) The aesthetics of fright In: Grant, B. (ed.) Planks of reason: essays on the horror film. Lanham, Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Dika, V. (1987) The stalker film, 1978-81 In: Waller, G. (ed.) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Dillard, R. (1987) Night of the living dead: it’s not like just a wind that’s passing through In: Waller, G. (ed.) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Haskell, M. (1974) From reverence to rape: the treatment of women in the movies. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kinder, M. and Houston, B. (1987) Seeing is believing: the exorcist and don’t look now In: Waller, G. (ed) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Lehman, P. (1993) Don’t blame this on a girl: female rape-revenge films In: Cohan, S. & Hark, I. (eds.) Screening the male: exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema. London: Routledge. pp.103-117
Muir, J. (2002) Horror films of the 1970s. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
Polan, D. (1984) Eros and syphilization: the contemporary horror film In: Grant, B. (ed.) Planks of reason: essays on the horror film. Lanham, Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Rodowick, D. (1984) The enemy within: the economy of violence in the hills have eyes In: Grant, B. (ed.) Planks of reason: essays on the horror film. Lanham Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Sharrett, C. (1984) The idea of apocalypse in the Texas chainsaw massacre In: Grant, B. (ed.) Planks of reason: essays on the horror film. Lanham Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Sobchack, V. (1987) Bringing it all back home: family economy and generic exchange In: Waller, G. (ed.) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Waller, G. (ed.) (1987) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Wexman, V. (1987) The trauma of infancy in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s baby In: Waller, G. (ed.) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Williams, T. (1996) Hearths of darkness: the family in the American horror film. London: Associated University Presses
Wood, R. (1984) An introduction to the American horror film In: Grant, B. (ed.) Planks of reason: essays on the horror film. Lanham, Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Wood, R. (1987) Returning the look: eyes of a stranger In: Waller, G. (ed.) American horrors: essays on the modern American horror film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Kermode, M. (2003) What a carve up! Sight & Sound. 13 (12), 12-16.
Wood, R. (1978) Return of the repressed. Film Comment. 14 (4), 24-32.
World Wide Web
Creed, B. (no date) Baby bitches from hell: monstrous-little women in film. UCLA. Available from: http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/women/creed/creed1.html [Accessed 17th January 2005]
Eklof, T. (2004) Frankensein meets the exorcist: embracing your inner monster. Clifton Unitarian Church. Available from: http://www.cliftonunitarian.com/toddstalks/frankensteinmeetsexorcist.htm [Accessed 17th January 2005]
Kendrick, J. (2002) The last house on the left. Qnetwork. Available from: http://witzamfm.navibar.com/?page=review&id=1000 [Accessed 6th January 2005]
Schneider, S. (2002) The hills have eyes. senses of cinema. Available from: http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/19/hills.html [Accessed 6th January 2005]
Wood, R. (2001) What lies beneath? [online] Cambridge University Press. Available from: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/15/horror_beneath.html [Accessed 27 October 2004]