Horror’s not dead! Long musing on American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium…
American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium (edited by Stefen Hantke) is a provocation on the status of American horror cinema through discussing and analyzing films and trends from the last decade. I’d been anxious to read this anthology after reading Hantke’s essay Academic Film Criticism, the Rhetoric of Crisis, and the Current State of American Horror Cinema: Thoughts on Canonicity and Academic Anxiety. Split into three sections – 1) Bloody America: Critical Reassessments of the Trans/-national and of Graphic Violence; 2) The Usual Suspects: Trends and Transformations in the Subgenres of American Horror Film; 3) Look Back in Horror: Managing the Canon of American Horror Film – it’s a breath of much-needed fresh air, relocating academic focus from the 1960/70s into the present.
My favorite essay is Craig Bernardini’s Cronenburg, Romero, Twilight of American Horror Auteur because it so succinctly addresses the evolution of the zombie as a social signifier. Meaning, and this has been my argument, that it is a recognizable allegorical figure because of our cinematic (i.e. Romero) knowledge. Therefore, that most zombie movies ignore this ingrained ‘pre-knowledge’ means that the subgenre is getting quite stale. Bernardini goes on at length about Romero’s Land of the Dead and gets to the heart of this matter:
What is remarkable about Land of the Dead is the way that it capitalizes on this trend rather than merely repudiating it or capitulating it. The zombie Romero returns to in 2005 is a subtly different figure from the social-allegorical monsters of Night, Dawn, and Day. It has been so thoroughly deconstructed and reconstructed over the last decade that it is no longer a zombie (i.e. a stumbling, moaning, flesh-eating being from which the audience recoils). It is a walking trope…the audience for Land arrives with that trope called ‘zombie’ already present in its mind, ripe to be plucked from its self-reflexive limbo and put back to work as social allegory…(181)
Fortunately more books addressing contemporary issues of the genre have been published recently (such as The Philosophy of Horror also published last year). These writings attempt to tackle the arduous task of deciphering problems with American horror while it’s still awfully close to home. Meaning that it’s much easier to pick apart political structures in the 1970s classics with the privilege of retrospect but trying to place Hostel into a historical/political context at this point might be too soon.
These attempts are certainly, therefore, not without their problems. Hantke’s general criticism and pessimism about the state of American horror cinema is crucial as we (meaning horror fans and academics) wax nostalgic for ‘the good old days’ and look towards exciting non-American films for our dose of good horror fixins. However Hantke writes too little on the subject, only giving a brief introduction that is essentially a re-working of his essay I mentioned earlier. Instead, he lets others’ essays speak to a larger whole, invoking a mapping out process: ‘…then it makes more sense to ask how the trope of crisis function s within the discourse on horror. That is, regardless of whether any individual fan, reviewer, or critic is right or wrong, we can try to determine, by looking at the larger patterns within public debate, which ideologies are served or rebuked through the rhetoric of crisis.’ (xvii).
Ultimately this anthology does exactly what horror criticism needs it to do; it blows apart generic and pop-cultural assumptions that have stifled the genre for the past thirty years. Horror cinema, as it always has been, is cyclical in regards to its progress, popularity, narratives, and innovation. We must abandon rules and expectations knowing that, whatever our horror specific tastes are, it will eventually come around to give us exactly what we need.
 In relation to Hantke’s introduction, I was surprised to find two errors. Page xi states that Night of the Living Dead was remade by Zach Snyder in 2004 when in fact it was Dawn of the Dead while on the next page it says that Eli Roth’s reputation ‘so far rests on one original and its sequel’. Though not clear, this may omit Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002).
American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium is edited by Steffen Hantke. Essays by Craig Bernardini, David Church, Pamela Craig, Blair Davis, Martin Fradley, Steffen Hantke, Reynold Humphries, James Kendrick, Christina Klein, Ben Kooyman, Jay McRoy, Kial Natale, Andrew Patrick Nelson, Tony Perrello, and Philip L. Simpson. Published by University Press of Mississippi (June 1, 2010)