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American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium.

American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium edited by Steffen Hantke. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film by Kendall R. Phillips. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.

In American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium, editor Steffen Hantke disputes a seeming truism among horror fans and scholars: that "the last ten years have seen American horror film at its worst...[and that] the genre on the whole was in decline" (viii). Hantke notes how the neoslashers, remakes of the J-horror and domestic variety, and sequels that have dominated American horror production in recent years have been taken by critics as evidence that the genre is creatively bankrupt, but challenges this assumption, as do the contributors he has assembled in the volume.

The collection is divided into three sections, each focusing on a particular object of study documenting the changes in horror over the last decade: transnationalization and increased graphic violence, significant issues to any study of contemporary cinema; new trends and transformations in subgenres, a standard consideration when examining genre history; and canon management, the point at which genre and critical discourse intersect.

The first section provides a good overview of the strengths of the project as a whole. Christina Klein's essay on U.S.-Asian transnational horror takes a broad perspective, looking at industrial trends and musing on their aesthetic and theoretical consequences. The essay that follows, by Tony Perrello, focuses closely on one filmmaker, Alexandre Aja, and the use of the ocular motif in his films. Blair Davis and Kial Natale's article takes an unusual (for film studies, anyway) quantitative approach, interrogating common-sense ideas about audience desensitization to gore and its effect on the box office. Finally, Reynold Humphries' close reading of the maligned FearDotCom situates the film in relation to the ideology of the "torture porn" subgenre, before its explosion in the post-9/11 years.

These four essays exhibit distinct approaches to horror that demonstrate Hantke's point - that the contemporary manifestations of the genre are worthy of study, and that the fretting about horror's decline is overstated. In the first section alone, there appears an industrial study, an auteurist approach, quantitative analysis, and an ideological reading. The rest of the anthology features a similarly diverse mixture of methodologies and films, and having this sort of variety collected in one volume is the best testament to Hantke's project and the vitality of genre study.

However, despite their commitment to a variety of approaches and films, one can also discern a process of canonization and standard readings being formed among the authors - and by no means do I intend this as a criticism. Films such as Scream, Hostel, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and The Sixth Sense are mentioned repeatedly as contemporary touchstones, and post-9/11 xenophobia emerges as the predominant critical context for reading Hostel, for example. One of the more pleasurable experiences in reading collections like this is detecting canons and critical opinions as they begin to solidify. In that respect, American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium is commendable not only for compiling a set of essays that demonstrate the continued relevance of both horror and genre study, but also for engaging the interest of those who find critical discourse itself fascinating and worthy of examination.

Like Hantke's collection Kendall R. Phillips, in Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film, sets out to correct scholarship that seems to ignore the individual film artist by focusing too heavily on genre as a critical framework. Ironically, however, he becomes part of the discourse Hantke's critiques, lionizing 1970s horror at the expense of contemporary manifestations of the genre, thereby generating a taste hierarchy that will assuage scholars anxious to preserve an accepted canon. Thus, it seems that the two works must be set in opposition, but they also echo each other at times.

Hoping to demonstrate the centrality of the three directors to contemporary horror Phillips analyzes the "intersection of genre and auteur" through reading the films of George Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter (11-12). He claims that the trio launched a "second golden age of American horror" (the first being the Universal cycle of the 1930s) during a long 1970s, a periodization familiar to anyone who has read Robin Wood. This second golden age begins, Phillips argues, with Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and ends with the critical and commercial failure of Carpenter's remake of The Thing in 1982. Uncritically reiterating long held truths about the 1970s as a unique period of socially and politically engaged filmmaking, Phillips seeks to place the three filmmakers into the pantheon of auteurs from the period. So while Hantke questions critical orthodoxy, Phillips reinforces it.

But despite Phillips' conservative methodology (strictly auteurist) and periodization (the 70s as Golden Age), the readings he produces are convincing and occasionally fascinating. For each filmmaker, Phillips examines a particular theme or discourse that organizes his work, then devotes a few chapters to explicating variations on that theme or discourse in groups of films that address it. With Romero, Phillips focuses on the "unconstrained body" as a site of social critique; he reads Craven's films through the lens of the Gothic and its emphasis on the limits of rationality; and Carpenter's films reverse the logic of the Western for Phillips, presenting frontier spaces where civilization gives way to savagery. While each set of concerns appears distinct, Phillips notes how each filmmaker shares imagery and ideas: the house, for example, plays a significant role in both Romero's and Craven's films.

That said, not every chapter or reading in the book is fully realized. Phillips is strongest when dealing with major works by the three directors (Romero's zombie films, Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street, Carpenter's Escape from New York), but, while he should be commended for drawing attention to other films that have received scant attention, one wishes he did more with them. For example, the first chapter on Romero, concerning his zombie films, is particularly strong and builds a good case for considering the films as a unit on grounds beyond their existence in the same narrative universe. Compare this to a later section on Knightriders, a film on which there is practically no critical literature, which disappoints because it relies heavily on plot summary and concludes within a few pages. The formalist in me would also have liked to see more attention paid to aesthetics and style, especially since Phillips' instances of close formal analysis are intriguing: for example, Carpenter's "visual signature ... [where] a series of figures move rapidly across the frame, too close to be in focus and too quickly to be recognizable ... [emphasizes] the unpredictability of the environment and remind us of our own limited perspective" (130).

Ultimately, Phillips' book will be most valuable to undergraduates and lay readers with an interest in horror cinema. Dark Directions would likely be a useful text in classes on horror or even devoted to the three directors. Many of its ideas and approaches will feel familiar to those well-versed in film studies, but that does not mean we can dismiss the book, as it both addresses some rarely discussed films and offers a model for looking at genre through an auteurist lens.

American Horror Film and Dark Directions pose an intriguing contrast. The former displays the diversity of methodological approaches in film studies and manifests the process of canon formation at work. The latter focuses closely on one particular approach, demonstrating its strengths and weaknesses, and reinforces the value of the existing canon. Read together, the two works offer a strong sense of the critical perspectives and debates that have shaped a half-century of horror cinema.
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Title Annotation:Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film
Author:Capitanio, Adam
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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