REVIEW: SUBVERSIVE HORROR CINEMA – COUNTERCULTURAL MESSAGES OF FILMS FROM FRANKENSTEIN TO THE PRESENT / AUTHOR: JON TOWLSON / PUBLISHER: MCFARLAND BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
While it's widely known that horror films are reflections of society and the times in which they are made, Towlson's study takes a further approach: that rather than just reflecting the troubles the world was facing, certain artists would use the genre to attack and challenge society's ideals by adapting the tropes and formulas to their own idealism.
Discussing Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), for instance, Towlson shows how the film was attempting to ridicule the eugenic theories of the day by demonstrating the ugliness inside the 'beautiful' and 'perfect' antagonists, and the empathy and caring of the unfortunate 'freaks'. Other chapters delve into the works of Val Lewton, the teenage horror films of Herman Cohen such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the British anti-establishment films of Michael Reeves and Pete Walker. During a chapter on the films which were made in the wake of the Vietnam war, Towlson discusses the often overlooked Bob Clark film Deathdream (1972). It's a disturbing re-imagining of the classic short story The Monkey's Paw, with the returning son this time a soldier who died in Vietnam, and the analysis Towlson gives adds a new perspective to what is often dismissed as a piece of exploitation.
We learn how directors such as Reeves and Wes Craven used the extreme violence in their films, not for sensationalist reasons, but to show the true consequences of the protagonists' actions; that killing isn't 'fun' or 'heroic', as many US soldiers found out in the Vietnam conflict. The 'splatstick' films of Brian Yuzna and early Peter Jackson, which appeal to the same demographic as the '50s Cohen B-movies, show the cycle never ends; it merely gets more gruesome and explicit.
Bringing his appraisal up to date with the brilliant but disturbing Mum and Dad (2005), and unique rape-revenge films such as Teeth (2007) and the Soska Twins' American Mary (2010), Towlson shows that there's still plenty to be said through the medium of body horror.
It's a fascinating and thought-provoking book, not only from a film history viewpoint, but as a work of social record too. Putting the films in the perspective of their contemporary origins allows Towlson to guide the reader to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) subtext of the films; such analysis is not often covered in today's media. If you are looking for an intelligent, well written and insightful read, Subversive Horror Cinema is highly recommended.