Although Halloween has come and gone, the FSR universe of readers and contributors alike have hardly satiated their horror fix, so this week’s Culture Warrior presents three movies that were major game-changers for the genre.
1960 saw the horror film, and filmgoing at large, change dramatically and permanently. Long gone was the horror of the literary monster that characterized 1930s Universal classics personified by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and the dawn of a new decade in turn also said goodbye to the 1950s B-movie creature features. In 1960 horror switched its gaze to a far more terrifying direction: inward. Horror now focused on the horrific capacities of the human being, on the grotesque monster potentially inside all of us. No longer would horror be relegated to B-movie status, instead enabled with the capacity, through depiction of psychological trauma and inner monstrosity, for a unique kind of profundity that other genres couldn’t even come close to. Three different films from three different countries, all released in 1960, manifested the new brand of horror in fascinating ways. The following films are, without a doubt, essentials of modern horror.
USA: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock’s magnum opus was a game-changer on many levels. Within the horror genre itself, it challenged expectations by removing villainy from a one-dimensional locale of pure evil and replaced it with all the vulnerability and nuance entailed in being human. Like the still-reverberating horrors of WWII, Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates embodied an evil so banal that it couldn’t be ignored or dismissed by the one-dimensionality implied by the “evil” label. Bates represented something different: the evil made possible through insecurity, through a fear that projected more fear onto those who encounter him. What’s so horrifying about Bates’s evil is that it’s hardly evil at all. His actions, rather, seem something, given the right conditioning and abuse, that any impressionable mind is capable of embodying. Evil in Psycho is not a brute force that can be wiped out without further concern, it’s instead an unstoppable presence that moves its way through people and culture. Bates proves that being meek or (seemingly) sincere is not antithetical to manifesting horrible actions, that the villain can simultaneously be the victim of devices far beyond himself. The world of Psycho is the world of the grey, refusing the simplistic, irrelevant delineation implied in a perceived war between the opposing Biblical forces of good and evil.
Psycho also changed the course of filmmaking narratively, articulating its confusion of good/evil movie logic by getting rid of its perceived protagonist shortly after the first act break, thus establishing a no-rules brand of mainstream horror. This extended to a drastic change in film spectatorship, as venues which previously allowed patrons to come and go as they please (audiences often bought tickets at any time of day and would walk into the middle of a movie to wait for the movie to end, start over, and come back around to where they began) were now forced to make audiences come exclusively as the movie started, refusing latecomers so as to not ruin the shock value of the film’s well-kept secret. Every serious moviegoer that appreciates a quiet, orderly theater is in Mr. Hitchcock’s debt for this.
UK: Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
Sure, while Hitchcock explored voyeurism to disturbing degrees with Rear Window, Vertigo (anybody that can make Jimmy Stewart a creepster is doing something right) and even Psycho, nobody had the brass balls Michael Powell had to depict a sexual obsession and psychosis as troubling as this. I’ll defend any day of the week Psycho’s stance as a classic, but one has to admit that its scares have become so iconic that it’s lost a great deal of its shock value. Powell (this time without his directing cohort Emeric Pressburger), however, made Peeping Tom fifty years ago and the film is still as discomfiting as it ever was in its exhibition of a film production assistant who captures his murders of women on film, complete with a mirror beside the camera so that his victims may witness their own final moments of life. The psychology of obsession, misogyny, and sexual inadequacy aside, Peeping Tom is at its most confrontational when it frames these murders from the first-person perspective of the eye of the camera, thus making this film the forerunner for the recent trend of found footage horror filmmaking as established by Paranormal Activity and [Rec].
Seeing murders through the camera’s eye, of course, is not the same as seeing it from the murderer’s, so the focalization of the frame makes the camera itself as complicit in the act of violence as the murderer. Enjoying this film can be a complex and troubling experience, as Peeping Tom’s audience was one of the firsts to ever be confronted with their own desire to witness violence on behalf of genre, and seeing death face-to-face (despite the fact that it’s staged) implicitly makes us and the murderer one in the same. Added interpretive value comes from the tripod-knife he uses to kill his victims, making for quite the penetrating phallic symbol (read feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” for more on the typically masculine complicit violence of the audience found in films like these). Although I’d be wary of a remake, I’d honestly be interested in what Peeping Tom would look like with an update to the seriously invasive DIY culture of voyeurism through digital technology/media, YouTube, and social networking sites.
France: Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju)
Where Psycho and Peeping Tom make the monster human, Eyes Without a Face turns the human into a monster. In an innovative spin on the classic mad scientist formula, Franju’s film finds a surgeon routinely hunting down beautiful women so that their faces can serve as sources of surgical transplant for his daughter’s face, which was disfigured in a tragic automobile accident. The film serves as a scathing critique of the lengths people will go to achieve allegedly objective standards of beauty, but its real enduring appeal lies in Franju’s eclectic filmmaking which finds him altering between slick, elegant, assured style and gritty, visceral gore. It’s a beautiful contradiction that prevents its spectator from ever getting too comfortable in their seat, priming them for the inevitable squirming that entails the narrative trajectory of this film.
So many horror films are indebted to Eyes Without a Face that it’s impossible to name them all, but it’s undeniable that the disquieting surgery scene stands the predecessor for visceral horror at large (see, at your own risk, Franju’s short “Blood of the Beasts” (1949) for a primer on his relentless depiction of violence (it’s possibly a Holocaust allegory, but it’s undeniably his unique brand of horror)) and David Cronenberg’s visceral style especially (e.g., Dead Ringers). Also, the mask Christiane wears allegedly inspired Michael Meyers’s immortal façade. But what places Eyes Without a Face thematically alongside Psycho and Peeping Tom is that it employs the mad scientist and takes away the madness. Of course the surgeon’s actions are unforgivable, but he is never depicted as psychotic, and, through his daughter’s tragedy, the film even approaches empathy for the motive of his actions, if not approval. The true protagonist and antagonist of this film, like the delineation of good and evil between the three of these films, is made indistinguishable, even irrelevant, as no real understanding can be attained through dismissing society’s agents of horror as evil.