American Horror Film and the Critical Public Sphere
Should film be purely entertainment or should it contribute to the critical public sphere.
In discussing the above argument, I will explore how the horror genre, often derided as simply pure entertainment, can contribute to the public sphere. Horror is one of the more prominent genres in film, back as far as the dawn of cinema with films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). As a genre, it is studied and criticised for its potential for layered symbolism and metaphors for real world tensions and anxieties. Despite this, very few films of this genre ever exceed past cult following. It could be argued that horror merely satisfies as entertainment with cheap shocks and scares and fulfils a base taste for gore and gruesomeness. In this essay I will argue against this and reason that the horror genre can exceed cult value and cheap trills and be a valuable contribution to the critical public sphere. American horror will be the focal point as I feel it has a rich history in cinema with regards to contribution of cultural value and reflection of American society.
Horror film has a propensity toward expressing a contemporary moré moeileu. Night of the Living Dead (1968), George A. Romero’s cult-classic and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) are two of the most important horror films ever made. Not only were they innovative in their special effects, they depicted stories that were culturally relevant, even if in a horror setting. Romero’s film depicts a sudden state of emergency sweeping the country – not forgetting that this was the time of the Vietnam War – as the dead back to life in order to eat the flesh of others. The film explored many deep seated fears and prejudices in society. A noteworthy example of this is the fact that the protagonist, an African American man, display many heroic qualities without being elevated to anything more than human but is ultimately killed in a shocking twist, not by the zombie outbreak but by a white man with a rifle picking off the remaining undead. The chilling echoes of the sheriff’s words, “That's another one for the fire,” sent shockwaves through audience members still reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (as well as that of Malcolm X some three years earlier), in an age where lynching of black citizens was still all-too-common. Indeed, the groups “search and destroy” mission during the film’s closing scenes, with reporters on-hand and helicopters in the air, spoke resoundingly to American citizens of the period, mirroring the media coverage of the war in Vietnam. Many critics immediately grasped the sociological impact the unpopular war had on the tone, style and content of Night of the Living Dead, and Romero himself agreed that his film was a product of the times. This film was deemed so culturally significant that it decidedly preserved in the United States National Film Registry. Blending psychological insights with gore, it moved the genre even further away from the gothic horror trends of earlier eras and brought horror into everyday life. Romero also satirised the consumer society in the sequel Dawn of the Dead where a group of civilians are trapped in a shopping mall, a seemingly utopian location in contemporary society, by the zombie hordes. Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978, a time in which America began to get swamped in commercialism and materialism, Shopping malls were appearing on every corner and were becoming central meeting points for the masses. Designer clothes and McDonald's were at the forefront to America's culture. To mirror this, Romero chose a shopping mall as the backdrop to Dawn of the Dead. Rather than the tense, rising action of the first film, we are treated with almost a parody of its own genre. The materialism that was sweeping through the country at the time became the focal point of the film with the non-dead greedily taking...
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 Dika, V, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art & Film
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